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The Douchey DM » Adventure Design, Alternate Views » One GM’s Perspective: What I Want from a PC Backstory

One GM’s Perspective: What I Want from a PC Backstory

In the next episode of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast, we’re going to discuss PC backstories and the GMs who ignore them. As an adjunct to this discussion, I like to talk about my expectations and preferences for PC backstories.

Obviously, since all GMs are different, have differing play styles, etc., this is my own list of things I like in backstories. It might not be a bad idea to get such a list from your own GM.

Part One: Presentation

  1. Brevity. I prefer paragraphs to pages when it comes to backstory. Don’t write a novel — or even a novella or short story. Instead, give me a couple paragraphs I can breeze through. Even bullet points or number lists would be fine.
  2. General rather than Specific. The more general the information is in your backstory, the better chance I can integrate it into the setting.
    If you tell me “the Orc King Ogg the Terrible is my mortal enemy because I stole his Scepter of Supreme Oggness and threw it in the Volcano of Mount Horrible,” you’ve just created a whole bunch of stuff that now has to exist in the setting.
    If you instead say, “the leader of another nation is hunting me because I stole the symbol of his authority and destroyed it,” I can probably fit this in with minimal changes to the setting.

Part Two: Content

This is the stuff I like to see in backstories, and by extension, the stuff I’m likely to use.

  1. Enemies. Hands down, this is my favorite thing to see in a backstory. Enemies are versatile: I can make them the driving factor behind the story, an really inconvenient wrench to throw in your plans or an added complication to a delicate situation.
  2. Rivals. This is someone you might hate, or who might hate you, but it won’t  come to blows, as you’re both on the same side. Again, I like rivals because it gives me the ability to light a fire under your ass — all I have to do is let you know that that other archaeologist at the university — you know, the one who panned your latest book — is also looking for the Artifact of King Ogg.
  3. Family and Friends. Do you have a family? You better. Who are they? Are your parents alive? Do you have siblings? Children? What about childhood friends? Adventurers from your previous adventures?
    This gives me people your character cares about and can trust.  It gives you a network of people who can provide information you can count on and refuge when you’re on the run.
  4. Alliances. Is there an organization to which you feel a real sense of duty? A mages’ guild? A military unit? A conspiratorial organization? A secret brotherhood? People whom you can call on, and who can call on you when the situation is dire.
  5. Skeletons. Have you done something terrible that your character will keep secret to his grave? Or maybe it isn’t a secret? Maybe you’ve served time for it? Are there some chickens out there that might one day come home to roost?
  6. Distinguishing Highlights. What are the great things you’ve done in the past? Anything that would have earned you a great reputation? Someone one who owes you?
Looking at the list, you might conclude that I want ammunition to screw with your character. That’s true, I definitely like to know what buttons your character has so I can push them once in a while. But more than that, I want to be able to make the story personal.
If you have to rescue a princess, it’s more interesting if that princess is the daughter of an old war buddy.

Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

Filed under: Adventure Design, Alternate Views · Tags: , , ,

3 Responses to "One GM’s Perspective: What I Want from a PC Backstory"

  1. MatthewNo Gravatar says:

    For the love of all that is original, please don’t pull a Batman. “I hate X because he/she/it/they killed my family.” So overused.

  2. GMBillNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent post. I was just writing about GMs incorporating backstories and skipped over how to write a good backstory because the subject requires it’s own post!

    Another thing I like to see in characters backstories is how they may know another character, even if the characters aren’t aware of it themselves.

  3. […] Douchey DM recently posted about desired parts of a character backgrounds. I encourage you to look at the post, because this is exactly what I want to see in […]

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