As a narrative tool for Roleplaying, the composition of character backstories is often highly encouraged by DMs, pretty much since the inception of the hobby. The benefit of playing the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons is that generation of a background is integrated into character creation, then summed up in a neat sentence or two after rolling on the tables. While I’m a huge proponent of integrating backstories into the game, it also isn’t necessary. One can play an amazing tabletop roleplaying game without one.
“Three Hearts and Three Lions” by Poul Anderson is one such novel where this very scenario is the case, and is included in the original Appendix N book-list for the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. In this story, a man from the normal world joins a World War II resistance cell and, while fighting against the Nazis, believes he is killed. Instead, he wakes up having been transported to another realm entirely. While he has a history from the "normal" world (so one could argue that he has a backstory), he discovers that his new form is endowed with instincts unnatural to him. We find out through the course of the story more about his alternate history — and therein lies the key. An individual from an entirely different plane of existence (the player) is transported into another plane (the character) and must learn who he his and the glorious destiny fated to him. Part of the fun of this story is seeing the protagonist uncover the events of his new past. He stumbles around and makes mistakes as his old life from his new world comes to him in flashes and feelings. The potential for character driven, narrative roleplaying is infinitely exciting. Even so, this kind of story isn't unique. The trope has even made it, perhaps too effectively, into more contemporary stories.
Playing a character without a solid backstory is a very fun challenge and can be immensely rewarding. That character encounters the imaginary world in a vastly different way than the other players'. The character sees the world with fresh eyes, because everything is quite new. It sort of bridges the gap between reality and our shared fantasy. This presents a fantastic opportunity for the amnesiac character to work closely with the DM to form a rich tapestry of intrigue for the party to interact with. Not to mention it gives the DM endless possibilities to play with the character emotionally. After all, one of the most iconic Star Wars characters of recent decades is ex-Darth Revan — and you play the majority of the game not knowing you’re a despotic tyrant, all the while developing a possible romance with the Jedi who stole your identity. It's the best of American Soap Operas. His story is slowly unfolded page by page until the player sees the now iconic scene of Revan removing his mask to reveal the chosen avatar of the player. Yes, a backstory existed for him before the game began, but the player doesn’t get to know what that is until they actually play through the game. And the story given to replace the one stolen by Bastila is pretty tenuous. In table terms, this could be represented through a character having no backstory to speak of, but working with the DM to develop something as the game progresses, slowly gaining bits of their identity through visions, dreams, or chance encounters with people from their past.
I believe in backstory and highly encourage it to be a part of how the players characterize their in-game personalities. At my own table, I often offer in-game benefits (experience, items, NPC favors, etc.) as incentive to further develop the backstory of each character. Nevertheless, while most people do default with the background material offered in 5e (of which there are a number of interesting and inspiring options), one can conceivably skip that whole section with little mechanical difference. There would be a few things lacking, but not necessarily enough to horribly destroy game play. Although, I don’t know why one would — the point is that it isn’t absolutely necessary. While instituting the backgrounds or not is definitely the DM’s call, requiring players to compose a history or essentially be assigned one doesn’t sit well with me: not everyone is interested in writing a narrative, no matter how short it may be, and choosing one from a predetermined list seems very railroaded.
Once again, the DM is well within their ability to require such a thing. However, the construction of the world and its inhabitants is a group effort. It doesn’t just belong to the DM. They do the majority of the heavy lifting with world construction, indeed, but the shared reality the characters inhabit only partially belongs to its initial creator. The players interact with only a tiny portion of that world and each one forms their own individual sensory and emotional opinion of what the DM describes while they play in it, making that reality their own in the process.
For me, that collaborative world building is where the true magic lies in tabletop gaming.
What do you think? Are character backgrounds required at the start of play? Leave us a comment below!
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- While waiting for fresh horses during a journey, the party overheard a couple of hooded figures whispering about “The Advent.” Their eyes flash a brilliant white in the light.
- Your adventuring party reaches a town where the actions of the villagers are perfectly reflected by their twin on the other side of the street, like looking in a mirror.
- Local whispers speak of a man in a tattered, deep crimson robe who foretells the coming doom of each town he enters — and that doom is close behind him. You look up and notice a man matching that description striding toward you with purpose.
- A young cartographer hasn’t returned from a recent trip up north. He went to get some newer measurements of Spirit Lake and hasn’t been heard from in a week.
- Many years after the Weeping Death causes the demise of many, a new illness chokes the air from its victims - The Singing Sickness.