Writing idea: Letting players make characters before story is written. Has anyone done it?


Pathfinder First Edition General Discussion


I have recently been looking into writing my first Pathfinder campaign, I was wondering if any DMs have previously allowed their players to write their backstories before writing plot? if so how did it work out?

I have been flirting with the idea a lot recently, and feel if successful it could really make the player characters get immersed from the get-go.


I did this a month or so ago. Ultimately, most of the players wanted a basic idea of the setting before going along with making their characters. I'd say, tell them what you have in mind for the basic setting. Like the state of technology in the campaign, the kind of religion(s) in the world, the style of governments and countries, amount of magic etc etc.

Once I gave my players this info they were able to move forth and make characters. And from then on we refined the game world from a concept to something more concrete. And then in my spare time I crafted the story. This works well if you all meet up for a session to just make characters and do the world building.


I've had a DM write his campaign taking into account the background notes given to him by the players, and had only displeasure from it, he decimated my character's family, I had to destroy my parents zombified remains and kill my favorite sister who had become the one of the BBEG's leman and apprentice... the campaign is currently on hold and I'm not at all anxious to resume it.


Isn't this just including pieces of your PCs backstory into the narrative? Or do you mean letting PCs write part of the setting/plot that lead up to the campaign?

Because if it's the former, I do it all the darn time. The latter is a bit harder if you're using a published setting like Golarion but it's easily workable (and greatly helped by some Traits)


I do this all the time [except in recent playtesting efforts with Paizo Adventure Paths.]

The story evolves from the player characters. From their backstories, from their goals/objectives and from their actions.


I've never* written a plot for any of the campaigns I've run. I rely almost entirely on content generated by my players, and wing the rest.

*I did it once with my first session I ever ran, but the players jumped the rails at the very first encounter.


Klorox wrote:
I've had a DM write his campaign taking into account the background notes given to him by the players, and had only displeasure from it, he decimated my character's family, I had to destroy my parents zombified remains and kill my favorite sister who had become the one of the BBEG's leman and apprentice... the campaign is currently on hold and I'm not at all anxious to resume it.

That's a violation of rule 00-zero. Don't be a dick.

A little bit of milking the background is good, but doing *both* of those to a single character is going too far.


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That could be an interesting way to go, especially if you give them just enough information to help them make compatible characters.

Anyway -- if, for example, you want to limit the number of exotic races in your campaign, you could exclude from your setting most such races not mentioned in any player character's background. In this case, you have not limited your players' creativity -- instead, you have used their decisions to help build your world.

But, as a GM, I would be hesitant to play around too much with a PC's family if the player did not leave the family members in question as loose ends. Too much of that sort of thing is exactly what drives many players to create characters who are orphans and loners.


Domestichauscat wrote:

I did this a month or so ago. Ultimately, most of the players wanted a basic idea of the setting before going along with making their characters. I'd say, tell them what you have in mind for the basic setting. Like the state of technology in the campaign, the kind of religion(s) in the world, the style of governments and countries, amount of magic etc etc.

Once I gave my players this info they were able to move forth and make characters. And from then on we refined the game world from a concept to something more concrete. And then in my spare time I crafted the story. This works well if you all meet up for a session to just make characters and do the world building.

This is exactly what I had in mind!

Good to hear that it works.


If I'm debuting a new setting, I will often give the players a rough outline of what's going on, and ask for character backstories that are as detailed as possible ensuring them that anything they need to make the backstory works will be part of the setting. If you have creative players, the sheer volume of stuff they're going to invent is a good way to help populate and define a game setting.

Even if it's an existing setting, I will usually ask for backstories because the map is full of places that aren't particularly well defined, and this will help me define the little villages or the various academies etc. in big cities that haven't been filled in on the map yet.


There are actually systems for shared history/world-building to be done before beginning the actual campaign. It might be worth taking a look at such systems if you're interested in experimenting with such a thing. (I believe they're generally called X-ville Pathways due to the Smallville RPG popularizing the idea, or at least their variant of the idea. So I've heard of Smallville Pathways, Dresdenville Pathways, the above-linked Heroville Pathways, etc.)


I learned to do this a long time ago, when I created my first campaign world. I gave them the background and history of the setting then told them to tailor their backstories and characters to fit the theme. That way the players felt more a part of the world than they might have otherwise.


As a player I would be all for this. Especially if it's a little collaborative as suggested above: give them enough info so that they have characters that "fit" into the larger story, and then develop plot details that incorporate what they come up with. It's a great idea.


Klorox wrote:
he decimated my character's family, I had to destroy my parents zombified remains and kill my favorite sister who had become the one of the BBEG's leman and apprentice... the campaign is currently on hold and I'm not at all anxious to resume it.

Holy hell! A GM should talk to you first before doing something like this.


kyrt-ryder wrote:
Klorox wrote:
I've had a DM write his campaign taking into account the background notes given to him by the players, and had only displeasure from it, he decimated my character's family, I had to destroy my parents zombified remains and kill my favorite sister who had become the one of the BBEG's leman and apprentice... the campaign is currently on hold and I'm not at all anxious to resume it.

That's a violation of rule 00-zero. Don't be a dick.

A little bit of milking the background is good, but doing *both* of those to a single character is going too far.

I couldn't agree more.


Hogdas wrote:

I have recently been looking into writing my first Pathfinder campaign, I was wondering if any DMs have previously allowed their players to write their backstories before writing plot? if so how did it work out?

I have been flirting with the idea a lot recently, and feel if successful it could really make the player characters get immersed from the get-go.

It's generally better for the players to have an idea of the background setting. That way they can create characters that are organically part of the campaign, which allows for greter versimilitude.

The Player Guides of the various AP's have great examples on how to do this.


I was in a campaign where the GM had a basic idea and n the world setting, and had a one shot 20th lvl session against a BBEG. The events of that session were used to establish some important background events around the BBEG and a mcguffin.

The rest of the campaign was set decades in the future, with all new characters that started MUCH slower in level. Possibly at lvl 1, although I had (sadly) joined this world mid campaign.


The past couple of games I've ran, almost the entirety of the story I came up with was saved until *after* I knew about the characters the players would be playing. The main story of my Savage Worlds Space Explorers campaign is about discovering what happened to this ancient empire that made extensive use of magi-technology, and that's largely because the players ended up making characters from two competing organizations coming together to fund this expeditionary team, an arcane academy and a tech based military group. I went with the empire I did because of the theme of magic vs technology my party already provided.

My upcoming 13th Age game, I knew going in that I wanted a game that had the feel of a Japanese RPG (think Final Fantasy and the like). Within that context, my group came up with the basic premise for the campaign, the world, and even the main villain. I just filled in the blanks, put the bits together, and figured out the details.

Even before that, with my Warhammer Fantasy game, I went in with a particular story in mind but events in play demanded that I change it. I've since decided that I want the players to have maximum input into the game, because they invariably come up with better stuff than I do. :P

Shadow Lodge

I do most of my plotting after getting the players' character concepts.

You do want to have something to guide the players in creating those characters, but it doesn't have to be more than a basic setting/premise (crusaders at the Worldwound, arctic explorers).

We also like to bounce character background ideas between player and GM a few times in order to really refine how the character will fit into the setting.


I always wait till players have made their characters before I start to to make plothooks and adventure ideas, especially since I run a sandbox campaign.

Dark Archive

I have always run a some what basic sand box old school style game. Based round the original 1st Edition AD&D style of play. I have also taken ideas and the feeling using Skyrim, so with all that guff out of the way, I tend to allow my players to make characters by them selves and have a fairly simple point form of history this way I can tag in story plots.

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