Aug 02

How to build a better backstory

Backstory:

It’s quite common for a DM to ask their players to come up with the background or backstory of their new character before the start of a new game. I see questions on forums quite often where players are asking for advice on how to do this, or what to include.

 

I am 100% behind getting players to create a backstory for their character as this helps establish who their character is and how they should react (Ie: role play). But too often I see examples of what I think are overly descriptive and overly exciting backstories.

 

Once the game starts, the success of your actions depend on your imagination, your abilities, and the luck of the dice. Which is to say, they are not wholly in your control. This is not so in your backstory. You can write your backstory as you want and have your character succeed at any number of exciting and improbable things. The problem, in my opinion, happens when you write a backstory that is more exciting that the game you’re currently playing.

 

If your backstory is full of adventure, then it’s not really backstory. The backstory is what happens up until you became and adventurer. It should include moments that helped shape your personality. Here are some examples:

*Always picked last on the playground

*Was the richest/poorest family in the village

* Travelled a lot, never had many friends

* Orphaned at a young age

* Watched helplessly as family was taken

 

While some of these may be seen as ‘exciting’ they are mostly passive. They are things done to you or things you witnessed but didn’t interact with. If you watched your family die while you remained hidden, that can explain a lot about your viewpoint and structure your actions in the game (you may make quick connections with orphans or act without thinking if a family is in danger). If, on the other hand, your story is that you leapt from a hidden room to confront monsters and drive them off, you’re edging your way out of backstory. Instead, maybe you jumped out, but were knocked aside. This shows you are brave and maybe impetuous, but not yet a hero.

 

There are an unimaginable number of stories that can be told through RPGs by an unimaginable number of characters. I’m not saying that you should stifle your creativity. I’m saying make sure that your background fits that title and only includes the stuff that helped form you into an adventurer instead of actual adventures. The notable exception being if you are starting at a higher level than level one.

 

Here are some examples:

*Raised by a wizard to be their apprentice – good.

*Fought as lord commander of the royal army against the undead legions – not good.

*Orphaned and drafted into a beggar’s thieves guild – good.

*Stole the crown jewels of the Elven Empress – not good.

 

I would suggest three to five events be included in the backstory. Each should be a big moment that will help define your character at the beginning of their journey. Remember that the best stories involve character growth and change. The elitist noble realizes the worth in the common folk. The heartless assassin finds love. The greedy miser learns the true meaning of giving. Use the backstory to create a character worthy of adventure but able to grow and change.

 

Details:

The second part of backstories that I’d like to talk about is detail. When writing a piece of fiction like a novel or short story, good details are a key component in bringing a character or world to life. A character using a short sword is not as vivid as one who uses a blade made from star metal, the hilt carved from a dragon’s thigh bone, with a blue crystal embedded in the hilt. I like details. They are very useful, especially for the DM telling the story. On an unrelated note, as a DM I like to make up and throw out details on the fly just to make a scene more interesting and see what the players latch onto. If any of these details become important, I’ll flesh them out and connect them to the story later.

 

But there is such a thing as too many details in a backstory. I mentioned above that your backstory should have three to five events that define who your character is at the start of the game. I want to caution against fleshing those events out with too much detail. Fewer details give the player and DM freedom to work various elements of the backstory events into the actual story. In some cases, this is easier with a published module, because your players are slotting themselves into an already-detailed world. It’s more difficult going in a home-brew game, in my opinion, because you are generating so many ideas from scratch.

 

Here are two examples:

 

Let’s say that I am about to introduce the main villain’s right hand lieutenant. This character is a mid-level boss who I hope will be a recurring villain for a few sessions. I want the PCs to hate this NPC and relish in their ultimate destruction. The easiest way to do this is to make this NPC someone the PCs have already met in their backstory, but to do so I need wiggle room. If you as a player say that you had a rival growing up while in the Street Urchin Thieves guild and this rival eventually killed your kindly father figure master to take control, this is someone your PC hates. If you name this NPC and give a lot of detail about them, the only way I can work them in is to use that exact person. I can do this, but it may cause more work for me in which case I might not include this element. But if you never flesh out that rival, instead leaving that part blank, then I can introduce any NPC as that rival when it best fits the story.

 

If you mention in your backstory that you had a brother who left the family home when you were young and you never heard from him again, I as DM have wiggle room to add that brother in. But if you say your brother left home and joined the monks in the mountains, it’s not as easy. I still can, but it takes more work for me because I have to add more details to the story such as why the monks involved and how everyone ends up at the monastery. Depending on the context and what role the brother is supposed to play, it may be easier to just use a generic NPC instead.

 

What I’m suggesting here is that when you are describing your background in those three to five events, leave large gaps that can be filled in as you play.

 

I also do not (as a DM) want a very detailed backstory involving your tumultuous relationship with your overbearing father. All of that is great stuff, just leave out the details. Rather than write two pages of prose detailing out this relationship just use bullet points or a few sentences.

For example: Dad is an overbearing prick because I’m not the son he wanted. Rest of family is great.

 

Those two sentences gives me all I need to know about the situation. It also leaves room to fill in details. Who is the rest of family? One sister or two? Four brothers?  Step mother? By focusing on the emotion (father issues) but not the details (no names or defined roles) I can use the backstory as the game develops but am not beholden to it.

 

In summary, a backstory is very simply the stuff that happened before a PC became an adventurer. As much as you might want it, you don’t need several pages of prose. The best strategy is very simple. Come up with three to five defining events that helped shape your personality or provided motivation to hit the road to adventure. Flesh out the events with an outline of 1 to 5 short facts that leave room for details to develop during the game. Leave lots of wiggle room for you and the DM to use these events in ways that connect your backstory to the game. And most importantly, make sure your backstory is not as exciting as what’s about to happen in the game.

 

Thanks for reading and remember: if you’re having fun, you’re doing it right!

Michael

 

 

 

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2 comments

    • Dylan on August 17, 2016 at 10:14 pm
    • Reply

    This is a really on-point article.

    Having returned to play after several decades, and meeting new players, I’ve discovered that backgrounds have two painful flaws:

    1. So vague or changeable that fellow players have no idea what your character’s potential motivations are–let alone the DM. Each session is a complete mystery as to how your character will act.

    2. Or worse, so damnably detailed or overbearing, the backstory swamps the game play. “My character doesn’t do (xyz) because he’s from Blahblahblovia.” Or “Because I’m a noble from House Hubris I can do (xyz).” Cooperative role-playing takes a backseat to their novella.

    I will use this in my notes to give to players, once I start up my campaign. Thanks!

    1. Dylan,

      Thanks for the read. I’m very glad you found it useful, so will my bosses since I wrote it while at work (mostly).

      Did you see the first piece, where I give advice to the Players about how to write their backgrounds? I basically just want a few bullet points and major events and moments. too much detail makes it harder to use IMO.

      Michael

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