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Consider Your Character Backstory Before Your Next RPG Experience

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Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted share their thoughts and perspective on the essentials of backstory for a tabletop roleplaying game character. A terrific post from Tribality got the wheels turning on approaching a character backstory not so much as a narrative piece of fiction detailing the events leading up to the adventuring life. Instead a great character backstory functions as a resource to inform game play in the present tense. So let’s get into it.

A great backstory makes an RPG better for everyone

A backstory for an RPG character can cover a lot of ground. For players a backstory provides context to a character’s place in the world, touchstones for their identity and meaning to their skills, abilities and powers. On the other side of the screen Game Masters draw inspiration from a character backstory to help craft engaging scenarios, reinforce player agency and contribute to worldbuilding.

Character backstory for the player

Whether you enjoy creatively writing lengthy fictional accounts of your character’s history leading up to the start of a new campaign, making a few bullet points of significant events, relying on a game system’s prompts or rolling into adventures as a tabula rasa there’s value in at least considering what transpired in your character’s life. Here are some things to think about when you’re working on a backstory for your next RPG character.

Context. What’s the premise for the adventure, campaign or setting? If the backdrop for the game features a war between two populations for example you might think about how your character feels about both sides and why. A campaign set in steamy jungles with your character from an arctic region, desert or more temperate climate suggests a certain perspective as well. Even a game based around general adventuring begs the question what spurred your character to pursue such a life.

Identity. You may have heard or read how a character backstory featuring epic level drama and action doesn’t add up in the sense that after such incredible events your RPG character begins at 1st level or whatever starting point there is for the game you’re playing. Rubbish! Your character may have experienced as many or more fantastic circumstances earlier in life — just be sure to consider how they’ve been brought so low when the game begins. A character who spent their earlier days in another dimension, continent or time period brings a wonderful outlook to the group.

Meaning. Who your character is now, why and how they lost and gained abilities to put them in their place at the campaign start makes for compelling roleplaying and interactions with fellow players and the game setting. It’s one thing to explain your Path of the Storm Herald barbarian’s raging fire as a result of their burning primal rage the way it’s described in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. It’s quite another to imagine your character was raised on the Elemental Plane of Fire and became suffused with primal elemental energy. That’s hot.

Character backstory for the Game Master

Spoiler alert to all the players whose characters are orphans whose entire families are dead so the GM can’t muck with these tragic heroes — nothing in your backstory prevents these or any other components from emerging in your campaign. All things being equal an RPG contains extraordinary events like resurrection, cloning, time displacement or simple confusion, misdirection or misunderstanding enough to make anything possible. Slain families might return as restless undead and orphans — forget about it! Telling the GM you don’t know anything about your family is basically an invitation to introduce them however they like. Here’s a few things to consider when you’re coming up with a character backstory to help the GM create the resources and tools for your own unique, amazing and memorable story to come through.

Engagement. Keeping in mind how a backstory describes events in a character’s life prior to a campaign they serve as a great source of inspiration for a GM. Illustrating what’s important to your character, what intrigues them and so forth carries over directly into gameplay. These are the factors to help transform a campaign from a series of mechanical procedures into a rich story every player contributes to creating. A big part of this are the little things, oddly enough. Your character hobbies and personal interests turn them from cutout wizards and warriors into multifaceted characters with their own idiosyncrasies and when your backstory reveals these details a GM can include them in your game to give your character their own special moments to engage.

Agency. Players choices ought to carry meaning throughout a campaign and this doesn’t mean they’re limited only to gameplay sessions. Hand in hand with how a backstory helps players develop a character’s identity this also means they’re another way for a GM to provide more agency for the campaign. Even the most rote published adventure or campaign undergoes variation and changes due to player and GM actions and ideas. Get in on the ground floor and encourage players to add their own unique twists and turns to the campaign pitch before it even begins.

Worldbuilding. The creme de la creme! Worldbuilding needn’t be the purview of the GM only and if you ask me it’s a ludicrous proposition to begin with. Creating even a small frontier village with colorful NPCs for characters to interact with can be a rewarding but time consuming process. Setting out to create an entire planet? Madness. Sharing the creative space with players is one of the most important things I can do when I run a game. I strongly advocate players to come up with people, places and things to make the multiverse more vibrant. Instead of asking the GM about their pantheon of gods, come up with your own deity. When your character comes from a far off land, let’s hear about it. If your warrior learned technique from ancient texts of a legendary fighter I want to know all about these forgotten sword maneuvers.

Your RPG experience is a group effort

Every single time I’ve had truly terrific RPG experiences they come about because everyone in the group participates together. Players put some time into developing their characters in the ways rules typically don’t account and GMs pick up on those components to help the group tell their own story. I’ve played and run several adventures multiple times and it’s fascinating to see how different they are because of the people involved. In my experience it’s great character backstory elements propelling these stories. Sometimes this is due to a GM modifying material in response to what players provide in advance but more often the players themselves make stories their own because of what they create in a backstory. They gain a great understanding of who their character is before the game starts and because of this make interesting choices, help the world come alive and create their own compelling narratives together.

You can read the original post by Kevin Victor Rae that inspired the video and this post over at Tribality here.

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Doug Vehovec

Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, worldbuilding or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy he enjoys cryptozoology trips and eating awesome food.

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