This ties into the articles I’ve written on different characters class, backgrounds, and most recently on having a happy backstory instead of having a darker backstory, so it’s area that I’ve covered a fair amount, but I wanted to write about it really focusing in some more on role playing and playing your characters motivations.
I would say that the ideas I’ve been giving in posts have been medium levels of backstory. It has been more than just suggesting playing a rogue who likes to stab stuff. But it also hasn’t been creating a lot of very depth heavy backstories. I leave stuff generally vague like what deity it is that the cleric is following, what town or area you grew up in that something horrible happened in. It is very possible to set-up a very in depth backstory where you list out your friends, you family members, everyone who has wronged you, what your life was like growing up, what all of your hopes and dreams had been.
There are multiple reasons for me doing that, the first being, if you want to use it, some of those things are things you’ll have to work through with your DM, because I don’t know your game, and some of them are stuff that you don’t need to know. Knowing too much about your character does a few things, it can limit what the DM can do around your character, because there will be a lack of mystery. It can force you into playing a character in a certain way and finding out that you don’t enjoy it. It can limit your character in how they can develop.
The one that I want to focus on for this topic is the fact that it can force you into playing your character a certain way.
The point of this topic was to cover two things, the first being, what’s my motivation for adventuring, the other other being, what’s my motivation for role playing. These two topics are fairly closely held together. Most likely the reason you have for adventuring is also the reason that you’re going to have for some of your characters motivations and interactions in role playing. If goblins murdered your family, you’re probably adventuring to get revenge on the goblins, it’s also probably going to mean that when you run across an injured goblin that poses no threat to you, you’re still going to want to kill it.
With motivation for adventuring, there can be a lot of different reasons. A bard might be in it to see the world, be able to travel and perform on different stages that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. You could also have a Barbarian who is just in need of and bad with money, so they don’t care too much about the adventuring, but they always need money and the adventuring party always gives them a little money. Or you could be out looking for a lost holy artifact as a cleric, getting revenge on a ruler who slaughtered your village as a fighter, or out to protect your grove against a blight that is on the land as a druid. There are a lot of reasons otherwise that you could be looking into adventuring. But one of your jobs as a player when creating your character is to make sure you have this answered.
Along with having that answered, a lot of DM’s will put your party together, but if you and fellow players can come up with a reason for putting together, or better yet come up with a reason for keeping your party together, that is huge. Whether it’s because your party has similar goals or needs or because you actually like each other, it’s important to have some reason. This motivation with help inform some of your interactions and will help it make sense when the story of the game isn’t focused on your character to keep them as part of the group. Now, this isn’t all on you as a player, the DM has to keep all the characters involved in the story as well, but if you’re creating the loner Druid who cares only about her part of the forest, when the characters aren’t focused on that, that druid is probably going to leave the party to either go off on their own or to find another adventuring party to help them.
But also with motivation, we want to talk about the idea of role playing your character. I talked some earlier about having a medium depth background story. Some of the reason was that it doesn’t lock you into a single specific way of playing your character, but also because it doesn’t lock you into a single path going forward. It’s too easy to lock your self into a single purpose and single goal while role playing and then finding out that you really don’t enjoy it.
Now, I realize that sometimes it’s fun coming up with a ton of backstory and all of these different plot hooks, but often times it’s going to be too much to actually work into a game and there is a chance to feel disappointment because it wasn’t fully touched upon. As a DM, personally I don’t try and avoid using peoples backstories and generally I’ll try and tie them into the campaign as I go. However, if something doesn’t fit in with the overall story, or if I feel like the story is leaning too heavily on a single person, I am going to try and change it up which might keep it from using all of your backstory. If there are too many plot hooks as well for your character, I might not touch on all of them, instead just focusing on one of them to really add into the main story with a nod or two thrown to others of them.
Beyond having too many plot hooks, having too few is bad as well. If, as a DM, I don’t get much to work with, I’m not going to put as much effort into keeping your character engaged story wise. My assumption is that you’re going to like combat more so and I’ll make sure to sprinkle enough of those in as well. But it also doesn’t give you much framework to role play, if you want to role play a lot, a consistent character. They might end up being consistent because you’re just playing your own personality, but it might be that they are very chaotic in how they respond to everything presented to them. Being a little chaotic isn’t bad, and a lot of people play chaotic characters, in fact, the Total Party Thrill podcast has an episode (linked here) about how Chaotic Good is probably where most adventurers should be playing out of.
So there is chaos in a good way and in a bad way. A chaotic character can at times be used as an excuse to do whatever you want, but chaos means less that you just do whatever sounds the most fun in the moment, it more means that you’re willing to do what it takes in situations laws be damned, and you’re willing to be flexible for the greater good, again, I think that Total Party Thrill with their episode does a really good job of explaining it, so I’ll leave that as a listen for people.
There is one major exception for having much of a backstory, or any of one really, and that’s at a Convention or while playing a one-shot. When playing those shorter games, focus in on a single thing for your characters. When I was playing Dungeons and Dinosaurs game at AcadeCon the first year I was there, one person made their T-Rex very impulsive, I had an herbivore and I made him into a researcher who was watching and documenting everything. We didn’t have more backstory or direction for character than what we gave them, in fact about the only thing we knew about the dinosaurs came on a dinosaur fact sheet. In that case, having that one thing you role play to is important as it’s going to allow you to have a focused character for that short time without slowing down the game because you’re trying to pick out or build more depth into your character.
What are some things you’ve used as motivation for either being part of a party or role playing a character in Dungeons and Dragons or any role playing system?
Share questions, ideas for articles, or comments with us!