Content of the article: "A soapbox essay on why I don’t agree with the “You should always stay under a page for backstory” opinion. Specifically around lower level characters."
Often I hear people talk about how any backstory over half a page, a page long maximum, is too much for early adventurers. I've seen a few posts and memes specifically on this lately, and hundreds of comments agreeing.
I would respectfully disagree. I think it's much more about content than length, and how that content is used and set up for future use.
To preface though, I don't think what I'm about to talk about is the right way, but ONE WAY, that is viable and has its own strengths as a backstory format. Especially if it's a game where you include backstory elements more, and even if they're not included I'd argue adding more details gives a mental framework for a player to build off while roleplaying.
Now, I might be coming at this from a bit of a writer's perspective. As an example from character planning in stories, I often create what's known as a Character Bible for main characters, which PCs are. What will show up in a story I'm writing could maybe a 1/3rd of what's in the Character Bible.
That doesn't mean the information is useless.
People are made up of a variety of experiences and relationships that influence their future viewpoints and how they react to situations. The Character Bible in this example explains the whys and hows of a characters actions, motivations, and goals, and even if readers never see everything under the surface it often makes these characters feel so much more dynamic and grounded and real. Because you're not arbitrary deciding how they act. You're shaping them on their lived experience. These can go on for a good few pages themselves, covering major life events, their upbringing, friendships and family, their beliefs and mores, and more all the way down to a few of their favorite things to do in their free time.
A PC backstory can work much the same way. Sure, maybe a character hasn't done a lot on an adventuring level, but they've had a full life regardless. I as a person wouldn't even be level one as a PC, and I could probably write three pages only on RELEVANT info of what's shaped my views, dreams, goals, and what might come up later to draw on. Why should a character I may play for a year or more that an entire arc could happen around have less if I wanted that same level of detail? If it's relevant and useful I say that should be what's primarily taken into account.
My PC backstory sheets generally will come out between one and a half to three pages depending on how much I tie the character to the world, how many npcs bonds are included, personal secrets they hold, etc. Usually I have it written out in a more narrative style almost like a short bibliography, which captures context and small details better than a bullet list or short summary. Though I often include a short summary up top for quick reference.
I'm going to use my current character, a drow Warlock called Sabel that I'm playing in a homebrew world, as an example. Sabel had never left her city or got into big conflict until right before the game started. But she did watch her city decend into paranoia as an invading empire was rumored to have set their sights on their home. She watched as her family bathhouse slowly almost went out of business as people refused to leave their homes, convinced there were spies in the city and that anyone could be one. She watched her own family subcome, and her father disappear, which was likely tied to the budding revolutionaries. Then she watched her uncle betray their city when he ended up being a real spy and tricked her to give him sensitive information her father kept in his study.
She didn't do much, but she saw a lot, was surrounded by others that played roles in these events, and it drove her to her current path: seeking allies on the surface to throw out the invading army, to find her father, and to bring her family back together again. It's established how she reacts to those who try to control others, her anxieties around conflicts between people she cares for, and a lot more.
There is a problem for dms having to search through it. To get around that I made a summary at the top, as mentioned earlier, along with a npc map with her parents, siblings, and some other important people like her uncle each with just a line or two of info to establish them but giving plenty of room for my dm to add and play around if he ever brings them in.
And doing it this way has worked out great. I've gotten complemented multiple times by dms and fellow players of how dynamic my PCs feel, and I contribute much of that to the detailed backstories I made and the thought I put into them.
Is this the way everyone should do it? No. Of course not. But I'm kinda sad how people seem to constantly say things like "I refuse to read any pc backstory beyond the first few paragraphs if it's over half a page/a page" which I've heard MULTIPLE times. Or "if you write long backstories you're just stealing the spotlight or trying to do too much for a low level character." But again, it's context and execution that matters. If I, a 24 year old who's done hardly anything with my life, could probably write three pages only on relevant info that shaped me and could impact a campaign, why should my character that I'll play for months to years living in a fantastical world rife with conflict be somehow wrong?
In conclusion, as long as you work with your dm, make the events relevent and not a "I killed an ancient red dragon at age 14 with no training" kind of thing, getting detailed with a backstory can do a lot for creating rich PCs that feel three dimensional. And implementing background into a campaign will make your players more engaged, so why not encourage them to provide some good material you can work with them on? They are the main characters, after all.
As long as it's fun and people feel like they can enjoy the character they're playing without causing in game problems, isn't that what counts at the end of the day? Anyway, if someone wants to write something short cause they're not as invested or want to discover their character as they go, great! But I think a prewritten background with a few pages of detail can be just as viable and this IS a hill I will die on. Thank you to anyone who reached the end of my long 4-5am character ramble. This took me like, an hour, and is probably as long as my backstories.
For context and an example, here's Sabel's sheet which I worked hand in hand with my dm to build. He gave me a few parameters and then I ran with it. It's probably even more detailed than most and I definitely don't expect everyone to put this much into it, but it's an example, and I hope a good one. We did start at level 3 with her but that's still considered early. So I'm counting it.
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