Fluff Like Your 5E D&D Character Backstory is the Game Too
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted examine how a fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons character’s backstory functions as a tool for the player and Dungeon Master alike. Comments on the video run the range from enthusiasm for this component of 5E D&D character creation to dismissal completely. The modular and adaptable nature of the game itself makes all these perspectives valid but from my perspective backstory is like a lot of other elements of 5E D&D — sitting right there in the open but often glossed over because there’s no pluses and minuses attached. So let’s get into it.
Fluff is part of the rules for 5E D&D
It wasn’t until going through Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything that something clicked for me when it comes to 5E D&D. I mention in the coverage of puzzles from the book how all the fluff in the game is part of the rules too. Tabletop roleplaying games provide structure and context for storytelling and for a broad spectrum game like 5E D&D played by so many people around the world no amount of complex mechanics can facilitate every kind of experience. So when I come across perspectives stating something like character backstory being unnecessary it makes me think folks who hold these views miss the part of the Venn diagram where roleplaying overlaps system mastery.
“Your first step in playing an adventurer in the Dungeons & Dragons game is to imagine and create a character of your own. Your character is a combination of game statistics, roleplaying hooks, and your imagination. You choose a race (such as human or halfling) and a class (such as fighter or wizard). You also invent the personality, appearance, and backstory of your character. Once completed, your character serves as your representative in the game, your avatar in the Dungeons & Dragons world.” — the very first paragraph from Chapter 1 of the 5E D&D Player’s Handbook (and Basic Rules)
You’ll notice how this very first thing you read after the introduction combines the concepts of rules and rulings, or fluff and mechanics. Players create characters through a marriage of statistics and their imaginations. The section continues with a prompt to think about who your character would be and not for nothing includes evocative adjectives. Your character might be a courageous fighter, skulking rogue, fervent cleric or flamboyant wizard for example. Nothing in your class features speaks to these qualities. Yet all of them contribute to creating a character as a core part of the game.
- Neither the words “courageous” or “courage” appear anywhere in the description of fighters
- Nothing to do with skulking for rogues (but to be fair quite a bit about stealth)
- Clerics need not be fervent
- No mention of theatricality, extravagance or flamboyance in regards to wizards
To further illustrate how a backstory represents a key part of a character it’s worth noting how personality and background show up in the same step of character creation — well before any customization options like feats or multiclassing come into the picture. For those keeping score I am 100% presenting the idea that ignoring or dismissing backstory is glossing over a core part of the game even moreso than deciding whether a campaign allows for options like feats or multiclassing. The rules literally point players to follow the character creation steps and make decisions reflective of the character they want to play and these steps include developing ideas for what shaped them.
Players who skip all the fluff through the lens of inconsequentiality become players who look at 5E D&D as a game about fighting monsters. (It might have something to do with published adventures’ focus on combat too but this is a topic for another time.) It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in other words. Ignoring a huge part of the game because there’s no direct mechanical benefit becomes the source of this perspective, not the outcome. It’s this same scenario contributing to the undue burden on a DM for creating an immersive experience. Players who don’t care about their characters beyond the numbers on the sheet simply aren’t going to experience a deeper level of engagement. It’s a group effort!
Why does a 5E D&D character need a backstory?
We say a lot around here how 5E D&D (and any RPG) is a collaboration. The story and important people, places and things within the tale created around the table is no one single person’s effort. In this context a character backstory is not for each individual player and it’s not for the DM either — it’s for the story being created together as a group.
For the player a backstory provides touchstones for pretty much everything about a character. Even the most finely tuned combat expert comes from somewhere and experiences in the character’s life drive them to pursue such lofty discipline. Why a character makes the choices they do along the way means as much or more as the mechanical benefits of those choices. Those reasons can remain the same throughout a character’s adventuring career or they can change as circumstances affect them and they in turn affect changes in the world around them.
For DMs the backstory elements from all the characters enrich everyone’s experience. Characters inspire a DM as much as the campaign inspires players to engage. Using the combat expert example it can certainly be exhilarating and rewarding to see mechanical choices result in positive outcomes in a fight but these experiences become much more satisfying when the stakes hold personal meaning. Backstory components can crossover with other characters too and help a rich tapestry emerge.
Two particular 5E D&D books represent the game’s evolution since launch. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything both build upon backstory elements presented in the core content of the PHB. A lot of attention was cast on both books for including what many people consider fluff without mechanical support and I’m here to reiterate this is part of the rules too. When this edition was being developed, playtested and then released I believe the team did a terrific job leaving space for the game to develop organically and allow future material to explore and incorporate fresh ideas.
This Is Your Life is a section of XGtE basically stating this explicitly. The book notes how the PHB provides all the info players need to define their adventurers including the results of backstory in the form of personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws. This Is Your Life builds on these components to help players develop ideas for the circumstances creating those traits. Origins, personal decisions, life events and supplemental tables showcase an incredible diversity.
In a similar way TCoE supports and builds on these concepts through Customizing Your Origin. This material might appeal more to players interested in crunch since there’s direct mechanical representation in this optional content. But the other side of this shows up as well. Considering how and why a character’s backstory shaped the person they become is part of the game too.
Have I convinced you how important and core to 5E D&D a character backstory can be? If I’m honest it’s disheartening whenever I encounter players without any interest in their own characters’ backstories. It seems to foster this unfortunate notion that any non-mechanical components of the game are fluff without support from the game system. When these folks maintain the idea D&D is a primarily combat oriented game I suspect they would find this true of any RPG. I encourage these players — all players actually — to take another look at the text in the rulebooks with a more open mind and discover how it’s the fluff like a backstory combined with the mechanics like using Dexterity instead of Strength for the attack and damage rolls of your unarmed strikes and monk weapons that create the magic of the experience.