If I had to name the biggest pet peeve I have as a Dungeon Master, and there are quite a few, it would be cliche backstories. Were I given a penny for every orphaned loner, every village massacred by Orcs, and every secret princess I would have enough to by my entire player-base their own Player’s Handbook. It’s not just that it’s lazy or contrived, but showing such a lack of effort when you’re already sitting down to play a tabletop game just reeks of disrespect to those that do.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m guilty of it, too. Sometimes it’s even okay, as long as you and the Dungeon Master are planning on fleshing it out during play as opposed to during character creation. But it shouldn’t be the norm, and so I’ve been trying to find the perfect way to get the creative juices flowing, to get a player to really sit down and think, “Just who is my character?”
What I have so far is far from perfect, but it’s a good start. In the few times I’ve managed to be a player myself I’ve tried it out and the results were pretty good. I got some unexpected outcomes and really enjoyed what I got.
So here we go, I’m going to show you the method and I’ll write a backstory using it right here and now.
The Unexpected Backstory Method:
Step One: Roll Some Dice!
We’re going to be rolling randomly on the trait tables found in the Backgrounds section of your Player’s Handbook. Ah, I see you’re scoffing. Stick with me, I promise it’s not as lame and simple as you’re thinking. Once you’ve chosen your Background, which really is where character creation should start in my opinion, you’ve got a very good foundation for what your character is going to be about. Write down the personality trait, ideal, bond, and flaw that your dice rolls give you and go on to Step Two.
For my example I will be starting with a Criminal variant: The Spy.
Personality Trait: I am incredibly slow to trust. Those who seem the fairest often have the most to hide. (5 on a 1d8)
Ideal: Redemption. There’s a spark of good in everyone. (Good Alignment) (6 on a 1d6)
Bond: I will become the greatest spy (Changed from thief) that ever lived.
Flaw: I turn tail and run when things look bad. (5 on a 1d6)
Step Two: Connect The Dots
Now we are getting into the fun part. For this step you will need to connect your traits to each other. These aren’t meant to sit alone, they affect one-another, and that should be reflected in your background. Don’t worry about apparent inconsistencies because people can be inconsistent.
My spy is slow to trust, which is why she often flees from combat if things aren’t going her way as she hates to rely on others to protect her. She wants to be a spy like her father, who gave her much of her trust issue, but she also inherited his competitiveness, which is why she seeks to be the best in the world. She hates to kill, which is one way she is not like her father, and thinks everyone deserves as least one more chance to prove themselves.
Step Three: Flesh Out Details
This is the last bit of our little experiment today. We have a good skeleton of a backstory now and all it needs is some fleshing out. (Pun intended.) Imagine your character and think of a couple events or situations that gave your character the traits you rolled for. Meanwhile, ask yourself some questions: Where is my character from? What was their early life like? What is their biggest goal?
One thing I also like in backstories for new characters are failures. You can tell a lot about a person by how they reached and reacted to failure.
Francis hated her name because it was just more proof that her father resented her. It was no secret that he would have preferred a son, and, if the rumors were true, he was no longer capable of having one. True or not, he seemed to take his frustrations out on her. When he was around, that is. Work was the only thing he cared about, whatever it was that he did. Something in imports. Nice and vague. That was Father.
Her mother wasn’t much better, except when she was sober. Addicted to powerful Elven sedatives, first given to her during Francis’ complicated birth, she spent most of her days spending Father’s money and staring out the window. Normal things that a daughter was supposed to learn from her mother instead came from Janice, her stern, elderly nanny, who seemed to lack in nothing except compassion.
At first she adored Father, and nearly worshiped him. The Great Provider who’s visits always seemed too far apart, with too much formality, an absence of love that only drove her harder to please him. Her hair was kept short, her clothes baggy enough to conceal her gender, but this was more of a subconscious choice to be more of the son he so clearly wanted than any demand he made.
She took up fencing, which he supported financially. His own trophies covered the mantle at home. Her own modest collection sat on a small shelf in her room. Mother had gone to see every tournament Father competed in. Neither of them bothered for Francis. It made her seem lonely to the other young adults that were her competition, and it was true.
After this attempt at finding Father’s eye failed she tried another way. She began to follow him in his day to day life, sometimes openly and sometimes covertly. The sons and daughters of his friends she befriended. She adopted his mannerisms, his habits, his vices, all in a vain attempt to understand him better. All she really discovered was just how much of a lie his life was.
When he and another patron in a bar made a discrete, secret sign before exchanging bags she assumed he must be a criminal. When the bag was revealed to hold only a scrap of paper with a name on it she thought he might be a hitman. She knew Father was a spy when she asked him politely and he told her.
Father was never a fool and he had of course known everything that Francis had been doing. He was impressed. She had created a network of contacts, tracked and followed an operative, and acted overall as an experienced spy would. It was the first time she had ever received praise from him.
The next five years were a blur to Francis. For a while she worked directly with Father and it seemed to make him happy. Once she was experienced enough she began to work her own missions and she was quite successful. She never questioned why Father had brought her into his own world, and maybe she should have, but it was the happiest time of her life.
The first red flag she ignored was when the assignments Father gave her seemed less and less to be political figures and institutions and more and more related to the financial sector. Francis had no reason to suspect they weren’t sanctioned missions. Unfortunately, she had grown to trust him. The next flag to pass her by, which may have saved her a lot of trouble if she had heeded it, was the replacement of her handler.
Old Charley had been with The Company for even longer than Father and as a sort of ‘retirement’ had been made Francis’ handler. He always lamented his absence from the field and often lived vicariously through her. She came to see him as her grandfather and learned everything he was willing to teach her. And then he was gone and Father was her handler again. He had fully retired. He hadn’t even said goodbye.
Her missions got more vicious. Arson, kidnapping, sabotage. But they were sanctioned, so she completed them successfully. It was when Father ordered her to kill a priest that Francis grew suspicious of him. The Company didn’t interfere with religious orders, considering them a neutral party. She did not accept the mission. It didn’t save the priest.
She decided to confront Father, both with her concerns and her suspicions. She expected outrage, or disgust. The calm, almost sorrowful acceptance frightened Francis even more. She saw the first wanted poster the next morning, proclaiming her as the priest’s murderer, and knew that she had been betrayed. Father was never one to forgive, and certainly never forgot.
She left everything behind, including her name. She would need new contacts, new resources, and new allies if she was going to beat Father at his own game. She would take every advantage she could.
And that’s basically it. It’s a bit longer than I intended, but it’s a great of example of creative inspiration coming from a bit of randomness. Give it a shot with your own players and let me know how it works out.