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Writing a back story for your D&D* character

*Insert any other, similar role-playing game here.

One of the things that comes up over and over again in many online D&D communities I frequent is the issue of the character back story.

How long should it be? What should it contain? How much should the DM use from your back story in order to create his or her world?

I’m going to be controversial here and say that you should make your back story as short as possible. As a Dungeon Master, I cannot think of anything worse than reading your five page long back story, detailing every aspect of your character’s life since they were born. I know you probably slaved long and hard over it, but to me it’s just fan fiction that I don’t need to be weighed down by.

More critically, if I have 5 players at the table with equally complex back stories then I’m either going to disappoint someone by not including something they think is a key back story element in my campaign, or I’m going to have a nervous breakdown trying to accomodate all the things for all the people. A thankless task.

Five bullet points is plenty

My suggestion as a DM is that all you need is 5 bullet points to describe your life up until the point you appear out of thin air in some cliched tavern, armour polished and awaiting adventure.

  • Where you come from
  • A defining incident in your previous life
  • A key enemy/adversary or ally/friend who is critical to your story so far
  • Who or what you care for most in the world
  • What led you into adventuring

These bullet points give me enough to go on as a DM, without boring me to sleep with 5000 word tales of being orphaned young, apprenticed to a wizard etc etc.

These bullet points should adhere to some guidelines though.

One sentence per bullet point

Nothing changes if each bullet point consists of a 1000 word paragraph. Just saying. You won’t get round it that way. Keep it brief and succinct.

Don’t create more work for the DM

Try not to make reference to factions, places, continents, big bads etc that don’t exist in the DM’s world, at least not without prior consultation.

Tone down the special

If you are writing the back story for a new first level character then you’re not special. You’ve not done anything yet. The best is yet to come. Don’t be the King, Queen, Master or High Priestess of anything. No nation state should owe their existence to you. By the time the campaign has finished they might, but let’s shape that story together.

Don’t push your politics

Keep your politics out of the game and your back story. I had an experience in a play by post game where one player kept trying to further a particular agenda while consulting with me over his back story. I had to intervene, not because I had a problem with the particular thing he was proposing, but because I thought some players would be uncomfortable with it. Furthermore, I felt the player was pushing it entirely for that reason. He aimed to shock his fellow players. Please don’t do that. It’s a pain in the ass for the DM who will end up having to step in when feathers start flying.

Your back story is only the beginning

Let’s face it. If all you wanted to do was write your back story then you’d just be an author. The reason you play D&D (or other role-playing games) is that you want to create a story together with your friends. If you make your back story more exciting, more heroic than what you eventually end up doing in the upcoming campaign then you’re going to end up disappointed. This is just the beginning of your story. You’re not a legend yet. Become one based on your actions in the game, not as a result of your fiction writing skills with your back story.

Keep it short, to the point, apolitical and on theme. And then go out and write your real story. Easy, right?

Return of the DM View All

I am a 40 something DM/GM located in Scotland. In 2016, I rediscovered the joys of tabletop role-playing games. This blog documents my journey back into the fold.

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