For the past few weeks I’ve taken a break from Dungeon Mastering to work on some novel re-writes, which you can read an excerpt from by following the chapters tab on the left. But why would you do that? It’s not funny, and it’s not about role-playing. Come on man, stay focused here.
While comparing notes with the rest of my party during character creation, I came to a realization about building backstory. It doesn’t happen.
Sure, the players had character sheets where they recorded rows of numbers for how hard they can sock it to an Orc. Or a bar wench. Or an Orcish bar wench. But aside from this numerical wench-slaying value, the players were content crafting human-animal hybrids in chainmail, sticking a sword in their hands, and pushing them out the door, sans personal history. In fact, my understanding of our party’s fighter begins and ends with “he’s our fighter, and he’s part wolf, apparently.”
I really should have thought out that Google search…
On the other end of this spectrum are players who write far too much backstory, stapling what amounts to a John Grisham novel to their character sheet. Before the game begins this ‘Biography of a Goblin Buggerer‘ gets read to the group, word for painful word. None of it gets absorbed. None of this rich (dry) backstory is ever mentioned again, lest the player in question feel compelled to re-read his masterpiece out loud. And the party continues with four interchangeable murder-hobos, and one character who seems vain for fixating on his past.
This is a shameful waste. Character backstory is an opportunity to infuriate other players, bungle the dungeon master’s plans, and bring interesting conflicts to the game table. When your character sleeps through a pitched battle with frost elementals because he was drunk, and burns down the tavern with said monsters inside when the party runs to you for help, it adds color and depth that transcends slapping a card on the table that says “flurry of blows” and counting your gold.
But how do we write backstory that will get used? What’s stopping your GM from completely ignoring your character’s struggle with his Genuphobia (fear of knees) right before the party raids a mannequin factory? And how do you get the party to recognize that your character is a precious, unique snowflake, who refuses to sleep on the first watch because of his Oneirogmophobia (fear of wet dreams)?
So in no particular order, here are 5 ways of writing character backstory that absolutely cannot be ignored.
1) Make It Immediate
Point and case: Will Smith hates robots. He had no idea he was on film.
One mistake I see in character backstory is that it happened long, long ago, and involves a dead family member the party never met. Or, the backstory only serves as an flimsy excuse to go adventuring. Which, in a tabletop RPG, risking one’s life to go adventuring is the norm, not the exception. Nobody needs a reason to pick up that +1 Longsword and leave the family farm forever.
During our current Pathfinder game, I created a knightly character who absolutely hates arcane magic users. He doesn’t have a good reason, other than his affiliation with his Order, who also hates arcane sorcerers and bards. After a few sessions the party became genuinely interested in my knight’s prejudices, which directly relates to how he was raised in the Order, and still holds to the naive dogma handed down to him during his childhood.
Nobody gives a shit about my character’s childhood, or yours. But if you seem to take delight in torturing goblins, or threatening the authorities, or if you point a crossbow at the back of a party member’s head for trivial, unexplained reasons, questions get asked.
The more bizarre or extreme the behavior is, the more they’ll be compelled to dig into the complexity that is your wench-slaying bard. Just be careful not to cross the line from interesting and quirky, to a problem the party must solve by rolling up in a carpet and dumping in the lake before they can continue murder-looting.
2) Involve Active Goals
Loot isn’t a goal. Gaining experience isn’t a goal. Leveling isn’t a goal. In fact, from your character’s perspective, he hasn’t the slightest goddamn clue what level he is. All he knows is that he keeps getting better as he practices his trade.
Level, rank, class, caste, and position are constructs of humans who want a yardstick to hold their progress against. In a free-flowing, continent spanning journey that takes you into the darkest depths of taverns and brothels, you need a goal that your character can be consciously aware of.
Make it your lifelong goal to join a knightly order. Unless you’re playing a paladin from Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 or higher, in which case you probably own a knightly order. Decide that your necromancer won’t be satisfied until he starts a cult. Brag about how your cyber-enhanced street tough will be shredding death metal on the big stage one day. Win a fashion contest, or whatever elves do.
My point is, believable characters have their own goals that are independent of the storyline or the party, and may sometimes go directly against it. This is a universal truth in gaming and in literature.
3) Include Weaknesses
I’m only exaggerating slightly, but this was the introduction for my priest who would later burn down a tavern while frost elementals were writhing around inside. Because he has a problem. Or several.
Giving your character flaws will give you something to fall back on in role-playing. Depth isn’t always about how badass your Hellknight is, or how unstoppable your cyborg is, or how many assisted suicides your medi-bot has performed. Depth is, more often than not, about your character’s weaknesses and how he overcomes them on a regular basis. Think of your favorite fictional character in novels or film, and in less than five seconds I bet you can tell me his greatest physical and emotional weaknesses.
This also gives the dungeon master something to play off of. Sure, he’s probably going to send unending ranks of monsters to taste your sword, like the world’s shittiest bread line, but give him the opportunity to throw a card game at your rogue who suffers from a crippling gambling addiction. Let him choose between the same old goblin bloodbath, and an interesting side-quest involving your past.
4) Use the 3-Descriptors Method
The above picture has been making its way around the internet, depicting the endless variety of videogame protagonists we see nowadays. Look at all the shades of pale skin, dark hair, and grizzled frown.
This is consequently what everyone at the table sees when a human male character is introduced to the group. White. Dark hair. Square jaw. Average features. Even if he has cybernetic implants, runic tattoos, or a hallow peg leg where he churns butter as he walks. If you’re playing a human male, you get to be Grimace McScruffy.
Shake it up by using a literary device– The 3 Descriptors Method. Pick three notable traits that would pop out to anyone who met him in a back ally. Try to use more than one sense to describe them. If your character wears a blind-fold, a dueling sword, and smells of incense, he’s probably a blind monk. Or if he’s wearing a blindfold, burning 100-Dollar bills to light his cigar, and smells of hand sanitizer and styling gel, he’s a director for EA Games.
Using these descriptors will make characters real to the players, instead of just screaming “I Monk!” and dropping your game miniature on the table. Of course, if you’re starting the game as a Pixie Barbarian who rides a packing peanut into battle, none of this entry applies to you.
5) Get the Party and the GM Involved
On the first entry I mentioned that nobody gives a single goblin gonad about my character’s childhood. Getting the party and the dungeon master involved in my character means making his backstory and motivations about more than my own ego.
In fact, all these entries have a theme. Yes, your character is important. Your understanding of your character, like an actor playing a role, is important. But his contribution to the central narrative is more important. The more your backstory and past experiences relate to the current mission, the more your character will seem like a central part of the story.
If another play says his cross-dressing wizard is from Shadow-helm-deep, the city that never snoozes, tell them you’ve been there. In fact, that’s where your gambler/drinker first got addicted to betting on ostrich races. Encourage the GM to pick apart your character’s history for quest ideas. Try to get other players involved too, and question them in-character about where they’re from and how it can help the current situation. Use pictures from wiki about kingdoms that have existed, so you can wax nostalgic about rolling countrysides, towering castle walls, and town squares where you used to throw rocks at adulteresses locked in the stocks.
Or if this all sounds like too much work, I understand. I can only assume from the overabundance of same-looking, generic, Mary Sue characters that appear in video games and tabletops that everyone loves the idea of playing clones of Sylvester Stallone. Don’t let me judge you.