So you’ve got yourself an RPG character all set to go – you’ve got the stats, and the skills, and the starting gear . . . except there’s something missing. Right now all you really have are the numbers, but where’s the story? The fact that you have an 18 in your Strength stat doesn’t contribute to the narrative . . . except that from Across A Crowded Tavern (Exercise #9) the figure in a shadowy cloak notices that you bear a tribute to your athletic prowess, like maybe a scar earned in a test of strength or a tattoo received in victory. Such are the kind of things that you might get to learn about your character when using the Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide by James D’Amato!
Here’s an interesting thought, though: the title of the book is something of a misnomer. The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide isn’t quite a Guide, isn’t just about Backstory, and isn’t quite as Ultimate as the cover might have you believe. Don’t worry though; none of those things are as big of a problem as you might think, and in some cases it actually serves to make the book more useful. Let’s take them on in reverse.
I actually saw a line about this book the other day, someone wondering how much use a self-help book about writing character backstories would be, but that’s not what this book is. It’s not like a ‘how to write a novel’ guide, which it belies with the bright orange subtitle right on the cover: “Prompts and Activities to Create the Most Interesting Story For Your Character.” What you’ve got in this book are one hundred writing exercises, prompts, and yeah even a few minigames meant not to instruct you on writing a character backstory but to provide building blocks that you then need to assemble and often build off of yourself. If your question was “How do I write a good backstory?”, then it’s not going to give you an answer; it’s going to give you a question to answer yourself.
For an example, being an orphaned character is a relatively common backstory choice, but Exercise #21 Orphan Details doesn’t just tell you how to make that interesting: it offers you choices for a mystery surrounding your origin, people who have something to do with your backstory, an item tied to you, and intriguing details on the identity of your parents. You make the choices that interest you the most, and build a story that doesn’t just provide detail but also provides hooks for the GM to use.
Exercise #32, Mentor, addresses another common backstory trope by providing a series of facets about your character’s mentor and then letting you fill in the blanks. Was your mentor well-respected or considered wicked? Were you their star pupil, or were you considered a disappointment? Are they now always a call away, or have they perished? The particularly interesting part of this exercise, and there are several like it, is that you can’t have it all; if your mentor was extremely rich in resources, then they can’t have been the best ever in their craft.
Want to know what you character’s hometown was like? Then Where I’m From, Exercise #14, is going to be helpful. Was your point of origin as big as a metropolis or as intimate as a tribe? What was your actual home, if you had one, like? How did the people there socialize? What did they respect? Who was in charge, and what were they like? What was your place there? Answer those questions, and figure out how your character related to all of it, and you’ll have a pretty good picture of the home that shapes you.
Here’s the thing, though: not all of the exercises are actually about creating backstory elements. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of them that are, but just as often you’re going to be finding exercises meant to help you figure out how your character is going to act, what their personality is in the present day.
Let’s take a look at Exercise #15, Finder’s Keepers. You find a body in the road. It is beginning to grow dark, and this region is dangerous at night. How long are you willing to keep investigating the body and its items? Are you willing to risk getting attacked by the victim’s killer? Are you doing it to loot everything you can, or to help the victim? Once you’re done, are you the type of person to keep what you took? The kind that never tells anyone, or the kind that passes on some final written words?
For a different example there’s Exercise #62, Mountains and Molehills, which is all about how your character reacts to something another player character said last session (and is one of several of the exercises to involve multiple people contributing to it). How did what the other player character said make yours feel? Why? After talking things over with the other player, how does your character express their emotions privately? How do they change how they behave around the other character without saying why? Do you address the provoked emotion with an actual roleplayed conversation, or keep it subtle?
A personal favorite is A Show of Force, Exercise #60. An exercise for an experienced character, this one sees you getting accosted by a staple of the tavern scene, the trouble-making drunk. Do you ignore him until he says something that crosses a line or throw your glass right away? Drop him in a single blow or dodge him until he gets exhausted – and pukes on your boots? Does the tavern cheer you on, or does your fight trigger a brawl that gets your party kicked to the curb? Best part is that, like Mentor, for each section of the exercise you have to pick an option A-E, and you can’t have it all. Hope those boots don’t have any holes.
There’s also a subsection of the non-backstory exercises that are more about world-building than a single character or even a group of them. Exercise #21 Private Mysteries asks you (and by you it’s pointed out that you might very well be the GM) questions about the world that range from who makes the world’s greatest wines to who controls the most powerful army in the world, and then goes on a deep dive past the initial questions. Is someone insisting on the wine’s superiority for political reasons? What’s the most recent loss that ‘most powerful’ army has suffered, and what was the effect on how they fight?
Here’s the sticky bit: the book claims to be the Ultimate, but while that may well be an accurate description of its quality in terms of writing it is not a synonym for ‘universally applicable’.
I went through the book and counted, and there were roughly 25 of the 100 exercises that I judge as being too deep into the fantasy genre to be useful in other genres. Now, that’s pretty subjective; you might read through the book and find more or you might even find fewer, especially if you’re willing to do a bit of extra work and rewrite a few, but there’s no denying that at least some portion of the book has a definite preference to it. That preference gets more stark the further you get into the book, since the three sections represent a progressively higher level character.
My Grimoire, Exercise #28, is all about your character’s spellbook: how it looks, what sort of influences it’s gotten from the magic within, even what sort of personality it’s developed. Honestly it’s one of the outright cooler exercises in the book, tons of good character flavor there, but it’s not going to be even remotely useful unless you’re playing in a world with magic. By the same token Exercise #76 God, No is about a literal deity crashing a party of yours and how you handle it. Despite making me smile because that’s happened to me in games more than once (Tharizdun brought sausage rolls) that’s definitely specific; I can’t even use that one in an Eberron game, never mind outside of a fantasy game.
There’s also no other kind of preference shown in the book: the number of exercises that would work in a sci-fi game but not in a fantasy one is zero, for instance. They’re either universal, or they can be adapted. But the good news is that that last bit usually doesn’t involve any actual work on your part. Exercise #54 is all about two player characters on the night watch having an honest conversation with one another, but despite being entitled Campfire that conversation could just as easily by taking place on the walk home from a bar or in the cockpit of a starship. This even happens among the high-level stuff. The framing device for Pocket Dimension might be just that, but the contents of Exercise #78 is really just about a private place where a character retreats to in order to relax, keep mementos and secrets, maybe train, no magic or actually fantastical elements required.
Further mitigating the fact that there are some fantasy-only exercises is the sheer quantity of ones that aren’t, and let’s be honest: there’s no way in the world that you’re going to use all 100 exercises for a single character anyway, at least not all in one go. While it might have been nice for a few other genres to get their own spotlight treatment, like how they customize cybernetics for one example, they definitely still have more to work with than they can handle all at once.
So, is the Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide worth checking out? I’ll be honest, I was skeptical, but after reading through it: yes! A lot of the exercises will be useful – whether you’re on your own or you’re picking an exercise that draws in others as well – and many of them seem quite fun, which can be a boon for newcomers and veterans on their 43rd character alike. This is way better than a How To Guide, and I’m very pleased D’Amato went this route that encourages actively thinking about your character(s) and exercising creativity.
There’s also the fact that, like Quill, the Guide has potential uses as a creative writing tool outside of its stated goal of crafting player characters. There’s the obvious and sometimes even stated option that GMs might use the exercises for their campaign writing, yes. But if you’re just straight up writing a story and need some help creating details for a character or the world, or just want to practice your creativity outside of your other work, then there’s a good chance that the Guide will have something to offer you.
Now, as they say in Exercise #1 Idiom, you can’t make happiness without swinging a sword. They do say the pen is mightier, though, so grab one and a copy of the Guide and have some fun creating!
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