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Narelle
2019-08-15, 08:27 AM
Hello all!

I have a new character that my GM has graciously allowed me to switch to after getting to the point that I absolutely hated my previous character. I usually fall in love with my characters and never want to stop playing them, so it was pretty noteworthy that I was having issues with my previous character.

Since I'm switching, I want to make absolutely sure the new character will be one that I love and won't just end up unhappy with as well. I want to have fun playing and don't want to be that player that keeps asking to switch (though I would probably suck it up and stay with one I'm unhappy with before switching twice in one game).

I've been watching and reading lots of tabletop-centric media lately (i.e. Critical Role), which has me questioning if the new character I've created that I'm super excited about has enough depth because he doesn't have a mysterious dark backstory with a bunch of secrets in his back pocket to reveal over time. Frankly, having dark secrets wouldn't really fit the character I've built anyways - he's a naive kid, he trusts too easily and is honest to a fault.

I've been trying to come up with ways to add depth to this character without compromising the character I've got so far that I'm genuinely very excited about. But seeing all these popular characters in media whose epic backstories and fun secrets that come up in the campaign, it feels like you need those things or your character will come out feeling flat. Like you need secrets to have any depth to your character.

So what do you think - can you have a character that can have depth and be engaging without having a dark mysterious backstory and secrets to go with it?

Quertus
2019-08-15, 08:34 AM
So what do you think - can you have a character that can have depth and be engaging without having a dark mysterious backstory and secrets to go with it?

Depends on what you mean by "secrets". I don't force (or allow) people to read dozens of page of backstory, so, in that regard, it's "secret". But it isn't something that impacts the campaign - it's just something that impacts the character, and gives them depth.

Btw, it's best, IME, to run characters in a bunch of one-shots, to get to know if you'll like the character, before committing to a longer campaign.

jjordan
2019-08-15, 08:48 AM
Batman. People seem to think that only extraordinary tragedy can motivate characters to become adventurers. And that can be a good hook for your character but it doesn't have to be. You can have a perfectly happy backstory. Or don't have a backstory at all and let your character develop as you go.

Anachronity
2019-08-15, 09:59 AM
Well if you really want depth.

Try writing a backstory where all potentially-relevant family members aren't dead. GMs love plot hooks, and adding characterization to these family members can help deepen your own character by, for example, showing where idiosyncrasies of your character may have originated or what they may be like when interacting with family members. Or where your character may have mis-stepped along the way. It also forces you to think about why your character became an adventurer when their family is mostly intact.


A good example: I once played a friendly wizard character, though he used some rather dangerous sorts of magic.

Later circumstances would dictate that we travel to his familial academy of the arcane, where his stern elder brother was the headmaster. It was revealed that the two had a terrible falling-out. Unconfident in his ability to rise to the task of headmastery, the elder brother had in the past shown favoritism towards my character during his years at the academy in an attempt to make our family look more accomplished. Wanting to succeed on his own merits, my character undermined those attempts by delving into necromancy, hellfire magic, and other unsavory sorts of things just as an attempt to force my brother to acknowledge that I had indeed done something wrong.

This culminated in a full-on wizard duel, wherein my character resorted to those unwholesome magics and left a terrible scar upon my brother's face. Following this, I was expelled and took to a life of adventuring.




Interesting, but not especially tragic. Further, this shows flaws exist on the part of both my brother and myself, and goes a long way towards explaining why my character is the way that he is, and that there is more to him than a piece of paper listing stats.

The minor details are also important. They may not be meaningful, but they help immensely with immersion. At one point when we were attacked while sleeping we had joked that my character wears a sorcerer-Mickey style stars-and-moons hat and silly wizard robe as pajamas. Later at the academy, when there was a disturbance late at night, we established that my brother came to our aid wearing the same style of pajamas, getting a laugh but also enforcing the idea that my character's quirks and oddities all must have come from somewhere, just like you probably tend to use words and phrases that your brother or parents use frequently even when talking to others.




The other piece of advice I would give is not to go too deep to start with. Have enough to constitute a plot hook for the GM, but leave your character room to grow over the course of your adventures. Prior to our visit to the academy, I had specified only the cause of the conflict and that it had ended somewhat violently. All the rest was fleshed out as it became relevant to the story.

Psyren
2019-08-15, 10:10 AM
Why do you need secrets at all? You should probably start by answering that question. A lot of my characters had a normal upbringing and went to some variation of "magic/martial school" one day, and then took up adventuring because it was the best place to apply the skills they learned while making a name for themselves, with the ultimate goal of joining an organization of some kind (e.g. Harpers, Pathifinder Society, military etc.)

Consider one of the most iconic RPG characters of recent memory, Commander Shepard - his/her backstory is an open book to almost everyone you meet, because of their military record and fame. Furthermore if you play the Spacer + War Hero background then there isn't even anything dark in it, you're just a skilled soldier who achieved distinction and who even still has a family. It doesn't make him/her any less interesting to play. Come up with why you want secrets first and then the rest will follow.

Lord Torath
2019-08-15, 10:13 AM
Give the kid a family. Sounds like he's from a small town, right. Give him some brothers and sisters, and maybe an ex girlfriend (Why did they break up? Dis-approving father? Moved away? Your family put her family out of business? Her family put your family out of business?). His mom gave him her second-best sword. His dad's the local grocer. One of his brothers works for a transport company. His favorite sister just got married.

You get the idea.

Lord Raziere
2019-08-15, 10:54 AM
define "dark", its a pretty broad word your using there, and any word that broad is highly subjective in interpretation. I cannot help you with that until you be more specific.

how creating a character with depth without mysterious secrets is easy, you just have to figure out WHY the character is this way using reasons that make sense.


he's a naive kid, he trusts too easily and is honest to a fault.

Good that gives me something to work with. Think of what kind of environment produces this person. is he sheltered? Perhaps he was raised in an isolated village far away from most towns. Its so off the beaten path know one goes there much, its real far out of the way even if they know of it. in this isolated village, people are happy but don't like any outsiders nor do they like people leaving the town. this town is all they ever known and while the town is full of good people, they really want to keep to themselves, they don't like fighting, they don't like danger, they don't want anything to do some big king or lord telling them that they need to fight when a war comes around, they just want to be left alone and live in peace and this young kid, he is bored of said village, he wants to see more of the world and so he gets some sword that they keep around just in case they do need to fight someone off then takes off.
but he doesn't know how to fight, no one taught him, so he comes across this mercenary posing as a knight to try and train him who sees how honest and trusting he is and can't bear to disappoint your character, he just feels so guilty lying to your character that after a while he confesses he is just a mercenary and that he pretends to be a knight so that people in towns will think he is more legit and thus be more likely to deal with him smoothly, but he will try being honest instead and train your character anyways and that the mercenary mentor parts ways with him as a better person who doesn't lie anymore.
and perhaps said mercenary mentor points him the way to whatever adventure he is supposed to go on for the group, all this just as an example and his entire character is learning about the world around him and how it works from someone who is extremely isolated from it with probably different moral values than the people around him that can be refreshing to people in some ways and little annoying in others, and so on and so forth. his depth comes from the fact that his background is so different from others that it can both be good and bad for him to be this honest and trusting, and that he can grow from his experiences as well as take chances on people that others wouldn't.
think of how we will react when he starts seeing something terrible, when something shocking happens, think of how he will react when someone takes advantage of him and he founds out about it, how can he endure the hardships of the world and still retain the honesty and trust he has? how can he continue living without sliding into distrust and bitterness? how does he remain this good person without being lessened by the things he will experience? those are the questions you must ask, and depth is obtained from answers that are better than "He doesn't and becomes a bitter cynic" or "he doesn't react to them and remains the same."

Anonymouswizard
2019-08-15, 10:56 AM
I've been watching and reading lots of tabletop-centric media lately (i.e. Critical Role), which has me questioning if the new character I've created that I'm super excited about has enough depth because he doesn't have a mysterious dark backstory with a bunch of secrets in his back pocket to reveal over time. Frankly, having dark secrets wouldn't really fit the character I've built anyways - he's a naive kid, he trusts too easily and is honest to a fault.

Here's the thing, tabletop game-based media is generally more focused on what makes interesting viewing than what makes interesting play, and although the groups I've seen doing it tend to shy away from intra-party conflict (which is good in Critical Role's case, a fairly function group is what you want in what is essentially D&D's main advertising) as a general rule secrets create drama, which is interesting to watch (if not always interesting to play).

In an actual game? Events can be boring but still intensely engaging, I remember one surprisingly fun case of our characters Googling information (which we used so much the GM added an Internet Search skill). There's less need to keep everything entertaining for an outside audience (although secrets can have their place, one thing I like about Titansgrave was that a) Will Wheaton acknowledged that the party's secrets are part of his style and b) the secrets were all of varying levels of 'dark' and some had very little impact on how the game played out).


So what do you think - can you have a character that can have depth and be engaging without having a dark mysterious backstory and secrets to go with it?

Yes. In many ways the darker the backstory I've seen the less deep the character has turned out to be. Darkblade Nightedge the tourtured adventurer searching for the lich that sacrificed their family was much less interesting than Father Reichardt, who's backstory included the line 'made it through the world war without major psychological damage*'. Partially because Father Reichardt's rank in the Sigmarite Church, military background, and knowledge of religion and history (part of having been sent to the church in his early teens) gave him a surprising number of ties to the setting, even if his knowledge of history had to be bought later due to a tight point budget. Another was due to character quirks, he was the most serious of the group but also stuck in the past, and wore an antique breastplate under his clothes due to his interpretation of scripture, and I spent much more time developing those than his backstory, which I will recite for you know:

As the younger child of a minor aristocratic family was sent to join the church in his teens.
At the church he was trained in combat and scripture, and also elected to study history.
In the skaven war served with a squad, when it ended had trouble fitting in with the Empire and so was assigned to an embassy in a dwarven hold.


Parents never came up, we'd agreed that contact had been cut soon after he was sent to the church, and there was no need to establish which family he came from beyond 'small enough to not appear in the books'. He also owned some land back home, I wasn't sure what but it supplemented the church stipend quite nicely (the first installment went on a runic cloak of protection).


Now you can go much deeper than I did, even create a full blown novel for your backstory if you want. But I want to point out that probably my most engaging and interesting character had a three line backstory, no dark secrets, and a few blank details to fill in if they ever became important. Overconfident, honest to a fault, and utterly devoted to the rule of law, and by playing these traits to the hilt while finding the wiggle room I managed to build an engaging character.

* He wasn't undamaged, but had adapted to civilian life by going for his hammer before his pistol.

ngilop
2019-08-15, 11:29 AM
This is the main things about RPGs now in society that angers me. Now that it is 'acceptable' to be a gamer geek, a lot of poeple with completely differenct likes and such are joining in.

For some reason people think you need a hugely tragic backstory to be a PC, and main stream gamer media either actively support that idea OR do not even mention there are other ways of doing things. I mostly blame comic books and video games for the belief.


It is not needed at all. You can have a great and wonderfully happy backstory. Not everybody needs to be batman as jjordan pointed out, to start their journey. I have had dozens of characters that were rainbow filled backstory. Heck.. I had one game where it started with my Character's wedding to his childhood sweet heart. The first actual adventure was because "My wife is about to have a baby and the duke is going to take hi sweet time" Kind of the 'not going to stay here and wait to be saved'

malachi
2019-08-15, 11:48 AM
I've been trying to come up with ways to add depth to this character without compromising the character I've got so far that I'm genuinely very excited about. But seeing all these popular characters in media whose epic backstories and fun secrets that come up in the campaign, it feels like you need those things or your character will come out feeling flat. Like you need secrets to have any depth to your character.

So what do you think - can you have a character that can have depth and be engaging without having a dark mysterious backstory and secrets to go with it?

Yes, you can have an engaging character with depth without any kind of mystery or secrets or anything hidden. Just some things to think about with what you already described about your character:


he's a naive kid, he trusts too easily and is honest to a fault.

Come up with a situation where he trusted to easily and got burned, and another where his honesty got him in trouble.

What does he think about being honest when it's going to be hard? Does he just blab without thinking, or does he struggle and end up blabbing out of guilt?
How does he feel about other people lying? Does he feel different if he's lied to and later discovers it, or if a friend lies to someone else and he knows the truth in the moment?

How does he react to having his trust betrayed? How does he react to other people being suspicious of a stranger, or of someone he's talked to enough to trust (whether or not he should trust the person)?
Why does he trust people easily? Is it because he doesn't think he deserves to trust others, because he feels like not trusting someone makes him a bad person, or something else?


You've figured out what his character flaw is (naivety), but what connections does he have to the world? What are his personal goals? What are his quirks?



As an example, I'm in a 5e campaign where we rolled randomly for stats, race, and background.
I have a Drow wizard, named Quillion, with high CON and INT, with a Criminal background. The group is a bit on the silly side, and we were going to be playing on the surface, not the underdark, so I needed to create a personality for him that would allow him to function with others. Also, I don't enjoy playing non-good characters, so I had to think through things a bit.

The criminal enterprise that he was a part of, then, became an attempt to smuggle traded goods to noble houses, rather than resorting to raiding parties, with the intent that trade could eventually replace the raids and result in better wealth. Because using magic would make this too easy, and would make this irrelevant, the organization mainly works on transporting goods non-magically so that there could be no suggestion that the goods were simply conjured into existence (which would lower the price and value).

Now, Quillion needed a reason to be on the surface (along with his brother, another PC), so we talked together, and decided that Quillion altruistically decided to save another PC from a slaver group because "he looked so sad, and made those pitiful spider-eyes; who could resist that?"

Because Quillion is a male Drow, he has lots of cultural differences with people on the surface, which come up in fun ways - like he casually asked another PC what types of murder were acceptable in the presence of guards, since in his mind they're probably just slaves and no one listens to them so they just kind of fade into the background to him.

Also, as a wizard, Quillion studied for his power, and his studies are the only reason he wasn't enslaved. His brother, however, is a Divine Soul Sorcerer, and basically got a free pass. This results in ongoing tension between the two (which everyone at the table loves) about their differing philosophies on life, Quillion calling his brother stupid, his brother calling Quillion stuck-up, and all kinds of other stuff.




Another example, of a 5e campaign that's currently on hold, I had a High Elf Noble Arcane Trickster Rogue.
The most important part of his personality came from the fact that he's a noble, and the rogueishness is not from being a criminal, but simply part of the self-defense training he got that emphasized his innate dexterity, precision, and magic.

He needed a reason to be part of an adventuring guild, so I decided that he was still underage (only 78 years old), and was sent out to another country to build a name for himself and learn about the people in preparation of being sent there as a diplomat.

Since I, as a player, like playing Good characters, I decided to emphasize his compassion and feelings of responsibility. Whenever he hears of people in trouble, he is ready to help even without a reward. He kind of passively thinks better of himself than others, and is somewhat classist, which comes out as him being slightly more patronizing to lower classes and that he simply can't think about the emotional state of professionals on duty (guards, cooks, etc) and treats them as positions rather than people.

He has a large number of siblings, and looks up to one, but is annoyed by several others (who have more selfish noble personalities).





Neither character has hidden / secret information (from other players - none of the PCs know about Quillion's "criminal" organization yet, but that'll change next session), but they both have depth and bring enjoyment to the table, all without having anything dark or mysterious.

BWR
2019-08-15, 11:49 AM
Many of my favorite characters start shallow and develop during play. After all, that's where the most interesting parts of a character's life happen. Backstories are rarely interesting no matter what you stuff in there. As a GM and as a player I'm interested in what lies ahead, not what has gone before the game starts. Granted, the more detailed and immersive a setting is the easier it is to make something with an interesting backstory, but IME the only times a proper backstory has been important is the ones where we play legacy characters whose lives are directly intertwined with events and characters from previous games.

Don't worry about having a fully-fledged person with detailed history and motives and quirks before you start. Create an outline, a skeletal personality which you can flesh out as the game unfolds and inspiration strikes. All the backstory you need is "X had an unremarkable childhood but wanted to go on adventure'. Don't worry if your character takes a few sessions to develop.

sktarq
2019-08-15, 11:52 AM
one thing I find can help is starting from the story of your character's family or hometown and then let the PC grow out of that. You get side characters and also personality traits and a sense of depth. Sometimes it works to even have a mental run of a different character that was key to developing the PC (say a parent, mentor, or master (in master-apprentice system)) and tell their story so that is helps define how your PC sees the world (even if that is about rejecting the first character's viewpoint). It can promote character arc ideas, create a ton of plot hooks etc.

So basically started with my characters father Jock. He was born to a middle level cashcrop farming family next to a tiny farming town on a medium trade route (village runs about 60 people half children-600ish in general area). His advantages were a fantastic work ethic, curiosity and openness to new ideas, and the families land was very close to the village. He also deeply wants to be respected by those he knows and is always looking for some sort of advantage even if he is basically moral.
He played against the towns insular nation by talking to traveling merchants, adventurers, tinkers, and gypsies. In part to hear the stories but also because he had deep wish that he had been better educated than he was. this led to him allowing the gypsies or travelers to pitch camp on his land from time to time and becoming friends with several groups who made yearly/seasonal routes through the area.
Over time he was able to learn about and experiment with good ideas about farming elsewhere and increase his yields, get good deals on imported goods, know market info sooner, get a small about of free magic (from gypsies and traveling hedge wizards) etc that led him to becoming a highly successful cashcrop farmer. He even married a girl that the gypsies wanted to kick out of the caravan because she was only half-gypsy and was being rejected by outsiders because she was culturally an outsider in spite of he obvious skill, intelligence, and beauty.
Jock now having some success and a growing family tried to give to at least his sons the education and wide vistas he could never had. He also knows that successful children reflect well on him and the respect he gets. He noticed the town blacksmith was disliked, getting up in years, and without family. Few wanted to spend time around him. Jock apprenticed his second son to the man. Jock was by far the highest status townie who would wanted any connection to the guy. Who has since died, leaving his son as the village blacksmith. He certainly ended up darker and more cynical than the rest of the family and has a complex relation with Jock but is still at his core a warm and hard working guy of deep practicallity and more incisive mind than almost anyone. He tends to cut to the meat of any issue quickly and bluntly. He now has a wife who was key to getting him to open back up after a couple dark years (he was pretty bitter to his Dad for a while) and a baby.
His third son he pushed into the church as hard as he could. This son was turning out somewhat exceptional but also somewhat troubled by how the world worked. That big picture bent is what drove Jock to pick the church. But things didn't quite turn out as Jock had hoped and he didn't turn out to be the village priest (my character) He also favors his mothers blood more than his siblings.
His fourth son was apprenticed to the village doctor...the town had not really had a doctor normally but one retired to the town after finding the big city too busy or something not understandable to the folks of this rural berg. With the doctors help he has learned quite a bit and between that and a letter of recommendation was accepted into a somewhat distant university to the great pride (and expense) of Jock where he is now studying.
Jock's first son died tragically after the fourth was apprenticed leaving Jock without an heir to the farm. He was too wise to try and get one of his remaining sons to take it after he had shaped them for other roles in life. But he had an idea. His eldest daughter (between sons 2 and 3) had been brought up to be a farm wife...and could now have a large dowry...so she was suddenly a hot commodity on the marriage market and he had hired a fair number of local 2nd sons to help out around the farm from time to time when his kids were young/small/off studying. On the agreement that this non inheriting son take Jock's family name he was allowed to marry his daughter, move in, and inherit the family farm...they now have a toddler and a baby.
There are a also younger twin daughters about 15 - one has become close to a couple of the village wise women and shown interest in midwifery, herbs, etc (and may be as interested in the druidic sect/hedge witch circle and learning hidden within this network-left to DM discression) the other is a social mayfly and has of flashy colours and people that her dad keeps bringing by.
The youngest daughter (age 13) is the one who favors her mother most and has a secret. She just cast her first spell. This could well get her killed in this town as sorcerrers are not trusted but her gypsy blood runs strong.
Meanwhile Jock is now getting on in years but is still hale and hearty (early 60's) has join the village council and is pretty satisfied with his life. He has the respect of much of the town for his wisdom, good advice, and success in farming. His support was a major reason the village church has had significant success in running a small school for younger children to teach them letters, basic history, basic maths, farming theory, and some ethics/religious norms which lasts until they are really old enough to help on the farm more.

SO my character came from this family...has that hard work idea drilled into him, an openness to outsiders not normal but an understanding of the town about why. How to deal with outsiders is normal to him. His interest in farming and family connections gives him openings to talk to new NPC's. So discussing farming and the weather is more normal and natural than courtly fashion and politics. He is a bit of hick and always will be inspite of having been sent to a seminary for advanced training for a couple years. He is still a child of this farming thorp and his parents. Mostly his love for these people has become his drive. And that is why he took up the calling to become a Paladin. He has seen there is life worth protecting and serving. He has seen how good people has be tempted by power (his father) and bad influences (his older brother) an still be basically good people and how those could be worse. He knows how fragile this place is and has a idea of how horrible the world can really be due a Feat that gives him Knowledge(Ravenloft). It is why he went to a more advanced temple of Ezra for training and met up with other characters of adventuring party there. and presto a ton of plot hooks, history, texture, for guy just coming out of paladin training.

Kraynic
2019-08-15, 11:55 AM
You really don't need anything like that at all. If it helps you figure out what your character will do as you face different situations in the game, go for it. For myself, I prefer characters that are well grounded in the common world, and I use that perspective to guide my way to the personality of my character.

The current pathfinder character that am playing (the game has been going over 2 years now) is a half-elf bard. I picked cooper as the profession of one of his parents pretty much at random. I told my DM that I would leave it up to him if there were any siblings, if both parents were alive, but I needed at least one parent and an operating shop. He had been uninterested in staying around, learning that profession, and taking over the shop one day due to the half-breed stigma. He did like people in general, and craved feeling like he belonged even if it was only for short periods of time, so he became a bard/minstrel. The whole singing for your supper, carrying news from one town the next, etc. One benefit of this is that it allowed him to be on the road or in a town pretty much anywhere the DM decided to start me/us out.

Pretty boring, right? On the other hand, the way I envisioned him living, he valued trust. With that being the case, he has never (and will never if I have anything to say about it) attempted to intimidate anyone. It has been exceedingly rare for him to try to bluff someone. Even in an RP sense, I have kept silent about things from time to time (keeping secrets), but I have avoided lies. That carries over into spell choices as well. He hasn't learned any charm type spells, and likely never will.

Because he comes from a craftsman background, he appreciates good workmanship and has a respect for people that build things. While he isn't going to pass up a good deal, he is very unlikely to go through with some sort of purchase or sale that he knows is horribly unfair to a craftsman. This doesn't necessarily carry over to all merchants though.

And, as the game goes on, things happen in the game that you can use to create character quirks. For instance, there is a certain amount of expectation that a bard will flirt with anything. While I wasn't planning on playing quite in that way, the very first female npc that we had much dealings with was definitely friendly towards my character and then double crossed the party in a such a way that we were being left to die. We survived by the skin of our teeth, and the second female npc we met was only slightly better. Right now there are only two females he trusts much at all. One is the party's halfling barbarian, and the other is an npc that the group has helped or rescued twice. She hasn't tried to kill us as far as we know.

There are other things that have happened and shaped his personality within the game, from the DM taking advantage of me allowing him room to play with my backstory to the fact that my character ended up playing the healer quite a lot due to us losing clerics (bad luck with players and real life schedules). There is the fact that he is the only one without any ranks in the ride skill, and I decided to do without and go with him not liking (or being afraid of horses) when the whole party suddenly needed mounts around level 6. There is even input from the dice that I never dealt lethal damage until at least around level 2 (and we started as level 0). And even with the bow as a main weapon, my dice rolls were so bad at attacking that I never killed anyone (or anything) until level 4.

To wrap this up, you don't need an in depth background. You just need the idea of where your character came from, and a few ideas of how that might affect your character's outlook on life. The rest can come in play, because an adventuring life is likely to have more of an impact on your character than their past. After all, all adventurers suffer from that curse: "May you live in interesting times."

King of Nowhere
2019-08-15, 12:27 PM
So what do you think - can you have a character that can have depth and be engaging without having a dark mysterious backstory and secrets to go with it?

well, real people manage to have depth and be engaging without dark mysteries, so I don't see why a character could not:tongue:

malachi
2019-08-15, 12:40 PM
well, real people manage to have depth and be engaging without dark mysteries, so I don't see why a character could not:tongue:

I managed to gain depth by eating more and working out less!

Tawmis
2019-08-15, 11:57 PM
So what do you think - can you have a character that can have depth and be engaging without having a dark mysterious backstory and secrets to go with it?

Yes, it's quite possible.
And if you're so inclined, I've recently started a thread that - surprised me by taking off! - where I've offered to write up people's character backgrounds!
You can see the thread over here in the 5e forum: http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showsinglepost.php?p=24012997&postcount=1

Zakhara
2019-08-16, 05:27 AM
He doesn't need a backstory, but "character is who you are in the dark." What makes a character interesting is not their weapons in a backstory arms race, but rather how their past informs their present and influences their future.

A character who is naive, honest, and trusting is rich in potential because they'll be affected a lot by events in a campaign. Moral quandaries, hypocrisy, systematic oppression, and deception can really change a character like that over time, and any change is interesting and valid when there isn't a prescribed "tragic" backstory to hedge your choices.

In this case, it could be interesting to have them be big on family, and see how it makes them very trusting and communal with strangers. But then they encounter antagonistic nobles whose rule is backed by nepotism and suddenly their perception of the past is tainted. It's fascinating stuff.

erikun
2019-08-16, 10:02 AM
Backstories are for plot hooks. Table play is for depth and personality.

I'd recommend using your backstory to give the opportunity for plots to happen, and to give reasons for why a character acts or desires in a specific way. Backstory doesn't work for player depth because that isn't the game that everybody is sitting down to play. Nobody is going to RP your backstory. And while Critical Role sells itself on being entertaining to watch people talk about what their characters are doing - and so, listening to them talk about their character's backstory sounds a lot like their game sessions - they are two vastly different things when you are at the table and actually plaything the game. People at the table don't want to listen to you talk about how your character stabbed the Evil Lord MacGuffin before they escaped. They want to be playing the game where your character stabs the Evil Lord MacGuffin before they escaped.

As for this character in particular,

he's a naive kid, he trusts too easily and is honest to a fault.
This is good and something that we can work with. Why is the kid so naive? Why is the kid so trustworthy? Why is the kid so honest?

Did they grow up living with a paladin, or admiring one who lived in their village? Are they striving to follow the same example, perhaps not even aware of what a "paladin" is and are just following the same life example? Perhaps they just so unworldly, and new to adventure, and so after a few encounters they might begin changing their attitude towards the world. Were they lied to as a child or had something taken from them, and so they've committed to not doing the same themselves, even accidentally? This doesn't need to be something dark either: Perhaps some friendly merchant tricked them as they first started adventuring, leading them into a bandit ambush, and the reason they are so poorly geared at Lv.1 is because all their valuables were stolen and this is just what they've earned through odd jobs.

Is there somebody at home who is waiting for them to return? Did they wave goodbye as he left, or did they sneak out in the middle of the night? Do they send letters back home? Do they lie and say everything is going well when it actually isn't, promoting them to be overly honest in their daily life, or are they as honest when sending letters home as they are in their normal life? Perhaps they are less naive and more just oblivious, not knowing about the warning signs of some (to most people) obvious dangers, and so walking right into them blindly?

The kid doesn't need to be leaving behind a dead family and a destroyed village and a revenge plot in mind to have a good backstory with lots of material available. In fact, having a lot of people still alive tends to make backstories more interesting. If some evil overlord burned the village to the ground and stole the family magic sword, then the one driving plot is going to be finding the evil overlord and getting the sword back. But if some merchant scammed the character and took their father's (otherwise ordinary, non-magical) military sword for a batch of snake oil, then the character has just as much motivation and a lot more potential characters to interact with in regards to that backstory - potentially every single merchant or trader they come across.

Zhorn
2019-08-16, 10:10 AM
A character's motivation needn't come from a dark place or be a secret to be a defining feature of their personality.
Granted, you still want a sense of dramatic tension, an inciting incident in their past that drives them forwards in some way. Happy people don't hunt dragons (https://twitter.com/Marisha_Ray/status/1083921095953022976). Just dial it down a little, and make it an open aspect of their personality.
ie: they had a rough relationship with a family member, needed to prove themselves to some peers, a small mistake led to a large dept to be paid.
No one's died, no secret blood oaths of vengeance, just a little bit of tension that prevents them from settling down.

Anublet90
2019-08-16, 01:43 PM
I too think secrets, dark or otherwise, don't necessarily bring any depth. I mean, let's whip up two character concepts just to demonstrate the point.

Garett Bluemoon
An orphan from a young age, he's a regular golden boy and named after his strikingly blue eyes. He is strong, dashing, witty, talented... and he failed to save a soul the night his childhood home town was burned to the ground by creatures right out of fevered nightmares. Deeply traumatized by the event, today he's under a personal oath to save as many people as he can, and maybe one day even bring justice to the creatures tha-BLAHBLAHBLAHBLAHBLAH!

This is neither deep nor interesting despite being a super-tragic secret that emotionally scarred the character for life. More of a pre-written archetype than a nuanced character, and the secret didn't actually bring anything to the table in spite of being a life-altering event. It's somehow completely open-ended and closed off to creativity at the same time.


Roger Cartman
A grizzled ex-town guard in his thirties and of rough character, he got tired of dealing with seedy tavern keepers, thieves, corrupt officials and violent drunkards on a daily basis and eventually retired. He always had a knack for swinging his baton in a brawl though, so when rumours of a treasure-filled goblin den came to town he figured he could earn enough money for comfortable living, maybe even find a wife and start a family.

Roger is about as vanilla as it gets yet I'd pick him over Garett in a heartbeat. One has mystery and the Event; the other has motivations, dislikes, connections to places both high and low, he could be (assuming DnD) a Fighter, a Rogue, a Barbarian and even a Monk. He uses the most mundane weapons imaginable in the club and crossbow, but it makes sense and feels right because he has a history as a town guard. Basically, Roger is an established character in the setting even if the setting (whatever the town he's from is) itself hasn't been written down or explored. Garett on the other hand is damn near singular because he has this one aspect of himself that completely eclipses everything else and solely defines his existence.


You know, Matt Colville mentioned his next video will be about roleplaying, specifically what he refers to as one-/two-/three-dimensional roleplaying, and from the sound of it, it's basically going to go deeper into what I'm trying to convey here, so maybe have a look at his YouTube channel in a week or so if this made any sense?

Tanarii
2019-08-17, 09:31 AM
Character depth is best achieved by a number of easily remembered and clearly defined motivations that will impact role playing, ie your decision making during play.

IMX back stories, be they dark or not, usually fail on all three counts. They're typically lengthy or complex, any motivations that result from them are not clearly defined, and they often have little to no impact on a players decision making during a session.

So the easiest way to have character depth is to make a bullet point list of 3-5 simple and clearly stated one sentence motivations that address things somewhat likely to come up during play.

(What is likely to come up during play is of course going to be highly variable from game system to game system, and table to table within a system.)

Anublet90
2019-08-17, 11:41 AM
IMX back stories

What does that mean?

Kraynic
2019-08-17, 12:10 PM
What does that mean?
I believe that is "in my experience". Sometimes I am confused by some of the "alphabet soup" abbreviations seen around forums as well.

denthor
2019-08-17, 01:34 PM
What made you want to quit a character?

Bulhakov
2019-08-17, 01:38 PM
You don't need secrets or darkness to create depth.
As a GM I always want players to think of a backstory that plausibly shapes their character's personality, motivations and set of skills.

Personality:
If he's a naive and honest kid, he probably had a happy childhood - good friends, family and/or teachers. There's a ton of relationships you could build out of it and GMs usually love to use them for plot hooks. Especially that any of those relationships could later be turned into a secret reveal or a plot twist, e.g. your grandma trained you in certain skills and sent you out adventuring because of a secret prophecy you don't know about.

Motivation:
You also need to add a reason to "go adventuring". Why is the character out in the world away from those happy relationships? Why is he hanging out with the rest of the PCs? This is pretty important. At least I hate to GM parties that are made out of PCs that have absolutely no reason to stick together.

Skills:
Why the chosen class? Did someone train or inspire him? Again room for a lot of backstory.

TheYell
2019-08-17, 07:20 PM
What made you want to quit a character?

I would like to explore this too. Because you don't want to repeat the experience, let's discuss what happened the first time to make you renounce your character.

Clistenes
2019-08-19, 03:49 PM
Actually, I think creating a character with more normal, human motivations and backstory gives it more depth than the overused dark and troubled past does.

A 3.5 character I created was a natural medium (as represented by feats and flaws and a AL +1 template) and he had to travel to the mountains and train as a Shaman in order to control his powers despite being born in a culture that didn't have Shamans...

A 5e character I made belonged to the urban middle/high class (descended from a secondary branch of the low nobility and of merchants, his parents and grandparents were college lecturers, bureaucrats, scribes and guildsmen). He wished to be a Wizard, but he wasn't intelligent enough, so he settled for learning bardic arts while studing to become a bureaucrat, but during the war his family arranged for him to become the squire of a paladin, and he ended becoming a Paladin/Bard.

Another character was a Wizard had been passed around from relative to relative (he was an orphan) until he was taken in by his great grand-uncle, a famous Wizard, scholar and lecturer. He had low Charisma, low confidence, he was overcatious and he found it hard to form emotional connections, but he was fiercely loyal to his master and adopted father...

Knaight
2019-08-19, 04:37 PM
Having some sort of backstory generally helps with depth (though you certainly don't need to start with one), but it isn't necessary, and you certainly don't need a great deal of it. Depth tends to come more from leaning into conflict than anything, from characters tied to multiple things in complicated ways, with complicated relationships with them. Depths, multitudes, all that good stuff.

Darkness is similarly unnecessary. Just about any character will likely have some in their past, living tends to do that. The amount varies highly though, and stacking on the darkness in the hope that depth will come automatically tends to produce ridiculous characters.

Friv
2019-08-19, 06:43 PM
People have covered a lot of this already, but here are my two cents. I've chopped up your post a bit, so sorry.


So what do you think - can you have a character that can have depth and be engaging without having a dark mysterious backstory and secrets to go with it?

The reason you see dark and mysterious backstories so much isn't because they're necessary, it's because they're easy. This doesn't mean they're bad! Easy is good sometimes. But it's why you see them.

See, there's basically two ways you can have depth. You can have event-based depth, where your character has a lot of big stuff happen and people to connect to, and you can have character-based depth, where your character has really thoughtful and measured growth as a person. (You can, of course, have both!) A lot of roleplaying is event-driven, especially in traditional games like D&D. Sticking extra events into your past gives you instant hooks for the GM to key off of, and you can build event-driven depth quickly.


Frankly, having dark secrets wouldn't really fit the character I've built anyways - he's a naive kid, he trusts too easily and is honest to a fault.

And here's the good news - you've got a perfect character for a reaction-driven growth. Your character trusts too easily - what's going to happen when that trust is broken? They're honest to a fault - what happens when that honesty hurts someone?

You've got a character whose depth is going to come from how he changes and grows, and the sort of person he becomes. What will be shaped by trauma, what he will hold fast to as the core of his character. Make a quick list of those traits, and when they're challenged by play, respond. Talk to older characters about how they got through things, talk to people about how you're hurting. You can build a really powerful character arc out of that. Best of all, if it's a game with lethality, it's a character arc that could actually be completed in a satisfying, if tragic, way by an abrupt and unfortunate demise.

sktarq
2019-08-19, 09:29 PM
Also a major reason a backstory can seem "dark and mysterious" is just that since the major references will often come up between the GM/ST/DM/etc and that player it can come off as mysterious to the other players...who quite possibly got the quick version and only remember half of that.

So the prevalence of "dark and mysterious" is partially a perception issue....even, well especially, in games that promote the stereotype.

Pauly
2019-08-19, 09:40 PM
Why is the kid honest and trusting to a fault?

Option 1
He has been brought up in a very sheltered environment. For example a religious commune or an isolated farmhouse and was taught those traits are positive values.
This leads to the question as to why the kid is now adventuring which can either be a personal quest of some sort or that some tragedy has befallen his home.
This makes his honesty an enduring part of his personality.

Option 2
The kid is overcompensating for a lack of love in his life. Some examples from literature would be Tom Sawyer, Little Orphan Annie or Polyanna. The kid is either orphaned or abandoned and feels a need to make people love him by being super positive.
Adventuring is then a natural extension of his need to make people love him.
This allows his honesty to slowly be stripped back if thatís appropriate as his character develops.

Option 3
He is probably a little young for it, but a road to Damascus conversion could work. There is a conflict between his inner original nature and his converted nature. Maybe he was saved from a bad situation by a paladin and swore an oath to follow the Paladinís God and now is trying to live up to that oath. This includes the possibility of divine intervention (like Tripitaka and Son Goku [Monkey] in Journey to the West) if he strays from the path.
The path to adventuring is his path to redemption.
This makes his honesty a continuing conscious and deliberate choice.

There are other options, but these are the three that sound most plausible to me.

blackjack50
2019-08-20, 01:49 PM
Hello all!

I have a new character that my GM has graciously allowed me to switch to after getting to the point that I absolutely hated my previous character. I usually fall in love with my characters and never want to stop playing them, so it was pretty noteworthy that I was having issues with my previous character.

Since I'm switching, I want to make absolutely sure the new character will be one that I love and won't just end up unhappy with as well. I want to have fun playing and don't want to be that player that keeps asking to switch (though I would probably suck it up and stay with one I'm unhappy with before switching twice in one game).

I've been watching and reading lots of tabletop-centric media lately (i.e. Critical Role), which has me questioning if the new character I've created that I'm super excited about has enough depth because he doesn't have a mysterious dark backstory with a bunch of secrets in his back pocket to reveal over time. Frankly, having dark secrets wouldn't really fit the character I've built anyways - he's a naive kid, he trusts too easily and is honest to a fault.

I've been trying to come up with ways to add depth to this character without compromising the character I've got so far that I'm genuinely very excited about. But seeing all these popular characters in media whose epic backstories and fun secrets that come up in the campaign, it feels like you need those things or your character will come out feeling flat. Like you need secrets to have any depth to your character.

So what do you think - can you have a character that can have depth and be engaging without having a dark mysterious backstory and secrets to go with it?

Why does he need a deep backstory? He certainly doesnít need darkness or secrets. I have an idea for one for myself. So basically a character who has done a lot of nutty things and that is why people know me at bars. Why? Because it will spark random encounters in taverns. Maybe a few fights? Maybe a fight with a husband or 2. Or wife lol. Maybe some Nobel owes me a debt? Nothing dark. Like he has to sing my praises in a crowd. The DM could easily build it in and roll for encounters so he doesnít need to generate it. Just a D10 or D12 and cross stories off as they happen. This is inspired by the fact that my current character cannot go in to a certain tavern because I owe money for defiling a tankard of ale after losing my clothing and walking off with said tankard covering myself. And nothing else.

kyoryu
2019-08-20, 04:39 PM
Ugh on dark and mysterious.

The most important thing in developing a character is what they want. This is what propels them forward.

To get depth, have several things that they want that can come into conflict with each other.

GreatWyrmGold
2019-08-20, 05:28 PM
Good luck.

In most media, character depth is achieved in part through assorted scenes which demonstrate their character (in overt or subtle ways) and may or may not be plot relevant, but mostly through how they reaction to plot points in a narrative crafted around them and the other characters in the narrative. You might be able to add a little character depth if your group does a lot of pure roleplaying scenes, but beyond that you've got to pen a backstory and hope its themes align with the themes of the campaign.

Which is part of why I've wanted to play a campaign that I write up after receiving character backstories, so I can craft a story that works with the characters and not one that just exists next to them...but that's a talk for another time.

Brookshw
2019-08-20, 05:55 PM
So what do you think - can you have a character that can have depth and be engaging without having a dark mysterious backstory and secrets to go with it?

Yes, absolutely. I actually came in here to suggested a different D&D media for you. Check out Not Another D&D Podcast. It's better than you'd expect, though it takes them a few episodes to get a grip on their characters I feel. One character in particular, Beverly Toegold, is similar to what your talking about. A halfling teen paladin, no darkness in his background, no tragic secrets, nothing of the sort. However he's still a really engaging character.

Composer99
2019-08-20, 06:57 PM
There's nothing wrong with having a tragic or dark backstory, if that's what you want for your character, but you don't need one to have depth as a character or to be an engaging character.

In the Critical Role campaign 2, not all the characters have tragic backstories or horrible secrets, at least not that I'm aware of from the episodes I've watched to date or the stuff I've read on the fandom wiki site. Even the ones that do, I think their portrayal by the players is more important: their mannerisms, quirks, interactions with other PCs and with NPCs - all of those matter more when it comes to them being engaging to interact with and watch from afar.

For instance, it's Liam O'Brien's delivery that makes the reveal of his character Kaleb's secret interesting and engaging, when in the hands of another player it could very well have come across as cheesy edgelord material, or boring or uninteresting. (For instance, by the point Anakin attacks the Jedi Temple in Revenge of the Sith, I was just so... uninvested in his character, I didn't really find it shocking or unsettling.)

All that's to say that having a character who is interesting to portray and to interact with at the table matters the most. You can have that portrayal be informed by tragedy, but it's not required by any means.