August 14, 2020

Integrating Character Traits & Backstories Into Your Tabletop RPG

If a story is a tapestry, then the players and their characters are core threads within its fabric. So a crucial part of engaging the players in a tabletop role-playing game is to ensure that their characters’ traits, good, bad and otherwise, as well as backstories are nurtured and integrated within the flow of the overall story.

Today’s GM Advice helps guide GMs through that integration process and provides some tips & best practices for ensuring that the players’ investments in your tabletop RPG pay off in spades!

Character Creation

At the very beginning of the story, during the character creation phase, GMs should be taking note of the player characters’ attributes, traits, talents, goals, flaws, and backstories. Engage with the players throughout character creation – get a feel for what they’re envisioning. Start to flesh out what an arc for their character might look like. Start to think about how this character might engage with what’s going to be taking place in your story.

All of that wonderful creativity and fascinating choices become the seeds of the soil of the story’s plot. They blossom into ways to both test and cultivate the character’s growth and, accordingly, the corresponding player’s enjoyment and investment in the story. But you need to take the time at the beginning to generate that great momentum which will carry itself throughout the life of the story.

Keeping a Running Tracker

Once the story is on its way, I strongly advise any GM to keep a running tracker of these traits and backstories as the story progresses. And in your worldbuilding, find ways to creatively seed the story world with ways characters can find challenge, nuance, and depth in how they interact with the world. Relate those events to those character attributes & traits you’ve been keeping track of.

And it doesn’t have to be completely 1:1 either. Let’s say, for example, you have the classic character archetype who is obsessed with revenge. As the worldbuilder & GM, you don’t necessarily have to put the target of that vengeance in the path of that character. Instead, perhaps they come across another character who is also obsessed with revenge and sees its effects, negative and otherwise, on that person. Or maybe they have a dream/vision of themselves where they’re no longer obsessed and are forced to reflect on that new state of being.

The Build Up is Key!

Either way, as a first step on the character’s journey, don’t hit them over the head – or finish the trip! – prematurely. Build up to that confrontation/moment of growth. Cultivate that scene and you, the players, and the story will reap the rewards. Conversely, you could give the player the payoff early i.e. getting that revenge and the players journey then becomes “what is my life’s purpose now?” – such stories can be just as poignant and all of your cultivation efforts will pay off just as well!

Focus on how those character attributes define who they are and how they interact with the story world. Seed the story world with potential to ping off those traits and via their choices, the players will naturally gravitate toward those elements. It’s an incredibly important part of both your worldbuilding and being the GM/guide of the story. I promise, you won’t regret this extra work if you’re already not doing it!