“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!