Player Characters Backstories are Not Stories.

Not long ago I got in a twitter conversation about character backstories. One of my followers @CrossingNewLeafe chimed in on a conversation that I had commented on with @theGodDamnDM about making an awesome backstory that will impress your DM. One commenter had stated that they felt that a short backstory was the best. Others had stated that there was nothing wrong with a long and amazing backstory.  My reply was this.

Hot backstory tip. Do not make your backstory better than the story about to be told or there is no character motivator in your future.

This sparked a shift in the topic to the idea of: is there such a thing as too much backstory and should the GM just embrace it and rise to the challenge of penning a better plot to keep up with the tone set in the backstory. Also, the conversation went on to find many GM’s of the opinion that be backstory can never be too long. My last bit of voice on the subject was this.

paper-book-sculpture-art-jodi-harvey-brown-5

A good backstory is like a resume. Short & Informative with interests and motivations & some NPC references added at the end. 1 page is plenty.

Now that the stage has been set I will elaborate a bit. In the context of writing a backstory, it can be long or a prolog. In some cases, it can even be a prequel. In this situation, we are talking about handing your Game Master a backstory. So we are not writing a novel thus, the above intents of a backstory are not what we’re looking for. In this case what we have left is the other uses for a backstory.  A flashback, dialogue narrative exposition or a summary. Flashbacks are interjected into a scene. Dialogue is spoken backstory in character or by a narrator. What we are left with the only one that fits. A player Character backstory is a summary of events.  By definition:

sum·ma·ry
noun
a brief statement or account of the main points of something.
“a summary of Chapter Three”
adjective
dispensing with needless details or formalities; brief
“summary financial statements”

So a player characters’ backstory is not a story nor should it be a story even though many want it to be one. I want players to understand that backstory in the case of an RPG is at its core. A brief accounting of the players past. It is also used to reveal motivations, influences, fears and obstacles that made the character who they are as they step on stage for the first game.

I know you want to flex your inner author and I am all for creativity as the next guy. Even so, there are several reasons why I am making this blog to help understand that you can have a compelling backstory and still keep it in the space of a page or less.

 Reasons why you should keep a Backstory Brief.

  • The longer your backstory that more info that will fall through the cracks.
  • You are adding unnecessary workload on your Gamemaster.
  • It is lacking in any Gamemaster input or influence.
  • Less is more, You and your GM can always add to less. It’s hard to cut away More.
  • . Think back to your own life. It’s the defining moments we recall not the daily grind.
  • Your backstory tells the events that lead up to the moments of your stories beginning.

Tips to think about when writing your Backstory

  • Does the GM need this info?
  • How can I shorten what I have written?
  • Is this relevant to who my character has become?
  • Did I leave room for the Gamemaster to add input?

Be sure to add

  • Any Life changing moments
  • Achievements and Failure
  • Fears and Flaws
  • Motivations and Goals

All that said, what do I think a good Character Background would look like. Well as above I mentioned something akin to a resume. Something that would let the GM know my main traits. A few experiences or adventures that helped shape my life. As well as any contacts or rivals that may still be creeping around in my past and what kind of influance they may have.

This is mostly inspired by one of the best Character background sheets I have seen over my years of gaming. The Dresden Files Character Phase worksheet. Here is my version.

Your Name Here & Your PC’s Name Here

Class:
Personality Trait:
Bond:
Ideal:
Flaw:

 Long Term Goals

List one or two goals that your player would like to achieve.

Background (List three past events & how they affected you)

Event One, Location– Note here if any other PCs were involved

  • What Happened?
  • How were you Affected?
  • Was the Event Resolved?
  • Name a contact or Rival Gained? Roll 1d6 Even Contact Odd Rival

Event Two, LocationNote here if any other PCs were involved

  • What Happened?
  • How were you Affected?
  • Was the Event Resolved?
  • Name a contact or Rival Gained? Roll 1d6 Even Contact Odd Rival

Event Three, LocationNote here if any other PCs were involved

  • What Happened?
  • How were you Affected?
  • Was the Event Resolved?
  • Name a contact or Rival Gained? Roll 1d6 Even Contact Odd Rival

Contacts & Rivals

Contact/ Rival Name :
Influence & Resources:

Contact/ Rival Name :
Influence & Resources:

Contact/ Rival Name :
Influence & Resources:
Description:

 

Please let me know your thoughts! Thank you, fellow followers for the inspiration of this blog. I hope you all found this helpful. Did I change your mind or are you now further entrenched in long form backstories? I look forward to your replies.

14 thoughts

  1. I have to agree that longer backstories are better, but in all cases they need to be written with GM cooperation. Backstories include a lot to build off of, a characters fears and hopes revealed in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. Meaningful moments in the game experience can be crafted out of things that seem innocuous, but you know will hold meaning for THAT character, which in turn creates a scenario that allows the other characters to engage with that one as a person.

    Long backstories? Bring it on… But work with your GM.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think a long story is fine if built off of a short form story to begin with. Give your GM the summarized version of your story. The elevator pitch, so that he can offer input and say hey! You know this might be a good idea or please expand on this more because I can use it. Definitely work with your GM.

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  2. I’m not a Fan of long back stories, because every player wants to have their backstory explored in game. and that detracts from the GM’s story. it also causes tension if one players background CAn’t be explored because its too detailed or theres no time because all the other PC’s are having thiers explored. a backstory is there to help your characters motivations not to become a campaign in and of itself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with your points here. You want to include things a background that are “vague” enough to be added to the story at some point. As well as the shaping moments that may have been the reason for your fear of spiders.
      What I don’t need is your 7 paragraphs of build up of the creepy building where said spider attack began.

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  3. You’re right that back story should be kept brief, simple and to the point. I submit, however, that you don’t go far enough.

    Get rid of back story altogether. Seriously, you don’t need it. It doesn’t help the game; if anything, it’s an annoyance, a chance for one player to soak up the adoration of the other players.

    When I sit down at a table, I’m there to play the game. I’m not there to listen to a second rate story by another player. Because that’s what it is: a story. And the people I’m likely to play with are not writers.

    As a DM, I’m even less concerned about the players’ background. I’m concerned about what they intend to do here and now. What came before is in the past and is only passingly relevant. And besides, there are better ways to generate background information than to leave it to the player.

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    1. Your words sound a bit like the first draft of this blog. But in fairness to the other side as well over the years especially after playing Dresden Files RPG I came to really like the brief book dust cover/elevator pitch backstory.

      I also have never forced a player to make a backstory for reasons that sometimes I want to make my story in game with the players around me.

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  4. I like the sentiment not the formality. I like a narrative for a back story by it should often be flawed, vulnerable, and inevitably moments of your youthful failure that drove you to be more. Parents killed by orcs, a classic trope, let’s you write a brief first person narrative that puts you in your characters thoughts and feelings about the event. Heck a back story often as not is for you not the GM, as it helps you get in character. Focus on those life shaping events and don’t make them unproportional to the game setting. Let them motivate your characters decisions and goals, not define the plot of the narrative you are about to embark on with your friends to build collaberatively.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said. Just yesterday one of my friends and I were discussing why can a back story be about growth experiences and positives.. where more often than not backstories are “heroic/Tragic” my response to that is.. Oh no wonder you became a Murder Hobo!

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  5. For me, the name of the game is verisimilitude. As such, I believe the length of the backstory should be proportional to the starting experience of the character being played. If you are starting as a person whose world experience is small, keep the backstory small. If however, the game is starting at a higher level of experience, the character’s backstory should reflect that. This is both for the player and GM to draw from. I’m trying to keep the comment system neutral, but for sake of an example, the backstory of a level 1 D&D character should look nothing like the backstory of a level 10 D&D character. That level 10 character has had a plethora of world experiences to boost their level so high, and I find it enjoyable to make the occasional comment like “This is starting to look like the siege of Fort Garret, get the archers to the wall!” It shows how that level 10 got to where they are and helps with immersion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally agree 100%! If I were going to suggest something like this for a higher level character it would look like list three “Shaping events in your life” & 1 defining adventure event for every 2-4 levels.

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  6. I disagree with almost everything you laid out. There are a few good points, but for the most part it’s way off point. In reality if a character wants to create their own complex backstory for the sake of writing let them… You can have them summarize the important parts for you. I have played with many of people who just enjoy writing and use the backstory as their opportunity to get creative juices flowing.

    In terms of “The backstory shouldn’t be more interesting than the game.” Again terrible. How many people have a great resume that shows their amazing skills, but take equal or less glamorous jobs? I know I have for more money… It doesn’t mean I find my job less enjoyable.

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    1. Well you are more then welcome to disagree. Where your argument strikes me that it kind of falls flat is that even though you disagree with me.. You feel that they can summarize the important parts for the GM later.. So you agree that a summery is a good thing. Because it is not a Story.

      As I said in my later blog this is was made up to make it easier to recall the major defining things about the players background.

      If a player wants to write up a Story about their character after they have given them a summery go hog wild. I am not trying to hold back from being creative. You do You.

      As far as your backstory should not be more interesting than the game. I think you and a few others are blowing that statement out of proportion.

      The intent of that statement was if your 1st level make a sensible backstory for a 1st level character. Don’t hand the DM tales of your Dragon Slaying exploits. Because then the first 6+ levels of the game your backstory is better than everyone at the table while they made sane backgrounds.

      Lastly I am sorry I don’t understand your connection about resumes showing skills and people taking less paying job has to do with a PC background ?

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  7. To a large extent, the same can certainly apply to setting backstories for Narrators. Whilst it can rich in terms of the distant past, the present should be a turning point in history which the PCs can make a significant change in the world (or, in a low-powered game, their village etc).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I tend to agree with your statements, although I might have said “They should be Cliff Notes, not the full novel”

    To me, backstories should answer the question of: Why are you adventuring and not staying at home like 99.98% of the population?

    The more interesting that answer, the more the Player and the GM have to work with.

    Liked by 1 person

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