Discovering Stories through Skills and Backgrounds

by Mike Shea on 13 June 2016

We game masters love to tell stories. We have big tales we want to share. We have 3-ring binders filled with worlds waiting to explode out into our games. When PCs enter a new location and study their environment, its easy for us to step back and start describing the thousand-year history of the place, the meaning of the mosaics on the walls, the lineage of the kings now portrayed in bronze sarcophagi formed in their images, and the rich history of cities buried for two thousand years.

This pushes us outside of the point of view of the characters, though. During these explosions of exposition we risk losing the attention of our players because, often, these expositions have nothing to do with them. They're not doing anything in these scenes.

There's a simple trick to handle this. As you know, we lazy dungeon masters love our simple tricks, especially when these simple tricks lead to multiple beneficial outcomes. Other examples of these tricks include sharing secrets, using player-driven characteristics to identify monsters, and empowering player-driven storytelling.

So what is our dirty trick for drawing players into the narrative? Tie the discovery of the narrative to the backgrounds and skills of the PCs. Let the PCs discover the story as they observe the world around them, through their own trained eyes.

Say we have an ancient dwarven outpost with a gateway back to a long-lost dwarven city. Hundreds of years worth of battles have taken place in this outpost. It has statues of ancient dwarf kings. It has mosaics of two thousand years of history.

We can describe all of these things directly. We can step back and talk about the wars that took place here. We can talk about the kings who ruled over this outpost. We can describe the vast magical portal, now dormant, that dominates one side of the chamber. We can watch our players fall asleep or start reaching for their smartphone.

Or we can let the PCs discover these pieces of the environment themselves through skill checks and discoveries based on their background. Sometimes the players might ask to do it directly ("I want to study this wall, is there anything I can understand from it?") or we can give it to them indirectly ("Argon, during your time as a sailor you learned all about the ships of Lusken. You know this one is flying the flag of Ship Kurth").

Here's an example of what we might say if we're NOT tying the narrative to the backgrounds and skills of the PCs:

Detailed mosaics cover the walls of these ancient dwarven halls. Bronze statues stand in alcoves, each depicting dwarven kings in ancient armor thousands of years old. A huge portal dominates one side of the chamber, detailed runes outlining the stone archway. Within the chamber lies piles of bones, dwarves who appear to have battled other dwarves. Some of these dwarves appear to have fought in the typical style of shield dwarves while a great many others fought with poor tactics and wild abandon. The skulls of these wild dwarves appear cracked around the nostrils—a sign of manipulation by mind flayers.

This isn't a horrible narrative but likely you saw some of the problems with it. None of it has anything to do with the PCs. Here's a different way we can do this.

Brothon, your training in history and heritage as a dwarf helps you identify the mosaics depicted on these walls as that of the Delzoun dwarves, dating back over 2,000 years ago. You recognize the statues as the dwarven kings of Gauntlgrym who reigned during that time.

Inarik, as you study the large archway your training in the arcane arts gives you a feeling that there is much more to this gateway than meets the eye. Roll an intelligence (arcana) check to learn more.

Alverez, your background as a soldier tells you that this battle between dwarves is quite odd. In your experience fighting alongside dwarves, you see that some of these dwarves fought as shield dwarves while others, a great many others, appear to have fought with wanton abandon against them.

Jadia, as you investigate the skulls on the ground, roll an intelligence (medicine) check. Ok, you rolled a 12, you notice that the skulls of these wild dwarves all appear to be broken around the nostril region.

This sort of description would, in play, be much more interactive. Players would ask questions and, given their backgrounds or skills, you would give them different degrees of answers. This is the difference between simply telling players what is going on in a scene and letting them discover it. This turns narrative exposition into one of the key pillars of the game: exploration.

Using Skills and Backgrounds

You'll notice that the above examples use skills, trained skills, and backgrounds as the interface between PCs and the narrative of the story. We can mix and match these all we want. Sometimes, a background alone gives the PCs access to information. A soldier might know of the battles that took place in these halls. A sage can understand the importance of the gateway. Other times its a skill check. Sometimes we can use both.

Sometimes PCs simply know what is going on while other times they have to roll for it. Of course, don't force a roll for a vital piece of information. If the PCs have to know it, they should just simply discover it. Otherwise skill checks can give them more or less information depending on their roll. There's a great opportunity to use shades of gray instead of all-or-nothing skill checks. Poor rolls can still give PCs vital information while high rolls can reveal much more.

We can even mix skills and backgrounds together. Anyone can perform an intelligence (investigation) check to learn more of the battle that took place here but a character with the soldier background gets advantage on the roll.

Mixing up skill checks and character backgrounds keeps the game fresh. It changes the interface between the PCs and the world they inhabit in interesting ways and it makes players feel like the choices they made for their characters really matter.

Turning Passive Narration into Action

One key advantage for tying narrative to the skills and backgrounds of the PCs is that it turns typically passive narration into actions taken by their characters. They aren't just learning things, they are the ones seeking out information. They're walking around the halls. They're picking up skulls. They're studying glyphs on the walls and matching them with glyphs they have in an old tome.

They're doing something.

Doing things, acting, is what draws players into the game. The more opportunity we have to move the story, even tell the story, through the actions of the PCs, the more interested our players will be. It doesn't even matter if that story is 2,000 years old as long as its the PCs who discover it or remember it.

Letting PCs Own the Narrative

There's another advantage to tying the narrative to PC skill checks and backgrounds. It takes the narrative which you possess and gives it to the players. It becomes their narrative. It's their PC who knew about the dwarf kings. It's their PC who discovered the skulls of the mind flayer thralls. It's their character who knew the fighting style of the shield dwarves or could read the ancient dwarven magical runes on the portal. These bits of exposition become part of their character instead of just flavor painted onto the walls.

They might even build their own sub-quests based on what they discover and we'd be foolish not to let them do so. If they can take something they discovered and turn it into a quest for their character, we can take that and run with it. Now we know it's something they're directly interested in that we can fill out in the rest of our game.

Forcing Us to Focus on the PCs

This sort of exposition also forces us to remember what the PCs are about. If we reveal information based on their backgrounds we have to know what those backgrounds are. We begin to learn more about the PCs as our players tell us about them, how they know something, what they think about something, and what they care about.

Another Dirty Trick in the Toolbox

Tying the narrative of our game to the skills and backgrounds of the PCs is another fantastic trick for opening up our game and ensuring that each of the PCs, and the players who run them, have a direct stake in what happened, what is happening, and what is going to happen. The more the game focuses on their PCs, the more invested they will be and the more fun we'll all have at the table.

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