To write a backstory for a DnD character, you should avoid writing a detailed recount of their life and instead opt to describe a few key events or relationships.
This can improve the colloborative storytelling component of these games and provide you with enough character flkexibility to help you enjoy the game more consistently.
In this blog post I describe three methods you can use to write succinct DnD character backstories.
What is a character backstory in DnD?
A backstory in DnD and TTRPGs is the same as it is in any other media: a personal history of a character.
In DnD and other TTRPGS, a backstory serves a purpose to explain why a character is an adventurer or is involved with the campaign premise or question. It helps a character feel connected to the narrative and allows other players (the game master included) to spotlight or relate to your character.
The form these backstories take in DnD 5E are very different from what they normally have been in past DnD editions or other TTRPGs.
In the more traditional circles of play such as the OSR, players tend to view the early adventuring levels as the backstory for the character. This becomes evident when you consider the funnel in DCC RPG to have many ordinary folk forced into a dungeon only to perish, thus leaving behind the strongest or luckiest (usually the luckiest). Other TTRPGs have a focus and a culture around emergent narratives, i.e. discovering the story through play.
Compared to the modern take of backstories in DnD 5E, in which a player might write several pages about the entire life of a character or provide a very detailed synopsis of the key events in a character’s life, the traditional approach might seem lackluster or empty.
However, in my experience, the traditional approach for “writing” DnD character backstories works better for collaborative story telling and leads to better overall game experiences.
Why can detailed backstories cause problems in DnD?
Detailed backstories in DnD and other TTRPGs cause problems by reducing the opportunity for collaboration between players (including the game master).
Everyone involved in building the story require the following to do it effectively:
- A sense of ownership over the story so they feel they can inject new material or change old material (using the right question as a game master at the right time can increase this sense of ownership).
- Common ground and a shared vision so players can inject relevant material (This is why I suggest using the inverted pyramid to frame your scenes).
- Space in their brains free from world lore and unnecessary information so they have the energy to play.
A detailed backstory that you might see in some modern players of DnD directly opposes a sense of ownership for other players and imposes a cognitive load on them as well.
Though it may provide some detailed common ground or a shared vision, this benefit relies on two things:
- The other players and the game master to actually read the detailed backstory (which we all know will not happen).
- There is nothing else more interesting and relevant occurring in the game so players feel like they can have all of the information from the backstory they read ready in their short-term memory. This undermines the game itself or indicates a pretty boring game.
Additionally, most people I play with typically have no idea how the character they have envisioned will transform once it comes into contact with the rest of the party. Alternatively, you might find that you do not enjoy the initial character concept written into your backstory. In these cases, you may feel stuck or at odds with the backstory which renders it a prison, or you ignore it rendering it pointless.
So when it comes time to write a backstory, don’t write a detailed one. Instead, use one of these three methods to write a DnD character backstory.
3 Methods for Writing a Backstory for a DnD Character
These three methods are designed to help you write a backstory for a DnD character which aims to provide just enough detail for players to care about your character, connect them to the narrative, and provide opportunities to collaborate whilst remaining flexible to adapt and grow over time.
Three Key Events
The three key event method is something I have seen fellow game masters use in their own campaigns and in the Mothership adventure module, The Dead Planet.
The method involves briefly stating or describing three events have occurred in your character’s past:
- A recent event.
- An event that occurred a little while ago.
- An event that occurred a long time ago.
These events should include some locations, factions, and NPCs. These can be named or remain nameless and filled in as the narrative grows and changes.
For example, Scot Scott the many-tentacled alien on a space pirate crew is on a mission to deliver the pirate crew into the clutches of the federation’s space navy:
- Recently, Scot was paid a large sum of money to betray their pirate crew by an high-ranking navy official.
- A little while ago, Scot was released from a government prison by their fellow pirates.
- A long time ago Scot was once a human working on an agricultural planet.
Drive, Bond, and Flaw
This is taken directly from DnD. The method involves briefly stating or describing the following elements of a character:
- Drive – the reason the character keeps adventuring or fighting.
- Bond – a location, person, or object the character feels a deep connection to.
- Flaw – a quality of the character that frequently gets them into trouble.
This method allows the other players to directly leverage these elements and demand action from the character. Such as escalating a scene because of the flaw or threatening the bond to spur the character into rash action.
For example, our dear friend Scot Scott might have the following elements:
- Drive – To return to home and be accepted by my old family.
- Bond – The vast wealth I am amassing.
- Flaw – Self-centered.
Character Concept and Relationships
This method involves filling in the blanks for a sentence, like in numenera, and briefly describing how the character relates to each other player character.
The sentence is structured as: “I am a DESCRIPTOR TYPE who FOCUS.”
- The descriptor is any adjective such as graceful, aggressive, or selfish which might describe their personality, demeanour, or some other quality.
- The type is like a class in DnD or some kind of archetype in the setting such as warrior, technowizard, or doctor that alludes to their skill-set.
- The focus is a brief statement of specialisation such as “lures marks in with sultry dances” or “fights with a sword and hand-axe” that describes how they tend to deal with conflict or how they solve problems.
Additionally, you will write a brief, one-sentence description for each other player character. This description should include how you feel about the character and why, often alluding to some kind of event.
For example, the player of Scot Scott is playing with two other players and a game master in their space-faring campaign.
- The sentence: Scot Scott is a selfish pilot who focuses on infiltrating enemy ranks.
- Player Character 1: Scot Scott likes Mizbizzy because she was the person fought to free them from prison.
- Player Character 2: Scot Scott does not trust Bomburwook Bindwizzle because he has been asking a lot about Scot’s past and fortune.
This method allows you to have a a brief concept of your character that is flexible enough to adapt to the initial exposure to the party and allow growth through play whilst connecting the character intrinsically to the other player characters. This method can work well by having the player also describe a relationship with a non-player character too.
If you use any of these methods or have a entirely different method, please comment it below. Additionally, you may find it helpful to apply these methods to create NPCs for your TTRPG campaigns or adventures.
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