DnD Backstories – A Cage Of Your Own Design
Hello internet, your favourite dungeon master you’ve never heard of is back to talk about another topic. Today I’m tapping away about character backstories, and boy, howdy do I get tapping!
So, What Is A ‘Backstory’
In a typical roleplaying game (RPG), most characters you’ll play will have a backstory. In its simplest form, a backstory is made up of the things your character was doing prior to the start of the adventure.
It gives you, the player, touchpoints to inform your in-character decisions (roleplaying) and adds to the verisimilitude of the game. Personality traits, distinguishing features and flaws can all stem from a well-worked backstory.
It can also give the game master (GM) fun ways to incorporate a bit of your character into the game! Sounds fun? That’s because it is.
Easy as that. Shortest article I’ll ever write. OH? you want more? Like how I do it? Some tips and tricks? Drilling down to the reason it’s difficult to write a good backstory? Fine. I guess I’ll take the penny; here’s my thought.
The Backstory Dilemma
Many people struggle with putting together a backstory, and quite likely, if you’re reading this, you’re one of them.
All too often, you’ll see people online asking for advice, “How do I write a backstory?”, “Does this backstory sound good?” and so forth. Thankfully there are plenty of other people online who try to help.
Hold on to your pants because there’s an unpopular opinion incoming.
Wrong. You’re wrong. The people asking the questions are wrong. The answers are wrong. It’s all wrong.
I’m sorry you had to see that. Please hear me out before you dive into the comments on socials to tell me why I’m wrong.
It’s wrong because the person asking the question doesn’t understand what they’re asking, and by proxy, the people trying to be helpful are answering the wrong question.
I believe this stems from using the term ‘backstory’, everyone automatically thinks of an origin story for their character, so naturally, they write a story.
“But Dickie! X-Men: Origins is Wolverine’s backstory!”
You are correct. Now go to the back of the room because you’re also wrong.
This is the crux of the problem you’re having. The solution? Stop trying to write a story.
It can be fun to write, sure. But it doesn’t help the GM, and I’d argue that it isn’t all that helpful for you either*.
It’s not all doom and gloom. So hold onto your seats because I’m going to expand on the solution and show you how to have fun again.
*That’s a lie, please write a story, write more stories, seriously, if you enjoy writing backstories, do it more, write a book. I need more awesome fantasy fiction in my life.
The Solution – Information Over Storytelling
Write less. For real, stop trying to write a short story (please do direct us to your writing, though. You’ll get better, and I get to steal stuff for my Campaigns).
When you write less, it allows the GM to spend less time dissecting your backstory for the morsels of information they need, and it gives them the freedom to spend more time to use (weaponise) that information to add to the overall quality of the game.
“How do I write less?” I hear you ask! Someone did, I’m sure of it. Maybe near the back?
Think about the short story you want to write (or have written) and take all that extra information out. Instead, write your backstory more like a series of personally identifiable pieces of background information.
Here’s a common “backstory” checklist I use when I create a new character for a game (and for the budding GMs amongst you, I use a similar concept to create quick NPCs on the fly):
– What’s their name?
– Where did they grow up?
– Do they have any family?
– What was their previous line of work?
– Have they experienced any notable events?
– Do they have any distinguishing features?
I bet if we filled that in right now, you could go away and write a pretty neat short story.
“But what about all the other stuff, their family members’ names, the events leading up to the notable events, why do they have an eye patch and only one ear?” I hear you in the back shouting out again.
Is it relevant or likely to come up? No? So don’t write it down. You’re only committing yourself to something that the GM will struggle to make part of the game, if at all.
Empower yourself to make decisions on the fly without having to rewrite five generations of your fake family’s history.
However, if the GM asks you for more information, be forthcoming with it, make it up on the spot if you must because if the GM asks you for specifics, I’d wager it’s going to become rather relevant.
Money Where Your Mouth Is
As an example, let’s fill in the checklist, and you’ll see what I mean.
– What’s their name? Frodo Baggins
– Where did they grow up? The Shire
– Do they have any family? Only an uncle, called Bilbo
– What was their previous line of work? Nobility, so none
– Have they experienced any notable events? Uncle vanished at his own birthday party and left Frodo (me) a suspicious ring
– Do they have any distinguishing features? Very short with large hairy feet
Voice at the back, do you see what I mean?!
I said, DO YOU SEE WHAT I MEAN?
With only the above information, I’d wager that you could go away and write an epic fantasy adventure or play this character in an RPG.
How much more do you really need to know at the start of an adventure?
The GM might ask if we have an extended family, to which we might reply, “Why yes, the covetous Sackville-Baggins!” job done. The GM now knows they’re going to pinch our character’s house while they’re off adventuring.
Not mentioned in our backstory is anything about a friendly wizard who happens to be the main quest-giver of this adventure. So, the GM throws the wizard ally your way and says, “This wizard rolls up all the time, he’s really friendly towards you”. Adventure, set, go! We’ve not given our character any reasons to trust a seemingly friendly wizard.
However, whilst writing this backstory, if we’d been carried away and written something like “…at the birthday party, Bilbo disappeared because the ring he put on is an evil magical ring that a wizard gave him!” (Don’t @ me. I know that’s not how it went down but I’m deep into an analogy I can’t back out of).
Well, now there’s a spot of bother for the GM, who had a fantasy epic to tell. Where your character, for no reason other than to have an exciting backstory, will be hostile towards the main quest giver immediately. Empower yourself to have fun by writing less!
I’m not saying you shouldn’t think about all those other things. I’m also not saying don’t write more down. What I’m saying is, write Background Information, not a BackStory.
- As a side note. It can be fun to answer the above questions about yourself. Are there any additional questions that would allow someone to play a decent approximation of you in an RPG? If so, add those questions into your character’s backstory.
Conclusion – Background Not Backstory
If you want to write a backstory, write a story. If you want to write a backstory for the purpose of roleplaying in a game, write down some background information about your character and make the rest up when it’s needed.
It’s less stressful, you won’t need help from well-meaning strangers online, and you’ll be given the freedom to explore a character, play the adventure and have some fun whilst doing so.
Give it a whirl, and let us know what you think. Did it help? Or get in the comments on socials and tell me I’m wrong. I’ll try and mark your feedback (bonus points for creative insults).
READ MORE: How D&D Improved My Mental Health
Richard’s made up awards include winning ‘Words Why Them So Good’ 2019, ‘Thief! Put That Blank Award Down’ 2020 and Fictional magazine’s ‘Best New Non-Extraterrestrial Writer’ 2051. He spends his days fixing computers and his nights in a (mostly) quiet dark room. Between the stereotypical geek hobbies he enjoys long walks, bourbon and looking attractive to wasps. You can find him on social media but you’re going to have to work for it.