Adventure Building: Part 3 – Backstory, Setting and Hooks

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5


In the first article in this series I looked at what you should consider when getting started creating your own adventure. This second article in the series continues the adventure building by looking at Creating a Threat. In the Getting Started article, I listed a bunch of questions to consider. Here are the three related to this article again:

  • What is the backstory for the adventure? What is the history?
  • Where is this adventure going to be set in your world? Where are your players in relation to that setting?
  • How will the players hear about this adventure? What are some hooks you can provide to interest each player?

Backstory / History / Setting

What is the backstory for the adventure?

Most players don’t want to hear a long story at the start of an adventure. Writing a long backstory is a waste of energy you should have spent creating NPCs, encounters and interesting locales. The best adventures and action movies get to the good stuff right away (or after a short intro).

Here are some methods I use to share backstory with players. These are far from the most original and I’m sure there any many others, but they’ll get the job done.

  1. Quick Narration
    A quick narration at the start of the adventure mainly answers the where they are, how they got there and why there are there. In the Lost Mine of Phandelver four paragraphs of background are provided to the DM for background knowledge. The players are introduced to the adventure with just a short paragraph and a half of descriptive text before they are in their first battle. I’ll use the descriptive text technique when I am running modules, one-shots or even for some short 2-3 session adventures. This technique assumes the players are already on the adventure and you don’t have to push them to grab an adventure hook.
  2. The Storyteller
    A bard or another NPC tells a story or sings a song that provides some background for the adventure. Most people dismiss the story as an old legend, but one NPC believes it for some reason. To share some backstory with my players while they were in a port for some quick repairs, I had a bard recite the poem below. It’s nothing too inspired, but it gets the information to the players, that there might be a big golden treasure in this little town. That night the players also learned that there was an election for mayor the next day and that tours were available for their local haunted house. I did not have an NPC ask them to help them find the treasure, but the seed was planted.

    Captain Black Bart’s blood flowed like ice
    Never has there lived a pirate as fierce and bold.
    On a new moon he and his crew quietly sailed,
    And luck found them a Taevaran ship full of gold.

    In the pitch night the pirates murdered every sailor,
    Claiming the golden crowns as their ill gotten prize.
    Word spread and all ports were unsafe for the crew,
    A large bounty paid for each of them dead or alive.

    Chased and hunted by ships from every port,
    These pirates were forced to find somewhere to hide.
    Captain Bart found a secret cave in these very waters
    Its caverns reachable only when the sea is at low tide.

    With the golden treasure hidden safely from all
    To freedom and the open sea the pirates tried to get.
    Cornered by a hundred ships with no escape,
    Giving no surrender the cannonball Bart’s crew met.

    The pirates were defeated and only one survived, 
    Offered a pardon and share to help recover the gold.
    But the pirate died old in a prison of the crown,
    The location of the cave entrance he never told.

  3. NPC Tells Them the Backstory
    A crazy old man, town drunk, poor woman, mysterious wizard, etc. is looking for help. This NPC tells them their story of woe revealing the adventure backstory along the way. They players are promised payment, treasure or nothing but thanks for their help. For some players, this type of backstory and hook combination can be a bit heavy handed and they will reject the adventure. But you can use this to your advantage, faking them out with the first hook and providing another hook that requires the players to know the same backstory.
  4. Player’s Find the Backstory
    Let your player’s find the story themselves. Maybe you reveal a mysterious threat to the players. Your players will have to discover the lost history to find clues on how to find and defeat the threat. A trip to visit the ancient library, sage, old crone can be a quest in itself.
  5. A Player Reveals the Backstory
    An experienced player can act like an NPC and deliver the backstory for you. Let the player know about about the backstory. Maybe they are a lore expert or their family has a history that is involved. Let the PC can share the history and backstory in a social encounter with the other PCs (versus having the GM push it to the players). My dream is to run a campaign where each PC gets a chance during the campaign to share a backstory that ties into their character’s past and into the adventure that is in front of them. As a bonus you should have a pretty compelling hook.

What is the history?

Your adventure can be set in a place rich in history. The players just need to know what is related to the adventure. Your ancient empires and lost civilizations do not need to go to waste. Better than telling someone about the long history of a place is to show them. Let them feel like the world has seen empires rise and fall. Have older NPCs talk about the past as a passing comment, let the PCs learn the history they need to know as the adventure progresses. Have your PCs find ancient ruins. Create a frontier town that is built on top of the ruins of the great city of the past.

Where is this adventure going to be set in your world? Where are your players in relation to that setting?

As I mentioned in the first part of this series, any genre can fit any setting. So get creative with your settings. Having your entire adventure take place in one setting is weak. Make sure you have your players shifting from place to place. Even the classic adventure starts in a tavern, travels across the wilderness, ending up in a dungeon. If you are running an adventure in a city, have them travel around the city from location to location to location.

When world building, you can develop a massive world. Your adventure is set in a small part (or parts) of that world and you only need to detail those parts to serve the adventure. Whatever settings your select, make sure you bring them to life with memorable details.

  • A dungeon isn’t just a bunch of gray stonework, what about the running water, the skeleton in chains, the crack in the stone floor and rumbling from deep below. Each room should have something that makes it special. Just 1-2 details can be enough to turn an 8×8 room into a memorable place.
  • A city is not and endless maze of identical buildings. Create monuments, arguing shopkeepers and specific traits for each neighborhood. Your players will naturally fill in the background of your city, but give them some details to break up the scrolling background.
  • For your jungle temple, abandoned castle or pirate port make sure your setting and its specific places are memorable too.
  • Don’t be afraid to bring in things you would typically find in a setting and don’t be afraid to do your own thing. Deep in the jungle your players should encounter vines, waterfalls, rushing rivers, quicksand and giant snakes… but what if they find a polar bear in the jungle like in the TV show LOST.

Can’t decide on which settings? Roll for some below.

Adventure Settings d20
1 On the Road
2 Ancient Forest
3 Metropolitan City
4 Classic Dungeon
5 Lord’s Mansion
6 Fortress
7 Castle/Palace
8 Port Town
9 Village
10 Shantytown
11 Military Camp
12 Laboratory
13 Library
14 On the Sea
15 Caves/Caverns
16 Catacombs
17 Temple/Church
18 Wilderness
19 Far Off/Exotic Land
20 Tavern/Inn

Hooks

What are some hooks you can provide to interest each player?

I mentioned some ways to share backstory with players above. You can share hooks at the same time or let the players discover their reason for going on the adventure on their own by finding clues and talking to NPCs.

A great hook should:

  1. introduce a threat
  2. tie into the backstory of the adventure
  3. tie into the backstory of the players
  4. offer a outcome (reward) the players desire

Here are some example random hooks I found running a random generator that are classic. If a hook hits all four of the above it should work, regardless of what technique you use to deliver it.

  • Old Enemy
    Your party or a specific PC learns that an old enemy is back in town and up to their old tricks. If your recurring villain has established themselves as someone the players dislike and want to stop, it should not be hard to get them to grab onto this hook. Make sure to be clear what the positive outcome would be such as the final defeat of the villain, saving the village from her evil plot, getting to the treasure before the villain, etc. For extra fun, have the “Old Enemy” establish themselves in a trusted position of privilege or some other frustrating way to prevent access to the villain.
  • Old Friend
    A recurring NPC the players like or someone from the past of one of the PCs shows up and needs their help. Unless the players are heartless bastards, the PCs should rush to the aid of their friend. This is super fun when you get to be “that GM” and kill the “Old Friend” later in the adventure or have the “Old Friend” actually be a minor or major villain.
  • Dying Delivery
    The party of PCs are wandering into a new town or down the street from their home, when a dying man almost bumps into one of them. Lying on the ground dying (or exhausted)… they hand a PC a letter or whisper a few words, then they die (or collapse). I used this hook for a holiday adventure where one of Santa’s elves barely makes it to town to ask for help to stop Krampus (and save the holiday too).
  • Pressing Buttons
    Look at the goals of your group (or a single PC) and create a hook that lets them pursue that goal. The only issue is that an advisory will try to stop the efforts of the heroes as a side effect of pursuing their own villainous goals. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) begins with Indiana Jones successfully acquiring the idol only to be forced to give it up to Belloq.

 

We’ll look at how to create the adventure in the next article in this series.

For some extra fun try out this random adventure generator

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Shawn Ellsworth

Shawn is an author and co-founder of Tribality.com. He first got into tabletop RPGs through ninjas and then by playing a Kender in Dragonlance. Years later, he can be found running games in the Nentir Vale and his own Seas of Vodari campaign setting.