A frequent piece of advice for one-on-one D&D is: Center the campaign and story on the PC. Or, Keep the focus on the PC.
But how exactly do we go about doing that? Does it not happen naturally as there is only one character for the campaign to revolve around?
Prefer to watch a video on this topic? You can find a discussion of incorporating backstory in the short- and long-term on our first episode of Tabletop for Two!
Lean into the backstory
One straightforward way we can orient a campaign around our PC as the main character is incorporating aspects of their backstory into the short- and long-term campaign arcs.
To lean into the PC’s backstory, you’ll select a particular theme or predilection, maybe even a character flaw, that runs through their personality and past. Then, recurring instances of this selected detail or quality will reappear throughout the campaign.
Below, I work through an example of how this worked in our campaign for my PC. Jonathan selected her heritage, family, and the goddess she serves as the common thread that would reappear across her journey as an adventurer. Then, as the campaign has developed, he’s widened the camera lens, so to speak, for the stakes involved in these three shared concerns for my PC.
Maybe your PC has a favored enemy, or they’ve never found a place to call home. Or, you might play with a particular value they hold near and dear, such as strength or loyalty.
You might not know at the beginning of the campaign what this particular trait or common thread will be. That’s ok! Give it time to emerge.
What if the PC doesn’t have a very developed backstory?
Leaning into the PC’s backstory looks different at various points of your campaign. At the beginning, you may only have a sketch of who the character is and what they’ve experienced. Their personality will likely come more to the fore as your campaign progresses.
So, at the beginning of your campaign, find arcs and problems that will be interesting for this particular PC to try to solve.
Then, down the line, bring back some of the themes that they responded to alongside some familiar NPCs, locations, deities, types of enemies (e.g. fiends, lycanthropes, aberrations), etc.
Players, during this time, you’ll figure out more concrete elements of the PC’s backstory and where they’re coming from. You don’t have to know everything about them when you’re first starting out, but as you get to know your character better, see if you can also develop who they were before they answered the call to adventure.
DMs, you can foster this as well. While adventuring, the DMPC or sidekick will be talking to the PC, as will NPCs they meet along the way. All of these characters can ask the PC questions about themselves or serve as counterpoints to the PC’s worldview, approach, or beliefs.
This middle point, when the PC is far from home or flush with cash from their recent exploits is a great time to bring back in some of the older parts of their backstory.
An Example from Our Duet Game
In our home game, Jonathan had set up a mission for my PC, Persephonie, to help her people, the saudad. His original plan for the arc was having my PC interact with a particular NPC, Faefina, who maybe needed our help or maybe planned to betray us.
However, as this problem developed, he found a deeper issue in the plan—the danger wasn’t immediate enough for my PC. Yes, she cared, but it wasn’t a pressing issue that needed to be solved right then. So he made some changes.
Instead of Faefina’s family disappearing without a trace, my PC suddenly received word that her father and muster had gone missing! This was an immediate, high-priority problem for us, and our party didn’t rest until Persephonie reunited with her family.
I wrote about the first arc of this in our post on Umbrage Hill from Dragon of Icespire Peak if you’d like an example of how to introduce character backstory in the short-term.
From short- to long-term
This problem expanded over the long-term of the campaign arc when Jonathan incorporated the “chosen one” trope for Persephonie. Yes, her enemies had been waiting for Faefina as their chosen one, but they were also on the lookout for the one person who could stop them, my PC.
Persephonie’s backstory is what made her the chosen one, and that’s the sort of thing I’m encouraging you to try in your own campaign. In my case, it was Persephonie’s loyalty to the goddess of fate that set her up to oppose the enemies of her people. Jonathan strung together elements of Persephonie’s backstory and the adventures she’d already experienced to make the case to her that she had a special destiny.
The plot thickens
As you might imagine, this experience sparked a lot of character growth for Persephonie. And now, we have some really intriguing echoes of her “chosen one” status as she returns to the Material Plane and embarks on a new series of adventures.
For this latter phase of the backstory rollout, Jonathan has been widening the lens on the goddess of fate’s role in the world at large. Persephonie has a few clues from her goddess about the story she’s woven into the fabric of the world, but she doesn’t yet know what solving or resolving it looks like or involves.
Bringing in NPCs
Once you have this common thread through the PC’s backstory, you might consider tugging on it when creating the NPCs the character meets and/or travels with.
In our game, Jonathan introduced a sidekick character for Persephonie who has been cursed with misfortune. He makes for a really intriguing counterpoint to someone blessed with luck and fortune. And this commonality has allowed them both to grow and deepen in their beliefs and perspective.
NPCs can also create the jumping-off point for campaign arcs. If the PC’s entire family was killed by lycanthropes when they were young, a powerful adventure prompt for them might be a werewolf who needs their help creating a cure for lycanthropy. Can they overcome their prejudice and provide an opportunity for someone else that their own family didn’t receive?
In our Tales of Eldura game, I personalized the first part of Descent into Avernus with having Jonathan’s PC’s son disappear alongside the city that vanishes from the Material Plane. This made the conflict and drive immediately emotionally resonant for Garreth instead of abstract.
Reviewing the Main Points
There are so many possibilities for putting this principle into action, so I’ve made a list of the overarching strategy to help you put incorporating the PC’s backstory into practice in your own game.
- Develop the PC’s backstory over time as the campaign progresses
- Find repeating and resonant themes in the backstory and over the PC’s adventures
- Incorporate NPCs who can challenge, corroborate, or contradict the PC’s beliefs about the world, especially those supported by their backstory
- Expand the horizons and/or implications of the PC’s beliefs and values
- Consider making the PC the “chosen one” or similar PC-centric arc
- Add weight to the PC’s choices by giving them opportunities to change
- Vary the length of time of backstory arcs, with some taking place inside a single session and others spanning multi-session arcs
I hope this has given you some ideas for incorporating PC backstory across your duet campaign arcs! We’d love to hear, in the comments below, ways you’ve brought in the PC’s backstory in your own campaigns, and feel free to leave any questions you have as well.
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