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April 6, 2015

How to Write a Character Background

Today Run a Game becomes Play a Game.

Hello, GMs.  Today's post is going to be a tool to give to your players to help them invent their characters.  It's "system agnostic" -- meaning you can use it for any tabletop RPG, or even adventure-style LARP.  Some tabletop RPGs like the Dresden Files RPG and Hillfolk have additional character development mechanics you will need to read and incorporate into this process, so consider using a modified version.

If you're a "hand stuff out at the table" sort of GM, or if you feel like keeping it short and sweet, here's one page of instructions for you to give your players.


Hello, players.  Run a Game is a GM blog, but today I'm talking to you.  I'm going to give you a process to write a character backstory that GMs can't resist.  It will help your GM to pull your character into the story of the game, or even design major plots and villains around your character.  Most importantly, it will let you dictate the terms of your character's motives.


Your character is more than a description, a history, and stats.  Your character is a protagonist in a story.  A story is defined by its conflict.  What truly defines a character in a story is why the character is in the conflict to begin with.  Your GM will take care of what the conflict is, but a good background should be filled with strong character hooks about why you would engage with the conflict.

Anyone can pick up a spear and go try to stop the necromancer from raising the dead near some innocent hamlet.  Anyone can learn a few spells and take a job from a mysterious wizard in a tavern.

But the veteran soldier feels responsible for the deeds of the necromancer because he saved her life during the war, back when she was just a child.  He has a soft spot for her, and might try to talk her into surrendering without bloodhsed.  And the young mage is desperate to put on a disguise and take the job offered by the mysterious wizard.  Why?  Because that wizard was her cruel master, and she wants to learn what he's up to and hopefully foil his sinister plans.

The key elements of a character background are the character hooks.  The rest is just narrative that links them together.  That narrative serves an artistic purpose, but it's entirely retrospective.  The events to come will hinge on the character hooks you built the story around, not the linking narrative.  Character hooks are people, places, things, careers, and goals your character has; why your character cares about them; and what places them in a state of unresolved tension.

Elements of Character Hooks

Your goal is not to write a piece of short fiction, but to give the GM a collection of Character Hooks.  Like adventure hooks or story hooks, character hooks connect ("hook") your character's motivations to the objective of the adventure the GM designs.  Good character hooks have emotional elements and practical elements.

The emotional elements of a character hook are pathos and unresolved tension:

  • Why do you care about this? (pathos)
  • What makes its future uncertain? (unresolved tension)

The practical elements of a character hook are:
  • People
  • Places
  • Things
  • Social Status
  • Goals

The best character background starts with just a handfull of bullet points on a single sheet of paper.  You can write a narrative to describe them, or you can leave some "white space" to fill in later.  That's up to you.

Here's what you do when writing a Story Hook bullet point:

  1. Invent or select a person, place, object, social status, or goal that sounds cool (to you) and sounds like it might have something to do with the GM's campaign pitch.  Don't be too pressed about aligning with the campaign pitch.  Just go with the general theme.  The GM will take care of the rest.
  2. Decide what strong feelings your character has about it.  Write down a few emotion words.  If you're having trouble with this, just write "positive" or "negative" and move on.  Look at the examples below for inspiration.
  3. Explain why your character feels this way.  Use one or two sentences to clarify those emotion words.
  4. Describe this thing's current status in a way that its future is uncertain.  Other good words for "uncertain" are tenuous, imperiled, ambitious, hopeful, mysterious, or bleak.
  5. Turn the uncertainty and pathos into hooks that would give your character motivation.  How does this uncertainty affect your motivation to engage with the campaign premise?  In other words, suggest a few ways that can the GM use this to draw you into the adventures in the campaign.  You might even invent new adventures around it, but if you do, leave a lot of blank space here for the GM to fill in.  You don't have to fill this section in if you don't want to, but it serves as a check:  If you're inspired with dozens of good adventure ideas, it's probably a good hook.  If you can't think of any, you might want to re-write parts 2-4.

Make between three and ten hooks for your character.  That's one to four pages worth of character background (single sided, 12-point font, with generous margins for the GM to taken notes in).

You'll find that every time you craft a character hook, you create yet more people, places and things.  You don't need a bullet point for them all - just the ones you want to play through as plot in the campaign.  You may find yourself writing a plot.  That's OK.  Feel free to write a very general overview of an adventure in the future for your character.  The GM will probably use it, or else take one of the adventures she already had planned and adapt it to fit your adventure pitch.  But don't flesh it out too much -- that's the GM's job.

Examples of Character Hooks

I'm using D&D's Eberron campaign setting as an example because its dungeonpunk victorian feel, pulp style, and shify intrigues are almost universally applicable across settings and RPGs.  You could imagine these examples in anything from a world-spanning '20s Call of Cthulhu pulp horror game to a gritty, urban Vampire: the Masqureade chronicle to a free-wheeling, high-action Feng Shui campaign.

Character hooks should always connect to the GM's campaign pitch or premise.  So here's the pitch for these examples:

The PCs are adventurers from Khorvaire, seeking their fortune and glory by exploring ancient ruins on the mysterious continent of Xen'Drik.  They came into possession of a map that supposedly leads to four ruins from the age of giants, filled with valuable and powerful relics, but some dark elves got a copy of the map as well.  Can our adventurers claim the treasure there before the dark elves do?  What shady purpose will the dark elves use the ancient magic of the giants' ruins for, and who else might want to seize it?  

The examples here are not all for the same character.  You can see how even one good hook could provide an entire campaign of story; so a character with three should be thick with ties campaign's plot.  Ten is a lot for a GM, even for a long campaign.  The GM might never use all ten, but ten hooks gives the GM a lot to choose from.

Wife (Person)
  • Feelings - Love, Protection
  • Reason - I formed a strong romantic bond with her in the two years since our parents arranged our marriage
  • Uncertain Future - She and her family expected me to inherit a fortune, but I was cheated out of it; and now her family has taken her back in and is seeking to annul our marriage. I am not sure how she feels about it.
  • Motivation - I swore to get rich or die trying, so that I could impress my in-laws and preserve my marriage.  I'm going to Xen'Drik to make my fortune.  News from home about my wife and her family would also pull me into adventures.

Red Dragon Egg (Thing)
  • Feelings - Hatred
  • Reason - My mentor in Aerenal was an abusive and cruel master.  When I could, I fled his tutelage and stole his most prized possession: The egg of a red dragon.  I keep it cool, so as to delay its hatching.  My mentor, a powerful wizard, wants it back and will kill to get it.  
  • Uncertain Future - I'm not sure what to do with it, now.  I can't sell it, because he would find out and just buy it back.  
  • Motivation - Until I figure out what to do with it, I'm going to get as far away from Aerenal and my mentor as possible.  The next boat to Xen'Drik sounded like a great idea.  My wizardly mentor and his minions (other apprentices, summoned creatures, hired goons) will probably come after me.  And if I can find ways to get back at him in Xen'Drik, say by foiling his henchmen who are on expeditions here, I will do so.

Knighthood (Social Status)
  • Feelings - Ambition, Pride, Caution
  • Reason - As an orphaned youth, I had no opportunity; but in a chance encounter, I impressed Lord Marin ir'Kade and he promised me a knighthood and a mighty reward if I could go to Xen'drik on a letter of marque and bring him back a relic of the giants for the Kingdom of Breland.  There is nothing I could want more!
  • Uncertain Future - On reflection, it seems fishy that a Lord of Breland would secure a letter of marque for an orphan beggar.  He has skilled knights and explorers under his command.  It seems like there may be a stick hiding behind this carrot.  
  • Motivation - This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and likely my only shot at glory.  I'm going to take the letter and explore Xen'Drik anyway.  If Marin has some trap set for me, or is using me as a fall guy, I'll have to find some way to avoid it and outfox him.  Likely he has some tricks up his sleeve.  Any opportunity I can get to learn about Brelish nobility and House ir'Kade, I will take.  And any political influence or favors I can earn will be very valuable to me.

Bartender (Social Status)
  • Feelings - Pride, Comfort
  • Reason - I spent five years working in a working class bar in the Cogs of Sharn, and I take pride in my job
  • Uncertain Future - I've been motivated to hang up the towel and go adventuring, but there is a tension - I will always long for the life of a bartender or innkeeper.
  • Motivation - The best part about tavern life for me was always the stories and songs.  I got swept up in this opportunity with a treasure map and a journey to an uncharted continent to seek treasure and glory like the heroes in the legends.  The reality of adventuring and the daily dangers hasn't dawned on me yet.  I may be able to resolve the tension by using adventuring to get enough coin to build an inn; but money has an effect on people.  Once I can afford a humble tavern, I'll want a humble inn.  Then a moderate inn.  Then a big country inn.  Then a big, fancy hotel and restaurant in Sharn; and so forth.  Villains may tempt me by offering me a country inn, or when things go bad, I may doubt whether I'm cut out to be an adventurer.  Also, I'll be more sympathetic to innkeepers and bartenders, and would go out of my way to help them.

Revenge against the Quori (Goal)
  • Feelings - Blind Hatred
  • Reason - As a Kalashtar, the Quori are persecuting me, and they killed my parents
  • Uncertain Future - What my character doesn't know is that the Kalashtar invented and also depend on the ovoid monoliths; so her plan is doomed (see below).  My goal is to use this motivation to cause her to steal the relics the party collects and flee to Riedra, making her an NPC for some time.  Then when the rest of the party chases her down, they can learn this unfortunate fact and use it to confront her.  She will rejoin the party, having lost her will to fight the Quori.  But maybe some other developments in the campaign will give her a new and actually effective way to oppose them.
  • Motivation - When I learned about the history of Xen'Drik, I decided I would learn how to use the ancient relics there to destroy the ovoid monoliths on Riedra, the hanbalani altas, and cut Dal Quor off from Eberron entirely once more.

Stormreach (Place)
  • Feelings - Death Wish, Cocky, Reckless
  • Reason - I joined a pirate ship off the Xen'Drik coast, but the ship was taken by the Lyrandar Storm Lord, and the captain, quarterdeck, and warrant officers were hanged.  The hands (like me) were pressed into service on the Storm Lord's vessels, but I deserted when one put to port in Sharn.  So I'm a wanted man in Stormreach.
  • Uncertain Future - Though I go under an assumed name and conceal my appearance, someone might discover me and either blackmail me or try to take me up and hang me for desertion.
  • Motivation - I have a bit of a death wish - a devil-may-care attitude about this situation.  I'm eager to get back into the life of a freewheeling adventurer seeking loot and glory, and Stormreach is the place to do it.  This treasure map we found shows one of the dungeons is actually under the city.  I can't wait to strike it rich right under the nose of that stuck-up Stormlord!

Being Proactive

One last note.  We GMs are not perfect.  Sometimes we're busy or forget to work in the players' character hooks; and sometimes we just don't notice a good opportunity to work your hooks in.  It happens all the time.

When that happens, if you see an opportunity to write your character's hooks into the story, please tell your GM!  We GMs usually love to work your hooks in on the fly!

Here's how you and the GM can do it:

GM:  "A necromancer that they call The Mistress has been raising the dead near the hamlet of Quiet Ford.  The graveyards are being desecrated.  Nothing has attacked the town yet, but someone is raising an army of skeletons, and it's only a matter of time!"

You:  "Oh, hey, could that be the 'wayward youth' from my character, Jorei's, background?"

GM:  "Hold on, no actions yet - let me finish giving you the setup."

You: "No, this isn't an action: I want to work in something from my character background.  Can we do that?"

GM:  "OK, let me see."

You pass the GM your background and point at a hook:

A Wayward Youth
  • Feelings - Soft Spot, Charity, Responsibility, Regret
  • Reason - During the war, I saved the life of a wayward teenage girl named Nore during the sacking of a city.  She turned out to be violent and rebellious; but I feel responsible for the life I saved.
  • Uncertain Future - After the sacking, I found her a job as a weaver's apprentice, but she ran away, and I regret not taking her under my wing and providing a stable and loving home for her.  It's been years.  She's grown up now.  I wonder what she's up to.
  • Motivation - She's the sort of person with a chip on her shoulder and a violent streak who bad guys love recruit as henchmen.  Maybe I'll cross blades with her and try to save her from the choices she's made.
The GM looks at his notes and sees a necromancer he initially described as an old man in a black robe, not tied to any other villains.  He makes a quick change so now it says "young woman" and "doing a job for the dracolich because she owes it for teaching her the secrets of magic; will die before going to jail, but won't die for the dracolich.  Will play on Jorei's 'Soft Spot' to let her escape."  The GM also makes a note for future prep: "Who's the dracolich and what does it want?  Nore doesn't know and frankly neither do I - but it sounds cool."

GM: "Sure, yeah.  When people describe the necromancer, they talk about a young raven-haired woman with intense blue eyes and a burn scar on her right cheek.  You remember pulling her out of that fire like it was yesterday.  Yeah...  It couldn't be anyone else."


GM (as Nore):  "You know I'll die before I wear irons, Jorei.  I'm going to walk out now.  If you want to stop me, you have to kill me."

You (IC):  "At least swear to me you won't work for the Dracolich anymore."

GM (as Nore):  "It's not that simple, but now I know you're here for me, and I know I can trust you.  I'm leaving now.  I hope you trust me, too."

GM:  She turns her back and begins to walk up the stairs.  Do you let her leave?

A good GM won't let the hook end here -- especially since he has to create this new Dracolich plot, and he needs NPCs and hooks for it.  If Jorei lets Norre go, she'll be trapped in the Dracolich's network, but working against it.  If Jorei kills her or lets his allies kill her now, she will haunt him, and her shade will serve the Dracolich, reminding him of his cold heart every time he hears about her.

Now, sometimes the GM might say no.  If you run a game, you should only reject a character's request to work in a character hook if you already have one.  Imagine if the GM had placed this old man necromancer in the plot because another character had the "Red Dragon Egg" hook.  The old man was the simulacrum of another PC's abusive wizard mentor from Aerenal, come to Xen'Drik to raise an undead army to capture the port of Stormreach.

The GM might say "No, I have other plans for this necromancer."  But the GM has heard you, and will try to insert your hook at the next opportunity.  Maybe at the end of the adventure, there might be an exchange like this:

GM:  "As the simulacrum dies, it turns into packed snow, and the snow begins to melt in the tropical heat of the Xen'Drik jungle.  Its clothing and equipment remain, though."

Andy (who plays the character with the Red Dragon Egg):  "Oh, man.  I kneel in the melting snow and pack it around the dragon egg to keep it cool.  How thematic!"

You: "While he's doing that, I search the clothes and stuff."

GM:  "In the simulacrum's pouch, you find  1,250gp worth of onyx, which he must have been using to make the skeletons, and a note that says 'Once you have 200 skeletons, summon an imp.  Place 50 of them under the imp's command and have it take them East to the second ruin to support Captain Norre's expedition, and march the rest South to capture Stormreach.' You get a bad feeling about this."

Andy:  "Crap!  They're already exploring the East ruin?"

You:  "At least...  At least I know Norre.  I hope I can talk her into stepping aside..."

Andy: "And if you can't..?"


  1. This is a brilliant way to think about character creation and I’ve used it to great effect in a recent session zero. Now I have several juicy character-centred storylines and situations to explore.

    Do you have any tips for juggling these different threads? Do you try to incorporate multiple threads for different characters into a single adventure? Present a few interesting conflicts and let the players decide which to pursue? Rotate through different PC storylines?

    I’m trying to figure out how to explore these ideas without and single character getting all the spotlight. Thanks!

    1. For a longer campaign, it's ok if a single character gets the spotlight at a time, as long as the attention shifts around more or less equally.

      In The Colors of Magic, a Scrappy little indie game I made, you get three literal mad libs that ensure each adventure involves all the PCs' hooks.

      That's because each adventure usually has three major components:

      - The setting and friendly NPCs
      - The antagonist and their subordinates
      - The twist

      So use player A's setting, player B's antagonist, and player C gets spotlighted by the twist.

      If you have 5 players, have player B's antagonist threaten player D's ideal, and then use A's setting and E's friendly NPC.