Whether this is your first or your hundredth time rolling up a character for a new roleplaying game campaign, coming up with a compelling backstory can be tough.
Maybe you’ve spent a ton of time trying to come up with a character, but you still end up bored with them or worry that they’re one-dimensional. Or perhaps you have the basics down and want to take your characters to the next level. The following steps will help you write a killer character backstory, one that will get you excited about your character, provide cues to roleplay them, and give the gamemaster (GM) tools to enrich the campaign in a way that engages and excites you.
Step 1: Ground Your Character in the Campaign Setting
Before you can begin creating, you need to fuel your creativity. Now is your chance to settle down with the rulebooks or source material for the setting and enjoy them. (Yes, this is permission to rewatch the show/movies or reread the books!) And if your GM is building a world from scratch, she’ll likely be more than happy to tell you all about her original setting if you ask.
Once you’ve immersed yourself in the world, examine which world details strike you as coolest. What do you want to know more about? Is there a remote monastery devoted to a mysterious deity that piques your interest, or is there an interesting settlement that you think would be an intriguing hometown for a character? Make a list of the setting elements—people, places, artifacts, prophecies, etc.—that you might want to incorporate into your character’s backstory. Next, brainstorm how they could have influenced your character. It’s okay if you come up with a couple of different concepts.
Step 2: Imbue Your Character with an Intense Desire
Once you’ve spent time deliberating the hooks that tether your character to the world, you should figure out what your character wants, either from the world or themselves, and why. Consider also how far your character is willing to go to get what they want. Character goals are prime story fodder for your game or dungeon master, so make sure you share your goals.
These goals and the motivations behind them can also lend insight into suitable career or class options if you aren’t already sure what to choose. A character who wants to hunt monsters or protect civilization will look different on the character sheet from one who wants to amass great wealth or rise among the ranks of nobility. A setting faction or organization that interested you in step one might even come with its own built-in goals and character options.
Step 3: Dig Deep into the Source of Their Strengths
If writing your backstory after the fact, now is the time to consider how your character accumulated those characteristics, traits, and skills. What were they born with? What did they have to learn? Who taught or mentored them? Did your character learn anything on their own? If you’re coming at the character backstory first, you can use your character desires to determine the aptitudes and training your character will need to accomplish those goals. Now you know where to spend your points during character creation.
You can borrow a page from certain RPGs that use lifepath systems and consider your character’s history in five-year chunks. Which organizations or people were your character affiliated with from age ten to fifteen, fifteen to twenty, and so on? What would your character have learned during that time?
Step 4: Bedevil Your Character with Conflict
Chances are your character didn’t come by their training for free. The very people and groups who trained them will have expectations, or those people and groups will put the character into conflict with others. In developing their skills, your character may have jumped from teacher to organization to self-teaching—why? Did they ever disagree with their teachers? How did that argument play out, and how does it still haunt your character?
Another way to look at this step is to ask why your character can’t easily achieve their desire from step two—who or what is preventing them, and how? What might your character have done or be doing to sabotage them-self? Some systems include character options to represent these weaknesses or hindrances, so you can take inspiration from these lists. Alternatively, you could use your choices to inform the mechanical representations you select.
You’ll want to send this list to your GM as well, as they’ll be able to help you dramatize these conflicts during the game sessions. One last note about character conflicts: pick ones that will make the game more fun for you, not less! Your internal and external conflicts are likely to come up mechanically or in the narrative, after all.
Step 5: Sprinkle in the Normal and Mundane
The biggest mistake I’ve seen new roleplayers make is neglecting the normal in their character’s backstory. Without the mundane, the character’s problems can feel melodramatic. It’s okay if your character isn’t an orphan or hasn’t lost the love of their life to violence. These can be great motivators, but they are also overused. Consider giving your character a stable home life or an endearing hobby.
If a character doesn’t have any touchstones of normalcy, they probably have some pretty intense issues to work out, which can make them less fun for others to roleplay with. Balance is what’s important, so don’t forget to give your character some down-to-earth traits alongside all the awesome.
Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash.