Player Advice: A Short Guide On How To Write A Good Backstory
Every player wants their character wants a cool backstory. This is a fact, backed up with science and other irrefutable things to place your faith in. And why wouldn't you? Your character is one of the main characters of the campaign. If this was the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you would have your own movie prior to the big team-up that is the game you are playing in. You want to be interesting, you want to know who your character is and where they came from. Mostly, though, you want them to be cool. Thus, a cool backstory.
Only, sometimes we players can fall a little flat on our backstories. It seems that these days everyone's parents were killed and they have all sworn revenge for one reason or another. Personally, I just think it's depressing how many orphans there are running around. Hell, at this point, with the number of adventurers orphanages turn out per capita these days, we should start calling them "Adventuring Schools".
...And just like that, a campaign idea is born.
"It hits you at the strangest times."
Anyhoo, back on topic. Backstories don't need to be all about dead parents and burning villages, they just need to be interesting. And interesting is what we do here at Ed The Bard. Today I am going to break backstory design into its base elements to help the o'le brain meats undulate and gyrate with new ideas. Ideally, by the time we are done, you will be able to comprise aa good backstory into a paragraph, or a short novella, depending on how much detail you like. Sure, you could do it the quick and dirty way, but this time, we're focusing on crafting from the heart.
What A Backstory Needs
For a backstory to function in the correct way, it requires a few key elements to make it sparkle. These elements will add depth to the story that can affect your character in a number of ways, both positive and negative, but always interesting.
- Origin: Where is your come from? What race are they? Who was/is their family? Do they have a good relationship with them? What did or do they do for a living? These are all huge questions because it is in them that you see where your character is born. The influences from their childhood have major effects on their life later down the line. Your character's moral code and ethical decision making (or lack thereof) are built during this formidable time in their life.
- First Signs Of An Adventurer: At some point in your character's life, they show the first signs of what they were truly meant to do. Did they get into fights and find themselves very good at it or at least find themselves able to take a hit and keep going? Did they pilfer and steal or discover they can be very quiet and go unseen when they want to? Did they have a strong draw toward the natural world or did they find some semblance of peace in embracing a religion? Did they love to read, listen to music and stories, or find themselves able to do strange or destructive things with simply a thought? This is the first glimpse of what the character was meant to do, and what type of class they were meant to take, be it martial, skilled, or magic-oriented.
- Conflict: Something happened to disturb the characters life. An event that would shape them for years to come This is often what propels the character into a life of adventure. And since adventuring is 75% risking your life and 25% mad money, the turnover rate is usually pretty high. Yes, this could be the death of a parent or loved one, but conflict can take many forms, such as...
Character vs. Nature: A natural disaster like an earthquake, storm, drought, or flood could fall into this category. Perhaps one of these tore through your character's community, leaving them and their family with nothing, thus prompting a fast payout if they are to survive. Maybe your character's actions during that event showcased a hero, or revealed to their community a special talent, knack, or hidden secret, be it for good or ill. But perhaps there is nothing left at all and your character is the sole survivor. With nothing left, what do they do?
Character vs. Society: Perhaps your character doesn't conform to societal norms, or perhaps they are from a different culture altogether. Either way, the society they are currently surrounded are may not have a high opinion of your character. This could be in the form of prejudice against a particular race, religion, or affiliation with an organization like a cult or thieves' guild. This friction between your character and the rest of society might just be simple teasing or something altogether more violent. Does your character try to conform, or embrace their differences and turn their back on society? To what extent?
Character vs. NPC: There is some tenseness between your character and someone else. Maybe they experienced the end of a relationship (romantic, friendship, professional or family), made an enemy, wronged someone or were wronged. What matters is there is another person or persons whom your character is in conflict with. Perhaps your rivals (romantic or otherwise). Perhaps they stole the last slice of pizza! How heated is this conflict? Is it simple fun and games, or are you two out to destroy one another?
Character vs. Supernatural: Supernatural can mean a lot of things (especially if you're a Winchester)., but it basically boils down to dealing with otherworldly beings, like ghosts, witches, Gods, demons, devils, dragons, fey, wizards, warlocks, sorcerers, or just straight up magic in general. A lot of D&D and Pathfinder characters, especially those with a predisposition toward magic, tend to have a supernatural element to their backstory. The difference is when it is a conflict, it is not longer a fantastic tale of wonder. Now it is a pants-shitting cavalcade of nope and feeble attempts to grasp a a bigger picture. Supernatural conflicts tend to play on the mind as well as the body. I could do an entire blog on the subject (note to self: do that), but suffice to say, you have a lot of good source material to work with. If you want direct conflict with a supernatural being, flip through the Monster Manual or Bestiary until you find something that looks fun. If you want to go a less direct route, there is nothing wrong with pissing off a God. Well, I mean, the God might think so. How do you even protect yourself? What dealings have you had with these supernatural entities? Will you make it out with your soul/body intact?
Character vs. Self: The band Lit once said "I am my own worst enemy", and that is what this conflict is all about. Sometimes no other person gets in your way more than you. Your character could have an addiction or a powerful character flaw like greed, cowardice, or a predisposition toward cruelty. Perhaps they even have a bout of amnesia, and cannot remember who they were or what they were. Whatever the case, this conflict of self hinders or endangers your character in some way. How severe is it? Can it be overcome?
- Resolution: This is a bit of a gray area. Some backstories have resolutions that tie the whole thing up in a neat little bow. But that doesn't give the Game Master a lot to work with, and gives you less to work with. To make a great backstory, I tend to lean towards leaving everything a bit open-ended. I leave a few plot hooks dangling, a few issues left unresolved, and a few NPCs still walking about, up to... things.
To me, a character's backstory is simply a starting point. The real resolution should happen after they grow and evolve as a character, not before. As far as I am concerned, level 1 is still part of a character's backstory, the point where they take their first steps into adventuring. The resolution, at least in its fullest sense, should happen sometime later.
- What Your Character Is Actually Doing: In the end, all of this comes down to two choices. Two simple choices; Is your character off to face something or are they running away from something. Taking what you have read so far, you should be able to place your characters in one of these two categories. Remember, these can change throughout the course of the game, but for the purposes of the backstory, we are only concerned with what your character is doing when you start playing the campaign. Fight or flight?
This may not be the most glamorous of ways to create a character's backstory, but it lends itself to at least being a rough outline. A starting point. A guide to help you find your character's way. Sure, you can add as much drama or feel-good vibes as your want to the tale, just remember that all backstories need not be tragic. Some can be downright inspiring if you let them.
Do you folks have any character backstories you are damn proud of? Leave a blurb in the comments below here or on the page you found this article on. Let's hear some tales of heroism and heartbreak from the adventuring masses!
Roll well, my friends
+Ed The Bard
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