Prepping for your game can be a bit tiring and time consuming. But what if there was an easy way around it? What if you could have 4-6 people doing that work for you? Players love their characters. That’s why they create them! If these are accompanied by a backstory, then that’s just a gold mine waiting for you the GM to extract all the good stuff for your game!
Player characters’ backstories are often filled with things the player wants to see in the game. A tragic story about their family being murdered by barbarians? That doesn’t only mean that there is a barbarian tribe somewhere, but that the player wants to see them at some moment. What’s more! There is now a new faction in play in your world.
Creating new Factions
A great way to reduce session planning, while having player choices be a big part in your game is to have the things the players establish in their backstories become factions. I personally treat factions in a similar vein to how the 13th Age uses “Icons”. These are important parts of your game that have their own objective and are always doing something, even if the PCs don’t see it. I recommend having between 3 and 5 different factions to have the world feel like it’s always moving, while at the same time not being too much your players will lose track of each of them.
Player 1 mentions the king. Player 2 talks about a group of dragons that killed her character’s parents. Player 3 talks about a secret underground organization of spies trying to stop a lich from being summoned. Player 4 backstory talks about pirates and a “King of the Seas”. This means that the crown, the group of dragons, the spy organization, the lich’s cult, and the pirates are all different factions, or “icons”.
You may choose to have a more improvisational game and use the “Icons” mechanic to its extent, but so far what I’ve been doing with them is thinking before each session one thing in which these icons could have advanced in their objectives. Know that it’s always a great idea to have these factions not be perfect and leave traces for the players to find. Have them clash with each other, as their different actions branch out into other things that may be associated with what the PCs are doing or other factions. In no time you will have one of these icons associating with the PCs so they can all together defeat one of the other factions.
Creating new locations
Some players don’t like creating new locations and just focus on their characters when creating a backstory. Others, however, may provide you with a very interesting city, town or place in the world in which something in their backstory transpired. Just a name may tell you a lot about this place. Something like “Twin Peaks” is surely two mountains that are next to each other, probably with a ton of goats and goliaths living in it. You can add in more monsters for the mountain location by using the random encounters from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, or the ones you can find on the internet. I just rolled on the mountains section and got 9 bullettes, so maybe this means that this settlement is constantly being invaded by these land sharks, meaning they have means of protection. They have gone into the mines and brought great amounts of iron to cover the ground with. Now there is no chance for those creatures to break into the settlement, and it definitely makes it unique! These sort of things might also inspire adventure hooks, such as sending the PCs to the cave with the miners so the PCs can bodyguard them from the bullettes while these mine the iron.
If the player also provides more useful information, then that means two things:
- The location and/or NPCs are important enough they need to at least make an appearance or have some relevance in your campaign (there you’ve got some prep already done for you)
- This can become a location for the PCs to return every so often for new missions and getting to see the NPCs. Having a home base to rely on means that if at any time your players avoid something you planned for you can always add it as a mission from an NPC in that location.
Creating new NPCs
As I’ve said above, you may encounter the player who writes a mini-novel for their character backstory, and that means there are lots of NPCs to steal from there! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in favor of allowing players to write 5 pages of backstory for their new character, but I know some of them are very passionate about it and I allow it every so often as long as it doesn’t affect the game negatively. The cleric’s parents could be the ones that personally know the archbishop the adventuring party needs to speak to, or the baker in town that helped the rogue survive as a child could be the one the gnolls captured and took hostage. Whenever you run out of ideas or need to come out with an easy adventure, get your list of NPCs at hand, select one at random that would make sense to appear, and have them be the subject of a new mission for the party!
If you need to better detail the NPC, I like to use Ironsworn’s tables for NPC creation to come up with quick personalities and jobs for them. That way, now you know that Mike, the childhood name from the urchin grew up to become a woodworker that overheard the guard is working with the thieves’ guild but is terrified to tell the PCs. Nevertheless, your PC that knows him can easily understand that there is something wrong with him. BOOM! Adventure hook!
Whenever you feel lost or don’t want to do that much prep, see the list of locations, NPCs, and factions you have created from your players’ backstories. You can tie some of those things together to come up with something unique. Moreover, you can also have the players act with your world, and the fact that you have all those things ready to be used means that whichever the direction they go, there’s a good chance they will encounter with a ramification of an action caused by one of those things you have noted. Once you know all your moving pieces it’s easy to improvise during the game and need to prep much less for it. If you do want some extra information about a faction, location, or NPC, just ask that player to give you more details. Most players will do it gladly!
What’s your take on having your players do most of your planning, or at least help you come up with new things? Are you more of an improvisational GM or do you prefer having players play on playgrounds of your own creation? Do you run your games in a similar way to this? Tell me all about that in the comments below, and see if we can come up with even better techniques on how to accomplish this!
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in favor of allowing players to write 5 pages of backstory for their new character, but I know some of them are very passionate about it and I allow it every so often as long as it doesn’t affect the game negatively.”
I think you should consider changing “allowing” and “allow” here to “accepting” and “accept.” I’d look askance at any DM trying to assert some sort of limit on how much a player can develop their own character. I don’t believe you’re actually saying a DM has that kind of authority, or should, but that’s how it reads to me.