Backstories: What they are and how to write them
To start with, yes, obviously backstories are the stories that tell what happened in a character’s life up to the point the campaign starts. I imagine most people are able to figure that out from the word itself. But in Dungeons and Dragons, backstories can be a bit more complicated than that. Backstories are what explain your character’s motivations. When creating a character, you roll for or select personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws, which I’ll explain here:
- Personality Traits: Generally you have two of these for your character, and these dictate what sort of behaviors your character has during roleplay. If your character has a background as a Sage, for example, one of their personality traits might be that they give longwinded explanations for everything due to their vast knowledge.
- Ideals: You usually select one of these. Ideals indicate a guiding worldview for your character, such as the idea that all creatures deserve respect or perhaps the idea that survival of the fittest is real.
- Bonds: This is something that ties your character to the world. A bond can be familial, friendly, romantic, platonic, or to a specific location or group. Officially, your character usually has only one strong bond but your backstory can expand on other bonds your character may have.
- Flaws: Yes, you also have to select at least one flaw your character has from the get go. This can be a short temper, an addiction, a distasteful personality trait, etc.
In general, I like to have these things already selected when I start writing my character’s backstories because they need to match up with what my character has experienced and how their personality has formed. If my character is going to have a strong bond with their family, then I’d like to know that before I write about what it was like growing up with them.
The general rule is that backstories are whatever you want them to be, but you do have to keep in mind that something has left your character unfulfilled. Why would someone who’s lived a long and happy life and retired to a seaside village with their loving spouse and grandchildren suddenly pick up weapons or magic and begin going on dangerous adventures? They probably wouldn’t without something else happening in their backstory. So a backstory provides important motivations that the DM can then use to inspire your character to participate in the ongoing campaign, and can assist you in roleplaying your character’s decisions.
Not sure where to start?
There are some great tools for starting a backstory! Besides the basics of the Player’s Handbook (PHB) there are other books, such as Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Xanathar’s provides a wonderful set of tables for helping you figure out your backstory. Things such as whether or not you know who your parents are, who raised you, how many siblings you have, what races your parents were (if playing a half-elf, half-orc, or tiefling), and what might have inspired you to begin adventuring. I’ve made some pretty fun character backstories based on what I’ve randomly rolled for on these tables, but I’ve also created backstories that were entirely original ideas.
Something that I’ve found to be super important for everyone at the table is for DMs to understand the players’ backstories. There is never really a reason to hide your character’s story from the DM, and if you feel like you can’t share parts of it with them then that’s an entirely different conversation you need to be having. I’ve always encouraged my players to share their backstories with me so that I can incorporate themes and plotlines that will interest their characters and help resolve things for them. As a player, I’ve experienced both successful and unsuccessful attempts at incorporating my characters’ backstories into the plot of a campaign.
- Successful Example: In a campaign run by my husband, my character had siblings she didn’t know about in her backstory. My husband incorporated one of them as a majorly important NPC for the story. Although my character didn’t realize who they were dealing with when his name was dropped, I did and it was very exciting knowing that that was coming up.
- Unsuccessful Example: I once played a campaign where the DM was trying to accommodate all of our backstories, but was very selective about it and didn’t always ask for further details. Our characters were very casual in terms of sharing personal information, so as players a lot of us didn’t have the details behind other characters. When the DM would incorporate backstory payoff, a lot of times there was no investment in the story for the rest of the party because we hadn’t really developed the longterm plots to influence us all.
Because D&D is a collaborative storytelling game, it’s important that all of the players are equally invested in the story at all times. This means that your characters may start as antagonistic towards one another, but they eventually need to develop a certain bond. Imagine you’re playing a game, and have been for a while now. Long enough that your characters have been through some events together, some adventures, and should be friends. But for one reason or another, you’re still playing your characters against one another and have to come up with implausible ideas for why they’re all still traveling together. Should one session be most important for one of the characters in question, who reveals a secret child they’ve hidden away from the world and desperately want to protect, why would your character care? Would you really go with them to their hometown to protect their child?
This is where the DM needs to step in. If the players and characters themselves are not naturally inclined towards sharing and friendship, then the DM must do their best to create backstory payoff plotlines that also interest the rest of the characters. This may mean blending and coordinating backstories so perhaps the villain of one story is also the villain of another. Or perhaps one of the other characters has something that would significantly help the other fulfill a backstory quest. A DM must understand the various players’ backstories and be able to wind them together so that the players and characters feel a connection to one another. This is really well done in the Twitch streaming and podcast series, Critical Role, where both because the players are invested in one another’s stories and because the DM is skilled at backstory payoff, you can experience the excitement of the entire table when something major happens for one or more characters.
One thing I’ve learned as a DM is that you cannot put all your expectations and pressure on the DM; a player must do their part to play out their backstory or it will feel unfulfilling. This means understanding your own backstory, expanding on it as much as you need in order to really get into the mind of your character. As someone with a long background in writing, I was prepared for engaging in this activity but I’ve encountered plenty of players who just don’t know how to effectively get into their character’s heads and play out their motivations. You definitely need to sit with your character for a little while. Being able to quickly build up a character in order to play can be a handy skill, but if you do this too quickly you may lose the ability to understand your character’s personality and motivations sufficiently for roleplay needs.
For myself, I find it helpful to regularly check in on my character’s emotional well being. I keep lists of goals and motivations, making new ones when they come up in game and determining when and if things have been resolved. I did this most recently in the campaign run by my husband. My character begin wanting nothing more than to run away from her responsibilities and life. She didn’t have sufficient funds to keep up the false life she’d created for herself, so she alternated between living in high society and working in her hometown. Her first goal when adventuring was to get rid of an annoying presence. Then this escalated as she continued to get involved in adventuring activities and found herself getting attached to her party members. I kept track of new goals forming, even small ones such as wanting to learn to play the bagpipes from another character. These goals helped formulate the bonds she had with the party so that even though her initial personality and motives wouldn’t have led her to adventuring, she was invested in the party and its struggles and thus continued on with them. I was able to resolve some major parts of her backstory this way by having her develop into a new, better person.
Your backstory can be as long or as short as you need it to be. If it’s too short, too simple, however, you may find yourself struggling to come up with new goals and motivations for your character to keep adventuring. Sometimes this may result in wanting a new character, which is totally fine! I was playing in a campaign once where one of the players got frustrated because her character’s motivations hadn’t changed since the beginning of the adventure, but the rest of the party had gone a different way. She requested that her character be given a way to walk out of the story and she’d create a new character that had motivations more in line with how the rest of our characters had developed. Another time, as a DM, a player of mine had to leave the group and another player’s character wouldn’t have stayed with the party due to their entwined backstories. Since it made sense for that character to leave, a new one had to be introduced and that character turned out to be a much better fit for the party.
Beyond just an individual DM understanding each backstory of the players, or an individual player fully embracing their own character’s backstory, there’s also the activity of putting together the varied backstories of a group of players. Sometimes, players collaborate ahead of time and create characters that are already entwined. An example of this comes from the famous show/podcast Critical Role. During the first campaign, two of the players created characters that were twins, brother and sister. As a result, their backstories are necessarily entwined and their characters grow together and frequently support one another.
One technique for entwining backstories like this comes about most often in larger groups of players in the form of “session zero” activities. While different DMs conduct different types of session zeroes, the version I’m thinking of is when a DM splits the party into groups of two or three players to begin with. Doing this allows new or rusty players to get back into the mechanics of playing, gives everyone a one-on-one chance to develop a relationship with the DM and at least one of the other players, and can result in some interesting pre-party bonds. A group of strangers that meet in a tavern may be a popular session zero, but for a lot of players it can leave something feeling lacking in terms of entwined backstories. If your first introduction to adventure is with someone who becomes your best friend, though, it can be much more satisfying.
Not only can entwining your backstory and motivations with another player’s give you a deeper connection to the game, but it can also bring about some really interesting dynamics. I once played a campaign where my character effectively became another character’s best friend. We had creative battle tactics, and respected one another as well as looted a lot of treasure together. When my character fell in battle despite the insanely heroic efforts of his character, his character mourned her for a week in the game. It was actually rather gratifying as a player to see that my character was well liked by others. In other campaigns where the other players didn’t form those connections with our characters, it often felt like we were all only there for our own gratifications, not for the party’s goals.
Backstories are a wonderful exercise for both players and DMs. As a player, the backstory is where you get to be your most creative. When determining what skills and abilities your character has, there are limits. You may only learn as many languages as your combined race and background will let you. You cannot be skilled in everything and must make choices about what your talents and strengths are. But with your backstory, you can have as many connections to friends and family as you like and as many motivations, goals, and aspirations as you may need to stay motivated as a player about your character. Additionally, you can create collaboratively with other players and the DM to create a backstory that ties into everything you need for the campaign to work. Backstories are the backbone of a campaign.