Earlier in the Roleplaying 101 series, we looked at how to create a compelling character without an extensive backstory. I’ve found that D&D players who consider roleplaying as a key facet of their gaming experience, myself included, tend to get hung up on backstories. Some backstories are so detailed that they shut down any chance of organic character growth through the events played out at the table, while others are so potent that they threaten to re-center the entire campaign around one single character, like a spice drowning out all the other flavors of an otherwise delicious meal.
We explored last time how these problems can be short-circuited by eschewing a complicated backstory all together. This week, however, it’s time to take a explore how to make a rich, full-bodied backstory that enhances your campaign—and that can improve the game for your fellow players, too.
What Goes into a Detailed Backstory?
Whenever I create a backstory for a playable character, I try my best to include three specific elements. These items are inspired by my study of theater and storytelling, but I have to fight back against that training, too; even though my friends and I love roleplaying together, RPGs aren’t novels or plays. For example, a D&D character needs to be capable of being part of a group of adventurers, and there are ways to make that need congruent with your backstory and the character traits which it informs.
Backstory as Inciting Incident
A character’s backstory is the unified record of the most significant events that caused that person to become one of the main characters in this campaign. If not for one (or perhaps several) significant events in your backstory, your character would never have become an adventurer. What was this event? Was it traumatic, like the murder of your parents? Was it mystical, like the discovery of an ancient and enigmatic magical talisman? Was it patriotic, like a summons from the queen to become a royal knight? Or was it aspirational, like inheriting a suit of armor and finally being able to live out your life-long daydream of going on grand adventures?
The best inciting incidents dovetail with the outline of your Dungeon Master’s campaign. If your DM says that this campaign will be focused around Indiana Jones-style archaeological expeditions, do your best to create a backstory that doesn’t make it challenging for your character to want to investigate ancient tombs and put their artifacts in museums.
Backstory as Tinted Glasses
A character’s backstory is more than a starting point: it’s a lens through which all of their future experiences are viewed. The traumas and joys that set your character on the path of an adventurer will inform their behaviors throughout the campaign. For example, in campaign 2 of Critical Role, Liam O’Brien’s wizard Caleb Widogast had a traumatic event in his childhood that shattered his trust in people and institutions which he admired. Now, he views all people and hierarchies with suspicion, if not outright mistrust.
If you’re having a hard time finding a personality for your character, or you feel like you’re leaning too heavily on tropes, return to your backstory. No one’s personality develops in a vacuum, and everyone reacts to joyful and traumatic events differently. A person whose family was slaughtered by a band of marauding humans and orcs, for example, might react in many different ways. They might swear vengeance against all bandits, or they might cower in fear at the sight of orcs. They might even adopt a twisted philosophy of “might makes right” to justify their loss, and perpetuate the cycle of cruelty that they were a victim of.
Backstory as Character-Defining Choice
Most importantly, however, a backstory is something that a character can either choose to embrace or reject over the course of the campaign. If you’ve ever felt like your character’s backstory was a straitjacket that, over time, prevented you from playing your character the way you wanted to, then you may have needed to have your character reject their past. Most characters in games and stories aren’t actively aware of the way that their backstory has shaped them as a person. However, as a character grows and learns more about themselves and about other people, they may realize that they have the power to change their future.
This sort of self-actualization, whether it’s affirming or denying their past, can be an incredibly powerful character moment if played authentically. The moment a character seizes or rejects their past as a defining element of their personality moving into the future is the moment that character takes control of their destiny. The character transforms from a passive onlooker in their own life into someone who takes an active master of their own self. Some characters start as active, transformative people, which is great! But any character has the potential to grow out of a confining backstory, no matter what their personality is like.
What Stays Out of a Detailed Backstory?
A detailed background can pose problems when it makes it difficult for your own character to grow organically as new events shape their life. That is, when your character lives in the past rather than in the present, their narrative inertia can cause the campaign to lose forward momentum. An excessively complicated backstory can also steal the spotlight from other players, and create unpleasant drama at the gaming table.
As a player, you can use these suggestions as a diagnostic tool to help you make sure that your character’s backstory won’t get in the way of your friends’ fun. As a Dungeon Master, you can also use these suggestions to help get all of your players on the same page, so that they can avoid these pitfalls.
Material that Contradicts the Campaign or Setting
When preparing a D&D campaign with a significant roleplaying element, the best DMs send out a campaign primer to their players beforehand. This doesn’t have to be long—and it could be the subject of a future article—but it gives the players just enough details about the setting and tone of the campaign for them to create characters that mesh with the campaign the DM wants to run. It also lets the DM and the players have a conversation about any elements that they find disagreeable, or absent elements that they think might enhance the campaign.
As a player, once you have a campaign primer, take note of the setting—where and when and in what world the campaign takes place—and the tone; that is, if the campaign seems like it will be lighthearted and airy, or grim and gritty. You don’t have to go out of your way to match your character to the setting or the tone, but you should do your best not to contradict anything that your DM has presented to you.
Just like wealth inequality, backstory inequality can cause tension at the gaming table. This occurs when some players at the table write long and complicated backstories, while others keep their prose short and sweet. Neither style is better than the other, but there are times when an overlong backstory can hog the DM’s attention, and even steal the spotlight from other players during gameplay. A concise backstory that sufficiently explains your character’s motivations and idiosyncrasies is fantastic, but an epic-length tale complete with genealogies and replete with NPCs for the DM to steal has the power to enchant a DM. It might be sunk-cost fallacy (“I spent so much time reading this backstory that I’d better make use of it!”) or it might be actual usability (“Look at all these NPCs and plot hooks my player provided me with!”), but it can make players whose backstories are shorter and more utilitarian feel underappreciated.
If you have this problem as a DM, you can try to solve it by requesting that all backstories be of a specific length, just as if you were an English teacher asking for an essay. One page is a pretty good length. Alternatively, you could ask for everyone to provide one NPC and one character-based plot hook related to their backstory. And if someone doesn’t deliver what you’re asking for, turn it back and ask action. If you find that this tactic isn’t working with one or two of your players in particular, they may not be looking for the same type of game as you are. This is a good point to see who actually wants to play a roleplaying-focused campaign, and who wants something else out of their D&D experience.
Likewise, your backstory shouldn’t be an exhaustive history of your character. For one, it takes an excessive amount of time to write all that. Second, leaving space in your backstory is a boon to your friends, and your DM. The benefit to you is that it allows you to improvise new backstory elements if you need to. Or, if creating entirely new backstory elements mid-game isn’t appealing to you, it can allow you to add new details to your back-historical events that help smoothly integrate your backstory into the current events of your campaign.
Leaving room for further elucidation in your backstory is helpful for your fellow players and for your DM because it gives them opportunities to link their stories to yours. Allowing events from one character’s backstory have some significance in another characters’, or in the larger plot your DM is weaving, helps the story of the campaign feel like a united tapestry, rather than a patchwork quilt of different characters.
What guidelines do you follow when creating your characters’ backstory, or when asking your players to create one for your campaign? What’s the best backstory you’ve ever created? Share it in the comments below!
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their feline adventurers Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.