Updated: Apr 11
What is it that binds your character to the world they inhabit? Who knows them? Who likes them, hates them, is loyal to them or hell bent on revenge against them?
We have looked at backstories extensively in this blog, but in this article we’re going to develop them into adventures in their own right. Some times a hero’s past can reach out to surprise or haunt them, old friends, old debts, old enemies are ever present. In each character (at least in each of the interesting ones), there are motivations, drives, ambitions, beliefs, obligations and enmities that go frequently unexamined in a D&D game, but they are an incredible way of creating dramatic, immersive gameplay. The ideas in this article don’t necessarily have to form adventures in their own right (though they can), but instead they can form compelling sub plots.
Firstly, a word of warning. Plots based solely on one character’s backstory, exploits etc can often lead to annoyance amongst the rest of the players. Here are some helpful thoughts on detoxing this situation before it starts. Managing an adventure where one character has a backstory subplot can be a challenge, but with careful planning and consideration for all players, you can create an engaging and fun experience for everyone. Here are some tips to help you involve multiple players in one player's journey without boredom or irritation:
Connect the subplot to the main story: Find ways to tie the character's backstory subplot into the main campaign plot. This connection will help other players feel invested in the subplot and give their characters a reason to be involved.
Engage other characters: Introduce challenges, encounters, or NPCs during the subplot that specifically target or involve other characters. This approach will ensure that everyone has a chance to shine and contribute to the resolution of the subplot.
Encourage role-playing: Use the character's backstory subplot as an opportunity for role-playing and character development for the entire party. Encourage the players to share their characters' perspectives on the situation, offer advice, or discuss their own backstories and motivations.
Create balanced spotlight time: While the backstory subplot may focus on one character, make sure to balance the spotlight time among all players. Ensure that other characters have moments to showcase their skills, engage in role-playing, and contribute to the adventure.
Provide rewards and incentives: Offer rewards and incentives to the entire party for participating in the subplot. This could be in the form of experience points, treasure, or even access to new allies and resources that will benefit the whole group.
Communicate with your players: Discuss the backstory subplot with your players beforehand and ensure that they are all on board with the idea. Regularly check in with them during the adventure to gauge their level of engagement and interest.
Keep the pacing in mind: Be conscious of the pacing of the subplot and ensure that it doesn't drag on for too long. Keep the players engaged by introducing twists, complications, and opportunities for them to make meaningful decisions.
Plan for group dynamics: Be prepared for possible conflict or tension within the party that may arise from the backstory subplot. Encourage open communication and conflict resolution to maintain a positive gaming environment for all players.
The Seven Character Subplots
Backstory Quests: Exploring Character Histories
Every main character in a story has a past that shapes who they are today. In D&D, this is particularly true for player characters, who often have rich character backgrounds filled with plot hooks just waiting to be explored. One of the best ways to incorporate PC-driven subplots is to delve into these backstories and create plot lines that connect the characters to the main plot.
For example, consider the noble house politics in Game of Thrones or the complex character development found in the Harry Potter series. You can create similar plot threads in your D&D campaigns by involving the PCs' pasts, whether it's a longstanding rivalry, a long-lost family member, or an unfinished piece of business. The main story may still be the focus, but these side quests and plot points add depth to the entire campaign.
The Rogue's Redemption: A rogue with a criminal past receives a letter from an old friend who is now the leader of their former thieves' guild. The friend is in trouble and asks for the rogue's help. The rogue must return to their hometown and navigate the dangerous world of crime, deceit, and old grudges to save their friend and possibly find redemption.
The Cleric's Pilgrimage: A cleric receives a vision from their deity, sending them on a pilgrimage to a sacred site in need of cleansing or protection. The party must accompany the cleric, overcoming obstacles and enemies while uncovering the truth behind the deity's message.
The Sorcerer's Origin: The party learns that the sorcerer's innate magical powers are connected to a mysterious ancient artifact. To understand and control their powers fully, the sorcerer must uncover the artifact's history and face the dangers guarding it.
Moral Dilemmas: Challenging Characters' Beliefs
In great stories, characters are often faced with difficult decisions that test their beliefs and values. These moments are present in fantasy novels, TV shows, and movies, such as Star Wars, where characters must choose between the light and dark sides of the Force. Incorporating moral dilemmas into your D&D campaign can create compelling role-playing opportunities and allow players to explore their characters' motivations.
Consider presenting PCs with situations where their moral codes clash with the greater good or their personal desires. For example, a morally grey character might be asked to betray their friends for personal gain or a chance at redemption. These dilemmas can lead to tense moments, and the players' decisions may have significant consequences for the main plot.
The Paladin's Test: A paladin devoted to upholding justice and protecting the innocent discovers that their mentor has been secretly participating in morally questionable acts for the "greater good." The paladin must choose between their loyalty to their mentor and their commitment to their principles. Their decision could have consequences for both the main plot and their standing within their order.
The Druid's Balance: A druid is torn between protecting an endangered species and the needs of a nearby village that relies on the species for survival. The party must help the druid find a solution that balances both the needs of nature and the people.
The Fighter's Loyalty: The fighter's homeland is threatened by an invading force, but the invaders' cause may not be entirely unjust. The party must navigate the complexities of war, helping the fighter choose between loyalty to their homeland or fighting for a potentially just cause.
Personal Goals: The Pursuit of Individual Desires
Each character in a D&D campaign has personal goals that they hope to achieve, such as obtaining a powerful artifact, avenging a fallen comrade, or gaining fame and fortune. As the GM, you can design side plots and encounters that help the characters progress toward these goals. In doing so, you'll create a deeper connection between the PCs and the main plot, making the entire campaign more engaging.
For example, in the Lord of the Rings, each member of the Fellowship has their own reasons for joining the quest to destroy the One Ring. You can apply this concept to your campaign by integrating the characters' personal goals into the main plot or by presenting opportunities for them to pursue these goals during downtime or side quests. This approach adds depth and variety to the campaign while making individual character arcs more dynamic.
The Wizard's Lost Tome: A wizard, obsessed with recovering a legendary spellbook containing long-lost arcane secrets, hears rumors of its location in an ancient, forgotten library. The party must venture into a dangerous dungeon filled with magical traps and guardians to retrieve the tome, all while the wizard struggles with their obsession and the potential consequences of wielding such powerful magic.
The Artificer's Masterpiece: An artificer aspires to create a legendary device that can revolutionize their field. The party must assist in gathering rare materials, researching ancient blueprints, and defending the artificer's workshop from envious rivals.
The Barbarian's Trial: A barbarian seeks to complete a rite of passage in their tribe, requiring them to undertake a dangerous quest. The party joins the barbarian on this perilous journey, facing deadly challenges and uncovering long-lost tribal secrets.
Rivalry and Competition: The Drive to Outperform Others
Rivalries between characters can create exciting conflict and drive the story forward, as seen in Critical Role, Stranger Things, and other popular media. By introducing rival adventurers, organizations, or factions, you can create tension and motivate your PCs to outshine their competitors.
These rivalries can take many forms, such as a competing adventuring party, a rival noble house, or a secret organization working against the PCs. The easiest way to incorporate this subplot is to have the rival group interfere with the main plot, forcing the PCs to confront them and overcome their shared challenges. This can lead to dynamic encounters, alliances, betrayals, and even opportunities for character development as players navigate the complex relationships between their PCs and their rivals.
Rivalry and Competition
The Bard's Rival: A bard known for their exceptional performances encounters a rival performer who consistently steals the spotlight, causing the bard to lose favor with influential patrons. The rivalry escalates as both performers try to outdo each other, culminating in a grand competition where the winner could earn fame, fortune, and a powerful patron's favor. The bard must balance their rivalry with the party's main objectives, creating tension and opportunities for character growth.
The Duelist's Honor: A swashbuckling fighter is challenged to a high-stakes duel by a charismatic rival with a personal vendetta. The party must help the fighter prepare for the duel, uncover the rival's true motives, and ensure that the contest remains fair.
The Wizard's Rival School: A group of rival spellcasters seeks to discredit the wizard's arcane academy. The party must defend their wizard companion's reputation, thwart the rival's schemes, and ultimately restore the academy's honor.
Secret Identity: The Burden of Hidden Truths
In stories like Harry Potter, Star Wars, and many other fantasy novels and TV shows, characters often harbor secrets that can have a significant impact on the plot. In your D&D campaign, consider introducing a secret identity or hidden past for one or more of the player characters. This could involve a PC being a double agent, a member of a secret organization, or having a concealed connection to a major plot arc.
This subplot creates tension within the party as the character struggles to maintain their secret while working towards their objectives. Additionally, it can lead to trust issues and dramatic reveals that can have lasting consequences for the entire party and the main story.
The Warlock's Double Life. A warlock, bound to a secretive and potentially malevolent patron, must keep their true allegiance hidden from the rest of the party. As the main plot unfolds, the warlock's patron demands increasingly dangerous and morally questionable tasks, threatening to expose the warlock's secret if they refuse. The warlock must balance their obligations to the party and their patron, creating tension, trust issues, and the potential for dramatic confrontations.
The Bard's Double Life: The bard secretly leads a group of rebels fighting against a corrupt regime. The party becomes entangled in the bard's rebellion, forcing the bard to choose between their double life and their loyalty to the party.
The Rogue's Stolen Identity: The rogue discovers that they have been impersonated by a cunning doppelganger with malicious intentions. The party must help the rogue track down and confront the doppelganger, all while dealing with the consequences of the imposter's actions.
Romantic Subplots: Love and Relationships in D&D
Romantic subplots, such as those found in almost any fantasy novel (Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings are low hanging fruit here), can add depth and complexity to your campaign. Introducing an NPC with romantic interests or connections to one of the player characters can lead to engaging role-playing opportunities and adventure hooks.
A romance subplot can involve the PC navigating their feelings for the NPC, dealing with the challenges presented by their relationship, or even facing conflicts with other party members who may disapprove of the romance. Keep in mind that romantic subplots should be handled with care and consent from the players involved, ensuring a comfortable and enjoyable experience for everyone at the table.
The Ranger's Forbidden Love: A ranger, known for their strong connection to nature, finds themselves falling in love with a druid from a rival faction. As their romance blossoms, the lovers are caught in the crossfire between their factions, forcing them to choose between their love and their loyalties. The ranger must navigate the complexities of their relationship while staying true to their mission and their party.
The Paladin's Royal Romance: A paladin falls in love with a member of the royal family, but their relationship is threatened by political intrigue and the machinations of a shadowy villain. The party must help the paladin navigate court politics, protect their beloved, and bring the villain to justice.
The Warlock's Forbidden Affection: A warlock is romantically involved with an otherworldly being connected to their patron. The party must help the warlock navigate the complexities of their relationship and balance their loyalties to their patron and their love interest.
Mentorship and Training: The Path to Greater Power
In many stories, characters often seek out mentors or trainers who can help them unlock their hidden potential or master a unique skill. In your D&D campaign, consider offering a PC the opportunity to learn from a powerful or experienced mentor. This can involve going on special quests, facing unique challenges, or making sacrifices to gain the knowledge or power they seek.
For example, in the Star Wars saga, characters like Luke Skywalker and Rey undergo training with experienced mentors like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker, respectively. This subplot can create a sense of growth and accomplishment for the player, as their character becomes more skilled and capable throughout the campaign.
Mentorship and Training
The Monk's Spiritual Journey: A monk, seeking to unlock the : secrets of their order's ancient martial techniques, hears of a legendary master living in seclusion atop a remote mountain. The party must journey to the master's hidden sanctuary and face a series of trials to prove the monk's worthiness. Along the way, the monk learns valuable lessons about the true nature of power and their place within the larger world.
The Ranger's Legendary Mentor: The ranger seeks training from a legendary monster hunter to improve their skills. The party must help the ranger prove their worth to the mentor, undertaking dangerous hunts and learning valuable lessons about the nature of the beasts they face.
The Mage’s Ancient Teachings: An ancient scroll is discovered containing long-lost teachings of the wizard’s order. The party must travel to a hidden tower to study the scroll, overcoming challenges and uncovering the secrets of the ancient techniques while the mage deepens their understanding of their scroll.
Incorporating player character-driven subplots into your D&D campaign requires a thoughtful approach, a willingness to adapt, and a deep understanding of your players' characters and motivations. As a Game Master, it is essential to work closely with your players to create subplots that not only align with their characters' backgrounds and goals but also connect to the main campaign storyline in meaningful ways.
By taking the time to weave these subplots into your campaign, you are not only providing your players with the opportunity to explore their characters' personal stories but also fostering a sense of camaraderie, shared investment, and collective storytelling within your gaming group.
When crafting these subplots, consider the pacing, the balance of spotlight time, and how the outcomes of these adventures might impact the main story. This will ensure that each player feels engaged and appreciated, and that the overall narrative remains cohesive and compelling.
Finally, as a Game Master, be prepared to adjust and improvise as your players make choices and take unexpected paths. Embrace the collaborative nature of D&D and allow your players' creativity and decisions to shape the narrative. This open and flexible approach to storytelling will result in a rich, immersive, and memorable campaign that not only deepens each character's personal journey but also strengthens the bonds between the players and their characters.
By incorporating well-crafted character-driven subplots into your D&D campaign, you'll create an unforgettable gaming experience that will leave your players eagerly anticipating your next session.
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