Design Notes: Party & Backstory Exercise
It has been a busy day of writing! We're expecting to move into the Corruption of Saint Barberra campaign with Zweihänder Grim & Perilous RPG come Sunday! To that end, I've been trying to figure out how to build a more cohesive group web of connections and backstory among our group. With that in mind, I drafted up this exercise as a shorthand zero session for the table. The campaign guide itself has appendices with printouts, but that is far from complete.
If you're starting a new campaign, how do you encourage relationships between characters? What kind of backstory do you incorporate into the game world? Zweihänder has several mechanics to encourage play that revolves around character choices, which I am very much looking forward to! I will probably include a section about the excellent alignment choices and drawbacks in the Zweihänder rulebook can tie into elements of the game. The addition of curious, otherworldly sidequests also opens up ways to do this. And I am so excited!
Anyway, here is a rough draft excerpt from the campaign guide. Enjoy!
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As chapter one begins moving immediately, it may be recommended to encourage backstory creation as described here. Much of this is inspired by the excellent game Fiasco from Jason Morningstar and Bully Pulpit Games, but is somewhat modified for Zweihänder. Tables have been provided, though players are encouraged to make choices themselves. You can also use the handouts in the back of the book for this.
Between each seat of the table provide two notecards. Each notecard should include one of the following titles in roughly equal numbers and no pair between each seat should be the same: Relationship, Desire, Place, and Thing. At the center of the table you may wish to include these examples:
Family by Marriage: You are bound by married family members. Who are the family members?
Employment: You have worked together in the past. What was the job?
Friendship: You have an amicable connection. What do you like about each other?
Troublemakers: Whenever the two of you are together, you get into mischief. What sort of mischief?
Rivals: You are constant trying to one-up the other. What was the most recent contest and how did it go?
Inn: You stayed in the same inn last night. Name it and a staff person or people.
Hometown: You grew up in the same place. Name it and describe that place.
Training: You have trained in the same place, even if to different degrees. What was the training?
Rock & A Hard Place: One of you needed a hand and the other helped. Who helped whom and how?
Waterlogged: You nearly drowned in the same locale. Where was it and how did you get to safety?
Cold, Hard Cash: You both are seeking coin, the more the better. What would each of you spend it on?
Chasing the Dragon: You have a itch you can’t scratch, a hunger you can’t fill. You both long for a particular intoxicant, what is it?
Treatment: You’ve got a mole that needs looked at or a ghost on your shoulder or some other issue. What ailment do you wish to have relieved?
Mystery: You two are privy to some dogged question, some unknown. What is the inquiry the two of you share?
Glory: You both long for glamour and prestige. What hero or idol of historical, personal, or mythic nature do each of you celebrate?
Something to Fence: You both have something of value to sell. What is it and who has it now?
Something Dangerous: You both have something potentially damaging. What is it and from whom did you take it?
Something Beautiful: You share something that is beautiful. What is it and where did it come from?
Something Intoxicating: You both have and appreciate a particular intoxicant. What is it and how much do you have?
Something Dead: Uh oh, what is it and why do you still have it?
Allow players to introduce their characters while standing; once they’ve done so, allow them to sit wherever they would like, taking note that characters will have stronger relationships to those next to whom they sit. Once they’ve all sat down, allow players to choose which notecard best suits the connection to the player on one side, then on the other. For characters with deeper backstories, players may have a relationship card and one of the other notecards available to them as best suits the table. If that is the case, players will be strongly encouraged to create more relationships than what are provided here. Once players sit, write character names on either side of the notecard, writing sideways if preferred.
Then, once the card or cards have been selected, allow each player to describe, claim, or roll for the descriptor for that notecard. In the case of a relationship, rolling a “3” results in the characters having a friendship, despite or because of their differences. These two get along better and may have gotten into scrapes before. If a player rolls a “6,” then they will roll again and claim a new card to better define their relationship with that player through an additional relationship, place, desire, or thing notecard. This can happen multiple times just as Fury Dice rolled in Zweihänder. This “explosion” is optional, but is a fun way to see backstories develop in curious ways. Record the results of these rolls on the notecards. Notecards should now have a title, names of the associated character, and the details of that particular title category. Go around again, allowing either player to describe their connection to their neighbor encouraging flourishes and roleplay for the telling.
Throughout this process, the Game Master should take notes and keep track of these cards. They can be used to incorporate shared backstory elements such as characters and places, or push players with roleplaying opportunity such as earning spare coin or pursuing questions. Also take the time to identify character alignments for plenty to tie specific characters to the story.
Lastly, if a new character joins the table as the result of a starting character being killed or a new player jumping in, you can repeat this process quickly with one other player or take the time to tie them in to more than one. Of course, this particular character will be in the dark of the story so far, but they at least have history to draw from!
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One final note, I absolutely loved this Gen Con Panel Discussion from the One Shot Podcast Network. So much of what they're talking about and the deeply satisfying six part Kids on Bikes One Shot actual play have my head buzzing with deep, fun characters and game worlds. I haven't checked it out myself, but you may be interested in James D'Amato's new book!