Your players have sent you their character info for your next campaign and, as their game master, you want to incorporate their backstory elements, but you’re not sure where to start. Here’s how to break down their histories into manageable pieces and utilize them throughout your campaign in a way that resonates with players.

Create Obstacles Between the
Characters and Their Goals

One of the ways to make an RPG campaign that truly engages players is to craft a story that features their goals as subplots, sidequests, or even the central story arc. First, however, you need to know what the characters want most. It’s your job as the GM to make achieving those goals both challenging and rewarding. Ignore those character goals, and you risk monopolizing the campaign with your own storylines, leaving the players wondering why their heroes would be on the adventure in the first place.

External Goals

Ask who or what else wants the same thing as the PC, and why can’t they both have it? Alternatively, does someone want a different outcome, and what’s their motivation? Is the competitor a single character, possibly one already referenced in the backstory? Could it be a faction or organization? Locations, hazards, and items can also serve as obstacles—these are your classic dungeon crawl elements. Consider who created them, what purpose they were meant to serve, what purpose they serve now, and how the PCs might overcome them.

Once you know who or what is going to challenge the PCs, create situations in which this opposition can come to the fore, perhaps subtly at first, and then ramp up the confrontations as the campaign wears on. Alternatively, create a timeline for measures the antagonists are pursuing in the absence of PC interference. Then, as the PCs continue down other questlines, the characters can witness the fallout of their indifference, drawing them into the fight.

Internal Goals

If the goal is internal, you’re looking at an arc that probably has more to do with a character grappling with their character flaws and overcoming them. As you prepare the session’s main external obstacles, keep your mind open to ways the PC might indulge the flaw to surmount the obstacle. Once you’ve found an applicable situation, create temptations that could lure the PC away from their intended goal, as well as incentives that could convince the character to overcome their flaw. Then, when the PC chooses, don’t forget to make them (and the rest of the party) feel the consequences. As the campaign progresses, the consequences and rewards for continuing to indulge the flaw should become increasingly dire and appealing, thereby forcing the character to make difficult choices as the campaign approaches its climax.

To help showcase these types of internal struggles, you can also create a mirror character, either an ally or a rival, who also embodies the PC’s flaw. Sneak in ways to highlight the consequences of the failing to address the flaw using the NPC as the example. The goal of the mirror character is to inspire the PC to reflect on their shortcomings, so it’s important that the PC knows what has happened to the other character and that the mirror character’s fate somehow affects the PC’s life in some way.

Say Hello to Familiar Faces

If your players sprinkled names or characters into their backstory, don’t let them fall to the wayside. Record their names and relationship, and refer back to them when it comes time to see who can help or hinder your group during a given task. As the players seek out shopkeepers, sources of information, or trainers over the course of the campaign, why create a new character when an existing NPC will do?

Return to Emotionally Charged Places

What locations are mentioned in the characters’ backstories? What emotions are associated with those places? As you prep sessions, consider whether you need to invent a new location or whether one of the locations created by the players would be suitable. By revisiting those places in the campaign, the players will feel their contributions to the world come to life. The emotions or history associated with the place will serve as a great roleplaying prompt for the affected players, too.

Let the Characters Inform the Types of Encounters

Finally, look at character options and mechanics chosen by the players. Do you see a lot of investigative skills on their character sheets? You’d be remiss if you didn’t give them a chance to investigate something every couple of sessions or so, if not once every session. Did someone make a character whose abilities are especially effective at fighting ghosts or other undead? They’ll probably feel disappointed if they don’t get to use those abilities to great effect at least once in the campaign.

Photo by Ryunosuke Kikuno on Unsplash.