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Shady PC Backstories

Shadowy Hand

Not all characters start out the hero. Very few of them do, in fact. Most are farmers, street rats, servants, common soldiers, apprentices, and so on before the story gets its hooks into them and pushes them out of the proverbial nest. We all want our characters to become the heroes of the lands, but there may be baggage from the past that keeps the character from getting there as quickly as the player would like.

This is what I call a “shady backstory.” A shady backstory is some element of the character’s past that they would rather forget because it can (and probably will) tarnish the glowing glory they are trying to obtain. Some causes of the dark and troubled past are:

Some characters from popular media with a shady backstory are:

This isn’t to say that the shady background has to dominate the character’s life, but it should be a flavor of the storytelling that rises to the surface from time-to-time. Otherwise, the player’s carefully crafted background for their character may as well not exist. When the hook is planted, make use of it!

As a player adding such a facet to your character can really boost the enjoyment of playing the character. Roughly 3.2 million years ago, we fired up a new D&D 3.0 campaign with just a GM and two players. I was one of the players in this campaign. Since there were only two PCs in the game, the GM told us that we would start at third level. The other player and I shared a set of brain cells at that point. Almost in unison, we said, “We’re both first level rogues, but got adopted by a lawful good church.” We ended up making our first level rogues as planned. Then he took the next two levels as cleric. I took the next two levels as paladin.

We were still roguish in our ways and mannerisms and had to “dodge old friends from the streets” here and there, but we stayed true to our vows and our new way of life. The strange dichotomy of being a lawful good cleric/paladin team, but with the attitudes and outlooks of street rats as a background led to some incredibly fun role playing moments.

Have you ever created a PC (not an NPC) with a shady background? What was it? Tell me about your characters!

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Shady PC Backstories"

#1 Comment By griffon8 On December 2, 2020 @ 2:13 pm

One campaign where we started at 2nd level. I created a barbarian/monk. He’d been captured by an orc tribe (which had killed his family) before getting rescued by a paladin.

Unfortunately, that campaign didn’t last beyond 4th level. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

#2 Comment By J.T. Evans On December 2, 2020 @ 2:23 pm

Very interesting lineage there, griffon8. I’m assuming you went from barbarian to monk. I’m curious how a paladin led your character to monk-hood.

I understand about the 4th level stoppage. With my example above, we ended up getting to around 6th level (remember, we started at 3rd level) before the campaign was stopped by the GM.

#3 Comment By Blackjack On December 2, 2020 @ 2:37 pm

I’ve created a few PCs with shady backgrounds and also had shady PCs in my games as a GM. My experience has shown that it’s critical to work this out with fellow players and GM in a Session Zero. Things to be explicit about include:

1) HOW shady is this character’s backstory? You don’t have to be explicit about WHAT you did (at least for fellow players) if it’s a guarded secret but you do need to be upfront about how bad it was. The group’s got to know where you fall on the spectrum from “I ran three-card monte in the market bazaar” to “I stole a few cars/horses/shuttle craft” to “I’ve committed multiple serious felonies that entail life in prison or worse.”

2) Has your mindset CHANGED? It’s one thing if you were a pick-pocket at age 13 because you were orphaned and needed to money for food and shelter, and now that you’ve found a legit career you’d never go back to theft. It’s a very different thing if you’re “Once a thief, always a thief” and are still happy to steal to get whatever you want. The group’s got to know how well THEY can trust you to a) not commit crimes against them, and b) not to commit crimes against third parties that would jeopardize them or the story goals.

3) What are the CONSEQUENCES of your past likely to be, in this game? This ties back to the first item. If you were a small-time cheat there might be a few NPCs who remember you and have a (small) score to settle. Groups can handle that, and usually the GM can work in into the story with little disruption, too. OTOH if you committed major crimes and there’s a bounty on your head, wanted dead or alive, that’s a lot for the group and the story to have to work around. At that point there’s a strong chance your backstory would swamp everything else in the campaign, and the GM and other players would be within their rights to veto it.

#4 Comment By J.T. Evans On December 2, 2020 @ 3:08 pm

Blackjack,

Thanks for the comments! These are fantastic. I hope folks that read my article scroll down far enough to see your advice as well. These are invaluable bits of advice on shady backgrounds.

The HOW/CHANGED/CONSEQUENCES series of information is vital to properly building out a meaningful shady background.

I just listened to The Functional Nerds episode 471 ( [1]) where they talked briefly about a D&D alignment for The Punisher. It was enlightening and nuanced. The Punisher isn’t just out there killing people for killing’s sake. He has a purpose and will take any means necessary to fulfill that purpose. Of course, The Punisher isn’t so much shady in his background as he is all the way through to his present. Perhaps not the best example, but I could see a background that starts, “I used to be like The Punisher, but I killed the wrong person, and it’s made me change my outlook on life…..”

#5 Comment By Thomas Verreault/Jedion357 On February 14, 2021 @ 9:14 am

In Star Frontiers I twice played a defrocked Yazirian Priest banished by the Family of One religion and potentially hunted by its inquisitors who had turn to drink to try to forget- he was rather fond of Yazirian Blood brandy. Both games fell apart after a few session. Rather liked this character but that might have something to do with me being kicked out of seminary but that is another story.

#6 Comment By J.T. Evans On February 14, 2021 @ 8:06 pm

That’s a great start to a story (both your character’s story and your story). Sounds like it would have been loads of fun had the campaign lasted more than a few sessions.

#7 Comment By Jerry Weis On May 19, 2021 @ 2:53 pm

Backstories, in general, can really liven up a game. One thing we have to be careful of as GMs, is inadvertently overexploiting our PCs backstories to railroad them into doing things they might not otherwise do. Sure, it’s okay to occasionally dredge up some old backstory element to kick-start an adventure. But overdoing it can lead to players summing up their backstory as “My ranger woke up in an alley with a bump on his head and no recollection of who he is”.

That said, my favorite backstory was a half-orc barbarian who got his start when his tribe attacked some paladins. The half-orcs got their butts kicked, but the noble paladins made such an impact on my character that he decided that he, too would be a paladin. No, he didn’t take any levels in paladin. He just insisted to everyone he was a paladin. Even eschewed his axe for a great sword. Made for some hilarious situations, especially when he bumped up against some “real” paladins.

#8 Comment By J.T. Evans On May 19, 2021 @ 3:25 pm

I love the claim to be a paladin without actually being one. That’s a pretty cool angle that I’ve never seen before.

Thanks for the comment!

#9 Comment By Jerry Weis On May 19, 2021 @ 6:59 pm

Heh, heh… You might get a kick out of this; it’s a prime example of your “Heist” article. I “stole” the idea from a character in the movie “Seven Samurai” (Kikuchiyo).

#10 Comment By J.T. Evans On May 20, 2021 @ 1:21 pm

That’s awesome!