Developing Backstory During Play

By Aviv Manoach. This post originally appeared at

I’ve been a role player since I was 13 years old. In the beginning, I had no regular group, so I talked with people in online forums, went to gaming conventions and, most of all did a lot of writing. This was how I developed my writing skills over the years, which later help me a great deal in my work.

I wrote entire settings, adventures, and characters. Back then I was an avid supporter of freeform roleplaying and detailed character background. Each character I created had pages upon pages of information about their backstory, family history, personality, and opinions. Most of them didn’t see any real play at all.

Weirdly enough, while I GM’d many convention games at that time, I didn’t use the same principles for creating the pre-gen characters for con games. I usually wrote one paragraph, or at most half a page, then during the game, I allowed the players at my table to develop those characters however they wished.

In high school, I got into a regular group, and we played together for about three years. I still wrote detailed backgrounds for my characters, but they were mainly used as a nice story that only I cared about. It wasn’t that my group mates didn’t create backstories for their own characters, but that they only created enough to fit in with the campaign. n any case, most of the time the stories we created during the game sessions were a lot more interesting than what I created by myself.

It wasn’t until several years later that I started gravitating toward an alternate form of character creation, one that is done during character generation and even during play. In the last couple of years, as I’ve diversified my games collection, I discovered games that incorporated this concept, of creating most character details on the fly, as part of their core design.

Traveller is perhaps the oldest example. The various editions of Traveller offer a more-or-less random character generation system that not only determines what skills and abilities you get, but also different events that happen to you during your career, and even connections to the other party members. In the original version of the game, you could even die during character generation.

A more recent example is the Apocalypse World Engine games, including my system of choice, Dungeon World (which we published in Hebrew). AWE games suggest that you describe your character at the beginning of the game in no more than one sentence, using the choices you made while creating it.

In a DW group I played last year, my character was the bard, Hispitz, son of Klaus, and my entire concept for him was based on a single decision made during character generation: under the “gear” section it says “Choose one instrument”, with one of the options being “Your father’s mandolin, repaired”. I chose that and decided it was my dad’s instrument since he was dead. That’s all I knew about the character when we started playing.

Another example was the Wizard concept stating that he had a magic book he stole from his old master, which during the first session already became an integral part of the campaign. The Wizard cast a telepathy spell on me to try and find information regarding a mysterious “yellow caped man”, which I didn’t even know I met, but in a big reveal, while searching through my mind, I decided that this was the man that killed my father! A bit later we discovered that this yellow caped man was also the Wizard’s master, and suddenly our bond became much stronger. But already in the first session, according to DW guidelines on how to manage the sessions, we explored the group’s past together. One of the other characters was a Wizard; I took a bond which states “This is not my first adventure with…” with him, and again, we didn’t elaborate on the decision during character generation; instead, during the game session, we started building on this bond. In one instance the Wizard tried using the Aid move to help me attack a guy with my duelling rapier, and the GM asked “how can you help him fight?”, to which the wizard reply “I remind him about another fight we had while adventuring together”. BAM! It became canon, part of our characters’ background.

This idea of developing a character’s background during creation or play is not limited to systems that integrate it directly in their mechanics, and these days I prefer using it in most games I play. I like to first know what my character can do mechanically before I create a background to support it. Sometimes it’s because it’s a new game and I don’t have a clear idea of what I want to be, so I throw around different statistics and build a character I’ll enjoy playing mechanically.

As an example of that approach, recently I played in a short super-hero adventure using the Hero System 6th edition rules. All I knew was that I wanted to play a mentalist, so I sat with the GM and we went over different options I found engaging. An hour later when we were done, I already knew who this character was, just by designing it. The story manifested itself in my mind from the specific choices I made for mechanical reasons.

Another example is the game I’m currently playing. I joined an existing group playing the Wrath of the Righteous Pathfinder adventure path. They’ve already finished the first adventure and I joined them for the second one. The first thing I asked before creating my character was “what does the group needs?” meaning, which mechanical role the groups lack. Turned out it was the healer, so I started looking at divine classes, finally picking the Oracle.

Besides healing, I wasn’t really concerned about making my character effective. I looked at the different Oracle mysteries, wondering what will be cool to play. Since I’m always fascinated with temporal effects, teleportation, genetic memories and stuff, I picked the Time mystery, and again, like with my Dungeon World character, this choice ended up defining my character.

I decided that since I was an Oracle of Time, I’ll be plagued with visions and memories of different periods, both past and future. I also decided that all of my spells, while they stay mechanically the same as Pathfinder defines them, will have time-related flavour. So my summoning spell doesn’t bring something from another plane of existence but from another time (I summoned a Lantern Archon and said it was from the far future, referencing a Protoss Archon); my cure spell reverse the time locally on the wound, not healing it but making so it never existed, and so forth. I also chose the “Wasting” Oracle curse and explained that my body is actually ageing at such a rapid rate, it’s already started to decay.

The quickly became a running joke in our group. Every time I say something, none of us is sure if I’m talking about the present, the future or the past, and every time something happens to us, my character claims to already foresee it happening.

One of the cool habits we have at our group is “Question of the Week”. After each session, one of the players sends a question regarding the event of that session, and each of us answers as his character. This helps us expand not only our own backstory but also the campaign world. Answering these questions helped me shape my character beyond being a heal bot and a time joke machine. I started exploring my character’s past before he became an Oracle. He was actually an expert geologist, leading groups of dwarven miners deep under the earth to find rare minerals.

And the cool thing was, we could all still say that maybe he doesn’t really remember his own lifetime. It could just as well be one of his ancestors, or maybe it’s a future event, that didn’t happen yet.

Today, I think that developing a backstory during character creation, and expanding it during play, is one of the best experiences of a role-playing game. Since we do not play alone, seeing how our character is shaped, and in turn shape, others is something amazing we get from playing those games.

If you haven’t tried it yet, maybe look for one of the games which specialize in this type of character creation process. Or just start changing your style, bit by bit, with your next character. Like many things in role-playing games, it’s a matter of taste; and you should try and taste it, perhaps it’s to your liking.

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