It is a commonly accepted truism that D&D players generally care about the backstory in your game slightly less than they care whether Mr. Rogers kept D. Scholl’s or Odoreaters in his sneakers on the set. But I’m here to tell you that this is not true… and furthermore, if you’re spending all you time making up that backstory. you’re working too hard.
Why? Well while it is true that most players don’t give a fig about the backstory you created, they do care about the story they create for themselves. For less imaginative players, that story may be, “My character shows up every week, sword in hand.” but for others, their stories can take on the dimensions of little campaigns in and of themselves.
For instance, I have a wonderful player in my group, we’ll call her… Moxanne. We’ve been gaming together for years and she pretty much always plays the same way. She ignores events that aren’t centered on her, never reads the handouts I so dutifully write up for everyone, rarely has much if any idea what capabilities any of the characters at the table have, including her own, and when she chats at the table it’s much more likely to be about some celebrity who died or something she saw online than anything about the game. (Moxy is the source of the occasional ipod-at-the-table joke you see in HOLE.) For all that, I would never dream of starting a game without her. Why? She makes my job easy.
When Moxanne makes up a character, she begins filling in that character’s life with enormous detail and humor, which while they probably don’t have anything to do with anything in your campaign world, are all pieces you can pick up to build your adventures around. Now I’m not talking about a formally written character background, Moxy would never do anything like that, but the constant stream of likes, dislikes, mannerisms, and characteristics that flow like water as soon as she becomes the spotlight can effortless make a game. What’s that you say? You hate lizards and you think that wine drinkers are more refined than ale drinkers? Viola! The lizardmen are attacking. They’re here for your cabernet.
It’s always good to have an overarching theme in mind for your game. It doesn’t have to be set in stone, but it helps to serve as backbone for your campaign. However, paying close attention to your players and staying flexible with your stories will serve you better than you think. When a player makes up some silly detail about where the whalebone that her childhood dolly’s eyes were made of came from, only to see that tiny bit of information expand into an adventure for the whole group, the buy-in will be huge, and your fun will go up accordingly.
BTW Moxanne, in case you’re reading this, (which she never does) this is totally about someone else. You’re perfect.