Who Cares? Ignoring Backstories for Better Campaigns

 When I think back to my "glory days" of running AD&D 2e in the 90s, I struggle to think of what the PC's backstories were. Usually they were confined to the simple information found on the character sheet: deity, homeland, race, etc. Those basically summed up the extent of our backstories. We believed (as I still do today) that at level 1, PCs have yet to develop any meaningful story. They're barely above a commoner, with nothing to show for themselves. Their "backstories" are yet to be written...during the course of play.

When running a Basic D&D game in Mystara, the backstories are a little more fleshed out due to the prompts found in the different gazetteers. But these still aren't backstories as much as they are just background information. Simple points of reference for a player to use.

Nowadays we see very different expectations coming from "modern" D&D players vs "classic" D&D players. Many players of D&D 5e come to a campaign with detailed (multi-page) backstories, fleshing out their characters. This exercise in and of itself isn't intrinsically bad, if it weren't for the exceptions foisted upon the DM by the players. Many players expect their DMs to build their PC backstories into the campaign. A campaign that the DM has spent a long time preparing before ever seeing backstories. This is an unfair and selfish expectation. It is extremely burdensome for a DM to build 3-6 backstories into a campaign that it even makes sense. It's hard enough in an open sandbox campaign and extremely difficult in the popular linear "story" campaign.

This player expectation has been there in the past, but it has exploded in the era of 5e. There are many possible causes for this, but video games and streamed actual play "stories" (e.g., Critical Role) have certainly been major contributors. Players see how the PC in a video game or the cast in a streamed story game have their backstories become integral parts of the unfolding narrative as the world is shaped around their wants and...this might upset some...need for the campaign "story" to be about them. It's less about the party or a living world and more about wanting their PC to shine beyond what happens in an emergent style of play. 

My advice to DMs faced with a bunch of detailed backstories is very simple: IGNORE THEM!

PC backstories should serve only a single purpose: PC motivation. It is the same principle already applied to NPCs. Their backstories serve as underpinnings for their motivations and goals. A PC's backstory should do the same. Players wishing to craft detailed backstories should use them as inspiration and fuel to determine their character's motivations and goals for the upcoming campaign. What does the PC ultimately want to achieve and how can they go about it? The "burden" of the long backstory should be the sole responsibility of the one who wrote it. A DM has plenty to juggle without needing to cater to this player need.

DMs need to be fair enough to outline exactly what a backstory then means and give players some guidance on how to use a backstory, if they write one. Keep it very simple. A few bullet points should suffice to help guide a PC's motivations and what they wish to achieve.

A proper long-term Dungeons & Dragons campaign is about emergent play as a cooperative group. Much like it's not about the railroaded story a DM wants to tell, it's also not about a single player and their need for a specific story to play out. These are all reasons why I prefer random character generation and emergent sandbox campaigns. They're exciting tours of discovery without the burdensome expectations to see a particular story play out.


  1. Thanks for the article. I think not really having backstories might be best for games where there are more than 4 people, and when the game's system will have a high death count.

    I think other games also contributed to encouraging backstories, tho, I do remember making up typical tragic backstories when I was young. But you know me: if I have to randomly make a character, I especially feel compelled to have some sort of story of why the character has some quirky things about them (take my "battle wizard" in 2E for example lol).

  2. (reposted from Reddit with some slight editing and additions)

    I'd argue there's a case of miscommunication in your hypothetical between players and GMs, and both groups need to discuss their expectations and whatnot, rather than a case of selfishness as you describe it, putting more work on a campaign the GM has been prepping for years for. In addition, well...to mangle your piece "The Problem with Storyline & Plot Driven Campaigns ," a good GM shouldn't worry about *their* campaign to being with. I've typically found my campaigns (on both sides of the table) to be enriched by player input and suggestion, both at the table and away from it.

    All that said, I agree that anything beyond a page is probably too much for most systems, but that also gets into the question of things like what system is being played: a *Masks* or *Burning Wheel* PC probably requires a bit more oomph than the guys going into a funnel in *Dungeon Crawl Classics*.


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