The Quick and Easy Character Background
Posted by Journeyman GM
Characters aren’t just people who suddenly poofed into existence at the start of the campaign. They have a past, secrets, and dreams. A good GM will try to incorporate these aspects of a character into the campaign, usually by asking for the players to write up a character backstory which they will use to develop character-specific plot hooks. Sometimes that doesn’t work so well though. Either a player doesn’t know what to write about or the player writes a short novella about the character’s past which, while interesting, doesn’t always provide the GM with useful information to create plot hooks for the character’s future in the campaign.
So I’ve developed “The Quick and Easy Character Background,” a system-neutral, double-sided paper with five steps to help a player create a character backstory that makes it easy to create good adventure hooks that the GM can use. You can download the complete PDF here. The questions are simple and ask about:
- The character’s background and concept
- A goal the character has and the goal the player has for the character
- Two secrets about the character: one the character knows and one that involves the character, but they do not know (and there’s a note that the GM may be creating a third secret that neither the player nor the character know)
- Three people tied to the character, two friendly, one unfriendly, and an optional nemesis
- Three memories that the character has in order to provide some context and flavor
I’ve had my players use this for several campaigns, especially Savage Worlds and Dungeons & Dragons campaigns and I’ve had good results with it. For instance, I once ran an Indiana-Jones style pulp campaign and one of the players had written that they had a mother was traveling the world. So I had a session where his mother guest starred as a companion character. Momma Laros didn’t have any combat skills, but she could taunt and intimidate like only an old lady can and she instantly became a hit among the players.
The “secrets” section is especially fun for the GM. In a Star Wars game I ran, a player wrote that his character’s secret was that his character was a Jedi. He also wrote that the character didn’t know that his father, who was a Jedi too, was killed by Darth Vader. So the secret that I created that neither the character nor the player knew was that Darth Vader had recruited his father as a potential apprentice. The player’s reaction when it was revealed was priceless!
This handout is useful for any setting, but sometimes you need one that is more focused. Last spring I ran Daring Entertainment’s War of the Dead, a zombie apocalypse campaign, and created a simplified version for that campaign, which you can download here. This one removes the “secrets” section because there wasn’t much opportunity to explore them in the premade campaign, and I asked questions that were more specific to a zombie apocalypse, like who your character would miss.
I’d like to give credit where it’s due and say that this handout was based off of questions created by D&D forums user “The_Stray” in this topic, which in turn was adapted from the Minimus RPG. To keep the sharing going, I’m releasing both documents under the Creative Commons Share-Alike License 3.0, which allows you to freely distribute and adapt them, so long as you make it clear that any revision is based on my work and those who came before it.
I hope you all find this useful. Please let me know well it works for you and your campaigns!
Here are the file links again: