Just to be clear, I have no special love nor hatred of backstories. They definitely serve a purpose but there’s a lot of things that have sprung up around the backstory that just makes me roll my eyes and honestly not even read. How would you rather your GM spent what time they have for game related matters – prepping the game for everyone or reading one player’s 10,000 word history for their character?
I’m going to take the tact that many players would be well served by having two different versions of the backstory. Not different in terms of events, but different in terms of function and detail. Much like an abridged and unabridged version.
The unabridged version is the one the player keeps. The one they refer to. The one that provides things like the reason why they have a strong sense memory of chocolate that elicits a very visceral reaction. Within reason (which we’ll get to), put in as much detail as you feel you need to so you can feel the character. This is your copy after all.
The abridged version needs to be short and concise and, for many GMs, be a bulleted list. What GMs ask for many differ but generally they’re looking for a plot hook, some NPC ties and a reason why you’re an adventurer/space trucker/wasteland survivor. That’s it. They don’t care if your dog’s name was Sparky, nor do they care if you are the heir to the Kingdom (unless it’s the plot hook you’re providing). It’s not that they are being mean or being uncaring about the hard work you put in. They have a ton of other things to track and remember and only so much storage space.
Okay so you know that your GM is looking for 2 adventure hooks, an NPC from your past and a reason why you’re with the party. Before you write down anything talk to the GM and the group. See if anyone has an idea as to why you’re all together. See if the GM has a starting plan like you’re all crew on the same pirate ship that gets shipwrecked. See what the rough borders are that you have to color inside. If you are set on having your character be related to a noble, make sure that it fits with the world and story the GM has in mind. If your character is nobility, expecting to trade on their famous name and the first act of the story takes the characters to another plane of existence…well that background detail is for naught. Work together with the other players and the GM on what the parameters are.
Hitting the Table
I firmly believe that nothing in the backstory is “real” until it is brought up at the table. If you never bring up anything from your backstory and the DM never mentions anything from what you’ve given them then it doesn’t matter. At all. The 10,000 word epic of loss and betrayal is nothing more than a 20 page story. In order for the backstory to matter to the game it has to come up in the game. It seems like such a simple concept but time and again players put together these stories and then either never reference them or they play it all mysterious and keep everything close to their chest. My rule is simple, nothing in your backstory is “real” until it’s actually referenced in game. Bring it up in conversation. Use it to explain a reaction to something. Whisper it in the ear of the bad guy as you stab them in the kidney. It does not need to be something shared with the other characters, it does have to be something shared with the table.
Do not write down every iota of your character’s pre-adventuring life. You want there to be space to weave in other elements either as they occur to you (why does my character hate the sea?) or events happen. Maybe your backstory just says your family was killed rather then the who, what, where, why and when. As elements of the overall narrative become know you can tie them in to your story. It makes the whole epic tale you’re collectively telling more personal. If you leave spaces you can expand your story organically and seamlessly.
Fill In the Spaces
If you’ve left spaces and then don’t fill them the story is going to feel disjointed. You need to actually fill in those details. Either from elements that come into play or from your own imagination as your character interacts with others. Maybe your wizard was kicked out of the academy for their experiments with the dead. If the party goes to the city with the academy they can react and fill in some details. If the party is never going to go to the city with the academy, the character can still bring up the academy in conversation. Either way that blank space about their past with the academy needs to be filled in at some point. That mostly blank space with scant details is a foundation and when the opportunity presents itself – either through narration or plot or interaction with PCs or NPCs – then flesh it out.