How To Create a Compelling (But Not Overwhelming) DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Character Backstory

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Some parts of making a Dungeons & Dragons character go beyond filling in a character sheet and doing the math. For some players, coming up with a backstory is the hardest part of the puzzle to put together. A character’s history is where a Dungeon Master finds the hooks to pull a character into their campaign beyond the promise of treasure. Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition helped players by giving backgrounds some mechanical weight. This part of the character can explain why a fighter might know a thing or two about a temple or how a wizard has shady underworld connections. A good background outlines a good direction for a character’s story in between the clever traps, last-second escapes, and hard-hitting combat at the table. We’ve collected some of the best tips on giving your Dungeons & Dragons character a compelling backstory that isn’t overwhelming.

Keep It Sketchy

A cloaked person holds a book in Magic: The Gathering Art
Wizards of the Coast/Chase Stone

Good screenwriters will say that it’s best to keep a character’s history flexible when first starting out a TV series. It’s good to have strong hooks and immediately compelling points. However, it’s also important to leave open space for the player and the Dungeon Master to connect the story back to a character’s personal history. D&D is a game of exploration, and some of that includes character exploration. Players might decide a character’s trajectory is far more interesting than what they originally had in mind. Dungeon Masters would be wise to talk about that direction with players outside of game.

Become Part of the World

An illustration of the bustling town of Port Nyanzaur in the Dungeons & Dragons Tomb of Annihilation module
Wizards of the Coast

Characters didn’t grow up in a vacuum. They had families, lived in towns, worked in cities and formed connections to the heroes and villains of the world before the story began. This is often reflected in the Bond that can be tapped for inspiration in 5th Edition, but players and Dungeon Masters should work together to connect to these elements. Some Dungeon Masters might already have, for example, a thieves’ guild in mind when building a world that will connect to a rogue. Other Dungeon Masters might let the player create the guild and look for ways to feature it during the campaign. The player doesn’t need to upload a resume; even one such connection can be plenty to start.

Connect to Another PC

A character from Dungeons & Dragons holding her hand over someone else's chest
Wizards of the Coast/Anthony Foti

One of the most difficult parts a Dungeon Master has in an early campaign is justifying why a group of strangers decides to team up and plunder a dungeon together. The players can ease this burden by deciding how their relationships connect. Groups that want high intrigue and drama might draw a web connecting each character. Or a simple option is defining a relationship with another PC with one or two words like sibling, rival or lover. It’s one thing to meet a shadowy figure in a tavern to go on an adventure. It’s entirely something else because a character’s fool brother claims he’s a wizard and that character wants to make sure the so-called wizard comes back home alive.

Consider a Signature Item

Magus the Scroll examines a scroll in Magic: The Gathering  card art
Wizards of the Coast/Greg Staples

The idea of a signature item often centers around a sweet magic weapon or another powerful item. But other, more mundane things can mean more to a character. Every character uses some sort of tool, be it a fighter’s weapon or a cleric’s holy symbol. What’s the history of that tool? What was the first thing that sword ever killed? Who gave that holy symbol to the cleric? Or the first song the bard ever played on their instrument? The answers to these questions can tell a player a lot about their character in surprising ways.

Originally published on January 11, 2018.

Rob Wieland is an author, game designer and professional nerd. He’s worked on dozens of different tabletop games ranging from Star Wars and Firefly all the way down to his own creations like CAMELOT Trigger. His Twitter is  here. His meat body can be found in scenic Milwaukee, WI.

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