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Writing Character Backgrounds for Player Driven Stories

Posted on 16 Sep 2013 by Tim | Player's Perspective

Last week we talked about character driven stories. At one point, Murphy talked about hooking into a character's backstory to provide motivation. There's actually a lot of cool stuff a GM can do with a well written backstory. They can tune the quests to your character's desires, involve people from your character's past and craft custom side stories specifically for character! Although it’s up to your GM to tell the story, you have to do your part as a player too. You need to craft your character's backstory in a way that helps your GM.

Firstly, I'm sure everyone has been tempted to use the "orphan" or "amnesia" backstory before. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being an orphan, or suffering some sort of memory loss. It is bad when you use that as an excuse not to write a good background. Every adventurer will have interacted with people and events in their lives, before and after any catastrophic events that may have caused memory loss or loss of parents. These kinds of background are no excuse to not spend time crafting a good backstory.

Here are 5 tips to help you build a better backstory that your GM will love you for:

1. Detail the event that made your character decide to adventure

Being an adventurer is hard. Sure, there's some glory and gold available for the bold, but most adventurers die alone in a pit trap hundreds of feet underground. What made your character decide to give up the relatively easy life of a commoner and become an adventurer? This was the most important decision in their lives, and you need to be able to explain the how, what, where, when and why of it.

2. Write about other events in your character's life

Things happen to people all the time. Some events are major and life changing, some are trivial. You should write about a few of both. If your character has a racial enemy, write about how that came to be. If your character is a sorcerer, write about the discovery of their latent talent. If you have any character quirks, like your character always carries around a mirror, write about the event that made your character decide to do that.

3. Write about important people in your character's life

Every character has important people in their lives - their parents, any siblings, childhood friends, class trainers, authority figures, the list goes on and on. At the very least, you'll have the people involved in the event that made your character decide to go adventuring. Bring these people to life - give them names, occupations and motivations. Maybe even write a quick little backstory for each of them for extra credit.

4. Leave some people alive!

It's not enough to just write about people from your character's past if they're all dead. You need to have some people alive in order for your GM to be able to use them. Even if your character is a super evil whirlwind of death, there's always going to be a bigger and stronger person they've met and couldn’t kill. Give your GM some options.

5. Include a personal rival

Conflict in life is unavoidable. Even the most saintly paladin will have annoyed or upset someone due to a misunderstanding. These people can grow to become rivals. The rivalry can be as innocent as competitiveness in training, or as sinister and deadly as a stalking murderer. Remember you can have more than one rival, but 10 rivals might be a little over the top - it makes you sound like a villain, not a hero.

GMs can do great things with a well written character backstory. A good GM can also do some cool things with a poorly written backstory, things that end up pulling the rug out from under you, but that's a story for another time. Crafting the perfect backstory will make life much easier for your GM, and you want to make things easier for your GM; a GM that doesn't have to worry how to hook into your closed off backstory can concentrate more on building an epic adventure.

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