“The Machine”- How Heroes Are Made
There has been a perpetual struggle for both players and dungeon masters in Dungeons and Dragons for decades concerning backstories. You are all going to sit down soon to begin a new campaign, and several new tales must be spun detailing the events that led to these heroic player characters taking up arms to become adventurers. The players want to play dashing and accomplished deed-doers and are eager to pen a grandiose history of their character’s accomplishments, but often do not include basic information that a dungeon master might find useful. Meanwhile dungeon masters hope that their players will bring them rich backstories full of NPC attachments, places, and possessions to which their characters are attached, but often fail to provide pertinent information about the setting to excite and incentivize the players to interact with it. Since neither side sufficiently communicates their desires to the other, both end up disappointed with the result.
Cooperation between DM and player is essential when creating characters with rich backstories. It is an undertaking that should be started and finished together and should begin at the very beginning. When creating the story of a player character, it is important to think of them as a person first, and a hero second. They say heroes are made, not born, after all. A common debate in human psychology is the idea of nature versus nurture: whether our attitudes and behaviors are innate and unique to our personal identity or whether we are products of our environments. When creating origin stories with the players in my newest campaign, I elected to emphasize the effect that their upbringing had on their adventurers. I sat down with each of them to put them through a process I mockingly called “The Machine.” It was merely a series of questions to get them thinking along the right tracks, but the results were quite satisfying! I have transcribed “The Machine” below in the hopes that it will benefit you and your group when you are preparing for your next game. It forces both Dungeon Master and player to create a character from scratch that is fleshed out and integrated into the setting. And it works! After all…
When creating a player character, ask these questions:
- Heritage: Who are your parents? What did they do before you were born? Were they ever married, or are they still? Did they love each other? Did they love me? Are either of them still alive? Who raised me?
The identities, beliefs, and ideals of those who rear us through our formative years have an impact on our adult identities, whether for good or ill, that is impossible to understate. Were your parents the king and queen of the realm? Were they adventurers? Were they outcasts, or criminals fleeing justice? How does their reputation effect you, if at all? Are you proud or ashamed of them? Or, perhaps worst of all, do you even know who they were? Were they faithful followers of the gods or apostates? Answering questions like these will be quite revealing about your character and give your dungeon master plenty of hooks. Perhaps they were in debt, and their debtors now look to you. Maybe they are dead, and you search tirelessly for their killer. Or perhaps they are alive and well, and you live in fear that your enemies might discover them and use them against you.
Dungeon Masters, be prepared to recommend affiliations based on your player’s answers. If their mother was a knight, tell them what regions of the setting feature knightly orders, whether they have good or unfavorable reputations, and be prepared to cooperatively construct a new one if none of them fit. If the hero’s parents were pirates, tell them about any famous pirate crews in the setting, whether they still sail, who the infamous captains are, and what ports they frequent.
- Family: Are you an only child, or do you have siblings? If so, how many? Are you the eldest, youngest, or somewhere in between? Did your parents have a favorite child? How did that affect life at home? Are you close with your family, or have you cut ties?
We are defined by our families, or lack thereof. Those relationships hold great meaning whether we choose to foster them or reject them. Families come in many different forms in our everyday lives, and that same variety should exist in our fantasy. Perhaps you and your siblings were adopted or fostered by a caring relative. Maybe you had an abusive parent, and you stood up to them to protect your younger sister? It is not unlikely that one or both of your parents were adventurers. Perhaps they were gone for long stretches of time, leaving the eldest child in charge until they would eventually return with wild stories and shining trinkets? Perhaps you had no family, but instead found a family amongst other orphans and street rats, scraping out a life in the gutter? Whatever the case, remember to fill your childhood with close friends and relatives who populated your everyday life.
- Environment: Did you grow up in a rural or urban environment? Have you ever ventured far from home? Did you move around a lot or did you settle somewhere?
Where do you call home if you have one? Are you accustomed to the relative safety of a large, walled city? Are you more worried about your pockets being picked than whether your family will be victims of a bandit raid or wild monster? Were you raised out in the country where you were expected to provide for yourself things that could be purchased in more civilized areas? Perhaps you have spent your life in deserts and arid plains, and have never seen a tall, lush tree? Or so far inland that hearing tales of the seas and oceans sound far-fetched. Knowing what your character is accustomed to will inform roleplay in every session and provide the dungeon master with many ways to subvert those expectations.
Dungeon Masters, have a few places in your setting in mind when you begin this conversation. If your player wants to be a wealthy merchant from a large city, recommend such a place from the setting (or create one together). If they are a poverty-stricken refugee from a war-torn country, tell your player about ongoing conflicts in the world where refugees might be common. Be ready as you can to guise them towards areas of the map that suit their needs.
- Lifestyle: Could your family afford your basic needs? Was there money left over for clothes, property, or education? Could you afford any luxuries? Did you work or could you afford others to work on your behalf? What level of comfort did you enjoy?
Life is full of uncertainty, especially for those without means. Even in the fantasy of our roleplaying, the world looks quite different to those who do or do not know where their next meal is coming from. Without standardized public education or healthcare, the world is an even scarier place for the impoverished in most D&D settings than in our reality, especially when you consider the threat posed by the existence of all the various beasts and monsters that populate such worlds. Conversely, for those who could afford private tutors, had access to magical healing from a young age, and could afford the protection of walls, guards, and servants, life would be viewed through a vastly different lens.
You can see how answers to these questions being to inform the answers to others. If the character is an only child, their caregivers are likely to be better able to afford individual luxuries than those spreading their income to provide for a large family. Those living in a farming community are less likely to be living rich, secure lifestyles than those in the city. Families with loving, married parents are more likely to have many children together than a couple who shared but a single, passionate night together many years ago. As your answers to these questions begin to paint a more wholistic picture of your character’s backstory, you will enjoy a much clearer concept of what the character values and strives for.
If you are the DM leading your players through “The Machine”, be on the lookout for key words, and be ready to ask follow-up questions to identify what might be important to the character. A PC who grew up in poverty might value security and comforts they could not afford when they were young. A hero who comes from a large family may want to visit home often or send money back to their siblings after a windfall. Someone who grew up in an abusive home may seek to punish anyone similarly who wields fear and pain against their kin, or maybe they follow in the footsteps of their poor role models. Things like this can have a great affect on the character’s Personality Traits, Bonds, Ideals, and Flaws during character creation.
Don’t be afraid to “fantasy up” your answers to these questions! Your family unit might be unusual because, while you all share the same mother, you and your siblings have different fathers from different races. You being a half-elf, your sister a half-orc, and your brothers a human and a genasi might have made for an interesting upbringing. Your character could live in a large city, but the city floats on the clouds, is deep beneath the ocean waves, is secreted underground far below the surface world, or hidden deep within an enchanted forest. Your father’s profession may have been a griffon groomer, a wand enchanter, a high priest of a forgotten god, a hydra tamer, a political emissary to the storm giant king, or an archaeologist studying mind flayer ruins in the Underdark.
Whether you are the DM or a player, be sure to work together when answering these questions. If this character is meant to be from a floating sky castle, determine where (or if) such a thing exists in this setting, and what life is like for the people that dwell there. What races are typical in such a place, and what lore about that place would be known to people who call that citadel home?
“The Machine” is meant to open discussion between the players and the dungeon master and set the tone from the very beginning that this game is about collaborative storytelling. A vastly varied array of characters, each with complete and relevant backstories tied directly to the setting, can be created by answering just a few questions together. I hope this is as useful and exercise at your table as it was for mine, and helps you to develop rich, connected backstories for your next adventurers!