So you want to play Dungeons and Dragons! You’ve gathered your friends around the game table, snacks are ever-present, and everyone is ready for adventure… BUT WAIT! You don’t have a character with a backstory to play with! Dammit, your friend Jimmy has a super cool Rogue he’s working on, and you feel like you’re lost, and just can’t think of anything. Get out of my head Jimmy! Follow along for tips on how to create a backstory everyone will love.
We’ve all been faced with the challenges of character creation, and it’s not easy to write out a good backstory. From character development to your character’s personality, in this article we’ll be covering a few ideas for you to take and integrate into your own Player Character, (PC). This little guide is for New Players and the experienced Dungeon Master (DM) alike. It should serve as an idea board for you all to bring robust storytelling to your table, and characters everyone will love! Now let’s get into it:
- Using the Player’s Handbook
- Encouraging Growth at the Table
- The importance of Session Zero
- Bonus Content – Backstory Example
DnD Backstory Ideas from the Handbook
A lot of players, especially new players, have trouble getting passively into their character’s head. They don’t know how to express, on paper, concepts and ideas that they can more easily express through Role Play. If you’re having trouble figuring out where to even start, don’t worry! The Player’s Handbook has plenty of hooks and ideas for making an interesting character backstory and get the game moving. You can find a complete copy at a local bookstore or online at DnD Beyond, HERE. From Acolyte to Witherbloom, the backstories in the 5e Handbook serve as prompts for more in-depth storytelling. A springboard for creativity if you will! As an example, the “Haunted One” background from the Curse of Strahd prompts the player as such:
Text: “You are haunted by something so terrible that you dare not speak of it. You’ve tried to bury it and run away from it, to no avail. Whatever this thing is that haunts you can’t be slain with a sword or banished with a spell. It might come to you as a shadow on the wall, a bloodcurdling nightmare, a memory that refuses to die, or a demonic whisper in the dark. The burden has taken its toll, isolating you from most people and making you question your sanity. You must find a way to overcome it before it destroys you.”
But What Does that Mean?
There are millions of directions you can take this, from tragic backstory, to secrets about your family’s past, or maybe even a pact with a demon, depending on the campaign setting. Backstories are important tools that can help tie your character’s life into the story, giving them purpose and motivation to Adventure with a capital A.
The handbook goes on to provide suggested characteristics such as personality traits, ideals, and flaws – all important things to consider when crafting your background. But, understandably, it can be overwhelming. Especially with Jimmy cranking out a 500 page Novel about his Rogue, Skrunkle McDunkle, right next to you. Don’t worry! Comparison is the thief of joy, and D&D is all about collaboration – so let’s get those creative juices going with 3 suggestions that will allow you and your DM to breathe life into your character.
Collaborating a Backstory with your DM
The easiest way to ensure your player character integrates with the story and with other characters at the table is to work with your DM while creating your backstory. In the few homebrew campaigns I myself have DM’d, I’ve found that the easiest way to help your friends flesh out their character backstories is to give them more ties to the realism of the world:
- Relationships: Ask your players to give you 3 contacts from their backstories, one of which can be another PC. The contacts can be anyone. Work with the players to integrate their contacts into existing NPCs or have them share a contact with another PC. Coming up with the contacts does two things. It establishes the characters as people who exist and actually live in the world, and it creates connections between the characters.
- Rumors: Ask the player to come up with at least 3 rumors that have circulated about their character’s life. Tell them one should be true, one false and the 3rd can be either, or even partially true/false. This encourages players to think about how other’s perceive their character.
- Desire vs Fear: Ask the players to tell you at least one thing their PC wants out of life (money, get revenge on _______ for _______, become the greatest mage, write the greatest ballad, etc.) and one thing they Fear. Subconscious fears work really well for this, such as a fear of rejection, or a fear that they will never be as great as their mentor. DM’s can use these desires and fears to draw players in and get them invested in the story.
These ideas will not only prompt creativity into writing your character’s backstory, but also should give you ideas for how you are thinking about portraying your character while role playing! Plus it’s a lot of fun to world build with your players, especially if you’re a new Dungeon Master. That way, you don’t have to worry as much about the intricacies of the world building aspects of the game.
The Importance of Session Zero
Honestly, this is where the magic happens. Session Zero is all about getting together and collaborating reasons as to why your party would fit together in the first place. Session Zero sets the tone for the entire campaign and ensures that all players are on the same page. During Session Zero, your group should typically discuss expectations, boundaries, and goals for the campaign. While we could dive into those concepts, for the purposes of staying on track in this article, we’ll focus on the fun of character creation.
During Session Zero, players create their characters together, discussing your backstories and motivations! You could have the most compelling character concept, but if you’re using it as an excuse to overshadow or not work with the other players, nobody at the table is going to have any fun. Which is why the power of simplicity is key! Simplicity will ensure that all characters are cohesive and fit within the campaign’s world.
- A powerful wizard killed your parents and destroyed your small village. Now only you, the descendent of a long line of Orc Chieftains, must journey into the world to find this wizard and take your revenge.
This is a perfectly fine backstory. It leaves space for the DM to work with you on possible NPC’s that may have survived the massacre (including said evil wizard). This backstory also allows other NPC’s who may have heard of your tribe to possibly recognize your character, and gives you motivation to work with someone to achieve your goal: Vengeance.
Not All Backstories are Alike
A simple backstory allows you to work with your close friends at the table and gives you the option to integrate parts of their character’s backstory into yours. There’s really no downside going into your first adventure with a friend or someone who’s got your character’s back. Unless it’s Jimmy. He’d probably just stab you in the back like he did to his father on page 376 of Skrunkle’s Autobiography. But we digress.
Session Zero is an important aspect of character creation because it sets the foundation for a successful campaign by establishing clear expectations, building strong character relationships, and promoting a safe and inclusive environment for all players except Jimmy, who has been banished for having too much fun. Okay fine, Skrunkle McDunkle can be the party mascot. Next campaign.
Let’s boil down everything we’ve covered thus far for consideration. When writing character backstories, there are a few key things to keep in mind:
- Personality and Motivations: Think about your character’s personality and what motivates them. Are they driven by a desire for revenge, a thirst for knowledge, or a need to protect their loved ones? Understanding your character’s motivations will help you create a backstory that is consistent with their personality.
- Background and Origins: Consider your character’s background and where they came from. Were they born into a noble family, or were they raised on the streets as an orphan? How did their upbringing shape their personality and worldview?
- Significant Events: Think about significant events that happened in your character’s past. Did they experience a traumatic event that shaped their personality, or did they have a life-changing revelation that set them on their current path?
- Relationships: Consider your character’s relationships with other people in the game world. Do they have any close friends or family members, or are they a lone wolf? Do they have any enemies or rivals that may appear in the campaign?
- Hooks for the DM: Think about including hooks in your backstory that the DM can use to create personalized plotlines for your character. For example, a character with a criminal past may have to confront old associates who’ve come back to haunt them.
Remember, your backstory doesn’t have to be overly detailed or elaborate (looking at you, Jimmy). Focus on creating a few key elements that will help you stay in character and contribute to the richness and depth of the game world. Don’t be afraid to collaborate with your DM to ensure that elements of your backstory fit seamlessly into the campaign.
Having a backstory is important in Dungeons and Dragons, and really any tabletop games, because it adds depth and complexity to a character and the world they inhabit, making them more interesting and engaging to play. A backstory is the story of a character’s life before the campaign begins, and it can include details such as their upbringing, family, personal goals, significant events that shaped their personality, and helps players stay invested in their character and the campaign.
Bonus Content: Elaborate Backstory with LOTS of room for the DM
Inri Muldana/ Inri the Blind – 5e Barbarian, Path of the Beast
Inri was always exceptional. From the day of her conception, the people of her village knew she was a gift. Her mother prayed for the prosperity of her village, and was answered in kind by the gods. There was no father.
Inri was born into a time of famine and plague, yet was revered as a beacon of hope by the small village, a sign from the gods. But there is nothing so treacherous as hope. When she was conceived, a brilliant light blinded her mother and the wetnurse who helped, the latter of which died from severe burns and scarring. Her mother never fully recovered. The cost of saving her people from terrible hardship.
The village flourished! The famine was struck away by bountiful harvests, the sickness in the village folk receded, and the people were healthy and happy. For the first several years of her life, Inri was a glowing, hyperactive, headstrong child, eager to learn, quick to fight, but above all, she took care of her weakened mother. She was noticeably larger than most children, well muscled, and strong for her age.
Word was spread of the child born without a father, and the miraculous recovery of a doomed remote village. Inri was about 7-8yrs old when vile men and women came to take her. To study her. To Dissect her. It was in the moments that they were pulling her away from her blinded and weakened mother in her own home when Inri’s celestial power came to fruition. Inri’s emotions took over, and a searing light poured out of her eyes and mouth before a wave of celestial energy destroyed the aggressors, and her home, damaging several of the small homes around hers… and killing her mother.
Distraught and wracked with guilt and fury, she fled the village for fear of the consequences the townsfolk may incur upon her for the harm and the danger brought to their small abode. Inri ran into the nearby woods, incandescent light flickering through her tears. Days later, Inri was close to death; weak with hunger, thirst, and wakeless nights in the unknown world, until He came across her.
A blind monk, who took her to his small shrine, in a remote location undiscoverable by the townsfolk. With her powers awakened, she begged him to stay away, but instead he nursed her back to health, placing a blindfold over her radiant eyes. She would remember the sound of his Rosary clacking gently around his wrist as he wrung out washcloths or prayed over her, solemn prayers to the Giant God Annam, the All-Father.
Over several years, the monk taught Inri to “see” again with her senses other than sight. He taught her to control her power, at least to the point that it would do no harm unless she were to take off her blindfold willingly. Then, he helped her control not only the latent Aasimar powers inside of her, but also helped her keep her temper in check. The monk often left his shrine for days on end, leaving her to meditate and hone her skills, refining and reinforcing what she learned by herself upon his return. She learned proper breathing and combat technique, starting with the bow-staff, moving to spear, and finally the glaive that she carries today – it was once the old monks when he was young and spry.
Finally, a decade later, on the eve of her 18th birth-year, when her master was off on one of his pilgrimages, Inri decided that it was time for her to face her fears, and to return to her village. She was ready to pay her penance, and to offer help to any of those in need. She was met with something far worse than she could have ever imagined. As Inri approached her village in the dusky light of the full moon, she was attacked by a horrible Beast. She escaped, fleeing into the village, screaming for help, only to find her once-called-home a bloody mess. Her people had been shredded, half devoured, massacred. The small wood structures were aflame or broken, with no survivors in sight.
The Beast stalked her to the center of the village, where, steeling herself against her fear, Inri attacked. She fought the Beast in bloody combat, eventually impaling it on her Glaive. Inri’s hatred and loss blistered so hot that the blindfold around her eyes simply burned away, and, unable to contain her rage, her fury engulfed her, light spilling out of her eyes and mouth, threatening to char her, and washing the Beast in celestial flame.
Finally she was able to see the Beast with her own eyes, its wolf-like features, long terribly distended appendages, dull white eyes. As she watched it die, it gripped the glaive with its clawed hands, and around its wrist she saw the Rosary of her master, clacking gently against the steel. As the flames withered around the still burning fur, the creature’s form changed, morphing into that of the old blind monk, who had kept a terrible secret. Although he was a pious man, he carried the curse of Lycanthropy, which he had passed on to Inri during their battle.
All those times he had been “on his pilgrimage” were likely a ploy to protect Inri from his curse. To allow his bestial nature full control during the waxing full moons. Devastated, and now under the influence of a terrible curse, Inri renounced the gods. She vowed to find a way to “fix” herself. Years of struggle passed. Inri fought for control of her bestial rage, fought for control over the angelic powers of which she did not understand. She found that answers cost her money, of which she did not have much… that is, until she discovered that she was really good at killing things. Inri became a nomadic sell-sword, never staying in one place for too long, for fear that those around her would discover her angelic heritage, or worse, the dark nature of her curse.
She has spent years in search of answers, using her mercenary work to fund scholars, alchemists, wizards and the like, but none have been able to cure her of either of her burdens. She found herself lost, hopeless, the innocence of youth washed away. Twenty years have passed since that night. These days, Inri searches still. Unknowing of whether these two conflicting powers inside her will ever rest, or if they will be her undoing.
I hope you enjoyed this article on how to create a backstory! Now enjoy your long rest, or better yet, read another article, HERE! I hope your journey into character creation is fruitful, imaginative, and fun!