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RPGBOT.Podcast S2E12 – Creating Your Backstory

Show Notes

In this episode of the RPGBOT.Podcast, we discuss backstories for characters in tabletop RPGs. We explore what makes a good backstory, backstories to avoid, and related mechanics like backgrounds in DnD and Pathfinder. We also discuss some specific guidelines about what and how much should go into your backstory, and recommend a few tools you can use if you’re looking for ideas.

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Materials Referenced in this Episode

Transcript

Randall 

I started life speaking into a plastic cup tied to a string. Sometimes people would sit on the other end listening. Sometimes they talked, but I didn’t hear it as I only had one cup. Like many of us, I just can’t talk and listen at the same time. It’s a good thing for a person to realize about themselves. Other people too. I left that cup one day to begin speaking into a tape recorder. I would later bring that tape recorder into shopping centers and leave it playing loud for folks to enjoy. Sometimes they enjoyed it. Sometimes they asked me not to come back. One day, I found myself recording a podcast. You probably heard me there saying Welcome to the RPGBOT.Podcast. I’m Randall James. With me is Tyler Kamstra.

Tyler 

Hi everybody.

Randall 

and Random Powell.

Random 

Evening.

Randall 

What are we going to do today?

Tyler 

Today we’re going to talk about character backstories. If you’ve ever played a tabletop RPG using a character that you have made yourself, chances are, you’ve probably tried to come up with a backstory for that character to explain who that character is, where they came from, and how they got here. But writing your character’s backstory can actually be one of the most challenging parts of building a character because it’s not just like… pick an option from a list. So today, we’re going to try and offer some advice on how to write a good backstory for your character.

Random 

So one of the things that that I want to touch on is: while Tyler is absolutely correct, it’s not just pick something from a list in many systems, and especially the one that we talk about most (D&D Fifth Edition) you do actually pick something from a list. That’s your background. And that has enormous impact on how you’re probably going to end up writing this because it provides some mechanical aspects to your character, but more importantly, it provides the reasoning behind those mechanical aspects. You know, maybe you are a soldier, maybe you are a thief… not thief… Criminal?  Criminal, maybe you are a hermit whatever. I think that fifth edition did a really good job of giving us this mechanic to base that sort of thing off of so we’re gonna spend a bit of time talking about that upfront.

Tyler 

Criminal.

Randall 

Yeah, I love that you well, yes, but also no’d “are character backgrounds mechanical”

Tyler 

They are & they aren’t. Random’s, right. So fifth edition, and a lot of other RPGs make your background part of your mechanics these days. So if you’ve gone back to previous versions of D&D, any edition prior to fifth edition, your background wasn’t really part of how you built your character mechanically. Fifth Edition, you have the concept of backgrounds, they give you some set of proficiencies (four proficiencies), a feature and generally some starting items. So your feature is some unique thing that your background allows you to do. Weirdly, a lot of them amount to couch surfing so like clan crafter, I believe folk hero, a bunch of them are just you go places and you know some people who will let you sleep at their house, some of them let you do some other things. And then on top of the feature, you’ll get two skill proficiencies which are fit to that background, and then two other proficiencies which will be languages or tools and tools can include instruments, vehicles, things like thieves tools, things like gaming sets, any of those things. And generally you’re there for the skills but your tools can also include important things like thieves tools. I’ve used land vehicle proficiency a couple of times in our ongoing Icewind Dale campaign.

Randall 

 to wonderful effect by the way

Tyler 

To wonderful effect. Ironically, I… I gave up animal handling to get a different skill and took land vehicle proficiency because I wanted my character to not like animals and now I drive our dog sled.

Randall 

Or our axebeaks. You know what axebeaks refer to themselves as? Animals, not land vehicles.

Tyler 

Well, my character’s got eight intelligence so he I don’t know.

Randall 

Yeah, you pull on this to steer. I don’t know when anybody’s talking about.

Tyler 

So something that a lot of people overlook with 5e’s backgrounds: you can change them a lot. In the official rules at the beginning of the section on backgrounds, the rules explain that, if you want to customize a background, you can take the feature from any one background and basically replace anything else. Functionally it amounts to: you pick a feature, you pick two skill proficiencies you pick two language or tool proficiencies and then you can just call it whatever makes sense. So like if you want to be a criminal, and take whatever criminal feature there is, and then you want to be proficient in animal handling, survival, and then hunting tools or something and then call yourself a fur trapper or something. Yeah, that’s totally fine.

Random 

You mean poacher carry on?

Tyler 

That’s the word I’m for. Thank you. Let’s put her would only be if you’re illegally harvesting the furs, right. If you’re legally harvesting the fur, then you’re…

Random 

Well hence criminal, right?

Tyler  

Yeah, that’s fair criminal. Okay, good. Good. So actually, you just cheat at cards, but you really like fur coats. Okay. And it’s worth saying, right. So we’ve used two different words. And I want to make sure that we call out that we’re actually talking about two slightly different things, both 5e and Pathfinder 2 give us backgrounds, which have a lot of structure, and they give you mechanical benefits. There are other systems that have similar, you know, ideas. In addition to this beyond the background as specified, either in your core rulebook or in the player’s handbook, you can have a backstory, which should be, you know, it makes sense to say, I’m going to take that background, and I’m going going to enlarge it, I’m going to add family members, I’m going to add cool arcs of history. And finally, I find myself at this campaign.

Random 

Yeah, and we’re definitely going to expand on that a bit. Really, the backgrounds are fundamentally… while they do provide mechanical benefits. And I mean, fifth edition, in particular, is really balanced around the benefits they give you. Because skills are such an important thing. And there’s not nearly as many ways to get them as they were in previous editions, they are meant to just be as far as the backstory goes, a starting point, and they can be as important to your backstory as you want from not at all to very. If your entire backstory focuses around your time as a criminal, as a soldier, then that’s great. But like the Paladin that I talk about so frequently, him being a soldier was called out in his backstory, but a lot of where the actual, like character traits came from and all that that was actually his time being very young before he was ever a soldier. And that’s what came up a lot more like as the story progressed, so take it as a good starting point. But don’t feel like you need to expound on every little detail, you know, okay, well, di- “what did me being a criminal mean? what was my whole guild on about ?” You can and that’s awesome. But don’t feel like it has to tie you to that if you want to take it for a mechanical reason. But then have your backstory be something else.

Randall 

So I want to make a confession here. And this confession is probably going to say something about my reading comprehension skills. The first several times that I built a character on paper in 5e, I was doing it with no guidance. It was me and my kids. And I skipped the Background section altogether. Because in my mind race & class, I’ll pick those things. And I’m looking at this thing like I don’t know what to do with this. And I’m, I’ve had enough, I’m satisfied. I’m going to keep going. And in retrospect, yeah, of course, that was silly like it. It is, it feels now to me, like it’s almost worth considering it as a trifecta of race, class and background. Because that background is really what is gonna let you round out and put the finishing touches on this character you just built.

Tyler 

Absolutely. And it’s, it’s totally natural to make that mistake. People coming from previous editions, like me and random… Like I said, backgrounds weren’t a thing in previous editions. So you might look at the Background section and be like, Look, I’m just building this to walk through a dungeon, I don’t really care where this guy came from. Totally fine. If you want to skip the backgrounds and backstories entirely, and I just need a ball of stats to roll down this hallway. Then just give your character two- two skill proficiencies two language or tool proficiencies and call it good. But if you’re going to be playing like a more typical game, where you’re actually going to be doing some role playing then yeah, you background is a great starting point. And then you can grow from there.

Randall 

It is a great point. I don’t think this trap is going to speak to Draconic. I probably should take thieves’ tools instead.

Tyler 

Right

Random 

One of the other things that Tyler touched on a little bit is so some starting equipment that your background gives right. And starting equipment is really interesting if you aren’t going for just I am a ball- a ball of stats to roll that dungeon because the starting equipment is almost entirely flavor based. There- you know there’s definitely some like- like a soldier can give you a dagger but there’s like five ways of getting daggers including just buying them they cost almost nothing. So don’t take that to get a dagger. But why is that dagger there? Right Why is that broken standard pole there? Why is that doll from your childhood there? Having those items be again a starting point to get you thinking about why do I have this and how is it something that I can give to my DM This is another important piece of the the whole backstory thing. Tell your DM, why you took this background and how that’s important. And we’ve talked about this in our various talks about session zero and things in the past, where it’s important to have that communication so that your DM can build engagement with the world. If you just have like a Yes, as a criminal, I stole this symbol, I have this symbol, and then it never gets mentioned once then why did I bother writing it down, make sure that you you are communicating and if you know maybe, if your DM is newer, and they’re and they’re like, skipping past this, because they’re trying to keep up with everything else, remind them like hey, you know, I, I a Goliath Paladin, I picked soldier here’s why I picked soldier, here’s what this item means to me. And have that be a big part of how you introduce yourself to them. You don’t necessarily have to have it be a big part of how you introduce yourself in character to your to the rest of your party. But when you’re introducing your character, that should definitely be important.

Tyler 

So I’d like to shift this over to PF2 for just a little bit talk about how backgrounds work in a different system from Fifth Edition. Fifth Edition, we talked about the proficiencies you get in Pathfinder second edition, your background is a bit smaller. It doesn’t offer like some unique feature like you do in fifth edition, you’ll get to ability boosts, which is just plus two to two ability scores, which is just part of how ability scores are generated and Pathfinder 2e. So your two ability boosts you get one regular skill trained, or you get a lore skill trained as well. And Pathfinder two’s lore skills are a whole weird topic. But so you get one regular skill, one lore skill, and then one skill feat for the regular skill that you are trained in. So like, if you got intimidation from your background, you might get something like group coercion, which lets you intimidate a crowd instead of a single person. So the backgrounds are a lot smaller, and they don’t offer quite as much in the way of storytelling devices as fifth edition’s. And they are more important to your build than fifth edition’s backgrounds. But it also means that you have less assumptions of your character’s backstory. So like if you’re looking at the criminal background, the criminal background has a feature which assumes that you’ve done some variety of crime. And then you’re kind of bound conceptually to whatever that feature is. There’s trade offs, essentially between fifth edition and PF2.

Randall 

So you talked about the the storytelling device and kind of what’s what’s built in, what I will say is the the lore skill, I feel like is the answer to that in PF2. And it’s something that your game master is going to have to pick up on and be willing to interact with and be willing to kind of indulge in roleplay. If you’re going to make the lore skill interesting whatsoever. So occasionally your lore skill is going to come up and it’s going to be really important in the game and certain backgrounds. You know, that’s well suited. You might have the guild lore skill. And so if you’re in a city, where there’s a lot of different guilds, and you need to know who to talk to, that’s a great skill to have. I want to talk about a different background, the barkeep, you’re trained in the diplomacy skill, you get the alcohol lore skill, and you gain the hobknobber skill feat. I want to talk about all the situations where it’s like, oh, can I can I roll for knowing booze? You know, let’s face it mechanically, that’s not going to be super powerful. Role playing wise. There’s a lot of opportunity here.

Tyler 

Yeah, I just wi- I wish that the lore skills in PF2 didn’t cost as much as regular skills to get. Aside from the free lore skill that you get from your background, you’re spending your limited number of trained skills and skill increases to increase your proficiency in lore skills. So unless you pick something that is either relevant to the campaign, which is especially important in published campaigns, or something that your GM can reasonably bring into play, lore skills are just kind of hard. In our episode on downtime, we talked about downtime mechanics in 5e and pf2. And the examples in the PF two core rulebook for downtime include one of the characters are using their proficiency in tea lore like T-E-A. Tea, the beverage. I have been playing various dungeon fantasy games for 20 years now I don’t think I can think of a single situation where tea lore would have been useful. Maybe a good GM will find a way to bring that into play but like it’s, it’s basically guessing.

Random 

On the other hand, alcohol very prevalent in medieval fantasy era downtimes. So maybe you do want to barkeep At the very worst, that could definitely be a way to say, I’m gonna just go make myself a temporary barkeep for the next week and get some money out of it. I feel like that’s going to be a much easier sell than being a temporary teakeep.

Randall 

The tipping’s better. Certainly. Yeah, it’s right. How do I make money on the weekends? Like I’m just a barback. On the weekends. It’s great. It’s pretty mindless. Just fill the ice drain the ice, lift the barrels. Replace the keg, clean the tables? Yeah, sure, we should R. that.

Tyler 

24 strength Barbarian. All you do all day besides adventuring is lift kegs and carry them around.

Randall 

That’s the- no, that’ll do it, too. that’ll that’ll get you there. Yeah. And I take your point, though, like, the point I hear you making is that you’re literally giving up a real mechanical advantage in another feat to advance what probably at most is an RP feat. Yeah, exactly. What they could have very easily done is every time you get a skill increase, you also get a lore skill increase and essentially just make it a separate pool. Because lore skills are so numerous, specific and difficult to use. Like you could just just rain these proficiencies on characters and they might still go their entire career and never use them once.  I think that makes good sense. Like that feels like a good house role to just, if it’s something your tables enjoying and you’re having a good time with it. Allow them to advance the lore skill without actually having to burn their regular skill slots.

Tyler 

Yeah,

Randall 

Yeah, it makes makes good sense to me. The other thing that I think is interesting with pf2’s backgrounds, and I suppose this works in 5e as well, but it feels more manifest in PF2 Is that you can pick a background that suits your class and your ancestry really well to compliment or you could pick something off the wall which is you know, it’s not very well optimized. But again, it could be really interesting.

Tyler 

Yeah, you could pick farmhand barkeep criminal, write, your backstory, like I grew up on the mean streets of Absalom cutting purses and also people. I’m a Wizard now.

Randall 

Yeah. You’re You’re a Barbarian Acolyte? I can’t. I keep sleeping on these books, but I’m not absorbing anything. Yeah, yeah.

Tyler 

Anyway. So that actually raises a really good point and makes for a fine segue. So I want to talk about what’s called a life path. So a lot of RPGs use what’s called a life path system as part of character creation. So instead of like, I’m going to open the player’s handbook, I’m going to pick my race, my class, my background, and that is my character, you go through, essentially a simulation of your character’s life prior to the start of the campaign. And the events that take place over the course of your character’s life, determine their capabilities. I can’t think of a system where there’s a life path system that ends with class based characters. So generally, it’s going to be in classless point based systems. mongoose traveller is very famous for his life path system, because one of the quirks is certain branches of the life path system, you can die during character creation, which is a novel concept, because I don’t think I’ve ever rolled dead when making ability scores for my character in 5e.

Randall 

“How many HP do you have?” “Zero. None.”

Tyler 

Yeah, so. So other systems use this life path thing, and it kind of gives you a prebuilt backstory for your character that tells you like, how did they learn to do all the things that they are capable of like? Who are the people they’ve met along the way? And over time, in a few places that people might not think to look, we’ve actually gotten some tools in D&D and Pathfinder that will help you kind of replicate that system to get the full backstory while still letting you build your race/class/background character. We’re going to go through this a bit at a time. But let’s let’s start with some things to avoid when writing your backstory. Yes, I have built many, many characters over many long years written backstories of various depth for all of them. I have fallen prey to these as much as anyone else has. So if you’ve done these things, absolutely no shame, but like there are some kind of generic, bad backstories to avoid. Basically, if the primary conceit of your backstory is angst. Give it a second look. If you’ve gone the Batman route, and both of your parents are dead, if you’ve gone the even more Batman route and you’re- neither of your parents showed up to your birth, if you’re the last of your kind in some way, if you’re some kind of chosen one, and the DM didn’t tell you that that’s okay. All of those things are things to avoid, because it suffers from quote unquote, main character syndrome. As essentially you are saying I am the most important thing there is, in a game, where the most important thing is actually you and the rest of the party. It’s fine to have a little bit of angst in your backstory, it’s fine, and probably good to have a little bit of tru- tragedies and trauma things that can make your character more interesting. But don’t just lean too hard on that angst concept. Unless you’re like, you’re going way far past normal to intentionally make a very campy character. Again, on the day of my birth, neither of my parents showed up and like that, that sets the tone for the rest of your character. So I feel like that is exactly the right amount of angst. Like, that’s fantastic. Like, I will say, for everything that you just listed, if you played that character, almost ironically, if you believed… if your character believes they’re the chosen one, but the player knows they’re not at all, and if anything, they’re probably should be chosen to go sit down. Like that, that could be a lot of fun, as long as everybody’s into it. And I think like, the rule you gave a moment ago is maybe the key thing, you are not the main character at your table, you know, your party is an entity together, you are meant to occasionally have the spotlight occasionally let somebody else shine. And so for whatever you do, if it plays well, and you can have a good time with it, and everybody, you know, if you’re at a table that loves to laugh, if you can have a joke about it, I think that’s going to be fantastic. But if you are taking it seriously, that you know, you know,”I’m Batman,” you know, that’s, yeah, yeah.

Random 

And this is one of those places where a like, you know, your, your pregame survey is going to do a lot of good where your session zero is going to do a lot of good. In the same way that a long time ago, we talked about don’t optimize in a vacuum, don’t backstory in a vacuum. Because, you know, if you do walk in, and you know, neither of your parents showed up to your birth, and everyone else is trying to play real serious characters. You’re the **** here, don’t do that. some of this is obviously gonna fall on your DM to actually organize this. But realistically, it’s all about group tone. And, you know, if if the group tone is funny, do it, go for it even enjoy the one upsmanship of Yes, none of my race knows that it exists or I don’t know, like, go go nuts. Right? I think that the the more common thing is going to be try and make a good backstory. You may be tempted to think that good means voluminous, it does not. If you if you show up, and you say Ah, yes, here is my 15 page backstory covering in detail all of my ages from birth until the start of the adventure. DM ain’t got time for that, right? Unless they specifically asked for it.

Randall 

ma’am, you have written me a novelette. And I don’t know what to do with this.

Random 

Right? Like Tyler said, I have personally absolutely been guilty of that exact thing. And with that said, that can be done intentionally, particularly if you if you have the point where you are… It’s only bad if you force it on other people. Having that long backstory provided me a great amount of context for when I started playing this character in person. And if you’re going to, in fact, I have in for several of my characters. And for Tyler’s famous character Gilder we have kept journals in character of the goings on of our game, in place of you know, meta, like notes that we could go back and reference between sessions. That can be awesome and starting that based off of your your backstory can be awesome. Give your DM the Cliff Notes, if you’re going to do that.

Randall 

 The abridged version, 100%

Random 

Because they don’t need that. You can have it you can enjoy it. And you can also figure out how to make it so that you give them what they need to tie you into the world and vice versa. Without making them spend half an hour reading your fanfic.

Tyler 

Yeah, you want to give a lot of hooks for your DM or GM to latch on to NPCs that matter to your character locations that matter to your character. Like if you were born in some city and moved away when you’re young, but you still have a lot of family there like the party goes back to the city you suddenly have a bunch of story to explore because you can go check on your old- old Family and friends and go hit up your old haunts. But at the same time, you’re not giving your DM like, here’s a list of every single person I’ve ever met in my entire life so that you want to offer some hooks that the story can attach to. But still leave gaps to fill in later. If you go to someplace that you didn’t know existed at beginning of the campaign, maybe the DM needs the party to have a someone that they know in town, they can pick someone in the party and be like, you, you have a cousin who lives here who who you know, and that gives you a story device to latch on to. But if you’ve listed out your entire family tree and everyone in it, your DM might, you know, be left out of options to do something like that. So you want to give enough to make it interesting enough to attach to the story, but not so much that it robs you of making those choices once play actually starts.

Randall 

Yeah, but we did a really cool thing in one of our earlier one shots heading into the holidays where we actually used alright, we knew that the characters were adopted. And so it was very easy to ask a question. It’s like, hey, you know, do you have a charm, do something we can use as a tool to then lead into the story. And so having that background and being able to say, Okay, now can we build upon it together, I think gave a great way of continuing to build the lore of the character. So I really like that interaction. One of the things I feel like we’ve hinted at, and I want to maybe explicitly say it is a 15, page novelette that rambles through the history of the character, can be fun for you. But I think the most powerful thing you can give your dungeon master Game Master is actionable intelligence. Giving them tools to work with you to build the world, and to roleplay is important. And so there’s the tools that I think most people have probably heard this idea of, you know, traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. Those are four fantastic things to talk about. That pretty quickly allow both the DM to work with you and other characters to work with you as well.

Tyler 

Yeah, and digging into how and why you have those can be a great thing to hit in your backstory. Like if your bond is making something up on the spot, maybe you drop a coin in a donation box every time you walk past a church no matter what church it is. That’s a very specific thing about your character and going into why they do that is something that you might hit on in your backstory. Now it doesn’t need to be a full page of text, it can just be like, My character was poor as a kid, and was supported financially by the Church, which allowed them to grow into a su- successful adult. And now they feel obligated to pass that on like that. That’s a very, like, that’s one sentence that you could put in your backstory that says a lot about your character. So yeah, keep it dense, small, let it attach to the world. And yeah, traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. Those things on your fifth edition character sheet, great things to touch on in your backstory.

Random 

One interesting thing that I want to talk about it and I think that we have touched on this somewhere, I don’t remember if this was in an episode or offline, there can be a particular temptation, especially if you are a incredibly long lived race, like for instance, an elf. Your backstory can be 150 years. And there’s a lot of stuff that’s going to happen in that particular instance, once again, you know, like, like we talked about, maybe you don’t remember all of this stuff, maybe I think this was in our question of the week, an episode recent episode, you know, maybe you don’t remember all of this stuff, maybe, maybe your five pages of lore, is even just the highlights. But even so, still, don’t try and present your your enormous novelette to your DM. One of the things about those long lived races is that they do live differently than something with a shorter life like a human. They do just spend 20 years in an apprenticeship because they can and that’s that’s where elven craftsmanship, that’s where this stuff comes from. So don’t try and basically what I’m going for here is don’t try and use being an elf as an excuse to write an enormously long backstory. It’s still good. You have still lived all of that time, but make that fit into the character as well.

Tyler 

Absolutely. The we’ve talked about the One Ring a bit recently and the Lord of the Rings is a great example for elves who live like 1000s of years without doing much of interest at all. There elves around from like when Sauron first lost the ring and they’re still alive and what have they been doing that whole time? Not much. Really. Like if you think about their backstory it’s like long stretches of nothing really exciting happening then every once in a while something really neat happens like you go fight Sauron 1000 Years pass. You go fight some orcs. You go home a couple more centuries pass. Oh look new evil guy. I guess I’ll go fight that for like a couple years.

Randall 

Try a new cheese.

Tyler 

Tried a new cheese. Write that one in the backstory.

Randall 

Yeah, it’s like some some elves in their lifetime accomplished enough to fill the lifetime of a human. And some humans in their lifetime accomplished enough to fill the lives of an elf.

Random 

That’s a very cool saying.

Tyler 

Yeah. Man, put that on a play. Oh, no. on a plate.

Randall 

Much like the cheese that we’ve recently tried. Okay, yeah.

Random 

A few other things to talk about avoiding in this. Particularly 5e, he has a background folk hero, which tries to make you out to be like a big deal in your in your hometown. And we actually had a funny conversation about Gaston being a folk hero. Even so just because you’ve done something important in your town. This is important on a very small scale. This is like, Ah, I defeated the bear that wandered into town and was wrecking buildings. This is I saved that child who had wandered off into the woods and gotten lost and like, brought them back after a couple days of us both being missing. This is not something where I Yes, I have killed a dragon at level one. No, you have not. And it even if a dragon did happen to die near you, I promise it was through no fault of your own. Right. That’s this is it’s interesting to have that sort of concept for a character. And low level characters are not the place to flex that. Now if you are coming in at level 5, 6, 7, 12. Okay, you at that point have had enough interesting stuff happen in your life. Although realistically, if you’re making a character at that level, you’re probably not playing a long enough campaign for a lot of backstory to matter, you’re probably doing this as a one shot. But if you are, you know, if you are in that rare instance, sure, absolutely explained some of how you got from level one to level wherever you are now. But again, you want to keep this reasonable, you did not stop a war by yourself. Because if you were, you would be off still doing whatever story that was right, the the campaign that you’re in is meant to be the defining arc of your life. That should still be the primary story. Whatever you did before, was probably defining for you at the time, no doubt. But it’s not going to be the thing that you tell the majority of your stories about to your eventual presumed grandkids,

Tyler 

using a published campaign as an example, for a backstory of a high level character. Like if you’re, if you’re starting at around levels, 12 13, 14. That’s where most of fifth editions published campaigns end. So you could very easily say like, Okay, what is my backstory, it’s what led up to the beginning of that published module. And then you just hand the DM that published module and say, that is my backstory from levels one to 12, we’ll pick up from there. Like that also tells you like the rough scope of things that might have happened to your character. But if you’re gonna do that, summarize all of that in like a paragraph or two, your DM doesn’t want to read a whole adventure for your backstory,

Randall 

I got into the abyss I got out of the abyss. And now I’m here. It’s interesting, you say that, like this should be the most important thing, or the most interesting thing that’s happened in this character’s life, especially if they’re starting at a lower level. I do think like, there’s room here to explore a bit like you, you might play a noble diplomat, where you’ve met kings and queens, and you’ve been part of court intrigue, and you’ve done a lot of these things. And it explains, sure you’re a high charisma character. But you’ve never quite been in an adventure like this. Maybe you’ve never like you’ve literally never been in a fight. And I think these these kinds of things are interesting, you know, bluntly, like you brought up the idea of like killing a dragon. And it is interesting to me. Those are the things you couldn’t possibly do at level one. But perhaps in the right circumstances, with the right charisma roles and everything else, you could convince somebody to marry somebody else and join two kingdoms or something like this. The thing that I want to call out here is we’ve talked about backgrounds and we’ve talked about backstories. The backgrounds are going to give you mechanical benefits. And generally within the rules, you have the right to choose what you take here. How that background manifest into the backstory is a thing that you have to co-develop with your DM. You know, this example I gave a second ago it’s like “Oh yeah, I merged these two kingdoms.” The DM is like “those two kingdoms aren’t even in my world. I don’t know what you’re talking about”, like, what do you think happened? These are the things that I think you have to work together to figure out. Yeah. Did the folk hero kill a bear? Or did they win the great Easter egg hunt, like I don’t know.

Random 

that is very much a place where you should expect your DM to expand over time, a good DM in the same way that they’re going to expect the essay and from you they will also ‘yes, and’ you as much as possible. This long running Strahd campaign, at like level 11, we had an entire half a session that was basically just a cutscene, where all of our backgrounds were explained as how they had gotten us there by machinations of a character. But that took, I don’t know, a year and change to set up. And it was enormously rewarding. I recorded that, because it was just so cool. And we all remember that years later, it’s awesome. And that was not something that was going to happen immediately. Provide the hooks, but don’t expect all of them to be dealt with ever or even soon. If your DM can fit some things in that’s awesome. If your DM fits some things in in unexpected ways, that’s awesome, too. I think really building off of what Randall said is like… there is a give and take between what you’re going to provide and how they’re going to use it. And that’s much more of a What does the DM have time for as they’re already trying to write the rest of this story? So just be aware that like, provide them with several but not a ton of things that matter. And just see where it goes.

Randall 

So alright, I’m I bought in I want to build a backstory. And I now understand that it can’t be too long or you’ll make your DM or your GM said, it can’t be too short, because that’s not a backstory. That’s a sentence. It needs to be right. How do I start please help me?

Tyler 

Well, good luck, have fun. Nothing, okay. So there are some tools to help you surprisingly good tools, surprisingly, numerous tools. If you’re playing fifth edition, if you own Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, there’s a section in there called “This Is Your Life”. It is functionally a life path for your character that starts from when your character is young. And then goes through a series of steps that you can pick off of a table or roll randomly and it’ll basically give you major life events that will help you flesh out your backstory. Now you might just write your backstory just as a like bulleted list of like, at age 21, I was in a shipwreck, at age 24 I became a Wizard, at age 27 I started this adventure, and like that is your character’s backstory. And like that’s, that’s no great work of literature. But that’s honestly probably fine. So if you’re having trouble coming up with a detailed backstory, like yeah, just just use that tool or use the tool as a starting point. And that section of Xanathar’s is absolutely not unique. The first example I think I’ve seen or something similar: the Pathfinder first edition supplement ultimate campaign had a massive section that was essentially the same thing just like tables of generating your characters details like Who are your parents? What is their state? What is their profession? How many siblings do you have, some of your siblings might be other races because reasons I don’t know, huge lengthy detailed tables. So even if you don’t have Xanathar’s guide to everything, you can just look up those tables. We’ll have,  links to them in the show notes because it’s available on SRDs for Pathfinder first edition, the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount book has a section called “Heroic Chronicle”, which is similar but more condensed and specific to the critical role campaign setting. Like these tools are all over the place. And you may already own one of the books that has them, you just have to essentially know it’s there and go looking for it. If you need inspiration. Go pull out those tables, roll a couple times on the tables and look at the options that they give you and pick what stands out to you and just build your story out from there. You don’t need to keep all of it. You don’t need to keep any of it but even just having some options put in front of you can sometimes be a very helpful springboard to give you ideas that you actually want to write down.

Randall 

How do you think about so we talked about recently in Strahd? The tarroka reading building up relationships, which is not quite the same idea as a background, but it functionally is going to give a lot of the same role playing content that both the players and the DM can use. And then we also talked about using Decuma, which kind of accomplishes the same thing. We’re here, maybe we’re not looking far back in history, but we’re still building the party’s background and the party’s relationship, and potentially interactions between NPCs we’re likely to run into.

Random 

Yeah, a few things. I mean, I was absolutely going to bring that up if you hadn’t, because it like that, or the group patrons, like we talked about, these are some really helpful ways to provide some more recent context, or you know, things like inter party relationships, like if part of your backstory is, I am this person’s childhood friend, like, that’s gonna give you a very different interpersonal interaction in gameplay than if you know, this is a stranger you met in a bar, whether they walked out of their dark and brooding corner

Randall 

Because they’re Batman.

Random 

Right? Exactly.

Tyler 

I’m Batman.

Random 

Thank you. So this is why I say you should not backstory in a vacuum, if you can avoid it the same way you should not optimize in a vacuum. Because interpersonal relationships can be an enormous factor in party dynamic. And it can be a really cool way to just, you know, start with backstory, particularly if you have someone who you know, is willing to “Yes, and” you a lot, just like coming up with “in jokes” on the fly is hilarious, and will utterly leave the people like not in they’re just laughing hysterically as they try to imagine where did this come from? And maybe that never gets answered? Or maybe it does. And that’s, that’s, you know, that can be a fun time, too. But yeah, the group patrons, the recent history, or the very old history that’s not covered by parts in the background. Those can be huge things. And there’s some mechanics around them already, like I said, so definitely touch on those, particularly if you’re having trouble coming up with something on your own.

Randall 

Solid! Perfect. Alright, I think we did it. I think we have given pretty good background on backstories. We have a question of the week this week, it comes to us from Twitter @jacob_dempsey: “What do you think is a commonly overlooked mechanic that would benefit a player to learn?”

Tyler 

Well, we’ve talked about a lot of those on this podcast, not just this episode, but previous episodes, we’ve talked about things like flight, mounted combat, downtime rules. Yeah, go back and listen to previous episodes of the show if you haven’t already. But generally, the mechanics that you want to learn the most about are the ones that your character is going to use. So as you play the game more, as you explore different types of characters, you’ll learn different mechanics as much as you need to. There are a lot of things in any given RPG, no one expects you to memorize them overnight.

Randall 

But I want to offer one I am playing in Rime of the Frostmaiden now, I’m playing a Sorcerer. This is the first time I’ve played a sourcer. From level one to level six, we are now at level six. And finally, at level six, I’m actually figuring out how to use my sorcery points effectively, to blow things up. And so I know this, it probably feels like a silly answer. Because if you’re somebody really comfortable with like, no kidding, how does your character actually play? You probably and especially if you’re a big fan of RPGBOT.net, you’re probably playing those characters optimally. But seriously sitting and thinking like, am I taking the most advantage of the mechanics built into my character, I think will get you a long way.

Random 

There’s one in particular that particularly if you are coming from previous editions where like you spent a lot of time in in 3.5, or PF1 before making the transition to fifth edition, there’s one that just sort of broke my brain a little bit, which is you can move freely between attacks. Like if you take the attack action, and you have extra attack from a class feature or something, you could just like slap somebody once, walk away, slap somebody else. And that just like this is just a thing that you could just do naturally. So like, there’s there’s a lot of little things like that, like, that’s a good one because it’s useful to basically every martial character.

Randall 

And towards that, right, you might be giving up an opportunity attack for that, but they still have to hit. If you have a high AC, it might be worth the gamble.

Random 

And if you’re a swashbuckler, they can’t.

Randall 

Perfect.

Random 

Yeah, right. There’s a lot of little things like that. And it’s, it’s hard to because you know, you don’t want to tell someone just read the PHB cover to cover and yet there are little things like that that you may miss. I’m trying to remember the example. Oh, like material components, but like I talked about this when you’re talking about spell components in the episode a few weeks ago, but like, you know, coming from 3.5, where material components were always spent, and now that a lot of them aren’t. They’re basically just like focus, just going through and learning those little bits of things. and some of that, rather than try and read out of a book, it really is best to just see in a game and you know, just have your DM correct you like? No, that’s that’s not how that goes. Perhaps one of the the best overlooked mechanics is learn from your DM and your party. Not strictly speaking a mechanic, but go in with a willingness to learn. Every every table is different every place you will learn something that you had not, you know, no matter what, I am still learning things in games, often after 20 plus years. So that’s a there’s my Top Gear top tip. Oh, no, wait, that’s copyrighted.

Randall 

I’ll add one more thing that I think is maybe a little more general than what I said previously, looking for a method to utilize your bonus action. Or to utilize your reactions. If you go most turns with your character, and you never take a bonus action because you have nothing to use it. That probably means that somewhere along the branching choices, you potentially missed choosing something that would let you take that bonus action and get that advantage. And so that might be something the next time you level up like even if it’s like a feat from further back. It could be, or you know, if you’re a spellcaster maybe it’s just looking harder at your spell list to find things that are spent as bonus actions. Getting to do a second thing every turn or getting to squeeze in you know, a reaction every round. That can be really powerful for playing your character.

Random 

Yeah, I know I talked about this in our Discord server, but like literally prior to learning nearly anything else one of the things that Tyler told me as he was trying to convince me to like build a fifth edition character was find a way to use your bonus action. Nothing else. No talk about how ASI work. No, just just find a way to use your bonus action, bonus action economy is king. It’s like okay, well, it’s good advice.

Tyler 

Generally, in fifth edition characters who use their bonus action every round are going to be considerably more powerful than those who don’t. Characters that don’t use their bonus action every round tend to be simpler. So like your, your champion Fighter, your Paladin who never cast spells. But if you are using that bonus action, yeah, like Randall said, you get to do two things per turn. And two weapon fighting should be basically the the absolute floor of the cool things you can do with your bonus action. Oh, one more thing I came up with that people should learn, figure out how movement works. It’s more complicated than you might think it’s pretty generous in fifth edition because you have that safety doughnut as we’ve discussed on previous episodes, but figuring out how to move to position yourself out of reach of enemies if you’re fighting at range, figuring out how to get the most out of your movement to protect your allies. If you’re fighting in melee, figure out how the jump rules work, because in a lot of cases, if you move far enough, you can very easily just jump over obstacles like difficult terrain and those things that are generally put in the way to slow down melee characters. Just stopping a problem. If you’re playing PF2 movement is especially important because you have to figure out like step, stride, leap all those things. So get a handle on how movement works. And if you can use your movement to force enemies to waste their actions. You are putting yourself at a massive, massive tactical advantage for essentially no cost except brain power.

Randall 

Nice. All right. Yeah. Good talk. So @jacob_demsey, thanks for the question. All hail the Leisure Illuminati.

All 

Hail, Hail, Hail, Hail

Randall 

If you enjoyed the show, please rate and review us on Apple podcast and rate us on Spotify or your favorite podcast app. It’s a quick, free way to support the podcast and helps us to reach new listeners. You can find links in the show notes. You’ll find affiliate links for source books and other materials linked in the show notes as well as on RPGBOT.net. Following these links helps us to make this show happen every week. If your question should be the question of the week next week, please email podcast@rpgbot.net or message us on Twitter @RPGBOTDOTNET. Please also consider supporting us on Patreon where you’ll find early access to RPGBOT.content, polls for future content, and access to the RPGBOT.Discord. You can find us at www.patreon.com/rpgbot.  I’m Randall James. You can find me at AmateurJack.com and on Twitter and Instagram @JackAmateur.

Tyler 

I’m Tyler Kamstra. You’ll find me at rpgbot.net, on Facebook and Twitter @RPGBOTDOTNET, and patreon.com/rpgbot.

Random 

And I’m Random Powell at the age of six you would have found me having recently moved to oh no wait, sorry. No, now these days you’ll find me here contributing to RPGBOT either on articles on the website or here on the podcast. Or in places where people play games I’m often present as Harlequin or Harlequint.

Randall 

Alright, thanks, folks. Have a good week. During the whole “I’m Batman” thing I was totally thinking of the Kermit the Frog, Christian Bale meme. (as Kermit) I’m Batman. (as Christian Bale as Batman) I’m Batman.  (As Kermit) My parents died. (As Christian Bale as Batman) My parents.  You know that whole was really good in my head I think.

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