For now no pictures, since I’m on the clock, but won’t be back until late in my timezone, maybe I’ll edit some later.
Sometimes you have a DM, who actually wants a character back-story and often only one player in the gaming group will be delighted. You might think, that you only write some lines out of cheesy, classic stuff and your DM will be delighted, but then you notice that he reads it, frowned and just says: ‘It’s OK.’
Since I’m about to start my first 5e campaign and I’m one of the DMs which want a back-story, I’ll tell the world how to do it. Here a some simple advices toward that goal:
1.) Start with the back-story, not the personality
In most cases, human’s personality is derived from their background, even if it works the other way around, too, the personality can change while the back-story can’t. It’s easier to focus on the actual back-story instead of bringing an well-shaped personality in the game, which will warp a natural storyline into a unnatural one. A cynic character wasn’t necessarily cynic as a child, most likely he was even naive.
2.) Choose your background from your back-story, not otherwise
If possible, don’t let your back-story be bounded and especially the background-rule will do it greatly. In most cases, reading backgrounds will grand you inspiration, but maybe the journey on writing a back-story will take you to another background before you realize.
3.) Start with some cornerstones
Typically your back-story should have an answer to following questions, if you can answer them, you’re already half done, if any one of these is answered in 1-4 sentences:
- Where and how grew your character up?
- How did he learn to be his class?
- Was he happy with his life?
- When and how did he decided to be an adventurer/mercenary/whatever your campaign says?
- What is he looking for in that occupation?
- If he gets a lot of money, how will he spend it?
- When do he actually plan to retire?
In Question 4 you lay the most important aspect, which is why it got italic. This is a great turning point and you shouldn’t stop at 2 sentences, just throw in any twist you like and this is the part, were you can easily shape your final personality, just using all those things, you learned from the media.
These cornerstones will explain the how and ensure that the character is not finished, a character with no goals, bonds and other things that have great influence on his future, is pretty boring after all. Because he’s just lacking something which drives him.
Here I just write an example, how it could look for a half-elven wild magic sorcerer:
Theron was always an outsider, he and his human mother lived about at the village’s edge, his father was an adventurer, but Theron couldn’t care less about it, since he had his own problems. For the other kids he always seemed otherworldly from appearance, but every time he got emotional, he let cows fly and burned trees, his mother always told him, that it was his magical blood. He tried to suppress it, but after a village boy got hurt by a wave of thunder, the villagers went into a frenzy and burned his house down, banning him and his mother.
To survive long enough to reach the next form of civilization, Theron had to use his magic, so he and his mother wouldn’t be eaten by ankhegs or murdered by orcs. After a long journey, he and his mother got to Baldur’s Gate and to survive there, his mother had to get into debts, while working at a tavern for a living. Theron looked for work himself, but since his magic wasn’t still stable, he would do more harm than good. But he was scouted as an adventurer, an occupation where his talents are useful.
The one who scouted him is also an half-elf, a fighter called Benning. Benning was like a big brother for Theron and taught him everything from the start. But after Theron’s mother found out about Theron’s adventurer’s life (he lied to her, that he found work as a laborer), she made him an ultimatum to either stop that dangerous career or to be on his own for now. He decided for the latter, partly because his friendship with Benning, partly because of his further goals.
He dreams about getting enough treasures in one adventure to pay the debts back and ensure his mother a lifetime worth of money. And maybe for himself, too, but being an adventurer is the only time he felt accepted, so maybe he might spend some more time in that occupation than planned.
Theron has to have a lack of confidence, a strong feeling of responsibility and the feeling to be an outsider everywhere he goes. Benning would be a great friend, villain or even drive, depending how to use him. Maybe Benning could be a PC-party-member himself, then you’d actually had to adapt a thing or two, but this works out as well.
4.) Get friends and enemies
Most people have friends, so your character should at least have one person he can trust, even though it don’t need to be fully. Enemies, rivals or siblings (a bit of both) are great assesses for a DM.
In Theron’s case, he trusts his mother and Benning most and have a whole village against him. Maybe the word spread and some mage hunters will come after him or maybe the boy he hurt will get a career outside the village, even may want to learn the way of the magic himself, since he felt too overpowered. Or the debt collectors might collect his mother at some point, trying to squeeze more money from her now adventuring son. Or maybe Benning will turn out to be a real bad deal, since he needed Theron for some schemes. These little details may be made up by you or your DM, as long as (s)he understand his work.
5.) Consider family bonds
Often further details of the family are obscured in shadows, but they’re a vital part of the character, since they’re still family.
6.) Don’t be afraid to play an archetype
First of all: A lot of psychologists believed that the human brain is incapable of creating new stuff and can only adapt, combine and carry on memories, perceptions and other things it already knows. That’s one of the reasons, why many scientifically theories are only approaches, not actually the real deal. So you aren’t able to create a whole new story.
Being the sole survivor of a village, being chosen by prophecy, needing money for the sick sister, which can only be cured by greater magic, all of it are pretty common back-stories in the media and pretty popular. An archetype is easier to play, since everyone knows what to expect, you won’t need 3 game sessions to realize what a brawny, stupid barbarian would do, you just need the courage to actually do it. The same with back-stories, since they’re well known, everyone knows what to expect.
But don’t copy blindly stuff everyone already knows. Copying a mainstream media in your gaming-group will most often provokes a snarl or a snicker, just adapt some major parts or combine it with another, so it becomes a bit more original.
7.) Leave room, embrace the conflict
A DM will hate you, if your back-story is long, too detailed and with no room to wriggle, Don’t expect, that your flawless back-story won’t get flawed, you have to be prepared that your whole character story might be like the hangman’s rope around your neck and just enjoy it.
And don’t write too much, it’s pretty annoying to read ten pages, when you as an DM awaits only one.
8.) Ask your DM
Since a DM will know more or less what’s going to happen, you can simply ask him, if he have something useful. If he says: Actually I’ve an ongoing antagonist, ask him if your character might be bonded by that antagonist already. Then you can work around that and the story will be even greater.
After those pointers, maybe you’ll have less trouble in making a back-story. If you’re still not sure, maybe it helps when I’m telling you, what I as a DM am looking for:
- Something in the past which follows a character
- Something he actually has his hands ful
- A goal he tries to achieve
And if this all don’t work: Play Theron, he already got plenty of those. 😉