Back in January, I wrote about using PC backgrounds as a campaign roadmap, and I’ve been putting a version of that concept into practice in my current Star Trek game. It’s been fun and it’s saved me time, so I thought it might be useful to you.

Specifically, I used a version of the Three Things approach created by the Stew’s own Don Mappin: I asked my players for three things they want to see or do in the game, plus three NPCs I can use. I also asked them which alien race they’d like to face as the season’s signature foe. What I got ranged from a sentence or so to a couple of paragraphs, and worked just as well either way.

With three players, this immediately gave me:

  • Nine game/story elements to use.
  • Nine NPCs to feature.
  • A race around which to theme the first season of the game, the Romulans.

…and, better still, many of those elements tied into each other — something I didn’t think to ask for, but which worked out well. For example, one of my players included a Romulan NPC in his list, giving me a ready-to-run villain.

This is solid gold — nay, solid platinum.

Why? Because so many groups have angst about PC backgrounds, like:

  • “My players never give me backgrounds!”
  • “I hate writing a huge background the GM never uses!”
  • “Dammit, these backgrounds don’t have any hooks in them!”
  • “I don’t want to define my character down to the last detail right away!”

This method (Three Things) avoids all of that and slides right into an approach I’ve been honing for the past several years. (I wrote about it back in 2007: PC Backgrounds: Pressure Doesn’t Make Diamonds.) It gives me, the GM, a huge amount of stuff I can immediately work with, and — unless they’re being very secretive about hating it — my players don’t mind doing it.

While I don’t want to speak for them, I believe they also enjoy seeing their backgrounds and Three Things requests come up prominently in the game. As a player, that’s one of my absolute favorite things about gaming — a thing that no other hobby provides in such a satisfying way.

As a GM, when I’m strapped for an idea — for example, an NPC whose role I know but whose identity I haven’t yet determined, or the concept for an adventure I haven’t had time to prep for — I love having a place to go for good ideas. The list of things my players provided for this game have been and continue to be my go-to source of good ideas.

When I need something, I start with their list. I get a free idea that comes with built-in player buy-in (something no amount of money can buy), and my players get to collaborate in creating the people, places, events, and stories in our game in a cool way.

This article isn’t (or at least isn’t supposed to be) “Whoo, look at me! I’m so awesome!” It’s “Holy shit, this idea my friend had rocked, and it can rock for you, too!” This approach is fun, simple, and it works for me. I hope it, or some version of it, works just as well for you!