Backstories That Shine

Here are two questions you might want to consider:

  • How much effort do you put into your PC’s backstory?
  • How important is a PC’s backstory, really?

The first question is one I can’t answer for you. The second, though, I can touch upon. In one sense, it depends on your first answer – if you put in a lot of effort, you’re the sort of person that thinks about their character and their goals, motivations, personality quirks, the whole lot.

In this case, the backstory is obviously important to you. But that doesn’t fully answer the question. The big question is: how important is it to the game master?

There are ranges of GM and campaign styles out there. The internet is full of discussions about linear vs sandbox and all the shades between. I’m not going to talk about that. I’m talking about the design of the campaign. Who came up with the setting and the bad guys and the names of the gods, stuff like that.

It matters. Some campaigns are straight-up published adventures and those, as I’m learning, can be great. A lot of campaigns, though, are set in unique and original worlds. The GM shapes the continents and populates them with kingdoms and designs a villain and gives him a nefarious purpose. Maybe these elements were invented by the GM or maybe they were cobbled together from different sources. Often, both. Either way, this world is the GM’s world, top to bottom.

Why does this matter? It matters because suddenly the answer to question 2 is “very, very important”. Think about it – if the entire world is a product of the GM’s mind, then everything is on the table. With published adventures, there’s only so much flexibility before you have ditched the source material entirely. But with a GM-designed campaign, anything can change at any point.

Get to the point? Okay, sure.

The better you make your character’s backstory, the more the campaign will revolve around them.

People like it when you make things easy for them. If you put a little effort into your backstory, your GM will thank you. The easier it is to work with, the more likely they will work with it. And given that campaigns can run for years, a bit of effort at the start can pay dividends like you wouldn’t believe.

What makes a backstory ‘better’? It’s a little subjective, of course. But I have both played in and run campaigns where the backstories were woven into the plot, so I like to think I know what works. You’re not far from a winner if you follow three guidelines:

  • Short
  • Interesting
  • Open

Firstly, keep it short. A few paragraphs is plenty. If it helps, pretend it’s a resume. Game masters are busy people – we do not have time to read two pages about how your character was born in the coal mines then worked in the coal mines then escaped the coal mines then killed the coal mine owners. Focus on the highlights and your game master will love you.

As a bonus, it gives you some wriggle room down the road. Suddenly decide your character is highly educated? I hope you didn’t spend half a page detailing their poor marks received from a second-rate school.

Secondly, make it interesting. If you tell the GM that you became a rogue because orcs burned down your village, there’s only so much that can be done with that. The best idea that came to me from that hook was that the bad guy paid the orcs to kill your parents in a deniable way because they were business rivals or something. But even with that twist, the story runs out of steam. You have a reason to hate the evil guy – who doesn’t? You are homeless because orcs killed your family – so are thousands of other nameless NPCs.

I promise you, if you make your backstory dull, it will barely come up. A good GM will figure out ways to include it anyway, but it won’t earn you many spotlights. It’s better for you both if you do some of the legwork.

Thirdly, keep it open by being a little vague in parts. I include this for completeness – in my experience, players tend to be good at this. But if you mention that your farming village’s dwarf cleric of Pelor, god of agriculture, prophesised that you would defeat evil by beheading a dragon with an enchanted axe, then the GM is cursing you, because now the setting needs dwarves and Pelor and the party will need to fight a dragon (which should probably not be a side quest so now the bad guys have dragons) and oh an axe, sure…

This isn’t a huge problem and not many people do it anyway. But by failing to keep it open enough it creates more work for the GM as they struggle to fit it with the other backstories and their own ideas. A few broad points that spark the imagination are much better than detailed, exacting descriptions of the world as your character knows it.

Of course, none of this matters if the game master doesn’t use your backstory. But why risk it? A few paragraphs of a barely-original-but-kinda-neat character concept could reshape the entire world. In my campaign not using the published adventure, there are five regular players. I’m not ashamed to admit that the character with the best backstory, the one that sparked my imagination the strongest, had the biggest impact on the setting. While most other character-specific subplots have been resolved, his is still unfolding. A year and a half after starting the campaign. That might not seem fair to the others but his backstory gave me the most usable material, and who am I to turn down free imagination fuel?

To prove how easy this is, I’ve put together a character for each core class in D&D 5e. Each backstory follows the principles above – they are short, interesting and open. If you’re stuck, use these characters. Or use someone else’s, I don’t care. The goal is to make your character shine in the GM’s eyes – as long as you do that, I’m happy.

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