The Integration of Back Story

I played and beat Portal 2‘s single-player campaign over the weekend. Don’t worry, this post contains no Portal 2 spoilers, but know: man alive, the back story integration during play is the best I’ve seen. Hands down. You want to learn more about Aperture Science? You will over the course of the game.

As I’m wont to do, I reflected back on some of my RPG experiences. The most fun I’ve had in games is where the back story of the world is revealed over time rather than generated pre-play. I spend a bit where I wanted to play amnesiacs, and I realize now that that’s because I wanted to slowly explore the back story, not just the world.

There’s a bit of Forge theory about how many players create tremendous back story for their characters — pages and pages of it — because that’s when they have totally autonomy over their characters. Once play begins, they lose much of that. I’ve seen this in action, and respect what it’s trying to say, so I understand the impulse to “play before we play.” But for me, games where I can explore the history of a given situation is stronger.

We see this in fiction all the time. If a book or movie started with lengthy exposition about the back story, we’d check out.[1] So we don’t do it in good fiction, and we see part of why we do it in games. Let’s talk about how to integrate back story into your ongoing game. Warning: I’m going to do that gamer thing where I geek about a campaign I played it. But I’ll keep the you-needed-to-be-there to a minimum.

You Only Need Premise & Situation

In Portal (and Portal 2), your inital premise & situation are “You’re locked in a vicious ‘testing’ environment with a super-science device, and the rogue AI hates you.”

In the Battlestar Galactica reboot, the premise & situation were “You’re locked in a spaceship, fleeing from killer robots.” (Granted, some of the miniseries was devoted to this back story, and some of that came from people knowing about the original premise & situation.)

In one of the amnesia games I played (a 7th Sea camaaign), the premise & situation were “You’re all hired in pseudo-Italy to be privateers” or something like that.

In a Primetime Adventures 3/e campaign I played, Dark Matter, the premise & situation were “There’s an alien threat that is more advanced than we are, keeps kidnapping humans from colony worlds, and the general populace is ignorant of them. You three are black ops created to combat this threat.”

The point of premise & situation: create something people can immediately engage in with minimal back story. Certainly there’s some (except in the case of the original Portal; Portal 2’s initial back story is Portal). But that’s just enough to propel you forward with purpose. Everything else is a mystery.

How to Reveal The Back Story

Telling people that things happened by pure exposition is boring. Let’s look at how it’s done.

In the original Portal, it comes from your interactions with GlaDOS and the places where another people writes down insane scribbling. (I won’t spoil Portal 2 by talking about it, but if you’ve played it you know what I would be referring to if I were.)

In BSG, as with most good fiction, you get back story through character interactions. History colors the emotional contexts people have, and that’s what makes back story both interesting and something that your mind can hold on to. When we see Baltar having hallucinations of Six, and we see them talk, we find out more about Baltar’s role in the destruction of Caprica. WE also get more from the other character’s interacting — people on Galactica talking with the press about her decommission, pilots & crew talking with each other, etc.

In Dragon Age: Origins, we see back story again in terms of interactions — we discover about the darkspawn early on, and we discover about the racism against elves and the distrust & hate of mages through interactions between members of your party and other NPCs. It allows us an emotional context to attach these facts, cementing them in our minds. IR also creates a richness there, as you’re getting multiple points of view rather than a dry history.

We did it two rather different ways in the campaigns I mentioned above:

Playing Out a Back Story

In the 7th Sea game, I wrote up a couple pages where I mentioned things that had happened to my character in the four weeks of memory he had. I kept most of it a mystery — strange assassins attempting to kill him, for instance, but it turned out he was a badass. (I was playing the Jason Bourne of 7th Sea, which is how I pitched my character.)

The GM took this and ran with it, revealing over time that I wasn’t actually from pseudo-Spain, but I was the Queen of pseudo-England’s top spymaster. This was cool, because what I was looking for as a player was discovering this shit but being my own man, able to react as I felt. I didn’t want to author the back story; I wanted to choose it or rebel against it.[2] And that rocked. (Also, I ganked Titania. She had it coming.)

Some people will complain against this form of play, railroading, etc., but I stress how great of a game this was. I didn’t get to develop the back story, no. But I did get to make decisions about how I felt and would react to it. And because it was revealed slowly over play — we’d kidnapped an assassin who would speak a strange language only I understood (English). Then I would encounter an object that I understood but not be sure why (a mystical sextant). Over time, I was able to piece things together until we got to the point where the GM revealed — which we needed in order to push forward into the third act.

Developing and keeping things like that a mystery, and pacing the revelations through character interactions and minor discoveries that make you think — those are the heart of back story integration. The pacing is key; too much, and you overload. Too little, and you don’t have enough solid context by the time the climax of your campaign’s due. This doesn’t need to be on a character level — you can also do this with the world.

Collaboratively Creating a Back Story

The other way we’ve handled this was to be collaborative about back story building, in our Primetime Adventures game. In this one, the story behind the world’s situation was a mystery. I said upfront, as the Producer (what the GM is called in PTA), that the facts I knew were all there — the alien menace kidnapped people, there were no signal intelligence to be had, only a short video showing one of their ships, which looked liked a d4.

Then I said “whoever gets The Last Word can, if relevant, describe more about the alien menace and other world effects.” In PTA, you no only work to get your way in a scene conflict, but you also work to try to be the one who frames how the conflict goes down. Scenes have questions, so one question might be “Do we take the alien menace out of the child’s brain?” One of the players is trying for “Hell yes,” and I go for “Hell no.” In this case, I won the conflict, so there was no taking the alien menace out of the child’s brain. Someone else won the right to say how it goes down, so the scene closed out with him saying “The tests are coming back. The child’s lost. …And we need to ‘take care’ of him before he infects other children with alien memetics.”

We didn’t know that there could be other children infected before now. We didn’t know that children couldn’t be recovered. (We also didn’t know that the operatives, known as The Daffodil Group[3], would kill children for the “greater good”. Man, there was an unpleasant under-10 body count in that game.)

Suddenly, people wanted in more scene conflicts that involved getting to talk more about the back story, because everyone got to contribute and everyone, including me, got to discover cool shit. The rules we established:

  • There is no trumping what was already established. No “oh, that was a false reading” or any bullshit. What we’ve discovered is what we know.
  • One push — one significant fact — per scene
  • New context has to be shown via character interaction or things like that, just like it would be in a TV show
  • We can call weak sauce contributions (but that went for everything)

We did this partly because I wanted to play out discovery as much as everyone else, because PTA doesn’t do well when the Producer has a crapton of secrets, and because I believe in the GMing principle that several heads are more clever than one, so I take ideas from the group and blend them together into a narrative smoothie.


Much longer than I was anticipating, but I’m pretty passionate about how to integrate back story in all media. It will make or break a game for me. I don’t want to be told history, I want to live and feel history.

– Ryan

[1] A convention game I played in recently did  like this, and it was one of the most uninteresting games I had played in some time.

[2] This is similar to the Forge idea of “don’t create your own adversity.” I didn’t want to create a back story and rebel against it. That’s too insular.

[3] Think badass. Think far-future Edelweiss. No one would laugh at a dude in a black flight suit with a daffodil pinned on it — at least, not if they valued their continued existance.


5 Responses to The Integration of Back Story

  1. Kit says:

    What you describe for PTA sounds like just the way I want to run it. Not necessarily scifi like that, but that style of collaboration.

    We’re playing PTA in our upcoming game-tasting week, so I’ll bear this in mind.

  2. JDCorley says:

    Integration of setting-dump into play has been a strong goal of many groups for a long time. The difficulty is that until that setting-dump is done, the game is vulnerable to all kinds of mistakes. Portal/Portal 2 and video games in general limit the “verbs” you can use to interact with the fictional world, and further limit your situation so that as you are learning you are not also screwing things up. In Portal/2, you are a helpless test subject, you lack virtually all agency and do not express anything about yourself in relation to that world. This is not a bad thing about the game, in fact one of the great innovations that Valve has pushed is that by having a necessarily-limited protagonist, you can really go a lot further in revealing setting as the game progresses than you might in a novel or film. Half-Life 2 (and Episodic sequels) does this extremely well. I haven’t checked out Dragon Age thoroughly but it seems like a fantasy world would be a good match for this kind of storytelling, since the world is such an important part of the experience.

    There often isn’t really a lot of attention to what the setting of an RPG actually does in the game. Dresden’s City Creation does a good job here, it clearly indicates that the setting is a glass house, a pile of rocks and a group of angry lunatics. PTA’s Pitch session is often the most difficult to get through when you start with a blank slate for just this reason. The Forgotten Realms has a threat to Canada, I mean Faerun, on every street corner, and a reason for your traveling rockstars, I mean adventurers, to get kicked in the teeth pre-emptively. Damnation City/Block by Bloody Block made it clear what the setting was for: killing to control. But beyond that there hasn’t been a ton of attention to it. The 90s were the pinnacle of setting books, but looking back at even some very good setting books now, they are very bad at telling me what they are supposed to do. They pretty much all just fell back on the corebook’s description of what to do, and really that is pretty crap.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Totally. I glossed over what we did in Dark Matter because the post was getting long (and because I don’t remember the details), but we did talk more during our pitch about what it was that we knew about the world. Setting as platform and contract, like you get when you buy an RPG license or other setting world.

      You certainly need to know the current situation to know what you should & could do in the game. But I’m also talking about the details beyond that. In the Great War between Elves & Dwarves, you need to know the situation about the here-and-now. Playing human mercs in this campaign, you don’t need to be loaded with irrelevant-to-the-moment info, like how this war started 300 years ago because Archmage Ferdinand. When that becomes relevant — dealing with an enraged captured Elven General who was his cousin, or finding themselves in an unexpected diplomatic quandary.

      So you have the part of setting that tells you what you need or should do now. And there’s the part of setting that tells you about what’s caused that — history. Back story. (And there’s the part of setting that’s a mystery, which is close enough to back story and overlapping with it that it was what we did with Dark Matter.)

      That’s what I’m saying — back story needs to be made relevant to the moment, or it’s in one ear and out the other. Not just in RPGs, but in all fiction. Infodumps at the front don’t work…at least, certainly not alone.

      – Ryan

    • JDCorley says:

      Yeah, I mean…there is something to be said for an infodump. As I commented on an earlier article, it is a unique and wonderful experience to play in a highly detailed setting with a group of people who are all thoroughly versed in the details of that setting. This is really what most roleplay in the world is right now. Harry Potter, Twilight, etc. roleplayers are HIGHLY concerned with getting the extremely detailed world exactly right. But there are other ways to handle things too.