Motivations and tips for creating backstories
Motivations and tips for creating backstories
A backstory is a collection of personality traits, and some kind of a narrative explanation for them. A context and an origin for your character.
It’s a collection of people, places, and things that ground you into the setting, connect you to the world, and relate you to your fellow players.
It’s a sort of justification for your character’s quirks.
Consider Severus Snape. He is cold, sarcastic, and bitter. If that was it, if that was all we got from him in the story, he’d be a terrible and boring character. Fortunately, he has a really exceptional backstory that explains where he came from and how he got where he is. Consequently we know that he is in fact a great character.
Creating a backstory will benefit three different parties: you, your DM, and your teammates.
Role playing is hard if you have a flat character and if you know nothing about them. If you come up with a little story about your character, you’ll get a better idea for who they are and how they should act in certain situations.
Also, backstory creation and character creation go really hand in hand, and one can inform the other. Your emerging backstory, for example, might determine the background or feat you take.
If you include “hooks” in your backstory, like the name of a childhood mentor or a loved one, or the name of the town you’re from, or an organization you belong to, then your DM can have those people and places show up in story for great narrative payoff.
It can make coming up with meaningful and satisfying story lines for your character that much easier.
It gives you a way to talk about your character to your teammates, and creates a context in which they can interact with you.
And context here can mean empathy. It is much easier to forgive–or celebrate!–your character’s odd choices or behaviors if they’re explained by a good backstory.
Note: for this to work, you must actually tell your teammates, in character or out, your character’s backstory! Think about Snape again. If nobody ever found out about his backstory, he’d remain nothing but a terrible child abuser.
Here are some resources for making a good and fun backstory.
Puzzle Pieces: Make your story like a puzzle piece that fits in with your fellow players, and in with your DM’s world.
Knife Theory: Include a few “knives” in your story that your DM can use to (lovingly) stab you in the back later.
Rumors: Create some rumors about your character for NPCs to talk about and react to.
The Megaversal Omnigroovy Background Machine: For extra fun, roll on the M.O.B. Machine tables to fill in some extra detail in your backstory
More on each below.
The best thing you can do is to have the edges of your backstory fit the edges of your DM’s world and of your fellow players’ backstories.
Hook your story into some plot device or campaign detail.
Choose at least two of your teammates and work with them to intermesh your stories. Maybe the two of you were traveling companions. Or childhood friends who grew up friendly rivals.
Tales from the Loop makes this part of starting a campaign, and one of the things I enjoyed most about playing that game was how connected all the characters were from the very beginning.
When writing a character’s backstory, it’s important to include a certain number of “knives”. Knives are essentially anything that the DM can use to raise the stakes of a situation for your character. Anything that can make a conflict personal, like a threatened loved one or the appearance of a sudden enemy. They’re called “knives” because the players lovingly forge them and present them to the DM so that the DM can use them to stab the player over and over again.
Try to include 3 - 5 knives.
Suggestions: at the very least, include one person, and one location, and one organization/family. Even if in your backstory you literally write “Insert Town Name Here” instead of a town name. You can work with your DM to fill in those kinds of details.
Each of the following is an example of one knife.
a named person your character cares about, living or dead, or an enemy your character has.
a precious item/heirloom.
an ongoing obligation or loyalty, or an obligation your character has failed.
a secret your character is keeping.
any phobia, trauma, or discrimination your character has experienced.
any mystery in your character’s life. e.g. unknown parents, unexplained powers.
a serious crime your character has committed or been falsely accused of.
a personal goal or objective based on any of the above knives.
Come up with 2 - 3 rumors about your character that are true.
Come up with 2 - 3 rumors about your character that are false.
That’s it. Let your DM use them as they will.
aka The MOB Machine
source: Risus Companion
So if you have a couple of “knives” now from the previous section, it is possible that you may be wondering how to tie them together into a story. If that’s the case, you can roll on the table below to get a sort of starting point of a story that will tie them all together.
If you’ll forgive me the sin of mixing my metaphors, those knives can be the bones of your story, and the narrative you build around them can be like the muscles and sinew that hold the bones together. And when you’re finished, you’ll have a gross, fleshless, sinewy skeleton thing of a backstory. Because creation isn’t pretty. But it is beautiful, and this is your little abomination backstory you’re creating here. Your own precious little insult to nature to cherish and adore and dress up in outfits and hope that nobody looks closely enough to see what lies beneath its wrappings.
Instructions: Roll 1d100 two or three times.
Note: This table is from a comedy RPG. If you roll and your result is too silly for your tastes, discard it and roll again.
01 - You achieved some fame
02 - You accidentally killed your pet
03 - You accepted something that shouldn't have been yours
04 - There was a terrible accident
05 - The GM pressured you into it
06 - Someone tricked you
07 - Someone powerful or wealthy took an interest in you
08 - Someone gave you a hickey
09 - Someone gave you a cryptic warning
10 - Someone depended on you
11 - Somebody was honest enough to tell you that your poetry or artwork is awful
12 - Nobody understood you
13 - It seemed like a good idea at the time
14 - Good fortune brought you unexpected money
15 - Bullies picked on you
16 - A plate of spicy food affected you
17 - A new religion or philosophy caught your interest
18 - A group you disliked or didn't trust did you a good turn, and changed your feelings about them
19 - A group you admired ridiculed, ignored, or excluded you
20 - You are doing this to spite a relative's wishes
21 - You are following in a relative's footsteps
22 - You aren't of this Earth (or of this whatever-planet-this-is)
23 - You can wiggle your eyebrows independently
24 - You forgave someone for a long-standing wrong
25 - You finally had to give up your wooby
26 - You fell very ill
27 - You failed to achieve something you wanted very much
28 - You failed as an artist
29 - You committed a crime with friends but you were the only one to get away
30 - You committed a crime with friends but you were the only one caught
31 - You gave shelter to an unusual traveler
32 - You got in a fight
33 - You had a career that you thought would last your whole life, but it didn't work out
34 - You had a lot of siblings
35 - You had a transformingly good romance
36 - You had some incredibly good sex
37 - You had some unusual dreams
38 - You have no idea. You certainly don't want to be what you are; it just keeps working out that way.
39 - You saw an inspiring movie
40 - You saw a hygiene play
41 - You sacrificed something you enjoyed for the good of another
42 - You reconciled with a parent or friend you had separated from
43 - You realized that you're different from the others
44 - You read a really good book
45 - You never had a dog
46 - You needed to prove something as a point of pride
47 - You met the love of your life, but she stood you up and you never learned why
48 - You met someone who does the same thing, hated them, and it still bugs you that you ended up similar to them
49 - You met someone who does the same thing, did them a good turn, and in exchange they taught you something
50 - You met someone who does the same thing, and he impressed you/aided you/etc.
51 - You met someone who did something entirely unrelated, but it gave you the idea anyway
52 - You met a lifelong friend when strange events brought you together
53 - You made a moral or ethical choice that you still regret
54 - You made a discovery that surprised a lot of people, especially you
55 - You indulged in a lot of chemical entertainment
56 - You single-handedly solved a case involving stolen cheese
57 - You solved a mystery
58 - You spent time as a soldier, or among them
59 - You suffer from a disease
60 - You thought it would be cooler than it is
61 - You took a wrong turn
62 - You took some lessons
63 - You traveled beyond your homeland for the first time
64 - You turned left when you should have turned right
65 - You were admitted for routine gall bladder surgery but something went wrong
66 - You were arrested for a crime
67 - You were arrested for a crime you didn't commit
68 - You were befriended by someone old and wise
69 - You were bitten by a radioactive animal of some kind
70 - You were bored
71 - You were entrusted with a special object
72 - You were forced, repeatedly, to eat a vegetable you didn't like
73 - You were frustrated by how badly others were doing it, so you decided to take up the cause and do it right
74 - You were given a cool science toy
75 - You were just filling in for somebody else
76 - Your parents were a member of an ethnic, cultural, or religious minority
77 - Your parents split up
78 - Your parents saved all of your naked baby pictures to embarrass you with later in life
79 - Your parents are unknown to you
80 - You're just doing it because it comes in handy in a fight
81 - You're in it for some secondary benefit, like money, fame, groupies, or discount skin care products.
82 - You witnessed a lot of suffering that you hadn't been aware of
83 - You witnessed a hilarious animal act that you hadn't been aware of
84 - You were visited by a supernatural entity (or believe you were)
85 - Your wicked Uncle Ernie was your babysitter
86 - Your parents were noticeably rich
87 - Your parents were noticeably poor
88 - Your parents were killed
89 - Your parents were infamous and despised
90 - Your parents were famous and admired
91 - You were too trusting
92 - You were threatened by shadows at night, then exposed to the light
93 - You were the savior of your people
94 - You were seriously wounded
95 - You were secretly attracted to someone you shouldn't desire
96 - You were kind of a jerk
97 - You were mistaken for somebody else
98 - You were raised in the traditions of a religion that emphasizes guilt
99 - You were raised on a farm by foster parents of some kind
00 - You were savaged by a turbot
5e Dungeons & Dragons does a good job of codifying some of these ideas into character creation with its system of traits/ideals/bonds/flaws, and backgrounds. It’s a great way to introduce the idea of role playing to somebody who has never done it before. Which is totally on brand for 5e. It’s the accessible, easy to pick up game.
It can quickly become creatively unsatisfying though to have those features assigned to through game mechanics or random rolls. That’s why I offer some of these tools to help you start fleshing out your character some more without necessarily relying on what the game tells you your options are.