I post this more for archival reasons than for argumentative ones; it's a piece of a conversation I had today on the official D&D forums. Forum argument seems to bring out my best writing, and I like both the flow and phrasing of this piece, so here it is in full. It's in response to the statement that DMs should not interfere in player-created backgrounds, as it's "the only part of the story they truly own".
If the backstory is the only part of the story the players own, you're doing something wrong.
Do they not own the NPCs they choose to hang with? I mean, they're hanging with the ones that they showed an instant liking to, right, not being forced to stick with your author insertion characters?
Do they not own their town or home base? I mean, they've bought property there, right, and commissioned statues, and gone up against the local bullies and whatnot, am I correct?
Do they not own their own legend? When they go to new places, they're encouraged to tell the stories of their travels, of their outrageous exploits and cunning plans, surely?
They've got all that. Take the backstory from them and make it yours. Start the game icy cold and kick them down that metaphorical flight of steps. Forget about having them coming up from their faraway kingdoms or wandering into the adventurer's bar for yet another round of drinks.
Hook them. Get that barbed spike of plot embedded deep in their cheek and reel them in for the experience that you have planned. If you have them for the first line you have them for the first hour, and if you have them for the first hour, you have them for the session, and if your first session hits with cannonball fury then your campaign is limited only by your own endurance and the neon-fevered dreams of your players.
Dim the lights. Wait for the conversation to hush. Let that long silence stretch out before them, until it begins to tingle, until it begins to tear, and then begin. A first line, devoid of context, empty of comfort, short and sharp and implying the long and visceral road between the opening of the first act and the final closing of the curtains.
What you've experienced up to now has been gaming. Put that off to one side for the moment, keep in its box until you need it for the combat, and let the other face of the hobby show you its slow and powerful smile. It's called storytelling, and - and this I tell you as a revelation between friends, a quantitative measure of my trust in you - it is, without dispute, awesome.