Balancing Character Backstories For The Perfect Tabletop RPG Party

When players are coming up with their characters’ backstories, oftentimes they’re not doing so together. 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, hopes for story direction, or other clashing attributes, you 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 with your worldbuilding!

Types of Clashing

There are a handful of common examples where a party of characters just don’t fit well together on paper. There are moral alignment concerns – i.e. chaotic good & chaotic evil characters in the same party. And there are character wants and needs not fitting together – i.e. one character seeks revenge while another seeks to bring peace. Or even players wanting their characters to simply go to different places in the world. And at first, it may seem daunting on how best to fit these seemingly totally different characters together in the same story & journey.

To that end, when you’re going through the recommended the backstory integration exercise (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 each character’s various attributes, goals, and wants & needs. In totality, those elements are the puzzle pieces you’re going to need to fit together.

And if this is the first time you’re playing with some/all of the players (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 each players’ likes and dislikes.

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 are 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.

The Nucleus

As you complete this character attribute mapping exercise, at first, it might seem as though they 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; ask yourself: what is 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 and their different characters.

What do the Players Gravitate Toward?

With the nucleus in place, you can begin to answer crucial bedrock questions such as 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?

Let’s suppose you have a party begins the story all making an accidental bargain with a god. A curse which can only be undone by cooperating and breaking the spell together. With that nucleus in place, you should be able to build natural and fluid ways a seemingly disparate party actually meets and consummates that “deal.” Perhaps they all find themselves lost in a great maze, and the price of escaping is this bargain. Or maybe each character found themselves looking into a magic mirror which entranced them into making the deal.

You can then design main “missions” – as well as side stories – that ping off each character’s individual backstories. And you can also now do so as a complete, cohesive group! 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. 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! Give it a try…and let me know how I can help!

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