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The Perfect Backstory

Tomorrow night on Happy Jacks RPG Podcast, sponsored by Crone, the RPG, by the way, we’re going to talk player character backstories. Specifically, we’re going to talk about the sorts of item in backstories that GMs love to see.

So in preparation of that discussion, I’d like to detail a few things that I love to see in PC backstories.

One: Generates NPCs

When gearing up a game, one of the most time-consuming tasks is developing a cast of non-player characters. Crowd sourcing this to your players is a great way to lighten the work load. It doesn’t just have to be parents and other family members, though those can be fun too. And it doesn’t have to be mortal enemies either.

It might be a local fence that a thief knows and trusts. Perhaps the local tavern has a barkeep who’s a favorite of one or more PC (maybe he pours a little heavier than the other barkeeps). A cleric might have a young street urchin he looks after. A man-at-arms might look after a pretty widow and her small children. Perhaps the great marksman of the party has a rival with a similar reputation.

There NPCs add flavor and depth to a game. They provide the PCs with personal connections from day one, and they create a sense of investment in the players since they had a hand in creating them.

So as a GM, I love to see NPCs in backstories.

Two: Creates Places and Organizations

Unless I’m running a game in a highly canonical setting, I can always squeeze in (or change the name of) some city on the other side of the mountains. I can create a neighborhood where one didn’t exist or establish an organization, corporation, cabal or conspiracy.

So when my players give me these sorts of things, I work hard to find a place for it. Very often these things will create jumping off points for new plot ideas.

Three: Sets Up Future Stories

Sometimes we get backstories where the PCs have already done great and glorious things. That’s not interesting. I don’t want to read about the great big bad guy you vanquished.

What do I want to read about? I love reading about the great big bad guy you pissed off and are now hiding from. I delight in the long lists of bad decisions you’ve made that you’ve yet to pay for. Was your father killed by a six-fingered man? Great! Don’t vanquish him in your backstory!



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.

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2 Responses to "The Perfect Backstory"

  1. Joseph MasonNo Gravatar says:

    I agree with all of these, but would add: Other PCs. Preexisting links to other players are often key for players to figure out how they will deal with each other.

    I have the problem that sometimes PC back stories are littered with plot hooks, but that only that PC will care about, and sometimes be things that they would actively try to deal with alone.

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