Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Writing Your Backstory

Today I want to take a break from all the GM advice to go back to the player's side of the GM screen. Now, I don't know about your playgroup, but several people in mine regularly say that they have problems with writing character backstories. For some of them, they just don't know the character well enough. For others, they don't want to get stuck on a point and not be able to change it later. I want to talk about that today, and some ways you can use your backstory to help your GM give you a great game experience.

Who You Are, Where You're From
This is the core of what a backstory is. Whatever else it is, it should give the GM, and anyone else who reads it, some idea of who your character is. Basically, it works as a long version of your concept. Maybe your concept is "Holy Avenger Gone Rogue," and that is cool. Your backstory then gives you a chance to stretch that out, tell us why you went rogue, and what "going rogue" actually means to you in this regard. Because of this, you do not have to approach this aspect of your backstory as a narrative. If you are having problems, try listing out the important details in bullet points. A list of:

  • Trevor Raynarch was born 20 years ago to a farmer in the country.
  • Recruited at age 11 to squire for Sir Byron Templar
  • Knighted Sir Trevor at age 20
  • Served with distinction in the Battle of Byron's Folly
Can work just as well, and get the same points across as trying to string that as a narrative. So don't feel confined to one way of presenting the facts. In fact...

Be Creative
One of my favorite ways to write a character backstory is to write it like it was a file on the character that someone could be handed in game. If my character has a military background, it will be their military record - and psych evaluations. If they have a criminal history, it could be their police file. Point is, that I am using an In Character prop to present the backstory. This gives me a lot of freedom because the information doesn't have to be complete - or even correct - in a lot of cases. It also gives you something to hand out to any player who gets to read your file, which just makes for a much cooler transition then "my file tells you blah, blah, and blah."

Other fun ways to handle back stories are letters of recommendation from a superior, vignettes about the characters life, letters back home, or a personal journal. All of these give you a perspective of who the character is without falling into the standard muddy hole of defining the character. Some of these (letters home, and letter of recommendation) also give the GM an NPC that they can use to hook you into things.

Provide Hooks
Woohoo, two great natural lead ins in a row. Anyhow, any experienced GM or player will recommend this. You want to leave hooks in your backstory. Questions to be answered, relationships to be used, and NPCs to resurface. These give the GM tools to make the plots and goings-on in game to have a personal impact for your character which in turn gives you a great reason to be going along. Sure, everyone wants to stop the Evil Magus Dyvulg from ending the world and killing all the elves, but doesn't it mean more to you when Dyvulg burned down your village and brainwashed your mother into being his bodyguard/assassin?

Your hooks don't have to be as big, or tied in to the main plot, as those are, but you still want some. If nothing else, they give the GM ideas for stories you want to involve yourself in. For example, I have a character concept for L5R I want to play some day. It is a duelist with Sworn Enemy and True Love for the same person (namely: their twin sibling that is technically the older sibling.) This is a story that is destined to end in tragedy, but by laying this out in the backstory and providing the hooks I can tell the GM that I want this relationship to be a big part of my character. Now, maybe the GM doesn't tackle it, but they know about it and have the chance to try it. That isn't the case if you don't give the hooks there.

Leave Yourself Room To Grow
Just as important as what you define and establish for yourself in a backstory can be what you don't. Some of the best development a character can have comes when during the game you run up against something that you think could be related to your character's backstory. The example I've seen that used this the best was the player of a private eye realizing that his character had had a daughter that died very young somewhere in his history. It wasn't something the player had thought up at creation, but after several sessions of play it was just apparent and obvious that something was there. The player was then able to add this extra layer of depth and emotion to their character, all because they had left themselves room to grow.

A Page Is Usually Plenty
I've seen people with 10+ page backstories, and I've often wondered just what they have in there. I've never been presented one as a GM, not even when I was running a 150+ player online game. The thing is, unless you are going nuts with defining almost everything around your character, you can usually do all the heavy lifting work for your character in a page or less. Sure, maybe some information will bring you to more than that - and that is fine - but there's no need to stress out if all you have are a couple of paragraphs and a smiley face doodle.

The less you define, the more blank canvas both you and the GM have to work with on who your character actually is. So use your backstory to move all the big, heavy, and important pieces into place. Everything else is just sand to fill in the gaps.

Other Advice
We've got a slew of great GMs who read this blog. So, what advice would you give to someone with issues writing a character backstory? Sound off in the comments.


  1. I will say, the best write ups I get to read are the ones done in character, or at least exist in the game world. As you mentioned above, psych files and the like are great, but none has so far beaten a guy who used an actual book that existed in the universe, with a some handwritten verse (by the character) just after the title page, and other sections highlighted that drew attention to who the character was.

    Nothing like where he was born, etc, just about what kind of person you would expect him to be when looking at what he likes.

  2. I plan on handing out character sheets in file folders, like police records, for my upcoming game. Characters are all thieves/grifters, so I thought that would be a fun way to create atmosphere. I'll encourage them to add in any arrest records or dossier entries that they want the character to have.

    In addition, I've encouraged my players to search for actor pictures to represent their characters. That gives a great description of what the character looks like in a nutshell, especially if the picture is taken from a movie role. I can't take credit for this idea; I was in a Buffy game where the GM used this technique for all his NPCs and had the players do the same for the characters.

  3. That sounds like an awesome way to do a game with a bunch of thieves and grifters. If I ever get to run a Leverage Campaign (may be easier since folks seem to like Marvel right now) I may have to steal that and do it.

    Using pictures of famous people can be great to do too. Though, sometimes everyone wants to be Tom Hanks...kids still like Tom Hanks right?

  4. George Clooney and those fellows from Supernatural seem to be the most popular picks now. :) In case you're interested in taking a look, here's a link to my Leverage campaign on Obsidian Portal: http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaigns/leveraged-assets

  5. I haven't gotten to GM as much as I would like, but I have written a few backgrounds. I like to to come up with a major pivotal event and then imagine the character if she/he had or had not experienced the event. Then I try to warp the "normal" life to fit in with the character's "reality".