Guest Author

A Modest Guide to Backstory

Guest Author Wes Cantrell
Art of Rakdos Talent Agent Max, and a Guildless Elven Bard Marla by Jeanna Lundgren

A big part of Tabletop Roleplaying is creating a hero, or murder-hobo as most characters descend into, and creating a story. Most of the time the story and legend of your best adventures are build through playing the game and epic moments in the campaign. But why invest the time into a backstory when your campaign is going to create your character’s legend?

Character creation is done, and are ready to set forth towards fortune and glory. So how does your backstory fit into your quest for wealth and whatever else? Well a backstory starts telling you why you are doing what you are doing. Sure money makes the world go around and can be a good motivator, but why is your character seeking his fortune by risking life and limb and not setting up a profitable tavern to cater to rich heroes returning from a quest with gold to spend?

That’s where your story comes in. Having a back story tells you about this person you are impersonating. Maybe it’s not just for the money, a quest for a lost family heirloom, the quest to prove your prowess in battle, maybe a bit of vengeance Punisher style, or maybe you just really believe in trying to bring some order to the chaos that is the world. Once you have your motivation that’s where you can really start building out the rest of it.

Having a motivation is great but it’s not really a story, it’s not a person, it’s one facet. One thing that gets overlooked is how your character would react based on their life experience. Sure you know how you would react when confronted with a problem, that’s based on your life experience. The life experience of your adventuring badass is, with very few exceptions, going to be heavily different, and that’s where backstory comes in.

Now you’re probably thinking, “I have a backstory, my character is a young man from a farm outside of Nowhereville of the Kingdom of Whocares and is destined to save the world.”

Yeah that’s great. But that doesn’t tell you anything about who this person is. What do they like, do they have a twitch from some trauma, do they use phrases that make no sense to anyone else, think Faith from Buffy saying “Five by Five”  or what is a good memory they hold on to? Does your character have a dislike of brussel sprouts, an allergic reaction to watermelon, or has a fear of something that seems small, like spiders or a touch of claustrophobia. Giving your character these little things gives you a place to draw on as a player for how your character will react in different situations. Image for a moment an adventurer who is a tad claustrophobic having to delve deep into an underground cavern? How long before a panic attack sets in, adding just that extra layer of tension and drama to your campaign and making the character feel just a little bit more alive.

The goal should be to find ways to create a full enriched backstory with some fun moments and dark moments in your character’s past allows you to build in the world. Some people leave the entire world building to their DM and are more like passive observers in their games. But giving your character a family history, a story lets you also build the world in a more cooperative fashion. The goal here is not for you John Smith to be running through Waterdeep, but for Thorgoth the Dwarf Paladin to be walking through the streets of Waterdeep on his way to morning mass at the Temple of Moradin? But more than that why is he so devote to Moradin that makes him such a strong follower of that god compared to his dwarven brethren?

Lets dive into a specific strategy I call “A Day in the Life” to use to create a backstory.

A day in the life should be a short story, maybe two or three pages of a scenario where your character has been put under pressure, a tough job, a hard call, having a moment when their world view was shattered and has to be rebuilt, helps when you are in a tough situation in game to know how to react as your character.

In a my current D&D campaign I’m playing a Riot Control Sergeant of the Boros Legion for a Ravnica Noir game. Well basically a military riot control instead of just saying “ stoic tough cop like character” which would be some basic personality traits it tells us nothing about how he reacts. Thus enters our short day in the life story. What made our Riot Sergeant believe in the Boros cause, is this an event that changed his mind and caused him to start rethinking his stance, or did it solidify his belief in his cause. If so how does this cause him to interact with characters who may be from other guilds? In this particular example I wrote a story where his squad was called in to control a scene after one of the Angels of the Boros Legion had come in and decimated an orphanage where a little girl had been possessed by a demon. The Angel’s view point was very much the ends justifies the means, but seeing the wanton slaughter of the innocent and defenseless had a great effect on our sergeant who previously had believed a big part of his mission was protecting the citizens of the city and giving them a beacon of hope. By facing this darker grittier truth of his guild it has lead him down a path of distrust but also looking for a way out, and to get out from under a guild control takes a lot of money.

Having this little snapshot of an event gives you a chance to image a scene in the setting you’ll be playing before being introduced and image the world you’re hoping to build and put your character into it. Work on building some secondary characters for your main character to talk to, the sergeant had his squad to talk to about what was going on, to give orders too as he tried to keep a sense of normalcy. The Angel in the story is very abrasive and has no regret or remorse over what action she took clashing heavily with the sergeant’s own beliefs.

This lets the DM also start running down story lines for your character and insert your vision into the world. Giving your DM some plot hooks let’s them build your character with you into their story and sometimes you might not know where it leads. In a Star Wars campaign player had created his character with a somewhat vague background but enough that he thought it was going to reveal that his character was the son of a great jedi. The DM for that game went a different direction and it was revealed in a nice plot twist this player was actually a clone of this jedi grown for nefarious purposes rather than a child. However leaving your character’s story too vague might not give the DM enough to go on, or leave them uninterested in doing character building. Having a short story for them to read is your character to get the DM, and the other players, excited about using your character and playing with that character in the campaign.

A well written backstory should give your DM a few plot hooks to venture down too to help create a well rounded character arc in a campaign story. By no means is a DM held to account to use these plot hooks or they might take it down a path you didn’t expect, but the idea is to give a foundation of where your character starts and see where they go.

Story writing and world building isn’t for every player, nor should it be, and by no means should you feel that your enjoyment of the game should be less by not doing this compared to someone who does invest in characters stories. But if you are looking for a new aspect to your roleplaying, or to build on your backgrounds give some of these ideas a try and see what happens.

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