Campaigns are large sandboxes for adventurers to play in. Some DMs prefer to have more linear campaign progression, but the freedom of D&D is that you can do just about anything you want. For some players, that level of freedom brings forth a need for some stability. If that player is a DM, they can set whatever rules the table needs to achieve it. Your campaign’s world is whatever your group needs it to be. Players often react by creating extremely rich backstories for their characters as a pillar to lean on. A rogue princess with a royal curse to break; a lone barbarian who scoured the land from a young age, fighting for survival at every turn; or a prodigious mage’s assistant, finally being sent out into the world to learn and use magic as they’ve always dreamt of.
Many players are used to intricate backstories because that’s largely how many fantasy stories begin. And while that’s a completely valid way of building a character, there’s another side of (many sides of) character creation to explore. Frontstory. In my endless sea of lectures I’ve found that frontstory is best explained with the examples of the fictionally consistent, Jim Sterling inspired, Chungus and Grungus.
The Timeless Epic of Chungus and Grungus
Let’s call your adventurer with the two-page backstory, Chungus. They have, for example:
- A family lineage that includes some recent direct-family death or illness
- A personal mystery that they will allude to, but don’t plan to reveal until 12 weeks in
- One powerful childhood moment that set them on the path of becoming an adventurer
Because Chungus was built on these elements, all of the reactions they have to present events will be weighed against that backstory. That’s how our player figures out who Chungus is; using their backstory as a filter and seeing what comes out. A pitfall of this is that players keep their eyes on week 12 more so than what’s happening in front of them.
One day, Chungus’ time comes to an end. A victim of DM’s critical success and a player’s critical failure, dear Chungus perishes at a time and in a place where there’s no hope for them to continue on. We’ve lost Chungus. Gone, but never forgotten. Press F to pay respects. Chungus’ player didn’t get far enough in the campaign to reach their fulfilling reveals—and thus, all the backstory that was never revealed or never paid off is lost to the wind.
After the funeral and a hero’s sending, a new adventurer must take their place. Though Chungus’s journey is over, their player still wants to be a part of the game. And so our player has some options. They could whip out an old favorite from another campaign. They could make a brand new character who is so tied into the narrative that of COURSE they’d join the party—but our hypothetical player doesn’t have the time to write a chunky, plot hook-laden backstory this time. So instead of those options, they create Grungus.
Our player didn’t have a lot of time to write a chunky, plot hook-laden backstory for Grungus, so this new character is just a strong warrior who happens to have a horse in this narrative’s race. Since this player has little history to riff off of, they use each event as an opportunity to be a fresh eye peering into the lives of a close-knit group, just to remain relevant. To this player’s surprise this works. Not just as a way to navigate the game, but as a way to have fun. Why?
It’s because Grungus is all about what’s happening in the moment. The point of frontstory is to let go of the foundations and let the present be the beginning of your epic.
Backstory isn’t a dirty word. All good characters need motivation, and a character’s backstory can be rich with motivations. They give the player a clear path forward and a clear way to react to the things around them. Backstories are a guide on where to start before players get into the rhythm of who their characters grow into later on. Grungus, however, throws the guide out the window.
Frontstory is about making those important bullet points that Chungus had and creating them all later, based in the events that happened in the game’s present, not its hypothetical past. The personality and development of the character is heavily weighed in when they begin to understand their party and the journey they’re undertaking. Here’s an example:
In two different campaigns, Chungus and Grungus both find themselves in the same situation: collecting loot at the end of a battle. They both find out that one of the rogues that they killed had only joined this band of thieves to eventually find the assassin that killed her family. There’s a hidden diary filled with pictures and notes about her entire journey. It’s a very emotional moment for the players, but how do the characters react?
Chungus can often have their reaction tied down to the personality or experiences dictated in their history. Chungus decides that, because they’re supposed to be gruff and absent of emotion due to many past family deaths, that this assassin’s note isn’t an important development. It’s still completely possible for Chungus’ player to move their adventurer in the opposite direction, to help this deceased woman on her quest, but if backstory players aren’t careful, everything gets filtered through that dense history and passed by without a second thought.
Grungus doesn’t have any large traumas or past incidents that hold them back from assessing the character choice presented before them. Thus, whatever decision they make is based on the principles that the player is being faced with rather than being filtered. Do you want Grungus to be more empathetic? Do you want them to dash immediately into this new quest, or are they going to support whatever decision is made by the party at large? Is Grungus more hopeful than the others because they’ve seen fewer horrors? Or are they cold-hearted and focused on the main story quest? Any type of character can face these questions, but frontstory characters have each and every decision they make impacted by how much character there is to build. A character that isn’t burdened by backstory is able to act dynamically, and make the most interesting decision in the moment. Grungus is a vehicle made to learn that lesson.
The Great Reflector
There are a great many uses for characters build solely from frontstory, but one of the most useful is the ability to turn pieces of the party’s identity back at the characters. Adventures take a toll on adventurers. We receive battle scars of the body as well as the mind. The longer that this continues on, the more that people begin to become accustomed to the process of scarring. Seeing a young warrior die doesn’t carry the weight that it once did, because it can’t. To journey toward one’s final destination, the normalcy of war is an inevitability.
Grungus, as someone who can join a campaign at any point in the narrative curve, is able to look at the other characters from the perspective of one who doesn’t carry that burden. They can be a vehicle to ask some big questions like, “How have we changed from where we began?” For the group of players who enjoy some deep philosophical thinking, this question can lead to some major character development.
Not all of the reflections that Grungus brings to the table have to be loaded with heavy undertones. For more mischievous players, you can use them as a way to poke at tense romances and friendly rivalries. A brand new teammate is unknowing of the “this is complicated” energy standing between your “two ladies just bein’ pals and swinging swords”. It’s a fair question to ask what that tension is about, especially at a very tense romantic moment between the two.
Not every Grungus has to be born yesterday. Being focused on frontstory doesn’t mean that a character can’t have defining ideals or experiences. Grungus can be brand new to adventures of this scale, or they can be a seasoned warrior of even higher caliber than the character they’re replacing. The core of frontstory is to let the major details of who they are and what moves their motivations be decided in the tense moments of the present to a much larger degree than in the past.
How to Build Frontstory
So we know what Grungus can do and how they can use their position in their social group to mix things up, but how does one make the beautiful, most amazing Grungus of legend? Well, it comes down to fundamental theming. Building as you go, which is the core of frontstory, doesn’t mean that you have no foundation from which to progress. The road you begin from can stand on a principle or idea.
Most players encounter a “Grungus opportunity” when their character dies, as mentioned earlier. If the campaign has been going on for some time and you’re choosing to add a brand new hero to the story, having an illustrious backstory may solve the question as to why you arrive, but it may not give you time to explore the potential value of said story in what little time the campaign has left. A new character can connect and blend into the campaign by reflecting off of the existing narrative themes.
What are those themes? If you aren’t sure, try talking to your DM or fellow players. In heroic campaigns, these themes can include empathy, the concept of good and evil, personal loss, fear of the future, or of the past coming back to haunt a world of peace. These elements of your hero’s journey are just as valuable as making an old friend, or as pragmatic as choosing to play a non-player character. The set of skills you use to bring your adventurer into the fold are focused on what the story is about, rather than what a character might have been before the story took place. The nuance of this awareness can bring about new ways to enjoy not only D&D, but roleplaying in general.
Why Would I Grungus When I Can Chungus
Or, why would I ever make a backstory-less character if I enjoy writing elaborate backstories? A fantastic question! Here’s another: how many times have you begun a campaign as someone who has yet to hold a sword, or who has never cast a spell? If that number is zero, then there’s an opportunity to experience something you never have before.
When you create a character with a dense backstory, you partially answer a great deal of questions on your own that you may wish to explore together with your party. How did I learn to fight? Who were my mentors or teachers? What difficulties arose that made me venture out into this grand world of fantasy? Sometimes a backstory is used as a way for players to set a checkmark next to these questions to signify that they’re answered rather than letting the campaign be the host for those answers.
In early editions of Dungeons and Dragons, non-player characters that don’t have stat blocks or character sheets are level 0. They don’t have skills to check or scores to modify. They are normal, everyday people. Your character was likely just like them, until one day they weren’t. You begin the journey that will one day become a story better than you could have written alone.
So if you’re from the land of backstories, try piloting a Grungus around in your next oneshot. And for those living for each moment to moment engagement, give backstory a try and see what it brings out of you as a player.
Whatever happens, new experiences help freshen up old skills. So take the leap and see what’s on the other side.
Have you ever created a character with no backstory, and whose personality developed exclusively through frontstory? Tell us about them in the comments!
DC is an independent game designer, and the creator and author of plot ARMOR, as well as a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast. You can find them assisting the tabletop roleplaying game community’s growth on Twitter @DungeonCommandr.