We’ve all been there, at the table, either struggling or seeing someone else struggle with giving their character depth. They made the character, who functions OK mechanically, throwing out spells, or arrows, or swinging a sword – all good. But, the character themselves is nothing more than a hollow shell, and players can’t really get invested in a hollow shell.
So, what’s the solution? A character backstory.
Why have a backstory?
In writing fiction, the backstory provides information about the characters for the front story so that the front story appears to be a fully realised, and thus plausible and immersive, world to the reader. For a character, this is relevant highlights of their history which furnishes why and how they go on to do what they do. For tabletop roleplaying, the front story is the game itself, and the backstory is the work done prior to establish the character. In fiction writing, these elements of backstory and front story need to be in balance, as there are only a certain amount of pages that can occupy the reader. However, this is not the case with RPGs, as all the backstory work is done before everyone sits down to play.
So, what can backstory do to enhance your character and game?
It furnishes the DM with opportunities to provide engagement and contrast with the character, which in turn raises the stakes of immersion in the narrative of the game. The events of the game impact on the character who has their own reactions because they have their own secrets, motivations and fears. The player with a developed character ceases to pilot a hollow shell of an automaton and is instead confronted with a situation of which they are not completely in control – the character challenges the player because the player knows they will react to the situation in a certain way. This creates immersive experiences, as players are brought into the character’s journey – like the character, they do not feel in complete control, but are waiting in tension to see what could happen next.
In short, if you want an immersive roleplaying experience, fully-fledged characters with backstories are a must.
What goes into a character backstory?
The Wizard’s of the Coast (Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition) character sheet has a number of sections dedicated to fleshing out a character. And these sections are not bad, but in most games I’ve played, they’re mostly viewed as irrelevant sheet real estate and rarely get filled out in favour of other scribbles. Rarely are they incorporated into part of the character’s backstory and adventurer identity. Even more rarely does the backstory itself make sense of these traits – all too often the cart is placed well-before the horse.
The truth is that other RPGs do backstories, and have done them better than D&D 5th Edition. To be fair, the instructions for character building in 5e D&D tend to be a little underwhelming anyway, not fully leading or encouraging players to produce full-formed, fleshed out characters. So let’s provide an easier way to do that.
Building a backstory through a template
The first rule of thumb is always (and this goes for almost everything) to have a chat with the DM. Ask them about some of the rules of their world, and what sort of characters are allowed for this coming adventure. Many DMs, for instance, have strict rules about party members being Neutral Evil or Chaotic Evil alignment. They will have reasons for this position, but it’s important to note that these rules exist before jumping head first into making your Drow who is devout worshipper of Lolth. Talk through some of your initial ideas with the DM to see what could work for them, and this could help you avoid disappointment.
When it comes to building the backstory, the goal is simply to identify particular points of interest about your character. That’s how the below template is configured. It helps you write down particular highlights that make your character unique, and once they’re identified, you can then craft them into a fully-formed individual. The template’s main function is not to give you ideas as much as it is to ensure you don’t forget elements of your character that might be useful to highlight. If you’re looking for inspiration, I might make a future post looking into that. Otherwise, the Players Handbook (5e D&D) has some ideas on background themes you could use. Additionally, there are some helpful websites out there that have character background generators – I don’t recommend these as replacements for my template, but more as inspiration.
Here is my form fillable character background builder template. Please save a copy to your computer. If you’re a player, you can provide it to your DM, or as a DM you can distribute it to your players. Whatever works for you and your group(s).
Note: understand the limitations of the template. It’s an aid, not a rule. It’s made generic and some of the fields may or may not be relevant to the character or the world in which they will be adventuring. That’s OK. Take what is useful and discard what is not.
Turn it into a brief narrative
This last step is perhaps more important for the player than the for the Dungeon Master. As much as the above template makes the character’s background easy to create, crafting these various elements or characteristics into a brief narrative helps to place your character into the DMs world. It makes them more real, more relatable, and sets the player up to better develop that character during tabletop play. It’s weaving the traits, motivations, personality quirks, hatreds and fears into a believable and relatable individual – that individual is then set to head out into the DMs world and develop themselves, complete with all their juicy backstory baggage.
But remember, you don’t want to burden your Dungeon Master with pages and pages of text to wade through. You want to keep it long enough to get the core of the character plausibly established, but succinct enough for a reader to quickly understand the basic characteristics and motivations of the character. Aim to provide your DM with no more than a page of narrative backstory. Any more than that is creating a burden for them.
For many, the whole background process might seem like a bit of a chore; an afterthought or box to tick for their DM or, with 5th Edition D&D, to get their skill proficiencies so they can move on to build the rest of their character. However, establishing a character’s plausible existence is a vitally important part of creating an ongoing sense of meaning for them (and thus the player) in the fantasy world. Without it, immersion will be difficult to create and the character more likely to be a lifeless extension of the player’s own ego. This can lead to common problems in game worlds, like bored unengaged players and symptoms most would like to avoid (e.g. murderhoboing).
Some players find it really easy to craft their backstory, many even doing so on the fly at the table, but for most others it comes a little less easily. This does not remove the fact that backstories are a key to character depth and thus good roleplay at your table. So, whether you use the template recommended above, or some other method of creation, may your characters be full of depth, and your games be full of engaging conflict and content.