Making a Character’s Back-story
A few blogs back I wrote about creating a Player’s Guide and gave guidelines and advice for DMs wanting to write a world guide for their players on their personal homebrew world.
Today, I thought I would discuss this from a player’s perspective, and discuss how to make a back-story for your new character.
Know the World
The first bit of advice is simple and related to the prior blog: know the setting you’re playing in. This doesn’t have to be an encyclopaedic knowledge of every place in the world, but you should ask a couple questions regarding the starting area and the neighbouring locals. Find out the theme or hook of the world and what tone the DM is striving towards for the campaign. Try and think of something that works with the world and compliments it. If the DM is going for a pirate campaign it’s not enough to just make a character without hydrophobia, but they should have some connection to pirate activity and opinions on piracy. Or they should be the naive character who has never heard of piracy. They just shouldn’t be “unaligned” regarding piracy because that doesn’t work them into the story or draw them into the adventure.
However, don’t feel pressured to read everything a DM hands you or everything that exists for a published campaign setting. Read what seems directly relevant, such as regional and the racial information for whatever race you settle on. Many published worlds have wikis now that can be tapped for quick information. This can be a balancing act. Most DMs are wannabee-writers, and fantasy authors in general have a hard time editing and self-censoring. There’s a reason fantasy books tend to be the size of medium-sized phone directories and come in trilogies. If a DM hands you a novel when you ask for “a little background on the world”, don’t be afraid to ask for the Cliff Notes version or where the vital tidbits are found.
It’s important to work with your DM when creating a character. This doesn’t necessarily mean cooperative creation or surrendering control, but simply giving your DM something (anything) to work with when planning sessions. Loner PCs raised by wolves in the wilderness with no connections or ties to anyone or anyplace or any group are extremely hard to motivate or work into the story. Characters need a reason to adventure, hooks the DM can use to draw the character into the story. The whole point of the game is to go on exciting adventure and it’s the player’s job to facilitate this.
It can be fun to play a reluctant hero, a Bilbo Baggins forced out of their comfort zone, but these should be the exception. However, characters like that will try to return home whenever possible, forcing the DM to continually work and find excuses to keep the character adventuring. If such a character is just screaming out to be played, instead think of that as the starting point and have them grow comfortable in their role as an adventurer. It shouldn’t take time and energy getting players to play the game.
Other common clichés that regularly pop-up in a RPG character’s backgrounds are amnesiacs, orphans, lone wolves, and racial rebels & similar exceptions-to-the-rule. There is such a staggering percentage of heroes suffering from the above that sometimes it seems like you couldn’t fill a tavern with heroes who have complete extended families, full memories, who work well with others, or aren’t exiles from their homeland.
Like reluctant heroes, it’s trickier for DMs to motivate characters with no familial ties or memories. And the few minutes the DM has to spend each and every session convincing the loner (“the Wolverine” as he’s been labelled) is time that could be spent on everyone and not just 1/5th of the table.
A DM of mine likes to refer to those as “pink ninjas”: they want the bad-A reputation of a ninja but to be unique, often just being different solely for the sake of being different. It’s often the easy way out, the way of making a unique and memorable character without actually having to think of a unique and memorable character. It’s easier to just play the good drow, or the last gnome on Athas, or the deva antipaladin.
Pitch and Sell
It’s the DM’s job to provide the world and populate it for the players, but that doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally need some help. Even the most complete and expansive campaign world can be expanded on. When writing a background, players should not be afraid to suggest or propose elements that don’t exist. Just because something was not included does not always mean it was deliberately excluded.
For example, if you want to play a dwarf and there are no dwarf families in the village or region then pitch a reason to the DM, make that part of the character’s back-story. They’re not just dwarves but traders establishing a mercantile foothold, or exiles for a slight of their dishonoured great-grandfather. A DM should still have veto power for something that just does not fit (sometimes things actually were deliberately excluded), but they should still work to keep as much as possible for a proposed back-story. It should be a give and take, with a DM accepting what works and proposing work-arounds or alternatives for problematic elements. The catch is a DM has to be open to expanding their world, which isn’t always a problem, but it can be. As long as the option fits the campaign, a good DM should be open to expansion and new rules elements. The player has to be equally accepting if the element is turned down for good reason (i.e. a canon-heavy Dark Sun game and no gnomes, playing a silly character concept in a serious game, an option from a new book the DM is not comfortable with). Playing an unknown race (last of their kind, traveller from a far-away land, etc) is a cliché often worthy of inclusion on the above list.
Know Your Limits
A character’s background should be detailed yet short, only needing to be a couple paragraphs. And 90% of a characters background should relate to them; no DM needs the epic retelling of the glories and deeds of a character’s entire familial line. While it might be a great story, at best it is not relevant to the campaign and at worst it steps into the DM’s world building territory. No background should go more than two generations into the past. Ever.
Events in an extended back-stories or lengthy familiar history can have happened, but should be limited to a background element. This works best if tying a character to an existing piece of lore or even a character quirk. A dwarf proud of their clan’s history that is fond of reciting tales of past glory is a good example of how an extended background can be used without disrupting the game. Even then, the extended backstory should be rules light or a skewed history full of myth and distortion. Tying characters to Name characters and events should be done cautiously, as that can be another infamous cliché (“Hi, I’m Dshizzle, second-cousin of Drizzt” ).
A background should give the DM tools to work with and not straightjacket them into a plot. A good example of a bad background is a character whose sole motivation is the rescue of their fiancée from the evil wizard Venger and his dragon steed. That forces the DM to either ignore the background or change their campaign to involve evil wizards and/or dragon mounts. In the former case the player suddenly has to explain why his character is not tracking down clues towards his lover. In the latter case it risks sidelining the other PCs or pushing them into supporting roles.
It’s better to leave gaps and mysteries, such as just having a fiancée missing or kidnapped by forces unknown. Open details leave room for the DM to work the back-story into their planned campaign or easily fit it into a published module. Write the broad details with blanks, holes, or unnamed features, leaving it to the DM to add the specifics. Such as having a character whose mother was killed in a battle, the exact battle doesn’t need to be named by the player; the onus of finding an appropriate battle – if needed – can be left to the DM.
Creating a character for a role-playing game is just like creating a character for a novel or movie. A little backstory works and they should feel like they belong and aren’t some crazy anachronism or out of place in the narrative of the book or movie. They should have a history but most of what they will be remembered for is what they do and how they act while the actual story unfolds. Making a character history is a time to be creative and make your small mark on the world, but it’s only a small part of the character and shouldn’t the the sole focus of the player.