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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

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Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
We mostly play beer, whiskey, and pretzels campaigns that are less about detailed backgrounds tying into overarching plots. Story is created during play and will have an effect but really my guys make up blank slates and I've never really gone into a character with a story in mind, usually I don't even know what I'm going to play until I roll the stats. These are L1 D&D chumlies and their lifespans are short, too much effort into a background is often time wasted.
 

Jaeger

That someone better.
In a 1e campaign I ran a few years ago a player wrote three pages of backstory. He died the third session. His next character had a lot less.

Well done sir. I salute you!


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."

This!!!!

Ideally Back stories should fit on a 3x5 card. Preferably with bullet points.

If more is required due to playing an RPG with a more intertwined political bent Half a page, or double spaced page is acceptable.

Bullet points preferable!

Just a hard No on the fanfic though. Give me what is relevant for play at the table.
 

For myself, and what I recommend to others, there are three things a backstory should do:

1. Explain how the pc got their abilities, and ideally how they feel about them. This is mostly for continuity.
2. Explain why/how they became adventurers. Adventurer here means 'someone who goes on adventures' - not necessarily someone who wants to or chose to, but they do.
3. Some people or groups of people they knew in the past, so the dm can use that later. Hooks, really. There's no minimum here, and very little detail is needed, but some sort of hooks is good. If you didn't know anyone, how that got to be true is a hook by itself.

You can do bullet points, although some nice prose is nice.

I've only had issues when the explanation of how they got their abilities doesn't match the actual abilities they have, but that's usually from new players who haven't grokked the scope of a level 1 pc in whatever edition. It comes with time.
 

Campbell

Legend
I do not like hard and fast rules here, but generally speaking for adventure gaming I think the focus should be mostly on the adventures. There are other sorts of roleplaying games (that are not necessarily "story games") including games like RuneQuest, Traveller, or Exalted where the characters' lives are the adventures and more focus should be on their situation. I'm not really a fan of backstory as like a thing. If it's worth telling it should be relevant to actual play.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
I actually prefer more shared backstory development, as opposed to solo backstory. Like how Beyond the Wall does it with their playbooks. Our in our last session, the whole session was fleshing out our backstory for our level 0 characters and how those characters know each other and how they connect to people in their starting town.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
I mentioned what I want from players who want to give me a backstory. As a player, my first instinct is to write what I would want as a GM. I'd probably write that, regardless, and condense it as much as needed to suit a GM's preferences.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
I don't require backstories from my players, but I do point out to them that thinking about who the character is and what the character wants is a good way to inspire in them some of the personality quirks they decide to play. Coming up with the BIFTs for the character can also spur on ideas for how they want to play it. As my groups are of the theatrical type, figuring out wants and needs are kind of ingrained in us, and thus connecting them to events in their past help ground them.

If a player decides to play their character as greedy... a backstory can help determine what they are greedy for (since it doesn't necessarily have to mean gold). And when you connect that to the background and class they've chosen, it can redirect ideas into new directions they might not have initially thought of. Having done improv for several decades has shown me that asking the audience for their second idea of a scene suggestion invariably results in something more creative, more original, and more interesting than whatever their first impulse idea to shout out was. And requesting a PC backstory likewise results in the player taking the time to go through several choices and thus finding the most interesting and more inspiring one.
 

The time I'm thinking of was when I was starting up my first campaign after a few years away. The players knew that the premise was that they were fighting against an evil magic-user tyrant (inspired by King Claudius from Hamlet). So the one player turns in a two-page backstory. I start reading it and there's stuff about a lover slain by the evil king's forces, and that part was great. But then it went into this in-depth story centering the PC in the rebellion as one of the main protagonists, having performed feats far beyond a 1st level halfling fighter/thief.

I was placed in the position as a DM that I couldn't use the good without validating the bad stuff in that backstory, so I ignored it. In hindsight I should've talked to the player about it, but I was still a young DM of around 19 or 20 at the time.

Just a hard No on the fanfic though. Give me what is relevant for play at the table.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
As both DM and player I don't bother sorting out backstory and family etc. (a collaborative effort between player and DM) for a character until it's shown enough staying power to make the effort worthwhile. But even then the goal isn't to give the DM material to work with, but the player.

Roll-up tells you by dice rolls what profession or skills a character had - if any - before adventuring, and what languages it knows (and choice or roll for native tongue gives a good idea as to where you're from; nobody can have Common as a native tongue); and often that and a few quirks are enough to get started with and are sometimes all you ever need to make a character both entertaining and memorable.

Sometiems a player (myself included) might have a backstory in mind first and then try to roll a character to suit, but that approach risks running hard aground on what the dice provide to work with; so usually it's character first, backstory second if ever.
 

BigBadDM

Explorer
Try to refrain from creating a character with a backstory. Just like a DM never goes into intricate detail about places a character might not go.
It's not worth the time or immersion.
I mean do it if you are bored or something.

Instead, make personality stories for your character.
The 'backstory' of Batman's Joker is--eh, okay.
But the personality of Joker is the draw. Same with Batman.
Same with any character worth remembering.
Show, don't tell.

And then when someone asks why your character wears clown makeup--create it on the spot. That's more entertaining the detailing the backstory on the offset of character creation.

The best characters are those whom ooze personality--spend your time in that department rather than how they got, where they got.
 

Marandahir

Crown-Forester
I feel like the best way to create a character is to roll them up and see what story that unfolds from there. You could randomly generate a backstory with the backstory generator tables, or you could just pick a lineage and then roll your stats and see what class makes sense from a set of 6 ability scores and your lineage. I'd argue you should choose your lineage first so that you don't get tempted to choose a lineage in the old PHB style based on what Ability Score bumpers they grant that will best support the abilities you roll. Doesn't mean you can't alter those abilities after the fact using the new Tasha's rules, but I'd say best to figure out the lineage you want first rather than letting your ability scores guide you to a lineage.

On the contrary, I feel like class should definitely be guided by ability scores and lineage, since it's the story of what you've chosen to do for yourself, rather than what you were born as.

Once you have that, the backstory might start to write itself from the discrepancies between lineage, abilities, and class. Maybe you've made a Tiefling Paladin, but you rolled relatively high on Dexterity as a third highest score after Strength and Charisma. So maybe you decide that your Tiefling had a past life of crime before turning their life around and coming to faith in a deity. So you choose the Criminal background.

This is just one way to do it, of course. But I feel like D&D is at its best when your options are constrained beyond your control and you're forced to roll with the punches. That's what makes D&D play more than just collective storytelling, after all - the randomness of the dice throw uncertain constraints that take the story in directions it wouldn't otherwise.

And of course, I'd try not to develop the character too much as backstory before Session 1. The adventure IS their story, after all. If the backstory is more interesting than the story, then you shouldn't be playing the story, you should be playing the backstory. Let the game table develop the character over time. They can have a history, and it can be really interesting, but try to keep the details vague - let the game table help you discover the backstory details that flesh out the character and let that backstory unfold as part of narrative by being relevant to the ongoing plot. For example, don't create an elaborate story for the dark knight who murdered your parents and how you sought vengeance and eventually conquered over him; DO mention to the DM in session zero that your parents were murdered by a dark knight and you vowed revenge. Then the DM can introduce a dark knight into the game and you can actually get your revenge during gameplay.
 

Hussar

Legend
The background of the character should tie the character into that campaign. It should give the DM a hook or three to use during the game to even more strongly tie that character into the campaign.

I'm absolutely sick to death of Man with No Name characters at the table whose backgrounds are entirely unusable in the campaign or basically amount to "I'm an orphan, from a far away place we will never visit. I've been in the current location a few days or so." Barf.

Look, if the DM is making the effort to actually set the campaign in a setting more detailed than Generic D&D Land, it is an enormous help to the DM if the players make the ten minutes of effort to tie that character into the setting. You're playing in Forgotten Realms? Ok, pick a town nearby to come from. Pick a FR god to worship. Mention a family to come from.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
The thing is even if your character is just Bob the Barbarian or Wiz the Elf Wizard you have already bought in to a backstory created via the standard design tropes of the game. If I‘m Wiz the Elf then my backstory is I was born as an Elf (with all that means in the setting) and at some point learnt some spells.
Then I make my choice of cantrips, get some skills and feats and then get ready for play. I’ve made choices which together tell a story.

I may as well extend that story to get a personality, some relationships and a bit of motivation. Of course I’m now doing a lot of FATE so Aspects cover much of that too
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The background of the character should tie the character into that campaign. It should give the DM a hook or three to use during the game to even more strongly tie that character into the campaign.
Except that on principle I don't want the DM tying the campaign to any one PC, even if it's mine. I see backstory as being mostly for my benefit as a player, to flesh out my roleplaying.
I'm absolutely sick to death of Man with No Name characters at the table whose backgrounds are entirely unusable in the campaign or basically amount to "I'm an orphan, from a far away place we will never visit. I've been in the current location a few days or so." Barf.
All that tells me is that the player wants the character's story to arise and-or emerge through play rather than be pre-written. I'm cool with that.
Look, if the DM is making the effort to actually set the campaign in a setting more detailed than Generic D&D Land, it is an enormous help to the DM if the players make the ten minutes of effort to tie that character into the setting. You're playing in Forgotten Realms? Ok, pick a town nearby to come from. Pick a FR god to worship. Mention a family to come from.
And trust the DM not to use those things to hose you later somehow: your hometown is the one that's in peril, your family got kidnapped, your deity just went offline becaue the other deities ganged up on it.

Most DMs - and I admit my own guilt here as well - just can't resist this stuff no matter how hard they try. But they should.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
And trust the DM not to use those things to hose you later somehow: your hometown is the one that's in peril, your family got kidnapped, your deity just went offline becaue the other deities ganged up on it.

Most DMs - and I admit my own guilt here as well - just can't resist this stuff no matter how hard they try. But they should.
No way. If I'm introducing background stuff like that, it's because I want the DM to mess with me. That's fun. That generates conflict, which is why I play.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Except that on principle I don't want the DM tying the campaign to any one PC, even if it's mine. I see backstory as being mostly for my benefit as a player, to flesh out my roleplaying.

All that tells me is that the player wants the character's story to arise and-or emerge through play rather than be pre-written. I'm cool with that.

And trust the DM not to use those things to hose you later somehow: your hometown is the one that's in peril, your family got kidnapped, your deity just went offline becaue the other deities ganged up on it.

Most DMs - and I admit my own guilt here as well - just can't resist this stuff no matter how hard they try. But they should.
I use a Wealth/Influence mechanic and make it explicit in session 0 by telling the Players I want you to create NPC relationships and even NPC factions that link your PC to the world. Those relationships and factions may be exploited and used in game - if they do then you can gain and spend influence to affect the world too :)
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
I require backstories before a character enters play. I'm flexible on length and format, as long as it gives me and the player enough material to weave the character into the campaign setting and connect them to the other characters before play begins. Also, since I never start campaigns at 1st level, I want to know about some of their exploits that got them to where they are now, and what their reputation is like.
 

Hussar

Legend
Except that on principle I don't want the DM tying the campaign to any one PC, even if it's mine. I see backstory as being mostly for my benefit as a player, to flesh out my roleplaying.
Sorry, I misspoke. I don't mean that the character should be the focal point of the campaign. I mean that the character should be tied to the campaign setting. If your character is so generic that I could pull him out of the campaign, plunk him down in a completely different campaign, without making any changes, then that's a character I don't want to see at the table. If we're playing in Dragonlance, then your character should come from somewhere on Ansalon (or, depending on the campaign, possibly one of the other continents), and doesn't contradict the established elements of that setting.
All that tells me is that the player wants the character's story to arise and-or emerge through play rather than be pre-written. I'm cool with that.

Fair enough. I am not. I've been burned by this too many times. To me, it tells me that I have a player who has zero interest in the role playing aspects of the game and is just here for the tactical wargame. No thanks. I am not interested in playing that way anymore.
And trust the DM not to use those things to hose you later somehow: your hometown is the one that's in peril, your family got kidnapped, your deity just went offline becaue the other deities ganged up on it.

Most DMs - and I admit my own guilt here as well - just can't resist this stuff no matter how hard they try. But they should.
Yes, well, again, fair enough. Although, as a player, I have no problems with DM's doing this - that's why I'm giving the background to the DM. So he can make adventures that my character will actually care about. I've mentioned before the idea of Backgrounding. It comes from Chronical Feudalis - a fun little indie RPG. Backgrounding is exactly what it says. The player tells the DM, "This is part of my background, but, I want it to stay in the background and not become a focus of the game". There is an implication there that the player will not be a dick and abuse the notion and the DM will respect it. So, if you want to have a family, but, you don't want it getting kidnapped, you put Family in a Background and everyone's happy.
 

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