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So…where are you from?

Character backgrounds are one of my recent developments as a player, and one I can’t imagine how I lived without before.  Sure, most of us do the “he’s a fighter who served in the King’s army before striking out on his own in search of fame and fortune”, but can’t we do better than that?  Now, that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that character concept, but why not flesh it out a bit?

No one just spontaneously appears, so let’s make the most of it.  What is his/her parents like?  Where they even around?  How did the relationship with the parents affect the way he/she turned out?  Thinking about these things can greatly change the shape and style of any character.  Perhaps he’s an orphan who has a weak spot for other orphans, or his father killed his mother and now he can’t comprehend doing violence against a woman.  Any number of things can create great role play opportunities.

Something else to think about is where did you get your equipment?  After all, serving in the King’s army didn’t necessarily outfit you.  Issued weapons would need to be turned in after all.  Coming up with a plausible story for acquiring all those goodies should be an exercise in creativity all by itself, but a good hook could come out of something like that as well.

A good character background can give your DM a chance to really draw your character in, and also help him provide plausible motivation for your character to do something.  Going to the Magic Palace is all fine and good, but going to the Magic Palace to find information on the murder of your father is just to juicy to pass up.

Here are a few rules I try to follow when creating a background that may help you out as well:

  1. Parents had to have been somewhere, even if the character doesn’t know where.  Explain what the character knows of them early in the background.
  2. Try to be realistic and somewhat normal.  While having a father who’s a powerful wizard isn’t a stretch, saying your father was best friends with the King and all the gold dragons in the world is far, far to much.
  3. Humble origins are the most common, but they can be tweaked in thousands of ways to make them unique.
  4. Give the DM some friends of your characters, and even possible enemies.  I have a character who is seeking the murderer of his wife…who just happens to be a significant bad guy now.
  5. Be somewhat vague.  Saying a character is seeking the killer of his wife gives the DM lots of leeway to fit your backstory into the campaign.  Saying he’s looking for Jaques Mollins, the highwayman known for wearing purple forces the DM to either ignore this, or create a character just for this part of your character.  DMs have enough to do.
  6. Unless you know the world already or can easily get the information, don’t name a specific town as a birthplace.  This is mostly for those playing in homebrew worlds, but can be important for any player.  Working with the DM to find a suitable location helps him out a great deal, and still gives you the specifics you crave.
  7. Provide adventuring motivation other than greed.  To many times, players are adventuring for wealth and/or power and a lot of times it’s been played out.  Giving him something more personal than mercenary attitudes will make the character that much more special.

Obviously, there’s more than one way to skin a cat (or Britney Spears’ head for that matter), but this is what I personally do and it seems to work pretty well so far.  From my experience, DMs love it, though I can imagine that a pure hack-and-slash DM might not appreciate the work.  Still, at worst you’ll have a better grasp on the character, something that’s never a bad thing!

July 22, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized |


  1. I’ve been known to offer a 250XP bonus for a three paragraph character outline at creation.

    One for past, present, and future. In a typical party, you’ll usually find that the entire campaign story arc has fallen, quite literally, in your lap. It also gives you a chance to arrange a side trek for each of the players, as they try and meet their own set of goals.

    Glad I found your blog, there gold in these hills!

    Comment by Donny_the_DM | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  2. Donny,

    Thanks for the compliment! 😉

    You’re right about character backgrounds being able to make the job a lot easier on the DM. Even if a DM doesn’t really knw what the campaign should be, a good background could definitely spur something cool on. The XP bonus is good incentive.

    Another thing a lot of DMs do is give “goodies” to characters based on their backgrounds. For example, I created a character who the DM graced with bonus skills and a magical item, simply based on the background. Nothing like “he was given his father’s magical sword” or anything, just that he spent a bit of time traveling around.

    As a DM, I can’t help but think that anything I can do to inspire a player to get creative has to be a good thing! 😉

    Comment by Tom | July 29, 2008 | Reply

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