Tuesday 6 September 2016

1d100 Retroactive Backstory

Update: Erika Muse/Arivia over at The Ice Queen's Throne has this improved version for Labyrinth Lord. Changes some of the more niche house rules, and removes a questionable reference to the Romani.


I've been working on this off and on for the past couple of months.
The Backstory table is here.

The basic idea is that every time you level up, you roll 1d100 on the Backstory table.
Each has a hopefully-inspirational fragment of backstory and two potential outcomes.
So if you roll a 1, the DM tells you "You got into a confrontation with a bully who was way tougher than you. Did you fight or flee?"

Now the trick here is that the other players at the table decide what your character must have done, based on how your character's been acting in the game thus far. Debate is allowed and encouraged, as is swapping examples of supporting evidence, in this case probably times you stood and fought versus times you turned and ran.

The others come to an agreement or vote or whatever, then you make up a story of what actually happened. Who was the bully? Why did you do what you did?
The story can be as detailed or as sparse as you want, no pressure. Most of my players tied it into their failed career in some way.

Finally you get told what your new ability is! Each outcome of each backstory has its own associated power. In this example, "fight" nets you a +1 to hit vs enemies who have more HD than you, and "flee" grants you a +1 to fleeing rolls.
Score! Now your character is hopefully encouraged to live up to their new backstory.

An old one but there aren't really any better images when you search for "backstory"

This was all, as with damn near everything I ever make these days, chiefly inspired by Arnold K.
Specifically, his lifepath character generation thing.
It's a fairly involved process but at the end of it you have a character who's fleshed out in a way that Bob the Level 1 Fighter isn't.

Trouble is, I love quick char gen with an embarrassingly fiery passion. It's quick to get to the actual playing-the-game part of the game, I can get new players playing quickly, and I don't have to feel too guilty if a PC dies. It's the best.

But another thing is that I already have some light character history at char gen via the failed career table. After their character's finished I ask the question that goes like "So you're a Necromancer who used to be a Bellringer. How'd that happen?" and have actually always received a good answer. The implication's meant to be that before that point they were a boring nobody, at which point they went off to become a Player Character and their life gets Interesting and their character's actual in-game experiences become their backstory.

Which is great and all, but making up the story about How Your Character Got Here is actually really fun! So this retroactive backstory is meant to be a sort of best-of-both-worlds approach. You get quick char gen, but as your character levels up you get to flesh out more backstory.
This also has the neat effect of making your character's personal story grow backwards as well as forwards, and means you sort of learn more about them as you play them. Plus from the DM's side of the table, you can tie current campaign events into backstory you just found out about.

As for the special abilities, many of them are based around my house rules, so you might need to change some of the specifics for your own thing.
Generally they either give you a little stat or skill bump, grant you some sort of conditional bonus, or give you a gimmick you can use once per session. Nothing's meant to be particularly powerful on its own, but some of the once-per-session ones are a bit wacky.
Something that came up in the comments when I posted this was what I meant by "+1 HD" under some of the benefits. It's just intended to be a bonus HD-worth of health until the end of the session, not a full extra level. So a Magic-User gets 1d4 more maximum HP and a Fighter gets 1d8, for example. Not that you have to do the same, of course!

Many of the individual backstory fragments were lifted from the Lifepath generator I mentioned before, and some of the powers were lifted from yet another Arnold post about player-player bonds.

Since I've instigated this thing mid-campaign, each player's been getting a new backstory a week until they catch up with their current level.
This means, unlike most things I post, it's actually been tested extensively as a gimmick. And it's been great!

Currently we've got a Necromancer who attempted to kill the tyrant who ran her village in a convenient bellringing accident, but tragically dropped the bell on her own family instead.
We've got a Cleric whose backstory is basically all centred on his prior "career" as a flagellant, particularly one crazy night at an all-night flagellant rave that got shut down by the local guard.
We've got a Muscle Wizard who was once a member of the Men of the Rooves, a group of shinglers who were part thief and part Robin Hood-style local resistance.
And many more!

So anyway, if you do try it out I'd love to hear how it went.
I'm still fiddling with the table, so if you notice anything bullshit in the abilities or come up with something better for anything definitely let me know!


  1. Nice! Surprised this hasn't gotten more comments!

    1. To be fair it's one of my most viewed posts, so presumably people are getting some use out of it at least!

  2. Okay, here's the version I edited of this for Labyrinth Lord: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1kTTX5wRl-7Hnoyf_zjMEWW4TY01crIDKVTo0WBTlQAw/edit?usp=sharing (references to negative hit points are for Hack & Slash's On A Table For Avoiding Death, haven't tried the carousing stuff yet.)

    1. This is great! Is it ok if I link it in the main blog?

  3. Hi, thanks that's a great idea to link the backstory snippet with an attribute or stat modification, to translate the background into a game-effect.

  4. I think the idea is superbly cool. However, I see 3 problems:

    #1 Getting one such effect every level seems like too many. Say campaign is now level 12, a new PC has to roll 12 times getting 12 benefits? Relatively easy to fix, though: adjust the total amount obtained only at some specific levels (ideally levels where the character otherwise doesn't gain much stuff anyway from his class). Heck even at only level 6, havving 6 of those feells like a lot. Another way would be to have the PC keep only the last 2 or 3 effects that were rolled on the table. All previous results remain but only as flavor, and have no further game effect. Rationale being that the PC "has finally grown out of them or got used to them". That's like if you make a superb meal you're super excited to share it and enjoy it, but after making the same recipe 30 times for your friends that kinda wears off a bit and it becomes just something ordinary, not a special morale and social megaboost. So having a level range for an historic effect to exist is ok: It is no less or no more logical toi lose some, than "suddenly gaining" a new retroactive history effect that "suddenly just started" to give you an effect right now, but somehow magically didn't do zilch when the PC was in his previous levels.

    #2 Now a much bigger problem: Personally I am all for fairness and balance.I have no problem with a player getting some short-lasting benefit over another player. But stuff that tends to lasts all campaign long? Then things have better be as fair as possible. This is main reason why I prefer fixed array stats instead of the classic: "You roll your stats and if you roll crap then you either ask to be allowed to reroll, or else just kill off your own PC quick to roll a new probably better one thus on average you will end up with a PC that breaks the overall game balance". I've seen some players literally surviding their PC, then "rolling the next one" several times per game, changing only the character's name, until they got lucky after a few games and eventually rolled a god-PC. Which proceeded to then just tend to glory-hog the whole show (without even trying to).

    So my problem here is that a lot of these bonuses are either super-useful-in-many-encounters-nearly-all-the-time, while others are super circumstantial. Think about it this way: if players could CHOOSE their roll, would there be " must havers" and "trap" options? Yes, which means the6y all have to be rebalanced to give more or less more equal effects.

    #3 - Each of the two choices should lead to BOTH a bonus *and an equivalent* penalty. It's to color the charaqcter and make it more 3D, it should *not* be a source of power-ups. Think about it like this: the game is relatively balanced around PCs facing some X amount of challenges and getting Y amount of XPs, progressing at some valid rate. If you give everybody in the party (I'm exagerating here) say +6 to all rolls, obviously those PCs aqre not able to very easily defeat challenges way beyond their level, allowing them to level up even faster.

    But for a 1st draft this table is a quite nice idea.

    1. Fair points!

      For context, my games have a sort of soft level cap at L6 and there tends to be a fair amount of character turnover, so I've never had to worry about level 12 characters having too much backstory!
      I like the idea of the older powers "wearing off" as characters gain levels though, that's a great idea and means I can keep track easier! Maybe you keep the stat/skill gains, but only keep the most recent one or two of the wordier ones?

      The balance question doesn't really matter to me, because making it random means that you can't min/max. If you're willing to rebalance it though I'd definitely use it with your permission though!

      Benefit/penalty is a great idea that I use for magic items, making the more powerful abilities have an appropriate downside would work pretty well I think.

      In any case, thanks for the thoughts! This version is obviously over half a decade old by now, so it could definitely use a bit of sprucing up!