First off, I want to say that I think having a backstory for your character is important, and I think the inclusion of backgrounds as a part of character creation in Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons is inspired. However, too much backstory before you even play the game can be a bad thing, and actually work against your enjoyment at the table.
Now, before you try and pummel me to death with the hand-bound ream of parchment that you’ve penned your character’s history on, hear me out.
One of the biggest reasons why all of that backstory can work against you is because it’s all stuff you came up with unilaterally, for a character that has yet to exist outside of your own mind. And just like no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, no character’s first interactions with the game world and the other characters will go exactly as imagined. In fact, I’ve played several characters that turned out quite different than I had imagined them before the roleplaying started. The concept either didn’t hold up at the table, or something that worked better with the game and the group became apparent. Whatever the reason, the point is that the character concept changed once that character had a chance to exist outside of my own head. So don’t pigeon hole yourself before you even sit down at the table, and don’t try to answer all of the questions about who your character is and what makes her tick before you even meet the other characters.
Another problem with lengthy backstory is that all of that history rarely if ever comes to light at the table. You might argue that this is fine, and that you wrote all that stuff for yourself anyway. Even if that’s true, at best you’ve written a story for nobody but yourself (and your dungeon master who, let’s be honest, read the first paragraph and then skimmed over the next twelve pages nodding his head) and at worst you will be disappointed that more of your backstory doesn’t come up during the game.
Instead of having your own private novel or feeling bitter about how most of your backstory was never acknowledged, wouldn’t you rather that most, if not all, of the cool stuff you imagined for your character be relevant and come up in the game? Of course you would. And you can accomplish this by doing three simple things.
First, remember that general is better than specific. Less really is more at first – the details will come later. For instance, let’s say you want your character to be seeking revenge. That’s great! Revenge is a good motivator, and something your game master can really work with to get your character involved in the game on a personal level. You should write down: “I want to avenge my father’s death.” You shouldn’t go off on a six page tangent creating the NPC who killed your father, describing his house, the town he lives in, what he likes to eat for breakfast, what the name of his horse is, and how you’ve been stalking him every Tuesday when he goes out to the market to get his deviled hams (his breakfast of choice) and how one of these days on his way back home whilst he’s laden with hams you plan to confront him on the old dwarven bridge that spans the Misty River – slaying him in the very spot where he murdered your father ten long years ago.
Instead, you should take that one sentence you wrote – “I want to avenge my father’s death” – to your game master and begin a dialogue with him or her about it. Chances are that your game master already has a perfect NPC that he or she would be more than happy to say murdered your father. If not, you two can hash out some details about this NPC together, and the simple act of collaboration will make this aspect of your background about 1,000 times more likely to be a relevant and compelling part of the upcoming story. Sure, the game master could probably shoe-horn your deviled ham murder-fantasy-thing into the story, but leaving the details deliberately vague at first makes it easier for your backstory to become an organic part of the larger story that everyone is telling. Keep this in mind for all aspects of your backstory. If your character is/was a sailor, be vague about ports of call he may have visited. Then, when the game master mentions some exotic place, ask if your character could have visited this place. If he doesn’t completely suck at his job, he’ll say of course you could have. Keep your backstory looking more like an outline and less like a novel, with little plot hook tendrils branching off, ready to latch on to the details of the game as they are revealed. This is the main purpose your backstory should serve: it should be there to provide interesting ways to tie you to the story. Showing up with pages and pages of backstory with all of the blanks already filled in does just the opposite.
The second thing you can do to build a better backstory is easy: just listen to the stories that the other players are trying to tell with their backstories and collaborate with them. Look for ways to link your character’s backstory with at least two other characters. These links don’t have to be strong, but they can be. Looking at the sailor example again, perhaps you can say that one of the other characters booked passage on a ship you served on, and that you have at least a passing familiarity with one another. Or maybe you both hail from the same exotic port of call and share a cultural background. For a stronger link, maybe it turns out that you and another character are both seeking revenge against the same NPC but for different reasons. You could decide to know this before the game starts and be travelling together in pursuit of this goal, or this connection could be revealed later in play. Links like this not only reinforce the unity of the party, they also make for a more rewarding game experience overall. Tying backgrounds together also makes the game master’s job a lot easier, and helps keep everyone interested in the action when personal goals take center stage.
Third, avoid extreme personality traits that your character is unwilling to compromise on. An outsider who has never been to a city and yet must confront this obstacle is a way better character than the guy who says “I’ll just stay in the woods while you guys go to town.” A xenophobic character who is willing to work with other races in spite of his or her beliefs is more interesting than a character who refuses to work with certain members of the party or NPCS just because you claim “my guy wouldn’t do that.” It’s ok to create characters that have biases and strong opinions, but these personality traits are only interesting if they drive conflict and character development. Otherwise they are just roadblocks that stymie your character’s development and the story as a whole. Gimili and Legolas don’t become friends because elves and dwarves hate each other forever and that’s the end of the story, they become friends because they have to work through their biases, becoming more interesting characters and fast friends along the way.
The whole process should be about collaboration, with all the players and the game master working together to come up with good ideas and backstories for everyone. Too often though, each player creates their own backstory in a vacuum, and these stories rarely intersect with one another. It’s like everyone showing up with their own room of a house already built – a room they think should be the most important room in the house – and leaving it up to the game master to try and cobble these rooms together into something that resembles a house. The end result might be functional, but it won’t be anywhere near as rewarding and organic as what you get when everyone designs the house and then builds it together.
Remember that the game is about everyone telling a story together, and that at the end of the day nobody but you cares about your pages and pages of backstory that you created all by yourself. Be willing to suppress your ego, collaborate, and share the spotlight with the other players. Otherwise, just go get to work on that novel about your character and let the rest of us play.