Some players struggle to create interesting backstories for their characters, while others relish the chance to dig deep into their characters’ pasts. The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide, a new book from James D’Amato, shines the spotlight on character backstories with one hundred activities to help jump-start players’ creativity. I caught up with him to ask about the story behind this backstory workbook.
Note: This interview was edited for clarity.
Katrina: Many role-players may know you from your work on the One Shot podcast or Campaign—tell us a little bit about your background as a game master, and how you made the leap from role-playing to the actual play format.
James: When I was starting One Shot, actual play was pretty new. There were only a few shows around and most of them were focused on popular sword and sorcery games. I got into RPGs in college when I joined a club that explored all kinds of different games. My favorite system was Feng Shui and I didn’t hear anyone playing games like that.
My goal with One Shot was to share what I loved about RPGs. To me, a big part of that is their variety, which you can only really discover by exploring lots of games. I already knew from my experience in school that the best way to discover new games was to play them. For a long time, I thought that meant the only way I could share what I loved was getting people to play with me. Actual play was this miraculous thing that created the opportunity to export that experience.
K: Actual play really has taken off since then, and it’s proven successful at bringing a lot more people into the hobby. What made you decide to switch gears and write The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide?
J: For the past few years, I have been discussing the idea of “personal play.” Most folks picture an RPG session as people sitting down at the table and rolling dice. However, there’s so much more to it than that. Building characters, preparing adventures, and worldbuilding are all a huge part of the game. For some of my friends, those activities are what they enjoy most about RPGs. A lot of those activities happen when players are alone.
Lots of games assume these experiences will happen, but they mostly see them as a means to an end. With this book, I wanted to find a way to help players indulge in personal play by giving them tools to focus on it.
The other audience I had in mind was people who like actual play. There are thousands of folks discovering RPGs for the first time thanks to shows like Critical Role, The Adventure Zone, and One Shot. They’re excited about the idea of RPGs, but don’t know where to start. Learning a game, finding a group, and making time to play can be difficult if you’re socially anxious, like me. My book gives you a taste of what role-playing is like, and it puts you in creative control. I’m hoping it’s a good first or second step for some future players.
K: What’s different between prepping for or recording a podcast and writing a book—were there any major hurdles you encountered when making the leap from podcasting to writing?
J: Ha! My style of running games is heavily improvisational. I usually go in with nothing but the game. In our recent Kids on Bikes series with Patrick Rothfuss, I didn’t know what we were going to do until an hour into the recording when we made the town and introduced the characters. For the book, I had to create an outline for everything.
It’s all creativity, but for me, writing was wildly different from podcasting. I think the sort of podcasting I do fits my creative process more naturally than writing, but it was fun to learn!
K: How did you come up with the idea to make this a workbook?
J: I wanted readers to have creative control. I didn’t want my book to be about my ideas—RPGs are driven by the players, not the game designers. There are a few books that give you random tables as jumping off points, but that doesn’t work for everyone. I tried to create a variety of exercises so folks from different perspectives could benefit from it.
I was deeply inspired by the fandom communities around my shows. Folks are always sorting characters into personality memes or creating fanfiction prompts. I thought there might be a lot of people who would enjoy that approach to thinking about their own characters.
K: Do you have a favorite activity, or one that you think is particularly fun or special?
J: I really like “Campfire” on page 153. It’s a mini-game that can be played during a game session with your group, privately between two players, or alone. It structures a conversation between characters around a campfire to increase intimacy between them. It creates space for the sorts of conversations characters have between the chaotic moments we get to see them.
K: Any final words of advice for readers of The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide?
J: Break it! In my experience, creativity is like an avalanche. Small things rapidly build up into enormous things. You might find that one question or prompt has given you more than enough momentum to drive your own ideas. There’s no need for me after that, and you shouldn’t feel the need to follow the structure of an exercise. If creativity is taking you off the rails, you are moving in a good direction!
The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide is now available at local bookstore or from online retailers.
What methods have you used to further develop your characters’ backstories? Tell us in the comments!
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Image Credit: Adams Media, Katrina Ostrander, Teri Litorco
Note: A free preview copy was supplied to the author for review purposes.