5 Ideas to Spice up Your RPG Character Backstory
If I’m being honest I’ve absolutely been That Guy who shows up to a tabletop roleplaying game session with several pages of backstory for my character. In all fairness these times are few and far between and the pages are usually full of narrative instead of exposition, but still Backgrounds are the life blood of your RPG character’s introduction. The events that shaped them up to this point help inform how you portray them and their introduction to the rest of the party. After musing on backgrounds, I wanted to share some ways that GMs I’ve played with have spiced up background elements in games I’ve been a part of. So, let’s cover five ways to make your character backstory more interesting!
Build a better backstory
Secrets, secrets everywhere
One of the easiest ways to spice up a backstory is by including secrets. When everyone knows each character harbors a secret this can make for a really interesting experience. Subterfuge adds drama and tension while the wonderment of each character’s secret remains a core component niggling at the back of your mind throughout play.
Knowing each character harbors a secret also keeps everyone on their toes because there’s no telling how large or small scale the secret! Maybe your character hides a love of smutty romance novels or they’re secretly a noble on the run. Are they related to the primary villain of the campaign? These secrets can be minor, major or anywhere in between.
Among my favorite streamed games using secrets effectively, Critical Role’s Mighty Nein have a plethora of secrets to their names. Each mystery reveals itself in due time, showcasing new sides to characters we once thought we understood intimately. Even the most inconsequential of secrets adds some degree of entertainment. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: As part of character creation for Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden characters develop secrets about themselves. Maybe your character is an escaped prisoner or even a doppelganger!]
Rumor has it
Rumors, much like secrets, plug intrigue into your games. I played a game once where the Game Master had each player say a rumor they heard about each of the other characters, one at a time. At least one rumor per character was true but this was up to the players. Everyone wrote a note to the GM regarding the rumors about their character, advising which of the rumors were true and yes, you could make all of them true.
This adds a bit of interactivity to backstory and prompts others to engage with your character. Rumors add fun and whimsy and the taller the tale the more interesting when the GM explains just how said rumor could possibly be true.
Meet and greet
Another option I had a lot of fun with came up during a session zero. We put everyone’s character names into a hat twice. We then drew two names each and no one could draw their own or the same name twice. The two names you drew were two other characters in the party who you had previously met in your backstory. Once we drew the names the players talked with one another about how their characters knew one another and what their relationship was.
This was another fun one that made starting up the campaign so much easier. Since everyone already knew one another it was easy to get our characters to interact from the beginning and made for some really fun roleplaying opportunities. It also circumvented much of the awkward attempts to get characters to engage with strangers, since these were not strangers to them.
Magic item madness
This next one was during a Christmas themed one shot. Each player chose a magic item from the Player’s Handbook anywhere up to very rare. We then did a White Elephant gift exchange with the magic items, drawing at random and forcing trades. Some people intentionally chose weird or trivial items while others chose very powerful objects.
The ensuing chaos was delightful. Each person attempted to get the magic item they wanted or avoid giving up the one they had. It was terrible and hilarious and once all was said and done our characters woke up in the starting area with only the clothes on their backs and the magic item they ended up with, each supposedly given to our characters by a loved one in their backstory.
It made for interesting stories, particularly when the fighter explained his quirky wizard aunt thought a bag of devouring made a good pet.
The last idea was kind of brilliant. Each person was encouraged to make a minion-esque character. Things like goblins, kobolds and other creatures often in servitude to more powerful creatures. We then rolled on a random table to decide which plane we’d spent the last five years living in. Each of our characters was tasked by a noble of their plane to accomplish a certain thing based on the GM’s table.
If you came from the Feywild a mother hag was sending you to find her lost candle, which two wicked children had stolen from her. If you came from the Nine Hells your mission was to contract warlocks in service of your devil lord. The whole thing was a mess in the best way possible. It got really interesting when the wicked children who stole the hag’s candle made a bargain with said devil to get revenge on the hag, who had taken them from their beds. Apparently their stealing the candle was the way they had escaped.
What do you think?
How do you spice up a character background in your RPG experiences? Do any of these options sound particularly interesting? For even more thoughts and ideas about character backstory and how they’re an incredible resource for players and Game Masters alike check out this other post from the website here. We want to hear from you in the comments!