We’ve got…history: A Quick Backstory Minigame for D&D 5e Players

Art by https://www.deviantart.com/velinov
You all met in a tavern. You may not be friends.

I’ve been lucky enough to play with a lot of people who share my enthusiasm for the social roleplaying pillar of tabletop roleplaying games. Backstories are typically shared around the table and a good amount of the juice of that first session is collaboratively deciding how we strange traveling circus folk all happen to know each other, or how we’re going to feature as bit characters in each other’s grand history, or something else suitably hilarious. Those tend to be the kind of narratively driven games that I generally tend to enjoy.

I’ve also been in games where someone actually brought a character named Fisty McFacesmash who was really only there to 1) roll dice, 2) kill monsters, and 3) swap jokes while gleefully pursuing 1) and 2). It wasn’t that Fisty was a bad player. He had a different view of what constituted a fun game. No malice, no judgement.

For Fisty, the following game would probably be considered a flagrant waste of prime dice-rolling/monster-killing time. However, for my fellow method-actor narrative story-fetishists, I present a quick and dirty method for generating a quick backstory theme between adventurers who’ve been pursuing the world’s most lethal and lucrative profession together. It lends itself really well to one-shot or pickup games. It also has the salient benefit of helping folks who tend to overthink–or underthink– their backstories to keep them grounded and personal.

Pick a Card, Any Card

Oh…we’re not going to be friends, then?

Have each player draw a card for every other PC. The number on the card doesn’t matter, but the suit defines the nature of their character’s relationship to each traveling companion. There’s a rhyme that I’ve shamelessly ripped off from Dael Kingsmill from Monarch’s Factory that I use to remember what suit goes with what:

Heart for Joy, Club for Pain, Spade for Loss, Diamond for Gain.

Whatever you draw, the card is there to show you a quick, defining glimpse of the nature of your relationship to one of your companions. If you draw a Spade for the party barbarian, for example, something in your shared past with him has caused you personal loss. You’ve been diminished in some way just for knowing the barbarian. Now that’s not to say that you don’t have a lot more shared history, considering the fact that you are still traveling together. But you’ll never forget that time that his less-than-stellar sense of social grace got you thrown out of that party where you’re pretty sure you might’ve had a shot at forging a real connection with that elven…well, you see where this might be going. And that’s also not to say that the barbarian feels the same about you. He may have drawn a Club for you, and might be a little sore that you seem to feature prominently in stories where he came close to death or walked away with fresh, new scars. Or even arguably more interesting, he may have drawn a Heart. Sure the masquerade ball was not the best place to fly into a berserk fury, but he was just so excited to be attending one of your fancy to do’s and finally spending some real quality time with…again, you can spin a pretty good story together.

I’ve done this for one-shots, and it at least establishes an interesting talking point between characters. When you get right down to it, that’s just the very first starting nugget of a good roleplaying relationship. It’s like a prompt for an improv game.

Killian puts his back to the wall and listens at the crack of the doorjamb. He holds up three fingers to Ricks, the barbarian who approaches the door with an impetuous grin. Killian narrows his eyes, “This isn’t going to be like the time with the gnolls, right?” Ricks frowns and considers, “Not if you stay behind me this time.”

I’ve also used this to get a party invested together for a longer campaign, but I’ve had each character pull three cards. The first is to characterize their first meeting, the second for their prevailing feeling, and the last for the last 24 hours. So, for example: Ricks the Barbarian draws a Club a Diamond and a Heart for Killian the Rogue. Putting their heads together, they decide that while their first meeting (a bar brawl) resulted in injury and hurt feelings on behalf of the both of them, breaking out of the city jail together cemented a partnership of convenience that has lasted for some weeks. Killian tends to know how to make his way in the world, and Ricks provides helpful muscle when things go wrong. In the past twenty-four hours, they’ve been celebrating a successful journey to the city of Here and have realized that their friendship of convenience is turning into the regular kind. See? Easy.

And that’s the idea. Pick a card, hash out how your characters feel about each other, and then feel a little more like you understand the party’s dynamics. Just because you all go delving in creepy caverns or haunted tombs or crumbling ruins together doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re all the best of friends. It might be a little more complicated than that.

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