Do Your Players Write Backstories?

I have a whole new group of players in my Vaesen campaign, and they asked me if they should write backstories. My initial response was “yes and no” … I told them that I’d much prefer them to invest that energy in having a *backup character concept in case their first character dies … Plus, it won’t be a long campaign, but it will run at least 6 sessions, most likely.

Then again, I love having player investment in the game world. I’m setting things in England instead of Sweden, mid-to-late 1800s, with their Society headquarters in London. So it’s an alternate Earth history with folktale monsters and other horrors. I have not had a group this enthusiastic in a while, so I’d like to encourage them a little. My instinct now is to say, sure, go ahead and write a very short backstory, but only like 2 paragraphs max.

What would you do?


I feel like getting that question right there may mean the players aren’t fully informed/disclosed about the possibility of character death. I feel like it is the hardest to convey crystal clearly.

It definitely gets helped by my pitch documents, but can still get lost in the shuffle.


I sometimes get players that are into writing these, usually when they come from different gaming backgrounds than I do. Bullet points or something short and sweet that I can easily digest is encouraged generally.

I’m much more into lightly sketching and emphasize that I like to make most of this form of play a little more collaborative by having it occur during the character generation process and in play if at all possible. I’ll work to accommodate concepts the players bring to the table, but it’s never compulsory and I provide some random tables for Backgrounds/Prior Vocations and such in case the player needs a list/roll to help them along.

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Yes, definitely. I’ve got one player who seems to like having a definite backstory for each character, and the other players, to differing degrees, all follow his lead. And that’s great! For some games. For others, I think I’d rather start with lightly sketched characters, and fill in the blanks as we go. But it is what it is.

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I like a few bullet points and a conversation where we can ask questions about the character, making sure we leave lots of space for things to be discovered through play.

I wrote a blog post about haiku back-stories that might be relevant here.


For Vaesen I can highly recommend using the Lifepath character gen. Works very well. And gives the backstory in one go! Generally, I say if your Backstory is longer than a tweet I won’t read it. Let’s play to find out who the characters are.

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We did the Lifepaths. They wanted more! :smiley:
Like … what’s the name of the hospital in London where the Doctor character works at. And details about how that character navigates life as a Jewish gay man during the times of Oscar Wilde. (That player is Jewish, and she is interested in exploring that heritage at the table. It was discussed during Lines & Veils, and everybody else was cool with it. Interesting stuff!)

I personally HATE character backstories. I don’t like making them I don’t like GMing when players have them.

I do like having a light sketch of what my character is and what the other characters are like. But honestly if the backstory is more intricate than what fits on the back of index card tent readable from across the table, well then it is on you (the person with the intricate backstory) to bring all the relevant info to the game.

To me, the thing that really bothers me, is the “I wrote these 3 pages of backstory, now I’m waiting for you to bring it into the game for me”. If they want to write those 3 pages cause it helps them bring it into the game, great! Just don’t expect me to do anything with those 3 pages, don’t even give them to me, so you don’t get your hopes up that I might read them and bring something in, bring it into the game yourself.


They can write it up but keep it to themselves, then bring up relevant bits in game. Treat it as “writer’s notes”, not a prologue to the campaign.


Definitely not. But I’m running Neoclassical Geek Revival, where you make your character as you play the first adventure. We’ve continued that way when players bring in new characters, filling in the character sheet as we play the new character’s first delve. There’s a little bit of backstory that gets hashed out kind of as Q&A, like “Okay, you said your character’s a noble? Are you imperial then, or from the local province?” or “And your wizard, which magic school did you go to?” but nothing really outside of play.


I strongly dislike players writing backstorys for their characters before the game even starts, probably in part because it reminds me of the Trad/OS style of play which I strongly dislike. I also find it to be problematic because, especially when starting a new game and/or setting, the ideas different players and the GM have about the world may take some sessions to properly align, making stories written before the first session not fit the world they actually play in.
In the last two campaigns I participated in, each player designed a personality for their character beforehand, but then decided things about their past retroactively whenever a connection to that past appears (a NPC they know, a organization they may have been part of).

I agree with this and would like to add to it that the game-system matters. If you are playing a grim and gritty game with lots of character death, perhaps even with a level zero funnel/meatgrinder like in DCC having character backgrounds is silly (though even they have something, as you at least know the profession of your character and can find out more as you go).

If you have a game where you know your character is unlikely to die, this becomes more of a thing that you can put some effort in to, and depending on the game it might be built in. I’m thinking of FATE, where character creation is not something you do separate from each other if you play it R.A.W. but rather you come up with aspects together, including three background ones, of which at least two tie into other character backgrounds. You also get to invest in the creation of the setting as you can, through character creation, help create places and faces together as a group. I think the rules even state that character creation is part of play, not separate from it.

Dungeon World has the bonds, but most of it is still kind of emergent.

It really depends on the system I think. I think that, whatever you do, there should be consideration towards the GM by not writing a multi page essay, unless they want to to try and tie things together from it for the longer campaign. So I guess talk about it in group.

I like the creative exercise of emergent play, but I also like to try and make a bit of sense of my character so I know their motivations. Some games have motivations built in (Kill monsters and get Loot, Accompany the Mage on their last voyage, Help people in need, as a few examples) but others can get pretty fuzzy.


On the other hand, if your players consistently write backstories for their characters, it’s likely because they enjoy writing backstories fir their characters, and I think it’s a good idea for to make some accommodation for that, even in a funnel/grinder situation. In either case — high character mortality or GM overload — it sounds like the problem isn’t so much the background as the amount of it, so maybe the trick is just to put some constraints around that. During character creation, tell players they can write a two sentence background starter if they want, but that, as with anything else character-related, they’re in charge of expressing that background during play. Then have them read out their sentences so that reading those background don’t turn into homework for anyone.


I really think I’m going to adapt something like this “haiku backstory” idea. Thanks for sharing it!


Wonderful. I’d love to hear how it goes.

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