This is part of my Wuxia Sandbox series. You can see the previous post HERE. These are all primarily written with Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate and Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades in mind but can be applied to most wuxia RPG campaign where sandbox is the focus.
In the Sons of Lady 87 book I talk about The Twenty Year backstory. It is something I use in a lot of my Ogre Gate campaigns, even in the original rulebook. This isn't a literal twenty year backstory, though it can be. It is basically something that happened in the campaign setting before the player characters were born or in their early childhood. This can be one big event or something smaller scale. Often it may be something the players already have an awareness of but the players can get greater clarity about it if they speak with people who lived through it or if they find more information about it.
Examples of this are the first contest on Mount Hua in Legend of Condor Heroes or in the Shadow Whip when Fang tells Kaiyun the truth about her late parents. By the same token, even though it is covered in the beginning of Legend of Condor Heroes, the backstory of Guo Jing and Yang Kang, with one of their parents being killed by the Jin and another escaping and presumed dead is also an example of this. When we learn about Mei Chaofeng's background when she encounters Guo Jing again at Wanyan Honglie's Manor, that is another example. Again this isn't unique to wuxia, nor is it essential, but it is common and it works in a gaming context very well. The contest on Mount Hua is the larger scale twenty year backstory, the background of Yang Kang and Guo Jing is the more personal one related to a PC, and Mei Chaofeng's is one applied to an NPC.
|Divine Mathematician's History with Zhou Botong
is another example of the 20 year backstory
As stated, it isn't literal. It could be 25, 20, 15 or even just 5 years. The point is to have a backstory that comes before the PCs arrival, ideally one that shed light on other characters, on the setting, on the PCs themselves. Generally this can be thought of in generational terms. The twenty year backstory is the information of the generation or a generation, prior to the PCs, which the PCs can learn from the older generation. Ideally it informs a present day situation that has potential to be relevant to game play.
The Twenty Year Backstory works I think because it is quite universal. If you have ever heard the full story of something that happened in your family either when you were young or before you were born, that is a twenty year backstory. Maybe you knew half of what happened, or your parents point of view, but later you learn more details from someone else who was there. This is something that crops up in wuxia a lot and it is a technique I have used for fleshing out backstory across my campaign. It has many applications and a campaign can have multiple twenty year backstory. While it is common in a lot of movies and films (Star Wars has a twenty year backstory too), I feel that wuxia does it exceptionally well.
This is also one area where I think story works in a sandbox. Story tends not to work well in the present or future, because if the GM is telling a story it thwarts player agency. But in the background material, it doesn't hurt to have a good tale. These are stories about the history of the NPCs or an event, that can come up. What is satisfying about them is the fact that they don't always emerge in play, but when they do, the players have a sense of a deeper world (especially if you are peppering a campaign with these kinds of details).
Twenty year backstories tend to be more character focused than event focused, though they can be both. And the campaign can have many, many twenty year backstories. In theory every NPC can be walking around with one. However a simple and easy way to introduce the twenty year backstory is by creating one big one that is about something larger than the players in the campaign setting (though you can tie it to them if you want) and one related more directly to the players on a smaller scale. These can even connect to a single event. Once you get used to this, you can start adding them in places where they may or may not come up in play. They are like foundations for a living adventure.
A good word to keep in mind when crafting a twenty year backstory is 'actually'. You can get a lot of mileage out of it. For example "Iron God Meng is a cold-hearted bully, but actually he was a kind-hearted hero before the destruction of Wan Mei temple and the death of Saffron Tigress." Or "They say Saffron Tigress perished in Wan Mei Temple. Actually, she survived, and is living under an assumed identity in Daoxu Village. And "Actually, Saffron Tigress is your mother. She changed her name before you were born and concealed her martial skills."
As you can see from the above, this can work especially well with things like family connections discussed in my previous post. You have to be cautious of course, you can't have every NPC there just for big reveals. But when it fits, it can work. The description above came about naturally in my original Sons of Lady 87 campaign and it was a product of things that were already in NPC entries as well as further details I worked out as I connected them to the broader world and to the events of my twenty year backstory.
One important thing is the Twenty Year backstory doesn't have to come up. It can remain something the players never unearth. While it is great when you have interesting revelations or discoveries, its primary purpose is to help you understand your NPCs motives and the motives of clusters of characters who have a shared experience. Concealing it from view as a secret backstory can be helpful because the logic of the NPCs behavior will become clear over time, even if the details of the background are not. And that makes for characters who seem more real.
You should also establish the details of the twenty year backstory at the start of the campaign and not adjust it during the campaign. You may have to rework details when your campaign begins in order to fit everything into place (for example if a player is the son of a particular NPC and the books or your notes don't provide a lot of detail, you may need to add information and connective tissue to other characters in the setting). But this is meant to be something that gives the setting the feel of a real world. If things are adjusting in the background as the players adventure it will feel like you are making it up as you go, which is the opposite of the intended purpose here.
As stated, you can have many twenty year backstories in a campaign. Once you are comfortable with having one or two, try adding several to a campaign, and try thinking of NPCs in this way as well. You should also consider landmark events in the martial world that happen prior to the campaign. Again, you don't want everyone to be a walking embodiment of secrets and hidden history, but when you make an NPC it can be useful to think about whether that character ought to have a secret history. Sometimes I embed this in the paragraph description of the character, sometimes I include a section in the entry marked "Secret History". It is a good way for creating layers. Even if a character is meant to be thoroughly despicable, explaining how they became who they are through a secret backstory is something that helps me figure out their soul a little. It just makes playing them easier. And in a living adventure that is central.