I want to expand on a concept I’ve touched on before: namely, the idea that the “object” of a D&D game (or any PnP RPG) is to tell a compelling story. Without rehashing too much of the “why” that is, I’ll just say that the fact that I can meet anyone from any walk of life, in any situation, and, if that person also has played D&D before, we will instantly start swapping cool stories about games we were in ... that’s the magic of D&D right there, in a nutshell. The stories you forge when you roleplay are epic, magical, intense, and, amazingly, better than anything you’ve ever read, or seen, or heard.
The reason for this is simple: when a group of friends sits down at the table to play, we’re all bringing worlds of experience to bear on the problem of how to tell the greatest story imaginable. Every fantasy book we’ve ever read, movie we’ve ever seen, videogame we’ve ever played—
So the principal idea of D&D, as far as I’m concerned, is that we’re all going to get together, and we’re going to tell a story. And there is one simple rule for storytelling that I believe is paramount: character is king. Not everyone agrees with me on this, but there are certainly plenty of famous authors (and even filmmakers) who concur. We’ve all read books, or seen movies, or watched TV shows, where we just didn’t care about the characters. No matter how interesting the plot may be, no matter how outrageous the situation or how detailed the setting, you’re never going to enjoy a story where you don’t give a crap if the characters live or die. And, contrariwise, if you do care about the characters, then you’ll enjoy the story even if you could care less about the plot, or even the entire genre. As a simple example, I don’t care for lawyers. The whole premise of the courtroom drama I find overdone to the point of cliché, and it mostly bores me. I never liked Perry Mason, I never liked Matlock, and I don’t watch Law & Order.* I always thought A Few Good Men was overrated, and even the ultra-classic 12 Angry Men I could take or leave. But I read John Grisham novels, and I watched every episode of The Good Wife. Why? Because the characters are interesting, and I care what happens to them.
So the number one thing we can do to make our D&D game the Most Interesting Story Ever Told is to start with interesting characters. And the number thing we can do to make our characters interesting is to develop their backstory. You need to think about where your character grew up, who their parents were, what are the things they do for fun. You want to play a hulking barbarian, like Conan? Great: why are they a hulking barbarian? If you like Conan because of the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger film, then you know that he was a hulking barbarian because of the years he spent pushing a giant wheel as a slave. Which was after the whole having-his-entire-village-wiped-out-by-bad-guys thing and the whole having-his-parents-die-in-front-of-his-eyes-as-a-child thing. This is a pretty great backstory,** and your character needs one just as good. Or perhaps your character is a wizard, like Harry Potter, who has a pretty awesome backstory himself. Or are you an archer, like Merida, an assassin, like Arya, or a kick-ass swordsman, like Cloud? ‘Cause they all have pretty amazing backstories too. You know why Merida uses a bow, you know why Arya worships the god of death, and you know why Cloud carries that big honkin’ sword. Shouldn’t you know why your character is who they are?
And not only does a properly fleshed-out backstory make your character more real, and therefore more interesting, but you may find that it also throws off story hooks like fireworks throw off sparks. I already told the story of my middle child’s first character, and how we came up with a moderately complex backstory in a pretty short amount of time. I also noted that, since the backstory included a missing, possibly captured, former teacher, there was every chance that, at some point in our campaign, we’re going to find that guy. As Chekhov’s Gun reminds us, such plot elements need to be paid off later in the story, otherwise they’re pointless. Here’s another story from my time as GM where a player brought me a backstory that ended up heavily influencing the action of the campaign.
In between 2e and 3e D&D, I ran a game where we mostly used D&D rules, but I threw out all restrictions. You could combine any class features you wanted, play any combination of race and class ... anything. My brother said he wanted to play an elven paladin, which was something the 2e rules forbade. I said, sure, that sounds awesome. He said, my character’s goal will be to serve the elven king. Whoa, I replied, that may be a problem, because there is no elven king in this world. See, I had already developed a whole new world where I wanted to play with some of the stereotypes of the standard Tolkien-derived races, and I had worked out racial backstories and cultures for everyone, and the elves, it turns out, had given up having kings about 5,000 years ago, for complex reasons involving war and magical artifacts and evil archmages and whatnot. It was sort of crucial to the whole campaign, in fact. So I wasn’t too keen on having to rework all that just to suit my brother’s character concept. So I explained all that to him. Fine, he said: my character’s mission then is to find the long-lost elven king. Or his descendants, or whatever. That will be my quest. I said, what if there just isn’t anything to find? My brother assured me that his character wasn’t the sort of person to give up a quest just because it was hopeless. Which I found sort of endearing. So I made my brother (and his companions) journey to one of the Great Cities, so they could do research at the Great Library of Baqai, and then go on a quest to get something to appease the thriddles,*** who were the only ones capable of navigating the massive stacks of books in the Great Library, and they produced a complex report on the royal elven lineage, which led the party to a strange hermit who seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of lost knowledge, who told them to be in a certain place at a certain phase of the moon, where they ran into a young elven maiden and her bodyguard being chased by a horde of zombies, and then our overeager elven paladin decided that she was the last remaining carrier of the royal bloodline, and we ended up following her around for months ...
So you can see how one little piece of backstory from a single character helped shape the whole campaign, and gave us dozens of great stories to tell about our adventures. I could tell you stories like this all day: it happens in nearly every campaign.
This underscores the importance of spending enough time to create a real, believable character, with a history, and desires, and goals. It takes a little extra time, sure, but it’s worth it. Your D&D character is a superhero, and every superhero has to have an origin story. You don’t even have to write it down—
* Well, except for Law & Order: Criminal Intent, but that’s mainly because they’re never actually in the courtroom in that one. Also: Vincent D’Onofrio. Everything is better with Vincent D’Onofrio.
** Even if it doesn’t appeal to fans of the original character as envisioned by creator Robert E. Howard. (Who was once played by Vincent D’Onofrio. See? I told you everything was better with Vincent D’Onofrio.)
*** A thriddle is a race that I stole from the Skyrealms of Jorune RPG.