What’s All The Backstory For?

Reading roleplaying sourcebooks, one of the common and usually pretty extensive sections of any setting will be the history. You know, the long exposition of the big backstory of the world as it is in the game. Examples include the history of Glorantha, the history of the Third Imperium, or the history of the World of Darkness.

What is this stuff actually for? I love to read it but I really do wonder what the purpose of this stuff might be.

Most roleplayers are not interacting with the backstory of the world. The players are exploring the world as it is today through the lens of their character’s perception but most of the backstory is not immediately relevant to them. The GM is usually busy making up new situations for the characters as they are today, not really fussing over re-creating the stories of the past.

I suppose you could re-enact major parts of the history from your setting. RuneQuest does this with the world of Glorantha – especially when characters go on Heroquests – but that is pretty much a unique feature of RuneQuest and Glorantha. Gamers generally don’t do this with other worlds.

The usual answer I hear is that the backstory provides hooks upon which to build new stories – presumably giving you a context within which the world of today arose – but, honestly, most games I have played in don’t really make much of this in reality.

Perhaps we get to visit the site of some ancient event but it’s really just a backdrop to whatever shenanigans we are doing now. As a GM, I don’t find many players building an extensive set of historical notes to inform their decisions in the game.

What’s it for? Is it something that GMs enjoy reading so that they can feel more connected to the world as it exists? Is it a giant mental placebo that coincidentally sells lots of sourcebooks? I really don’t know.

This isn’t some facetious rhetoric. I genuinely am trying to figure it out. Why do I love reading the backstories of the worlds I play in so much, even though most of the content is never going to come up in play?

What’s it for?


  1. It’s a valid question. IMO, a certain amount of history is useful when initially putting the world together. IE, the guy who wrote that part of the game book you’re reading. And a certain amount of history can be useful when devising scenarios or languages or what ancient treasure can be found where. BUT, I think that too often, self-indulgent writers publish way too many words that really have no utility to the game as it is usually played. And if all this verbiage is part of the core books, I resent having to pay for it. Third Imperium? If you want to get bogged down in its history you have to buy extra books. Glorantha? See my beloved 2e core book. Just enough, no more. Of course, I’m quite happy to buy a game that has NO setting included. Leave that choice up to me. 🙂 So yeah, for my money, these would-be JRRTs can keep their notebooks to themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your thoughts resonate with me here: I think most authors learn to keep the backstory out of sight unless there is something key to the plot that needs to be shared. For RPG writers I suspect the tendency is to publish it all because of the idea that “you never know when this might be useful to someone”. In reality, most of the stuff is not going to be used. I prefer it when publishers of a world focus each small booklet on one specific area of the world and give depth only for that area because then I can choose which bits I want to buy, if any. Thanks for the thoughts, Shelby!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting, Che. I agree with the previous comment about the utility of knowing the history of an area or place to help decide what challenges , monsters and treasures to expect there and how to react in a coherent way as a GM to your players actions in that place; and I also agree that too much history can just become ‘fluff’. I enjoy creating overarching histories and contemporary politics and situations for my home brew games as a mini game in itself as it has that ‘Eureka’ moment as you contemplate the reasons and consequences of certain places existing where they do in your world; but I don’t like feel that when reading up on other people’s settings. I wonder in that case if the benefit to learning about another creators world that you might want to run ( I find players rarely care as much as the GM does) is similar to how in my real job I could do each task in isolation only paying attention to the individual processes and procedures, but I prefer to have an understanding of why I’m doing something. I like to see the ‘big’ picture as it helps me understand why I’m doing what I’m doing and that helps me deal with unusual situations that are outside the limits of typical or standard procedure. Having a handle on the overarching situation in the fantasy setting you are running helps you respond in a coherent and meaningful way when the players (inevitably) surprise you with something out of the ordinary. What do you think? Or is it something more?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the idea of knowing the big picture and feeling confident in having done the reading so that you can respond to surprises sounds sensible. I am not sure that, for example, the full 3000 year Traveller history of a setting is necessary for this. That said, I think we GMs enjoy exploring the past of the worlds we run and the idea of seeing where the pieces go resonates with me. Thanks for that thought – I will ponder further.


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