Written by Karyn Keene
My favorite part of RPGs is character creation. I’ll spend hours pouring over class variations, special races, and pondering backstories. This last part, the backstory, gives players the most difficulty. Even great writers can sometimes struggle to create a compelling RPG backstory. A solid history establishes a character, gives them room for growth, sets them up to play well with the party, and includes enough plot hooks for the GM to pull your character into her world. So how do you go about writing something that does all this?
(Disclaimer: the tips below are meant to be guidelines. The most important rule in an RPG is that the GM and the players agree on about what type of game they want to play. So if back-stabbing and betrayals are part of the deal, you should wholly ignore #4!)
1. Know Your Place
The first thing to consider when developing a backstory is where your character stands in his or her journey. While some characters are lifetime adventurers, others may be humble gardeners who never asked for any of this—thinking of you, Samwise Gamgee! Most players will lean toward the epic, and that’s great. But as you plan backstory, don’t forget the importance of everyday people. Some of the best characters I’ve played (and GMed) have been everyday folk who rise to the challenge of adventure—often against their better judgment.
2. Details, Details, Details
Characters are often the sum of their experiences, so make sure your backstory includes details. Consider what moments and lessons have shaped this character’s worldview? What would daily life be like for them? Did something wonderful happen to them? These events may not make it to the table, but you should always know.
Next, consider your character’s psychology and personality. What is their reaction to strange situations? What is their learning style? Do they make friends easily? You don’t have to get too carried away here, but having a few details figured out will transform a flat character into a three-dimensional one.
Finally, give your character some fun tics. A character with a funny accent or who knocks things over while gesticulating wildly will be memorable!
3. Avoid Too Much Mystery
Playing a character with a mysterious past is fun, and dramatic reveals at the table can be a boon for both the players and the GM. However, too much mystery often makes other players feel frustrated by their attempts to interact with you. This frustration may turn to annoyance with your character or it may get you ignored, neither of which are enjoyable dynamics.
If you want a mysterious backstory, check if your party is okay with a tall, dark stranger brooding (a little like Victor) throughout their adventure or if they’d prefer greater openness. If so, limit yourself to 2-3 major details that you won’t share with others. Meanwhile, develop some details your character would likely share so the other players can feel they’re making progress when interacting with you.
Stay tuned for part two, where Karyn gives insight into betrayal, plot hooks, and limitations!
“Peripeteia Character Designs (female, Village I)” illustration graciously provided by Monica Marie. Discover more of her work on DeviantART!