Me — Backstory

So, I’m starting two Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, and I’ve noticed that some people don’t really want to spend time making their character (especially new people), they just want to jump in and fight some goblins. While I won’t disparage that style of play, I think this is a consequence of how so many video games encourage us to interact with our virtual environment. We don’t care about how the farmer’s home was ravaged, we just want to know how he’ll reward us when we kill the bear that ate his corn. But that isn’t what Dungeons & Dragons is meant to be. This game is about building a world from scratch and experiencing it with your friends! This means that its at its best when the players roleplay as their characters, building relationships and forging friendships as they travel around the world and find out just how big the dragon at the end of the tale really is. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Unless the dungeon master actually has a huge dragon as your “final boss” because dragons are cool. Looking at you, thirteen or fourteen year old me. You can do better than that. Ahem. Moving on.

Backstory and character background is the best part about building something to roleplay, because how else are you going to make your game interesting? But some people don’t know where to start. I can give you a list of races and classes to work with, but that’s not where the intrigue comes in.

When I’m worldbuilding, regardless of what it’s for, I look for that moment of “Oh, that’s an interesting idea”. Once I find it, I know I’m on to something, and that’s what gets you excited to not only play the game, but explore the possibilities of that character (or world aspect).

What I mean about that “Interesting” moment, is when you take a weird idea, cram it into something, and make it make sense. But first, you have to find that piece you want. Let me give you an example. In one campaign, I wanted a character that was lawful evil, since I had never played that sort of alignment before. (Basically lawful evil means following the rules while disregarding morality entirely.) So I took that element: lawful evil, and looked for something to contrast with it. What does not make sense for a lawful evil character? Bard. The entire bard class doesn’t make sense for that alignment. Alright. Lawful evil bard. What race would he be? Well, what’s an abnormal race for a bard? Drow (or dark elves). Now, drow are typically neutral evil or chaotic evil, but so I have to justify a number of things here. One, how in the world did this drow become a bard? Two, why isn’t this drow simply evil (aka why is he going on an adventure?) And finally, how does he use his bard class to express his alignment?

Through these justifications comes backstory. I have to tell his story in order to be able to explain why he is the way he is. The way I see it, backstory is not pulling common tropes out of thin air and applying them where it makes sense, but instead it is the explanation for how this weird character got into a normal situation, or how a normal character got into a weird situation.

So, whatever the case may be, find something that interests you, tie it to something, and marry the two ideas. If you can’t think of something to tie the interesting idea to, throwing in a typically contrasting element works marvelously (as I showed above).

But maybe you’re under the illusion that you’re not a creative person (which is a load of crap. Humans are a creative species). But let me toss out some more examples. Lets say you want your character to be a child for whatever reason. Maybe you have the perfect kid voice. That’s cool. So what class or races makes no sense for a child adventurer? A barbarian could work, since they base their merit off strength, which a child wouldn’t have much of. So how would this child have the capabilities of a competent barbarian? Perhaps his father was an alchemist and used his kid as a test subject. Maybe this permanently endowed him with imbued strength. Or, maybe you don’t want to play a fighter character. Let’s go on the opposite end of the spectrum. How would a cleric or sorcerer work for a child? Perhaps this character was really old and was cursed into an eternal youth. Or maybe he asked a genie for this eternal youth and the common trope of not getting what you really wished for came into play.

Basically, anything is possible. I think we all have a little bit of “I wish I could be a chivalrous knight/evil necromancer/elven wizard” in us. So my advice to you, is find that piece of what you want, and find build the rest of the character off of contrasting ideas. Interesting characters don’t evolve from boring ones, I’m sorry to say. At least, it’s very difficult to force a boring character to be interesting. No, you have to hit the ground running with somebody that you want to learn more about. Good luck.

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