What is backstory?
Your character’s “background story” is the events in their life that led up to the current Campaign. In acting terms, it is the history of the character before the drama begins. Events from your character’s past underlie the situation that currently exists.
Backstory can contain whatever level of detail you wish. The simplest backstory could just be the town you were born in, and the names of your parents. On the other hand, your backstory could cover decades of significant events that have shaped who your character is today.
Despite the name, backstory isn’t just about your background. It also covers your future, your goals and aspirations, your motivations, and any conflicts your character feels (such as enemies in the world they might come across).
Why is a character backstory important?
As a literary device, backstory is often employed to lend depth or credibility to the main story. If you think back to any form of fiction you’ve truly loved, it is likely you were invested in the emotional journey of the characters, and how their pasts shaped who they are in the present.
Creating a compelling backstory allows you to feel your character’s emotions and become invested in their present and future. This in turn will help the DM deepen your involvement in the campaign, and your character can have long-lasting impacts on the world.
Having a backstory will also give you a baseline for your in-game actions. Knowing how your character will react to certain situations is crucial for building a character that is deeper than “go here, kill that”. A thorough understanding of your character’s motivations, flaws, and personality will help you roleplay them better.
So, a deeper backstory featuring ties to places, people and things you value, will unearth a stronger connection to the world that the DM is always striving to immerse you in.
Do I have to have a backstory?
No. A backstory is completely optional. It is a tool to help the DM enrich your enjoyment of the campaign story. However, it doesn’t have to be lengthy or detailed. Consider that deciding even simple details such as the place of your birth can help the DM build plots and stories around your character.
How do I create a backstory?
Backstory may be revealed by various means, including flashbacks, roleplay dialogue, narration by the DM, in-game quests, and out-of-game books in the Library.
Creating backstory is a collaborative process. The DM can provide oodles of lore on the world. For example, you have an idea that your character is a poor kid from the inner city, who had to engage in thievery at a young age just to survive. The DM can provide a suggestion of towns where that scenario would be likely, along with information on notable districts, NPCs, and events in their history, to flesh out your story. You can then choose from these elements and build on them.
Alternatively, if you have an idea for a town or NPC that is important to your character’s past or future, bu they don’t exist yet, the DM has the power to create them and integrate them into the world in a suitable and appropriate way.
So, the process begins by speaking to the DM. Once you gather your ideas, save them in a Word or Notepad file, or write them down on paper. It doesn’t have to be an essay (though it can be!) A backstory can be scribbled notes like “mother: Jane Seymour. town of birth: Lanthrel? maybe Farth? future motivations: become famous as a warrior”. You can also save any images or other content that represents scenes from your character’s past, or their future ambitions.
When your backstory is “complete” and you’re satisfied, the DM will help you incorporate the backstory into this website and your character sheet for permanent preservation and updates.
Which questions will help you build a backstory?
You can certainly write a full “biography” of your character (with the DM’s help). But at its most basic, a backstory is the origin and theme of your character, and possibly their future direction. Jotting down a few quick answers to any, or all, of the following questions, will help you!
How old is your character? Young and impetuous, older and wiser to the world’s quirks? Perhaps they don’t even know their true age?
Close family or friends in the world? What do they do? Where do they live? (The DM can help you create these).
What day was your character born, and in which year? Click below to view the Calendar. The DM will be able to provide suggestions, lore, and notable events around the day and year of your birth.
Where was your character born? What was it like there? Do these places bring back good memories, or did they want to escape? If you don’t know what town to pick, but you have an idea of what it feels like in your mind, ask the DM for suggestions! Click below to view the World Map.
How were you raised? Good memories? Nightmares or traumatic experiences? What are your parents’ names? Many of our actions tend to be based on influences from our childhoods.
What is your character’s moral code? Are they a natural do-gooder? Just out for whatever they can take from the world? Although the current campaign rules don’t make use of the official 5e Alignments, you can still answer an Alignment quiz by clicking here. This will give you deeper insight into your character’s ethics and morality.
Does your character have any personality quirks? Do you get hiccups every time something surprises you? Do you compulsively share “fun facts” about everything, that are usually wrong? Personality quirks brings a character to life.
What do you fear? Hero, champion or winner, we all have fears! Knowing your character’s fears will influence how they navigate through their quests. It could be metaphorical, such as fear of failure, or a real NPC or place (you can work with the DM on this).
What are your character’s dreams, hopes, ambitions? What could stop them achieving these?
Conflicts! Does your character have any historical enemies that are out to get them, or do they hold any grudges against others? Have they been betrayed by someone – or have they betrayed others? Have they been let down by an institution in the world, such as the Empire? The DM can help sculpt these elements. Conflict is often the best source of emotionally intense plots.
Do you have any examples?
Here are two examples of backstories written by players that featured in a previous campaign arc. As you will see, they are both quite different in style. The first is a full biography, whereas the second is more factual and focuses on world lore. Both of these are fine! There are no set rules.
The players involved worked closely with the DM to flesh out the details, such as places, NPC names, and sentimental items you may have. But ultimately, the story is down to you – the point is to deepen your emotional involvement in the world!
These stories have been edited significantly to shorten them and remove identifying details, but they are still in the player’s original words (they were both 10 or more chapters long, so they are included here only as brief examples).
Chapter 1: Whispers: The character was born in the shadows. Her mother gave birth in the hidden flanks of Rath City, in a dusty corner, on a rickety iron bed with a worn straw mattress, surrounded by curtains that would have done little to contain her screams of labour. Except she never screamed. Nobody wanted to draw attention to the goings on in the backrooms and so the people laying low there had gotten used to whispers, and clenched teeth.
And Aislinn Bradley, the character’s mother, did clench her teeth. She convinced herself this pain was no worse than any other – that a flogging at the hands of a guard was just as bad and that she had proudly withstood that in silence too.
An elderly woman neat silk dress and pearls held her hand, squeezing back as much as Aislinn squeezed her, her rickety old bones withstanding the force surprisingly well. She had seen children born before and it no longer fazed her, nor was she surprised at the mother’s silence. That was simply the way here. Whispers, and clenched teeth.
In the very same moment, in a cemetery located towards the opposite edge of the city, five men stood around an open grave. Their hands were folded. Their hoods hid their faces from the sweltering sun, even though their red-tinted armour did nothing to keep the summer heat out. In silence, with clenched teeth, they looked at the sixth man – down in the grave, dressed in that same red-tinted armour. His elfish face, handsome but oh so pale, was not hidden by his hood, and was marred by blackened bruises and small cuts, the thin lips split open.
His had been an ugly death – violent, not quiet and efficient like was their way. He had fought back against his attacker but had ultimately paid the price. The five men would have stripped him of his red armour and left him in the street where they found him, as was their way, but Carric, the character’s father, had been their guide and their tie to the Thieves’ Guild. With his death, the alliance was likely to crumble – and if news reached the thieves that he had been left to rot by his assassin brothers, there would not even be speech of a truce.
The thieves were the lesser fighters, but they were cunning, numerous, and knew too much. The assassins had everything to fear from them. That, too, was Carric’s doing.
One of the men took off his gloves and whispered a prayer, before walking over to the grave and pushing sand back into it. Carric would never see the sunlight again.
In the hushed back rooms, Aislinn Bradley held her daughter for the first time, gently touching her tiny, pointed ears, and knew she would never know her father.
Chapter 2: Home: ‘Home’ to the eight year old character meant rooms with tiny windows. Quiet, smaller rooms in the front, with dusty beds and tables and stale food her mother told her not to eat. Big rooms in the back, noisy, where big men and women with tattoos and gruff voices hauled boxes and sacks, where smaller men and women with whispering voices cut deals and did magic with coins. Home was where the character spent her days climbing on the neatly stacked crates, where she had nobody to be afraid of, and where she knew the way by heart, despite the fact that every nondescript room led to new hallways, new rooms and new basements.
It was where every man and woman knew of her, even if not all of them knew her name, and where they all reminded her daily where new traps had been placed and where she could nick some fresh fruit for breakfast. For lack of a father, half the Thieves’ Guild felt responsible for the girl’s upbringing and each did their part to feed her, clothe her, and teach her. The old human woman who went by the name of Nora Rags (who was perpetually well-dressed) patiently taught the character her letters – using books the entire guild provided – and spoke to her in her father’s tongue.
A half-orc named Olog, who called himself a dancer, taught the girl some swordplay – teaching her the rhythm of battle with more flourish and hip-swaying than strictly necessary, and showing her how to dance with various blades. Kerry, a gnome as small and lithe as the half-elven child, taught her to climb and dodge, scaling the shipments of stolen wares quietly. As she grew older, the character grew to consider those people her home, rather than the rooms she stayed in.
Even those the character had been told not trust took kindly to the child. Darrow, the human proprietor of the shipping consortium that functioned as the Guild’s front, made a point to speak no more than strictly necessary to the thieves passing through his offices, but freely answered the child’s questions about economics – perhaps in relief that he finally found a genuinely captivated audience. The young drow Velkyn, who was almost shunned even amongst the thieves, was openly approached and befriended by the child, and in return he showed her how the shadows could hide her, how to disappear, and how to ambush.
The lessons the character treasured most, though, were her mother’s lessons. Aislinn was a master pickpocket, with quick fingers and a knack for locks. Many evenings were spent with the daughter sitting next to her mother on that worn straw bed, fidgeting with locks, thieves’ tools and coins. Many days were spent by her mother’s side in bright daylight, ridding the rich of their coin pouches deftly.
Perspective: The character grew up in the Glade of Ald, led by the Council of the Glade, within the forests of Western Rath. He later discovered he was adopted.
Society classes: The character’s family was middle class. To the character’s knowledge, his family once would’ve been considered upper class due to the connection his foster mother had to the Elder’s daughter before he came along. Upon returning alone, the family seemed to have been within the middle class bracket.
Foster Father: Lurthic Wolfsbane, Third-lead Farstrider, patrols the surrounding lands. Kind but willing to uphold duty always. He would be willing to do favours for people, but if they were against the popular views of the Glade he would have been pained to do such kindness, caring about the family’s image.
Foster Mother: Mialee Wolfsbane, Handmaiden to the Council (former), Maid to the Archdruid. Willing to go above and beyond for friends and family. Unlike her husband, she was more than willing to go out of the way to help others, often being the driving force for her lover to conduct such acts. Extremely thoughtful and desired the best things of everyone and everything. Believing no one was beyond redemption.
The Archdruid: Heian of the Glade: This male elf was, to the character, rude and disrespectful at all given opportunities. He was incredibly old but it reflected well in his non-aggressive wisdom. Often well informed about the land by spending excessive time communing with it. The disappearance of his daughter Taielle, before the character’s birth shook him to the point he became more cold and bitter, isolated from the members of the Glade.
Tale of the Past: Early into the character’s maturity, his mother told the tale of her job in the village in more exciting times. She was once appointed personal handmaiden to the Arch Druid’s daughter, of a similar age. Both close friends. Two years following Darah’s birth, the Arch Druid’s daughter was tasked with a pilgrimage. She followed with the young druid duty demanded of her, towards the “Heart of the Empire”.
Around a year later, Mialee returned alone to much sorrow. Their father, Lurthic, had speculated this event pushed the Council to act with dislike and mistrust towards Non-Pure Wood elves. Mialee never supported his claim yet never truly opposed it.
It was then during this time that the character was born.
Night of the Banishment: After a rough day in the village of the Elders having one of their seasonal routine communing with nature meetings, tensions swiftly arose in the village. It was decreed the current citizens of the Glade that weren’t of Wood Elven purity were to be sent into the wildness and cast out within the week they had of preparation. The character was only seventeen, and among the handful to be sent off that very night.
He had accepted his fate of not being welcome. Before he was seen out, his sister gave him her longbow with some sentimental value and care put into it. Urging him to keep to his instincts and control the wilds to survive. In one teary moment, they embraced and said their goodbyes as his father and mother handed him a beautifully Druidic wooden ring with his name carved on the outside.
There is another engraving but he was never told what it stated. They told him it was a gift from his true mother.
He occasionally hiked and travelled to the east to the Western Rath logging camp to trade skins and meats to the peasant lumberfolk and their suppliers. They were kind and welcoming, later becoming the source of any of the character’s renewal of equipment and trade. In this camp he met two friends:
Tarven Tillsworth: Tarven ran an Inn-like building within the camp with the goal of attracting word, traders and giving the folk a place to gather. He was one to greatly adore and care for the community he had, cutting discounts for the character at times, being an all around great friend and trader.
Ol’ Darryl: A middle-aged, pushing elderly shortly lumberjack within the encampment often fascinated by the character’s way of life, quite the drunkard. he enjoyed passing time learning stories and gossiping over drinks.
Character’s ambitions: This character has been cast out because he is not a pure Wood Elf. He has nowhere to belong and is alone in the world. He wants to join forces with friends and adventurers to make a place for himself, but he is also wary and a little bitter, wondering when he will next be hurt again. He also wishes to discover what the other engraving says on his family relic.