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Crafting a Good Back Story

“So, tell me about your character,” the GM says to Bob. 

 

Bob stares back blankly.  “Well, he’s an elven wizard.”

 

Politely, the GM smiles and says, “No, tell me about him.  Give me his background.”

 

“Background?” mutters Bob.  “I didn’t know anything about a background.”

 

Have you ever been in this position?  I have, a long time ago, and frankly I’m glad I do this well before the game now.  It gives me more time to answer the questions I tend to ask myself when forming a character of any type, for any purpose.  The question some may be asking is, why bother?

 

Well, for one thing, I personally like to have a typewritten back story in the GM’s hands so they know the plan for the character.  It lets them figure out hooks for my character’s story, and if enough others submit their backgrounds similarly, the GM can find connections between the stories that make forming a group so much simpler.

 

Some GMs seem to prefer the background info come up in a group session, while others want the character to do it on their own and pass it along.  There’s no wrong way for the GM to do this, so don’t sweat it either way.  However, here are the questions I tend to ask myself when starting a new character.

 

What were his birth circumstances?  For example, was there something that can be used by the GM to use the old “Chosen One” trope on your character?  Perhaps you’re playing a 4e warlock and a wolf howls just as the character is born, foreshadowing his few pact later in life.  In contrast, there doesn’t have to be anything.  Not every character has some unusual circumstance at birth.  Birth circumstance could be something pretty mundane, but tragic like mother’s death at birth, etc.

 

What was his childhood like?  Was he a popular kid, talented musician, a bit of a bully, what?  Our adult personalities are formed in childhood, so why would your character be any different?  Just remember how you want to play the character and make the childhood fit.

 

Why is he adventuring?  Since most RPGs assume some level of adventuring of some sort, there has to be a reason.  It could be anything from poverty leading someone to seek fame and fortune to revenge.  The important thing is to have a reason that makes sense.  A cleric seeking to spread the word of their God makes sense.  A cleric seeking fame, fortune, and a kingdom to rule doesn’t.

 

What I like to do is try and type up the answers to these in a story format, usually running from 4-5 pages double spaced to make it an easier read.  Of course, it can easily be shorter, especially if you don’t try to flesh out the character more with details like hobbies, love life, enemies, or anything else.  A finely crafted back story contains a great deal more information that those three questions can possibly answer, so go ahead and ask your own questions.

 

Once you’ve written up the back story, let your GM read it.  Make sure they understand that you’re willing to revise to fit into their story/world better.  Flexibility is the key here, because you’re asking the GM to read your writings and plug them into their story.  That’s not easy at all, so be prepared to revise the heck out of your back story so that it will fit!

 

Obviously, there are other questions to be asked out there, and other approaches to a well crafted back story.  I look forward to hearing some of those!  Just write it up and let’s see what happens!

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September 9, 2008 - Posted by | RPG | ,

7 Comments »

  1. Something I forgot to mention is that it’s possible to over do it with tragedy and such. Ravyn, who is recently added to the Blogroll since I reference her work so much, has an excellent article about just that from this morning here.

    Check it out and keep it for reference. It is possible to over do tragedy, as is pointed out several places lately.

    Comment by Tom | September 9, 2008 | Reply

  2. Great article!

    My personal approach to crafting a backstory for a character in a campaign is to approach it from 2 sides:

    A GM’s Perspective:
    – What is the GM trying to achieve with this campaign? What is the general story that he is trying to tell?
    – Is the GM interested in running a romance / tragedy / mystery angle?

    And a Player’s Perspective:
    – What is my Concept in one sentence?
    – What is my character’s Goal / Motivation?
    – What are the defining moments of my character’s history
    – Who are the people important to my character that can serve as NPCs, Antagonists or plot hooks?
    – What would push my character to break his moral code?

    By looking over a character concept from both sides, I make it easier to integrate my character into the world of the GM’s design. In addition, the answers to the player’s side questions are also provided to the GM to give him a wealth of plot hooks to use and things to twist my characters into a moral dilemma or even greater trouble.

    Comment by pointyman2000 | September 9, 2008 | Reply

  3. Thanks for the compliment, and your personal take on crafting a back story. Obviously, there’s more than one way to skin a cat on this subject, and your way certainly sounds like a damn good one.

    Of course, the GM’s perspective may require talking to the GM about it (obviously), which isn’t a bad idea either because the GM can help you craft a story that meshes perfectly with his/her world. The more seamlessly the back story fits within the world, the more it enriches the role play experience for everyone in my opinion.

    Comment by Tom | September 9, 2008 | Reply

  4. Ever since I found it, I use the method outlined here: http://www.farlandworld.com/background.html to create character backgrounds. I agree with the author’s methodology and have found it immeasurably helpful.

    Comment by Liambic | September 10, 2008 | Reply

  5. @Liambic: That’s a good method as well. Of course, it looks very similar to the one I use, just a bit more verbose. That would explain why I like it too 😀

    Comment by Tom | September 10, 2008 | Reply

  6. Glad you guys like it. 🙂

    Comment by Farland | December 20, 2009 | Reply

  7. It’s a real pluaesre to find someone who can think like that

    Comment by Amory | January 8, 2015 | Reply


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