Sunday, August 29, 2021

The INSTANT character backstory generator

 When 3d6 is rolled straight down the line to generate character stats, the dice are being asked to tell a story. The ritual is quite a bit like coin-operated toy vending machines: sometimes you twist the knob and get something quite cool; sometimes you twist the knob and get a misshapen lump of plastic; in every case, you twist the knob and something interesting happens. Although it is perfectly fine to "discover" the character's backstory and personality during play, knowing this information beforehand increases investment in the character, which makes getting into danger that much the zestier. The beauty of rolling 3d6 straight down the line is that, I find, once rolled, the character's backstory and personality seem to suggest themselves out of that simple arrangement of six numbers by virtue of their randomness. The generator described here is my attempt to amplify this oracular aspect of rolling stats to create a backstory that is still open to a player's creativity and interpretation.

The generator can be especially useful for new campaigns where it is uncertain what kinds of character will fit into the world or new players who bring a lot of creativity to the game, but might not be familiar with the tropes of D&D. The sample generator provided below is fine for any basic fantasy game, but, if the GM has the time and inclination, creating a customized generator for the campaign world is one method for organically introducing players to the campaign world and ensuring characters who mesh well in their environment without overburdening players with mountains of backstory.

The Rules

My recommendation is to offer the generator to players as completely optional. To use it, the player will need 3d6: one red, one yellow, and one blue. The player will also need a printed copy of the generator (see below).

The players roll the 3d6 for each stat in order as normal, dropping the dice onto the generator. If a "1" is rolled, the player marks the event the die landed on. The die's color indicates when in the character's life the event occurred: the red die for events that occurred to the character's parents or ancestors, the yellow die for events in the character's childhood or young adulthood, and the blue die in the character's recent past.

On average, a character will roll about three of these events. I would encourage players to be creative with what the events mean and how they fit together for the character.

As an additional note, if you use 4d6 drop the lowest for character stats or other similar systems, you could ask players to add a green die to the red, blue, and yellow. This green die is used as normal for calculating ability scores, but does NOT generate events, even if it rolls a "1."

The Generator




Click this link for a printable PDF!

Sample Character

So let's create a character! I take my 3d6 and roll the following stats:

11 STR, 12 DEX, 13 CON, 10 INT, 8 WIS, 14 CHA

Overall pretty good scores! For events, I rolled "Started a destructive fire" on the red die and "Endured long overseas voyage" on the yellow die. With the given prompts, I decide that my grandmother, in desperation, tried to steal from a temple, knocking over a censor of incense that created a fire that burned the whole temple down. She could not escape retribution, but my family still faced ostracization, deciding flee oversees while I was still just a child. Given my quite high charisma and above average Strength, I imagine that my character is a fisherwoman type, with a winning, cheeky personality who lives not to far from the coastal town where she grew up.

The GM can decide to leverage the character backstory into plot hooks: perhaps my grandmother did manage to steal a single, priceless idol from the temple that fateful day, an idol that nearby cultists are desparate to get their hands on... 

Of course, many more options are possible—perhaps my father was a freedom fighter who burned down a government building and our family was sent overseas to live in a prison colony. Or perhaps my mother burned down an ancient forest after being told to do by an evil spirit that invaded her dreams who later called her and her family to a strange city beyond the sea. 


Tips for creating your own generator

The sample generator above is designed for use with a straight-forward fantasy campaign—some odd bits here and there, but mostly straightforward. You can create a generator based around these rules that fits much better with your world and your GM'ing style. The best way I've found to create a generator is by brainstorming around fifty or so events and then selecting your best entries. I found it easiest to work from the center of the page out to the edges. A few tips to keep in mind:

1. Keep events open-ended. The more open-ended the events are, they better they will fit together when players roll multiple events. When writing the events, I recommend avoiding any specific subject to the sentence so that the event can work for the character OR for individuals in character's family.

2. Add specific places and items to your table. Establishing a character's relationship to a specific place in your world gives the player a reason to be invested in that place and, by extension, your campaign world.

3. As a general rule, players will be more likely to roll on the center of the generator than on the edges. I recommend keeping the more prosaic or open-ended entries in the centre and then have the more unusual entries towards the edges.


Why not just use a table?

The generator is all well and good, but wouldn't it work just as well to place all the entries in a table, asking players to roll d3 times per character? My answer is that yes, this works fine—in fact, character background tables are nothing new. I would argue, however, that throwing multicolored dice at a funky piece of paper is significantly more fun and involves fewer rolls. Some character backstory generators can seem a bit too restrictive: the character has X siblings, was Y social status, and so on. The very funkiness of this system gives players permission to be more creative while also providing some grist to work off of.



5 comments:

  1. I love this! Just rolled up a guy with S11 D11 C11 I13 W6 Ch15, events were broke something (ancestor) and cursed by a witch (childhood). I imagine their woodsman father cut down a fairy tree, and the later offspring was cursed by a witch in revenge, making them brazenly foolhardy (W6). Great fun!

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