Once upon a time, a GameMaster was running a campaign for a group of players. He had worked very hard each week, spending considerable amounts of time preparing so that every single session was as immersive an experience as he could manage. All of his NPCs had descriptions, with performed voices and mannerisms to match. Every location was unique, well described and distinguishable. Some might even say he had gone too far, as the campaign he had originally said should last around four months was already in its eighth session and had barely scratched the surface of his plot.
Despite this unintentionally protracted time table, all was well and the players were enjoying the fruits of his work. He knew this to be true because he had solicited their feedback at the end of each of the previous seven game sessions. On this night, the PCs would be investigating an inn that was rumored to be haunted after murders had taken place within. As the troupe moved through the city, he turned to one player in particular and said “As the party moves through the city streets toward the inn, you see a face pass by in the crowd that you immediately recognize… it’s Alison.”
The player cocked his head to one side and responded, clearly confused “Who?”
Stunned for the briefest of seconds, the GameMaster glanced down to his notes, double checking to ensure that he had not somehow called upon the wrong player. He scanned quickly and… nope he was right, this was indeed the player. “You oughta know,…” he said “you married her.”
Now the player was even more confused. His face twisted into a perplexed expression. “What??”
“Your wife…” the GameMaster said slowly “…from your backstory.”
One of the lessons that every GameMaster invariably learns during the course of their “career” is that players oftentimes don’t have their character’s backstory committed to memory. No matter how much detail they put on the page, it doesn’t mean they actually know any of it offhand. In fact, the longer and more detailed the backstory, the less you can probably expect them to remember without having to go back and reference. Even something that seems simple or obvious, like the name of a spouse, can be tough to recall without looking, especially if it hasn’t come up before.
It’s a side effect of the fact that as players, they simply aren’t spending as much time with the material as you the GameMaster are. Since you’re the one running the game, you have to spend that time if you want things to run smoothly and make sense. The players on the other hand, can sit back and wait to see what each session brings. It doesn’t mean they aren’t invested in your campaign, it simply means that without a bit of lead in, you’re likely going to catch them unprepared.
Long story short, as with just about everything else in your game, the task of avoiding these awkward moments falls to you. If you’re going to incorporate elements from a player’s backstory into the game, you have to work with the player. If you operate on assumptions, you drastically increase your odds of encountering a dumbfounded expression on the player’s face when you go to pull it off. An important note to keep in mind here: “work with the player” does not necessarily mean in advance. While that’s usually what people mean when they say it, that’s not the only meaning.
Consider the above scenario. With a few small changes, the player would not have become confused, and the surprise of seeing his character’s wife would have remained intact (especially when you take into account that the wife died during the backstory as part of the catalyst for that PC becoming an adventurer). Let’s look at a side by side. The party is moving through the city on their way to the inn, when the GameMaster turns to one player in particular and says:
- “As the party moves through the city streets toward the inn, you see a face pass by in the crowd that you immediately recognize… it’s Alison.”
- “As the party moves through the city streets toward the inn, you see a face pass by in the crowd that you immediately recognize, a face from your past, from before your life adventuring on the road… that of your deceased wife Alison.”
Comparing the two, you can see that the first version assumes quite a bit more recalled knowledge on the part of the player in question than the second. It also has the side effect of not telling the other players anything, which means that in addition to needing to know the backstory for the line to make sense, it also puts the player on the spot with the rest of the group, who will naturally look to them for an explanation regarding this Alison since you the GameMaster didn’t offer one.
The second version on the other hand works with the player. If they don’t remember their character’s backstory, it gives them the necessary information and makes them realize they need to go back and review what they wrote because it’s about to become very significant. It also lets the rest of the group know what’s going on, so that when they all turn to the player, it’s to see his reaction to this shocking news and not for an explanation.
On the night when the above story took place for our group, there was a moment’s pause before we all spent the next ten minutes laughing at the situation. While it shattered the mood and essentially forced us to take a break from the game to regain our composure, it did give us a good story, and guaranteed that everyone would re-read their backstory before the next session – so they wouldn’t get caught with their pants down.
All the best,