BUILDING CHARACTER - A BACKSTORY GUIDE
Written by: Misty Moon Illustrations
Player tips for fleshing out your character creation! Advice and even a prompt list to get into the depths of who your character is.
Do you ever find yourself struggling to think of a good backstory for your character? Maybe you have a good motivation, but want some deeper threads? Perhaps it’s your first character, and have no idea where to begin. Or it could be your 30th character, and you want something different. Here are some basic prompts to get you delving deep into your character:
Word Map Time!
Grab a pen and write your character's name slap bang in the middle. Then just like in school write words, phrases, draw pictures or anything else you can think of about your character. Do you have an end goal in sight? Do you have certain core moments that need to get hit for your character? Or is it free and easy?
Chat with your DM
The person who knows your character best is you. The person that knows your character second best should be your DM. Speaking as a player, I love having a deep backstory for my character - but I also love giving my DM something that they can run with that is secret from me - bringing mystery and surprise to the game! On the other hand, speaking as a DM, I love dropping some plot twists for each of my players in turn when it's time in the campaign, using threads from their backstory that I can intertwine into the world. Talk to your DM about something that your character does not know; it could be their family history or parentage, they could be searching for a lost friend or relative, or they could be on a mission that they only know the first part of. Thinking about things they might not know as well as what they do opens up more options!
Importantly - the remaining parts are secret! A supportive DM will work with the things you give them and work to get them blended into the campaign. Word of Warning - be careful about giving a DM an NPC that you care about, as I sadly had to sacrifice my animal companion in my first campaign in order to kill the evil Demi-God to save the world. I still think about Geoffrey the Owl to this day - RIP Geoffrey.
Take a Chance, Roll the Dice
Sometimes if you’re really struggling with decision paralysis or even a blank slate - let the dice decide. There are several random tables around the internet and in several D&D sourcebooks that can help expand your characters. A lot of the character creation tables even in the Players Handbook for Dungeons and Dragons can give you starting points to build from!
One of my favourite tables is from The Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount - and the Fateful Moments table. It’s a D20 roll and can give you a pivotal moment in your character’s backstory, from the classic sole survivor of your town to being visited by a demon lord in your dreams and being accused of a crime you didn’t commit.
Taking one of these as a base can help spread your ideas and potential story threads far and wide! (And looping back into Point 2 - you can work with your DM to how much you and your character will know.)
Take some personality tests
In the current campaign I play in, our DM wrote a quiz and asked us all to take it as our characters. It was more an intuitive quiz than a knowledge pub quiz kinda quiz, and had questions such as:
What is an item they have had since childhood?
A secret they have not told anyone else?
Pick something that reflects your character's personality - drink, song, mineral, film and more
They worked with our answers and created a special homebrew magical item for each of us that incorporates some of our answers.
As a DM I love reading about characters and their backstory, and I’m sure there are plenty of DM’s out there who also love getting to know the characters they will be guiding through this world and campaign.
I have “The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide” by James D’Amato which I regularly dip into both as a player and as a DM. This book is chock full of tests, questions and more to help you really flesh out your character's backstory.
The Fellowship of Atlantis’s Bizarre Journey to 20,000 Leagues to Infinity & Beyond
What I’m trying to say with that not-so-great mash-up of films and books is that if you’re struggling to come up with something, then take homage from one of your favourite films or books! The world is full of incredible stories out there, and if there is something you enjoy, then incorporate that into your backstory. They could have a bet to travel across the content like Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days. They could have stumbled across a Pirate adventure like in Treasure Island. They could be out for revenge for a murder like Batman, The Bride from Kill Bill, Carrie, John Wick, Maximus Decimus Meridius from Gladiator…turns out there are a lot of pop culture characters out there who are out for revenge! There are even some systems that are designed for you to take characters from existing media and play them, like the horror RPG Shiver that encourages you to play through your favourite shows, films or books.
Imitation is the highest form of flattery
For my characters, I take a little bit of inspiration from different characters to help flesh them out. It can be a little as the way they look, the way they talk or even just their general attitude. Marnie, my Earth Genasi Drunken Master Monk is a combination of Jessica Jones (Marvel), Princess Tiabeanie (Disenchantment) & Charlie Kelly (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Rowan, my Half-Elf Nature Cleric/Druid is a combination of Ophilia (Octopath Traveller), Princess Anna (Frozen) & Keyleth (Critical Role). So when you're stuck for inspiration, think of some of your favourite characters from pop culture and select some of the good/bad bits of their personalities and add them to your character!
Just answer honestly
And finally, why don’t you think about some of our hints and answer some questions below!
It is tough to separate your answers and your character's answers, so just answer as intuitively as you can without just answering as yourself!
What is their family unit?
Are they well loved/estranged/unknown?
Where are they from?
A small village/town or city/metropolis?
Is there a trade or job that is prevalent in that place?
What are their personal effects?
Any jewellery/trinkets/tokens that are of sentimental feelings?
Any weapons that have a name or special meaning?
What clothing do they wear - warm/cold weather attire, luxurious/functional, brightly coloured/subtle and dark?
Why are they adventuring?
To see to world/running from their past/on a mission from a deity or patron?
What is their idea of treasure?
Gold and jewellery/family or friends/fame and glory?
What element do they feel they have an affinity with?
What is their second favourite colour?
What is their drink of choice?
What song best describes your character?
This or that:
Would they push open the door aggressively or would they check meticulously for traps?
Would they keep the loot or share it with the poor villagers nearby?
Would they let someone go first into the cavern or would they boldly lead the way?
Would they accept the dinner invitation to the vampires' residence or would they stab them in the face the minute they stepped foot out of the carriage?
Would they kill every monster they come across or realise that some are maybe just protecting their territory and try and find an alternative to killing?
Would they admit they broke the expensive and rare heirloom or sweep it under the carpet and pretend they don’t know?
Would they accept the title of Protectors of the Realm or would they rise and rebel against the monarchy?
We hope that this has given you some inspiration and tips to really help flesh out your characters for not just D&D but other TTRPGs too!
And to the DM’s & GM’s - we hope some of this has helped inspire you and given you some ideas to help your players with their character backstories! Share this with your players to get them thinking about the roots of their characters.