Backstories: Back to Basics
This article was first broadcast in Episode Eighty Three on 7th August 2019.
Lennon: Ugh, come on, not again!
Ryu: Did you miss the knife throwing target again? I told you, wrist flick.
Lennon: No, it’s…I’m having to send out another note to remind a player that they need a backstory.
Ostron: It’s funny how often people skip that.
Backstory development isn’t something that’s usually focused on a lot when the subject of new characters comes up, and you can argue some of that is Wizards’ fault. Since the “backgrounds” mechanic was introduced in fifth edition, some players and DMs just assume the backgrounds from the Players Handbook or module sourcebook are all you need, and everything else just comes about through playing.
At a basic level that’s fine, and backstories are certainly not something players should be obsessing over during their first game, when character mechanics and actually playing the game are more important. But for those more interested in the storytelling or who want to expand their roleplaying, focusing on your character’s backstory is a good place to start.
Basic character backstories only need two elements: an origin, and a reason for adventuring. Let’s start with the origin. Your character did not spring into existence as a young-to-older adult adventurer. At some point, they were a child. Most parents usually agree that babies and toddlers are chaotic neutral (with some arguing for chaotic evil) so if your character is any other alignment, something made them that way. Also, at least one person gave birth to your character, so where are they? Did they try it again, had they tried it before, or were you it? Where did it happen?
Those are all questions that you should have answers to, but you don’t need a chronology of your entire life up to that point. You *do* need to pick out the details that explain your character. If they’re afraid of elves, what happened to make them that way? If they’re chaotic evil, were they born that way, or was there some trauma that sent you down a dark path? If you’re a kender, why?
Now a lot of people are tempted to go the route of the “mysterious stranger”. In the Lord of the Rings movies, that was Aragorn; the hobbits knew squat about the whole king of Gondor bit until later, and the people in Bree didn’t know either. That approach is fine, but remember the Aragorn lesson; even if you don’t tell people, you still have an origin of some kind. You should know what that is.
Now, it’s perfectly fine to skimp on this part of the backstory, or at least downplay it. Look at the Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins was basically an average suburban homeowner. Until the dwarves showed up at his house, literally nothing interesting had happened to him, but the point is, we knew that because it was spelled out. If that’s your character’s story, that’s fine. However, that makes the next part all the more important.
Someone once asked on the internet “why are all character backstories tragic or over the top” and the top response was along the lines of “Because the guy who owns the successful business running the inn has no reason to leave his wife and three children to risk his life hunting dragons!”
Most of the population does not choose to go adventuring. The Yawning portal does not have a queue to go down into the dungeons of the Mad Mage. Something fairly significant has to have occurred in a characters’ life to make them decide wandering the countryside hunting monsters and arguing with powerful people is the way to go.
This part of the backstory is non-negotiable; something kicked your character out of the door of whatever structure they slept in and sent them adventuring. The details with this can also be somewhat sparse, but they have to be there. Maybe it’s a family tradition, or a right of passage for a clan you hail from. Maybe something tragic happened and you’re trying to find purpose in life, or you committed a crime and were exiled. Maybe you’re having a mid-life crisis, and the adventure is where you showed up after you parked your mustang in front of the bar.
This might also be an area where you can collaborate with another player if you get stuck. As mentioned, Bilbo had no reason to leave his hobbit-hole and go adventuring; what got him out the door was Gandalf. If you don’t have a good reason for your character to leave the backstory life set up for them, another player could give you one. Maybe their character came to yours for help, or you randomly met in the tavern 70% of adventures used to start in, and the other character invited yours along.
Another thing to remember about your backstory is your class. People don’t often think about it, but even level 1 characters are very unique individuals in the world. Level 1 bards can sell tickets to performances and get people to pay for them. Level 1 fighters are high ranked officers or noncoms in the military. Level 1 rogues starred in Oceans 11 and the Italian job. You did not just pick up a sword on your way out the door. Some mention of how and why you have the expertise you do should be part of one or the other section of your backstory. Maybe you studied a lot as a wizard when you were younger and gave it up until recently, or whatever pushed you to start adventuring first pushed you toward a magic school where you’ve been studying.
The good news is, once you figure out those three things, you’re done. It can even be summed up in three sentences if you absolutely have to. But the point is, you should definitely have a backstory, regardless of how small. Roleplaying authentically means you have to understand your characters’ motivations, and your alignment isn’t going to be enough in all cases. When complicated social or moral situations come up, understanding how your character became they way they are can help to guide you in playing out the encounters.
Ryu: So why do you think this person doesn’t have a backstory?
Lennon: My first guess? They want to play a chaotic evil half-dragonborn half-tiefling monk who, quote, “will be multiclassing into hexblade Warlock at level 2”
Ostron: Isn’t your campaign in Eberron?
Lennon: Is that even a question?
Ryu: Okay, there are a number of issues we have to unpack with that but we don’t have time right now, so why don’t we table that until later and head over to the scrying pool to see what the listeners have to say?