For the past few weeks I’ve taken a break from Dungeon Mastering to work on some novel re-writes, which you can read an excerpt from by following this link. But why would you do that? It’s not funny, and it’s not about role-playing. Come on, stay focused here!
While comparing notes with the rest of my party during character creation, I came to a realization about building backstory; It doesn’t happen.
Sure, the players had character sheets where they recorded columns of numbers to represent how hard they can punch an Orc. Or a bar wench. Or ball a fire. But aside from this numerical wench-firing value, the players were content to craft generic humanoids in chainmail, stick a sword in their hand, and push them out the door with blank spots for their history. In fact, my understanding of our party’s fighter begins and ends with “He’s our fighter, and he’s part wolf.”
On the other end of this spectrum there are players (like me) who write far too much backstory. They staple what amounts to a John Grisham novel to their character sheet. Before the game starts this ‘Biography of a Bug Bearer‘ gets read aloud to the group, word for painful word. None of it gets absorbed. None of this rich backstory is ever mentioned again, lest the storyteller feel compelled to re-read his masterpiece again. And the party continues with four interchangeable murder-hobos, and one character who seems vain for fixating on their dark and brooding past.
This is a shameful waste. Character backstory is an opportunity to infuriate other players, bungle the dungeon master’s plans, and bring interesting conflicts to the game table.
So how do we write character backstory that will get used? How do we make our character so compelling, so interesting, that other players will actually ask questions about our Bug Bearer?
— Google Images/I, Robot
One mistake I see in character backstory is that it happened long, long ago, and involves a dead family member the party never met. Or, the backstory only serves as an flimsy excuse to go adventuring. Which, in a tabletop RPG, risking one’s life to go adventuring is the norm, not the exception. Nobody needs a reason to pick up that +1 Longsword and leave the farm forever.
During our Pathfinder game, I created a knight who absolutely hates arcane magic users. He doesn’t have a good reason, other than his affiliation with his old anti-mage Order. After a few sessions the party became genuinely interested in my knight’s prejudices, which directly related to how he was raised in The Order.
Nobody gives a damn about my character’s childhood, or yours. But if you seem to take delight in torturing goblins, or threatening authorities, or if you point a crossbow at the back of a party member’s head for trivial, unexplained reasons, questions get asked.
The more bizarre or extreme the behavior is, the more the party will be compelled to dig into the complexity that is your wench-firing bard. Just be careful not to cross the line from interesting and quirky, to a problem the party must solve by rolling up in a carpet and dumping in the lake.
Your Backstory Should Involve Active Goals
Pictured: My Goal
Loot isn’t a goal. Gaining experience isn’t a goal. Leveling isn’t a goal. In fact, from your bard’s perspective, he hasn’t the slightest clue what level he is. All he knows is that he keeps getting better as he survives battles and solves puzzles.
Level, rank, and class are constructs of humans who want a yardstick to hold their progress against. In a free-flowing, continent-spanning journey that takes you into the darkest depths of taverns, you need a goal that your character can be consciously aware of.
Make it your lifelong goal to join a knightly order. Unless you’re starting as a paladin from D&D 3.0 or higher, in which case you probably own a knightly order.
Decide that your necromancer won’t be satisfied until he starts a cult. Brag about how your cyber-enhanced street-tough will be shredding death metal on the big stage one day. Win a fashion contest, or whatever elves do.
My point is, believable characters have their own goals that are independent of the storyline or the party. Sometimes their personal goals will even go against the party. This is a universal truth in gaming and in literature.
Your Backstory Should Include Weaknesses
“My name is Shen, priest of darkness, slayer of Gren’Tha Um, master of the shadowless kick…and I’m an alcoholic.”
This was the introduction for my priest who would later burn down a tavern while frost elementals were writhing around inside. Because Shen had a drinking problem, among his many other faults.
Character flaws will give you something to fall back on in role-playing. Depth isn’t always about how badass your Hellknight is, or how unstoppable your cyborg is, or how many assisted suicides your medi-bot has performed. Depth is, more often than not, about your character’s weaknesses and how he overcomes them on a day-to-day basis. Think of your favorite fictional character in novels or film, and in less than five seconds I bet you can tell me their greatest physical or emotional weaknesses.
This also gives the dungeon master something to play off of. Sure, the DM’s going to send unending ranks of monsters to taste your sword, like the world’s worst factory line. But give them the opportunity to tempt your gambling-addicted rogue with a dice game. Let your DM choose between the same old goblin bloodbath, and an interesting side-quest involving your past.
— Google Images
The above picture has been making its way around the internet for a few years now. It depicts the endless variety of videogame protagonists we see nowadays. Look at all the shades of pale skin, dark hair, and grizzled frown…
This is consequently what everyone at the table sees when a human male character is introduced to the group. White. Dark hair. Square jaw. Average features. Even if he has cybernetic implants, runic tattoos, or a hallow peg leg that churns butter as he walks. If you’re playing a human male, you get to be Grimace McScruffy.
Shake it up by using a literary device– The Three Descriptors Method. Pick three notable traits that would pop out to anyone who met him in a tavern. Try to use more than one sense to describe them. And directly relate these traits to your backstory.
Playing a scholarly monk who spent their life in the cloister? Give them soft hands, a perfect unbroken nose, and robes that smell like sandalwood incense. Writing a noble elf that never learned discipline? Give your elf a beer-belly, a moist handshake, and an aroma of cheap perfume. Go wild. The more specific, the better.
Using these descriptors will make characters real to the players, instead of just screaming “I Monk!” and dropping a monk miniature on the table.
Get the Party and the GM Involved In Your History
This board has imprisoned the soul of a vindictive DM.
You may have noticed that all of these tips on backstory follow a theme. Yes, your character is important. Your understanding of your character, like an actor playing a role, is important. But your character’s contribution to the central narrative is more important.
The more your backstory and past experiences relate to the current mission, the more your character will seem like a part of the game world. That’s why it’s in your best interest to tie your history to in-game events.
If another player says his flame wizard is from Shadow-helm-deep-realm, the city that never snoozes, tell them your character has been there. In fact, that’s where your rogue first got addicted to betting on ostrich races.
Encourage the DM to pick apart your character’s history for quest ideas. Try to get other players involved too. Question them, in-character, about where they’re from and how it can help the current situation. Use pictures from wiki about kingdoms that have existed, so you can wax nostalgic about rolling countrysides, towering castle walls, and town squares where you used to throw rocks at adulterers locked in the stocks.
Or if this all sounds like too much work, I understand. I can only assume from the overabundance of same-looking, generic, Mary Sue characters that appear in video games and tabletops that everyone loves the idea of playing clones of Sylvester Stallone. Don’t let me discourage you.
Maybe think about giving them skin?