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A spoonful of backstory makes the medicine go down.

Basic Information

Backstory is what happened to a character (or setting) before the current scene. As a form of characterization, a good backstory can explain the motivations and personality of a character. It can give the GM or Player a handle on how the character should respond when some unusual situation pops up.

It can also explain and justify the things on your character sheet, telling us why and how your character learned how to build homemade explosives and pilot an airplane.

Related Tropes:



Game and Story Use

  • Having a good backstory can really help tie a character into the setting, and provide plenty of plot hooks to keep the campaign going for a long time.
    • Of course, it's far from guaranteed to have that effect. Most importantly, backstory can only really tie into the tail if the GM understands it. So it does you no good to come up with an elaborate backstory and then keep it to yourself.
    • Equally as bad, however, is to provide your GM with a really lengthy and informationally dense backstory that is hard to comprehend or utilize. Some players really love writing up their backstory in intricate detail, but the longer you make it, the harder it is for the GM to integrate it into their game.
      • My experience suggests that for PCs, the best bet is to come up with a backstory that can be summarized by bullet points taking up less than a page. Distribute this to the group, and then only give people more detail if they ask for it. If you hand someone the 20 page story of your character's life, they may not read it. Or worse, they may just skim it and fail to identify the most critical parts.
  • For minor NPCs, a tiny bit of backstory can save the GM a lot of other work. I'm not just talking about how it makes the character easier to role-play, and gives them a distinct personality. It can also save you the trouble of working up game stats for them in some crunchy system.
    • For example, lets say you've got an NPC who's the high-priest of the temple that one of the PCs is associated with. Unless you plan to have this priest betray the PCs, they'll probably never get into a fight with him. So do you really need to know what his 17 character levels are, and which feats and exact skills he chose? Probably not. But knowing that he grew up in the northern wastelands, was orphaned when goblins burned down his village, was taken in by pilgrims, went to seminary and eventually rose through the ranks despite fierce political infighting between the bishops gives you a really robust idea of who the character is.
      • Should the PCs randomly decide to ambush him, you can always pause the game to stat him out (or wrap up early and start with the fight next week). When and if you do stat him out, the backstory will help guide your decisions - "he grew up in the northern wastes, so he probably has a high constitution and at least a few points in wilderness survival."
  • I'm a little uncomfortable suggesting this, but here goes. Let's say your character concept isn't so much about the character as it is about the mechanics. I'm not accusing anyone of munchkinism here, but lets say you've stumbled across an optimal build which coincidentally has a small chance of being broken. Now, my first advice would be "make a less twinky character", but different strokes for different folks and all, and maybe you expect the campaign to feature a lot of combat and you're gonna be the party's tank anyway. Point being, if the GM has to decide whether or not to approve an abusive character, having an interesting backstory that explains your particular combination of borderline broken mechanics may go a long way towards convincing the GM to say something other than "no". Not that I'm recommending abusing the system and then plastering over it with a complicated backstory, but if you're the sort of player whose going to push the envelope anyway, you might as well throw the GM a bone and roleplay a little. I for one have a lot more tolerance for min-maxing when the player is proposing a character more nuanced then "I'm a dangerous loner who kills people for money". Just sayin'.
  • Your backstory may suggest which Characterization Tropes are appropriate for the character.
  • Some games have a built in backstory system, with direct mechanical effects on character creation. For further inspiration, get a copy of any of these RPG books:
    • FATE's character generation involves stages where you distribute skill points in clusters. Each of these stages can be another chapter of the character's backstory.
    • Cyberpunk 2020 has a "Lifepath" that generates events for every year of a character's adult life.
    • 7th Sea has "backgrounds" such as rivals, loves, and treasure maps that give you experience points whenever they come up in-game. Some of the sourcebooks also feature a tarot-card spread you can do for each character to generate backstory and mechanical bonuses that go along with it.
    • The 3.5 edition of Unearthed Arcana for Dungeons & Dragons had optional rules for making high-level characters where you rolled up a backstory for each character level they had, and this determined how they multiclassed.
    • The old "Central Casting" books by Task Force Games were explicitly just an add-on system for generating character backstories for use with other RPGs.
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