The 3 Rules of Character Backgrounds
When starting out with a character, the first thought you might have is, “Who is this character?” And that question is a massive part of why we play roleplaying games. It’s to play someone other than ourselves, to step into their shoes and approach their world in their own unique way. But most of us have only a vague idea of what we need to know. I’ve seen players who have no background and make it up on the fly, and players who write out pages and pages of history. Neither is right nor wrong, but eventually it all boils down to 3 basic rules.
Rule #1: Know Your Motivations
You have a history. It informs the decisions you make every day. Whether you realize it or not, decisions you make throughout your life are based on things that have happened to you in the past.
Why does this matter for your character? They work the same way as you do. Their upbringing as a child, positive or negative, may inform their reaction to a capricious nobleman. Or, their upbringing on the edge of a civilization may make them curious and daring. Do you need to know every event in your character’s life to know how they’ll react to a situation? No. But if you know this history, you can play your character better and they can grow with you throughout the game.
Rule #2: Great Minds Think Alike
Be open to changes. It’s a rule that works in life, and it works in games too. One of the most important aspects of roleplaying is that it is a group effort, and this can be a strength for making a character as well. Why limit yourself to your own imagination? When working with others to form a gaming group, it often is the case that each individual makes a character, and then the group comes together with little to no prior thought as to how they came to be a group in the fiction of the game.
This isn’t always the case, and there is nothing wrong with that approach, but making characters together means creating a group, not grouping separate characters. What if your cleric was not just a passing friend of your fighter, but they were siblings? What if your barbarian was the adoptive father of the rogue? Or the other way around? Or maybe two of your characters were war-time friends, or one stole something from the other and now owes a great debt?
All of this leads to the idea that a character doesn’t have to just be the invention of one person: it can be a great group exercise that leads to interesting roleplaying and a more enjoyable experience.
Rule #3: There Are No Rules
Of course, some of you probably saw this last point coming. Rules shouldn’t govern how you make a backstory, but they can help you get a good start. If there is anything that you should take away from this article, it’s that characters shouldn’t be limited by what you’re used to seeing or what one person sees. Let them be as boundless as you are, and never stop striving to be better.
Nate(also known as @GuessWhatTimeItIs on TUMBLR) is a full-time student, and a part-time DM with a passion for creating new ideas and getting his PCs into trouble. His current rpg obsession is Dungeon World, but Dark Heresy is his specialty. While he prefers to run the dungeon, he isn’t against fighting it out in dark with torch in hand. When he isn’t tearing his hair out over a map layout or errant plot point, he can be found playing video games, spending time with his family, and enjoying life in the frozen north.