So I read a lot of reviews on Ten Foot Pole, and am pretty familiar with Mr. Lynch's standards over there – especially his overwhelming hatred of backstory, boxed text and excessive plot. I largely agree with these sentiments. Read aloud text for example is a way published adventures make players tune out, and a way antagonistic GM conceal “gotcha!" traps or encounters. Likewise, excessive plot leads to railroads where clumsy efforts to make PCs act in certain ways that the players don’t want their avatars to act frustrate everyone. Background is often a waste of space and GM time in published adventures especially when it makes it hard to incorporate them into one’s own game. Yet, on background I have some contrary observations. Specifically, my players seem to want background, and I have been thinking about how to introduce it into play, but more to what extent background is useful in a product.
|Makes a great Dungeon...
but don't make me watch all of Starblazers to run it.
So backstory isn’t just the adventure hook – adventure hooks are darn useful but aren’t always that necessary (digression follows).
The best Adventure hooks basically come in the form of rumors/information about a location of interest or some kind of patron that asks the party to solve a problem of some kind. The key to the first kind of hook is having the location placed as one of many on a map and sprinkling a few clues to it (the players are looking for adventure after all – they will seek it out). The key to the second is creating NPCs that the characters feel like helping and/or a reward that makes it seem worthwhile. For a GM there is potential for a great deal of annoyance in these sorts of hooks, because one needs to have several prepared. Players are likely to decide the one location that the GM has prepared for the session sounds dumb, dangerous or uninteresting and instead follow up some casual mention the GM made several sessions ago. The published adventure location is great in this situation when it can be dropped on a map, a few rumors spread and if the party decides to ignore it, there's not a huge loss of effort.
There are other hooks of course, such as starting in the midst of things – “You wake up in a cell” is a classic that never gets old (but really only works in the initial session). Hooks are great, but the more complex they are the more likely they are to fail – and as with all things preplanned by the GM, a hook that require the players take a certain set of actions is almost doomed to fail as planned, because the fun of a roleplaying game is that the players get to decide where the narrative goes and the GM gets to decide how the game world reacts.
Background is something different. Background in a published adventure is scene setting and explanation of where and why there is something to interact with. Bad background in published adventures tends to be bad because it takes up too much space (and presumably also the authors' efforts) that could be used on more useful or interesting things. It’s doubly dubious because huge chunks of background make a module hard to incorporate into one’s existing game without scads of rewriting, and scads of writing, re or otherwise, is not why most GMs of my acquaintance use published materials.
At the same time, too little background is almost worse than too much. The games I like to play are about exploration, wonder and strangeness. One of the best parts of wonder, strangeness and exploration is figuring out why and how something is in the game world and how it connects to the rest of that world. Without context, a dungeon is just a series of puzzles, rewards and enemies.
For example, when the players find the giant buried flying saucer that makes up the 6th level of the dungeon, one wants this to be an accomplishment, not simply a scenery change. The players should both have things make more sense - “Ah that’s why there were alien astronaut tombs!” - and have had some idea/hints of what was coming - “Duh, the fallen star of squamous silver was a ship not a gem!” In my ASE game the players are still pretty baffled about the dungeon’s purpose and place in the world, and with ASE the information may be slow in coming. This situation creates some frustration that isn't really a good thing, because it discourages player investment in the game - I have been trying to fit more context into ASE's first level, because while context is there in the published adventure - it unfolds slowly.
Still, too little background is rare. I have a suspicion that when writing up adventure locales background just starts to accrue in the writer's mind – after all one needs to create explanations and relationships among the rooms, treasures and inhabitants (well one should) to write them. The question for a published location is how to make that background useful to the person using the adventure, not just the self-indulgent maunderings of the writer. I think the key is keeping it vague, simple and relevant to the actual adventure. Background makes great scene dressing. This doesn't mean cliched and boring, just because the background is sparse and designed be slipped into many game worlds doesn't mean it should be cliched and dreary. Being background light is not an excuse for writing another adventure about a lair of orcs in an old tomb attacking caravans but secretly working for a Necromancer ... anyone with a piece of graph paper and the basic rulebook can knock that adventure out, even as they run it.
So the point is making colorful background that adds mystery, provides a sense of discovery without wasting space or ideas that could be used making a better adventure.
It's beneficial for background to create a sense of place, as it makes it much easier to describe something if one has a few adjectives and ideas to fall back on and a simple narrative of why a place looks and feels how it does. Yet these hints and details shouldn’t require an entire fantasy world or history to support him. Lets say you have a bronze age warlords tomb. It’s okay that the tomb is bronze age - despite the cliched nature of the idea (and bronze age is really just a fill in for old and more primitive), and it’s also okay to do some background here: the warlord used to rule many places – treasures entombed from far lands, cursed by his enemies to everlasting unlife etc. This background shouldn't give the GM reading it a headache though, it's a simple place - the lineage, history of the warlords empire, and mechanisms of his rule are useless (unless the effect actual play, and then keep them short). I would go so far in this sort of minimal background as to put only names in published adventures that are simple and descriptive (unless in support of specific game world) and this means avoiding silly fantasy names. “The Cursed Warlord” is a better name than “Hectorias Khan Master of the Eromescian Peoples” not just because it’s easier to remember and understand, but because it can be easily papered over by whatever campaign world gloss one wants.
Furthermore, one needn't be too explicit here, especially with stock concepts such as tombs of ancient warlords (not that there's anything inherently wrong with such an adventure). Simple adventure concepts allow better visualization, because the descriptions flow naturally from the players and GM's own preexisting understanding and visions of such places or things. Backstory isn't needed to explain exactly why an ancient tomb is full of undead in corroded bronze armor, but it can add a fair bit of feeling to know how that armor looks and that the undead all utter a certain battle cry. Additionally, one need not know everything as the GM or even the writer of a module, e.g. why the tomb's undead all have triangles on their shields and shout "The Swine Will Feed!" in some near forgotten dialect. The story of these undead grave guards is likely interesting to someone, but for the purpose of an adventure the story is the player characters dealing with them - still the dressing and battle cry should be there, as this sort of detail creates background and the sense (or perhaps false impression) of a complex world.
A sense of place can also be created simply by repeated decorative themes (dungeon dressing), without forcing the GM or the players to understand an entire fictional history. In the real world there are entire late neolithic cultures that are known only by the similarities in their grave goods and style of pottery - one should steal this sort of thing to create consistency, which is itself a form of back story. The strange crown depicted atop the monumental sculpture signifies something when it's later discovered on the head of an angry wight deep in the tomb. Something like the crown (or just the symbol on it) can be dropped in several sessions later and some astute player will become happy and excited because they recognize it and are able to draw links between disparate things in the game world. The players may just ignore these connections, but even then having some general descriptive elements to fall back on in a dungeon is always good for the GM. If the GM knows that the builders of the tomb were rather fond of decorating things with triangles (which have shown up on all the pillars previously perhaps) and some player wants to know more about the carvings on a treasure chest (labeled "carved chest" in the module) the GM can easily ad lib "The chest is carved with a geometric design of interlocked triangles" without having to think too much or too fast and suddenly the adventure locale seems more real.
This sort of detailed showing of background is usually sufficient to create interest and the (often false) impression that a back story of some interest exists. There need not really be a back story there though, because if the story of the locale emerges as important later the GM or even the players can make that up later - say when the GM decides to run a forgotten temple and slips in a bloodthirsty pig god whose cult wears triangle symbols. Description, clues and motifs don't need to lead anywhere though, mysteries can remain unfathomable, and it's certainly not the place of a module writer to explain the mysteries of everyone's campaign world to them. By building in numerous throw-away bits of color (it needn't all be ancient history - for this reason IOUs from moderately distant merchants/nobles make great treasure) that can lead to further investigation if the players want to follow them up into a published module even a module writer can help expand the game world and aid the GM, and where these bits are disposable there's no need to overwhelm the GM's own worldbuilding concepts.
This isn't to say everything has to be done by gesture, a few sentence of what and why a location exists is very helpful in a GM's introduction, because it contextualizes the monsters, treasures and location feel. Knowing that an ancient fortress was destroyed by magical plague gives one a better feel of what might be left behind and why the walls are intact. Knowing exactly when that happened (rather than "several generations ago" or "last spring") and how the plague spread from cattle brought from the distant Empire of the Doolimino Elves is superfluous even for a GM who is reading the module for pleasure or to plunder occasional ideas.
Where larger bits of backstory are necessary (as clues to puzzles, or for the player who likes world building) it's best to stick them directly into the adventure - as murals, as diaries discovered or the stories of survivors. Still, keep this reasonably short and avoid box text and text handouts. While a treasure map handout is the coolest thing, twelves pages of diary to hunt through for clues printed in script font on a greyish text box with crumple lines is not. Also I don't like making backstory key to the adventure. Sure maybe one needs a magic word to open a door - but don't make that magic discoverable only by listening to a read aloud text box that's four pages long, stick a puzzle or a riddle inscription in there instead. Writing adventures is not an exercise in story writing, the writer is just making scene notes, so don't bother writing your own fantasy novella. Thinking cinematically is likely best as, like a play or movie, a good session of D&D is a story told with and by multiple people, and a montage of reading musty tomes with a brief explanation of what's in them will be more fun (especially for the rest of the group) then actually handing the wizard player a musty tome of fake history.
More concisely. Don't be afraid of backstory, but work it directly into the adventure as flavor and scene with enough detail to make into possible future leads or mysteries, but not so much that it deforms other people's game worlds.