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!
“This is solid gold â€” nay, solid platinum”
Shouldn’t that be solid gold-pressed Latinum?
On a serious note, great idea, I am going to do this for my recently started Hogwarts campaign.
Yep, this is surely one way of running a game, and one that is very well suited to games like Star Trek and Dresden Files, where the large body of canon materials provide the motivations for joining the game in the first place.
It isn’t always the sine qua non of a campaign (my Delta Green players, when asked, prefer to be surprised by my fertile imagination for example – so I’ve engineered a way for them to choose their battlegrounds in-game) but it is always a good idea to poll the players as to their expectations. I sometimes do this in a roundabout way so as to not tip my hand. Coming across an anticipated but unexpected game entity can be very rewarding for the players, and changing up the style and pacing for an episode or two can keep them on their toes.
Collaboration is the one aspect of Dresden Files RPG that paradoxically gives me, the GM, no trouble whatsoever but seems to flummox the players no end.
They seem bewildered that I show little interest in preventing them rewriting their characters from moment to moment as they get the feel for the system. Providing it’s game-legal I tell them “Don’t like that werewolf you made? Make it something else then. Backstory is slowing you down? Toss it and write a new one. Powers turn out to be a total drag for you? Let’s talk about what you wanted them to be and then change them to suit. Want to be a vampire? There’s two Vampire games running locally in which you’ll be happier”.
That last because I’m currently limiting players to magic-tossers, shapeshifters and humans, partly because the other types are insanely powerful, partly because the vampires are the bad guys mostly and mostly because I feel vampires have been over-used as fantasy elements to the extent I’ve formed a grass-roots movement to express those feelings – Get Rid Of Stupid Stuff About Vampires (GROSSAV). You should emphasize the “rid” when you say that.
I’m running an entirely story-driven game with DFRPG – if characters develop that are memorable we’ll push the story using them but right now people are still finding out how the game works and what they want from it. Player characters are more potentialities than realities – they’ll morph until each player is happy with the PC they have.
There’s a place for collaboration in all games, sometimes a great deal of collaboration.
@Roxysteve – Good point about how canon makes collaboration — or at least the roadmap to collaboration — a lot easier!
I agree that working with the players to create better backgrounds is important. I’ve always tried to do this, or in cases where new players were coming in or didn’t have the time to build a character, i would do it for them.
The benefit to the GM is obvious, but it also gives the player something to sink their teeth into by giving them things that matter to them.
The best example from our table would be the Battlestar Galactica game we recently had going. To give the players the proper sense of loss and shock, we got really into the backgrounds — friends, family, places they hung out, neighborhoods they lived in, vessels they served on…then played about a year’s worth of time prior to the Cylon attack to make it real for them. When the Cylons struck, it HURT. Loved ones gone, pets gone, cities gone…it gave them motivations that might not have cropped up with the Bang! we got hit and are on the run sort of campaign.