Guidance – Storytelling 101: Player’s Guide to Writing Backstories

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about what makes a good backstory.

When I wrote my article on using Pathfinder RPG Ultimate Campaign’s background generator, I got mixed opinions on the topic. Here’s one from Carlos Ignacio Vives that I want to begin today’s article with.

“The thing is, I don’t like something else deciding my story. I’m so detailed with them, once my douche-GM cut my printed story in half, just because he thought it was too long.”

This was an especially interesting comment to me, because I’ve been both player and GM in this regard. I’ve been “that guy” who wrote an obnoxiously long background and I’ve also been “that guy” who basically ignored half of an obnoxiously long background that I was given because of its length. Today I’m going to talk a bit about my experiences on both sides of this coin, and hopefully help you design a background that’s not only great for you, but great for your GM as well.

The Tale of Noxithalnos

Noxithalnos was my very first –serious- Dungeons and Dragons character. I had played Dungeons and Dragons before, but my first character lasted, maybe, a session before our gaming group got absorbed. Then my second character lasted a few more sessions before I died “heroically” from an allergic reaction to spider venom. (I think I talk about this in my anthology of gaming article. Check it out for more information.)

So basically, I needed a way back into the campaign. Problem was that I was young and attached to my very first Dungeons and Dragons character. I wanted to keep playing him, because this was right around the time that it sort of clicked in my head that there were more options out there then just the Player’s Handbook. And I REALLY wanted my character build. So I wrote this really long, overly complicated story about how my old character was actually a bit of a mislead. He was impersonating my new character, which in my mind “justified” them in looking and being exactly the same. And I even wrote this obnoxiously long backstory for an entire city that my new character was from, as well as an entire STREET BY STRET missive of what that city looked like. I drew a map and everything! (I was in High School at the time and my computer teacher didn’t really care about her curriculum had just left for maternity leave. I would race through the menial sub-work and work on my D&D character instead.)

Now, I never actually got to use that setting information. That campaign sort of just died when two of our characters died, and my GM had always been a bit sporadic with restarting campaigns. But looking back on it now, if I was my GM, I wouldn’t have even CONSIDERED using over HALF of the stuff in that backstory and not because it was clichéd (it was) or because it was forced (it was). Honestly, it was the length and the presentation that I chose. Let me illustrate with my next anecdote.

The Tale of Shuriel

Years later (literally, as this campaign that I’m about to talk about happened after I graduated college), that same GM that I handed a 12 page backstory to was a player in a game I was running. I had just introduced him to Pathfinder after coming home from school, and he was in love. Absolutely, unquestionably in love. (I think he went out and bought half of the available print books almost immediately.) But there was nothing that he was more in love with than the alchemist class. He loved (and still loves) EVERYTHING about that class, so when I announced that I was going to start up a home campaign, he was all about that class.

Roughly three or four weeks in, it happened. He told me that he was working on his backstory for some time, and he was finally ready to give it to me. I said shoot. He did. Literally. Whether intentionally or not, he hoisted me by my own petard. You see, my friend was playing an elf character, so in his mind he needed an elven adulthood’s worth of experiences in his backstory. And so, I got twelve pages of backstory in Type 9 font single spaced, because “the story was too big at any other font size.”

Let me tell you folks, I did NOT want to read that backstory. There was so much nuanced stuff in it that to spend too much time reading it would ultimately take away from my prep time out of game and cause my game to focus too heavily on his character in-game. (Of course, that game was ALREADY focusing too heavily on one player, which I would realize when said player was forced to stop playing with us due to life events, but that’s a story for another day.) So ultimately, I stalled on doing anything with this guy’s character until the very end, after I had time to digest the story AND after he gave me the spark notes version of the whole story. But the great secret here is that the spark notes version was what I wanted all along ….

Making an Effective Backstory

So now that I’ve told you my tails, let’s talk about what, exactly, makes an effective backstory for a PC. In a nutshell, an effective backstory is one that identifies your character’s motivations and grounds them in the gaming world. If the backstory doesn’t influence your PCs, it’s a waste of paper. If your backstory doesn’t take part in the gaming world, or at least explain the trail that lead your character to the “front door” of the campaign, it’s also a waste of paper. Finally, like any piece of effective writing, all of this information is conveyed in the least amount of works possible. Note that this doesn’t mean that you’re expected to reduce all of your ideas to a small paragraph. It does mean, however, that you use your word space wisely and effectively, conveying as many new ideas as possible while simultaneously reinforcing old ones. Anything else you do with your backstory is extra.

Now, I personally think that its easier to show what a good backstory looks like rather than talk about it, so I’ve fished up my backstories for my kitsune cavalier, Kyr’shin, and his cohort, Shira. One thing that I will note is that because of how Shira was introduced to the campaign, I didn’t write her backstory until after we had interacted with her a bit in-game. Basically, when my brother and I found out that we were going to be rescuing a clan of kitsune around the time that we turned Level 7, I asked my GM if I could make a kitsune from that clan as my cohort. He agreed, and so I wrote Shira’s original build, but only really decided upon her physical appearance and wrote a backstory that explained that aspect of her. The rest of it came later.

You can view Kyrshin and Shira’s Backstories here. Take your time, browse through them, and come back to the article when you’re finished.



Have you read it? Awesome! Let’s continue.

There are a couple things that I want to point out that I’ve found to be highly effective when physically “writing” a backstory.

  1. List details. Note how I have details about my characters listed in an easy-to-reference format. My characters’ age, birthday, height and weight, hair color, and eye color are all easy to find. This is not only helpful for my GM, whom I want to be able to picture my character in his head, but also for me, as I can reference the information quickly and efficiently whenever I want to.
  2. Code. This basically boils down to alignment, but it’s a bit deeper then that. In a sense, its like an ethos, or words to live by. You can learn a lot about a person by their “Code of Conduct,” and even the most chaotic individual is going to have some sort of mortality to them. Taking the time to write out a code gives you a greater understanding of your character then “Good,” “Evil,” “Law,” “Chaos,” or “Neutral” could. See if you can guess my character’s alignments based on those codes. I’ll include them at the end.
  3. Family. Most campaigns don’t involve family much, and if a family member becomes a big part of a campaign, he/she deserves their own write-up in a two-page format like what I have. Otherwise, a brief paragraph explaining who the person is and a little bit about his/her familial connection to your character is enough. Did you really need to know more about Kyr’shin’s adopted family then what I said here? Especially if you’re my GM? Family, more than anything, should be a window into what your character’s formative relationships look or looked like; they don’t need to be epic Odysseys.
  4. Major Childhood / Adolescent Events. If you look carefully at the minor events that I’ve listed in the childhood and adult sections, they’re on a theme. Specifically, the themes that Paizo used in the background generator for Pathfinder RPG Ultimate Campaign. For each character, I have several major events or plot points for that age group. For instance, I have Kyr’shin being adopted, his prodigial shapeshifting abilities, and the fact that he watched his brother get raised from the dead early on in life as his major, childhood-defining events. These events explain his alternate racial abilities and several of his personality quirks, specifically that he always expects the party oracle and magus to “fix” everything because they can cast spells.

Once you have this information, which ideally is no more than two pages per character, you’re basically done. You’ve provided a great bit of detail about your character to your GM, who can use the backstory to integrate your character into the game world. At the same time, you didn’t provide so much material that your GM feels threatened or drowned by your expectations. Because ultimately, that’s the major problem with handing a 12-page super-creative backstory to your GM, the intimidation factor. Your GM will ultimately feel so compelled to use as much of your story as possible that the opposite will happen and nothing will get used. Remember, a roleplaying game is a story that you tell together, and just as you wouldn’t want a GM inserting all manner of garble into your backstory, don’t make your backstory so large and grandiose that it starts inserting all manner of garble into the world that your GM is trying to craft for you AND YOUR PARTY MEMBERS to play in.

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue, and his two kitsune characters are Neutral Good (Kyr’shin) and Chaotic Good (Shira).

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.

5 Comments

  1. About mid way through four campaigns set in my own home brew I wrote up a huge PDF of geographical and cultural back story about my world, which I’m pretty sure none of my players really read (despite the fact that it was all laid out nicely with borders, backgrounds and borrowed pictures from the net). So I suppose it can cut both ways, as most players in my experience don’t have the dm’s zeal for reading all the settings books.

    What I have found works really well is giving them some sort of minor bonus, like paizo’s campaign traits, which ties down their story in some way and connects them to the campaign. That way, even if they are submitting a somewhat overly lofty story there is at least something tieing them in.

  2. I agree. I try to make backstories that are concurrent with previous characters, but then again I only play Adventure Paths, so it’s easier. For example, in Carrion Crown my first character was a Rogue. He was an associate of Professor Lorrimor’s, and was said to come from a Thieve’s Guild that the Professor “employed” when he needed subterfuge or other less-than-savory tasks. When my Rogue died (damn wraiths!) I still wanted to harken to his backstory and the guild, so the DM and I came up with a name and purpose for this guild “The Divine Silence”. My next two characters were also tied to this guild, and we came up with the story that the Whispering Way had infiltrated the organization and only a handful of members survived, including the leader (an Investigator Mastermind and my current backup). The leader’s wife was the one who betrayed him to the WW, and now she is a recurring NPC villain.

  3. As a professional writer, I can definitely see both sides of the coin from a Human resources perspective. You as a DM want to have BRIEF highlights of the character’s skill set & training to be what they currently are and what their motivations are for choosing this profession if they were given the opportunity to do so (for trained professions) and or what forced them to live the life they currently do (if they are of a class with either innate or no training needed). Players should definitely explain (again BRIEFLY) any traits and or drawbacks they choose.
    In my opinion, what a player must consider with their character’s backstory is to make it more like a resume/job application. If you make your introductory too long, you’re going to quickly loose the readers interest, simply because of the amount of time its going to take away from that person’s day taking the time to read such a lengthy story. On top of that, there’s no guarantee that it’ll even be worth the read and the reviewer may come away with the feeling of (I just wasted how much of my life on this?) Also, being too detailed and lengthy tells a DM that is what you expect of him as well with regard to the campaign information. I for 1 will pass on players like that. Besides, your PC’s (if starting at 1st lvl) shouldn’t have too much of a background as it is being as you’re just now starting out on your career path. Any information not related to any of your skills, abilities and or class selection should be left out so you can have room to create it in game. If deemed absolutely needed as a necessary part of the initial story and motivation for the character, then of course, provide info on your parents, home town, early life. However, if none of these have any affect on your character’s current mindset or motivations, leave it out. I’m much more likely to read a well summarized key pointed backstory with short explanations of everything as opposed to a novel that has absolutely nothing to do with the character (why would I want to see a map of where you PC grew up?? Really??)
    In summary, it’s good to be detailed, however, when presenting your backstory, write one for yourself and then a summarized version for the DM who isn’t going to have time to read that much detail into your character being as how he has a whole world to either create or research, and spending too much time on a single character’s background story can take away from the backgrounds of the other players and the story become focussed around a single character. All players want their PC’s to shine in the game, but if the DM focusses on a single player for any given reason, it takes away from the enjoyment of the other players and groups end up dissolving for just such reasons.

    • “Besides, your PC’s (if starting at 1st lvl) shouldn’t have too much of a background as it is being as you’re just now starting out on your career path. Any information not related to any of your skills, abilities and or class selection should be left out so you can have room to create it in game. ”

      EXACTLY! So many players miss this. I’ve had level 1 characters try and pass themselves off as dragon slaying epic swordsmen…before the campaign even started. I like to harken a Level 1 character as like a “fresh out of high school” mindstate.

  4. I’ve never had much emphasis on backstory either as player or DM. As A DM, I gladly will take it, but my players usually don’t care enough, or rather prefer to have the story start with the first session instead.

    Recently this changed. A friend is starting his first campaign in 5th ed D&D as well as his first campaign as a DM. He wanted a backstory for a possible character and I jokingly made what I thought was a bit of a mary sue character, using backstory to explain my character in conversation.

    A Lawful Good White Dragonborn Monk that hates Chromatic Dragons, particularly White ones.
    I made it short and sweet. He was raised by warrior monks in a monastery deep in some mountains, the monastery was attacked by a white dragon, he was the lone survivor. Now homeless, instilled with peaceful teachings, but angered at the dragons that took his home, he wanders.

    My friend liked my throwaway explanation so much that he wanted me to play this. Scarperil is my first Dragonborn character,

Leave a Reply