Game Mastery

Character Backstory

by on Aug.28, 2008, under backstory, pc

I’m going to take a little break from “Why Won’t They Roleplay” to go over something that needs going over. Character backstory. I almost always refer to this. It really is one of the most important things in a good RPG. I’ve always believed that you get out what you put in. Backstory is the players’ chance to put in effort.

Character backstory directly benefits the GM. A good backstory will define interests and relationships for the player to pursue in game. A good GM will be able to take those hooks and either create plot from them or attach them to existing plot. Bandits killed a PC’s parents? Have the party track down some bandits. PC has a long lost brother? Have that brother’s face appear on a “Wanted! Dead or Alive!” poster. 2 PCs never met their parents and have no idea who their family is? Bam! They’re brothers.

Coming up with original plot is hard. Coming up with plot that is interesting to your PCs is harder. I say skip all that hard work, and let the PCs give you plots that they’ll automatically be interested in. Seriously. They’re doing your work for you. I always explain this to my players when I mandate backstories. It’s important that the players know that backstory isn’t just homework. It gives them personalized pieces of the game. For them to have an affect on the story they should contribute with some character history. I don’t reward backstory with experience. I reward it with in game plot centered around each PC. If someone sends me a half assed paragraph that doesn’t have anything I can use, they get no plot. Someone who sends me five pages is much more likely to include something that I can use in game.

Plot hooks are a widely recognized benefit of backstory. Where my opinion strays from the norm is in what makes a backstory good. Most people seem to insist on purely biographical information. Hometown and immediate family names are nice, but rarely that important. I also find that biographical plothooks are generic. Hometown is under siege. Parent is dying. Sister is kidnapped. Etc.

If plot is being tailored for a character, it really should be tailored to interest them. Family/hometown in danger will interest 99% of non evil PCs who have living family members/hometowns. There’s nothing personal about that at all!

A plot that’s personal would be something like, Penn the Wizard gets booted out of wizard school for cheating on his exams. His ashamed family disowns him. Penn (who now goes by a different name and works in a thieves guild) gets hired to fix a horse race in favor of some noble kid. Turns out the kid is his little brother and Penn’s father is the one fixing the race. Penn took offense and confronted his father about it. This happened in a game I ran a couple winters ago. This was extremely personal to the Penn character, and the player behind Penn really got into it and gave a damn. None of the other characters I’ve ever DMed could have run this plot. This was Penn’s and Penn’s alone. That is how personalized plots should work. (Oh and the rest of the party had stuff to do too. It wasn’t like Penn got all the limelight.)

So how did I get that sort of plot out of Penn? The important thing is that the backstory included more than his childhood. It showed how Penn arrived at the game.

I think, more than anything else in the backstory, the events leading up to the moment game starts are crucial. Instead of starting in a tavern with no momentum and no story, the events before game let you hit the ground running. Players have somewhere to go when you ask “You’re in town, what do you do?” In Penn’s case, the game was set in a thieves guild and we needed a way for a scholarly wizard to be working with common thugs. Since he couldn’t be a respectable scholar, Penn opted to take advantage of the weak minded by way of magic and found himself a thieves guild, and had a bunch of get rich quick schemes once he found some allies.

When I write a backstory I go a step beyond the events leading up to game start. I write dialog. Lots and lots of it. I’ve never gotten a smidgen of a hint of how to roleplay a character from the knowledge that his mother’s name is Beatrice. A conversation tells you so much more. From a simple back and forth you can learn if a character is suave, funny, cruel, passive, aggressive, manipulative, shy, bold, determined, apathetic, racist, gullible, or any other adjective. This tells players how to roleplay their character and it tells GMs what to expect of each character.

I’m also fond of dialog because it lets me try out a character when the other players aren’t around. I can look at a line and go back and edit it. Maybe it wasn’t witty enough for a bard. Maybe it was too witty for a barbarian. Either way, I can fix it.

I’ve always been bothered by how games start. You have a bunch of players sitting around a table introducing each other’s characters. Except that none of the players have played those characters before. What a terrible way to make a first impression. With some practice dialog written ahead of time, you can already be in character when it’s time to make that impression.

Note, I’ve recieved heavy criticism for this suggestion in more than one forum thread. Some people think that rehearsing is well and good, but there’s no reason why your GM should have to read it. They seemed to think it’s just writer wankery. Fair enough. I’ll point out though that most of my backstory dialog has the purpose of pushing the character to the story – it’s not random dialog for dialog’s sake. Also my GMs like reading what I write. I will continue to encourage this sort of backstory from my players, but other people should check with their respective GMs.

Where were we? Events leading up to game so characters have direction and momentum when game starts. Dialog so players are more comfortable getting in character. Let’s have some sample backstories. I warn you, they’re even less well edited than this post.

First, I’d like to show you Derwit. I think this is a good example, because it’s almost entirely narrative leading up to game. It explains just enough about who the character is and how he got there, but doesn’t delve too deep into his history. There’s a fair bit of dialog too. Derwit wasn’t the strongest character I played, but that’s due to player burnout more than anything.

Digger has a unique backstory and it was the most fun to write. It doesn’t do a whole lot to set up events, but that’s because game start was left vague at the time of the writing. Digger’s backstory is interesting because Digger is hardly in it. It’s pretty much just people gossiping about my character. After writing this I had no trouble slipping into character because he was so well defined by the story. Digger happens to be the silent type, which is why I had to characterize him in the third person here. At any rate I just wanted to show how atypical a backstory can be, while remaining effective.

That’s all for now. I never intended to spend an hour typing.

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4 comments for this entry:
  1. Maliseraph

    I still miss Digger… *sniff*

  2. Ragnet

    Hey, I’ve been reading through your blog (You linked this blog somewhere at GitP, and I found myself reading all your posts!), and I’m finding it very interesting. But, the two character backstories that you link in this post don’t seem to work anymore )=. Think you might be able to post them?

    Thanks for writing all this! If only I could be a PC in one of your games o.O!

  3. sagotsky

    Thank you for the kind words, and thank you for pointing out the broken links 🙂 I must have forgotten to update them when I switched domain names. I fixed both links and uploaded a new back story for my current character. dgibs is a mage with a blog. His back story is the bulkiest at 14 pages. There’s some good and bad stuff in there, but it’s mostly a fun read.

  4. I like my games with a side of fudge. - Game Mastery

    […]  I write elaborate backstories.  I except my player to write elaborate backstories too.  In fact, I require it of them. Aside from the fact that it sucks to lose a character to an overeager d20, it really sucks to lose […]

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