It usually starts innocently enough. You’re watching Star Wars or Lord of the Rings and have some idle thought about how cool it would be to live as a Jedi or Hobbit (look, some of us set the bar low, okay?). Fulfilling the fantasy of living different lives in fictional settings is a big part of what makes Tabletop Roleplaying Games so popular.
Creating fun and unique characters in Tabletop RPGs is one of the more engaging ways people get their feet wet in the hobby. You’re introduced to some new world with a hook you enjoy, like Shadowrun’s magical cyberpunk or the high fantasy of D&D’s the Forgotten Realms, and pretty soon you can’t help but start noodling with ideas about what role you would want to fill in that space.
In a lot of systems this comes down to picking out classes or archetypes to play as but beyond the mechanics of fleshing out a character (which can range from simple to complex depending on the system), the part I have consistently seen throw folks for a loop is coming up with a compelling backstory.
It’s understandable. As easy as it is to say you want to play as a warrior with mighty thews and smack monsters with a greatsword, it is a great deal more difficult to put yourself into that character’s mindset and answer questions about why they might smack monsters with a greatsword. The ‘Why’ question gets to the root of a lot of things in the roleplaying part of Tabletop Roleplaying. “Character Motivation” is something that is mentioned in acting circles and it is no less important when considering who your character is and why they do what they do.
A great avenue of discovering more about your own character than you might think possible is to start on the mechanical level. Statistics on your character sheet, applied with precision to make you a great warrior, clever wizard or inspiring bard, give you a fantastic baseline from which to derive a lot about the character. If you have a strong or smart character, how did they get that way? What training did they have or continue to do? If charisma isn’t something you’ve devoted points to, what is it that makes them off-putting?
No matter what system you are playing in, answering quick questions about why your character is built the way it is can do a lot to fill in a backstory. And remember, you don’t have to be writing a novel here (though I’m sure there are some folks who relish the idea), simple bullet points associated with each statistic, skill or even what equipment your character starts with can make for a hefty bulk of backstory. If any of those bullet points strike a chord with you, follow those lines of thought! Who was the master artisan that taught your character how to use leather working tools that you have proficiency with for some reason? Did they die tragically in a leather fire and now you have to solve the mystery of their demise?
It’s easy for stuff like this to spiral outwards into interesting, silly but no less compelling stories. Which is basically Tabletop RPGs in a nutshell.
One of the biggest things to consider in your character’s backstory though, and one I’ve seen disregarded so many times in the games I’ve run over the years, is a reason to be there. Never forget that while you might have a very good idea of who your character is and what their goals are, you are also playing a game presumably with folks who want to play this game with you. Buying into that conceit on a character level can make for a much smoother game overall.
It is all well and good to have a lone hero facing impossible odds but in a space where the story being told inherently includes the other players at the table, having a good narrative reason for your character to participate is key. Which isn’t to say every character needs to be a team player every step of the way but giving your character permission on a story-level to work with the other characters at the table can do a lot to bring otherwise disparate characters together.
All too easily, when making a character, we can forget that when we start playing a TTRPG together each player is inherently bringing their character to interact with their fellows at the table. I’m speaking mostly for myself here but ask any Game/Dungeon Master and you’ll probably get a similar response. Games flow better when everyone (both player and character) actually want to be there.
Lastly, the most important part of any character’s backstory, their name. This one can be tough and honestly you are sort of on your own in terms of tips I might provide. In case you are truly stuck though, here are a few options that I will default to more often than not.
Pick a fictional character and an actor who played them and then mix n’ match their names. (Examples: William Frakes, Luke Hamill, Malcolm Fillion)
Choose a favorite mythological character and give them a very mundane first or last name. (Examples: Hercules Jones, Sunny Wukong, Larry Gilgamesh)
Find the first thing in your line of sight and then spell it backwards. This one can be deceptively simple but with the correct application of apostrophes and accent marks, it can take years for others to catch on! (Examples: K’sed, Draob-Yek, Nãc H’sart)