The Exciting Little Details
Surprising your players is one of the most satisfying things a DM can do, both for the player and for the DM. This is why it’s so important that DMs pay attention to everything the players say; DMs would do well to remember the times that players describe something that is simply meant to be a telling moment of their character’s personality. You want to pay attention to these tidbits of roleplaying because people often assume that these times don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, and that they are just fleshing out their character. The paladin doesn’t think his random meager donations to the local temples will have any meaningful effect, but if the DM remembers it, maybe one day he finds out that he is known throughout the small towns as the “Golden Patron” and has been invited to a dinner by a wealthy noble who has heard of his deeds. The barbarian doesn’t assume that expressing his love of spiced meats will mean anything other than everyone knowing what he ate for dinner yet again, but perhaps this predictable eating habit will be the weakness that the local thieves guild needs in order to poison him, kidnap him, and attempt to force him into working a job for them.
I once started a campaign where I asked each player to provide me with some kind of backstory, anything at all. One of my players showed up with a ripped half sheet of lined paper on which he had scribbled “I was trained as a monk, then my master died. Then I met a rogue who trained me, but then he died. After that I got training from a bard, and then he died too. Now I travel with adventurers to gain more power.” It was the lamest excuse for an explanation of multi-classing I had ever seen, but I turned it into the hook for the major story arc of the campaign. Through the party’s adventures they discovered that this character had been blessed/cursed by the god of death, and he was less likely to perish than other mortals. Unfortunately, this meant that those who spent time around him, such as all his previous instructors, were slightly more likely to die. An evil cult sought to weaponize this blessing, and the campaign was set.
Being able to take something from a character’s backstory and weave it into meaningful encounters is great for two reasons. First, the character is already motivated by it; the story hook does not usually require much additional incentive since it is specifically catered to the person, and they will easily bring the party in on the adventure with them. Second, and more interestingly, they rarely expect it; players almost always have stopped thinking about their own backstory. Many players use their backstory as a jumping off point, and some will even point out opportunities for the DM to incorporate it when they first present it, but once the campaign is started and other story paths are followed, most players forget about the specific events of their past. Suddenly referencing something they told you was key to their character from the beginning, and inviting them to further explore this idea that they personally came up with, is very satisfying and exciting for a player.