Burst of Insight—Effective Character Backgrounds

I’ve been running and playing RPGs for a long time and one of the things that I often notice giving players and GMs a hard time are character backgrounds. Let me preface all this by saying the content of As a GM it is often hard to get players to write a background even harder to get one that gives you the information you really need to tie the character’s backstory into the current plotlines. As a player, the flip-side is often true. If you don’t like writing how do you convey the information the GM wants? Even if you do like writing, how do you keep the narrative concise enough to avoid burying the good stuff?

Getting and submitting good backgrounds begins (like nearly everything else in roleplaying) with solid communication. It is important that the GM let the players know the kind of game she plans on running and if there are any elements of the overall plot the PCs should attach their characters to. Similarly, a character’s background should flag events that the player would like to revisit in the coming campaign.

Soliciting Backgrounds

When you are running a Paizo produced Adventure Path, the designers do a nice job of putting together some of this information for the GM. Including key themes, hooks, and details like this is a horror campaign and why does your PCs hate this NPC or how did they know a certain deceased professor from Ustalav? But if you’re creating your own campaign you’ll need to reveal similar insights to your players before play begins. I know this can be hard. As GMs we want the PCs to be shocked to discover that a great ancient enemy is rising in the world but if we tell them a little about the campaign’s broader plot we can increase buy-in from the start and help the players create characters with backgrounds that will work for the campaign. If you are imagining lots of overland travel and deep dungeon crawls and a player chooses to make an urban socialite who hates the wilderness chances are things are probably going to go awry. So first make sure the players know the kind of adventures they might be able to expect.

Whether you’re running a homebrew or an AP, if you have really creative players it pays to consider how much reading time you’ll have and set a word count limit. I’d recommend 750 words or less. This is a little more than twice what round one entrants in RPG Superstar typically get to describe a magic item. This doesn’t need to be a hard limit but the closer they keep to whatever guidelines you set the better.

If your players are not prone to creative writing you can give them a short questionnaire to fill out that will guide them through getting you the information you’ll need. I’d recommend no more than a quick three to five general questions about how the characters became adventurers. Maybe something about their family or early life. Then two or three questions that focus more tightly on your campaign. Some suggestions might include: For a campaign that begins with dungeon exploration, “What is your character’s interest in the Azlanti ruins outside of your village? “For a campaign that begins with a jailbreak, “What led to your incarceration in the King’s infamous Iron Tower prison?” For a campaign motivated by an allied NPC, “Tell me about how you met and befriended the town bard, Alistair Peat?” Then finally you might ask one or two about the character’s goals, fears, or secrets. This final question could even be so broad as to basically be, “Tell me anything else about your character. Does he/she have any goals, fears, or secrets you would like me to explore throughout this campaign?” Whatever you do though keep your questionnaire short your players won’t want to feel like they have to do a ton of homework.

For my next campaign, I’ll probably do a little of both. I’ll ask for a quick 300-500 word background and ask a few more specific questions, Including a few to tie PCs together. It will probably resemble something like this:

  1. Please summarize your PC in a single sentence.
  2. Describe the important portions of your character’s backstory in about 300-500 words.
  3. [An undetermined question relating to the campaign’s main hook]
  4. Tell me anything else about your character. Does he/she have any goals, fears, or secrets you would like me to explore throughout this campaign?
  5. After discussing your backgrounds together. Tell me one thing about how you met the character of the player to your left.

Tips for Players

If you are a player and your GM hasn’t provided you with any direction about what kind of background they would like for the player characters their campaign don’t hesitate to ask them questions. Find out if there are any noteworthy NPCs that would make sense as allies or enemies for your character. Find out if the GM wants just a few sentences or if they want a full-blown narrative. If the latter I’d again shoot for 750 words or less you don’t need to write a full short story or novella for your GM just the important beats of your story. In fact, I’d recommend once you have a good 300-500 word summary close out with just 2 or three solid hooks. You might even just bullet point these so it’s clear they aren’t part of your narrative. All in all, though you should keep everything under that 750-word target.

Even 500 words will be enough to get the broad strokes of your background and a few key events down. Remember your background need not be a standard narrative you could certainly bullet point events on a timeline using either your character’s age or (if you know when the campaign is set to start) with the in game years. I’ve used this method before but I usually prefer a more traditional narrative style for the bulk of my background but that’s just a personal choice. Employ whatever method you prefer just make sure the elements you might like to see played on in the campaign get addressed. Call out the parts of your background you are particularly interested in seeing expanded during play. Just add a note like, “If there’s an opportunity to use this in the campaign that would be great.”

In addition to talking to your GM about campaign ties and word count, you should keep it appropriate to campaign and your audience. I used to be a GM for a number of Vampire LARPs I have read a number of backgrounds that were inappropriate for the game. Some because they were unwanted erotica-fanfic where characters seduced NPCs and fictional characters not included in the setting and more often because the character had Mary-Sue’d their way through every possible secret the World of Darkness had to offer in the first year after becoming a vampire all without any of it being reflected in the hard numbers on their sheets.

You probably don’t want to make these mistakes.

Keep to the setting cannon. The likes of Raistlin, Drizzt, and Elminster are fine characters but they have their own worlds to romp around in. Similarly, you probably don’t need to have met every third character from the Pathfinder Tales line. Okay, maybe (with GM approval) when your Pharasmin priest was a young acolyte he briefly met Salim Ghadafar and now secretly wishes that the goddess was half as interested in her as she is in this atheist…or maybe you’re character is thankful that the goddess is not interested in her. Feel free to include some details of the setting but not in a way that reveals any special secrets to you or elevates your character to a position that makes you more important than the other PCs.

As an example, we are currently playing through Carrion Crown which begins with a funeral for a certain professor. My character is an elven wizard/rogue and I took the Campaign Trait: On the Payroll. Which made me a former employee of the late professor. Recently our GM asked us about our character’s backgrounds (again) my reply by text was short, “I was an itinerant scholar, scribe, researcher, translator, and occasional crypt robber hired by the professor.” At the beginning of the campaign that had sufficed but our GM is looking to dig deeper into the characters and I had to be a bit more specific. If you want to read my character’s background I’ll include it below.

Updating Backgrounds

As I said we’re in the middle of Carrion Crown and only just now digging into the character’s backgrounds which have some surprising advantages that you can leverage even if you record your backgrounds up front. My background has a few details I would never have thought to add but have evolved from conversations at the table.

Backgrounds need not be static things like television shows things happen during play that can become part of your background. The TV show Arrow has spent several seasons adding new revelations about Oliver’s time away from Starling City every week. You need not go to this extreme but GMs and players can get together as often as the campaign requires to fill in details from your background you didn’t think of when the campaign began. You might meet a character the GM says in an old acquaintance from your character’s broadly mentioned army days. Now you may wish to update your background with some help from your GM to incorporate new details from that time in your character’s life. GMs and players can get together and update backgrounds as often as the campaign requires.

A proactive GM, knowing an encounter with an old army buddy/rival is about to happen might foreshadow this revelation by working with a player to detail the relationship. While it might be tempting as a GM to keep such revelations secret, if you have worked out the relationship in advance there will be greater player buy-in and many of the questions you would normally have to answer will have been dealt with already.

That said there still may be occasions where you need to preserve the secret for as long as possible. However you decide to reveal the material update the PC’s background so there is a record of the information going forward.


Terrik Grady

Itinerant Scribe, Translator, and Occasional Crypt Robber

[About 560 words total]

Both of my parents were elves but I was not raised among elves. I was raised by humans in Absalom. My birth parents were adventurers. My father died before I was born and my mother died some time later, but I never knew her. The first set of parents I can remember were relatives of my mother’s adventuring companions. I was raised as if I were one of their own children but elves age slower than humans and soon my “brother” and his wife took me into their care. Both my adoptive families were ardent followers of Cayden Cailean and I was practically raised in a tavern.

Absalom is a cosmopolitan city and in the tavern, I heard dozens of languages and hundreds of dialects. My time steeped in foreign languages and cultures led me to scholarly pursuits. In the books, I read I also discovered magic. Rather than a more formal education, I’m largely self-taught. I did spend a few years in formal training getting the basics of arcane theory down but I grew bored and went out into the world.

I worked as a traveling scribe translator and sometimes crypt robber. I met the professor while he was a young man exploring Osirion. We were drinking in a bar when his chronicler was stabbed over a bad hand (and full sleeve) of cards. The professor and I hit it off and I worked for him for a number of years on a number of expeditions. While traveling in his retinue I learned (by necessity) a few cons, how to open doors other’s didn’t want opened and similar unsavory skills while still studying magical theory and drinking in honor of my taproom patron deity.

(Note: I’m a little flighty, like the humans that raised me I’m adaptive and flexible in my way of thinking but unlike them I have the time to pursue new areas of study…which is why despite already having experience with magic and less acceptable pursuits I’m now looking to learn about guns.)

  • There was a persistent rumor that followed me through much of my childhood that my mother attempted to complete the Test of the Starstone and that is how I actually became an orphan. Another rumor claimed she’d lied about the test and abandoned me. My character believes that it doesn’t matter much as I was abandoned either way. Although, if the first rumor is to be believed I think she might have tried it to bring my father back…as apparently his soul was unwilling to return at the call of the Pharasmin priests who tried to raise him.
  • After a drunken round of cards some thirty years ago or more the professor told me a secret. One that I “must never divulge,” at least not while the professor lived and was so important that I “MUST never forget it.” Of course, I forgot it before we sobered up. In fact, I didn’t remember it at all until I was at the old man’s funeral at which point it was far too late to ask him to remind me.
  • In my early wanderings, I may have sired a half-elf child or two. I was a bit of a menace before I matured and joined the current group.


Andrew Marlowe

placed in the Top 16 of RPG Superstar in 2012 and 2014, one of the few contestants to get that far in the competition twice. Since then, he has contributed to many Paizo and third party Pathfinder products, including one of the network’s favourite releases in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, the Dirty Tactics Toolbox. Every other Tuesday, he will be sharing his Burst of Insight, with design tips for would-be game designers from a decorated freelancer.