Worlds of Design: Which Came First, the Character or Their Backstory?

Should you create an elaborate backstory for a character or should the character’s adventures tell their own story?


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

I was reading part of the Xanathar’s Guide to Everything for Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons the other day, specifically the tables intended to help players flesh out the backstory of their characters. They’re an aid to imagination for those who want a detailed background. You could easily take an hour or more making one up.

Detailed backgrounds can include lists of family, friends, where the character has lived, and possibly many important/formative experiences. While reading, I had a minor epiphany about the target markets for role-playing games.

RPGs Aren’t New Anymore​

After more than 45 years, virtually all the tabletop game players (board games or otherwise) in the world have been exposed to RPGs. They may have decided they don’t want fantasy, or that RPGs are too unstructured for them, or don’t play for many other reasons, or can't find a campaign to play in, but they know what is available.

Consequently, if a publisher wants to expand its reach, increase its sales beyond the known group, then they have to attract people who are not gamers, or who’ve been gamers only a short time. That means not relying on standard gaming tropes and branching out in ways that tell different stories.

I’d include many of these video gamers in the gamer group that is familiar with tabletop RPGs even if they don’t play them. AAA list video games are often “experiences” with a pure avatar representing the character. This derives in large part from D&D. Or to put it another way, even if there are gamers who don’t play tabletop role-playing games, they’re already familiar with the basics of D&D-style play.

A New Audience​

The biggest RPGs, such as D&D, have every incentive to broaden their interest for non-gamers, for people who have not yet come to RPGs or have come to RPGs recently. This is in large part reflective of the increasingly diverse voices who are now playing. Additional rulebooks such as Xanathar's are filling in the gaps of traditional game rules with more storytelling options that aren’t limited to “whether or not you know D&D.”

Just before reading the Xanathar book, I checked out the Cortex Prime site on the web. From reading the initial rules and description it’s clear the game supports storytelling in more detail than traditional D&D. Yes, there is some dice rolling, but it’s arranged to be “ready to collaborate on a shared story” (quoting from the site). And it’s free.

For players looking to share epic stories of their characters’ adventures, creating a story beforehand helps players engage with the game before it’s even started. This is different from how I was introduced to tabletop games.

Developing a Story​

This is not to say that traditional tabletop games can’t evolve their own stories. The difference is that when I played, we started with blank slates as characters and then the adventures told the story. Background generators weren’t necessary because your character may not have lasted very long, and the assumption was that the story would come later as the character evolved.

As an example, my original characters didn’t even have names to begin with, let alone backgrounds. It was “Wiz the elf”, “Muscles the fighter”, and “that go##amn dwarf,” who later became Orion, Eradan, and Yilderim. The characters evolved through their actions and experiences during adventures as part of the game, not from a story invented beforehand.

Developing a story beforehand matters significantly because of how D&D is structured. Character differentiation of powers comes later; the higher the character, the more unique they become. But to start, they’re somewhat generically similar, unless you develop a story for them.

This can certainly affect a group’s enjoyment of the game; there’s nothing more frustrating than creating an elaborate backstory for a character only to have them die an ignominious death early on. Story games like Cortex support character development right from the start; D&D evolves character stories through progression. Thanks to Xanathar’s, now players can flesh them out without advancement … but the game’s may still be deadly enough that any character can die if they’re unlucky.

Your Turn: Does your game support elaborate backstories?
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
As a DM, I suggest that players write up backstories for their characters. I suggest they keep them relatively brief, and that they remember their characters are closer to the beginning of their stories than to the middle, let alone the end. Mostly what I want to know is how and why the characters came to be adventurers (or at least, willing to be adventurers) and what, if anything, there is in their backstories I can use to tie the characters to the campaign and to the setting.

I have had players overshoot, and end up with 10,000+ words of backstory. I grumble, but I read it and pull out what I need. It arguably misses the point of being close to the beginning of the story, but I don't stress about it. I do think the stuff in Xanathar's is ... suboptimal, that way: It can give you a lot of stuff to incorporate. It's a problem with any sort of random backstory generation, I suspect, at least in D&D and related games.


The EN World kitten
I've always preferred to have the stories of the PCs be about what they accomplished in play, rather than the backstories the players wrote for their characters. In my experience, the shared events of the game tend to make those stories belong to the entire group, and so they enjoy them a lot more than they do listening to one person's background.


My games support some backstory and may depend on how much the players wants me to use it to further the campaign. Some PCs are like the pre-gens in LMoP where you have a tie to the town or story already, "Carp the halfling kid is my brother." Some background from players is more that the PC grew up 10,000 miles away and just walked into town. That leads to less usable material.

Most of my PCs and my player's PCs have some history and motivation on why they went adventuring, but not anything detailed above a paragraph or two. I tend to like having the bonds and flaws section of the PHB since it is usable to give some flavor to the PC that I may not have thought of. I have been playing for a while and do not need or care to have charts about how many siblings I have and such, but can see where new players may want/need more help in this area.

Not sure why? Some may be that new players are not used to using their imagination with phones and TV entertaining people now, or social media telling people instead of asking people to think. Some may be that new players are asked to join from experience players and they feel ill-prepared or shy and having the full background may help.

I remember going to conventions back in 1e/2e days and having the pre-made characters provided. They came with a bit of notes on their personality and feel for the character. This made the one-shot fun since you had some structure on how to act. It allowed you to be more free with your acting skills and such. Not sure if the expanded background is some of this.

If players give me background, I will tie it into the campaign.

If they don't, then it is assumed there is nothing exceptional in their background to speak of. "I am Bruce the Fighter. I come from the North" is fine if that's what the player wants. If I want to tie them into the "rebellion in the North" subplot later in the campaign, I will check in with that player later with questions.

In either case, if they get ganked at low levels shrug

BUUUUUUT, I do make absolutely sure they KNOW that death at low levels is a significant possibility before they put all the effort into their character design.


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
In your backstory I want three things:

  1. Your Call to Adventure. What motivates your character/why do you do it. Vital for me writing compelling hooks.
  2. Connections to the world. Be it the metropolis you grew up in, the chapter of knights you joined, your childhood friend turned rival, your non-dead mentor, the tribe of bugbears that wiped out your village, the beggar-king who taught the orphans to steal. Things that when I bring into play there's instant buy-in and engagement.
  3. Whatever you need to feel like you have a complex and rich character. While I prefer something concise, by the time a campaign is over you'll have heard a lot more exposition from me then your backstory, even if it does run a bunch of pages.

Often there are high level motivators that are not the type that come up at the table. A recent character started masked and covered - she was covered with burn scars from an attack that killed her child, and then she turned her magical knowledge a more martial way. While it's all nice to say "I want my character to be generated at the table", those (a) are all shared experiences and we need otehr anchors for our characters to have unique viewpoints and (b) very, very few DM are going to run the first session with a young child, kill them off, and then take a ten year downtime (character was an elf) to go bladesinger. And if so, would it really be a shared experience? It also gave a mystery to the character that could come out in play as trust was established.


How much background a PC starts with has always varied, players can have as much or little backstory as they want. All I ask is that they don't have a backstory that will give them a general overall advantage as and adventurer beyond what other PCs get. You can have the noble background for example, but there has to be a reason why the parental units don't bail them out.

Beyond that? Every PC has at least some background. Where did they grow up? Do they have a family? Why are they where they are in their life that they are going to risk their life by adventuring? Even if a PC has no background, no history I reserve the right to fill in the blanks. Everyone, even orphans, were raised by someone.

While there are times my PCs don't have much to go on, most that are not meant for AL or similar have background going back to long before it was a thing mentioned in the book. Frequently it's just broad brush-strokes that I fill in later, other times there's more detail. One of my first PCs from long, long ago, was a wizard with a troubled past that had been raised by a cold and uncaring mother. Along they way I fleshed out the background, that his mother was raising him and teaching him to be a wizard so that she could one day sacrifice him for her own immortality. Later on I retired the NPC but still used him as an NPC now and then. His mother's plans were thwarted so she became a lich and a major villain.

So my PCs for home campaigns always have at least a rough outline of a background. Sometimes I fill in details as the game progresses if it adds to the overall story.


I like for characters to have some sense of where they came from, and I enjoy things like the background tables in Xanathar’s (Traveller & original Mechwarrior have even more intricate ones, the former I understand can even end up with the character dying). I especially enjoy those that have hooks in them that I can weave into the game, or possibly direct me to running certain adventures/modules from my collection (in my Saltmarsh game, one character had allusions to Whelm in their background, another had references to Wave - encouraging me to plan using White Plume Mountain).

At the same time, as the DM I am juggling a few hundred other bits of lore at one time, and if a PC’s background is too convoluted or intricate, it may get overlooked, forgotten or be at odds with other character’s backgrounds or the campaign itself.

And, as mentioned above, characters don’t necessarily have plot armor, and I’ve seen folks with multi-page backgrounds lose their character in the first session or two.

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