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.

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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.