One of the best ways to get a handle on a character for a role-playing game is to fill out their back story. Where did they grow up? Who were their parents? How did they do in school or their apprenticeship? Did they get in a lot of fights? Did they keep to themselves and read? Did they steal something? Did their first love break their heart? What events led them to where they are now as the game starts?
Some games, and gamers, more focused on the hack and slash elements do not need this exercise. You roll or pick your stats, grab your equipment and go. I’m a wizard. I have spells. I’m taking my fighter buddy and we are walking into that hole in the ground to look for treasure. My first game consisted of this level of play and it worked just fine! Sometimes games will start this way and then later a player creates a back story to fill their character out more fully.
I’ve been guilty myself of writing up a 2, 3 or 5 page back story for a character to help me understand them and their choices in a game after I had played a session or two. Sometimes a character will stand out before the first session and the back story comes easily. Other times, it takes a bit of work. Regardless, it’s always a good idea to get a feel where the character is coming from in their past. Even in real life we go back, review our life and look to see what made us who we are in the present. It’s a tried and true method.
I would suggest, however, this is only a half of the creation process. There is another layer that is often overlooked. I would suggest it is just as important to look at a character’s front story, their future. Take a bit more time and understand why your character wants to go forward.
This should not take long and should not require too much more time. I feel it helps give your character momentum and drive when it’s time to get the game rolling. I would even argue that you can run with a character’s front story a lot easier than you can with a back story.
How do you push a character into their future? Like a back story, start with some questions. Here are a few questions to get you started.
What do they want to accomplish immediately?
Maybe it’s just to go into a dark hole and get some treasure? Cool. Maybe they want to punch that merchant? Fine. Maybe it’s to get off the out-of-control train they’ve found themselves on? As long as they have some idea of what they want to do NEXT then you’re good to go.
If your game is not starting out with immediate action, like a dungeon crawl or a train rushing to its doom, perhaps a character just wants to go into that tavern for a drink? Even though this is simple enough and often used, it’s important to move on to the next question.
Why do they want to accomplish it?
We know what they want but now let’s answer why. Why are they mad at the merchant? Why are they so determined to get into that dark hole in the ground? Why are they on the out-of-control train in the first place?
And if they are just going into that tavern for a drink then why? Are they bored? Thirsty? Looking for someone? Any answer works.
What is it your character desires in the next month or so and why? How do they hope to accomplish it?
What does your character plan to do with the next few weeks or months of their future. Sure, they are going into a dungeon, going to kill a few monsters, grab some loot but is there something they are working towards in the short-term?
When you start to answer these questions it raises the stakes for the character and gives them some powerful momentum. Perhaps a character is going into that dark hole to find something valuable so they can help their aging parents who are about to be evicted?
What if a character, born into nobility with training as an excellent negotiator, is on that train to go to peace negotiations with an age-old enemy? If they don’t arrive the peace talks will certainly fail and thousands of his countrymen will be killed in the fighting. If so, well, it’s time to find a way off that train.
What are the character’s “big picture” goals? When will they feel like they “made it?”
Does your character have something they are striving towards which will take an extended period of time? Something which will take years and a collection of experiences and quests to complete to reach the goal? Look at your character and think, “What does this character want to be when they grow up?” This is the character’s larger aspirations and hopes. What is the legacy your character wants to create? When you fill this part in you are tapping into the real energy of why the character will make the choices they make and what drives them forward.
Perhaps a fighter is going into several dungeons because they are trying to build up wealth to hold some political power, settle down with a small estate and raise a family? Perhaps a cleric wants to eventually form his own temple somewhere or build a charitable organization?
Even if the character, at game start, is going into that tavern to get a drink because they are bored and uncertain about what is coming next I would still inquire what the character’s deeper motivations and goals might be. Everyone is powered by something internal. Find it and use it.
As an example, I once ran a character who started as a pretty basic thief. You know, a pickpocketing 2nd story guy with a dark cloak and a knife. That was it. However, one thing came up in the back story. The current head of the thieves guild had been particularly cruel to my character. So, for my long-term aspiration, I decided my character was going to eventually take over the thieves guild or build another one to dethrone the current leader. It was going to take several game sessions. The goal ended up being a nice lodestone for the character to come back to and work towards in every single game regardless of the plot going on with the overall party.
Once you answer these few questions I think you will find that your character will begin to take a life of their own. These questions do not need to be completed in full nor are any of them permanent. They can be quickly jotted down as notes or guidelines. Some empty or vague answers are perfectly welcome and you should leave some room for when inspiration or events in the game work to help you fill in those blanks.
Finally, review the character’s front story every time they progress, finish a quest or level up. In the real world, people change. Events may take place during the course of the game, or games, which causes the character’s internal trajectory to change.
Keep some notes and allow your character to move forward on their new aspirations. I think, when you look back, you’ll find it has added deeper levels to the character and made them even more enjoyable to play.