Bring Your RPG Character to Life: FOUR Questions for Crafting Rich Backstories

Have you ever found yourself at a loss for how to write a better dnd character? Do you want to know how to create a backstory that is both rich and memorable? To help you produce the best possible history for your new D&D characters, I’ve put together a list of questions that you should ask yourself. Whether you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder or Modern D20, these questions are essential in generating better rpg characters.

Building a Dnd character can be a lot of fun, but also quite challenging. We all love the thrill of rolling ability scores, assigning stats and picking skills. However, when it comes to creating a believable, engaging and rich backstory, many players struggle. This is where the power of asking the right questions comes into play. By asking yourself a set of thoughtful questions during character design, you can generate a good backstory that will make your character stand out in the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

Below are some of the most important questions I believe you should ask yourself when creating a new character. These questions are key to character design, and can help you create a more engaging and well-rounded character. They are intended to help you think about who your character is, where they come from, what their motivations are, and what challenges they face. So, the next time you’re wondering how to write a better dnd character, simply ask yourself these questions, and watch as your characters come to life before your eyes.


TL>DR; New RPG character questions

  1. What type of hero are they? When approached and asked for help, would they offer their services willingly? Or would your new character only be motivated to act if offered large sacks of coin?
  2. Who were the parents / role-models of your new RPG character? This helps depict how your character was brought up, what they’re used to and how they were taught the ways of the world. It also may explain their clothing or starting equipment.
  3. What are the goals of your character? What are they trying to achieve while out adventuring? Open it up a bit further – what are they trying to achieve in life?
  4. Why is your new character out in the dangerous world adventuring? It’s bloody dangerous in those ghoulish swamps, why isn’t your character in the safety of the warm tavern? IRL most people don’t join the military, even less join a militia. There should be a good reason for embarking on the dangerous path of adventuring.

These may seem strange nonstandard questions, but bear with me… lets unpack them a bit.

Big Q#1: Is your new character a traditional hero?

What even is a hero? How do you know if your character is a hero if you can’t describe one yourself? The OD define a traditional hero as:

A person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.

E.g. “a war hero”

The Oxford Dictionary definition

The traditional hero

new character decision fighter
A fighter – hero or not? (Copyright Paizo)

The quintessential Dungeons and Dragons paladin or fighter would be considered a traditional hero.

They come to town all bold, tough and equipped to the teeth. They hear what’s tormenting all the townsfolk at night and decide to help. They go off into the forest, kill the pack of dire wolves and return as heroes.

The towns-folk love them for what they did, the tavern throws a large party and the mayor gives them a big bag of gold.

They’re true heroes.

Is this how your new character would react? Is your new character a traditional hero?

Examples of traditional heroes in fiction

  • Harry Potter. Harry often puts himself in severe danger to protect friends, loved ones and even complete strangers.
  • Batman. Bruce Wayne will often put on the cloak and mask to help protect the people of Gotham City. His reward – making Gotham safer.
  • Neo from The Matrix. Once set free, he decide he needs to save everyone else. He doesn’t believe he’s important, but uses his ‘skills’ to free others.
  • superman hero of dndSuperman. The protector of man from all things evil. He gets no reward from saving falling women or stopping speeding bullets. His motivation is using his power for good.
  • Ripley from the Aliens series. Although there is no denying Ripley is motivated by self-preservation, she often puts herself in immense danger to save others.
  • Other traditional heroes include: Indiana Jones / Merida from Brave / Spider Man / The Incredibles / Thor

Ask yourself or the player this question about their new character – are they a traditional hero?

Are you an anti-hero character?

How about we change it around, so the fighter and the party are no longer traditional heroes.

dire wolf in the forest
Would your character demand payment for their service to kill the dire wolves?

They come to town all bold, tough and equipped to the teeth. Hearing what’s tormenting all the townsfolk at night, they decide they can help. Approaching the mayor and stating some demands; for clearing our the forest they want a bag of gold, some new weapons from the blacksmith, a dozen of the towns finest horses, free drinks and lodgings at the tavern anytime they’re around.

The blacksmith, stable hands and tavern owner are in uproar. Despite this, the mayor reluctantly agrees and the party heads off. The heroes kill the wolves and return triumphant. The townsfolk are happy they’re safe, but there is no party and the reception the party receive quickly turns cold.

Maybe your character and their party would act like this?

An even less ‘heroic’ new character

Maybe you realise your new character is even less heroic than that.

The party comes to town all bold, tough and equipped to the teeth. They hear what’s tormenting all the townsfolk at night and decide they could help, but they’d rather move on to find something that’d benefit them.

Townsfolk try to stop them leaving, they beg and grovel. Even the mayor offers money and services. The party aren’t interested and they move on at first light.

An antihero… is a protagonist in a story who lacks conventional heroic qualities and attributes such as idealism, courage, and morality.

Although antiheroes may sometimes do the right thing, it is not always for the right reasons, often acting primarily out of self-interest or in ways that defy conventional ethical codes.

Wikipedia definition of an anti-hero

Your anti-hero character may only help the townsfolk;

  • if they’re paid handsomely in advance,
  • if the town has a convenient tavern for the party to regular rest at,
  • if they receive deeds to land within the town rich district,
  • if unbeknown to the townsfolk, the party is already off to kill the wolves and won’t quibble over taken a 2nd towns gold too,

Examples of anti-heroes

Tyrion Lannister an anti-hero
Tyrion Lannister the anti-hero
  • Tyrion Lannister from (Game of Thrones). Tyrion helps many people while in Game of Thrones, but nearly always benefits either financially or in a manner to improve his own self-preservation.
  • Jason Bourne from the Bourne books / films. He manages to take down a black-ops style government group, not because its performing assassinations but because he wants to get his memory and old life back.
  • Sherlock Holmes. Yes he solves murders, assassinations and various other crimes, so why is he an anti-hero? His motives are nearly always self-centered – he often takes cases because they sound fun or he’s bored / on drugs.
  • Edmund Blackadder (from the Blackadder series). Despite it spanning several centuries, the Blackadder character is nearly always motivated by money or self-preservation
  • Other anti-heroes include: Severus Snape from Harry Potter / Geralt of Rivia from The Witcher / Han Solo from Star Wars / Wade Wilson from Deadpool / Daryl Dixon from The Walking Dead / Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers and many more

When creating your new D&D character, ask yourself

  • How would your character react to a plea for help?
  • Would they be a hero; show courage, bravery and display acts of valor.
  • Or would they be an anti-hero, demand payment and resources, or simply say no.

Big Q#2: Who are your new characters parents?

Okay so you may think this last question is a bit strange when deciding upon a new character, but who are the parents of your new character? Don’t think I want you to come up with an additional two new characters, that’s not my point.

Joffrey Game of Throne
How did Joffrey’s parents affect his character, his goals and his weaknesses? In fact imagine any of the parents and their children in Game of Thrones.

This question isn’t to help flesh out two new additional NPCs that the DM may cause to crop up down the line.

This question is to establish the very core upbringing of your character.

Your parents impart on you your behaviour, your view of wealth and material goods, your attitude towards others, your hobbies, your traits and many other things.

Imagine how it’d affect your new character if their parents had the following jobs or traits:

Sail Ship
Are you drawn to the sea like your father?
  • Sailors. Three times a year your father would return from the high-seas, often with a bigger beard and another tattoo. His loud stories were magnificent and undoubtedly highly embellished, but you loved them. The pirate ships full of booty. The islands with cliffs of gold. You loved those stories until he never came home. The stories stopped. Do you seek out the truth about your father or the treasure he spoke of? You never had a consistent male role model in your life, how does that affect your character? Is your passion out there, on the high seas? Maybe you have your own tattoos but they a very different story.
  • Kingdom Royalty. The character was showered with wealth and abundance from an early age. Recognised throughout the immediate kingdom, the adult character now always wears a mask when sneaking outside the royal gardens. Do they pity or loathe the poor? Do they crave more gold and silver, or recognise everything but knowledge is fleeting? Maybe you’re not 1st heir to the throne and decide that perhaps that should ‘change’.
  • Tavern Owners. Your first memory is of loud rooms full of people, singing along to bards and mingling with clerics. You were brought up in a very successful tavern, with many adventuring parties stopping by. Is that why you have decided an adventurers life is for you? Did you overhear stories of wonder and excitement? Maybe the tavern was razed to the ground and you seek vengeance? Perhaps being surrounded by multiple different races has given you the ability to understand a much larger number of languages. Maybe your parents are still running it and the tavern is where your adventures begin.
  • Cattle Farmers. The character was put to work not long after she could walk. Life was tough but it brought about a fondness for animals, nature and reaping what you sow. Would you do anything to protect your family home? Do you have empathy for all life, no matter what race? Do you have knowledge of the wilderness because you often camped out with the migratory herds?

… but my character had no parents…

Not every child has two parents in the lives growing up. Maybe your new character didn’t have either parent and are orphaned (an overused RPG cliché)? Or perhaps all 1st borns in the family are handed over to the Royal Queens Guard.

Prince with a mischievous side. Art by Kate-FoX

The importance here is who are / were your role models or your adoptive parents. Maybe your older siblings cared for you and taught you everything you know.

How about the noble prince child, who had both parents but was actually raised by a nanny. The parents were too busy keeping the kingdom in good shape!

The nanny’s secret passion for mischief however was quickly imparted on the child, at a very early impressionable age. Now, some 15 years later, the high functioning, well-to-do male heir would never be suspected of his secret rogue-like-antics.

Big Q#3: What are your new characters short and long term goals? 

Goals drive us. They give us direction and a purpose. If your character has no goals except survive the next dungeon the DM throws at them, there probably isn’t much room for roleplay.

You should come up with one long term goal and a couple of short term goals.

One goal may be to simply develop their skills and get accepted into a Thieves Guild or Cathedral of Arcana.

Remember that if your new character is starting at level 1, they’re not super tough or hyper-intelligent. New characters at level one are NEW to their class.

  • Fighters may be a soldiers – but they’re not war-hardened Generals.
  • Rogues can be street-wise thieves – they’re not the infamous shadow assassin known for the Kings murder.
  • This is easy to see in Wizards or Sorcerers – they have a small handful of spells they can deploy within a single day. They’re not well renowned masters of the arcane.

Yes level one characters are better than the average townsfolk. They’re tougher, quicker or smarter. Just make sure your story doesn’t stretch further than your stats and skills allude to.

Medieval Thief Character art by Daria Rashev
A new character learning to stick to the shadows. Medieval Thief Character art by Daria Rashev

Character Goal – Be invited to a guild

Dungeons and Dragons 5E makes this type of milestone be quite easy to implement, as all classes unlock huge potential from 3rd level onwards.

When your new character hits level 3, they often have to make a decision on how they want their character to develop (The class Archetype). So why no speak to your DM about your character trying to get into a guild as a goal. Perhaps at level 3 they are finally invited or pass their guild training.

For example in D&D5E the rogue may develop into one of seven archetypes. The Rogue class has always been my favourite and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything really opens it up to include the four additional sub-classes.

  • Arcane Trickster
  • Assassin
  • Inquisitive – XG2E
  • Mastermind- XG2E
  • Scout- XG2E
  • Swashbuckler- XG2E
  • Thief

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything unlocks over 30 new archetypes for you. So if you’re bored of the standard classes, let your fighter goal be to become a recognise Samurai, your Ranger a Gloom Stalker or your Sorcerer a formidable Storm Sorcerer.

XG2E – Buy Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

How about thinking of that archetype choice at level 1 and have them ‘work towards’ their goal, both in terms of their back story and for the first two levels as you play them.

There should be a strong reason they are diving into the dangerous world of adventuring. This reason should be heavily intwined with their goals.

Big Q#4: Why is your new character out adventuring?

Why is your new character adventuring NOW?

So you think you have a reason to be out in the haunted woods, deep within the goblin mine or under the coral sea? But why now?

What has been the straw to break the camels back? What has caused your character to lace up their boots and head to the hills instead of the grindstone.

Stepping away from your home is not only dangerous, its all expensive. Whatever job they were doing beforehand is surely going to miss them – and you character is likely to miss the copper-coins lining their pockets too. Plus don’t forget to get all that adventuring gear before they head out.

Leaving your home town or even your country has a financial expense – so the justification must be worth it for your character.

Don’t forget the PCs relationships…

D&D plot hook starting adventure in a tavern
Why would your character leave the safety and warmth of the cliché D&D Tavern.

More importantly (for RPG character generation and backstory) people live their lives with multiple relationships gluing them to society.

Neighbours, bosses, loved one. What is causing you to leave them all behind?

It’s quite possible that whatever is causing them to hit-the-road and take-up-arms could be intrinsically linked to their goals (see Q#3 above).

Maybe the life-long goal of becoming a member of the High Solar Temple has become a realisation as the order finish construction of their new sacred site on a distant unchartered shore. An edict for new hopefuls is posted in every tavern and inn for miles around! You know full well that membership is not only exclusive but also very limited. The journey will be treacherous to say the least! Perhaps that ranger friend of yours could escort you some of the way – she’s always been a hero in your eyes.

Summary: The 4 questions for new D&D characters

So in summary – if you’re a DM and your players are new or struggling to create a character with depth, ask them these four questions:

  • Is your new character a traditional hero or an anti-hero?
  • Who are your characters parents, role models and what values have they imparted on you?
  • What are your characters short term goals? Do they have a life long dream?
  • What has changed to make the character become an ‘adventurer’ now?

When they give you a response or you think of an answer for your own character, unpack it and dive deeper!

Hopefully this will help establish richer and deeper stories for all characters at the table.

What questions do you ask of yourself or your new players when they’re generating their characters? Pop them in the comments below, I’d love to hear them.

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