How to build a great character backstory

You have your stats. You have your feats. You’ve picked out weapons and spells and armor and equipment. 

But who is your character? Where are they from? What motivates them?

D&D, Pathfinder, and other RPGs are roleplaying games, after all, so defining the backstory of your character is important. It can be intimidating to create a person from whole cloth with motivations, ideals, flaws, and a lifetime worth of stories.

We can help you with that. Next time you roll up a character, consider our tips on how to build a great RPG character backstory.

Rely on prepared backgrounds. A big part of D&D 5e is the backgrounds that are part of building a character. They can give some great inspiration as well as goals, flaws, ideals, and bonds. They’re prebuilt and can help you whip something up fast. Pathfinder also has a huge library of traits that can give you tips on how to flesh out a character. Feel free to use them as a basis to make something more specific or to simply create your own background or trait from whole cloth.

Give them some motivation. Are they looking for someone? Is there a long-lost family heirloom they seek to obtain? Did a great green dragon devastate their home village? If you can find out what your character wants, you’ll know a lot about them. 

Don’t make it too complicated. Especially if you’re starting with a 1st level character, make sure you don’t give them some kind of background where they’ve been apprenticed to a great wizard for decades or engaged in massive battles for decades. It won’t make a whole lot of sense to have such an elaborate backstory when they barely have any skills in the first several levels.

A backstory should push your character into action. Make sure it explains why they’re out adventuring or what exactly spurred them to learn great skills in battle and take on monsters. 

You can base it on another character. If you’re so inclined, you can create a character that’s like one of your favorites from fiction such as Indiana Jones, Link, Teela, Black Widow, Jaime Lannister, or Buffy. Just, you know, make sure to adapt their story to your game’s campaign world. 

Include a flaw. It doesn’t have to be something insane or bad or extremely limiting. But flawed characters are a little more real and a lot more fun.

Keep it simple. If you want to write a few chapters about your character, you’re well on your way to a novel. But you don’t need that much for an RPG character. Keep it to a few paragraphs. This is more than enough to explain a brief background for your character and why she seeks an adventurer’s life.

Create an NPC that hooks into your backstory. It’s a nice little gift to the GM, who could use it to tie your character into the overall campaign. 

Include a potential adventure hook in your character’s story. This will also let the GM make something rewarding for your character down the road. 

Clear it with your GM before you get to the table. Don’t include material that contradicts the campaign or the setting. Don’t make it too complicated. Don’t make it an exhaustive history of your character and his deeds. 

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