Backfilling the Backstory

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I’ve developed a reputation for being pretty impatient with other game masters and their bulls$&%. And there’s a good reason for that. I don’t have a lot of patience for other game masters and their bulls$&%. And I’m pretty vocal about that. A lot of game masters focus huge amounts of time and energy on all the wrong s$&%. Arguments about metagaming and structuring the game, discussions about what to write down and what to improvise, and whether planning automatically precludes player freedom. There’s constant fights about which players are playing the game the most wrong. There’s whining about what to do when your players won’t “role-play” and they just want to have exciting adventures and crack some skulls. And how do you force your players to love failing. I s$&% you not. All of this crap pervades the gaming community. And it’s a waste. Not only does it keep good otherwise good GMs busy on stupid, useless things, it also sends new GMs all sorts of conflicting and often incorrect messages.

And that’s why people keep coming to me. Because they – you – know that I cut through the bulls$&% and get to the truth. What really matters and what really doesn’t. So, on this little adventure building journey that we’re on, if I were to say something like “backstory is really overvalued and it’s the least important part of an adventure,” I know that you – my loyal reader – will trust me while everyone else will scream their idiot heads off.

So, let’s talk about backstory. And why it’s mostly not super useful and not a great place to spend too much energy. But why it’s also useful to spend SOME energy.

The Most Boring Part of the Story

Authors and screenwriters have an adage. Find the most interesting part of a story and tell that. Everything that comes before the first really interesting part of the story you want to tell? That’s backstory. The rest is story.

But, this is a hard thing to discuss nowadays because we’re f$&%ing obsessed with origin stories. And that’s funny because origin stories are usually to least interesting part of any franchise. Batman Begins was okay, but it was The Dark Knight that really sold the franchise. Sam Raimi’s first Spiderman was pretty good. But it was Spiderman 2 that made the money. The Marvel movies that came before The Avengers were good movies, but it wasn’t because they were origin stories. It was in spite of the fact that they were origin stories. It was really The Avengers where things got awesome. Our favorite Star Wars movies weren’t the prequels. They were the original trilogy and those started pretty far into the story.

Backstory is everything that comes before the story you’re telling. It’s all the things that lead to the story that is happening right now. Backstory exists to give context. It helps the events of the story make sense. Luke Skywalker’s entire story wouldn’t make sense without Darth Vader’s journey having come before. And notice that journey was a lot better when we only had hints of it. That is, it was better when it was backstory.

Bits and pieces of the backstory tend to emerge during the story. They have to. Because they explain the reasons why things are happening. Or they help us understand why the characters are doing what they are doing. Or why the villains want what they want. And those bits and pieces of backstory are definitely useful, they serve an important purpose.

The problem is that players and GMs alike get absolutely f$&%ing obsessed with backstory. Players love to write pages and pages of bulls$&% fanfic about their characters, most of which never ever comes up at the table. Which is fine. If players want to waste their time and energy on that crap, that’s their problem. I don’t read any backstory that’s more than three paragraphs and if I need specific information, I ask for it.

But GMs get really, really bogged down in backstory. In fact, there are a lot of GMs out there who will tell that you good adventure design is JUST writing a backstory. In fact, they usually overlap with the “any prep is railroading” crowd of idiots.

When most GMs sit down to write an adventure, they start with the backstory. Hell, most GMs start their campaigns with the backstory. What’s happening? Why? How did we get here? Who are the NPCs that started all of this off? Right?

For example, a GM might start writing a dungeon by saying “in ancient times, a powerful lich servant of Vectra discovered an ancient and powerful artifact and he used it to raise an army of the dead. But Vectra grew afraid that the lich would get too powerful and so Vectra himself struck the lich down. The artifact was lost in the battle. Eventually, the artifact was discovered by someone else. And that someone built a massive vault to contain it. But Vectra has always wanted to claim the artifact for himself. And so his cultists… “ and so on. All of that to explain why there’s a trap-filled vault with a bunch of undead and some cultists of Vectra.

And that’s wrong. I mean, okay, it’s not wrong really. Because you can start building an adventure wherever you want. But, at the same time, it’s wrong.

Purpose Driven Backstory

GMing is a s$&%load of work. Anyone who claims otherwise isn’t doing it right. And anyone who claims you can GM with a set of index cards or a blank piece of paper is lying to you. Not because you can’t GM that way? Because because GMing that way is also a lot of hard work and puts a lot of pressure on you. You’re just trading one type of work and pressure for another.

So, as a GM, everything you do has to be calculated. You have to focus your time and energy on just the right things. And starting your adventure building with three pages of prose and then trying to force that into an adventure is an inefficient way to do it. Does it matter, for example, that the artifact was originally found by a cultist of Vectra and Vectra himself caused it to be buried? Will the PCs ever discover that fact during the game? Maybe. And if they do, yeah, it is important. But probably they won’t and probably it isn’t important.

Now, I’ve been spending a lot of time talking about how to build adventures, right? First of all, there’s this series you’re currently reading. And here we talked about how every adventure begins by figuring out the resolution and then the motivations and building a structure to get from motivation to resolution. And I really didn’t talk backstory too much. By starting with resolutions, we focused on the problem that the heroes would have to solve. And by looking at motivation, we asked ourselves why they might solve those problems. We barely filled in any backstory. We assumed “there’s smugglers” or “there’s a dragon.”

Meanwhile, in the other series, the advanced series on building a large and complex adventure/campaign centered around action archaeology, I started with structure. I started with f$&%ing spreadsheets and rules and examination of the pace of an adventure. We don’t even know what the f$&%ing dungeon is or what the point is. We haven’t gotten to resolution.

But there comes a point where you DO have to figure out a backstory. But notice, I’m not saying that you need to write down pages and pages and pages of prose. I’m saying you need to “figure out” a backstory. And that’s one of my patented careful word choices because of how much of a genius I am. Notice I didn’t say “create” or “invent” or “write.” I said “figure out,” like it’s a puzzle to be solved.

That’s because backstory serves a purpose. And if you’re not writing it for it’s purpose, you’re wasting time and creative energy. Backstory specifically exists simply to explain how the motivations connect to the resolution AND how the motivations lead into the structure of an adventure.

Put another way, backstory has to answer two questions: how does solving the problem satisfy the motivations of the adventure AND once the players have been presented with the problem, how can they start solving it.

How to Solve the Backstory Riddle

You can’t teach creativity, right? So, I should be saying “well, it’s impossible to tell someone how to come up with a backstory.” But, I don’t believe it’s impossible to teach anyone anything. In theory. I mean, in practice there are many, MANY people too stupid to learn things. But, I don’t believe there’s anything I personally can’t teach to a receptive and reasonably intelligent student.

The truth is, building a backstory comes from putting your motivations and your resolution next to each other and saying “okay, how do these things work together?” And then, looking at your motivations and your resolution and saying “okay, how can I get from here to there?”

The process is simply a matter of asking questions and then answering them. And then, asking the questions those answers create and answering those. The hardest part of all of this is learning how not censor yourself. See, sometimes you’ll end up with a question and the first answer that pops into your head is stupid. Or it leads to a contradiction. Whatever. But, with enough questions and answers, you can always get to something less stupid or iron out a contradiction. That part’s easy. And it get’s easier the more you do it.

But, rather than try to talk about it, let’s just do it. I mean, after all, we have two whole adventures we have to build. So, let’s look at how to build a backstory by actually building a couple.

Adventure 1: Drug Smugglers’ Cove

Remember this? We have an adventure that ends when the PCs take down a smuggler smuggling an illegal substance into the fantasy city. Or, it ends when the PCs have been removed from the case and the fantasy police have been politically pressured to shut the case down. That’s our resolution.

For motivations, we ran into some trouble. Remember? The PCs for this particular adventure weren’t inclined to just clean up the streets for the greater good. We’re assuming that the adventure offers a cash reward and also offers the PCs something they need. We settled on contact with a city official who has information the PCs want. As for why the players are playing the adventure? Well, it’s a promise of a good mystery and they want to solve a good mystery. That’s easy enough, right?

Well, now we need a backstory that fits all those pieces together AND provides a starting point for the heroes to investigate.

Firstly, how do the PCs even get the case? Who offers the money? The contact? And who is going to pull them off the case? Well, it makes the most sense if it’s the Fantasy Police hiring them, right? An investigator knows the PCs by reputation and needs their help. He hires them as independent contractors and offers cash. He also name drops the official. Done and done.

But that raises a question: why is the investigator hiring outsiders? And why might the case ever be shut down? There’s a lot of possible reasons, but the fact that we have a Fantasy Police department and someone smuggling goods implies a bureaucracy. And where there’s bureaucracy, there’s corruption, right? So, maybe some other official, some corrupt official is trying to shut the investigation down for some reason. Maybe he’s involved or maybe he has an interest or maybe he’s been bought. Whatever the reason, he’s preventing the Fantasy Police from giving resources to the investigator. And so the investigator hires outside the department.

At the same time, we want to run a good police procedural type mystery, right? And if you turn adventurers loose on that sort of situation, they tend to smash heads and break knees and murder anyone who gets in their way. And while a fight with criminal goons is fine in the right context, if the PCs aren’t constrained by police rules and police procedure, the mystery will turn into a bloodbath.

So, maybe an official pressuring the Fantasy Police isn’t the best explanation. Because that makes the PCs unofficial. Off the record. We want to make them official representatives of the Fantasy Police. Consulting detectives. So, maybe the corrupt official doesn’t have THAT MUCH power. Just enough to lean on the department to drop the case if something goes wrong. Enough to shut down the case.

So, again, why hire the PCs? Well, this investigation is about infiltrating an organized crime group and getting to the head of the organization, right? Maybe the investigator can’t get any resources and he, himself, is too well-known to infiltrate a criminal organization. So he figures the PCs can gain the trust of criminal types. In addition, maybe he expects the PCs to bend the laws a little when dealing with criminal types.

That all works really well. And it tells us a lot about the Investigator. He’s well-connected with his higher ups (because he has a connection to the City Official the PCs want and he’s authorized to hire outside help). He’s an honest cop because he genuinely wants to get these drugs off the street and he’s willing to take on a case that might be politically unpopular. He’s got a reputation as a good cop, which is why he can’t get criminals to talk to him. He’s probably frustrated by corruption in the force. And that also implies he might not like the PCs very much. He probably doesn’t want to work with them. And so he’s going to be very firm with them about following the rules and being mostly honest.

So, that tells us all we need to know about how to motivate the PCs and the investigator who hires the PCs.

What about how to start the investigation?

Well, when it comes to building a mystery, you have to at least have some sense of what the answer is. So, we’ve got to come up with a few details now. What is being smuggled and how is it being smuggled?

The city is a port city. So it stands to reason that any goods coming into the city are coming by ship. Now, if there are laws about illegal goods and a bureaucracy and Fantasy Police, that also implies that the harbor is controlled. There are procedures in place. Goods are examined, probably taxed, that sort of thing. Someone is circumventing those procedures to get smuggled goods into the city. But how?

What if there’s a private harbor? One that isn’t under control? How could that exist without it immediately being the first place anyone would investigate? What if it’s underground? My city happens to be built on the ruins of several former cities, so there’s all these underground ruins. What if there’s a tunnel and a underground harbor? Before a ship lands, it can put it’s illegal goods in a dinghy and those goods, under the cover night of night (when the tide is low and the tunnel is accessible), row the goods into the shore tunnel and into the underground harbor. That’s a pretty neat way to smuggle.

In the end, then, you can just put the entrance to the harbor underneath the criminal’s house. Or his legal business front. Find the harbor, find the criminal, right? Or, alternatively, find the criminal and you find the harbor.

And that implies an avenue for investigation. Ships. The party can go investigate the ships coming and going into the city. Or, rather, the ships currently docked at the city. But why would the PCs believe that a ship currently docked might have something to do with the smuggling operation? And how will they identify potentially suspect ships over all the ships that could possibly be in the harbor?

Let’s say the drug comes from a specific location. Let’s say the drug is an elven herb. And it can only be ground in certain places and only by elves. Maybe the city only has trade with one such elven city and maybe the elves – because they are picky a$&holes – will only trade with certain vessels and merchants. Maybe a couple of elven ships are in the harbor right now.

This can even help put a time limit on the whole thing. Maybe the Fantasy Police can hold ships in the harbor for a few days, but they can’t shut down trade forever or else the corrupt official will have a reason to shut down the investigation. So, that avenue of investigation will dry up after three days or something. Neat.

So, that’s one good way the party can start the investigation. But remember when we talked about structure, we talked about how we always want a few entry points into the adventure. So, elven ships in the harbor is one good opening. But we need some others. Obviously, the PCs could try to make contact with criminals and try to just buy smuggled goods. That’s a legit avenue for investigation and one they might think of on their own. But we want another solid entry point we’ve prepared.

So, what if the herb isn’t the drug? What if the herb needs to be made into the drug. Maybe it’s a complex alchemical process. And the drug itself has a short shelf life. It won’t last for weeks on a ship. It would have to be made in the city. So someone is buying the smuggled herb and turning it into the drug. But that information comes from understanding how the drug is made. Maybe the PCs need to talk to alchemists to find out how the drug is made and who could make it. They could start tracking it down that way.

And in the end, we have a backstory that serves our purposes. There’s an elven herb that can only be grown in a certain place. There’s several elven ships that trade with the city. There’s an underground harbor that a crime lord uses to smuggle all sorts of goods into the city, including this herb. The herb is used by unscrupulous alchemists and turned into a drug. An investigator discovered some people were getting a hold of the drug. He wanted to investigate, but his reputation makes it hard for him to get too deep into the underworld in this case. And his superiors are keeping resources from this case. So, he hears about the PCs and figures they might be able to help. He hires them. Tells them about the elven ships in the harbor and gives them a sample of the drug they can have analyzed by alchemists to find out more about it.

Obviously, we can fill in more details as we write more about the adventure, but now we know what we need to know.

Adventure 2: In the Thrall of the Dragon

And now we have this adventure. Which is simple. There’s a dragon. The dragon lives near the village. She’s a lazy dragon. Not interested in working too hard for her food. So she demands the villagers feed her. She takes livestock, meat, grain, anything really. Dragons will eat anything. But the village is barely self sufficient. And keeping the dragon fed with tribute is a struggle for them. Think “A Bug’s Life.” So, the heroes show up, kill or drive off the dragon, end of story, right?

Well, we sort of had a problem with that story. Remember when we talked about motivation, we worried that it might not be interesting enough for our players. The characters would go along with it fine. But there was no other drama there. There’s no deeper story. There’s no emotional conflict.

What sort of emotional conflict could we bring into this? I mean, clearly, there’s no conflict about whether the dragon is evil and whether it needs to go. At least, not to the players. But what about the villagers? What if the villagers don’t want the dragon to go? Crazy right? Well, why might that happen?

Let’s look at this at from the dragon’s perspective first. The dragon has a sweet gig. She’s lazy, people deliver her food on a regular basis, she can just sit and count her treasure. And sleep. It’s no use starving the village or destroying the village. Otherwise, she loses that sweet gig. And she may be lazy, but she’s not stupid. And she knows dragons aren’t invincible. If word gets out that there’s a dragon squatting on a treasure horde, eventually, a group of adventurers or an army of dwarves or a hobbit and an archer are going to take her down. She needs the villagers scared.

Meanwhile, the villagers can just barely scrape by under the thrall of the dragon. But they could easily send word out for a hero or adventurer or army or hobbit with an archer. Why haven’t they? Well, what if they did? What if an adventurer or a party had come through. And the dragon managed to defeat them. The dragon would have been enraged. She couldn’t do too much to the village. Again, destroying it was not in her best interest. But she had to keep them scared. So, she decided to punish them.

She would spare them, this time. She would observe that she could wipe out a third of the town or take all the elderly and still the village could keep her fed, but she would be magnanimous. She would spare the rest of the village. But, they would have to remember the price of ever crossing her again. So, henceforth, the village would send one individual, of their choosing, as part of each month’s delivery of food. She would even be kind enough to allow the villagers to execute the tribute, rather than devouring the person alive.

The village now has to murder one of its own every month and offer them to the dragon as food as a constant reminder of the price for crossing her. And if the village ever fails to deliver or attempts to cross the dragon again, she will come back and destroy a third of the village. Now, the villagers are afraid to seek help. They are broken.

Now, that creates an interesting level of complication. The villagers don’t want the heroes to know what’s going on. They are afraid that if the dragon finds out that they are even talking to heroes, the dragon will make good on her threat. And if the heroes try to confront the dragon, the villagers may stand against them. Or warn the dragon to prove the village’s good intentions.

That’s pretty cool, but now there’s another layer of complication. If the village all agree not to talk to heroes, how do the heroes ever even find out about the problem? And if the village really does stand united against the heroes, will the heroes feel compelled to help them? Or will they just walk away?

So, clearly, the village can’t be in agreement. And there’s got to be a scene that tells the heroes that something is going on in the village so they start digging for the truth.

I mean, we could just have the heroes show up on dragon sacrifice day, but that robs the story of all of the emotional drama we’ve created. Right? I mean, dragon there, villagers here, kill dragon, protect villagers. Not a lot of time for moral discussion.

What if there’s a lottery? Kind of like Catnip Hungry Games. What if the villagers decided amongst themselves that the only fair way to handle this situation was a lottery? After all, it’s going to be almost impossible for the villagers to settle on one person to kill every month. Some will argue for killing the sick or the elderly first, but others will argue that only volunteers should go. Others will point fingers at the people who hired that first hero, saying it was their fault and they should go. Everyone will want to protect their loved ones. And no one, no one, wants to be a murderer. No one wants to be the one to say “let’s kill Ed, he’s the one.”

So, the village decides to exclude children but that everyone else is fair game. Once a month, the village gathers in the square, has a big ole lottery, and whoever pulls the red stone from the bag gets mercifully killed and offered to the dragon.

That lottery scene makes a great opening scene, doesn’t it? It asks the heroes to investigate, to figure out what’s going on. And no one wants the heroes to know. And meanwhile, it creates a huge conflict in the village, right? Some people might want to tell the heroes what’s going on. Maybe they can succeed where the others failed. Others might think that maybe one of the heroes could die in place of a villager. Random strangers are less valuable than the people of the village, right? And maybe we can introduce further conflicts.

For example, what if the village leader, the one with the bag, is rigging the lottery? She might do it to remove people she doesn’t like. But that’s not really moral dilemma enough. What if, instead, she rigs the lottery because those self-sacrificing people keep asking her to? What if someone was sick and knew he was dying. He asked the leader to help make sure he got chosen. Is she going to turn him down? Do the heroes expose that? Or do they keep the secret?

And in all of that we have our backstory. The dragon came to the village, figuring she could have cushy life. She bullied the villagers into keeping her fed with monthly offerings that don’t quite starve the village. But the villagers got uppity and hired heroes to take out the dragon. The heroes failed. The dragon retaliated by demanding a tribute of one villager a month in addition to the food. The villagers agreed that the only way to handle this was a lottery, even though not everyone was really in agreement about it. Eventually, a self-sacrificing person with an illness convinced the mayor to rig the lottery to choose him. And maybe a few other volunteers have come along since then. And she keeps rigging the lottery to let the volunteers save the village. The PCs arrive on the day of the lottery, causing chaos. Some villagers want to use the PCs as a sacrifice. Most villagers are afraid that the PCs might try to confront the dragon and fail, destroying the village. Some villagers believe the PCs might actually be able to help them. And maybe someone has even gotten suspicious of the rigged lottery and approaches the PCs. Maybe one of the “volunteers” kept his illness secret. But, as a red herring, he’d always been an enemy of the mayor’s before the “volunteer” arrangement. So, when he suddenly got picked, his brother was suspicious and has been watching the lottery ever since. Maybe he noticed that the mayor is using a rigged bag. But he’s afraid to expose the mayor for fear of being the next victim.

Now that’s a backstory that let’s us have a dragon fight, but adds layers of emotional and narrative drama before the PCs can even confront the dragon. Maybe the PCs can convince the villagers to stand up against the dragon with them. Maybe the PCs have to fight the villagers. Maybe the dragon is warned that they are coming by a fearful villager.

Backstory is Never Final and it’s Never Finished

The idea behind purpose driven backstory is that backstory exists only to answer questions that need to be answered to facilitate the game you’re running. Backstory doesn’t come first. And you only develop as much backstory as you need. Maybe that seems like a creative drag, but the fact is it’s creatively freeing. There is nothing more creatively paralyzing than a blank page. The idea of coming up with the backstory for an adventure from scratch and then building an adventure from that is insane for most people. Because you can’t always do that sort of crap on command. It’s much easier to come up with a resolution or motivation like dragon fight or “PCs need information from city watch official.”

Once you do sit down and start doing the backstory thing – after you’ve got a solid motivation and resolution – the trick is not to go too far. Figure out enough that you can start planning an adventure, just like I did. Notice that, in the case of the smuggler’s cove, I don’t even know who the villain is yet. And frankly, the villain isn’t terribly important. He’s a crime boss. There’s not much interesting backstory there.

But also understand you’re not trying to finish writing the backstory all in one go. You write the backstory as you need it. Maybe, down the road, I will need the backstory for the crime boss. Maybe I’ll be building a scene and want to give the PCs a chance to get some leverage on the crime boss and I’ll need to figure out something. But I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it.

Moreover, as you run the game, you might invent details or discover holes you have to fill in on the fly. And your players might go digging for details they think are important. Leaving some blanks – some holes – in the backstory gives you room to maneuver. And to connect your adventure to past and future adventures.

The point is, you’re never trying to write a complete backstory. But you always need to be ready to add details when you need them. That way, you never end up with extraneous details but you always have what you need.

As we continue to build these two adventures, we’re going to keep filling the details we need. So don’t think we’re done with all the backstory. Just FYI.

And Now for Something Completely the Opposite

And now, let me end by contradicting everything that I said. At least, in the eyes of people who are too dumb to understand subtle nuance.

When you sit down to create an adventure, don’t start by trying to crank out pages of backstory, right? I said that. Start by figuring out your ending and your reasons for beginning. Then use your backstory to answer the questions those raise. Right?

But, look, sometimes you actually have a backstory. See, that advice assumes you have to crank out an adventure. Or you want to crank out an adventure. It assumes you’re on a deadline and need to get something done. But sometimes, you have a backstory already planned. Or partially planned. Or half written. You’ve had this idea for an adventure you want to write, and you want to write that.

Well guess what? If you already have the backstory, it’s okay to start there. You aren’t doing anything wrong. You’re lucky to have that backstory. Use it. Use the hell out of it.

But if you don’t have a backstory and you need to write an adventure? Well, then you’d better do it the way I told you.

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6 thoughts on “Backfilling the Backstory

    • Yep, sitting and writing stories and then seeing if they can fit into the games I run is what I do. So the very last bit was a ‘Phew!’ moment 😀

  1. This is how I normally go about writing adventures. Well, that’s not quite true; it implies a level of purposeful elegance that I don’t possess. For me, it’s more, “Crap, I gotta pull something together!” I roll on one of about a dozen random tables I’ve accumulated for a jumping-off point that’ll provide inspiration. I compare the current state of the story with the point of inspiration and try to figure out how to get from one to the other. Then I try to explain why the hell the point of inspiration is there in the first place.

    “Ooh! I rolled Active Environmental Effect, followed by Professional Exchange, on my table of urban encounters. Let’s see… maybe the environmental effect is a fire. How does that link to the professional exchange? Well, I rolled Barrister on my urban professions table. Maybe someone set fire to the lawyer’s office. Why? Well, maybe she’s a corrupt lawyer who works for a mob boss, but she had a change of conscience and tried to funnel information to a magistrate. The mob found out and is punishing her or attempting to assassinate her. So maybe the PCs have to rescue her, and the incriminating information if possible, from the fire. Maybe they also have to hold down the fire until the city fire brigade can respond. Well, that’s not interesting enough. What if ‘holding down the fire’ is fighting a fire elemental? That might be the assassin the mob sent. Aw, crap, I’ve only got an hour before game time! Son of a sailor!”

    • I would hazard that “Backstory” is the particular beings, locations and events relevant to the adventure and “World Building” is the environment and cultures within which the backstory and adventure occur.

  2. Hey Angry. Any chance for an article demonstrating how you would generate scenes & structures for these 2 ongoing examples? Would be immensely helpful to see how you put things (triforce & backstory) in action.

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