How To Make A Compelling Backstory

My most popular article last year was focused on deeper character creation, inspired by ‘the Game of 20 Questions’ in the Legend of the Five Rings RPG. I’ve decided to expand in a series of articles over the next few months. Last month I started with an article about character appearance and how it tells a story. Today I’m going to focus on background: hometown, family, profession, and life events.

A note on backstories

I’ve heard of RPG horror stories where DMs have set players the homework of writing a three-page backstory on their character’s life to date. Let’s be clear: this is absolutely unnecessary. In fact, I would even say that leaving blanks is a feature, not a bug. It gives you space to improvise on the fly and respond to the emerging story of the campaign.  

It’s nice as a DM to know one or two things about a character so you can weave it into the story. But what follows is meant as inspiration, not a checklist.

2. Where do you hail from?

This is an important question because it links you to the setting. DMs love this: you’re making an effort to learn about the campaign world and ‘buy into it’.

Some key considerations:

  • Did you live in one place or move around? (If the latter, go through these questions more than once!)
  • Was it a settlement? If so, how big? Village, town, metropolis?
  • What about your dwelling? Was it a house, a shack, a palace?
  • What was the dominant culture? Think species, kingdoms, deities.
  • What about the climate and terrain? Did you leave by the sea, the woods, the mountains, a barren waste?
  • How typical are you for someone from this area? How did it influence you, for better or worse?

3. Who are your family?

Lots of players don’t give this any thought at all, or they just assume their character is an orphan (something of a fantasy cliché). Tell your DM about your family – they could become interesting characters in their own right!

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Who are your parents?
  • Do you have any siblings? This might include siblings by adoption, half-siblings, twins . . .
  • Does your character have a partner or children?
  • What about extended family? Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins?
  • What is the current status of each character? Dead, alive, missing? What do they do? Where do they live?
  • What is your relationship with each of these characters? What influence did they have on you?
  • Does your family have any notable beliefs, secrets, heirlooms?

4. How did you fall into your profession?

For the most part, this probably means ‘class’. Here are some ideas:

  • Artificer. Perhaps an apprentice or student, or maybe a self-taught tinkerer who learned by trial and error.
  • Barbarian. Grew up in a tribe or clan; trained in combat; perhaps experienced a traumatic event that fuels their rage.
  • Bard. Travelled extensively. Perhaps taken under the wing of a mentor. Practised storytelling and or music.
  • Cleric. Raised in a religious community or family; experienced a divine revelation.
  • Druid. Raised in a circle of druids, a tribal community, or by a close mentor.
  • Fighter. Received some kind of combat training from somewhere. Mercenaries? Soldiers? Or maybe they were self-taught.
  • Monk. Perhaps raised in a monastery or travelled with a mentor. Some kind of spiritual awakening?
  • Paladin. Similar to cleric or fighter: received a ‘call’ and trained rigorously.
  • Ranger. Grew up in the wilderness, perhaps as a hunter or scout.
  • Rogue. Maybe grew up on the streets but perhaps received formal training as an assassin or spy.
  • Sorcerer. Born with innate magical abilities – how did they discover this? Did someone help them to understand and control their abilities?
  • Warlock. At some point made a pact with a powerful otherworldly entity. When? How?  
  • Wizard. Studied magic, perhaps in a university or academy or under the tutelage of a mentor.   

This isn’t exhaustive, of course, and might even seem a bit cliché or boring. But the devil’s in the detail. A ranger who grew up in the wilderness as a hunter is unimaginative, but a ranger who was exiled to the wilderness for a crime and learned to survive in a hostile environment – that’s more interesting.

Remember, too, that not all characters see themselves as a ‘[class name]’. Rogues might see themselves as an agent, an acrobat, a bounty hunter, or a private detective. A fighter might be a gladiator, a member of a noble house, a pirate, a blacksmith, or a sailor.

5. What is the most important event of your life so far?

As I say in the original post, it’s possible to go a bit overboard with this. A 1st-level character is heroic, but they can still go down fighting a giant rat. Here are some general ideas:

  • Major accomplishments. Something you learned, an item you found, a battle you fought in, training you completed.
  • Tragedies, setbacks, and traumatic events. Death, loss, a significant injury, an encounter with a dangerous villain.
  • A life-changing decision. Joining an organization, leaving their home behind, embracing a new identity, personal sacrifice, beginning a journey (physical or spiritual).
  • Meeting a key person. This might be a mentor, a party member, a lover, or even a key villain!

16. What’s the worst thing your character has ever done?

Jumping ahead a bit now. In some ways, this links to the previous question (question five). Some ideas:

  • Betrayal. Did you betray a friend or ally? Why? Or did you betray yourself somehow: your values, ideals?
  • Caused harm. A fire, flood, some other kind of catastrophe.Was it negligence, recklessness?
  • A crime. Theft, murder, assault?
  • A dark deal. Perhaps this was a little deal with the devil, but it could also be forbidden magic or meddling with ‘something we weren’t meant to know’.
  • Failure. Did you lead a group of soldiers into defeat? Fail to protect someone? Compromise a mission? Disobey an order?

In each case, ask yourself why. What was your character’s motivation? What were the consequences? What did they learn from it?

17. What is your greatest secret?

This may be the same as your ‘worst thing I’ve ever done’! Here are some other ideas to get you going:

  • A secret identity.
  • A powerful ability.
  • A forbidden love.
  • A curse or prophecy.
  • A hidden agenda.
  • An addiction or affliction.
  • A secret skill, talent, or knowledge.
  • An allegiance or loyalty.

Make sure your DM knows about this – it’s great adventure fuel!

Start from the beginning

What are the best backstories you have seen in your games? What other tips do you have for players creating new characters? Share your ideas in the comments below.

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