Monday, May 9, 2016

It's All About Back Story Part 1: Ten Questions to Get Started

I still remember the first time I stared at a character sheet. I was nine years old and after months of begging, my uncle finally agreed to let me play Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) with him. I don't know if I knew it then, but that character sheet would be the start of a lifelong hobby that has been a huge part of my life. In the 30+ years I have been playing role playing games (RPG's) I have grown as both a player and a game master (GM). Yet, even today any time I look at a blank character sheet I feel the exact sense of wonder and mystery I did at the age of nine.

For me, looking at a character sheet is much more than just thinking about numbers and bonuses. Looking at a character sheet is the first step in creating an entire person. This person is more than a class, some saving throws, and combat modifiers. This person has a name, a family, a homeland, and more. Even when I was nine the greatest interest to me was the scribbled back story on the back, not the numbers on the sheet.

As I developed my GMing style my love of character back story influenced how I approached character creation. I wasn't happy with my player's simply putting down a set of numbers and saying "let's go!". I wanted something more. I wanted my players to invest time in their characters by thinking about them beyond a set of numbers. I did this because I believed (and still do) that when a player invests in their character it becomes more real to them. When a character becomes more real to a player the dangers of adventuring life become that much more exciting and this makes the game better.

The problem is that not everyone can whip up a back story easily. This would frustrate me and I would get angry and decide I wasn't going to GM. Looking back at this immature version of myself, I can see why I wasn't the most popular GM in my gaming group. The nice thing about age is that it does bring wisdom. While I might have started as a demanding brat, my desire to be a good GM forced me to learn how to improve my own shortcomings.

Over time I tried a number of ways to help people develop backgrounds. I used the secondary skills, personality traits out of the first edition Dungeon Master's Guide, and more. I created thousand of tables that describe everything from parents through schooling. I read thousand of articles on creating character background. However, the thing I found most useful, what I go back to time and time again is ten simple questions.

These questions are easy for pretty much anyone to answer. On the rare occasion someone simply can't (or doesn't want to) create a background for their character I let it go. It is their character after all. I always believe that a player who invests in their character will enjoy the game more, I have also learned I can't force someone to do something they really don't want to do. However, for those that do I always have the following questions ready.

Who Were your Parents?

Just like in real life a characters parents will determine a lot about the character. Maybe the character was born in a small village to parents who owned a mill. Maybe the character was born to a noble family that was forced into exile. By answering this question a player will have the beginning of a character concept that is built on a solid base.

Where Were you Born?

Again, like in real life, where you were born has a huge impact on who you become as a person. If your character was born in a big city they will have a different set of skills and values than someone born on the frontier of a growing kingdom. If your struggling answering this question look a map of the world or the DM's campaign and pick a spot that looks interesting. Maybe your character was born on the edge of the dark wood or maybe they were born in the city of the wizard tyrant Hermicules. By having a place that your character more or less calls home you will be able to determine a lot about the person.

Who were your Friends?

Our friends shape us and we shape them. Maybe you had dozens of friends or maybe you didn't have any. When people look back on their lives they not only remember the event, but they remember the people they were with at the time and who weren't and this influences their view of the world. If your struggling here think back on some of your own friends (or people who were not your friends) and think of how they made you feel. Did the make you feel smart? Good looking? Funny? Ugly? Dumb? When you answer these questions think of how it has influenced you today. Now do the same thing for your character.

Have you had Any Romantic Relationships?
There is not a more confusing aspect to everyone's lives than love. Love is that thing that all of us never really understand but we spend a lot of our time trying to. When it comes to character background this is probably one of the most under used aspects of life. Don't be sacred to have a character that has had a couple of relationships in their past. Maybe they left home hoping to earn the respect of a potential spouses parents. Maybe the character lost their love to a rival and is now trying to get as far away from that pain as possible. Romantic relationships are something that can be a lot of fun to put in a background. Conversely lack of these kind of relationships can lead to an entirely different look on life.

What, if any, Traumas Have you Suffered?
Trauma and getting hurt is a part of life. You can't escape being hurt in the modern world and in a world roughly based of the middle ages, trauma was even more common. Perhaps your parents dies in a fire or your best friend drowned in the river or your entire village was slaughtered by orcs. Take a moment to think about the kinds of traumas your character might have suffered and how these have effected them through their life. Thinking of trauma is an uncomfortable experience so don't spend to much time here, just enough to give your character a bit of depth.

Who were your Mentors?

Mentors are those people who instilled some kind of value and knowledge on us. While parents do count as mentors, this question is aimed more at the other people in a characters life who took the time to teach them things. A player doesn't have to think of everyone who could count as a mentor, just one or two who helped shape who the character is. Maybe the militia captain trained the character how to use a sword, maybe the weird old guy at the end of the village taught a character about various herbs in the forest. The best way to do this is to decide who taught the character the skills their class required.

What do you Want Out of Life?

Everyone has at least some vague idea of what they want out of life and your character is no different. This is probably one of the harder questions to answer, but it doesn't have to be to detailed. Maybe your character wants to be rich some day or maybe your character wants to earn a noble title. By giving some thought to this question you give your character a goal to reach for that will influence the choices you make in your adventuring life. If, for example, your character is pursuing a noble title, they would be more likely to try and do favors for the nobility they encounter. You might not ever see your character reach their goal, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't have one.

What are you Afraid of?

Everyone has some kind of fear and we tend to go to great lengths to avoid confronting them. This is beyond the stuff like spiders or lightning, but instead is about concepts like failing or bringing dishonor to their parents. This is another one of those hard questions to answer, but answering it will tell you how your character is going to react when confronted by certain situations. A character who is afraid of failure may not take risks when they are unsure of the result. A character who doesn't want to dishonor their family might try to hide a crime they committed. Knowing what your character fears will help act as a guide when your role-playing in certain situations.

Why are you an Adventurer?
Very few people in the real world would choose to strap on a sword and go out into the world to face death on a nearly daily basis and a fantasy world is no different. While this may be true for a majority of the people in a fantasy world, this is not true of your character and there is a reason for it. Maybe your character is adventuring because they want to bring vengeance to the evil warlord who led the orcs that slaughtered the characters village. Maybe your character wants to earn renown so great that the parents of their love happily allow them to marry. You don't have to try to be overly original here either. A simple reason such as "I want to find a lot of gold" is just as good as any reason. It doesn't matter what the reason is, just that your character does have a reason.

The above ten questions are by no means all inclusive, but they will help get the ball rolling. Keep in mind you don't have to write a novel detailing every day of a characters life but instead are looking for broad strokes that begin painting a picture. Most likely your character is going to start out kind of young and with luck there is a lot of living for your character to do. While developing a character background is a little work, in the end it will make for a more rewarding play experience.

Do you have questions you like to answer for your characters? Are you a GM that uses a different method for creating backgrounds? Feel free to sound off in the comments below and let me know.


  1. And if you're a budding writer what better what to explore characters to write about, eh?

    1. exactly... even if your not a budding writer giving a character background adds value.