Player Advice: It Is Okay To Write Short Backstories

Something is happening to me in a few months that hasn't happened to me in ages, and I approach it with all the appropriate excitement of a bard of my stature. You see, after I wrap my current campaign, I am going to have an opportunity to do something I don't often get to do; actually play.

We are talking schoolgirl levels of giddiness, here.

I am often the story teller, the man behind the screen. The times when I actually get to get down and dirty along side the other players are few and far between. To be playing in what looks to be a long-running has had me chomping at the bit. I've already cooked up my character concept and went to work writing the backstory.

The method I decided on would be similar to "The Name of the Wind", wherein the events of the story are framed as a retelling from the main character. If you've never read "The Name of the Wind", stop reading this blog right now, get the book, read it, and get you some culture dawg! Kingkiller Chronicles be blessed, yo!

My character would be retelling his story to a priest who will be taking his final confession before he is executed. I set to work detailing his childhood as the illegitimate offspring of a noble, transitioning into his service in a military force known for its merciless brutality, then his life as a criminal and assassin. With three levels to work with, we have plenty of time to define our characters, and I wanted to justify every single skill choice, why he is so good with light weapons, his propensity to sneak (yes, I'm rolling a rogue), and every major event that helped shape him into the somewhat-broken-yet-hopeful half-elf he is.

My fingers worked furiously. I typed day in and out, letting the life of this hapless rogue work its way through me. Before I knew it, I had 10,000 words written, twenty whole pages of content, and I still hadn't moved on from his childhood. As I looked over it, and the NPCs that helped shape his life, I couldn't help but think to myself, 'Is this a bit excessive?'.

In my Game Masterly pursuits, I have lived by a simple rule that has worked out very well for me over the years; keep it simple. In my younger years I used to stat out every creature, map every possible area, think up every possible scenario the players could choose, and in doing all that my prep time was ridiculous. Six to eight hours a week were dedicated to things my players might not even choose to do. I needed to simplify things, so instead of full paragraph notes of what was to come, I wrote short, concise bullet points.

The bullet points were the boiled down versions of what I had planned that could be referenced if need be. These also allowed me to adapt my strategy better when the players came up with something creative and different to the situations I presented them with.

Reflecting on this got me thinking about whether or not I could apply this to a backstory.

Boil It Down
To trim a backstory down, you must figure out what exactly you want out of it, and how it pertains to your character. Let's imagine a character whose home village was destroyed by a dragon. That character, swearing revenge, becomes a dragon-hunting badass. Yes, you could write a complex story about a dragon cult that was operating in the town, probably involving people the character knew their whole life, and they were the ones that summoned the dragon to them. You could detail the town, the NPCs, the entire fiery/icy/acidic/poisonous affair. You could do all that and be fine.

But how much of that needs to be said?

Be Vague
When creating backstories it is easy to overwrite and over create. However, the GM is still the one running the show, and they more than likely have a story to share too. A good GM will weave threads of your backstory into the current story to tie the character into the world and engage the player, but they also have a whole table of other characters to also weave together. Larger backstories with more NPCs and complex events means more homework for the already busy GM to sift through. Not to mention now they need to memorize names, dates, mothers' maiden names, etc.

Yes, you could write ten or twenty pages of backstory, sure, or you could condense your backstory. However, you could probably also condense everything you want to say down into two sentences. Let's try it with our dragon-hunting badass:

"My village was destroyed by a cabal of dragon-worshiping cultists that summoned their dreaded master and offered up the people like sacrifices. I have vowed to track down the dragon and his followers and meet out justice for all the innocents that died that fateful day."

Here we have two sentences boiled down to the most basic elements, but the amount of story and content packed in can give the Game Master so much to work with. Already you have set up the character's reason for choosing their class and a reason to adventure. But moreover, you have given the GM...
  • A shadowy organization that the character has a strong history with that can antagonize the party. These people most likely have an agenda and lots of resources
  • A dreadful enemy in the dragon, and whatever plans it may have
  • A potential NPC that could be responsible for training the character, and that might also have a similar hatred of dragonkind.
  • A location the characters could visit: the destroyed village.
In two sentences you have provided the GM with enough information to write several sessions, perhaps even an arc. What's better is that it took you very little time to write, and the GM even less time to read, giving them more time to make the game as fun as possible.

Short, sweet, simple. And if gives you plenty of time to endlessly obsess over character builds, stat allocation, gear selection, and character art.

Oh, and that backstory I wrote? It ended up being 85 pages long. 85 pages!

Don't be like me! Be better!

Roll well, my friends
+Ed The Bard


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