Player Backstories as the DM

Recently my Dungeons and Dragons group had a “Session Zero” for my upcoming campaign. We set some ground rules for the game (off limits topics, basic play loop, house rules) and started character creation. And with characters come backstories. Backstories that I have to read, approve, and figure out how they fit into the world we are all crafting.

Step1: Compiling Stories

So, of course, the first step in this process is for my players to come up with stories for their characters. But that does not mean I am totally uninvolved. As players begin crafting their stories they sometimes run the drafts past me. And as I read them I give suggestions on how to mold them. On rare occasion I have to tell my players no, but usually I try to use improv rules when making my suggestions. Not a hard no, but a “have you considered…?” or a “What if we tried it like this?”

On the one occasion I needed to squash a player’s story I did try to salvage as much of it as I could. But the player had a case of what I call “main character syndrome”. This is where their story is so big and bombastic, so large and important, that it overshadows everything else. And like the main character in most stories, the entire story becomes about resolving their conflict.

As I said, I tried to salvage important bits and pieces of their idea. Introduce elements of uncertainty so that I could play with a few things behind the scene, but ultimately that idea was scrapped. When they came back with a second idea, I at first balked at the mechanics their story implied, but then shared a similar (but simpler) story I had used in the past and they loved it. And so they still get to be the main character of their story, but not of the story.

Step 2: How do These Fit Together?

The next thing I asked my players to do, once they had their backstories decided, was to establish at least one positive connection with another player character. This way these characters are not complete strangers when they first meet, at least some of them know each other.

My work on this step is seeing how any extra characters from my player’s backstories can fit into the world I have made. Most don’t need an immediate answer but a few are going to be in the main community and so I need to figure out how to integrate them.

Step 3: Figure Out What Threads I Can Pull

Once I have all the backstories (or even just backstory elements that aren’t going to change) I begin figuring out how to weave them into stories. I have been running one shots within the setting and have been dropping hints for at least one (and a half now) character’s backstories. Another character has an easy way to introduce character elements (I just have to decide what they mean).

What I am saying is that Step 3 is where I get to have fun figuring out how to torture my players with the tools they gave me. And how to reward them for making good stories.