10 min read

Writing backstories for your D&D character

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What is it that makes a great hero origin story? Is it the beginning, describing where they came from? The catalyst, the tragedy or triumph that defined their turning point?

The topic of what makes an interesting character backstory that matters in your roleplay isn’t far from what makes historical backstories or those found in novels interesting and functional. While there’s no one path to creating the perfect character backstory idea, traits that stand out to me are relatability and believability.

What makes a character relatable and believable?

Let’s face it. While there are natural-born heroes among us, most of us did not live heroic lives from the beginning. It’s easy to want to be the prodigy powerhouse of your birth region, but many heroes didn’t start this way. I don’t mean this in the sense of a tragic backstory or starting as a destitute hermit, but simply by starting mundane. 

So, how does that play into playing the characters of our fantasies? Every Player Character has a path they follow to become great adventurers which we then embody. In this sense, an origin story becomes a critical part of character creation as well as a source of meaningful role play. The path to becoming the hero starts small, despite our ambitions.

Does my backstory have to dictate how I roleplay my character?

This is something I struggled with in my early years of role play. I knew what my character was, and I made the backstory to match. Then I played that character based on that idea almost religiously. I hadn’t realized how much I was railroading myself.

In actuality, people grow, learn, and change. Since our heroes are portrayed as people, we can expect them to do the same. When I started incorporating the idea of a character arc into my roleplay for the first time, it provided me a lot more freedom in roleplay as well as helped me learn how to progress my character’s personal development.

One of my most dear and beloved characters, Sask, a Lizardfolk Circle of Spores Druid, started as an abysmally (and unintentionally) maladjusted creature. Integration from his isolated tribe into warm-blooded society was a culture shock, and his responses to everyday situations were... let’s just say he did more harm than good. (As a note, telling your halfling compatriot that they are small due to malnourishment, and attempting to feed them raw meat from fallen comrades to help them grow to be strong is generally frowned upon.)

The allure I had towards playing Sask wasn’t his homebrew abilities. It certainly wasn’t the stats on his character sheet. I was playing a character from a society very alien to me, while Sask was trying to learn how to associate with a culture very different from his own. He made mistakes, I made mistakes, but living his character arc and helping him develop is what made role-playing him fun!

It was not just a learning experience for Sask, but for myself as well. I needed to learn how to balance playing such an RP-heavy character without being disruptive to the session or the rest of the party. As he grew as a person, he didn’t lose his origins as a Lizardfolk witch doctor. He simply grew away from those roots while maintaining his core beliefs. He learned the difference between pets and livestock. He learned the value of things versus the concept of currency. He learned how to be functional with the warm-bloods he now kept in his company. His backstory and personal growth helped me learn to provide original roleplay opportunities to my partners in adventure.

As your character grows, so does their world.

What if you could immortalize your character’s development as they progressed? There are a lot of priceless memories that go into creating and playing a character, and that journey in itself becomes its own legacy. Tools like Legendkeeper can help you outline your character’s travels, experiences, and associates like a living document that grows as your character does.

Alt-Text: Sask’s journeys, outlined in an interactive map using Legendkeeper. Each pinned region has details of the location and notable NPCs that reside there.

When your character has begun making their mark on the world, having a living document of their travels and experiences can also help build future narrative options. Previous experiences and associates can be leveraged by the GM at a later date.

So where do we start?

Finally, it’s time to put the quill to the scroll and begin building the origin of your character. While you may have a great idea for a backstory, first we should make sure we are within the context of our party’s table.

Questions you should answer before digging into your backstory:

  • What system or Genre is this for? (e.g. Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Cyberpunk RED, etc)
  • Has the GM given any information on the setting?
  • What choices have your party made for their characters?
  • What class or role do you plan to play?
  • What is your starting level?

System, genre, and setting considerations:

The system and setting should help guide what is typical or appropriate for the world where your story takes place. As an obvious example, a Dungeons and Dragons Character should not have a sci-fi background. However, some of the details of the world your GM has made may be less obvious as to what may clash.

For example, take a homebrew Grimdark D&D setting. In a world where despair and hardships are prevalent, it’s unlikely that your character had an upbringing as the heir to the colorful and cheerful Pegasus Pony Ranches. This isn’t because pony ranches don’t exist in grimdark settings. It’s due to places of joy being few and far between, and the mood of the setting is grim, hopeless, and destitute of happiness.

For the most part, backgrounds can be tweaked slightly to fit the flavor of your setting. Rather than being raised at Pegasus Pony Ranches, the character could have been a farmhand at the local stables in a nearby shantytown, supporting their parents with the scraps received on a farmhand’s salary.

When designing your history, always use the setting the GM provides as a guide to what you would expect life to be like in this world.

Weighing your character’s role against the party’s makeup:

To make your story, you need to decide what your character does for the party. This is usually decided in Session 0. Having a background for a scribe who has spent their years translating ancient languages and maintaining the library may not make as much sense if you end up running a barbarian.

Deciding what your character does before you work on your backstory is integral to the process. Find out what your party members are running, then make your own decision on your character. This is usually a collaborative process.

Starting level, the overlooked detail.

I saved the starting level for last in our list of pre-creation considerations as it’s so often dreadfully overlooked in the character creation process.

Returning to the topic of relatability, making a believable character starts with knowing what your character has experienced in life so far. This is generally gauged by the starting level assigned to your party in session 0.

What does my level mean for role play?

The most direct observation regarding character level is, the higher your level, the more capable you are. There are hidden implications behind that stat, however. Your starting level implies that you have experienced life and overcome challenges to a degree that scales with your level. It implies that your performance in the world has impacted both you and the world to a certain degree. This all can be leveraged when considering how level impacts role-play.

DnD Levels, translated to real-world experience:

  • Level 1 (The True Novice)
    • You have had no real-world experience as an adventurer or in combat professions. You might have come out on top in some situations, such as defeating a wolf terrorizing your home village. A soldier recruit, young squire, spellcaster initiate, etc.
    • To use the “In a barfight” example, you would have a good chance of winning a 1 on 1 fight, and may be able to fend off 2 or more people on a good day.
  • Level 5 (The Professional)
    • You have had experience as an adventurer or in combat professions. You may have won a tournament or two, or have had some training that has been regularly put into practice. A regular soldier, a mercenary, a spellcaster adept.
    • In a barfight, you’d be able to handle 2 or 3 drunkards easily. On a good day, you may be able to handle even more.
  • Level 10 (The Champion)
    • You have several great achievements in life. You’re a master in your trade. Your actions have influenced the lives of many in some way, and your name carries some weight. In times of strife and danger, your local region knows they can turn to you, or know to fear you. A gladiator champion, a monster hunter, a skilled and renowned spellcaster.
    • In a barfight, the entire bar would have a problem taking you down. The local authorities would be the only ones who have a chance of stopping you.
  • Level 15 (The Hero)
    • Your name is known by many, even by some in distant lands. The entire kingdom relies on you (or fears you) and those like you in times of need. You are a leader of your kind becoming legend, and your name will be passed down through history for generations to come. A champion of the kingdom, an archmage of high stature, the captain of a pirate fleet.
    • In a barfight, there’s likely very little that anyone could do to stop you from beating everyone in and around the bar to a pulp.
  • Level 20 (The Legend)
    • Your name is known by all. Books are written of your deeds, and you likely have a following among the populace. Nations move for you, some rise and fall based on your will. The ultimate hero, an unstoppable force in combat, a spellcaster of demigod-like capabilities.
    • In a barfight, you can make the bar cease to exist with a single word. You possibly could erase it from ever existing in the first place.

How do I use starting level to complement my hero’s backstory?

While the level expectations outlined above may seem restrictive at lower levels, a lot can be done with a backstory even for a character starting out at level 1. For example, how do we factor in a character who’s descended from nobility, where they received combat training in childhood?

Just because your character hasn’t had a lot of real-world applications for their skills doesn’t mean they couldn’t have received training. For example, the daughter of a duke who’s spent her childhood sparring with their fencing instructor would still be a level 1 character, simply because she hasn’t fought in real combat regularly yet. She may know more about swordplay than others, but she hasn’t had the opportunity to put it to use. One learns from the messiness of real fights.

Alternatively, at higher levels, this gives you the freedom to ratify some of your more notable achievements as history. This has a potential con, however. Because you’re narrating your past, it doesn’t have the same meaning as it would if you played out the scenarios from an earlier level. In my eyes, there’s something precious about living those events through your character rather than writing about them.

But I want my character to be a hero!

Don’t worry, they will be. Heroes start somewhere, and all too often we get caught up in the race to heroism that we forget to start mundane. Heroes are made, and they all come from somewhere. If I lacked the patience for Sask to become a hero, I never would have enjoyed the experience of role playing through his many early personality traits, blunders, and oddities. He did become great, but his beginnings were anything but.

Examples of RP-rich character backstories:

While no one can hand you the perfect backstory for your character, hopefully some of these dnd backstory ideas can help inspire a beautiful character arc waiting for a PC to bring it to life.

  • Starting Level 1
    • A warlock initiate, a farm hand that was unwillingly forced into a pact after a chance encounter with their new patron. While they adjust to their newfound abilities, the struggle of accepting their new master weighs on them, and they seek a way out of their blood pact. Their loved ones are held hostage, and they must keep the desire to be free a closely guarded secret, lest their patron discover their intentions.
    • A paladin initiate, recruited from prison after an upbringing in destitution and forced into crime. They feel indebted by their guilt and seek to prove themselves to their order. Considering it was this or the gallows, the proving grounds it was. In training, they nurtured a newfound belief in the cause. This new set of beliefs causes internal strife with the memories of crimes of the past, and they struggle with this every day.
    • A monk who was groomed from birth into a slave-soldier. Their monastic order trains them from childhood to adolescence to use their bodies as weapons, and when they come of age, they are sent on their first mission. Now, with very little social experience, this weapon leaves its “forge” tasked with winning a bounty for the monastic order. Even such upbringings can’t tear the individual from its vessel, though, and the indentured soldier considers a life of freedom and personal glory.
  • Starting Level 5
    • A “civilized” barbarian, descended from a family of smiths in a castle city. While the loose cannon may dress sharply and speak eloquently, they can’t deny the dark side of themselves that comes out at the lowest points in their life. So far it’s been kept at bay by releasing their aggression in prize fights in secret, but they always feel that unbridled rage in the back of their head whenever life applies pressure. The family is no longer willing to pay their way out of jail, so one more slip up and they might be on their own.
    • A fighter, a soldier deserter. Finding themselves on the wrong side of a war has changed their view of the world. Now, they are unwelcome in both their homeland and in the realm they invaded. As such, the only livelihood to be had is mercenary work, where anonymity can be maintained. It's only a matter of time before their renown catches up to them, and someone recognizes their face.
  • Starting Level 10
    • A veteran rogue, and the only heir of their parents’ fief. Their given name is not known in the underground circles of the region for which they are renowned, as they strive to bury their heritage to avoid an alliance by marriage. One thing is certain, their ancestors would turn in their graves to know the heir’s chosen profession. Likewise, their underground associates would be repulsed to know that nobility had infiltrated their ranks. A double-edged blade they grasp, and they do so elegantly.
    • A druid operative who despises the encroachment of cities into nature. They view the citizens as hiding behind walls against the harsh truth of the natural world. While others in their circle don’t condone such actions, this one seeks a more direct path to change. The vitriol of cities is viewed as more toxic than any poison found in the wild. Cities are an unnatural blight to be corrected, and they are more than willing to take tasks that move towards that goal.

No matter how you craft your character’s unique background, I most recommend leaving room for growth. When planning their beginning, try not to plan how they end up too far ahead of time. You may be surprised by what your character can bring you just by being themselves.

"When not weaving new realities with a quill, Automaton James summons tech golems to perform tests for TTRPG solutions such as Roll20 (and Astral Tabletop may it rest in peace). If it's not one adventure, it's another, and he wouldn't have it any other way."

Written by Automaton James

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