Character Backstory: A DM’s Best Friend, A DM’s Worst Nightmare

Stack of BooksFor some time now, I’ve been pondering the problem of character backstory.

On the one hand, you have the player who does nothing to flesh out any kind of backstory. I call these the “orphan” characters. Why? Because that’s inevitably their backstory. “My character is an orphan.” I don’t know why that seems to be the default backstory for all the lazy players out there, but it is.

And while “no backstory” isn’t a problem for the DM, per se, it also doesn’t give the DM too much to work with. If you want your players invested in your campaign beyond killing the monsters and looting the bodies, you need to tie at least SOME of the story to their characters. And character backstory is useful for that.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the players who love to write backstory. They come to your table with a ream of paper, and hand you their character’s backstory. And if we’re being honest, it’s not very well written. Even if it was… do you have the time (or inclination) to read it? No. So while the “my character is an orphan” player doesn’t give you anything of substance to work with, the novelist player gives you TOO MUCH to work with.

In all my years as a DM, I’ve encountered a lot of the former type of player, a few of the latter, and barely any players who strike a nice balance somewhere in the middle. Which leads one to think… is there a good middle ground for character backstory? I believe there is. And so I created 5 Questions.DTRPGCover

5 Questions is totally system and genre neutral. It prompts players with 5 questions about their character’s backstory that they must answer on a single sheet of paper. They’re leading questions, so a player who is stuck on where to start will have an easy time. There’s not a lot of room (one page, 5 questions) so your aspiring novelist is given boundaries. Balance. You have great character hooks to use, but not pages and pages of narrative to sift through.

(If the idea of a character questionnaire seems familiar, it is. I’m riffing off the Dread questionnaire a bit, although in that system, the questionnaire is the entirety of the character sheet, and each questionnaire is specific to the adventure being run. I had to come up with more system neutral questions, and allow for the reality that in most RPG systems, there is more to the character creation process.)

In all, the document has 500 character backstory questions arranged 5 at a time, so a total of 100 totally different questionnaires. Plus an appendix that lists all 500 questions at once. It’s as easy as print and go for the lazy DM, or you can use the questions to make up (or roll up) your own questionnaires. Totally up to you.

I hope some people find it useful. I know I do.

(If you want to know the sorts of questions that are in the document, check out my Twitter feed. I’ve been tweeting a question a day.)

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