There’s a great issue of the Roleplaying Tips newsletter, “6 Tips for Starting and Planning a Campaign ” (#97), that proposes making 20% of your new campaign different from your previous games. Let’s call this the “20% rule.”
The 20% rule — apart from being a great concept in its own right — is also a handy springboard to talk about this idea: every new campaign is an experiment.
I took the 20% rule to heart when I planned my last D&D campaign, changing a couple of things that I noticed were nearly always part of my games: relatively low magic, and not very many monsters. I also added some new elements: things the players could do to earn bonus XP (like writing character journals), and a campaign website (the Selgaunt campaign  section of my main site, 3d6.org ). (How that turned out is a story in itself, but best saved for another post!)
More broadly, trying to implement the 20% rule was an experiment — and looking back, I realized that every one of my games, D&D or otherwise, has been an experiment. Whether or not the new ideas and changes were drastic, some form of experimentation was always involved.
I was aware of that on some level, but I’d never really given it much thought before. I’ve found that I learn from past games in much the same way that I’ve learned from past relationships. And in particular, I tend to experiment with new techniques based on what did and — more importantly — didn’t work in the past.
For example: I was a player in a Stargate SG-4 campaign  that just wound down, and our GM, Don, is very into making character-focused adventures. I gave him a bit less than a page of background material for my character, and felt that I had a pretty good sense of who my PC was — but there weren’t many hooks in his background. As a result, it never came up in play. Understandably, because there wasn’t much to work with!
So for my upcoming game — an Eberron campaign  — I decided to experiment with backgrounds. Specifically, I asked the players to provide the following:
- A minimum of one page of background for your character. More than that is welcome!
- Your character’s background should involve (and describe) at least 5 NPCs, including at least one enemy and one ally.
- A few specific areas to cover: where you were born (or made, for warforged), details about your family, how you were involved in or affected by the Last War (which ended only two years ago) and why you’re in Aundair.
I knew I didn’t want to get any backgrounds like the one I’d created for Stargate, and this sounded like a good way of ensuring that without shackling the players to specific concepts, or preventing them from learning about their characters in play.
Will this feel too much like homework? Will it shoehorn people into writing backgrounds in a way that doesn’t work for them? Or — as I’m hoping — will it guarantee rich, hook-laden material for me to work with (while still being fun to write)?
Unfortunately, our first session isn’t until July 23rd, so I don’t know yet! Once I’ve gotten background material from all of my players, I’ll follow up with a post about it here on Treasure Tables (TT for short).
In the meantime, what kinds of things have you experimented with in your games, recent or otherwise? Have you ever tried a similar approach to PC backgrounds? And, once a player has given you her PC’s background, do you prod for more details, or leave it alone?
Welcome to Treasure Tables. I hope you’ll stick around, and I look forward to reading your comments about what you find here.