This article was first broadcast in Episode Eighty Four on 14th August 2019.
Ostron: *sound of firebolt and then burning* Aaaaand boom. That’s all set now.
Ryu: Please tell me that was a mathematical summary we don’t have to discuss in the Gnomish Workshop
Ostron: No, that was one of my players’ backstories.
Lennon: That thing was like 20 pages, who do you have as a player, George RR Martin? Wait, no, that backstory was finished…
Ryu: Fleshed out backstories are good!
Lennon: And it’s better than not getting anything. Remember the player I had from last week.
Ostron: Yes, but there’s a limit.
Some people need prodding and cajoling to come up with a backstory for their D&D characters. As we mentioned previously, many people simply make do with the descriptions in the character backgrounds from various sourcebooks, or they play the “mysterious stranger” card and claim to have an unimportant past and secret, unknowable reasons for adventuring, which is just a cover for not having any backstory for the character at all.
To be fair, having a backstory isn’t a core requirement of playing, but many argue that you can’t roleplay authentically without one. On the other hand, some people prefer to roleplay with a blank slate and just let their character’s personality evolve depending on circumstances, or they like to mold the character’s personality to fill whatever “social holes” they perceive in the group dynamic.
However, every d20 has a 20 on it to offset the 1. In this case, there are players who will dig deep into their character’s backstories, fleshing out an entire family tree, city of origin, and timeline of their characters’ lives from birth through to however old they are when they start adventuring. There will be hometown political issues, jilted lovers, angry former associates, disappointed mentors, and a missing pet owlbear that’s just really misunderstood.
Now to be clear; despite Ostron’s reaction, this is not a bad thing. Diving into your character and fleshing them out is good, and you should not stop. However, you need to manage expectations.
D&D is a narrative game where everyone is developing a story. Usually, the DM is in charge of all of the “W” questions about the story: What, Where, When, and a lot of the Why. The characters supply the “How” details during play, but the DM may also rely on the characters to come up with some of the “Why” elements of the story through their backstories. But players have the ability to inadvertently or consciously use their backstories to try to shape the story that’s being told, and not always for the better.
The first issue is the setting. A backstory written with no regard to a campaign’s setting can create headaches for the DM but also for the rest of the party. For example, let’s say you’ve created a character that is a chaotic evil half-dragonborn half-tiefling monk who, quote, “will be multiclassing into hexblade Warlock at level 2”; and you have a whole story of how you and your family grew up in a small village watched over by a silver dragon who lived among the inhabitants and served as a benevolent leader and protector, but one of her children ran away a few hundred years ago. You went out adventuring to try to find evidence of them. You tell your DM you want to play this character…in their Eberron campaign.
The sound you just heard was Lennon having an aneurysm. Dragons in Eberron have a very different place and purpose than in the forgotten realms; the backstory just outlined would be highly unlikely to impossible. On top of that, dragonborn are vanishingly rare in the Eberron setting. That means this character would immediately be a minor celebrity or would at least attract a lot of attention everywhere they went.
There are roleplay opportunities there to be sure but the problem is it all centers around the one character. Writing up a backstory that ignores restrictions or conditions of the campaign world can annoy people. The DM is either going to have to figure out how to have all the NPCs react to the anomaly in the group, or they’ll have to ignore it, which hurts the roleplaying. It can also annoy the other players because if they are authentically role playing, they will also have to account for the outlier in the group and either make excuses or accommodations for them. It can also be a problem in getting through social encounters.
Apart from in-game issues with that approach, around the table it can be irksome. Ignoring key elements of a setting in your backstory can be seen as an attempt at powergaming and ignoring role play, or that you ignored the setting that the campaign takes place in. The latter isn’t usually an issue unless it’s a more restrictive or esoteric setting, but it’s worth paying attention to because the DM has to shape a story in the setting, and having this outlier character walking around makes that more difficult.
Along those same lines, the DM’s job is to craft a story for all of the characters, and many DMs will try to incorporate player characters’ histories into the story. A common, if cynical, joke among experienced players is that any family member that isn’t dead in a character’s backstory will end up as a hostage. While that isn’t literally true for most DMs, it’s not uncommon for people from characters’ backstories to appear somewhere in a campaign. It’s usually a treat for players and it can help give the DM ideas.
However, there’s an implicit understanding there that the backstory written is fair game for the DM. If you don’t want to have your backstory mined for story elements and don’t find it fun to have a figure from your past show up during the story that’s fine, but you should let your DM know beforehand. However the other side of that coin is if you write a character in with the expectation that the DM has them show up at some point and behave a certain way… That’s not really the best way to do that.
For example, let’s say you write up a backstory that features an older sibling that was thrown out of the family by overbearing parents because she was practicing magic, and you haven’t heard from them for years but you suspect they got caught up in devil summoning. You may have written that with the idea that this sibling is going to show up with an evil cult, then you’ll be able to rescue and redeem them in the course of the campaign.
As a DM, I have several issues with that. First, depending on the campaign, devil cults may not fit in. It’s difficult to work devil summoners into a Curse of Strahd campaign, for example. Second, a redemptive arc focusing on your character’s sibling shifts a lot of the focus onto your character. The whole collection of PCs are supposed to be heroes here, it’s not your character and their sidekicks. If I’m including an arc that focuses on your character’s backstory, I probably have to give equal time over to everyone else’s characters as well. Again, that may not be something that works in the campaign, assuming the other players even want to participate in that kind of thing.
Putting open-ended plotlines, or what DMs call story hooks, into your backstory is fine, and it’s actually encouraged in a lot of cases. But putting full story arcs in and expecting the DM to follow them isn’t what most DMs want. If you have an idea for how a piece of your backstory might play out in the campaign, you can certainly discuss it with the DM, but just leaving it out there and hoping or expecting the DM to resolve it the way you want can end up causing frustration and disappointment for a lot of people.
Basically, the point is that there’s an implicit contract when you’re playing D&D. You’re providing a main character that will feature in a story along with the rest of the party. If you have details that inform why your character behaves the way they do and what in the campaign world set them on the adventuring path, that can help the DM fit your character into the story and can help you figure out how your character would react to things. But from the start of the adventure, the DM is the one telling the story. Trying to interfere with that process through your backstory won’t help anyone.
Lennon: Speaking of backstories getting out of control, Ostron, do you have *create or destroy Water* prepared?
Ostron: Not at the moment, why?
Lennon: Well it’s just the backstory fire seems to be spreading to the table beneath it.
Ostron: Oh darn it!
Ryu: Okay, well, I’m going to the scrying pool
Lennon: Oh there is some extra water in there, isn’t there? You need a bucket?
Ryu: What? No, I’m going to hear what the listeners have to say. Ostron can put out his own fire.