When I was a kid, I broke my arm. An unfortunate incident involving me on a bike and a streetlight pole. The story behind it isn’t very interesting – there’s no drama, no intrigue, no fantasy creatures or sword-fighting swashbucklers. We all have little anecdotes of silly things we did as kids that caused us some injury or the other. Sometimes it’s funny, mostly it doesn’t mean anything to anyone but ourselves. So, why is it important?
The importance lies in what changed after those incidents. Because of my ridiculous two-wheeled experience, I now have a crippling fear of bicycles, or more specifically, me trying to balance on one. Similarly, your character will have a whole lifetime of experiences and stories that led them to the point of where your D&D game starts. They will bring with them the lessons they have learned and the effects these experiences had on them. Let’s look at how to tell your story…
Your background plays a big part in who you are today, your character is no different. By now you would probably have some idea of the race and class you’re interested in playing, and this will give you so much to be inspired by when writing your backstory. Where were they born? Who are their parents? Do they have siblings? What were their childhoods like? As your character is born into their race, it’s important to keep in mind their lineage and the story of their parents. Some races hail from certain regions and as such your character will have grown up with certain customs and knowledge only known to their kind. Your class will also greatly come into play as there will be a reason your character became a cleric or a ranger or a fighter, and years of training and teaching would have gone into it.
The relationships your character had with those around them are telling of their personality and can be a handy tool for your DM in their story telling in bringing your character to life in the world you’re playing. Even if you decide to play your character as an orphan with no knowledge of their family or where they came from, there will have been people along your character’s journey who would have had some effect on their lives, whether good or bad. These NPCs may be brought back into your story by your DM to help you immerse yourself better into the game and solidify your presence in the world by making it more personal for you.
Flaws, regrets and feelings…
As with anyone in the real world, your character is bound to have certain fears and regrets. As no one is perfect your character will have a flaw or two as well. Depending on how you wish to play your character, these things can be due to big, traumatic experiences or everyday things, like breaking your arm on a pole.
Your character may have experienced a great fire in their village as a child, that took the lives of everyone they knew and loved and, therefore, has a debilitating fear of fire. They might feel guilty for running away during the blaze – and not going back to find their sister. They might be vengeful against the raiders who burned the village in the first place. This experience can be played as just a traumatizing event that led your character down their current path or it can be the driving force that your character is working towards resolving.
Whatever your character’s story, one thing will remain true: at some point in their life, something bad would have happened that will shape who they will inevitably become, even if it wasn’t as traumatic as all that. It could be a simple case of inner turmoil, and the anger and frustration, of the desire to become something else or something more. Your character could have been born into nobility, they could be beloved by their adoring parents and siblings and have a happy childhood. But, despite all that, they could be fueled by the desire to be a strong, brave fighter like their siblings, yet, lack the physical attributes for it. What truly matters is what your character’s motivation is and what inspires it.
Motivation, purpose and meaning…
It’s likely, before your campaign starts, that your DM will have a one-on-one session zero with you. At the very least, they will sit down with you to discuss where you currently are at the start of the game. Whether you find yourself at a guild hall, or tavern, in a sleepy little town or having just woken up in a jail cell far away from home, you will probably be asked what brought you here.
Your character’s motivation is the driving force that sets an underlying tone and ongoing, personal storyline that will run through the entire campaign. It is also the reason that brought your character to that starting point of where your campaign begins. Your character may be on a personal quest, or journey, for answers to mysteries of their past. They may be in search of a relic or a specific person. Maybe they are looking to avenge something terrible that was done to them or their loved ones, or maybe, it’s just a simple journey of self-discovery that drives them. Whatever their purpose, there will be a story attached to it.
Ask yourself questions about your character’s purpose and what it is that is most important to them. What are they seeking vengeance for? What does the mysterious relic do? How did they find out about the relic and what is it that they need it for? Who is it that they are looking for and why? Why do they feel the need to prove themselves and to whom? What meaning do they derive from this quest? What is the outcome that they expect once their goal is achieved? The answers to these questions will not only assist you in creating an amazing backstory, give more depth to your character and help you get more invested in your character, but also give your DM a lot of material to use to make your game more personal for you.
It is, however, important to remember that your backstory needs to leave room for growth as you head into the start of your campaign. Your character will be level one and will, therefore, probably not be a savant at anything. Leave some mysteries for your DM to to unravel for you and build upon, for your own immersion and surprise.
So much more to gain…
Your backstory could be the source of great knowledge and even certain languages your character wouldn’t otherwise have been able to learn. Depending on how much they’ve traveled, which regions they’ve spent any significant amount of time in or who they’ve been in contact with, your character could have picked up on environmental information, certain lore and customs and different languages and etiquette. These things could be a great advantage to your party in dealing with certain situations or different races.
If you’re playing a 5e campaign, your backstory could grant you a little extra bonus. Every bit helps, right? In 5e, with regards to your backstory, race and class, you will have to choose a background. The background you choose will provide your character with a feature, equipment, certain proficiencies, possible tool proficiencies and a choice of languages. These features vary greatly and each one gives you different benefits.
For example, the Archaeologists background will give you the feature of Historical Knowledge. This could aid your character in appraising old artifacts and works of art, and give them knowledge of ancient ruins and dungeons in regards to what they were used for, who built them and what they might find there. You also get a set of Archaeology tools and the proficiency to use them. If your character is on the run from someone, they might benefit from the Folk Hero background. This background gives you the Rustic Hospitality feature which will make it easier for your character to blend in among the common folk in any town, they will even help you to hide. It also makes it easier for your character to find food or a place to rest. You can check out the list of backgrounds here.
I can’t stress enough how helpful the Player’s Handbook is when you first start out. Grab your copy now if you haven’t yet. You can thank me for it later.
I recommend checking out this episode of Handbooker Helper, brought to you by the Critical Role team. This informative series is a huge help for the fledgling 5e player.
If you haven’t gotten your hands on your first set of dice yet, you should totally start looking into getting yourself the perfect set. You’re definitely going to be needing those soon! Check out the amazing sets available. You’re sure to find the perfect ones to suit yourself or your character.
If you have any questions or fun ideas for character backstories, please share them with us in the comments below. We love to hear from you and welcome any tips or advice!
Dream big until next time, fellow adventurers!