3 August 2021: How Long Should a PC’s Back Story Be?

There was a tweet a week or so ago where someone asked how long a player character’s back story should be. People chimed in with various opinions, and their rationale for them. Too many folks had concrete answers. I think there are too many variables to confidently lay down any absolutes. The answers themselves were loaded with assumptions. I want to try to deconstruct some of that here, and offer my own opinion.

A Starting Character

Based on the way people answered, it was assumed that the back story was for a new character. To that end, I can see keeping things short. Any background for a new character should do three things:

  • Give a player some hook on how to play them,
  • Clearly connect the character to the setting, and
  • Offer the gamemaster some plot hooks to work with.

The length of those depends on how much material it takes to “find” the character. If I need to write a novella to sort out who this person is, so that I can play them effectively, I’ll so it. That doesn’t mean I’ll share it with the group or the gamemaster — another assumption — but I’ll definitely flesh it out.

An Ongoing Character

The assumption that I want to fight against, though, is that back story stops being created once game play begins. Why can’t you add details as you go along? Reveal previously hidden truths during the course of an adventure? Other forms of fiction do this all the time. A new NPC shows up, and it turns out to be someone from a player character’s past. A situation reminds a PC of something that happened in their childhood. Hell, explain failures, fumbles, and questionable tactical decisions as being driven by some untold tale of the character’s past.

One-Shot versus Campaign

There’s a reason that pre-generated characters usually come with a tight paragraph about the character. You’re not going to be playing them for long. There’s no need for a lot of back story. If a long campaign in planned, however, you might need more information. You’ll want to know their attitudes toward the events they’ve been swept up in, the major characters driving the metaplot, the nations they’ll be traveling through, the peoples they’ll be called on to fight. That could be useful to know, and might take more than a page or two.

Style of Play

I’d be the guy that wrote a 20-page back story for a murder hobo, because I’d need to rationalize to myself why I’m playing a murder hobo. It’s not my personal preference. Those types of games don’t need complex and detailed characters. Games that promise a lot of courtly intrigue and political machinations will need more character material to work with. The style of play will drive the requirements as much as the intended length of the game.

How Long Should a PC’s Back Story Be?

There are two answers, and they’re not mutually exclusive. A back story should be as long as the gamemaster wants it to be. Give them what they ask for, so they can work your character into the world and tailor adventures to their personal histories. At the same time, it should be as long as you need it to be. Spend as much time and as many words as it takes to flesh out a playable character. That doesn’t mean you need to share all of that material. It can be just for you.

All of this is why I’m working on Character Journaling. A book about using a bullet journal to track information about your character. Add the stuff that doesn’t fit on the character sheet. Chronicle the epic back story. Log the events of each game session. Make the sorts of notes that are useful to you, the gamemaster, and even the other players. Do was much or a little as you want or need. In the end, what matters most is that you’re having fun with it.