AKA Incorporating Character Backstories into Your Narrative
As a GM, there comes a time when your players run the gamut from their characters having almost no backstory, to those who have extended novella-length backstories that may as well be a book. But what a lot of GMs do, especially newer GMs, is ignore those backstories completely. Maybe they do it in favor of not wanting to alter their ultimate plans for the story that's about to unfold, maybe they aren't sure how to incorporate the backgrounds, or maybe they just don't think it matters. Either way, I'm telling you as a GM who's been running games since 2nd Edition D&D in the early 1990's - the backstories of the characters not only matter to the players, but also can help bring to life the world in which the characters have been placed and that you may have even created from scratch. I'm going to tell you what I do to help incorporate the pasts of the individual characters into the narrative, and maybe it will help inspire you as well. There are no hard and fast rules for the way I incorporate backstories into my campaigns, but there are some techniques I use for judging how and when to do just that.
ACTUALLY TAKE TIME TO READ THEIR BACKSTORIES: This is really a no-brainer and is the foremost step you need to be doing as a GM. You are the referee of your campaign, the narrator, and the lead storyteller. It's your job to know the characters found in your world, and as much time as you put into NPCs, at least twice that effort should go into knowing the characters your players are fielding. No character comes into the game with absolutely no past. Our own histories shape who we are as a person. Give feedback about your player's choice in background, and work with them to really solidify their characters totally before you start the campaign. And most of all, get to know them as well as you can because this will lead us to the next step.
CREATE A CHARACTER ARC FOR EACH CHARACTER: Think of your campaign in terms of a television show. For me, a TV show structure works best because shows have seasons, and in each season, there is an overarching plot the characters must deal with in addition to their own problems. For example, in season one of Vox Machina the party goes on quests but underneath it all, each of the characters is undergoing constant development. The same should be true for your campaign. If it's an introductory campaign, maybe it will cover levels 1-5. If it's a longer one, maybe it will get them to level 10 or higher. But in either case, you should structure it in such a way that each player character has a chance for their pasts to catch up with them in some way. On a sheet of paper or in a word document, however you want to do it, jot down a few ideas for developing each character. It doesn't have to be a major thing - it can be subtle. When I ran The Lost Mine of Phandelver, early on I knew that the module was pretty thin, so I added a ton of stuff to help round out the content to suit my players. Hilmark, the Dragonborn Fighter and unofficial leader of the party, had lost his wife and had formerly been addicted to a drug before turning himself around. Boddynock, the Gnome Wizard, craved power and knowledge. Starla, the resident Cleric, belonged to a sisterhood that sometimes required her assistance far away. Linarien, the Bard, wished to find her place in the world. By the end of the first story arc, I'd had Hilmark confront his past by transporting him there via a magical illusion, Boddynock begin to crave something other than knowledge and power after he met a local widow and her son, Starla forge greater bonds with her Cleric order while her battle sister took her place during a spiritual pilgramage, and Linarien discovered she didn't want to be an adventurer any longer and retired with her adventuring spoils after being trapped for some time in a magical ring. These things by themselves were not originally part of my campaign notes when I created the supplemental material for The Lost Mine of Phandelver, but to fulfill and flesh out the characters and their desires I took the major points the players had added into their backstories (Hilmark's wife was a big impact on him, Boddynock's consuming quest for power, etc) and sought out places in the story where I could add them that wouldn't bog down the overarching plot. That brings us to the next section.
KNOW WHEN TO DEVELOP CHARACTERS: If you're following the TV show formula, or something similar, I know what you're thinking - how am I going to find a good spot to drop in random character development? For my purposes, I try to look at where I'm at with the overall plot at any given time. For example, in Lost Mine of Phandelver, depending on where the characters are at in the main story development, there's usually not a ton going on at the very beginning. At first, the characters are investigating a local gang terrorizing the town of Phandalin. I would generally pick a point like that to start sewing in threads dealing with the characters and their backstories. You want to do those types of things when the main plot is moving around slowly. Then after each major event in the story, sprinkle some more character development in. By mid-story in my Lost Mine of Phandelver campaign, Hilmark had learned that dragon cultists had been the ones who murdered his wife and so he developed a new revenge-oriented goal of hunting down their cult. Boddynock had fallen in love with the local widow and had begun to lose his absolute drive for knowledge, but then the BBEG learned they were close to the party and had her and her son executed which drove Boddynock to become a Warlock after he sold his soul for more power in a new quest for revenge. Starla came back to the party and felt a new sense of duty and also some underlying guilt after her battle sister had died protecting the party in Starla's absence. Linarien went off to live happily ever after, but the Elf Sorcerer who had been trapped in the magic ring initially discovered she'd been placed there by a group of wizards who, if they learned she was free, would no doubt come after her again. Some of these things were revenge oriented because I had a larger end game in mind for another overarching arc for their characters in addition to the major plot. I was sewing threads for Campaign #2 which I knew was going to come eventually. I changed certain things in the Lost Mine of Phandelver module to suit my own purposes and to flesh out the backstories of the characters. That brings me to my next point.
BE FLEXIBLE AND FLOW LIKE WATER: One of the biggest challenges GMs have sometimes is being flexible. As a GM we are essentially walking rulebooks who adhere to the game's mechanics and help guide the players along, so sometimes we get too in our heads about a direction the campaign story is taking. But to make your life easier, you should be more open to being flexible in your campaign's story. Don't railroad the players. Half the fun is exploration and the unexpected in a game, so don't be impatient and let your players miss out on great character development because you've decided they have to go to the hermit's shack 50 miles outside town. Instead of skipping over that 50 miles by telling the players they've arrived there over the past week of travel, take the opportunity to engage the players and their characters in roleplay. Or, if you see an opportunity, don't be afraid to throw in threads for other character development into the mix.
Those are my own techniques, and I hope maybe they've at least given you some sort of inspiration or idea for how to incorporate your player characters' backstories into your campaign. What are some of your own techniques? Let us know in the comments below!