Character background stories- what are the most common tropes that appear?

firstkyne

Explorer
I am interested in the features that come up most commonly when players write their character backgrounds.
Thinking of your own characters, or your players', any thoughts?

Please don't post whole back stories, though, obviously that's too much!

I'm planning to make a list up here from comments below.
THIS IS THE LIST

Life changing calls to the adventuring life:
Unknown parents
Lost parents
Strange circumstance of birth

Supernatural:
vision
message
Calling from deity

Isolated:
Loner
Defect or unusual feature of birth

Shamefull military event

...
 
Last edited:

Lylandra

Explorer
some sort of life-changing event(s) that got them into whatever the campaign needs in a PC (adventurer, agent, pirate...).

I guess I've never played a character who just seamlessly became an "adventurer" because they wanted to be one since childhood.

Also, often (but not always) some sort of mystery-hook for the DM to use. Strange appearance, occult source of power, unknown saviour, unknown parents, had a vision, born under strange circumstances etc. Yep, that's just me screaming "DM, LET ME HELP YOU!" :D
 

firstkyne

Explorer
Yes, it seems to me like many systems gloss over the character bio/backstory stage of development, when in fact that is the bit that generates a characters story arc, and really can help the GM build the challenges the character should face.
 

firstkyne

Explorer
Anyone who ever became a cleric, or another divine class, did so because their deity appeared to choose them. Nobody ever goes into the clergy willingly without a personal invite, I guess.
I've put that in the list as calling from deity.

You're right, and I guess that explains why you don't see many characters made that are struggling with their faith. They KNOW there is a god!
How would you build the start of a campaign so that a cleric was struggling? Or perhaps just not a very good Cleric, and so couldn't be certain that his God would intervene to grant him spells?
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker
Mentors, sometimes the whole master-apprentice thing; probably more common for characters that are specifically magical. Some backstories go past lost parents to eliminating entire villages or towns. I've had a couple backstories that revolved around the PCs specifically rejecting their families, which is a little bit of an inversion (but note the plural, even here).
 

Ulfgeir

Explorer
  • Prophesy stating that they are the chosen one. Probably more common in fiction than actual games.
  • Ordered to do something.
  • Running away from the law. (I have used this)
  • Running away from forced marriages.
  • Vengeance due to loss of partner.
  • Doing something to build a reputation for themselves. (I have used this)
 
Last edited:

ccs

40th lv DM
●Wrong place, wrong time/adventurer out of necessity.

This is definitely the basis of my 1/2ling barbarian Rose Burrfoot.
She started as a commoner who was abducted from a Carnival type party. Everything after that - including becoming a barbarian & saving a portion of the world - was merely trying to survive & get home.

Likewise it's mostly the basis of my 1/2ling Warlock Bree Burrfoot.
She had been being groomed by her patron to become an adventurer. But, when her older sister (see above) was abducted by some Satyrs at a party, she became an adventurer a few years ahead of schedule in as she launched a rescue attempt.
The rescue itself was successful, though things went sideways & the sisters were seperated. So most of the Warlocks adventures have been enroute to reuniting & getting home. Bree has not (yet) saved the world.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
In my personal stable of FRPG PCs? In no particular order:

Exiled/abdicated royalty
Academics- mystic & mundane
orphans of various kinds
foundling raised by ____
Protectors & guardians chosen by gods, prophecies, family or profession
former farmers & tradesmen
fugitives
 

Panda-s1

Scruffy and Determined
You're right, and I guess that explains why you don't see many characters made that are struggling with their faith. They KNOW there is a god!
How would you build the start of a campaign so that a cleric was struggling? Or perhaps just not a very good Cleric, and so couldn't be certain that his God would intervene to grant him spells?
wait, isn't this how faith works in Eberron? or at least used to? also idk, cleric struggling with faith is actually pretty interesting, I've seen it work pretty well once or twice even.

  • Vengeance due to loss of partner.
I'm actually surprised OP didn't mention vengeance in the original post. don't forget:
-vengeance from loss of family
-vengeance from loss of friends
-vengeance from loss of village
 

Richards

Adventurer
Since I've been primarily the DM for the majority of my role-playing career, I've only had three PCs in recent years (now that my son has taken on the DM role for his own campaigns). So, my PC background motivations have been:

  • Adventuring because his lies are catching up with him and it's time to skip town
  • Adventuring because he was conscripted into service by the king's adviser
  • Adventuring because he's been a slave to the drow his whole life and his masters have commanded he do so

Johnathan
 

Eltab

Adventurer
Your cell botched a mission and cost The Organization dearly. It wasn't your fault, but you knew the power of guilt-by-association. You decided to join another cell in the next country over, before the word could spread ... but it still feels like you went into exile.
(Zhent, with an eye to AL faction membership)
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
I'm actually surprised OP didn't mention vengeance in the original post. don't forget:
-vengeance from loss of family
-vengeance from loss of friends
-vengeance from loss of village
i ran an unusual Ranger with that last background. She was a retired woodlands adventurer who had settled down and raised a family when a band of raiders razed her village- she was the sole survivor. So Granny grabbed her staff and set out bent on bringing them to justice.

(Meta: she was first level because her skills had atrophied from disuse. As she shook off the rust and dust of the years of dormancy, her old knowledge and skills gradually returned.)
 

aco175

Adventurer
Besides the obvious lone survivor of an orc attack on the village there is the waif turned thief since he grew up on the streets.

Most of the PCs in my games used to be soldiers and scribes, but nothing on their early life besides growing up in the city a few hundred miles away. Not sure if that is me or the players not having family interact much in the game. We played a game in Phandalin and eventually traveled to Waterdeep. There was some family gloss over RP but not much.
 

Jd Smith1

Explorer
Revenge (family killed by X, the Conan gambit, as I call it)
Visions
Ale & Whores (funding thereof)
Greed
Obsessive Greed
Head injury
Struggling Musician working day job
 

Celebrim

Legend
I think you covered the biggest ones already.

Almost all fairy tales begin with family problems, so fairy tale backgrounds of missing parents or mysterious parentage are very common.

Also common in myth and fairy tales are strange and powerful mentors or teachers, and so again you see a lot of those. It's also very common (and convenient) for replacement PC mid-campaign to be protege's or minions of some important introduced NPC. If there isn't a specific mentor, then the player often wants to have been inducted into a secret society of some sort.

If you don't see a mysterious or powerful mentor, then almost invariably they have some sort of feral childhood where they did on their own.

If the circumstances of birth aren't unusual, then it's often usual to have parents or mentors murdered and so the character has a motive for revenge. More rarely, but still fairly common, some relative is still alive or in need of redemption or rescue, and so the motive is rescue or redeem the family member.

There are also quite a lot of characters who have a criminal past, and are either now released from prison or bondage or else are fleeing to keep their past from catching up to them. In some cases, when the player wants a noble but tormented character, then the character will have escaped from kidnapping or slavery.

Often the character has escaped from some sort of near death experience or disaster. If this was a widespread disaster, they are often the sole survivor.

As you mention, visitations by the deity and personal callings to serve are common for divine classes like clerics and paladins. It's been a while but I've also seen "child of prophesy" backgrounds where the player hints at some story arc they want to be involved in.

It's very common for fighter classed individuals to have some mundane profession like caravan guard, sailor, or member of the city watch just prior to beginning the adventuring career. It's also fairly common to have "third son of a minor noble that has inherited only a family sword and is out to seek their fortune" as background. Bonus points if the noble family is cursed, disgraced, exiled, or otherwise down on their luck.

One thing in the thread I haven't seen but I think is really cool is "Running away from a forced marriage." Good concept.
 

Celebrim

Legend
"Orcs/goblins/BGEG killed all the NPCs of my backstory so that the GM can never use my NPCs against me."
That's not nearly as effective of a solution as a player might think. In my game, that just might mean that you've got ghosts haunting you, or that someone that the player thinks is dead actually is alive, or that the goblins were killing everyone to prevent the accomplishment of a certain prophesy and the PC is the one that got away.

I've taken to just asking the player:

"Do you want your backstory to matter?"
"How much do you want me to 'mess with you' on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being madness inducing mind shattering horror and one being "I'm good thanks"?"
 

Advertisement

Top