Creating Plot Hook Laden Backgrounds

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by Tom Verreault

Game mastering is like relationships. After you’ve been through a few you have your, “been there, done that and got the T-shirt to prove it” stories. Relationships that worked out and others that didn’t, some that were horrible and others that leave you with a warm fuzzy glow when you ponder them; they come in all shapes and sizes. Campaigns and gaming groups are very much like this: some shined, others died with a whimper, and some just blew the doors off.

I’ve game mastered table top and online RPGs from a variety of games and rule systems. When I was a teenager I never stopped to consider my GMing technique or why a game was fun, or why a particular adventure was exciting. I suppose it’s symptomatic of aging, but I’ve become introspective. Time is short and demands on it are high, so if a group falls apart or a campaign dries up I want to know why. Consequently, I also quiz myself to understand why something was successful. Ultimately, I hope I can learn from my mistakes and duplicate my successes before I hang up my dice.

I’ve been pondering some developments in one campaign that stood out over nearly every other campaign I’ve run. In one online campaign nearly every player had written a character background that had elements that begged me as the GM to use them as plot hooks. At the same time I had a table top game that lacked this depth of character in the character backgrounds and one player played in both games! The comparison and contrast between the two is so sharp that it cannot be by chance. So what happened, or rather what went right in the online game? In analyzing what was done in each campaign I’ve come up with some strategies that could help a game master encourage his gaming group to write great plot hooks into their character’s backgrounds.

Character Backgrounds

In the online game I offered 1 experience point each for writing a background, a character description, and coming up with a character portrait. Initially, I thought this exercise made the characters more grounded or more real to the players and to me. It doesn’t really hold that offering a carrot to get someone to write a background will guarantee that they will write in plot hooks for the GM. Then I realized that for the online game, I wrote up some setting background documents to familiarize the players with the setting I was planning to use. It was patently obvious that some of the players had read these and incorporated information from them in their character background.

For the table top game the player characters were rolled up and thrown into the campaign with no background information on the setting. Thus the character backgrounds were general and adequate but they contained no glaring plot hooks. Those players simply never had the opportunity to write a plot hook laden background. They were experienced role players that I’ve observed using changes in tone, style, vocabulary, and speed of speaking to nail a character during role play. One of them is so good at this that you always know it’s his character speaking when he talks to you in character, he never has to tell you he’s in character. Would they not have pulled setting details together for their character background if they had had a document titled, “What the PCs Ought to Know About the Setting”? I believe so.

I have come to the conclusion that most players want to have a character well-grounded in the setting. If a game master puts in the work of writing a one to two page background on the setting for the players, the effort will pay dividends in the player character backgrounds. It will not only give them a feeling for the tone of the campaign but provide them with meat for their backgrounds. Most players realize that the game master presents the adventure and the setting so they won’t try to create the setting details; instead they get to explore the setting through the course of the game.

However, if they have a couple of pages of outline of PC knowledge they will include some of that in the character they develop. The details they include can then be worked into the course of an adventure. For example, a character who worked his uncle’s asteroid mining ship before joining the military will always be the go to guy when the military unit deals with miners and prospectors and all things asteroid, all that is required is for the adventure to have asteroids figure largely in it and he’s gained story share. Another example would be the player who writes that his character’s brother is a member of the terrorist group that is to be a major foil in the setting.

To create a setting background document, don’t bog the players down with tons of information. Make it more like a bullet list: about the monarchy, about the Cult of the Red Death, about the last war, and so on. Endless paragraphs are tough to read so break up the document with short paragraphs and double spacing between them. Include some information on the groups that will be the antagonist in the campaign. Don’t tell them everything though. What you don’t tell them becomes content for the campaign.

I’ve Got A Secret

The next strategy for encouraging plot hooks in the player character background is to require all players to write a secret about their character that only they and the game master know. This is a new idea that I’m using but not really that new an idea to me. I had previously read a suggestion to give each major non-player character a secret and had been using that with some success. However, a player in the online game suggested a secret about his character during character creation. It’s a fabulous plot hook.

I now believe every player character should have a secret. As a game master, you don’t have to use these secrets at all but they are there as potential energy, waiting to be used. Naturally, you’ll only get to use them once or twice and this is good lest the device becomes stale.

The weaving of a character secret into the adventure can make the campaign more memorable for the player. So what that the PC defeated the pirate fleet through stunning tactics and iron nerve, he also managed to rescue his brother’s remains from the pirate base and return them to their home planet so that his brother’s spirit may rest in peace. Which will be of more importance to the player; killing yet another big bad pirate or resolving the mystery of his brother’s fate?

I’ve Got This Friend

Finally, the last strategy was discovered by chance as much as the “secret” strategy was. Require each player to write an NPC contact. The NPC contact is just someone they know in the setting that may or may not help them in an adventure with advice, clues or material. The NPC may also function as a plot hook. If, after several campaigns, the PC gets a message from the NPC to meet with him over an urgent matter and they discover his house or office ransacked and the NPC missing, how could the player not desire to help their “friend?”

This has become a favorite strategy of mine after using it in a Volturnus campaign. I gave each player a little something extra and one of the players got an NPC contact that I wrote. The contact was of another race then the PC but had always been like an uncle to him. The player used the contact to weasel a free gun from him which I allowed. However, the pirates recognized the gun and PC was to learn that it originally belonged to a traitorous member of the pirate band and the leader wanted him found and killed. Is the PC’s uncle the traitor or did he obtain the gun another way? Is he in danger? Suddenly this contact has blossomed into all sorts of possibilities and is fodder for plot hooks and twists.

Summary

In the Alpha Dawn Remastered rules, an optional rule on edges and flaws was included (ADR page 142). I have not used this but I think it would duplicate some of what I proposed above wrapped up in a game mechanic. In particular, the flaws read like plot hooks. This could be another way of encouraging creativity on the part of the players.

To sum up: provide players with a background brief on the setting and or a document on PC baseline knowledge. Require them to create a secret about their character and to write an NPC. Be open to their questions and desires and use them as an opportunity to create depth and plot hooks in your campaign. Then let the fun begin.