There is a certain joy that most Game Masters feel when a player develops an aspect of their backstory. Some players show up with fully developed characters, which can be helpful and problematic in equal parts. But for the players who show up with blank slates of characters, ripe for refinement, developing their backstory can be a profound challenge.
Especially for newer players, developing an appropriate backstory can be challenging. How much detail is the right amount? What elements am I allowed to create? I’ve given the matter some thought and synthesized my conclusions.
Players that show up with a life story are appreciated for their effort, but the truth is that all good characters evolve and unfold via play. Your favorite characters in all your favorite TV shows weren’t fully realized in episode one, and your character won’t be either. Even if you know a hundred stories from your past, you won’t be able to use most of that information meaningfully at the table – after all, no one wants to hear you describe your coming-of-age arc at detail. Not during session one.
Rather, I would recommend having one concrete attachment to the world, and a few improv seeds. Let’s say your character is Malkian, a bladedancer from a fishing village. An appropriate level of backstory, in my eyes, is
- Malkian’s sister was kidnapped by pirates a year ago, forcing him to leave town.
- Malkian is a great gambler.
- Malkian only learned to use a sword recently.
- Malkian got into fights as a kid.
These details are actually enough. The point of backstory, after all, isn’t to self-indulegently write a novel. You can do that just fine without including the rest of the table. But your backstory should inform the person that your character is today, and you can do that “forwards” (by developing a story, the determining what your character would be after those experiences) or “backwards” (by developing a character, then explaining your traits retroactively).
So in session 1, Malkian visits a bar. Obviously, he’s going to gamble. If he starts losing, things might get ugly, and the blades come out, but Malkian doesn’t fight well – he fights fiercely. And all during the session, I can use this 1 attachment, and 3 improv seeds, to inform what I say.
“We have to go help him,” (Malkian believes in helping the defenseless, because of his sister)
“I’ve taken money from wiser men than you, pegboy.” (Malkian gambles and gets into fights)
“Oh these swords? Won them from a drunk trader six months back, a thousand miles north of here.” (Malkian is a gambler and recently learned to fight while traveling)
You can see Malkian coming together in a way that not only makes sense, but also builds from his existing improv seeds and connection. I can establish easily that Malkian is far from home, gambles well, and is willing to butt heads to get what he wants, then use those traits to develop a plausible history for him.
Given Malkian’s current form, what was his youth like? It’s easy to imagine scenarios of him scamming or brawling with other children, raised in an idyllic peace. But these advances in his story happen at the table, and they happen organically. The rest of the table learns Malkian’s behaviors, and from them his past, as I’m developing them. Building a backstory in this way – essentially backwards – grounds your character in the fiction of the world.
The elephant in the room, of course, is my kidnapped sister. It’s why I left home, but it doesn’t have to be my entire life. If the first few sessions involve finding a witch in a dark cave, I can justify my participation in several plausible ways – I don’t want the witch to hurt the defenseless, like my sister was hurt. I want the treasure that the witch likely holds. I want to search her books for information about the pirates that took my sister. I want to gain her power to help me find them. If I showed up with a developed connection – my missing sister – and refused to partake in any adventure not directly related to her rescue, I’d be warping the game around myself, which is poor etiquette and selfish play.
She does provide my Game Master with a seed, and if they choose, that seed can grow. As I develop Malkian, I include my sister in some of my stories, and she develops a personality as well. If my Game Master chooses, they can easily make this connection an element of the story – the witch received her cursed magic from the same pirate vessel. The pirates learn of my fortune and ransom my sister. Etc. These arcs are not for me to decide – they fall squarely into the purview of the Game Master. But by forming that one connection, planting the seed, and giving it time to grow, I’m enabling the Game Master to tie Malkian’s past into the story.
On a second note, authorial authority (which is perfectly sensible but completely unreadable). What details am I allowed to create? I’ll give some examples:
I can say Malkian is from a fishing village named Lizardlick.
I can say Malkian has a sister.
I can say that pirates kidnapped her.
I can say that Malkian has travelled broadly.
I CAN’T say that Malkian is the son of a distant king.
I CAN’T say that Malkian’s sister was the vessel of a god’s rebirth.
I CAN’T say that the pirate captain is about to steal the throne.
I CAN’T say that I’ve gained a fortune in my travels.
What’s the difference? Well written out like this, it is pretty obvious, but here’s the general rule: You’re only allowed to create details that don’t impede the agency of others or exceed your character’s abilities.
*Before I continue, as a clarifying point – if you work with the Game Master, you can create any mutually agreed details. Here, I’m discussing details you invent prior to (or during) the game, without any Game Master input. Building a backstory in reverse requires some improvisations on the fly, and you may have to sneak a little narrative control away from your Game Master to do so. Don’t worry though; if you stay small, only the most miserly of Game Masters will complain. If you’re explaining how you used to hand-fish trout from a river near your village, you don’t typically get permission first.*
The only things I can invent for my backstory are plausible details – details that are sensibly consistent with what my character can actually do – and things that couldn’t reasonably step on anyone’s toes (including the GM!). To that end, no creating characters who have completed great acts already (I’m a commander in the military) no creating characters of noble blood (I’m actually in charge of the party, legally speaking) and no creating characters with backstories that are thinly veiled requests for money (I’m actually a merchant lord, with connections around the world).
Malkian can’t win a war by himself, he can’t be a master assassin, and he can’t be filthy rich. He’s a level 1 bladedancer. The rules that govern him show pretty clearly that he’s not a master swordsman, and I had to skip buying armor to get two swords. Inventing elements of my story that contradict the truths expressed by the character creation rules is just dumb, and a transparent attempt to grasp power’s beyond my reach.
That isn’t to say that there can’t be power or money in your backstory – just not power or money that is accessible to you now! If you had a huge fortune but lost it to a local duke, that’s a motivating force. If you had a ship but it sunk, leaving you penniless, that paints quite a picture. If you were a commander – forty years ago – then your aged muscles might take a few levels to return.
The second tenet is to not invent details which step on the toes of other players. Don’t impede the agency of the table. If your Game Master explains that you’ll start the game in Lizardlick, it is not reasonable or appropriate to say “Oh, I own a mansion in Lizardlick. I’ll get my houseguards to join us” (without forethought and permission, as always). Similarly, if a player says “My mother lives here” you should not then respond with “She did, until I killed her!” Your fun is cutting into the fun that others can have in the situation.
If you follow these two standards, your backstory should be an organic, interesting, and non-intrusive addition to the table. And best of all, you can do it all during the game.