Bare-Bones Backgrounds

In the rare instance that I actually get to play a role-playing game, for several reasons I usually don't bother with a "deep" backstory, if I even consider a backstory at all.

First, there's the whole character death thing. I know certain groups of people loathe the idea of their excessively detailed characters dying, but for me it's of little concern: I'm perfectly happy fleshing the character out as the campaign progresses, if I even need to.

This leads to the biggest reason: if the DM or GM or whoever is doing a good enough job running the game, I'll likely be more focused on what's actually going on to notice that I didn't burden my character with paragraphs or even pages of almost certainly useless backstory.

Cases in point, I've only played Dresden Files a couple of times, in which an entire session can be completely devoted to character (and city) generation: you think of your high concept, some sort of "trouble" that plagues your character, describe your first "adventure", and then how you met up with two other characters.

In both games our characters' backgrounds never came up in play: we basically did a bunch of pre-game work in order to ultimately generate aspects, so we'd have something to "tag" for bonuses and compels. Looking back it felt like a waste of time, but ironically the most background-intensive campaign I've played wasn't Dresden Files or Dungeon World or some other story game, but Dungeons & Dragons.

Waaay back in 2004, maybe 2005, I played in a 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign in which both DMs (yes, there were two of them) had each of us write up two or three really detailed characters. We're talking at least a page, preferably more, per character. Essentially it was character generation as homework.

The deal was, once we submitted our characters they'd pick one, and from there build up an entire campaign to revolve entirely around them. Yeah, it was the wet dream of special snowflake Tumblrinas everywhere, but at the time I was the default DM so I was just happy to have a chance to play for a change.

Now to the DMs' credit the campaign was fun (eventually), but it had nothing to do with our incredibly extensive backgrounds. Despite playing it up until 12th-level before the campaign fizzled out (as long campaigns are wont to do), we never got to deal with anything from our backgrounds (though a few of us encountered some elements from them): the entire campaign was basically us traveling across a Jupiter-sized world doing odd-jobs and exploring.

Actually, if anything our backgrounds served to hinder the fun, because on at least one occasion a player dropped out (which wasted a bunch of prep), and another wanted to change characters due to boredom (3rd Edition ranger, what can I say?), but the DMs didn't want to scrap all the work they'd done integrating that character's background into the campaign, so they convinced him to keep on playing.

The next 3rd Edition campaign we played marked the first time I tried to run the Age of Worms adventure path (but certainly not the last). During the first session everyone made characters, and through some circuitous, somewhat forced social role-playing (one of the players wasn't big on that sort of thing), the party was eventually rounded up and headed off towards the Whispering Cairn.

This campaign was also really enjoyable, despite none of the characters having detailed backgrounds (if they had one at all) or being integral to the overall plot. Yeah, one or two times I slightly modded an adventure to reference a bit of backstory from one character (basically adding an encounter to The Hall of Harsh Reflections and The Champion's Belt), but a character could die, and a player could opt to change characters, without grinding the entire campaign to a halt or wasting a bunch of prep.

Which was good, since The Whispering Cairn is pretty fucking brutal.
My most successful Dungeons & Dragons campaign, however, was when I originally ran A Sundered World (using 4th Edition, of course). In that campaign, two characters only had very simple motivations (one was looking for a powerful weapon, the other for World Serpent spirit fragments), while the third seemed perfectly fine carting them about astral space in his magic boat in search of abandoned dominions because treasure.

At no point did the players lament the lack of character history, because they were so invested in what they were doing, and what was actually going on in the campaign: in their own words it was the best Dungeons & Dragons campaign they'd ever played.

Much more recently, but still a few years ago, I got the chance to play in an actual long-term Dungeon World campaign.

Not wanting to make things too strange for the GM, we all just stuck to the core book: Ben went with a paladin, Melissa chose a bard (a decision she would later regret, but spurred our decision to upgrade it), and I went with a thief because I didn't want to step on Ben's toes as a fighter, the cleric and wizard didn't really interest me (plus Melissa was already playing the healer), and I hadn't seen the thief in action before.

We sped through bonds, answered a few questions that the GM pitched to us about the setting and starting village before the dice hit the table, and you know what? It was fucking awesome. The most fun I've had playing Dungeon World. Yeah, we didn't spend much-if-any time dwelling on our backgrounds, but that was fine because there was plenty of other fun shit going on.

I'm perfectly happy just picking a race, class, and name, maybe a brief motivation, and then start rolling dice. I can always flesh out the character's history later, ideally if the DM/GM prods me for it because he wants to actually use it for some reason (assuming the character doesn't die or I get bored of it). Of course even if he doesn't, if the DM/GM is good enough then, again, I'll probably be much more focused on what's going on in the actual campaign to even bother.

Plus, DMs/GMs rarely if ever mine character backgrounds for adventure/campaign material: every DM/GM I've played with has an adventure in mind, and I'm not the kind of player that requires some specially tailored plot hook to see what they've come up with. I'm there to play: just point me in the direction of the nearest dungeon environ.

If you're curious about FrankenFourth and/or Dungeons & Delvers, you can find public alpha documents here and here respectively.

A Sundered World is out (and also available in dead-tree format)! If you for some reason don't want the entire setting, you can just snag the races and classes.

The Cleric is out! Next up, The Paladin and probably The Mimic, after which we'll run another class vote.

By fan demand, we've mashed all of our 10+ Treasure volumes into one big magic item book, making it cheaper and more convenient to buy in print (which you can now do).


  1. Yeah, players should only have to generate detailed backgrounds if the DM is the type to really use them as material for the campaign. Some DMs use those backgrounds as the campaign. I usually just want to know where in the campaign world each PC is from because that generates enough background for me to work with.

    1. @Edward: Something I thought of is having players gradually flesh things out as they play, on an as-needed basis by the DM. This way, if the game tanks or a player gets bored, no sweat, but if the game is going strong the DM can start asking more questions and taking notes.

      I like making up shit as I go along, so this would work out great for me, instead of taking a bunch of notes early on that I'll prolly forget about and/or misplace.


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