When players are coming up with their characters’ backstories, oftentimes they’re not doing so together. Character creation after all traditionally is a highly individual process; although, there’s certainly collaboration here and there. So as the GM when the players submit their characters’ various backstories, it becomes clear pretty quickly that sometimes their various elements can clash with one another.
Whether it’s “moral” alignment, their goals, story direction, or other clashing elements, you as the worldbuilder have your work cut out for you to make the puzzle pieces fit. So today’s Worldbuilding Monday advice aims to help not only reduce that friction – but turn those occasions into win-win scenarios for the story as a whole!
Types of Clashing
Common “lack of fit’ situations include moral alignment concerns – i.e. chaotic good & chaotic evil in the same party – as well as character wants and needs not fitting together – i.e. one character seeks revenge while another seeks to bring peace – or they even just want to go to different places in the world.
When you’re going through the backstory integration exercise I talked about last week (https://storytogether.com/2020/05/08/integrating-character-backstory/), take the time to outline where each character is coming from, both literally and figuratively. Identify the puzzle pieces so that you can then dictate how they best fit together.
As that process wraps-up, it’s going to become clear fairly quickly that there are clashing elements to what the characters have selected. From there, there’s two main paths: work with it and optimize the story – or have the players change their selections. Most oftentimes, the former is preferable; but obviously that varies from story to story. The advice below assumes you’re going to be putting the pieces together as best you can.
At first, it might seem as though the characters in your tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) don’t belong together. But that’s half the fun – they do; and it’s your job to come up with clever ways to get them on the same page. You need to discover what’s binding them, what’s the nucleus of their cooperation?
Sometimes that answer isn’t obvious, especially in parties where there’s inherent conflict. But there’s always a story there, always an answer to the element(s) that bind the party together. Maybe it’s an accidental (or purposeful) bargain with a god? Or a money-making operation? A larger, existential threat? A mystery so compelling, everyone has to find the next clue? You need to take the time to really think through the options for your story’s nucleus because ultimately, it’s what’s going to draw-in the players.
What do the Players Gravitate Toward?
Fleshing out the nucleus should only come after you’ve considered what it is your players gravitate toward. If you’ve played with them before, you probably already have a clear picture. If this is the first time you’re playing with some/all of the PCs, then use the Session 0 I’ve talked about (https://storytogether.com/2021/01/22/what-does-each-person-want-out-of-the-ttrpg-story/) to find out more about their likes and dislikes.
So once you’ve got that picture and you have the characters’ backstories in hand, you can begin to form the nucleus, the central source of gravity in the story. What brings the party together? What keeps them together? And what are some of the main plot arcs that will naturally form? And what aspects of those arcs are tailored to specific players and their play-styles?
Worldbuilding isn’t just coming up with cool NPCs or epic encounters or fantastic locales…it’s taking the time to thoughtfully answer those questions above. You’re laying the foundation to connect the character threads together by creating a natural, fluid flow for the story you’re playing. A morally-mixed party can be draw-in into an extra-dimensional adventure with the right push – same as the noble & greedy finding the same treasure or even rivals agreement to put aside their differences for a larger goal.
Whatever it is, just take the time to learn the players, dig into their backstories, and you’ll be able to find your story’s nucleus. And then, weaving those backstories together will be as natural as breathing as the story unfolds!