Earlier in the week, my first blog post, “Don’t Write a Backstory Before Reading This,” gave tips to beginners on how to write a basic backstory for their newly minted Dungeons and Dragons character. Today, I’ll be highlighting five common backstory mistakes players commit. If you want to avoid having your adventuring group smack their heads when you play your character, read on! (I’m not pointing fingers, I’ve been responsible for a couple of these myself!)
Backstory mistake #1: DARK AND STORMY
A common mistake for beginning and veteran players alike, the DARK AND STORMY backstory puts your character into harrowing experiences before the adventure. Your parents are both dead, you were raised as an orphan, you became an alcoholic, and then you were responsible for the burning down of an entire village! Just stop it folks, adventurers don’t have to be in a horror movie to qualify for that adventuring life!
I’ve definitely been at the table where the conversation went something like this:
Player 1: Yeah, so, my parents died at a young age, so I had to rough it on the streets.
Player 2: That’s crazy! I lost one of my parents too!
Player 3: That’s weird, because a demon killed my parents!
Me: … <SMACKS HEAD>
Backstory mistake #2: MY CHARACTER ALREADY DID THAT
This egregious crime happens when the player writes a backstory where they’ve basically already done a bunch of adventuring (and it often comes as a surprise to the DM).
Player 1: So, yea, before I met you guys, I saved a village from an Adult Green Dragon. It was so wicked! I slew the mighty beast with my legendary sentient two handed sword. That was after I found out my parents were actually vampires and I had to spike them in honor of the god Torr Thundersmelt!
DM: The only place you did that was in your mind, because this is MY WORLD!
<players taste DM rage>
Not only are you leaving your character with no plot holes and personal exploration, you probably didn’t consult the DM on if such experience was appropriate in the campaign setting. Heads may roll, and it won’t be the dragon’s!
Backstory mistake #3: FAN SERVICE OVERKILL
Remember when R.A. Salvatore’s Drizz’t Do’Urden book series was super popular? (And yes, they’re still popular, R.A. Salvatore’s writing the 46th book in the series as we speak). Everybody and their mother wanted to be a dark elf dual wielding ranger. It was a big enough trope the tv show Community took it to utter ridiculousness in 2012.
We love playing characters we know because we connect with them on an emotional level. However, playing a character everyone knows about just isn’t as cool as making a character with your own personal spin on it. Not only does it ruin immersion for other players at the table, it robs you of the satisfaction you get when you watch your own character grow and evolve.
My advice for people who love these characters (Critical Role, Acquisitions Incorporated, others)- Take what you love about that character and put your own spin on it. Do you love the idea of being exiled from your own culture and heritage? Explore that background by making it your own.
Backstory mistake #4: CHILD OF GOD SYNDROME
When we play video games or RPGs by ourselves, the story line focuses directly on the success of the main character. More often than not, our characters are imbued with powers from a god or have some mystical calling. While that's fun for solo play, it's a bad concept for an adventuring party.
Giving yourself such a storied background or power can lead to multiple issues. Your character’s prestige may put you in the middle of the main story line, which detracts from other players. Additionally, if you gain special powers, your character might break the game, making scenarios and fights less fun for everyone.
I will admit though, if you get the whole party and the DM to agree ahead of time for such a story line, it might be a fun thing to try out! Just don’t sit down at the table unannounced with a heritage that could put the world in balance and expect people to be happy.
Backstory mistake #5: Mr. Opposite
Usually, when you get together with different players and your DM, there’s an unwritten contract that says you should cooperate with other players at the table. For this backstory mistake, you choose to build a character and a backstory that goes completely against the party.
Perhaps you choose to be an evil character when you know your party is good aligned. Maybe your character has a history of distrust with a certain race that’s in your party. While this might feel like it’s in good fun or snarky, it’s not. In fact this breaks rule #1 of collaborative storytelling- Don’t be a dick!
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Until the next adventure!