In my years of DMing I've run for a wide range of people and I've seen probably over 100 backstories.
EVERYONE OF THOSE BACKSTORIES WERE GARBAGE
Don't get me wrong, I've played with some amazing players. I've had some great games, good RP, good character moments, and most of my players discover an amazing character OVER TIME… but this is almost always completely divorced from a good backstory. I think in my Dozen and a half campaigns and twice as many one shots, I've seen maybe 3 competent backstories, that's not a good ratio
Players start with a single character concept, but they don't know how to flesh it out.
99% of characters start with a single idea. E.G. Oh whips are so badass, I wonder if I can make a character out of them. Or… I really liked Arya Stark's plotline in GOT, I want to make my own version. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, James Cameron started the Terminator movies from a single vision of a Robot rising from the flames while he was on ecstasy. The difference is that he then took that concept and fleshed it out into a beginning a middle and an end, and the final product was a complete and interesting story, not just a static image.
So most backstories look like this…
Ok so he's a Tiefling… liek from the 9 hells. And he's tall and has this mysterious look in his eyes. And he's SEXY! Like I'm not gay, but I might be for him. And he has this Nathan Fillion 'devil may care' attitude all the time. And he hates authority and being tied down by the law. And TRAGEDY STRUCK. And so he's brooding all the time, kinda a loner. But he does good sometimes… but he always remembers that TRAGEDY. And, and, and, and, and and…. and so on.
Ok… So what?
You've given me a snapshot of a very bad day in his life, but you haven't told me who he is, you haven't told me much about his positive attributes, AND MORE IMPORTANTLY you haven't told me why he's heading back out into the adventuring world.
Your Backstory should look like the first 10 minutes of a Pixar Movie.
Think of the first 10 minutes of Up.
- Carl Frederickson is a kid who dreams of adventure (want), but is very shy (limitation)
- He meets Ellie, a spirited girl who gives him the confidence (attribute he's missing) to live life to the fullest.
- They get married and plan a trip to an uncharted rainforest together (call to adventure)
- But life's expenses get in the way and they use the adventure budget as an emergency fund (refusal of the call)
- Then Ellie dies (life changing tragedy) leaving Carl without his motivation or confidence. Carl becomes depressed and his life becomes dull & meaningless.
- Then a Real Estate Developer uses legal shenanigans to force Carl into a decision. Take up the call to adventure, or retire to an elderly home (threshold decision)
- Carl takes all night to fill up Baloons with Helium and he takes his house to the skies (crossing the threshold)
That's where your backstory will end, crossing the threshold. Your D&D journey will then be a matter of finding out your character's strengths and weaknesses, and discovering that maybe what you wanted (Adventure) was not what you needed (Family & Purpose).
You need to include the following elements for your backstory to grab your DM and make it easy for them to write things.
- Your Motivation, why do you do what you do?
- Your Limitations, what makes it hard to proceed?
- Your Strength, what can you do that no one else does?
- Proper Nouns, where do you come from? Who influenced you? Why do you remember them and not say the milk man?
- YOU NEED A REASON TO ADVENTURE! Anyone can be a tailor, or a smith, or a farmer, but the few, the proud, those are the adventurers.
- You need a reason you can't go back.
- And you need to cross the threshold.
The DM needs all of these things to know how to create dope moments for your character. How can he create a nemesis for you if he doesn't know your strengths and weaknesses. How can he tug at your heart strings without proper nouns to hold hostage in the story. What is the reason for adventuring that will keep you with the party when the going gets tough.
So let's write a sample backstory for an Oathbreaker Paladin. I'll put the key elements in parenthesis in case it's not obvious.
Lancelot is a hero of Camelot (noun). He is the most Chivalrous (attribute), and some would say strongest (attribute), Paladin in the lands. He is the Pride of his King Arthur's (friend, leader) Knights of the Round Table (Achievement & Prior Organization). With the noble blade, the Holy Avenger (noun) by his side, he won many battles (achievement describing his strengths) in both tournaments and against the wicked Mordred (foil, nemesis). When Arthur & the other knights went to Crusade against a neighboring kingdom of cultists, slavers, and heretics, Lancelot stayed behind to become the protector and Personal Champion to the Queen Guinevere (Call to Adventure and first Refusal).
However one day when attending to the Queen. Lancelot & Guinevere gave into their lusts (limitations) and had an illicit affair. Their relationship was kept secret (limitation), but this affair angered God, and Lancelot lost favor with him. No longer the bastion of Chivarly, Lancelot's mighty sword went powerless in his hands. His strength slowly left him, making him little more than a common hedge knight (Life changing tragedy). As he began to struggle, and ultimately fail in tournament battles, rumors of his continued affair circled among the Knights of the Round. It was rumored that he lost favor with God because of impropriety. Lancelot doubled down on his lies (limitation) challenging naysayers to duels to protect his honor. His lies became too numerous to maintain. His affair now discovered, it drove a wedge between himself and the other Knights, leading to a civil war amongst the once proud brothers (threshold decision).
Lancelot stripped of his lands, his titles, and his subjects (Tragedy). He is desperate to regain his honor, his strength, and his Holy Avenger (attributes). No army will take an Oathbreaker (limitation) so he must be content to regain his heroism through other methods. He signs on as a common sellsword with the company of the Black Lantern, hoping to regain his honor and reputation by any means necessary (want, acceptance of the call to adventure)
Hope you all learned something, hope this helps you guys. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.
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More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "How to get your DM invested in your Backstory." specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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