As a creative fiction writer, I’ve never had a problem coming up with unique and compelling backstories for my characters. I usually scribble down a page or three of backstory for each PC I create and for most of my major NPCs as well. When I get super invested in a character, the background can swell to many more pages than that. However, I’ve run into a quite a few players in the past that struggle with backgrounds. Conversations with them usually go something like this:
Me: What is your character?
Player: An elven ranger.
Me: What did your character do before she became a ranger?
Player: Trained to become a ranger.
Me: Okay… how about before that?
Player: She frolicked with the other elven children in the forests.
Me: Tell me about the other elven children. Is your character still in touch with any of them? How about your family?
Player: *blank look*
I fully realize not everyone is invested in crafting a character background to share with the GM or other players. That’s perfectly fine, but a well-crafted background can allow the GM to hook the player deeper into the story. It also allows the GM to see where the storyline they have planned can be adjusted to fit in pertinent details the player provides. When the plot stakes personally involve the character, the depth of interest the player has for the game increases. This leads to greater immersion for everyone at the table.
If a player is genuinely interested in crafting a background, but struggles with it, there are two approaches to assisting them.
Questions to Answer
The first approach is to interview the character (not the player), and ask probative questions about their past. These types of questions can be:
- What is your greatest fear?
- What is your greatest desire?
- Who kept you from accomplishing a goal in the past?
- Who helped you out the most in the past?
- Who owes you a favor? Why?
- Who do you owe a favor to? Why?
- What love interest(s) have you had in the past? Are they still involved in your life?
- What is your darkest secret?
… And so on. These are all probative questions that can assist the player in opening up and experiencing the character’s point of view before any time is spent at the game table.
Details to Choose From
If the interview process fails or locks up the player’s brain, then they probably need a more precise creative compass. An overly creative person still needs direction to guide them through the creation process. A creative compass actually provides limitations on where creativity can go. It can also give a spark of an idea to someone drawing a complete blank on how to describe their character’s past. I used to have a set of 50+ index cards with various character details on them, but they were lost in a move many moons ago. I’ll recreate some of my favorites here to give you an idea of what kind of prompts I used to give my players. I’d generally pull out three at a time, show them all three, and let them pick one. I’d repeat this process a few times until we had four or five quality details about the character’s past. This was generally enough to allow the player to fill in the middle parts and produce a decent background.
Where words are split by a slash (/), I allow the player to pick one of the options and continue on. I urge them not to overthink the ramifications of their choice. Where there is a blank, the player gets to fill in the blank. Some of the blanks have suggestions on how to fill it out.
- I saved my younger/older sister/brother from _____.
- My mom/dad died at the hands of Proper Name Here when I was a child/teenager.
- My favorite place to visit is_____.
- IÂ would love to be able to_____ before I die.
- My darkest secret is that I killed/maimed a friend/lover during an argument.
- My most prized possession is a bauble given to me by my favorite aunt/uncle.
- My Distant Family Member Here is a famous/infamous powerful mage living in the wilds.
- I have a scar on my Body Part Here from an encounter with a Insert Monster Here.
- The first time I saw real magic happen, I was scared/intrigued/amazed/disinterested.
- Insert Name Here stole _____ from my family, and I’d doÂ almost anything to get it back.
How do you guide your players through their background creation when they stumble along the way? I’d love to hear your ideas for assisting others with creating their backgrounds. For those of you that are interested, I have my own character workbook I use for my fiction writing. I don’t always fill it out to completion, but I will do enough of it to give me a solid idea of who and what my characters are. You can find the full workbook on my author web site under the Writing Tools section.
Your questions are fair but to me they read too obviously as adventure hooks. “Who do you owe a favor to? Why?” is like saying Insert Side Quest Here.
I prefer asking broader questions about motivations, connections with other people, and motivations for those connections. The key is in always asking “Why”. My top five discussion points are:
What motivated you to pursue this class/profession?
If that hadn’t worked out, what else would you be? And what might have thwarted you or changed your mind?
How are your relations with your family? Why?
Who are your friends? Why?
Who are you enemies? Why?
Let me stress that these are discussion points , not merely questions to be answered. I don’t let players get away with simply going down the list and filling in the blanks! I’ll challenge simplistic answers to make them more complex or nuanced, and I’ll tie in information about the campaign setting and ask them to incorporate it. The result is that both the player and I get a far richer idea of how the character fits into the game.
I agree that my (now lost) index cards easily led to adventure hooks. I did try to use the more broad and general questions and prompts, but some of my players just returned back with blank looks. This was more the power gamers than the role players. I usually have a fairly even mix of both in the group, so I finally settled on a system that can hit the lowest common denominators in my group. I also only do this with players that want a backstory, but struggle with coming up with one. If they flat don’t care about backstory, then I’m okay with that. I’m not going to shove it down someone’s throat and ruin their fun.
Thanks for the feedback and the ideas! I’ll certainly keep them in mind if I ever decide to reconstruct my deck of background prompts.
Your comment about power gamers versus role players is well taken. Some players really don’t care about backstory and can get irritated if forced to develop it. Though I’ve found that plenty of players who are accustomed to ignoring back story really get into it when it’s presented via dialogue as a set of challenges.
Must the background be set in stone at the start of play? I find the most memorable backgrounds to be slowly created while the player gets to know the character.