Getting Those NPC Backstories Out There


How do other GM's reveal the interesting backstories of those NPC's well-written into the AP's?

Case-in-point: "Cinnabar" from Curse of the Crimson Throne: great backstory, but like so many other NPC's we conjure up, where and how do we tell their stories during the adventure?

I have some tools of my own, but I'd like to open things up and hear from others.

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Usually I don't get a chance to until after they're dead, unfortunately, if then.

I should totally create a new spell called "Reveal Backstory" and give it to every caster for free.

Liberty's Edge

I usually don't bother per se, unless they have a reason to talk about themselves. I just use it to inform their actions. Which makes them come across as real people with their own needs and desires, and is thus exceedingly useful in its own right.

Grand Lodge

During meals in game or intimate time like when most of us reveal what makes us tick, long trips work as i "haze" over time i say you talked about this or that.

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With antagonist - yeah, good luck with that, they're usually dead before they can say "my name is Inigo Mon-URK ...".
Sometimes heavy-handed foreshadowing can work.
because our game has a bit of a Van Hellsing-vibe, the players often find themselves sniffing around in whatever area they arrive in, looking for traces of the BBEG. I often sneak in some exposition or rumers about local threats where I can.

With npcs that they meet along the way I usually just play the character according to his or her personality, but I reward any player that gets curious about idosyncracies and ticks with skill checks - results=info.

Taking a page from other RPGs I've stopped "allowing" genreral social skill checks: if a player says he wants to roll Diplomacy I stop him and ask:
"what is it you are trying to accomplish here: do you want info? their trust? do you want them to do something? do you want the answer to something specific in their background?"etc

and then I ask them "how are you doing this; what's your tactic? do you threathen, bribe? do you talk about the weather for 30mins then sucker punch them with a direct question when their guard is down? do you take them out drinking and then when you've bonded over booze and women sneak in an innocent request or question?" etc

So far it's working great, now I'm trying to get the Ranger to stop saying "I Stealth" with the follow up question "you sneak where? how?"
-seriously, "I Stealth" is barely a sentence, and it gives me fu**all to work with. it also gives me the impression of somebody hitting a button STEALTH IS NOT INVISIBILITY /Rant

Rynjin wrote:

I should totally create a new spell called "Reveal Backstory" and give it to every caster for free.


School divination ; Level bard 0, sorcerer/wizard 0, cleric 0
Casting Time 1 standard action
Components V, S, M (remote control w/subtitles button or a word balloon from a comic book)
Range close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Target one humanoid
Duration 1 min./level (D)
Save no; SR no

Upon casting, Reveal Backstory causes all actions to pause as though Time Stop were cast. The subject then begins explaining what brought them to the current combat scene, and may include anecdotes about their childhood abuses and their relationship with their current employer.

The divine casting of Reveal Backstory will have a booming voice manifest and explain the target's actions in third-person.

When complete, time speeds back up and actions continue normally.


LuxuriantOak wrote:
With antagonist - yeah, good luck with that, they're usually dead before they can say "my name is Inigo Mon-URK ...".

This got a laugh out of me.

Yes, well, Crimson Throne is an urban adventure, and so I wanted to use the setting to exploit non-combat ways of building tension, like the generous use of Intimidate (like in gangster movies), and Diplomacy --especially the use of the Social Combat deck (although I've learned there are times when it just slows things down). I actually allow Diplomacy during combat on certain occasions (despite the 1 minute rule), as I think it allows a certain dialogue for exposition or negotiation-- like fencers having a repartee, or jedi sneering at one another.

I've gotten to sliding little bits of back story into character's appearances like "You notice she's wearing barbed armor of masterwork quality...a gift from her master upon reaching 7th level in her unholy studies of Zon-Kuthon" etc. The PC's have no way of knowing this, but it lends a nice context to things so long as I'm not giving away important information.

I'll sometimes hint around while they're doing Gather Information or Perception checks that there are deeper secrets to be found, and then encourage Knowledge checks. I think I'm doing all right with it, but there are sometimes GREAT AND AWESOME things Paizo's authors have written-in that I just don't have the opportunity to expose to the group.

Thanks for your answers, everyone!

Silver Crusade

I dunno. Backstories are important, they develop the character and help to show his motivations as well as providing with information on how the guy behaves but...

The players don't really need to know. Dumping too much backstory on folks can feel like you're trying to guilt them for putting these (and most people in APs with Es in their alignment are) a******s in the ground.

A better way for revealing backstories is through found documents, letters showing relationships or more importantly, heroes seeking for information and weaknesses.

A lot of AP villains are guys who the heroes don't meet until they go to location A, and who tend to be curled up on the ground like crispy cockroaches by the time the heroes go to Location B. Generally, only the recurring baddies deserve any time for exploration of who and what they are.

What really matters is the villain's history with the PCs, what he was doing before the game started is secondary.

Generally speaking I don't try to reveal the back story, but it is certainly nice to have it should the players go looking for it. Of course in my games I find that the players seem to mostly miss even important plot clues, let alone have the curiosity to investigate anyone.

RPG Superstar 2013 Top 32

Legacy of Fire is full of this. There were 2 NPCs in House of the Beast that I can think of that had a whole page of back story, and their role in the story was to attack the players without any attempt at parley. One lasted exactly one attack, from a raging barbarian crit. There's at least one such long back story in The Jackal's Price, as well, that has no chance at all of coming out in play.

I guess if the players decided to subdue the NPCs, they might have gotten into some of their past, but most parties I've seen meet deadly force with deadly force. And for the most part, the NPCs' back stories in House of the Beast don't really add anything.

If I really wanted to give NPC back story I might follow the advice of Sly Flourish (and Spook205) who suggests leaving journal pages around for the PCs to find. In that way, they can piece together enough of the NPC's story that they get a whole picture of the guy. That way, if they decide to initiate a parley, they might pull some piece of his past out and try to stop the fight with it. But I don't really see either of my groups wanting to stop a fight with an evil NPC who attacks them first.

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