As a DM I often find that I get one of two extremes when I ask my players for their character’s background story. More often than not I will get either a few curt words about who the character is and where they came from, or I will get a long, detailed story about the character’s life and exploits to the start of the campaign.
Unfortunately, neither of those is particularly useful for me as a DM. I’ve learned to be specific about the kinds of background details I’m looking for in particular and have found that now I get results that not only can I use, but leave my creative players feeling less frustrated about their hard work going to waste and my less creative players feeling less lost when they write their backgrounds.
When a DM asks for your background, what that usually means is that they are looking for story hooks and potential NPCs to include in their campaign to make your characters feel more involved and the world feel more organic—to make it feel like your characters are a part of the setting, not just visitors. The idea is not to go into great detail about everything that happened to your character before they began adventuring, but to answer specific questions. What your character has done is less useful to the DM than information on who they are.
Many games offer suggestions on what kinds of questions are important or useful to ask for developing your character concept. Some of these questions—who is your character? Why is he adventuring? What is his favorite thing in the world? What is he afraid of? What does he want more than anything else, even enough to betray a friendship?—are very useful for determining your character’s personality and how you will play him, but only slightly useful for the DM in making your character part of the campaign.
More useful by far are questions that deal with who and what your character is connected to. Most valuable possessions, childhood friends, family members, estranged or otherwise, mentors, old enemies, or even places that your character is connected to can all be useful for a DM who is looking for a plot hook. It’s much more exciting to be sent on a quest for the mystical artifact that can cure any wounds if it’s to save your closest childhood friend than if it were merely for some NPC to whom you have very little connection, or to track down the villain who stole the tome of arcane rituals when it’s a nemesis from your past rather than some faceless thief. Even though there is very little practical difference between the two in terms of the ultimate path of the adventure, it can elevate your character’s connection to the game and heighten your own enjoyment.
Too much detail should be avoided, though. It can be difficult to incorporate an NPC who has been well developed, with strong mannerisms and speech patterns—you may find yourself saying “no, that character wouldn’t talk like that” or “No no, he has blue eyes, not green!” or otherwise take issue with the DM’s portrayal of a character that you have developed heavily. It’s much easier to work with a character for the DM if they don’t have to fight a preconceived notion of who the character should be. At the same time, too little detail is also occasionally problematic, since that can lead to situations where the DM incorporates a character from your backstory and you’re left wondering “who is this guy and why am I supposed to recognize him?”
One final thought—as always, remember that there are other players when writing your background. Sometimes the DM will focus on someone else’s story for awhile, and it’s important to go along with that when it happens, even if only because you would expect the same when it’s your turn in the spotlight. On the other hand, you can use the other players as a resource when writing your backgrounds, as well. Several of the most interesting characters I have ever played have been created after talking to another player about shared background elements and working out ways in which we knew each other before the game began and mutual story hooks that would work. Sometimes this can backfire, if you present the DM with characters who have a backstory that threatens to dominate the group or the campaign as a whole, but it can also be extremely rewarding, for DM and players alike, if it is something that can be worked into the plot.
Of course, a certain amount of “what’s your background?” is intended to encourage the PLAYER to know who and what the character is, so that roleplaying can ensue. That requires a completely different kind of background information — but maybe the player can just keep that inside his or her own head.
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