One of my favourite parts of building a character is writing the backstory. Sure, I know that it’s a fourth level gnome fighter, sure I know he’s 3’4″, has green eyes and pink hair, sure I know he’s more nimble than strong, more charismatic than wise… But why? What led young Henrick Von Flufferbottom or whatever his name is to be a fighter? Why is his hair pink? Why is he doing anything he’s doing?
So you write a back story… You craft a detailed epic of gnomish royalty who escape a violent coup, only to give birth to their son in the wilderness. They raised their son together until Troglodytes raided their caves, killing the former king and capturing his wife. Only young Henrick, the true prince of the land, escaped capture by hiding in his mother’s knitting basket. Alone, Henrick had to slay a swarm of Trogs to save his mother… Alas, it was too late, and she died in his arms. He did manage to help a wounded prisoner escape. That prisoner, though disabled from the loss of his leg at the hands of giants some twenty years ago, was still a cunning warrior and trained Henrick in the arts of being a warrior…
And then none of it is ever mentioned again.
So why do we bother? What’s the point of making detailed, rich backstories if they’ll just get ignored? Well, there isn’t one… So you have to make sure the backstory doesn’t get ignored or forgotten. But here’s the catch: yes, it’s important that the GM works with you, and it’s nice if they manage to bring some part of your backstory into the game. They could give poor Henrick a chance to finally avenge himself on the usurping ruler of his ancestral kingdom, for instance. But it’s not only up to the GM. Even if characters or events from a player’s backstory are never mentioned in the game, there is still every opportunity for that player to make the backstory matter. Let’s look at how both GM and players can make the backstory work again.
A GM’s Job
In theory, if you’re running an RPG, you’re trying to make the experience fun for your players. At least, I hope you are. If not, maybe you should look into a different hobby. Or maybe you have masochistic players. Either way, no judgements.
If you are trying to make the game fun, then you need to think about what your players want. Is Henrick the kind of player who wants his backstory to come into the game, then it doesn’t hurt to do it. Obviously, you have to be careful… If you let Henrick reclaim his throne and be in charge of a kingdom at level 4, it’s going to really change things like the player’s resources and allies; but that doesn’t mean you can’t give him his backstory fix at all. Maybe a Trog escaped his first rampage, and is hunting him down. Maybe his old, one-legged teacher is in trouble and needs help. Maybe Henrick gets a chance at revenge, if not against the usurper of his parents’ thrones, at least against the treacherous adviser who helped the usurper.
One thing to keep in mind if you do this as a GM is the rest of the party. If the characters are all legitimately friends, then it’s probably ok to have an adventure that is just helping poor Henrick. But if they’re a band of mercenaries, thrown together out of convenience and love of gold rather than loyalty, you’re going to need a better reason than Henrick saying please for them to do anything. One way to think about this, then, is using someone’s backstory as an adventure hook rather than an adventure goal. If Henrick’s old teacher needs help, maybe a party would be reluctant to drop everything to go help (even if Henrick would). But if Henrick’s teacher shows up and says he needs help because he learned of a valuable treasure, but that he is too weak to get it himself, and is willing to split it with them in exchange for their help… Well, then we have a character reference from Henrick (“you guys can trust him, I know him”) for a new adventure.
Also remember that bringing backstory elements into your game doesn’t have to big massive. Something as simple as having a wandering tribe of Troglodytes recognize Henrick and attack is enough to make Henrick’s player know that you paid attention to his story without stopping your whole game for one player and making all the others wait their turn for exposition.
A Player’s Responsibility
Alright, so that’s how a GM can work in some elements of a character’s backstory, but it’s not just the GM’s job. If you’re a player and you want your backstory to matter, make it matter! I’m not saying it needs to be your main focus… No one will want to team up with Henrick if he spends all day weeping about his dead parents and swearing bloody revenge against all Troglodytes. But if something major happened to affect a character’s life, some part of that needs to show up in the character’s life, right? Play your backstory. Play your character true to your backstory when it benefits your character and (and this is important) play your backstory even when it hinders you.
Henrick knows he should be a prince. Maybe he is arrogant sometimes. Or maybe watching his father’s death from the knitting basket left him with an irrational discomfort around yarn balls. It’s a simple thing you can play (don’t overdo too many negative qualities, or other players may get annoyed), that links back to your character.
Henrick doesn’t have to spend all day hunting Trogs. But maybe, if he and his party comes across some, he has a particular dislike for them. Maybe when a Trog surrenders and throws itself on the party’s mercy, Henrick wants to execute it despite his friend the Paladin’s wishes. Don’t make it a stopping point – don’t break your relationship with the rest of the party because “that’s what Henrick would do.” But make the fact that it bothers Henrick clear.
Henrick doesn’t have to spend all day being mopey about his parents having been killed. But maybe when he learns that the villain that the party has captured and is bringing back to be tried and executed has a five year old daughter and no living spouse, and all of the villain’s crime spun from trying to support her, Henrick has to struggle with what he should do. Does he go with his heart and let the villain go, refusing to make another child an orphan? Does he deliver the villain to justice and try to find some way to support the girl? Does he try to convince the jury to punish the villain through imprisonment rather than death? Obviously the safest plan for the party would be to let the villain face his fate… But all of these thoughts are better for Henrick’s story. Not only that, but they also give the GM something to work with. Does the villain (or his daughter) come back? Maybe they are grateful? Maybe they aren’t. Either way, Henrick, in playing his story, has lead to the possibility of more story.
So if you’re a GM and your player put work into a backstory that they clearly want to matter, throw them a bone. You can show that you see and value their backstory without having to completely work the game around it. And if you’re a player who wants your backstory to matter, make sure you play it. If you don’t show that you care about the backstory enough to play it, why would anyone else care?
And if you’re not sure? Talk to each other. There’s nothing stopping a GM from saying “Would you like something out of your backstory to come into the campaign?” or a player from saying “How would you feel about my character’s past coming into an adventure?”. Even if you’re not always on the same side in play, you are a team when it comes to the game. Work together, you’ll have more fun that way.