(Dice not included. I just wanted an excuse to show off my antiqued and bloody dice.)

As you probably know from reading my past reviews and posts, I’m a sucker for random inspiration tools, and yet another one fell into my lap recently.

Better Backstories is a deck of cards with story elements printed on each to help players and GMs develop backstories for their characters and NPCs, but with a lot of extra features that I didn’t expect.

The review deck that I received contained 80 regular cards, 5 blank customizable cards, 3 reference cards that describe the various symbols, and an instruction sheet. The sheet explains the layout of the cards and recommendations for use – it suggests drawing 1 card for a random NPC encounter, 3 for a recurring character, 5 for a new PC, and 8 for an experienced PC or NPC.

The layout guide isn’t very necessary, however – the cards are clearly and simply designed, with subtle art elements that don’t distract from the information, and symbols that are easy to decipher. You can just flip through the deck and get an idea of what the various parts of each card mean.

There are two basic types of cards – one with a paragraph of flavor text, and suggestion cards, with a list of ten options listed below. A symbol in the top right tells you the category of the card – Benefit, Change, Drive, Life, Mystery, Trouble, Mystical, and Technical. This is handy in case you wish to remove certain elements from the deck (or simply redraw if one shows up). The suggestion cards provide a character element, like a birthmark or a pet, then give you ten options to choose from, or roll for randomly.

What I love most about this deck is the multiple uses you get from the cards. In addition to a backstory element, each of the cards also has a weather type, terrain type, and an “alignment” – positive, negative, equal, or random – which not only can be used to determine how the story element affects the character, but NPC or monster reactions, or practically any other result you want to use it for.

The backs of the cards repeat these three (with weather and terrain represented with symbols), as well as a number from 1 to 10 – so you can draw a card in place of rolling a d10 if you wish. This is perfect when one of the suggestion cards comes up – you can just place a face-down card on top of it to get a result.

I decided to give the deck a quick test to see what it would give me for a recurring character. I drew Cataclysm, then put another card on top to get a 9 – Plague. Then I drew Runaway, with a 4 – You were captured by police and returned home. Finally, I drew Worldly – the character has a friend or family member who has shared stories of travelling the world.

This inspired me to dream up Emill Lyrinthenn – the youngest daughter of a large family, in a continent ravaged by an unusual disease that leaves victims weak and feeble. One out of every 40-50 citizens is completely immune to the disease for some undiscovered reason, and Emill is one of the lucky ones. Local laws dictate that the immune must care for their families and others in their region until a cure can be found. Emill’s family is low on food and supplies, she and has tried to escape the town to visit her friend Tobias, who is very knowledgeable about curative herbs and plants from all around. Her previous attempts have resulted in capture and punishment, but one night she hatches a plan that she hopes will succeed…

Note that I could have taken other elements from the cards as they lay – heavy rain, shoreline, island, lake – or drawn more cards as the mood struck me, to add more to the story.

Better Backstories is a clearly designed, multi-functional tool that you’ll want to keep handy during both character creation and the heat of the game, to supply that little spark of inspiration when you need it. You can find out more at betterbackstories.com.

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Well the holiday season is mostly over – but I’ve spotted a couple of leftover goodies at the bottom of the ol’ bag of holding! Let’s drag them out and see what we’ve got.

– Floor tiles and fantasy buildings: Courtesy of Billiam Babble (who himself creates some excellent floor tiles of his own that are not all free but well worth what he’s charging) is a link to the Black Ronin Roleplaying Games website, which has a bunch of free dungeon floortiles, sci-fi floor tiles, and fantasy wargame buildings that are yours for a click.  If you like what you see and get some use out of it, consider buying some of their other products (only two are available at present – river tiles and street tiles – and they are very reasonably priced) and keeping an eye on them for upcoming releases.

Character development: Someone on Google+ asked about tables that you can use to build backstory and life events for characters, and I mentioned the  Central Casting books which usually provide some very crazy results, but are a goldmine for ideas. While searching for a link for more info, I discovered that all three books in the series are available (legally) for free on scribd – Heroes of Legend, Heroes Now!, and Heroes for Tomorrow. You can read each online or download them as TXT or PDF files. Start rolling on tables and making notes the way Jacquays intended, or just leaf through them and see what catches your eye – either way, you’ll get a more colorful, interesting character in the end. (EDIT: My friend Marques asked if Central Casting: Dungeons was also available, and it is! I didn’t even know that one existed, and it looks like a pretty neat supplement for fleshing out a dungeon crawl. Grab it, too!)  (Sorry guys, looks like these aren’t legal after all. My apologies to the authors and publishers.)

– Lastly, there’s this marvelous thing – Dave’s Mapper, a widget that spits out random hand-drawn dungeons. You can make a dungeon from a mix of different artists, or narrow it down to a few or even just one, then export the result to PNG to print out and stock with monsters, traps, and treasure. It’s a lot of fun to play with.

Enjoy, and I’ll be back soon to talk about this year’s New Year, New Game project!