Picking Your Origin: How to Write A Compelling Backstory For D&D

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how to write a compelling backstory for d&d
how to write a compelling backstory for d&d

Creating a backstory is one of the best things about D&D. Unlike modern video games, you have absolute freedom in backstory creation. Even if you have limited adventuring books and reference materials like Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and Tomb of Annihilation, your imagination will fill the gaps!

Before you sit down and create a backstory, you need to know its definition and real purpose in the narrative.

Backstory – A Character’s Driving Force

The concept of backstory is simple – it’s your character’s point of origin. Perhaps your character starts life as a young farmer who eventually took to adventuring because of a big purpose or mission. Everything is possible since you can make dozens of backstories and pitch them all to the DM. Eventually, your DM will just approve the most sensible backstory.

The backstory is also the anchor that you can cling to – if ever you feel lost in the big narrative. Think of the backstory as the main thing that links your character to a developing world.

Even the simplest backstory is better than nothing! If your character doesn’t have a backstory, your DM will create a fresh one that might go against your ideas. This action might leave a bad taste in your mouth unless you’re really just concerned about killing monsters and obtaining loot.

Backstory creation is also an interesting mental exercise. The process will improve your writing skills and let you explore tons of great possibilities. Between sessions, you and your friends can also trade experimental backstories to foster camaraderie.

Backstory Creation – Step By Step

Some players are comfortable building their characters’ backstories. However, a fair amount of players are also intimidated by the creation process. Thus, they’re content with crude backstories or inconsistent origins.

Here’s our step-by-step process on making a strong backstory:

Internalize Your Character

Internalization is a continuous process. You may have a persistent character idea or even a potential backstory point, but you still need action. Thankfully, you can internalize your character within 30 minutes.

You must feel how your character deals with conflicts. By doing so, you can craft a compelling backstory that will make your DM proud. Just remember that peace is also a strong motivator. Perhaps your character is a devout keeper of global peace or a passionate seeker of risky adventures.

Mechanical or functional factors can also help you internalize the character. Take a look at your character sheet. Observe the ability scores and interpret how competent your character is. Does he/she have a high Strength score? How about a low Strength score but a remarkable Wisdom score? These scores are numbers but they translate to relatable backstory points.

You should also read about the DM’s campaign lore. By understanding the lore, you can create a character with an immersive backstory.

Use D&D Backgrounds As Starting Points

D&D is loaded with options that will help you make a great backstory. You can read the adventure modules, splatbooks, reference materials, and even gaming logs from big forums like RPG.net or ENworld. But if you want the most accessible options, look no further than D&D’s published backgrounds!

These are some of the best D&D backgrounds:

  • Criminal
  • Folk Hero
  • City Watch
  • Scholar
  • Courtier
  • Entertainer
  • Haunted One
  • Faction Agent
  • Spy
  • Sailor
  • Investigator
  • Vizier
  • Urchin

Alternately, you can talk to your DM and ask for a custom background if possible. It’s almost always fun to create a backstory using a unique background.

List Down The Problems You Want To Solve

While starting with problems seems counterproductive, the approach will actually help you make a strong, believable backstory. One common problem is tyranny. You can see this in the real world and other fantasy or science fiction worlds. Perhaps you can build the backstory of an adventurer who wants to rid the world of evil. Then make that adventurer a voracious shopper because consumerism is a problem too!

Don’t go overboard with so many problems, however. Just pick one or two and write your story accordingly!

Work With Your DM

The DM is more than just an arbiter of the table. He or she is also a weaver of stories or a creator of nearly endless possibilities. If you’re having a difficult time building your character’s backstory, then you should coordinate with the DM.

Some players usually build their backstories and align them directly to the DM’s campaign lore. After all, the DM has the final say in everything, especially with backstories that can change the flow of the game. But aside from seeking approval, you can ask your DM for backstory ideas or plot threads. The DM might even offer tips and sources of inspiration.

If the DM doesn’t agree with your backstory, don’t lose hope. Take it as a challenge and tweak your backstory for the betterment of the party and the overall campaign.

Draw Inspiration Everywhere

In making a backstory, you will never run out of material. Actually, the opposite might happen! You’ll have tons of material that you might end up overwhelmed or distracted. If you think that you can’t find sources for a backstory, just step back for a while and observe.

Have you recently watched a movie? If yes, then try to picture your most favorite characters from that movie. You can list down the qualities of these characters or some aspects that you want to change. Maybe you want to add a measure of redemption for that character’s story. Take note of that redemption arc and include it to your new character’s origin point.

Another great source is your personal experience. Look back in your life and try to find pleasant and unpleasant moments. Don’t wallow in these moments – examine them objectively, as if you’re just collecting data for a specific document. Once you have a list of personal moments, find the best ones and use them as motivators for your character. This might be a pleasant activity because you’ll have the chance to reverse bad moments or reminisce great moments, at least through roleplay.

Just like movies, books and magazines are also great sources. If you look hard enough, you’ll encounter a book filled with stories, lore, and remarkable moments. Magazines also have anecdotes that serve as inspiration.

Use Backstory Generators – Then Tweak

If you’re really pressed for time, then you should try using backstory generators. Nowadays, you can find dozens of backstory generators. The simplest of them all is a D20 dice.

To start forming a backstory with a D20 dice, lay down the data. You can put things like a sad past, a warlord destroying a village, or even a necromancer who killed the character’s family. Using a D20 dice will make the creation process easy and help you save precious time.

The most popular online backstory generators are donjon, kassoon, chartopia, and fantasynamegenerators. It takes less than a minute to use these generators, and you’ll have tons of great results.

After generating your fresh backstory, just tweak some parts of it. Maybe you can add an NPC related to your main character and discuss it with your DM.

Tips on Staying True to Your Character’s Backstory

Forming your character’s backstory is the first step. After that, you need to act based on the backstory and other important things in your sheet.

But as the sessions go by, you might have a hard time aligning with the character backstory. You might encounter slow moments especially during combat or casual roleplaying.

To stay aligned with your character’s backstory, you can apply these techniques:

Balance Your Character’s Ideals & Flaws

D&D’s ideal-flaw system is a great way to help your character grow. One common mistake of beginners is putting great emphasis on ideals, ability scores, traits, and equipment. If you want to become a competent player, you should focus on the balance between ideals and flaws.

Basically, ideals are the best things about your character. They are statements connected to your character’s alignment. You’re always free to build your own set of ideals or you can just get some from the PHB. Ideals are the driving factors of your character, and they’re directly connected to the backstory.

Flaws, on the other hand, are limiting factors that will make your character grounded to reality. By using flaws correctly, you’ll have a great immersive experience throughout the sessions. Remember, balance is important! Don’t let the flaws hinder your character too much – either in roleplay, combat, or even social encounters.

Avoid Metagaming As Much As You Can

Metagaming is somehow unavoidable because of different things like D&D experience, tabletop materials, and even the information left by the DM. If you’re keen on using monster stat blocks or data from other games, then you’re metagaming somehow.

Metagaming will pull you out of immersion and acting from your character’s backstory. It will also annoy your DM because some encounters won’t make sense against persistent metagaming.

Keep in mind that metagaming will affect your backstory development process. At the same time, metagaming will dampen the fun for everyone!

Choose The Best Actions For Your Character

At every moment, you should pick the best actions for your character. Such actions are possibly related to your character’s backstory or alignment. But then again, you shouldn’t neglect the sake of your party. If your action will bring the city watch against the party, then you need to rethink. Otherwise, your action might lead to big troubles and diminish the fun.

There’s no shortage of opportunities to show the best actions of your character. Your party might reach a big tavern, and your character probably wants to ask for information from the barkeep. This action is obviously better than starting a tavern-wide fight!

What if you can’t display the best actions because of some circumstances? In that case, just pick the action that benefits the party in a given situation. You’ll see this case in combat where you need to go against your bearings to save a friend or land a finishing blow.

Lastly, if you’re unsure of what to do, ask your DM. The DM will give you advice regarding the situation at hand. From there, you’ll know the best action to do.

Don’t Stress Over Character Alignment

Alignment is a classic factor that drives roleplay and even backstory creation. While the alignment system is useful for building a moral compass, it can also impose limitations. You might feel wrong to grab a bag of unguarded treasure because your character is pure lawful good.

If your character’s alignment affects the fruition of your backstory, then you need to loosen up. Perhaps you don’t need to follow your alignment all the time. Just stick to your alignment during serious situations and adapt whenever needed.

If all else fails, you can talk to your DM and discuss the possibility of an alignment change. This will take extra work since you probably need a side quest or a meaningful activity.

Interact With The DM’s Prepared World

More often than not, the best way to stay true to your character’s backstory is to interact with the campaign world. Let your character explore the deep areas of the city, uncovering secrets that might loop around the backstory. Or perhaps your character can ask an NPC for a significant quest or lead.

A good DM will give you solid options for backstory development. After all, a constantly improving character can make the campaign more interesting. The other party members might also love the development.

Best D&D Materials To Help You Make A Rich Backstory

Backstory generators are cool things but nothing beats a selection of physical books that you can open anytime. Due to the rich history of D&D and tabletop gaming in general, you can find dozens of sourcebooks and splatbooks to make your backstory more interesting.

Here are our top picks:

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

XGE Review

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A dedicated player should always have a copy of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (XGE). This sourcebook contains tons of options like character classes and backstory motivators. It’s like a giant tome that puts other disorganized materials to shame.

The backstories presented in XGE are enough to get your creative juices flowing. While creating your character’s backstory, you can even get the other cool options presented in the book.

The Lost Artifacts of Greyghast

Greyghast Review

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While the Lost Artifacts is all about phenomenal magic items, you can still use the sourcebook to generate cool backstories. You can try connecting your character to one of the book’s showcased artifacts. These artifacts have their respective lore and stories meant to boost your creativity.

The Lost Artifacts of Greyghast is also a great gift for your DM. Send this sourcebook to him/her and you might get the backstory approval that you need!

Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica

GGR Review

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A truly popular crossover book of D&D and Magic the Gathering, the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica (GGR) has a wealth of options for both player and DM. The book offers subclasses, motivations, affiliations, lore, starting quests, and overall flavor. The Ravnica options are great for building a thematic backstory focused on conflict, exploration, and group dynamics.

Plus, you have ten guilds to choose from – each guild representing MTG’s color combinations and conflicting values. Maybe your character can hail from one of these guilds. Just reskin a guild’s identity unless you’re playing in a Ravnica campaign.

Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide

SCAG Review

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If you want to create a backstory that emphasizes humble origins, one useful sourcebook that you can rely on is Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide (SCAG). SCAG explores the best things on the Sword Coast, but it also offers creative lore pieces that you can spin for your backstory.

SCAG’s writing is also vibrant, making it similar to a handy encyclopedia. So if you’re aiming to connect many details to your backstory, SCAG is a must-have.

Ghosts of Saltmarsh

 

Ghosts of Saltmarsh Review

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Do you want to create a backstory related to the high seas and thrills of swashbuckling? Well, look no further than 5E’s Ghosts of Saltmarsh! This adventure module presents neat options for aspiring swashbucklers – on top of a cool campaign that can last for many sessions.

And if you’re just eager to expand your knowledge about being a pirate in D&D, just sit back and enjoy Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Sooner or later, you might feel inspired to create a well-detailed backstory!

Strongholds and Followers

Strongholds & Followers Review

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A sourcebook that deserves better attention, Strongholds and Followers is all about fortress management, castles, siege rules, and dynamic NPC creation. You might think that this book is meant for DMs or worldbuilders. Well, you’re right! However, the ideas presented in Strongholds and Followers are excellent plot points for your new character’s backstory.

With Strongholds and Followers, you’ll know what it feels like to be a castle lord or a commoner. You will also realize the disparity between exquisite and poor lifestyles, fueling your desire to make a deep societal change.

Villain Codex

Villain Codex Review

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A supplemental book for Pathfinder, the Villain Codex has everything you need to imagine a defiant antagonist. The best thing about this book is the categories of villains and the representation of minions. You can draw inspiration from various evil groups like a devil-worshipping cult, a caravan of thieves and scammers, and a hidden sect of assassin-monks.

The only downside is that Villain Codex’s monster stat blocks don’t fit 5E unless you want to do a full conversion. Just pick the lore parts of the book and craft a backstory inspired by a cruel villain!

Conclusion

After creating a backstory, your character’s journey has just begun. In every session, your character should align to the backstory for greater realism. If the DM doesn’t pay attention to your character’s backstory, then remind him/her through roleplay or OOC discussions.

Do you have a unique backstory idea for your D&D character? Share it to us in the comments!

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