Game Master Diaries #3: Developing Backstories
Last week I mentioned the idea of backstories briefly in an example, and as I was thinking about what to do for the next post I realized that this is a concept that needs to be talked about in more detail before we leave character creation behind. Unless your character is literally a newborn, they have a past, a history, a backstory, and that backstory can inform their choices and actions in the game just as much as the things written on the character sheet, perhaps even more. Everyone in your game needs some amount of backstory, from the players to the background NPCs to the monsters they fight in a dungeon. Even if you don’t end up using the elements of the backstory, it is still important to make them more real characters with motivations and a history. Nobody just comes out of nowhere, fully formed with no history, that’s not how things work, and it makes for flat, uninteresting storytelling. So let’s talk about the different kinds of backstories that you can use for your characters and NPCs to make your world a more well-rounded place.
There are two general types of backstories that we’ll talk about, and each of those has many different possibilities within it. I split them up by what type of character they are for: player character or NPC.
Player character backstories are typically developed by the players, but you as the GM can offer advice and help if your players are stuck. Player character backstories are typically going to be much longer and more involved than NPC backstories, which can sometimes consist of a single sentence, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be written out, as long as both GM and player know and a agree on the character’s history. Player character backstories should include every major event in the character’s life up to this point, as well as knowing where and how they grew up. Knowing all this will help inform the player on how their character would act if they get stuck, unsure of what to do.
NPC backstories are typically less involved, although there may be some important NPCs that are so central to the story they merit a full-blown player character backstory. When this is the case, you will usually want to draw up a full character sheet for that NPC as well, making them as fully fleshed out as any of the player characters. The rest of your NPCs, shopkeepers, kings, knights, goblin warriors, mysterious old hermits, all need a slightly less involved backstory that includes any events of life-changing significance, their current living situation and reason for doing what they are doing, and any details that affect the way you want to portray them in the game. This can be as simple as a single sentence, or you can go more in-depth. For your own sanity, I would recommend no more than a single paragraph of backstory for most NPCs. This will be enough to give you material to develop and improvise from if you need to, but without taking so much of your time that you feel let down if your players end up bypassing that NPC entirely.
There are a few significant subtypes of backstory that can be found in either of these groups that are worth discussing here. These can potentially be used as guidelines for struggling players who don’t know where to start, but they can also serve as a warning of what not to do.
Subtype 1: The tragic backstory.
This is the most tempting type of backstory for players who don’t want to bother with the backstory and would rather just get to the killing and looting. It can take the form of a warrior whose entire town was killed, sending him on a quest for vengeance, or it could be the poor orphaned street waif who had to learn to steal to survive. However the specifics play out, if there are no living people of significance from the character’s past still alive, you have a tragic backstory. This can be appropriate, depending on the character concept, but exercise caution because it can easily become a crutch for players who don’t really want to do the character development required for a more involved backstory. Tragic backstories can be cliche tropes, but they don’t have to be. If you have player who wants to have a tragic backstory, help them find a way to make it different and interesting, but if you have a player who always has a tragic backstory, encourage them to branch out and try something different.
Subtype 2: The golden boy.
Sometimes you’ll have a player who wants their character to do no wrong. Everything they do is inspired and works perfectly and they are everyone’s best friend. While this is not inherently a problem, it does tend to lead to frustration if left unchecked. No one is perfect, and to have a player who insists on playing a perfect character can put unnecessary strain on a group. It is much more interesting to introduce a twist to this type of backstory than to dismiss it or allow it outright. Maybe the character believes that he can do no wrong because he was raised to think that he did everything perfectly, but now that he is out in the real world he is realizing that things aren’t quite as simple as he had been led to believe. Maybe she is a perfectionist who desperately wants to do everything right, and so she works obsessively until she gets each and every thing she does perfect. There are ways to take the golden boy trope and use it for some good role-playing and character development, but don’t just let one of your players be perfect, that makes for a boring story.
Subtype 3 is not so much a subtype of back story, but a subtype of player: The novel writer.
Some of your players will get really into the character creation and backstory, much more than any of the other players, and perhaps more than you as the GM. This player will probably turn in a multi-page backstory that comes closer to a short story or novella than a brief sketch. Encourage this creativity, but don’t feel that you have to use every single thing that they write. Ask this player of a one or two page summary of the main points they want you to know about their backstory for storytelling purposes. That way you can make sure you hit the main points of the character’s history in your story planning, but you don’t have to read the whole thing right away. This type of player is very likely to be invested in their character and his or her development, so feel free to consult them on potential directions you want to take the story as it relates to their character. Most importantly, don’t see this type of player as a nuisance. They are doing a lot of your work for you by developing so much of their world and character. Make sure none of it contradicts what you have planned, and if it does, work with them to make it fit. Having a novel writer in your group can make for some really good, deep role-playing. Just don’t let yourself get bound by things that you didn’t approve. You are the GM, and this is ultimately your story.
There are a plethora of other types of backstories we could explore, from the hometown hero to the outcast who wants to return home, from the middle child who wants to prove herself and break free from her siblings’ shadows to the driven, slightly manic inventor who is sure that this time he will get it right. No type of backstory is inherently wrong, it will all depend on your story and what you are trying to accomplish. Make sure that all of your players get you to sign off on their backstories, and be sure to give yourself enough material to work with for your NPCs to be interesting, and you’re good to go. Now that we’ve covered backstories, I can share the characters I made for my one-shot with you, their character concept and a brief background sketch. That will be the next post or posts in this series. Depending on how verbose I end up being it may be one post or several; only time will tell. See you all next week.