December 30, 2019

Threads in the Tapestry: Players’ Backstory

This week’s #worldbuildingMonday post is all about how to best treat the players’ backstory as threads in the overall tapestry of the story.

Like we’ve discussed in weeks & months past on this blog, the players are the lifeblood of any tabletop RPG. Their choices, words, and actions are the story’s gravity, the source of its progression. Investment in the players by the worldbuilder/GM is crucial to maintaining the story’s cohesion, flow, and reciprocal player investment. In short, it’s mandatory.

For worldbuilders & GMs looking to get started in improving in that area, I invite you to perhaps re-image how you think about this cycle of investment in one another. Consider the following analogy: the overall story is a tapestry. Naturally, tapestries are made up of interwoven threads. Threads of course in a story can be story beats, your worldbuilding infrastructure, and, importantly, the player characters’ backstories.

A tabletop RPG without proper worldbuilding investment in those backstories is like a tapestry missing some of its threads – it’s incomplete and doesn’t function the way it should. Moreover, the threads which do remain don’t bind together in the ideal way as they’re missing many of their fellow binding threads.

So as part of what’s commonly referred to as “Session Zero” – i.e. the preparation/practice time prior to an official tabletop RPG session with the group – it’s important for the worldbuilder/GM to discuss the player characters’ backstories with them – and with each other. You’ll start to find ways to ingratiate the characters into the overall story – and within the party! – in new and exciting ways. That chemistry, that flow, that connection with the story world makes all the sessions afterward so much smoother, more refined, and more complete.

Your players immediately notice the difference when you find ways to weave in aspects of their character throughout the story. And further, it creates a stronger bond/connection within the party because it facilitates empathy and understanding when you know more about what makes the player character tic. Players can then start investing in one another’s arcs, progression, and evolution which, in turn, incentivizes participation in the story world.

This pattern of mutual investment snowballs over time. You’ll find in the vast majority of successful tabletop RPG stories that the players have really bought in with the story world and with each other. Some can point to the genesis of that teamwork and flow and for others, it happens organically. But you can give it a kick-start in your new tabletop RPG: and it all starts with the simple “tapestry” visual. So go ahead and starting adding backstory deeper dives into your Session Zeroes. You won’t regret it!