Posts Tagged ‘character creation’

One of my Exploration Age campaigns is coming to an end… and a new one is about to start! My friend Andrew Kane is DMing us through a campaign based in Exploration Age’s South Pole. The story deals with a cult he created that’s devoted to The Lingering Havoc. Badass! I finally get to step into the role of player which will give me time to focus on publishing the Exploration Age Campaign Guide and allow me to be engaged with the game in a new way. It’s been more than six years since I was a player in a sustained D&D campaign!

As our current campaign ends, Andrew has asked us to submit character backstories so he can begin working those details into the story of the campaign. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for me to discuss what makes a great character backstories. Here’s a few tips followed by character’s backstory as an example!

Ask the DM

Before you put any work into creating a character’s backstory, ask the person running the game if there are any parameters. Are the character options (like races and classes) restricted? What sort of world are you playing in? A jolly halfling rogue with a passion for lemon cakes and celebrity gossip isn’t something you’d find in a post-apocalyptic setting. Once you have that information from your DM, give them a quick description of your character. It doesn’t have to be more than a sentence or two. Mine was something like, “My character is a half-elf bard who travels the world searching for ancient troves of lost knowledge. He loves discovering new or forgotten ideas and is particularly interested in necromancy and magic that can extend a person’s life.” This got the approval from Andrew. (Side note: I figured having a knowledgable character would help me roleplay since we’re playing in a campaign setting I created.)

Use What the DM Gave Ya!

Once you know about the world your character inhabits, think about how you can tie your character into the setting. As a DM I find it a lot easier to work a character’s backstory into the game if they already have some connection to the story I’m trying to tell. In my case, I picked a character that has an interest in necromancy because Andrew has told us his campaign is centered around a cult of The Lingering Havoc (which is a massive pile of bodies with one mind). This makes it much easier to draw my PC and other elements of his backstory into the campaign. For instance, if my PC is in The South Pole looking for The Lingering Havoc and an old enemy shows up with an axe to grind, it makes sense that the enemy would know to find him there, since my character has a known interest in necromancy.

Just how did I know The Lingering Havoc and South Pole are playing a big part in this campaign? Why the DM told us of course! In fact he sent us an awesome map and campaign primer. Check out both below!

The South Pole: A Primer

Reminder: All the dark gray spots are unexplored terrain. This map made using Hexographer.

All the dark gray hexes are unexplored terrain. This map made using Hexographer.

Closed Point of View

It’s best to use either first person or limited third person points of view (as opposed to omniscient) when writing a character backstory. This allows for the DM to harvest your story for hooks and adventure ideas more easily than if you provide every detail.

Consider this example. Your PC is fighting their nemesis and mortally wounds the enemy before the baddy gets away. An omniscient narrator might then inform us that the nemesis drank a potion of healing and swore to get vengeance on the PC someday. That’s a good hook, but wouldn’t it be more interesting if you as a player don’t know the outcome and leave it to the DM? Then the possibilities are endless. Maybe the nemesis was healed, or maybe with their dying breath the enemy swore an oath of vengeance to a dark god is now an undead revenant stalking the land! Or maybe the nemesis’ much worse sibling or parent found the body and is coming after the PC. Maybe law enforcement found the body and the PC is wanted for murder and doesn’t know it! Maybe the PC is wanted for murder because the body was found AND the nemesis rose as a vengeful wraith (a double surprise). Heck, the DM could tie this thread into another PC’s backstory or the main story! Maybe your nemesis is now a henchmen of the campaign’s main villain! As you can see, a closed point of view allows for more interest storytelling possibilities.

You might consider getting creative and writing your PC’s backstory from another character’s point of view. Maybe a spouse, lover, best friend, parent, or bard tells the tale. Whatever you do, keep the point of view closed so the DM can have a little fun.

Dangle A Few Threads

Leave a few plot threads hanging for your DM to pull on and weave into the story. Your character’s story is just beginning. If all your problems are taken care of at the start of the adventure, then there’s nothing from your backstory to work into the campaign. There’s many possible open threads! Maybe your character agreed to take over the thieves’ guild once an ailing parent/guild leader dies. Maybe someone stole a family heirloom. Maybe your PC wants to learn more about magic so they can return to their farming village to end a years-long drought. Don’t go overboard here. Your DM has other characters and their own story they’re trying to tell. One to three open threads should be enough.

Stick To The Basics And Defining Events

Don’t feel like you need to describe every detail of your character’s life. Answer the basics. Where are they from? Who is close to them? How did they get their talent for fighting, magic, roguing, rangering, etc?

After you answer those questions, you need only describe the defining events in your character’s life. What events made them the person they are today? In fifth edition D&D you might look to your personality traits, bond, ideal, and flaw and ask “When did my character develop these?” Put those moments into words and use those events to leave your dangling threads. That way when your past comes back at you during a game, it’ll be even more meaningful.

Secrets Are Fun

It helps your party members if they know a bit of your backstory, but keep a secret or two for just you and the DM. The secret should be something important that your PC wouldn’t readily share, even with the other party members. Maybe your character is secretly royalty, was once part of a demonic cult, has a secret love child, or accidentally murdered someone. Many of these secrets are shameful to characters, but there’s other reasons a person could keep a secret.

Maybe your PC keeps a public figure’s shameful secret in order to extort them for money. Maybe your PC keeps ties to certain friend or family a secret so enemies don’t exploit loved ones. Maybe they have to keep a relationship a secret because if their father finds out, they’ll lose their inheritance. There’s tons of reasons to keep secrets out there! Give your character a good one… and don’t be surprised when the secret becomes exposed!

Heroes Are Good, Chosen Ones Not So Much

Your character should have some fantastic deeds or moments in their backstory. The first time they cast a spell. The first monster they vanquished. Though remember that this PC is meant to be a part of a group of heroes that is stronger together. You’re character should not be the only person on earth who can slay a world-consuming monster. Not only will it be sad for the world when your PC is killed by a kobold at level 1, it also takes too much importance away from the other characters!

We Knew Each Other Before This

It’s always a good idea to tie your backstory into at least one other PC’s backstory. This makes it easier on the DM to bring people together. Plus it gives you another character you already trust and care about! You might even consider sharing any secrets in your backstory with them.

A Word on Length

When it comes to character backstories, I don’t care much about length as a DM. I’ll read one paragraph (or a list of bullet points) and I’ll read a 30+ page history. Check with your DM before you write a novel. They may not have the time to read it all while they’re worldbuilding and living life, no matter how well it’s written.

Example Backstory: Ramus Verbosa

The link below is the example backstory for my PC, Ramus Verbosa. I’m keeping it in a link since it’s got secrets and I don’t want my fellow players (who sometimes read this blog) to get any spoilers. Happy writing friends!

Ramus Verbosa Backstory

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Ray killed Vegas. Twice. Let me explain. You see, I DMed a fourth edition Eberron game which took PCs from level 1 to 30. The game was a blast and full of twists and turns that left the PCs wondering at times which NPCs were the good guys and which were the bad guys. Much to my glee at the time, this theme carried over to the players. One player wrote into his background that he thought he was talking to a god, The Silver Flame, when actually (unbeknownst to his PC) he was talking to a demon lord, Bel Shalor. That was Silas Witherin the human invoker, played by my buddy Vegas. Meanwhile my pal Ray’s character, the devoted drow avenger Elaria Feywing, worshipped the same god as Silas, but she did not hear the Bel Shalor’s voice during prayer. She heard the actual Silver Flame.

Anyway Bel Shalor is diametrically opposed to the views and ideals The Silver Flame, and the demon worked to undermine the god’s plans. Silas, believing he was in the right, often clashed with Elaria. Since we’re talking about a campaign where the fate of the world was on the line, these characters clung to their beliefs over their party loyalty and Elaria killed Silas. Twice. It made sense for the story and (I thought) everyone seemed cool with it so I let it go down. This was a campaign amongst close friends about intrigue after all! But…

In reality it wasn’t an awful thing for about half of my players, I daresay Ray and Vegas enjoyed it, but it did leave the other half of them upset, which is far too many in my book. Heck one upset player is a problem which should be addressed, let alone half your players. This game came on the heels of a previous campaign where an adorable gnome warlock named Fizzlebottom Cloisternook, played by my friend Andrew, chopped off his hand, cut out his eye, and replaced them with Vecna’s body parts leading him down the path to party-killing, Orcus-worshipping lichdom.

All this is to say a lot of my players were tired of their PCs deceiving and backstabbing one another. I figured if they were tired of that, this problem would take care of itself in the next game we played. After all, it’s up to them if they’re running off and doing their own thing, right?

Our next campaign was the published adventure Legacy of the Crystal Shard as we wanted to try out the D&D Next playtest rules. The adventure was fun and the players did work together for the most part, but there was a moment when one PC wandered off on his own during the first session. The others asked him to stay with them and the player said, “But I don’t know you all that well yet. Why would I stay with you guys?”

Now I know some of you might say he wasn’t being a team player, but to be honest he did his own thing for five minutes and then stayed with the rest of the party for the session. Still, his words got me thinking. The player did have a good point from a story perspective, and I feel at least part of that onus is on me as the DM to bring characters together in a meaningful way. Sometimes that means going beyond, “The merchant has selected all of you to guard her carts on the way to Icewind Dale, now that you’ve arrived you want to keep working together, right?”

I know that by no means is this an original thought but that’s because this is by no means an original problem. Here’s a few ideas you could use to bring the party together during character creation or the first session of play in a new campaign.

Steal It

As you may know, I’m big on stealing ideas from others. Well there’s a few games out there that make character background creation a really fun experience. For me, Fate and Fiasco are the two big ones.

You can actually checkout Fate’s rules for character creation for free here:

As you can see it’s an in-depth process but there’s no reason why the High Concept, Troubles, and Phases sections can’t be applied to D&D or most non-Fate TRPGs. Heck, even just the Phases section, or just the Whose Path Have You Crossed section is all you need to tie party members together. The wonderful philosophy of Fate is that character creation is play, so check it out. You’ll have a blast doing it with your friends.

As for Fiasco, that’s a bit of a horse of a different color, but still fun. If you’re not familiar with the game, it encourages deceit and disaster amongst its players. Which is fine since it is meant to be a single session game. However, you could play through a session and have all the characters try to get along with an eye toward this being your future D&D party. There’s nothing in the rules which prevents that from happening. The story could be the party’s first adventure together.

Of course, instead of playing an entire game of Fiasco, you could just go through the Set-Up phase, wherein every character forms a connection to two other characters. Then you don’t even need to worry about changing the tone of the game. The rules of Fiasco aren’t publicly available, but if you’re interested in learning more the game’s Wikipedia article is actually pretty comprehensive on the subject. I recommend buying it and not just for D&D. It’s a ton of fun to play in its own right.

If you know the game (or buy it) and are interested in using it to set up connections amongst characters for an Eberron game, I actually created a Fiasco playset for Eberron which takes place in the city of Making in the country of Cyre right before The Mourning. Check it out: Eberron Fiasco – Making

Use Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws

The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons already has a baked-in backgrounds system and it’s great. Why not tell players that either their bonds or their ideals must relate to at least one of the other characters in the party. So a bond might be, “I never let my younger brother Bartho the Wise out of my sight because I promised our mother I wouldn’t,” or “I’ve sworn to help my best friend Kayla Swift pay off her father’s gambling debts to the local thieves guild.”  An ideal might be more general, such as “Family. I put the life of my kin above all others – including my own. (Neutral)” Follow this up with a more specific note – the cleric is my sister. Boom, instant ties.

Perhaps less obvious would be to use the traits and flaws of a character. Personality traits describe the way your character behaves, so it might be something like, “I laugh at all my friend Bertha the Destroyer’s jokes,” or “I’m tongue-tied around the lovely Jake the Handsome.”

Flaws are ground to be tread very carefully. Only if you and your players want to play a game of deceit and backstabbing should flaws enter in the most obvious of ways. “I can’t help but steal from my friend Garrus the Blind,” is a terrible flaw for most games. Instead, encourage players to think of flaws that would be detrimental to themselves as opposed to others. “I worry about my nephew, Sid the Skinny, and so I give him half my food, even when he isn’t hungry and I am,” or, “I often embarrass myself in public by performing unnecessary acts of affection for my betrothed, Hermantia Hedgerow.”

Make sure players clear these with you and with each other before setting them in stone, since Jake the Handsome may not want the tongue-tied advances of another PC.

Shared Bonding Experience

Nothing bonds a group of people together like being in the same military unit, prison, university dorm, church, orphanage, thieves guild, or mercenary group. Maybe the party in your game has this in their history, like The A-Team. Or maybe your players shared in some traumatic experience together (such as a devastating earthquake or goblin horde destroying their home). You get even more specific and say they had the same mentor who has now gone missing. This keeps things a little more lose, but means your players already know each other and have something which bonds them together. Either pick a shared experience like this for your players to tie into PC backgrounds or have them decide as a group what they’ve shared which brings them together. If they belong to a shared group like a guild, decide if they still belong to this organization at the start of the campaign or if all or some of them have left it behind.


Why not start your players off with a battle and no explanation. Just bam! Drop them right in the action. After the fight you may say something like, “One day earlier…” and take them back to the start of the adventure. This is a suggested way to start the published Eyes of the Lich Queen D&D 3.5 Eberron adventure. Starting a story in medias res is by no means a new idea. It was done in Star Wars, The Aeneid, the Iron Man movie, and oh so many more stories. Yes, it does railroad your players for a bit, but that’s not a bad thing at the start of a campaign. Your players now know they have to work together at least to a certain point for the story to make sense. Hopefully by the time they reach that point in the story, their relationships with one another will be somewhat established. If they’re concerned about being on rails, let them know the whole campaign won’t be like this, it’s just a way for you thread a quest hook and bring their characters together. After all, that’s exactly what it is.

Group Storytelling

At Tracy Hickman’s XDM panel at Gen Con this year, the man of the hour actually showed up a little late. His friend, whose name I unfortunately cannot recall or find, actually started the panel and shared some great tips for building party cohesion. If anyone knows that guy’s name, please let me know! One of his tips was to have the adventuring party already established as working together at the start of the campaign. Perhaps mere days ago they just finished up a quest and the campaign opens with them at the bar bragging to others about the adventure. The players then go around and take turns telling different parts of the story, describing not just the action of their individual characters, but their interactions with each other as well. If you don’t want to do this in a tavern bragging setting you could simply have your players engage in a similar form of group storytelling during character creation. If you want more structure you could play a quick game of pass the story involving the PCs.

What Did I Use?

So I ended up going with a combination of using the fifth edition built-in Bonds and Ideals and the group storytelling. It seemed to work well for my players, who really enjoyed not just working another character or two into their backstory, but also kicking off the first new session with telling a tale of how badass their new character was without having to roll dice to prove it. What are some other methods out there? Let me know in the comments below!

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You’re goddamn right.

If you’re lucky enough to live near a Wizards Play Store, you’ve probably gotten your hands on the Player’s Handbook for the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Many of my player’s already have a copy, but as I’ve mentioned before, we’re all in different locations, so some of my players don’t. They’re either not near a store or they wanted the cheaper deal on Amazon. If you’re in the same boat, never fear, I’m here to let you know the book is worth the investment. I could go on and on (and I will in a Tome Show or Round Table podcast soon), but I’m here to talk to you about something I’m already changing in this book I love so much, and that’s the process of ability score generation.

To Roll or Not To Roll?

Before I get started, let me just say that this is my group’s opinions about generating ability scores. You may have your own, please sound off in the comments below. While this method was tailored toward them, feel free to use it in your game.

As many of you know, a character’s features and options in D&D are dependent upon their six ability scores – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. These scores can range from 3 (awful) to 18 (badass) before racial modifiers are applied. The Player’s Handbook presents three options for generating your base ability scores…

  1. Rolling. Roll 4d6, drop the lowest die roll, add the remaining rolls together. Do this six times, then assign the ability scores.
  2. Array. Use a predetermined array of 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8 to assign ability scores.
  3. Point Buy. Use a point buy method, involving all of your stats starting at 8. Then you have 27 points to assign to boost the stats. Each increase in a score costs more points than the last increase (more on that below). This method caps your ability scores at 15, whereas rolling can get you 18. It also makes your minimal possible ability score 8.

Most of my players have played third edition, in which option 1, rolling, was the preferred method. All of players have played fourth edition in which a point buy similar to option 3 was the preferred method. During the playtest we went back to rolling for ability scores since it was just a few short campaigns. Then I remembered why I prefer the point buy method.

Rolling for ability scores is a great option – it provides a lot of variance and allows for a character have a super high Strength, but also a pitiful Intelligence. However, rolling also provides a huge variance amongst characters, which can make the game less fun. If someone rolls great and has god-like ability scores when someone else just rolls ok, the fighter might feel second-rate compared to the barbarian.

Normally this is the kind of thing I’d ask my players what they want to do, but they’re divided on the issue. When I told them I wanted to use the point buy method via email, my inbox exploded (in a hilarious and awesome way).

Here’s an email from one of my players, who is clearly anti-point buy…

My argument against point buy:

1) Point buy is lame.

2) You can only be good at something if you are the right race to be good at it.

3) You can’t be good at more than one thing unless you are the right race/class combination.

I have to say, points 2 and 3 are pretty good arguments (and point 1 is just a little hurtful… single tear).

It was only moments later which I got this pro-point buy email from a different player…

Argument for Point Buy:

1) Large statistical variance between character competency is amusing in short games, but frustrating and inappropriate for the multi-year campaigns we tend to play.

2) Because our DM is not a dick, rolling for stats will tend to skew towards OP characters. Here is what happens when people roll stats:

PC: Uh, I rolled three 7s, a 10, and two 12s.
DM: Haha, that’s dumb you can reroll.

PC: I got six 18s!
DM: Uh… OK cool.

3) “Characters only really good at one thing” is a function of playing in a larger group. In a smaller group it would make sense to spread your stat points and skills around more but when you do that in a larger group you appear inferior to specialists.

Also good points there (and yes, I do let people with terrible rolls reroll). In fact, there were good points coming at me from all around. One player enjoys his character enjoyed being bad at something and point buy doesn’t really allow for that either for a minimum of 8 in each ability score. Still, I didn’t want one player to be a superhero compared to the rest or vice versa. To make matters more intense, I eventually started getting emails like this…

What’s a DM to do? Order everyone take the array and then have no one happy? Then I remembered, D&D is a game meant for hacking, modding, and blowing up. Was there something I could do to ability score generation?

Taking It Back Old School

First, I made a quick list. What were the wants of my players…

  1. A balanced method of generating ability scores in which luck and chance do not favor random PCs over others
  2. A method of generating ability scores which can allow nonoptimal race and class combinations (like half-orc wizards) to have key ability scores for their class above 15
  3. A method of generating ability scores which can allow for some abilities to be as low as three (because sometimes playing a a weakling wizard or a barbarian with no social skills is fun)

Then I thought back to the days of third edition D&D. While rolling was the preferred method of ability score generation, there was a point buy option, which allowed a player to raise stats to 18. So let’s look at that option. All ability scores start at 8 and a player has 25 points to spend.

  • An ability of 9 costs 1 point.
  • A ability of 10 costs 2 points.
  • A ability of 11 costs 3 points.
  • A ability of 12 costs 4 points.
  • An ability of 13 costs 5 points.
  • An ability of 14 costs 6 points.
  • An ability of 15 costs 8 points.
  • An ability of 16 costs 10 points.
  • An ability of 17 costs 13 points.
  • An ability of 18 costs 16 points.

That’s not a bad place for me to begin. I’m going to adjust these numbers so they’re more in-line with the fifth edition point buy, however, and go from there. I also need to work in lower ability scores.

The Exploration Age Homebrew Method

Here’s the method for generating ability scores I’ll be using for my Exploration Age home campaigns.

All ability scores start at 8. You have 27 points to spend. The cost of each score is shown below.

Score Cost
3 -5
4 -4
5 -3
6 -2
7 -1
8 0
9 1
10 2
11 3
12 4
13 5
14 7
15 9
16 12
17 15
18 19

You may only have one ability with a score of 17 or 18. Likewise, you may only have one ability score with a score of 3 or 4.

When you “buy” score with a negative cost, it means you gain points to spend elsewhere.

You may still use the standard array.

For high powered, tougher campaigns, give your players 32 points to spend. In this case, the standard array might be 16, 15, 13, 12, 10, 8, or 17, 15, 12, 10, 10, 8, or 18, 14, 10, 10, 10, 8.


So what do you think? Have I managed to get everything the players want and curb some min-maxing? Should I just stick to one of the older methods? Let me know! Sound off in the comments.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcast on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!