You don’t need to be familiar with James D’Amato’s One Shot podcast in order to have a blast with the The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide, released this month from Adams Media.
It’s About the Journey, Not the Destination
True to its word, The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide steers players through the process of creating a detailed backstory for their role-playing game characters with the lightheartedness and whimsy of most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. Readers will enjoy the comedic tone of many of the exercises, from the adventuring party formation app called “Ventur” (“Whom does your character swipe right?”) to the “Damn Merlinials” prompt that explores how older generations of adventurers might look down on those newer to the lifestyle.
The book leaps from topic to topic—“What is your character’s catchphrase?” segues into “What would you do to save a cat?” before proceeding to “What unique holiday do you celebrate?”, for example—which means readers don’t have to worry about getting “stuck” on one portion of their character’s life. You can easily skip ahead to a prompt that interests you, or open up the book to a random page for an unexpected adventure. If you want to work through the book in order, the activities are organized based on character level, which makes sense when you consider that the experiences of a fifteenth-level hero will differ compared to a first-level novice fresh from the farm. There’s also some great guidance in the introduction for the types of feats your character will be capable of accomplishing by level.
A reader needs only the loosest of character concepts in mind to complete the activities—and honestly, you could go in with a blank slate and have fun seeing what sort of character you generate through the prompts alone. I think this is especially helpful for readers who may be intimidated at the prospect of crafting an epic backstory worthy of a George R. R. Martin novel (and having to generate a treatise numbering in the dozens of pages, like that one player always does). Even after completing only a handful of activities, you’ll produce an emergent narrative for your character’s past in much the same way that a series of rolls and card draws creates a story over the course of a board game. Contemplating how the different episodes in a character’s life might be linked makes for an organic and unique backstory, although it might not have quite the elegance and resonance of a character whose histories have been tightly plotted.
Where many character backstory generators focus on the who, what, where, and when, the activities are structured to let readers focus on the how and why, which is much more useful when figuring out how to actually role play as your character. (Consider how two characters with a similarly tragic childhood might respond to those formative events very differently.) I was pleasantly surprised by how the activities also engage the rest of the adventuring party, inviting the reader to think about how their character relates to or potentially clashes with their fellow travelers. This is an aspect absent in similar types of character-writing advice books for novelists, and it’s something Amato’s book does especially well.
Who Should Get This Book?
This book is especially geared toward players who want to continue enjoying the tabletop gaming hobby on their own time, players who are new to role-playing and Dungeons & Dragons specifically, and players who don’t normally consider themselves creative. The latter type of reader will appreciate jumpstarting their inspiration with fill-in-the-blank prompts, short-answer questions, multiple-choice options, and tables to roll on to generate random results. If you do consider yourself especially creative and enjoy writing, your answers to the activities can serve as the foundation for a slew of short stories or scenes. The sheer variety of activities, as well as the range of prompts, makes the workbook fun and exciting to work through, since you’re genuinely curious to know what the next questions will be.
Who May Want to Pass?
This book won’t appeal as strongly to gamers who are turned off by fantasy tropes or settings, role-players who want a very serious or dark tone for their characters, and people who want to create novel-worthy characters efficiently (you can totally use these prompts to create a protagonist for your next writing project, but you won’t get there as efficiently or cover all the bases needed by a novel). That said, there’s still plenty of gaming goodness here for players of games other than D&D.
Between the Pages
The very first thing I noticed upon opening the book was the interior design, which is elegant and well-balanced on the page. The sans-serif font is easy to read and not too small. The dual ink tones (black and orange) makes the product look good without the cost of a full-color production. The spot gloss on the cover and spine also provides a touch of class.
Unfortunately, a lot of the beauty and visual interest is lost in the Kindle version, and I was disappointed by the low resolution of the bullet icons (likely done to keep the file size low, but storage space usually isn’t a concern for me on my Kindle or tablet). On the plus side, the tables are sized properly and don’t break awkwardly in the Kindle reader like I’ve seen in many other professionally produced e-books. Nevertheless, this book is definitely worth getting in print, or in a PDF option if one becomes available.
Finally, I think any true workbook would benefit from a lay-flat binding, and some readers may find it awkward or impossible to write in their copies without breaking the spine. However, coil binding would have greatly increased the cost, and customers who really want this experience can take their books to their local office supply store or print shop to rebind it for ten dollars or so.
All in all, this book helps fill a gap in a burgeoning hobby where most of the how-to books are directed at game masters. Most importantly, this book provides a vehicle for many more hours of fun when you don’t feel like you have enough role-playing in your life. The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide by James D’Amato rolled three straight crits (but would get 4 stars out of 5, since it was a little too whimsical for my personal tastes and didn’t quite blow me away). Pick this book up at your local bookstore or for your favorite e-reading device, or ask your library if they’ll order in a copy!
Title: The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide
Author: James D’Amato
Page count: 272
Price: $14.99 Softcover, $10.99 Kindle edition
Dimensions: 5.5” x 8.4”
Publisher: Adams Media
Publication Date: October 2, 2018
Ramp up your role-playing game and make your character your own with this fun, interactive workbook—an essential addition to any RPG player’s gaming kit.
You’ve chosen your class, bought your weapons, and rolled for your stats, and you’re now the proud owner of your own RPG (role-playing game) avatar. But before you begin your adventure, there’s so much more you can do with your character to make him or her your own! Just how evil is she? What does his dating profile look like? Where did she get that scar? What does he want for his birthday? With fill-in-the blank narratives, prompts, and fun activities to help you customize your character at the start of the game, or build out your backstory as you play, The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Book will help you fully imagine your character and bring them to life for the ultimate gaming experience!
A complimentary copy of the softcover was provided to the author for review purposes.