The Five Room Backstory for 5E D&D Characters
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted look at ways for a Dungeon Master to use a character backstory as a resource to create dungeons for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Building on their ideas I’m curious about approaching from the opposite end and exploring how players can set their DMs up for success by constructing their character backstory like a dungeon for 5E D&D. So let’s get into it.
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Five room dungeon as 5E D&D backstory template
Several years ago creator Johnn Fourr developed the idea of the Five Room Dungeon, his specific way to build sessions, adventures and campaigns using a simple design method. Fourr has been helping Game Masters through books, online courses, articles and featured appearances since 1999. One such book is 5 Room Dungeons, a guide with examples, design assistance and inspiration for this method. You can find out more about the concept at his Roleplaying Tips website here.
The 5 Room Dungeons concept is system agnostic so it’s applicable to 5E D&D, which we’re focused on in this post but the genre, system, setting and other details can be useful for any game system as a framework for constructing stories and campaigns. I’m interested in continuing to look at how the line between Dungeon Master and the other players seems to be getting more blurry these days and applying the 5 Room Dungeons concept to character backstory seems like an excellent way to do this.
One cool thing about using 5 Room Dungeons to frame a character backstory is they aren’t connected in time and space. Whereas a dungeon adventure takes place in a specific location these backstory dungeon rooms can be sprinkled into a game throughout a campaign.
Entrance with Guardian
Getting into a dungeon means overcoming a challenge and getting into a character’s backstory can mean the same thing. Incorporating this idea into a backstory could be represented lots of ways.
For a literal take perhaps a creature in the character’s backstory guards a secret about them. A powerful entity might possess important information or knowledge about the character and overcoming a challenging encounter with this entity is like knocking down the first domino. The full scope of the backstory and the picture it paints doesn’t begin to come into view until this guardian is bypassed.
This makes an excellent first “room” in the character backstory “dungeon” because the player can incorporate this component but there’s plenty of wiggle room for a DM to tie it into the group’s quests and add layers of context to enrich the whole experience.
Defeating the backstory guardian gives the character access to deeper elements from their own backstory. Armed with the knowledge they gained by overcoming the guardian the next time the character encounters part of their backstory requires more than aggressive action.
I like the idea of the character gaining insight into something they’ve already encountered from the guardian. Some sort of puzzle, skill or roleplaying scenario characters have come across but couldn’t or didn’t proceed with would be awesome for this. The best part is no preplanning is required. Any number of situations from previous adventures becomes eligible to represent this part of the backstory.
Like the 5 Room Dungeons framework this one and the previous one can be switched around. Gaining access to the next step might have come about by successfully overcoming a non-combat scenario in the first room and then the character learns of a guardian creature to defeat.
Trick or Setback
Exploring the character backstory progressed relatively smoothly and now there’s a wrinkle. Tension sets in when the character realizes they misinterpreted the information, discover a greater creature works behind the scenes or any number of potential obstacles.
The guidelines for 5 Room Dungeons suggest using this room to present more of whatever kind of engagement the players enjoy the most. A great way to incorporate this part is when the character thinks they’ve got it all figured out only to discover a setback.
Perhaps the information they’ve been acting on is false or only partially correct. Now when they move forward to the next part of their backstory whether at a particular location, with an NPC or through a special object they find out their mistake. Plot twists and new challenges confront the character pursuing the narrative arc of their backstory and in overcoming these the path to the final portion becomes clear.
Every great story needs an antagonist and in this room of the backstory a character finally confronts such a creature. On a personal level this represents a major part of the character’s backstory, which has been integrated into their ongoing story during a campaign.
Assuming the character’s adventuring companions have been present for these rooms including this one now is the opportunity to show their quality. Whatever happened in the backstory didn’t necessarily account for the individual growth in power or group of equally powerful allies. In other words the DM can go all out here.
Building on the previous elements this could be an amazing and dynamic experience with dangerous foes, challenging environments and rich roleplaying. This is the moment the character — and player — has been waiting for as an opportunity to resolve the tension and drama from their backstory and all the scenarios from throughout the campaign that touched on these elements.
The final challenge defeated now comes time for the character to receive a reward. Ideally this reward has been sitting in plain view since before the campaign began right there in the backstory. Something in their history motivated them to take up a life of adventure and leave their old life behind. What is it?
Reclaiming a title or some other intangible thing like family honor, lost love and so forth make for awesome rewards. At this point self-motivation carried the character through the 5 Room Dungeon of their own backstory and it’s a spectacular reason to let them shine.
5 Room Dungeon backstory resources
In addition to the literal 5 Room Dungeons guide there’s lots of other great resources to help players create the kind of dynamic backstories DMs can collaborate on to enrich the entire group’s experience throughout campaigns. Countless blogs, videos and other media exist out there but sticking with just official material there’s no shortage either. This is the content I’ve found really fun and useful for developing the shared space between Dungeon Masters and the other players:
- Heroic Chronicle. A system for players and Dungeon Masters to work together to build a compelling character story. (Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount)
- This Is Your Life. Players can use the tables and the advice in this section to compose a well-developed backstory and the DM can draw from this material to create situations and scenarios building off of those experiences. (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
- Heroic Drive. The force impelling characters to live lives worthy of great epics and all one must do is act and discover their own immortal tale. (Mythic Odysseys of Theros)
While working through each room concept and how it can relate to character backstory I also thought of a couple of examples to share. None of these explicitly follow this method but the elements exist and it’s fun to connect those dots.
- Moon Rises. In this campaign my character Grigg was an astronaut who died when his ship crashed and awoke decades later as a psychic ghost in a post apocalyptic future. His backstory started to come to life after defeating a bizarre and dangerous construct made up of the ghost-possessed spacesuits of his fellow astronauts. Later he participated in a complex roleplaying scenario to help a friend and discovered more about what happened to him and his former spaceship crew, emerging with newfound perspective, powers and sense of identity. But there was much more to the situation and it became evident what he thought he knew and understood was not exactly correct and called on him to use all his psychic ability to learn about a bizarre mindscape and help a population of stranded psychic aliens, which left him with a much different outlook on life, death and identity. Finally he got his reward — a trip to the moon where hopefully he’ll continue his journey of self-discovery when the campaign continues.
- Critical Role Campaign One. I couldn’t help but think of Percy every step of the way. I don’t want to share any spoilers but exploring Percy’s backstory included all the elements of 5 Room Dungeons in a thoroughly complex and exciting narrative arc. As a matter of fact most of Vox Machina’s campaign emerged as manifestations of each character’s backstory, which is a terrific structure for DMs to model.
What do you think? Are you curious to apply the 5 Room Dungeon framework to your next 5E D&D character? Do you have any tips, ideas or suggestions for creating dynamic backstories and incorporating them into campaigns? Let me know in the comments below and of course, stay nerdy!