The Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook tells players to create backstories for new characters. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything adds pages of tables to help players invent their characters’ backstories. The books‘ support for backstory makes sense: Such imagined histories help roleplay and when dungeon masters connect the characters’ backstories to their campaign, the game feels more personal to players.
Like any creative collaboration, using character backstory in a campaign proves harder than it seems. When a DM adapts or elaborates on a character’s backstory to fit the campaign, the additions might not fit the player’s vision. In a game, players only enjoy full creative control over their own characters. They deserve to keep that control without unwanted meddling, and that goes beyond not seeing people in their character’s backstory killed for dramatic effect. When a DM tinkers with backgrounds, player characters may stop feeling familiar and the players may lose a sense of owning their characters. I’m always hesitant to introduce important NPCs from PC backgrounds because I’m worried I won’t do the characters justice or portray the relationship the way the player envisioned it.
One method of incorporating character backstory works without ever returning to the people or places in a character’s history. Create new situations or characters that resemble the events from the character’s history. So if character left magic school after being falsely accused of stealing a valuable tome, put them in situations where other folks face false accusations or face exile from their home. If a character lost someone, don’t try to kill more of their family, but do create new situations that recall those memories. Such rhymes with the past help players reveal their characters.
Of course, most DMs want to go beyond mere rhymes. For a more powerful use of backstory, visit people and places from the characters’ histories. Reappearances highlight a player character’s unique importance to the campaign and follow the Small World Principle, but using characters from backstories takes more care.
I once played in an Adventurers League scenario that the DM started by asking everyone to name someone beloved from their character’s background. I named my monk’s master teacher. Later my teacher and the other beloved non-player characters appeared as prisoners to be rescued by the bad guy. The master my monk idolized died. Although I felt comfortable with the twist, this wasn’t the story I imagined.
Back when few players invented a backstory for characters because new characters died so often, I ran a campaign that included a paladin, and I invented an anti-paladin twin for the character. I liked the drama and failed to notice how trite and campy evil twins would eventually seem. I got lucky. My contribution to the character’s backstory worked. The player liked his character’s special importance as the brother of the group’s arch enemy. And no one mocked the evil twin trope. That was a different time.
Both those examples of DMs meddling in backstory ended fine, but either could have ended with hard feelings because the riskiest method for including character backstory is when DMs surprise players by plundering their histories for cheap motivation or lazy pathos. The motivation comes when, say, a character’s teacher just happens to be kidnapped for human sacrifice. The pathos comes when villain murders your character’s parents. Both combine when the DM opts to make a loved one into a villain. This I’m-your-father twist starts with a backstory that includes kind grandmother, and then ends when the DM turns her into a cult leader spilling blood for Orcus. Surprise!
Such surprises can sink a campaign even though similar twists can work fine in fiction. Writers of fiction create their characters and make them suffer as parts of the same job. In a D&D campaign such tricks can feel like the DM has forced a character into certain choices or trashed the creative work a player invested in backstory. A player could see Nana wielding the sacrificial blade and think not in my world and check out of the game. Early in D&D’s history, such stunts proved so irresistible to some DMs that many players felt most comfortable imagining their characters as orphans without a single attachment to their past.
Finding victims and villains from backstory works in D&D when the DM and player settle which parts of the backstory should be preserved in history and which parts a DM can revisit and elaborate for the campaign. Some players would welcome villains from their backstories as ongoing foes. Some might happily see Nana leading the cult of Orcus and the teacher they idolize captured despite his deadly fists of fury.
Collaborative planning does lose a potential surprise, but only to the one player behind the backstory. You can surprise the other players, the biggest audience for their story.
So, discuss ways to bring backstory into the game before play. As a DM, look over a character’s backstory and ask questions like these:
- What characters and places from your backstory would you like to revisit in the game?
- Based on your background, what unfinished business does your character have?
- What sorts of situations would give your character a chance to resolve those loose ends, and how do you imagine the outcome?
None of this discussion means that you need to let players script situations and outcomes. D&D remains a game with dice, where unplanned twists can add to the fun, but the players‘ answers to these questions can inspire your preparation.
Sobering advice. I’ve definitely committed the missteps listed here—put PC’s families under threat, made a surprise villain out of a character from a backstory, even staged what appeared to be a PC family member’s death—without discussing fully with the player(s) beforehand. And, as described here, it sometimes led to player dissatisfaction. I come to D&D 5E from other RPGs, particularly Champions, in which players must choose “Disadvantages” as part of the PC backstory in order to earn full powers and abilities. In that system, it’s understood that the GM will use the Disadvantages that the players pick as plot hooks—Aunt May and Lois Lane are going to be held hostage; that mercenary brother or even “Unknown” rival is going to show up at some point. But the takeaway here—as always!—is to communicate early and often, ideally from Session Zero, about expectations for the game so that it’s truly collaborative and consensual. Thanks, David.
Great article! A few years ago I played a Shoanti ranger in a Rise of the Runelords campaign whose backstory was that he had been thrown out of the tribe for defending his honour and separated from his childhood sweetheart. Later in the campaign, there was an opportunity to rescue a group of Shoanti from the giants and my character’s beloved was among them. Unfortunately instead of asking me what this NPC was like, the DM decided to give her an incredibly irritating personality which made me wish he hadn’t bothered bringing her into the story!
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WordPress ate my three page response. Here’s the TL;DR.
COMMUNICATION IS KEY, always, every time. But… this can ruin something that works best as a surprise. So…
Some parts of backstory are “hooks” for the GM to use. A kidnapped sister, a mother who abandoned you, a mob boss that drove you out of business (and into adventuring). You wrote them *expecting* the DM to build them into the story.
Other parts are intended to be “finished”. Your father’s peaceful death of old age. Your warlock’s Patron’s tragic backstory. The explanation of how you got your adventuring skills (usually).
Anything else is “Grey Area”. Handle with care, to tell a good story and maybe give a PC a chance to define themselves or have a growth opp. If my new character’s hometown were attacked, he’d be forced to choose between coming home to rescue them (vastly more powerful than when he left because Adventurer) *OR* continuing his quest for his sister. Which might be the whole point of the choice (and the BBEG’s action to threaten the town)! But just “you know, weather, thought a tidal wave might be a fun story”… yeah, don’t muck with that.
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