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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?

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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

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
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.
 

Alzrius

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.
 

aco175

Legend
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.
 

Blue

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.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
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.
 



Stormonu

Legend
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.
 

Lord Mhoram

Adventurer
My most played genre is the Superhero genre. Following source tropes, there is a solid backstory to most characters, some of which could be done in one line, others in a couple of paragraphs, but it is part of the genre. And as permanent death is also fairly rare in the source material, the time spent on backstory and origin doesn't cause a conflict.
 

J-H

Adventurer
My players have been very background-lite. One of them didn't decide his character was married and exiled until about level 13 (end of Castle Dracula).

For myself, I try to have at least a partial background, but it depends on the character. My "was a sailor, lost a leg, became a wizard in his '30s" character has more of a backstory than one who's starting out at age 19.
 


univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I always felt one of the strengths of Pathfinder's setting-tied traits and archetype system was that it built in some assumptions about your characters history, especially when playing an adventure path. You can make all those choices from a purely min-max perspective but that could give you an interesting result set once you stepped back and looked at the character as a whole.
 

Elaborate backstories: Support? Yes. Require? No.
Yeah if a player wants that, great. If not, fine.

What I've never seen go well is "basically no backstory at all, I'll come up with it at the table", like they maybe have a vague concept, which in 5E is usually just race + class + background and thinking very briefly about how that would look. I've just never seen someone pull this off in 30+ years of TT RPGs. If they've got nothing at all beyond that (which like in 2E would be race+class+kit, for example), my experience, countless times, has been they come up with nothing consistent or interesting, the best they possibly do is come up with a gimmick or a catchphrase.

If they're like at least able to articulate why their character isn't totally generic Dwarf Fighter w/Mercenary background or w/e, to like articulate some really basic backstory like where they're from, and if they had any formative/significant experiences, then we're golden. For example, we had a Human Barbarian in one game, and he's basically a Viking but he can tell us he's the youngest son of a big family, out for adventure, and very boisterous.

Pretty basic? Sure. Pretty trope-y? Sure. Good enough? Definitely. And that actually became a great character. It's a pretty thin line and I think it speaks more to state of mind and approach to the character than to whether it's really detailed or not - like, maybe this guy only spent 1-2 minutes thinking about it, but somehow his state of mind was envisioning the character, whereas the "I'll come up with it at the table" guy just doesn't have that state of mind, and never achieves it (in my experience, again, I'm sure others have seen it).

Personally I like elaborate-ish backstories but what I have learned is you have to put your character at the beginning of a road, not the end. I once wrote an incredibly elaborate Werewolf: The Apocalypse background and realized, that in doing that, I'd basically gone through everything that interested me about the character, and wasn't really that excited to play them!

Then again I wrote an Exalted character with a three page backstory, a sketch and a ton of ideas and I'd almost never been more excited to play a character, because of where he was going to go. Then the Exalted campaign never happened. SIGH.
 

There is enough tools to develop a cool character.
The greatest bug there are the trope about starting at first level and the linear level progression. Character start at level one as a bare rookie is hard to manage with a lot of backgrounds. We can still explain that a character served in army, then got some problems or injuries that bring him back to level one. It’s a nice explanation that could help explain faster level progression.
 

Lord Shark

Explorer
There's nothing about Cortex Prime that requires an elaborate backstory, unless you consider an "elaborate backstory" to be anything more than writing down class and race on your character sheet. All you need to know is what your character's Traits are.

Similarly, consider Fate. All you have to do is come up with a High Concept, a Trouble, and a couple other Aspects, although you can leave the extra Aspects blank and fill them in during play. In practice, that just means coming up with a few phrases to describe the character. I can make a character whose High Concept is Hotshot Fighter Pilot, and that's fine by itself -- I do not have to write several paragraphs about how the character was always fascinated by planes when he was a child, joined the Air Force but got dishonorably discharged when he crashed his plane, etc., etc.

Hell, I used to write more elaborate backgrounds for my D&D characters twenty years ago than I do in more modern games today.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
I’m not a fan of elaborate backgrounds. They’re not a good fit for the kind of game I run, and I’ve been burnt by them in the past as a player.

I played in a 4e game where the DM wanted everyone to write backgrounds, so I did. It was long but not particularly long. I set up why I was playing a dwarf shaman but also set up a mentor and possible conflict with my old clan that could be brought into play. Three sessions into the campaign, we got teleported to ancient Rome. It was all pointless. 😐
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
There is enough tools to develop a cool character.
The greatest bug there are the trope about starting at first level and the linear level progression. Character start at level one as a bare rookie is hard to manage with a lot of backgrounds. We can still explain that a character served in army, then got some problems or injuries that bring him back to level one. It’s a nice explanation that could help explain faster level progression.
True, you're starting out on your character's heroic journey - but that's not that much of a limitation. It just means you can't pack in lots of major accomplishments... yet. I don't see that as any more limiting than playing in a fantasy game rather than a science fiction one. You're simply tailoring your backstory to the genre - in this case zero-to-hero fantasy rather than something else. And if you find that a onerous restriction, that's a discussion for Session 0 and whether the campaign starts at level 1 or not.
 

I used to hate backstories when I was younger. These days, I recognize that a backstory is all about the value it adds to the game. Does it give the DM plot hooks to use to get the PC invested in the campaign or is it just bad fanfic the player wrote about how awesome their character was before they even got to adventuring?

From a player perspective, I prefer my backstories to be succinct, a few evocative sentences. "For the many decades of his life, Rel the Last lived uneventfully in his tribe, following the tried and true ways, until his family was killed. Now he seeks a glorious death in battle against a worthy foe." "Akretos Noone's last name is fake. He was a promising thief in Unther, but got greedy and stole from the guildmaster, had one of his horns cut off in punishment, and fled. He's been running ever since."
 

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