It’s day 1 of the new campaign, and you can’t wait to get started. You reach into your bag to grab your supplies. Dice, Player’s Handbook, character sheets, note pad, and a giant binder which you gleefully push into the DM’s hands.
“What’s this?” he asks, opening it up.
“My character backstory!” you say triumphantly as his eyes go wide. The binder has at least twenty pages, all printed in a flowing, cursive-style font. You begin to summarize, but quickly descend into rehashing your favourite of the many, many anecdotes included in the document as your fellow players go from intrigued to bored to resentful and your DM slides further into despair. So many of the things you want are worthy of whole adventures and involve elements that he consciously avoided when building the world.
“Alright”, he cuts in when you finally pause for breath, “I’ll read this all later and we can discuss it”. He sets the binder down on top of the backstories of the other players, half-page affairs that took half as long to read all together as it took you to begin to preface your own.
By the time you’re both finished working through the backstory you’ve written, it will be trimmed to a mere 2,000 words, a shell of what you originally envisioned but now a document that the DM can actually work with.
Everyone wants their character to be special. In fact, every DM wants their players’ characters to be special. Running a game about getting ready for the harvest or counting inventory in a shop is boring. A story where the ‘big bad’ is that poncy noble-born fop who comes along and replaces you in the temple hierarchy is not the epic drama that people want in their game. This game is called Dungeons & Dragons, not Seeds & Sales. It needs people of a special quality.
However, many players seem to take this to the extreme, creating backstories where their characters were practically born with a sword in their hand and have fought through all manner of seemingly insurmountable challenges leading up to this point. They set out to establish through pages what is better outlined in sentences. They write a story instead of the seeds of one.
In this article, we’ll discuss what makes a good character backstory and how to write one, as well as outlining the principal sins that make for a bad backstory.
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Backstory, Not Biography
The first thing we need to do is clarify the purpose of a backstory. The backstory is not, as some treat it, to hash out your character’s personality in full, along with the many trials they’ve faced that have made them who they are. You are not writing a biography of your character, you are describing their origins and establishing the theme of that character.
When writing your backstory, try to focus on the bigger questions of where they came from. Did they grow up on the streets of a bustling metropolis? Were they from a nomadic tribe, riding a horse before they could walk? Were they a foundling raised in a mummer’s troupe, never seeing the same town twice in all their years on the road?
Most of your backstory should be context for one or two life-defining moments that helped shape who your character is. Did a childhood malady leave them bedridden for weeks, with only some old tomes as companionship? Was one of those a biography of great wizards whom you decided you would emulate? Did you make a pilgrimage in your youth to a site of a great holy battle, inflaming in you a burning, righteous fervour? Did a goblin raid in your border town force you to retreat to the lord’s castle, where a knight took you on as a squire?
How did these events lead you to where you are today? Did you attend a wizard college and graduate summa cum laude, or were you expelled under unfortunate circumstances? Did you pledge yourself to the order founded by the paladin who led the crusaders at the site where you made pilgrimmage, or did you retreat into secluded contemplation until your faith guided you back into the world? Did you complete your training under the knight, earning your spurs in a cavalry charge that broke the enemy lines? Or did your master die of the winter cough a few years into your training, forcing you to become a mercenary just to survive?
The main purpose of a backstory is more to supply the ‘What’, and less the ‘Why’. What defines your character at their core? What experiences might have influenced this? What possible loose ends are there that the DM can tug? That’s not to say that the ‘Why’ is irrelevant—all good stories need believable motivations—but your character’s personality is something you want to be free to learn about while playing, rather than be constrained in exploring by having been overly prescriptive in the backstory.
Equally important to establishing your character’s identity is figuring out what motivates them. You have the reasons they are who they are, now you have to figure out what they want. This, more so than any other part of character creation, will require that you have a session zero (see below) with your DM (and your party, if you can). You don’t want to be on a completely different page than the rest of the group when you come up with this, as it’s going to play into how you are hooked into the story.
The motivation you choose for your character should be something of overriding importance, a significant goal that may end up defining your character’s life. Was your family ousted from your ancestral home by the arrival of a dragon? Were you working on a revolutionary spell or technology with your mentor when they were slain and their notes stolen? Did your sister mysteriously disappear one day, leaving behind only a cryptic message that you believe holds the key to finding her?
Again, this doesn’t have to be a chapter-long affair. A single paragraph at most is really all that is necessary to provide the outline for the idea. The purpose of this is to give your Dungeon Master fodder for a plot hook that will draw your character in, not to write the whole story yourself. Remember that D&D is a collaborative game where the fun is in discovering the story together. If you are unable to relinquish control of the plot, it will cause problems for everyone.
Drama is nothing without conflict, and this extends to roleplaying games. Whether an unlikely hero or someone trained for greater things, your character has undoubtedly been involved in conflict leading up to the start of the campaign. This could be an individual rival they competed against, a sworn enemy they made, or even the result of their greatest mistake. Most likely, it will be involved with your character’s motivations. Perhaps you accidentally killed someone in a jousting competition, earning the ire of their family. You might have stolen a treasured heirloom from a vengeful noble. Or maybe you inadvertently desecrated a shrine kept by a militant religious order.
It is important that whatever conflict you decide on be something that will make the game more fun, not less. This is easiest done if you work with your DM (see session zero, below) to come up with who may be in conflict with, so that it can be more completely integrated into the story with options for you to either vindicate yourself or to make amends, depending on how you and your group would like to see the conflict resolved. A poorly constructed conflict can make for a grinding experience where players simply want to resolve the problem rather than explore what happened.
Many people have never heard of session zero even though they’ve been through it. Session zero is when you sit down with the Dungeon Master—either in person or by email or instant message, and either with or without the other players—and discuss your character concept. It doesn’t have to be the most in-depth explanation, but it has to at least touch on the key points. Session zero can help inform you of the type of world the DM has made and prevent a lot of problems from coming up after character creation. After all, you should confirm that your DM is allowing firearms in the campaign before you write ten pages of backstory for a plucky gunslinger. Or you should confirm that there has been a civil war recently before you write your character as a would-be prince displaced by a dynastic feud.
Session zero can also help you to navigate topics that make others at the table uncomfortable. If your character was subjected to experiences that would bring up awful memories in another player, the DM can inform you of this and either ask you to steer away from including that kind of material, or that you keep that information between you and the DM. It is better that this comes up before any situations can arise that would cause people to be upset. Remember, this is a game that you are playing with friends; they will probably forgive you if you do something to offend them, but it’s best to avoid it altogether.
Below are a few examples of well-written backstories that any DM should be able to integrate into the campaign.
Haunted: A Warlock Backstory
Alaris was seven years old the first time she saw it. One night, she awoke in a cold sweat and looked across the room to where her older sister, Kara, laid in bed. Though the moon cast silvery beams in through the window, no light seemed to reach the shape that stood there, one long limb extended, touching her sister’s face. Suddenly, the room grew cold and Kara began to gasp in her sleep. Alaris watched in terror as a faint wisp escaped Kara’s open mouth and her sister, now deathly pale, went still. When the shadow turned its gaze on Alaris, she felt her heart freeze.
It crossed the room in but a few steps, reaching out for her. The entity’s form roiled and shook, its baleful eyes the only thing that seemed fully there. Alaris could feel its hunger, and knew she was about to die.
Somehow, her hand found the talisman around her neck. Kara’s talisman. The girls had each been given one by their father to wear always, never to be removed. Alaris had lost hers earlier that day, and her sister had given hers up. It had always seemed little more than a trinket, a dour piece of metal fashioned into some arcane symbol. Now it thrummed with power in her grasp. With a scream, Alaris held it forward. The dark shape scattered like a fog bank before a strong wind. Overcome by the experience, Alaris fell into a deep sleep. When she finally awoke three days later, she was sent to her grandmother for protection.
While in her grandmother’s care, Alaris sought to learn what had happened. For several years, her grandmother would tell her nothing of it. Then, one day, Alaris discovered an old book in her grandmother’s room. Its pages, yellowed with time, held many frightening images. Intrigued, she leafed through until, at one page, she screamed. On the paper was a vision from her deepest nightmares, the shadowy form, looking as real to her as it had that night. Her grandmother found her sobbing, but rather than chastising her, she told Alaris the story of the family’s curse. The next day, she began to tutor Alaris in the methods that had been passed down in their family for generations, the means to protect themselves from the evil influence that haunted them and, with careful training, draw power through the dark connection.
Though her family kept their curse secret, their reclusive nature and talismans led many to suspect them of illicit behaviour. Several years later, after a series of crop failures and mysterious deaths in the town, fanatical elements sought someone to blame. In a night of fire and fury, superstitious folk—whipped into a frenzy by the priests of a local temple—descended on Alaris’ home intent on holding someone to account. Alaris escaped with the help of her grandmother, but the old woman herself could not elude the townsfolk and was taken and burnt at the stake for witchcraft. With her family scattered to the wind an only her grandmother’s tome in her possession, Alaris fled into the night, vowing to one day avenge her grandmother’s death.
Since that day, her dreams have been plagued with visions of fire and shadow. An unfamiliar voice calls out to her, and sometimes when she awakes, she can still almost hear it as a whisper. The words elude her, but she doesn’t need to hear them to know what it promises: power.
Why I Like This Backstory. This short piece hits everything it needs to. It has a theme for the character—she’s a warlock who is antagonistic with her patron (or, perhaps, the enemies of her patron who hunt her because of her connection to the entity). It has the basis for a major point of her personality—she feels responsible for the death of her sister because she accepted her talisman and her grandmother who helped her escape at the cost of her own life; Alaris probably won’t willingly allow someone she cares about to make a sacrifice for her. It has conflict—the agents of whatever temple attacked her home may still be seeking her out, as well as any other members of her family who are at large. And it has her motivation—grow more powerful in preparation of a reckoning with her family’s killers.
These are all great seeds for a DM to use to build a story. A short series of adventures could even bring all of these disparate plot lines together. There is also considerable room for character development as Alaris faces down her demons—figurative and literal—and bonds with her companions who help her see it through.
A Knife in the Dark: A Rogue Backstory
Dirk is a man marked for death.
Born in the lowest levels of society, Dirk never knew his biological parents, nor his true age, nor even his real name. The orphanage that took him in as a foundling burned down in his youth, and he fell in with various gangs in order to survive. He spent his formative years with bruises and loose teeth, fighting for scraps and taking no prisoners. That all changed with the Reckoning.
For most of Dirk’s life, his city’s criminal underground had been carved up among dozens of different gangs. Some were primarily composed of one ethnic group—refugees banding together to protect themselves where the law turned a blind eye—while others were focused around criminal undergrounds for different contraband markets or running protection rackets for relatively lawless areas. A hundred different leaders all competing for a larger stake of the same pie meant constant, brutal competition, and notions of a single underlying organization, or ‘thieves’ guild’, were the fancy of women trading tales at wells and overly suspicious city guards.
Then, one night, half the criminal leaders in the city were murdered in their sleep in a event recalled today as the Reckoning, and a single organization took over most of the criminal operations. Suddenly, notions of a thieves’ guild were not so fanciful.
The violent coup was not the work of one man alone. No arm is so long as to strike so many so quickly. The Reckoning was only possible because of men like Dirk, whose few ties had been used against them, compelling them to carrying out the bloody bidding of the new order. For Dirk, that tie had been Mara. His hands were still stained when he went to provide proof of his success and secure her release.
But the loyalty of a traitor cannot be trusted, and he was a loose end that had to be cut. The trap that had been laid nearly claimed his life, but in the end he learned that Mara had already secured her own escape and vanished from the city. Wounded and knowing he would be hunted as long as he remained in town, Dirk fled to the countryside to figure out what came next.
Why I Like This Backstory. This is the perfect backstory for someone who wants to play the violent criminal trope with their rogue; someone who has learned to fight and steal out of necessity rather than an inherent bloodlust or kleptomania, and for whom the ends justify the means. It also provides two simple and yet compelling hooks: Mara is missing, and Dirk is on the wrong side of some very powerful criminal lords.
The backstory achieves all this while leaving open the details of Dirk’s personality to be discovered through roleplaying him. Is he guilt-ridden for murdering his boss, or for not being able to save Mara? Is he vengeful at his betrayal, or accepting of it as ‘business as usual’? What behavioural quirks does he have? These are things you may not be ready to decide on until you’ve played around with his voice (not his accent, but rather his disposition).
A Mystery of the Ages: A Wizard Backstory
Ennil Amanodel, son of the royal house of the elven realm of Brocelian, is ninety-third in line for the Evergreen Throne. Born to a lesser branch of his very extensive family, Ennil spent most of his early years in what he describes as a ‘gilded cage’, surrounded by the empty pomp of aristocracy. His father, not important enough for a position at court, was nonetheless a distinguished negotiator and would occasionally be sent abroad as an ambassador. Those journeys were the highlights of Ennil’s youth, and he revelled in the escape from the burden of elven tradition.
When Ennil was seventeen, he travelled with his father to negotiate with a human city near Brocelian where the recent discovery of a nearby deposit of gold had raised a border dispute. During the negotiations, the parties surveyed the area and discovered a labyrinthine system of caves that showed evidence of prior occupation by some unknown group. In many of the chambers, breathtaking murals had been carved into the rock face, the subjects and meanings of which defied easy interpretation. While the diplomatic situation kept both parties occupied, Ennil was transfixed on these relics of the past and could not put them from his mind. That night, after sneaking down to examine the murals again, Ennil found the greyscale of his darkvision wanting and mustered magical light to examine the reliefs in full colour. To his surprise, the light revealed beautiful silvery runes. The runes themselves were completely unreadable, and yet staring at them conjured meaning in Ennil’s mind. It became clear that the entire complex was but one piece of a larger puzzle, the purpose of which Ennil could not yet guess.
Hastening back up to the surface to share his findings, Ennil arrived at the scene of a bloodbath. Under the cover of darkness, a band of orcs had descended on the camp, set on claiming valuables and slaves. What happened next, how he escaped, Ennil can now only recall as a blur of fire and blood, and there are still nights when the memories interrupt his meditation. He returned to Brocelian afterwards to carry his father’s bones to the family crypt and mourn.
In the years that followed, he focused his attention on attempting to solve the mystery of the runes. After collecting many clues about lost civilizations from the greatest of Brocelian’s libraries and learning all he could about magic similar to what he witnessed in the caves, Ennil petitioned his great grandmother, the matriarch of his family branch, to allow him to travel abroad and attempt to solve the mystery. Seeing it as an opportunity for Ennil to grow and become more mature so as to one day declare himself an adult in elven tradition, the woman gave her blessing.
And so, a month after his twenty-sixth birthday, Ennil set out from his homeland for the first time without his father, seeking to make his mark on history.
Why I Like This Backstory. Well, first of all, this is a backstory that doesn’t involve a 100-year-old 1st-level elf adventurer, so that’s already a plus. If you’re confused about why this is worth mentioning, I suggest that you read our article Roleplaying Long-Lived Races. Secondly, it gives a great excuse for the Dungeon Master to come up with a series of interesting dungeons, and maybe introduce the characters to a faction that is attempting to gather the secrets of these runes for nefarious purposes. It dips into the trope of a dead parent, but in a world as violent as those in D&D this would hardly be uncommon. The number of elves who survive injury and illness to live beyond a few centuries would be quite low without modern health care, and living into your 700s would be a truly remarkable feat. It also presents a great motivator for character growth, as an elf in their 20s is still quite young—even by human standards. Gaining valuable perspective and becoming more mature would be more than likely for such a character, it would be almost assured. Finally, it also offers an opportunity for the party to use this character’s social status for clout in negotiations with important personages. Ennil may not qualify to be called a prince under elven tradition, but he has royal blood.
Do you have a memorable experience with character backstories? Share it in the comments below!
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