Using D&D backstories in the plot is something that may DMs do not do, but most definitely should. D&D backstories are a valuable resource that can help DMs and the players in so many ways.
If you are using D&D backstories in the plot you are able to have players influence the world, campaign, influence quest rewards, and more.
I didn’t use backstories that much to influence the plot at first, but after some time I saw the value in them. I hope that you see the value in backstories and what you can do with them through this article.
Changing the world
The biggest change that I found when using D&D backstories in the plot was the ability to have players influence the world. In one of my current campaigns, I had an idea of how the world would be shaped, but in our session 0, the players gave me their backstories. The world then changed.
We added an empire to the world, interesting intrigue in the dwarven lands, and it changed the core plot of the entire campaign. One player’s backstory will already reveal a little bit of hidden truths that only the players will know through exploration.
The entire world changed because the of the players backstories, so how can you use this to change your world?
You might not need to completely change your campaign and I wouldn’t recommend it for most people. But every once in a while you get a piece of backstory that is surprisingly good.
In these instances you can either
- Change the world completely or
- Use the backstory to add to the world.
I changed the world completely but that is extremely difficult. It will take a lot of time planning wise and isn’t the best to do. Instead, you can have the backstory add to the world.
A good example is the empire. I didn’t have an idea of what the empire would be like in my world until a player made it part of their backstory. When they did so I added that into the campaign and had them fill in the blanks. You can do the same thing.
Changing the world and is possibly the biggest impact that backstories can have, but they can do much more.
- Help develop character.
- Understand what your players want.
- Give motivation.
- Create NPCs.
- Develop plot.
We will talk about these 5 extra ways to use backstories in order to influence your plot.
This is more for the players side of things, but character development is necessary for both sides. If the player doesn’t know how to play their character they will not be very interesting. You may have to go through a lot of effort to improve roleplaying normally. Backstories will help your players avoid figuring this out and let them make decisions that will influence the plot instead of how their character should act.
For the DM you can go about using D&D backstories in the plot to develop characters further. If your players know how they want to play a character and won’t spend time floundering about trying to figure out the basics of their character, you can help them develop more.
A great way to have backstories influence plot while developing a character is through past trauma. Does a character have some baggage? Of course your players do! It is almost a requirement to have some past issues in order to make a character. At least, it seems that way. The good news for you is that you can use this.
If a player needs to overcome something, say, the fear of fire you can use that. Have the player at one point in the plot have to deal with a burning building. Will the character freeze up or slowly rise to the challenge?
However your players respond to this it will tell a story and influence the plot. If the character froze up and didn’t go in to help their friends, they could be abandoned or have that used against them in the future.
You can use their base motivations to help further the plot as well, but in order to do that you will need to understand what your players want.
Understanding player desire
Most DMs don’t understand their player’s motivations until quite a few sessions into the campaign. Then, they wast time and possibly plot lines on what players do not care about.
This can cause trouble. It has caused trouble for me in the past and possibly has caused trouble for you as well. If you get a good backstory you will understand a bit more about the player and what they want.
If you made a game that was heavy on roleplay but find out that the players don’t have or care about a backstory, they might not care about roleplay. This isn’t necessarily the case, but it is a huge indicator.
Conversely, if your player made small novel out of a backstory they will need more than just a simple hack and slash game.
Understanding the player’s desire will help you shape the plot into a plotline that everyone will enjoy. Why I am saying player instead of players is because each player is different. Using D&D backstories in the plot will help you appease each player, but you have to look at it on a case by case basis in your session prep.
For example, if 3 players want more roleplay and to be do gooders while 1 player wants to grind and kill everything, you can adjust. Make most of the game roleplay but always allow the option to kill things. Keep at least 1 combat a session and have the other 3/4 of the session turn into roleplay.
Now that you understand what your players want, how will you give them motivation?
Once you understand what the players want on an individual basis you can think about their motivation. Players are strange creatures that defy logic. DMs can give them an easy answer that will reward the players only to have them set a town on fire. Usually this only happens because the DM doesn’t understand how to motivate the players.
We talked above about how to prep for a session and give your players what they want based on their backstories, but what about motivating them? If you are not using D&D backstories in the plot to motivate your players they will lose interest. When they lose interest things burn. Literally.
We do not want the world to burn, so motivating the players to play the game and not be bored with the state of affairs is essential. Backstories can give players a reason to do things. Why does your player want to steal everything? Why does a player want to defend children above all else?
You can understand these parts of the player’s backstory and make them a part of the world. Use them in your game and threaten the player’s values. Make them work for what they want and give them what they want.
You do not need to be a stingy DM all the time. Giving the players what they want is a great way to keep them motivated and that isn’t always magic items or gold. With a player’s backstory you might find out that a player wanted to be the best blacksmith around. Give them recognition for their efforts when others wouldn’t normally do so as a reward.
These types of rewards are generally more impactful than any magic item you could grant a player. One of the best ways to show these impacts is with NPCs.
When you use backstory NPCs always veer on the side of good. Make your backstory NPCs almost always a good thing for the player unless they have specified otherwise. This is one of the best ways for using D&D backstories in the plot.
Here is an example of a good NPC.
A player has stated that they had a love interest who they had to abandon due to reasons. You could have that love interest move on or not love the player back, but that makes them feel like the DM is out to get them. While yes, the DM does try to present challenges to the players they are not outright mean. Here is a much better way to deal with it.
The player sees the love interest and is unsure about how the love interest will react. The player is timid, but the love interest is still warm to the player and understanding of why the had to leave after the circumstances were explained. They might be a little mad until everything is explained, but the player now has a love interest and an ally.
Which do you think makes the player more interested and motivated by? The first example or the second? You probably know that the second is much better. If you have experienced both scenarios you will be amazed at how much better the second scenario plays out for your player.
Players like emotion instead of mechanical intrigue. Intrigue is fine, but it is not as valuable to players as it is to DMs. This is a common cause of friction.
You can also use backstory NPCs to help advance the plot (but don’t be too heavy-handed) and give the players an ally. We have a whole article dedicated to helping you make amazing NPCs for your game.
Lastly, if your players make bad NPCs then make them bad. It is fairly simple and this is the most common things that DMs do well so we won’t get into it here.
The last thing that you can use backstory in the plot for is to develop the plot.
Develop the plot
You have your session 0 as we talked about and you just heard something amazing. They had their whole hometown destroyed and they didn’t know by what. They didn’t see the monster, people, or thing that destroyed their hometown and left to track it down.
You have a whole campaign worth of material right there. In fact, I did just that. I made a small mini-campaign that you can use in any of your campaigns from this scenario. If you are interested to find out what I did with it, check out the cube.
That was a mini-campaign within a campaign, but I also added more to it. The main campaign revolved around slowly learning about different planes of existence. This all is accumulating towards the players finding and confronting a version of the evil entity that destroyed that hometown. You can do this too.
If a player gives you a backstory that involves an ancient artifact you can center the campaign around it or at least develop part of the campaign’s plot around this piece of backstory. This is possibly the most direct way of using D&D backstories in the plot, and can really enhance your game!
With that, there are some pieces of advice that I should leave you with.
Pieces of advice
If you plan on using D&D backstories in the plot, which you should, then you should keep a few things in mind.
- Do not require backstory to affect plot.
- Less is more sometimes
- Don’t allow too much
All this information that we have covered can be extremely helpful. Just do not require that a player ding all these marks when they are constructing their backstory. They might have something else in mind and create a fine backstory, but it doesn’t help you change the world. It doesn’t need to, but just pay attention for times that it can. Especially if something jumps out at you.
For less is more, that phrase is only sometimes applicable. If a player says their name and that they came from parents that isn’t much to go on. If a player, on the other hand, says that their hometown was destroyed as we talked about above it is fine. Just don’t allow a novel.
If your players present you with pages of backstory you will not hit every important note. Your player might wonder if you even read their backstory and who can blame you if you forgot a sentence in that 5 page report. This is why you don’t want your players to do too much and practically map out the world for you.
D&D is a collaborative effort and something that we all should have a part in. That doesn’t mean that the player can completely shape the world before the game even starts though, so limit the backstory if it ever starts to feel like it is too much.
There are many reasons for using D&D backstories in the plot. You can change the world, understand your players, their motivations, and more. Using D&D backstories in the plot can create amazing NPCs and even help influence where the plot is going.
Do not neglect your players’ backstories when you are planning the game. Consider what they want and think about how to use their creative ideas to shape the world. Once again, D&D is a collaborative game so work with the players in creating an amazing world where everyone can enjoy.
I hope that this article has helped you enhance your game and given you some ideas on how to use backstories in order to affect the plot.
Until next time.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!