Puzzlebox Backstories

May 5, 2021

I was talking to a friend about stuff I’ve been GMing and stumbled upon the perfect wording for something that’s been bounching around in my head for a while – “Puzzlebox Backstories”. It’s something I do a lot in games, but I didn’t have a good word for it. I’m sure I’ve probably heard this term on a podcast or something somewhere about movies or books, but I’m going to talk about how I’ve been doing this in RPGs specifically.

The basic idea

A Puzzlebox Backstory is either a backstory to a character, to an NPC, to a place, or series of events, that is revealed in pieces and designed to play out suspense and drama by being revealed in parts. For RPGs, this is created by one person (whether GM or player) and revealed to the rest of the group over the course of play.

In static media, NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, Nolan’s Memento, Yoko Taro’s Nier Automata, and Atlus’ 13 Sentinels Aegis Rim are all examples of amazing use of Puzzlebox Backstory logic to build intricate plots.

This pre-designed backstory is crafted to some level before it is revealed – not simply improvised on the spot, even if the rest of the game setting is often built by improv – hence, the Puzzlebox – there’s something in the box, already, you just gotta shake, press and shift it to get it out.

That said, this is NOT supposed to be the entirety of play – it is not railroading or Illusionism – these should be cool bits of character development or history that are running alongside whatever the actual spotlight of the campaign is. You will be flexible in when/how these things get discovered, unlike railroading where you must force everyone’s hands in a variety of ways.

Building a Concept

First off, figure out the scope of the thing you’re dealing with – is it a single character, a couple of characters together, an organization, a place, an item? As you’re thinking of what the “secret” is, or perhaps a series of things, it is important to try to find something of this scale – it’s enough the group will be interested in it, but it’s not so overwhelming as to overwrite, or retcon everything so the story is just about (this one thing). The single protagonist hyperfixation can work in static media, but does not work with a group making a story together through play.

Good things for characters: Hidden feelings, past crimes/failings, previous allegiences, blood/family ties, bad goals, etc.

Good things for objects/places: Emotional events, evidence of wrongdoing, history, cultural weight, secret magic, etc.

You may come up with a couple of ideas nested together – 1-3 is a good number. More than that tends to fall down. It also works well if you have one broad idea that many other specific ideas can come from – for example, if there is a lost history of a magical war, you can create a lot of specific incidents or places that are built on that larger idea.

Navigating this with your groups’ expectations of play

If you’re playing a traditional GM/Player split RPG, then coming up with these things as a GM is expected. If you’re a player coming up with these for your character, it can be useful to tell the GM, and maybe the group, that you’re adding some stuff to your character to be revealed later.

Depending on how well you know each other as a play group, this may require more or less discussion – for example, you don’t want to do anything that will step on other players’ sense of their own characters or over-hog spotlight with your backstory.

If you’re playing a non-traditional game, for example, games with a lot more narration trading between the group, you should probably let the group know you’re adding more to a character or a thing – you’re setting up a Puzzlebox, so they know not to accidentally narrate over it.

Servings, not walls

Now, here’s the thing to master; the reveals should happen any time it makes sense, and it shouldn’t be too hard to get them. It is not walls the rest of the group needs to break through – it’s servings at a multicourse dinner. You WANT everyone to get into the story and follow it it to the end, and they should want it too. If they get to some things earlier, or faster, or through all of it, before you expect, that’s fine, too.

This is ultimately where Illusionism and Railroading fall down in trying to get this – they want people to get invested in the clues adding up, but because artificial walls and redirection happen all the time, the group is simply taught to stop trying and just wait for the “Mother May I?” of the scenario to play out.

The end of the Puzzlebox Backstory

What happens when everything (or everything important anyway) is revealed? Well, for the setting, there will be more interesting bits to go with, and for characters, they still have interesting motivations, even if their past motivations are already revealed. While these things are fun, again, they shouldn’t be the core focus of play, otherwise it begins to feel a bit like M. Night Shyamalan movies – there’s no depth past the reveal, it’s a one trick pony and it gets old quickly.

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