Why Does Paizo Spend So Much Time On Backstory That Is Never Expressed?

Knowing a character’s backstory can be relevant to how they’re played. The backstory on the major faction NPCs in Petals and Thorns was given alongside their identity and motivation because that backstory played an important role in shaping their motivation and identity. Part of the reason the Lunatic Court ran on so long is because I was never quite satisfied with the chain of cause and effect that resulted in a Harlequin who is driven by equal parts fear and mistrust of others on the one hand and a general compassion for other people on the other. Things always seemed to be loaded too far one way or the another.

So what I’m saying here is that when I say that Paizo has a weird habit of drowning us in totally irrelevant backstory, it’s not because backstory is somehow inherently irrelevant. NPCs whose decision-making is important to the story and who interact with the PCs need to have a solid backstory informing their current motivations and why they do the things they do. The problem is that Paizo loves to load its villains up with a whole lot of backstory and then have them appear exclusively for boss fights. If the only purpose of a villain is to provide a climactic encounter at the end, then the only thing that matters is their current scheme. “Nualia is an aasimar corrupted by the Runelords’ power who seeks to use that power to destroy the town of Sandpoint.” Bam, done. If we’re never going to have a conversation with her, we don’t need to care why she hates Sandpoint. Her ultimate goal is to raze it and that’s all that matters.

It all feels very cargo cult-y, like, roleplay-driven games have villains with long backstories, so we’ll set aside a page or two for the backstory of each module’s villain and that’ll make it more roleplay-ish! But, no. Roleplay-driven games include backstories because they’re structured such that the backstories are relevant. You actually need to know what the NPC’s motivations are because the PCs can actually influence their decision-making or at least get to talk to them long enough for the NPC to explain their point of view. Without that, background is just an outline of a short story that will never be written and that only the GM will even know about.

1 thought on “Why Does Paizo Spend So Much Time On Backstory That Is Never Expressed?”

  1. There’s a couple of additional reasons I can imagine. I suppose if DMs were altering the adventure or had to adapt to the story going off rails, it could be useful for figuring out logical changes (not that I suspect this happens often).

    The reason I feel (for no particular reason) is bigger though, is that these are written for DMs to read through anyways. Like sure a lot of it is for the purpose of the game to be run, but given how much time it takes to run a full adventure path odds are good you could buy one set and be done, so they need to provide additional incentive for DMs to continue buying books even while they’re still waiting to finish another set. And that incentive is “here’s some extra stuff to read”.

    Personally I’d love it if more of an adventure path was dedicated to providing ideas on how to adapt when the players don’t follow the story, and thus making those long backstories more relevant (helping the DM organically figure out what the villain would do if the players foil their plans).


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