Player Advice: Building Useful Backstories

Everyone loves creating characters. It’s part of the appeal of Dungeons and Dragons.. Part of it might be that, depending on the constraints of the setting that you’re playing in, you have seemingly unlimited options for your character. You’re not defined by playing out a scripted protagonist like in other media. It’s creatively stimulating, and in a game based on choices and consequences, who you choose to play is the first and most important choice you can make.

I distinctly remember the first time I saw a deep-dive backstory. I’d been GM-ing for a solid year or so before I heard that an old friend of mine had discovered D&D on his own. He sent me his first character’s background: several typed pages involving his Ranger character’s childhood friend and the issues he faced growing up in a noble house of Elves. I was blown away, because prior to this, my players had issues even coming up with believable character names.

Regardless of the reasoning, choosing a character backstory is a major component of character creation. In 5e and other editions of Dungeons and Dragons, the Player’s Handbook has a chapter dedicated to pre-fabricated backstories to act as a basis of your character’s skills and experiences. Recently, with the release of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, players now have even more tools to flesh out those backstories. I personally love the detail that the tables offer in Xanathar’s, but I think they work best when taken as guidelines rather than prescriptive legalistic parameters. It’s your character – if you don’t like an idea that the table spits out at you, then change it a little! Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.

But how much should you put into a backstory? That depends on a few things.

First off, what kind of adventure is your GM running? Is it going to be a one-session dungeon dive? Then your background will probably only inform your role-playing choices like voice, fighting style, and personality traits. Contrast an epic 1-20 campaign that spans years in real-life. In games like that, GMs often pull events and characters from characters’ pasts in order to build plot threads. But be careful that you don’t do the GM’s job for them. If you decide that your character’s on this lifelong quest to hunt an Ancient Red Dragon and he gets stranded in the Underdark for the 6 in-game months of Out of the Abyss, don’t be disappointed when Dragon Hunting isn’t a huge focus of the campaign.

Also, don’t be too rigid in your character’s personality. I’ve mentioned this before in passing, but it’s always rewarding when your character changes from the events of an adventure. It adds a sense of depth both to your character and to the events of the campaign.

But one of the most important things to consider is that you’re not the only person at the table. Be willing to take a backseat while other characters have things going on that are pertinent to their background, and trust that your GM will eventually make their way to yours in the future. I’ve heard complaints from various gaming groups that have that one guy who’s convinced that the whole game revolves around his character and developing his backstory. Be careful about falling into the trap of believing that you’re the only main character of this story, and work with your fellow players to build them up.

Imagine how awesome that would be: collaborating with fellow player to build a plot arc with each other. Geek and Sundry’s Critical Role has some great examples of this with Scanlan and Pike in Campaign 1, as well as Nott and Caleb in Campaign 2. Consider bringing this up with your fellow players if they’re interested.

I’ll leave you with one final point. Backgrounds and personality traits should never force a certain behavior on a player. Rather, backstory should add layers of meaning to any actions taken in-game. Never think – “hey, I can’t trust this new guy because of my character flaw.” Instead try, “my character chooses not to trust him yet because of my flaw.” The game’s more fun when people cooperate, anyways.


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