Critical Insight: Backstory

Hail! And well met! And other medievally type things I’m supposed to greet you with.

I’m Jill, and I’m a Role Player. And I’m here to help.

Before we begin, let me tell you about my first, official, time role playing:

I was in the 4th grade, when my brother, in the sixth grade, came home from the mall with a bag from Walden Books (or so it was at the time). Inside that bag was a book, some dice, some pewter figures, and a cd (actually, I think he still has the cd). We listed to the CD, which archived the adventures of a theif… and some other guys… who were being played by just regular everyday people. After listening to the CD, my brother, my mom, and myself tried this thing called “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” (2nd edition) out. My mom, the cleric, died right out. I multiclassed as a bard and a wizard (I think). In the center of the dungeon there was a unicorn (one of the pewter figures), and since I was in my unicorn phase, and my character had “grooming” as a skill, I thought to groom the unicorn and be BFFs with it. My brother, the dungeon master, had other ideas, and decided that all the goblins ever in the world would come and attack me. I died, but not before reaching the unicorn!

I borrowed that CD for a long time, listening to the story, putting myself in place of the characters, and wanting nothing more than to do this over and over again.

Fast forward to highschool, when 6 angsty teenagers bonded over a game of “Vampire: the Masquerade” (also 2nd edition) for about 2 years when I went to college, and found a group of people who LARPed. This was 2002 when “Lightning Bolt” hadn’t been seen yet (least ways by me), and LARPing was unknown to me.

And now I’m here, writing this column for you. There are some spaces in there, full of trying new systems, and enjoying old systems.

So, there’s my backstory. Now let’s talk about yours:

The reason backstory is important: Is gives you a general sense for your character. If you’re palying in a long campaign you want to evolve too, and putting too much info in the backstory prevents that.

First thing to address here is that every gaming system is different as far as backstory goes (for example, Don’t Rest Your Head demands a precise backstory, whereas games like D&D are light on specifics).

But now, the most important thing to address about making a backstory is that you need to consult your GM about this. Every GM will have a different demand about the type of backstory they want for your character. Some GMs don’t care about your backstory too much, especially if they’re running a dungeon crawl; others may want you to be as specific as Don’t Rest Your Head. This guide, which is in no wy a strict set of rules, should send you on the way to making a good backstory.

Jill’s Guide to Making a Backstory

Consider your skill set. Are you smart, are you strong. Do you have good social skills? One thing you have to remember is that your skill set if your character’s ability present day, and their backstory should make sense with their current skills.

Character: Player:
Classes: Druid Level:
Race: Alignment:
Strength: Fortitude: +
Dexterity: Reflex: +
Constitution: Will: +
Intelligence: Initiative: +

climb 1 + 1 = 2
handle animal 5 + -2 = 3
heal 2 + 2 = 4
hide 2 + 1 = 3
jump 1 + 1 = 2
knowlege nature 3 + 3 = 6
move silently 2 + 1 = 3
ride 5 + 1 = 6
survival 3 + 2 = 5
swim 2 + 1 = 3
tumble 2 + 1 = 3


animal affinity
armor proficiency light
armor proficiency medium
lightning reflexes
shield proficiency
Animal companion
nature sense, wild empathy



Good Backstory: Addison has lived her whole life in the wilderness, with loyalty only to nature, and Ehlonna. She lets life take her where it will, beliving that all things happen for a reason, and that you can’t fight nature. In her travels she’s met a wide range of people, though spent much time among various elves. Sometimes she’ll travel with some groups, going into different cities, though she is much out of her element and lacks any social graces.  She lost her family some time ago, but whether they’re dead or not is anybody’s guess. She leaves that up to Ehlonna to sort out.

Why this is good: Basic though it is, the lack of specificty which is helpful when Role Playing. Coming in with too many things already set up for your character limits your ability to discover the character as you go, and limits the GM with what they can do for your character.

This backstory sets up a few things for the character: How they are likely to react in a given situation: Addison’s attitude matches her True Neutral alignment in that she is neither good nor bad, neither lawful, nor evil.. she goes with the flow. Her background, basically being all Grizzly Adams, also lends itself to this attitude: she doesn’t know much about city life, or politics, or any of that – the laws of nature are all that matters. She has come across Elves, more than once, and keeps their company sometime – so there is a reason she might find herself in a city or town, a reason she might find herself at an inn before an adventure begins, or why she would have some types of supples. It also sets up something the Game Master can use at a later date: her family is missing, and their discovery, or the discovery of their deaths, could be used as plot point later in the campaign.

It doesn’t give much else, so both the player, and GM, have room to create.

Bad Backstory: Addison was orphaned at the age of 7 and barely remembers her parents. She was born to gypsies and when they died she was left in the wilderness on her own. It was fortunate for her that a band of elves that had been travelling found her when they did to take care of her. She seemed to have a natural affinity towards animals and they fostered this until,a t the age of 15, she became a full fledged druid. She went off on her own to train in the wild and came back to find her home had been sttacked, her adopted family dead. Using her skills as a druid she found out that it was necromancers who slaughtered them. Now she is seeking out those responsible for their death, and pondering her adopted father’s last words: “They’ve been after you since you were a child.”

Why this is Bad: Too much angst, and too much of an attempt to be the center of attention. Too many things are set in stone – these people are dead, she hates necromancers, she was born to be a druid, bla bla bla… There’s nothing here that suggests she shold be True Neutral, or neutral at all. Chaotic, yes.  And there’s no reason she do anything but search for the killers.
All in all, I’ll admit this isn’t the best example of a bad backstory, I’ve been out of practice for writing my horribly long-winded super-specific backstories, all of which I’ve destroyed. One was so specific, by choice, that I made her half French and half Italian.
At least, in my experience. Of those 15 years, about 10 of them were spent being bad at this.
PS: I remember the theif from AD&D 2nd Edition Advanced CD because there was a scene where the characers came to a large pit, and the theif, in order to see how far down the pit went, threw their torch in. Well, there was water in the bottom of the pit. Good job theif!
Character Generator found here, but it’s 3.5
Posted on June 5, 2010 at 21:34 by Jillian Pullara · Permalink
In: Columns · Tagged with: , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Alan Scott
    on 2010-06-06 at 09:24

    The best backstories provide a solid starting point for the GM and player to build on–To vague, and there's no place to start building, to specific, and there's no room to build more. I'd say that the first backstory provided isn't specific enough–It doesn't provide any good story hooks the GM can use to incorporate it into his campaign.

    The second one is certainly a bit over-the-top in terms of theme and tone, but has just about the right amount of information. If I, as a GM, am handed this backstory, I know exactly what elements to add to my campaign to incorporate that character's history, and have a few ideas about how to add them in ways that may even surprise the player.

    My advice is to include the “what”, be vague on the “who”, and never mention the “why”. The best peice of backstory I ever got from a player went something like this:

    “I am the last scion of a wealthy family. The family has a sacred trust: in the basement of our mansion is a monster that nobody has ever seen, a monster we are sworn to guard and to care for. Recently, that monster was stolen from me, and I'm searching for its captors.”

    The whats are clear (monster in the basement kidnapped), the whos are vague (what sort of monster it was, who the thieves were), and the whys were unknown (why his family is guarding a monster, why it was stolen). It's taken a long time to fill in the blanks, and the final pieces are falling into place only now as the campaign draws to an end. As it was, the backstory allowed me to root the character into the campaign world, provided inspiration for individual adventures, and (along with other story hooks provided by the rest of the players) helped shape the overall campaign plot.

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