I said it was coming, and here it is. The three steps I follow to make a workable and vaguely interesting backstory that will work for any game that doesn’t require extensive and detailed character histories. I’d pop in a little more detail if you were going to play in a social LARP or Sandbox (GM creates a world and unleashes the players upon it. Plot hooks, no railroad.) game.
Generally you make a character while considering the others in your party, and choose a class first (in the tactical games, at least.) so I suggest grab the rough outlines of your mechanics, and build the backstory around that.
I’m going to be using one of my new favourite characters. His personality and powers are best shown in a rules-light, “make up your own damned abilities” game, but he’s a great example of how my three steps turned a basic idea into someone that can entertainingly work with the others in the party. If more questions arise while writing, run with them.
Enter Karas, the Herald of Death.
Step one. What makes this character special?
Look, playing an ultra-realistic game where everyone is peasants doing subsistence farming is super dreary. I roleplay to escape being a standard I.T. employee who never got a letter to Hogwarts, not to relive my work day. Create someone you’d love to hear about in a story.
Karas is a Necromancer from another place in space/time, from a society of people who worship the peaceful repose of death. …okay, so how do I make him not a villain? Violent death is abhorrent to their triad gods. As a Herald of Death, Karas is a skilled weaver of the death magics.
Step Two: What is this character’s past?
Who you were three years ago is a huge part of who you are now. Mistakes you’ve learned from are as touching to someone’s psyche as where you grew up. Do you come from a loving family and feel lost without their support, but you’re powering onward to raise your last name to glory? Were you trained in your class by a wise mentor, or did you pick it up from a dusty tome after chores?
Karas holds a few traumatic recent events in his memories. As an explorer and emissary, it is his divine job to visit planets and societies vastly different to his own. Once, he found a group of humanoids that arranged “accidents” for the elderly in their community, denying a peaceful death, or even the honour of sacrificial death.
Karas was shocked and appalled, and set about a conversion plan. Through misadventures and failure to convince this tribe of the sanctity of natural death, Karas engineered a plague and released it upon the village, guiding each one into the loving arms of death by performing appropriate rites and accepting their sins into his own.
Step Three: What are their goals?
A character without goals and motivations is just a took for the GM to steer through the plot. I sure hope your campaign is on rails in this case, otherwise you’re going to turn into a combat mechanics machine and nothing more.
Karas is interested in changing the public perception of Death. While the gods of this realm see it as an end and a time for them to reap power from the mortal soul traveling to their plane; Karas believes the sanctity of death is absolute, and worshipping the triad facets of death instead of the other divines is the only true way to achieve permanent rest.
Of course, this is a hard task, and so Karas wishes to be as good a person as his warped perception can allow in order to be the face of responsible death worship… The Herald of Death.
So try it yourself! Write them all down and throw them into comments, I’d like to see what you come up with.