Let’s talk about one of the things that makes running Dungeons & Dragons so satisfying. It’s something that also makes playing it very satisfying. It’s a rewarding experience that is very easily brushed over and pushed aside.
Let’s talk about backstories.
These are, in my honest opinion, MORE IMPORTANT than some of the other aspects of building a player-character. More important than deciding what weapons or armor you’re going to choose. More important than what your character looks like – even its race or class!
And that’s because all of your selections, all of the choices you make while you build your character sheet, are ammunition to help you build a substantial character backstory. Even selecting your skills and filling in your ability scores can help you to determine certain aspects of your character’s backstory.
As a Dungeon Master, I crave juicy character backstories. They supply me with seeds to plant within not just the campaign story that I’m going to present to the group of players, but to the very world in which they will be playing.
When someone comes to me with a character who has no backstory, or a backstory that is very limited, I cannot help but feel a little disappointed. I wonder if that player really cares about the character they will be playing. Do they even know who they are? What they want? Why they’re adventuring? What they fear? What they love? What they desire?
I do understand that some people do not like to think about a lot of this stuff beforehand. Some players start to understand their character better as they play them – which I think is true for the majority of D&D players – but what I mean is that they don’t truly understand who their character is or what they’re all about until they start playing them. And then maybe they’ll build up a backstory after that.
That’s fine, I suppose. I cannot harp on players for their comfortable playstyle. I mean, I could. But that’d be rude.
When it came time to invite players to come into my homebrew world of Akaar for the first time, I tasked them with creating their own character. I told them that Akaar – and especially the continent of Errun where they would all be from/playing – is pretty much a blank slate. I said that they are free to create, and fill in that world with their backstories.
I told them that, if they want to create a city that they’re from, then it would be. If they wanted to say that their character was some big-wig, hot-shot person wherever they were from, then that would be the truth. I gave them pretty free reign to do whatever they wanted in their backstories.
Because I wanted to put them all into Errun. I wanted to make them truly a part of my world’s history. I wanted the players to be able to contribute to my world, even if this would be the only time they’d be playing in it. They could leave their mark.
A number of them rose to the challenge, and a few of them really impressed me. I want to talk about them – about these backstories – and then detail how I plan to incorporate them into Errun – and possibly into Akaar at large.
The Cursed Son of an Angel
One of my players wanted to play the fallen aasimar race, which is very shadowy and kind of evil-looking. He then chose the Oath of Vengeance paladin as his class, and things were starting to really gel into a very solid idea.
He started thinking about why he was a fallen aasimar, and not just a regular half-celestial. What he came up with was really awesome. He said that his father was human, and his mother was an angel. His father wooed the angel into loving him, but this was all a ploy. His father was under contract by a devil of the nine hells, who wanted the pure energy of a fiend-touched celestial for some dark ritual or purpose – perhaps to gain power within the rigid law of the hells – and, for this, he needed a celestial child.
After this character was born, the father slew the angelic mother, and this act tainted the infant into becoming a fallen aasimar. But somehow the child was lost and raised elsewhere. (Details, details, details…) The character grew up and learned about his evil father, and the deeds he did for fiends, and swore that he would put an end to him.
Through his suffering and attempts to understand who he is and what his purpose is, the character was approached by Qasos, the god of vengeance and despair, who molded the character into a vengeful, spiteful being, who cared only for revenge against the forces that made him what he was.
As the character became more powerful, he swore himself to Qasos, and became a paladin of the Dark Dealer. As he gained reputation, and did good work in the name of smiting evil forces, he became known as the Devil’s Champion.
What Can I Do With This?
This is a great, personal story that relates mainly only to the character. At first glance, it seems to have little impact on the world at large.
But with some imagination, we can expand it.
- First of all, what’s with the father? Why was the father in a contract with a devil of the nine hells? Was he in some sort of trouble? Did he become indebted to the devil?
- What does the devil want with a celestial infant? This kind of thing could lead to all sorts of implications! Is the devil trying to escape the hells and break through to the higher planes?
- Perhaps the father was part of a cult dedicated to killing a god in favor of their own? Maybe this cult is growing in power, and could take a front seat in the campaign story for an arc or two.
- What about the angels? Surely they would want revenge for the slaying of the character’s mother. Maybe they constantly harangue the character to take this action.
- Maybe, because of the circumstances, this character is the ONLY fallen aasimar in the world? There could be all kinds of possibilities for this circumstance. Perhaps his blood is desired by lots of criminal or holy organizations!
What would you do with a backstory like this? What ideas does this give you? Let me know in the comments!
The Noble-born Thief
Another backstory I was really impressed with came from a player of mine who is actually in middle school. Outstanding, right?
He chose to play a halfling rogue-thief. He decided that he was highborn, of nobility, and grew up in luxury. However, he despised his parents’ behavior and sought to live a life that was morally noble.
He began stealing from the rich to give to the poor, straight-up Robin Hood style.
As the character became more renowned and wealthy, he founded a thieves’ guild dedicated to this way of thinking. Yeah, a more “benevolent” thieves’ guild. Awesome. He even asked me about my homebrew conlang, Ankasi, to help him name the city he was from.
Thus, he came up with Amaath Dabi – a city built into a mountain near the center of Errun, which I’m picturing looks a bit like a cross between Minas Tirith and the real, ancient Italian city of Craco.
The city was built by ancient humans, but was eventually rediscovered and refounded by halflings. Amaath Dabi became a real halfling stronghold on Errun, and housed the largest concentration of them on the continent, in its heyday.
It was initially ruled over for a long time by the Perann Dynasty, until they ran out of heirs, and the richest family in the city was chosen to rule – beginning the Khelsar Dynasty, the family into which this player’s character was born.
What Can I Do With This?
Another, very good personal story that relates mostly the character. However, this one has slightly wider boundaries, and now affects a whole city, and creates a socio-political structure that we can play with.
- What’s interesting to me is that the word “dynasty” was used, alluding to ancient China, and the way that that country was ruled. Perhaps Amaath Dabi is similar to that. Perhaps a revolution is stirring in the streets of the city, while the commoners plot to overthrow the ruling class.
- There’s also the thieves’ guild that the character started up. Maybe they lead the people against the dynasty.
- Maybe the guild begins to fall into more “traditional” thieving ideals, perhaps involving the forceful removing of the character from power by a hated rival.
- What would happen if a more powerful, external force were to try and take control of the city of halflings? Would the commoners band together with the nobles to defend their home?
- What if this character is suddenly, publicly realized as the heir to the dynasty? He may have to choose to take a position within the lifestyle he so despised, but in order to work at it and make the city a better environment for the people.
Does this give you any ideas? I like that this one feels larger – that it involves a majority of a certain race of people living in oppression under more well-off members of their own race. Maybe indentured servitude is involved as well.
Tinker, Cleric, Soldier, Jeweler
Finally, I want to talk about a backstory that has much, much larger implications for the whole of Errun. This player went bonkers with the idea of “free reign” when it came to backstory creation, and I could not have appreciated that more. Check it out.
The character is a female gnome that grew up in a metropolitan city within a family of artisans that was pretty well-off. From this family, she learned to become a jeweler, and was intent on making a name for herself as such. However, the city was attacked and invaded by a terrible horde led by dragons who followed the god Yolgon – and were perhaps also influenced by Tiamat.
The gnome and what remained of her family escaped the city thanks to an underground network of dwarves that accepted a large amount of refugees to their cities, which eventually prompted the connecting and building of a huge metropolis underground.
However the dwarves found themselves unable to stop digging deeper and expanding their territory. They eventually found their way to the Underdark, and ignited a war with the subterranean drow. The gnome swore herself to the god Hunar, and became a cleric who fought on the frontlines of the Dwarf/Drow War.
After decades of underground war, the gnome pleaded and pleaded Hunar for help, which was finally granted in the form of a gigantic stone and metal door that magically sealed off the breach between the dwarven city and the Underdark. This ended the war. For now.
What Can I Do With This?
Um, what can’t I do with this?! This is spectacular! This gives me so much fodder for the world, and so much detail that I can build upon! Let’s take a look.
- First of all, a cult of Yolgon led by dragons. Plus the possible influence of Tiamat, which is the evil dragon goddess that is – at this point in Akaar’s history – only known to the continent of Muluth, not Errun. How interesting is that!?
- Then there’s the building of the underground metropolis. How did the various dwarven clans agree to work together to build this? What kind of tensions arose and remain after all this time – especially after the breach into the Underdark and its consequences?
- Then there’s the decades-long Dwarf/Drow War. Wow, that is just amazing. I was already hinting at the drow being in this world, and had a plan for how Lolth was involved, being a creation of the goddess Mahluq, but this helps to develop that into something much more complex and amazing. The drow could very well make for a good, lower-tier adventure story arc, which then grows with the party into a much deadlier game.
- Also, I love the sealing of the Underdark with Hunar’s door. I imagine that this happened quite suddenly, and thus many warriors were locked in the Underdark. Many were probably captured…and this could lead to the creation of things like the duergar and the svirfneblin. Plus, the door opens only by speaking the proper command word. Who knows this word? Could they be willing to speak it?
- Finally, after all this happened, the gnome character returned to the surface and had adventures of her own. Did she ever return to her home city? How has that changed since she initially fled?
There’s so much possibility here that it’s hard to think straight sometimes. I love being faced with so many options, and getting to choose where they lead.
The Rest Is History
The best part about all of this, though? This is all a part of Akaar’s history. Yeah, these characters – and their backstories – were all created to be alive for an event that takes place maybe a thousand years before the present day of Akaar.
That means that all of this occurred way in the past, and that I – as the Dungeon Master that’s running the Akaar campaign setting – have full power in deciding how the elements within these backstories develop for future players who jump into the setting.
However, I am much more of the mind that I would collaborate with the players that wrote these backstories to see what they think should happen, or if they had any ideas on what they thought their characters would do about said elements.
All in all, though, I received SEVERAL incredible backstories and world-building elements from my Titanswrath players, and I am beyond thrilled to put them into Akaar, and to see them develop over time. I’m looking forward to the day where my future players happen upon something, and I get to use the piece of backstory that someone created for me – for them – to play with.
Until then – Well Met!