Incorporating backstory as a GM
It’s one thing to help a player create a backstory and add its details into your world, but it’s a whole other process to actually incorporate that backstory into your storytelling.
Not every backstory is going to spawn it’s own adventure. The details of player’s lives may not fit the environment you are working in, and not every character is going to have a plot-ready unsolved mystery in their lives for you to build on. Nonetheless, it’s important to bring elements of their past into play, one way or another. Here is some of my best advice on how to bring backstory into your campaign.
Don’t bring in backstory until later in the campaign. Give the players time to work though unrelated content as they build their characters and vibe as a group. Brining in one person’s special content too early can feel like favoritism, and may bore the other players if they haven’t had time to become invested in the campaign, their fellow characters, and their cohesiveness as a party.
Not all backstory has to be a side quest or plot arc; role playing encounters can be just as powerful as plot. The trick is to bring up something in their past with a twist, either happy, sad, or bittersweet, so they can react to it emotionally and not just take it in stride. If they have living relatives (or a significant other), have them visit the town they lived in, or send them news from home calling them back. Send them a letter announcing a big event: the death of a parent, birth of a niece or nephew, or divorce papers from an estranged spouse (any of which can be turned into a quest arc if you want!). If they have a close friend they haven’t seen in awhile, you can bring them in at a chance meeting in a bar, or on trial for something they didn’t do, or as a henchman of whatever force the party is fighting. You can lead the party to a location significant to the character, causing them to have a flashback or emotional moment that causes them to open up to the other players. None of these encounters have to lead to a greater story, but the moment will be something the players remember that adds depth and emotion to the game.
If a character does have a backstory element that connects well to your main quest (or can set up something down the road), use it! Main quest involves a powerful and mysterious magic user, and one of the party was orphaned at a young age by someone of a similar description? Make them one and the same. Someone had a tragic event take place in some ancient ruins and the party is supposed to pick up a quest that will lead them to some ruins? Same ruins. Character grew up in the area that your big bad down the road originated from? Give them some seemingly inconsequential information about their native area that will come into play when they finally encounter that plot arc. The more connected they feel to the world, the more they will want to play in it.
Be creative when coming up with side quests. No two players should have their backstory encounters in the same way. Even if two people have similar major events for you to play with, have them turn out differently. Two characters inspired to travel the world because their sister went tragically missing? Turn one into a horrifying kidnap and murder by some evil bad guy that the party has to put right, and one into a trip to the theater where they discover that their sister ran off with a musician and became a famous opera singer far from home. Vary the types of quests and encounters: one a murder mystery, one a standard fetch quest, one an rp encounter where they have to placate angry family, one a horrifying betrayal, and one a monster hunt. It will help each encounter feel special to the player it targets.
The party doesn’t have to encounter the backstory hook. You can place your encounters in locations the party may or may not go to, and don’t have to place breadcrumbs to get them there. If they decide not to fully explore a deep dungeon after defeating it’s former owner, and fail to discover a players old teacher locked away and left to rot, then that’s their problem. If, however, they do find them and realize they could have easily missed them, and then discover that they know important information relating to a larger quest, then it feels like a huge reward. Giving the players the opportunity to miss encounters makes the world feel more random and organic.
Give your players closure. If a character is suffering from an unresolved trauma, give them an arc down the road that gives them the option to change their lives, or begin recovery. Decide where in the story you want to place it: a minor trauma like a fear of goblins can be introduced relatively early in a campaign, but a major personality defining trait like the death of everyone they ever loved should probably come a bit later in the game to give it greater weight (also bear in mind that some character arcs feel completed once their trauma is overcome, so the player may not want to play the character past that point). The closure does not always have to be a direct resolving of an issue; it can just be a life changing moment that gives them the chance to start something new and leave the past behind.
My final piece of advice is this: players may not like what you do with their backstory. They may have a specific idea of a relationship or plot point that they don’t spell out to you, and when you interpret it differently they may struggle to accept it. Do your own interpretation anyway. Be respectful of their ideas, but what they don’t spell out is yours to play with. Surprise them.