Tragic backstories

Aron Christensen
Nov 3, 2021 · 4 min read

Every character needs a backstory and tragedy is a powerful motivator. Dead family, razed homes, and enemies who have left a character scarred all serve to get a would-be hero up off their butt and out into adventures. It gives characters an emotional arc and trauma to work through in game.

It works because it’s easy — but because it’s easy, we gamers use tragedy as a backstory a lot. Tragic backstories can get repetitive, and if every character in the adventuring party has a tragic backstory, then no one tale really stands out. They homogenize until tragedy is just the melodramatic mundane.

Ginny Di made a great video on some alternatives to tragic backstories here. But we want to throw out some ideas of our own, and talk about why those alternatives have just as much to offer as stock tragedies — if not more!

So what does a happy childhood and no dramatic trauma offer a character? Plot hooks! If a villain killed a character’s sibling, then, sure, the character is motivated to go hunting for them and kick some ass. However, a living sibling can provide fuel for multiple character arcs. A character might leave home for a more dangerous life facing the world’s threats to search for a lost sibling. A sibling who has moved far away might send the player character a message asking for help because they’ve gotten into trouble. The sibling might be kidnapped by the villain, or might become a villain that the character will have to face.

No matter how the confrontation ends, now they have a ton of tragedy and drama to work with. But you get extended mileage out of it when you didn’t skip straight to that part. Because you didn’t begin with tragedy in the backstory, now it gets to happen on screen — and you get to react to it!

So what are some reasons — besides a tragedy — that a character might take up a more dangerous life?

It’s the character’s job!

Joining law enforcement, an army, or taking a job as bodyguard gives a character a profession where they risk their lives facing dangers day to day, without having to get murder-happy in their backstory.

A character could be former military and now their only skillset is their fighting ability. They might become a mercenary or turn to crime as a means of using the only abilities that they know.

Boredom!

A character living a simple life — say as a moisture farmer or a well-respected resident of the Shire — might very well leave the comforts of a happy home to seek out a more exciting and consequential life.

In the fantasy settings that are the bread and butter of many RPGs, youngest children tend not to inherit titles or family businesses, leaving them to find their own way to make money or a name for themselves.

A character raised to be “good” and “quiet” might run away as a form of rebellion, leading them into a life of danger.

How about curiosity?

A strange traveler passing through a character’s home, odd dreams or omens, or mysterious letters might pique a character’s curiosity enough to leave home in search of answers. From there on, curiosity can lead them into and out of trouble again and again.

Happenstance works, too.

A traveler that buys the character a beer at the tavern out of sympathy ends up dying mysteriously in their inn room. As the last person seen with the traveler, the innkeeper then mistakes the character for their friend or family and passes on their effects. Does the character adopt the dead traveler’s identity to make a new life for themselves? Do they find something among the stranger’s possessions — an unopened letter, a signet ring, an encrypted hard drive, a safe-deposit box key — that spurs the character to finish their business?

A character might also be in the right place at the right time — or wrong place and time — to fall into adventure. Getting caught up in a robbery, mistaken for a noble’s child by kidnappers, or taken as a hostage might all force a character into a dangerous life against their will.

Perhaps they are more than just a bystander, but take action to thwart the danger they blundered into, inadvertently becoming a hero.

How about a mysterious or important item that the character finds by accident? A ring stuck in a grate, a stranger’s phone left on a table, or a package found in a ditch could all be the springboard into a life of adventure without piling up bodies in a character’s past. Someone will come looking for the package or the stranger’s phone might suddenly ring, kicking off a new life for a character.

Ooo-wooo… Prophecy. Spooky!

When in doubt, prophecy is the all-time fallback story-hammer. The character is destined for adventure and great deeds. You will need to work this one through with your Storyteller, but destiny can drag any character out of an otherwise happy life and into something more contentious.

Tragedy.

Still always an option. Dead family, dead pet, burned village, cut off in traffic — trauma can easily ruin a character’s life and instill a motivation for revenge and thirst for adventure. If a character has nothing to go back to, then there’s nothing preventing them from pursuing the campaign storyline.

But consider other reasons for pushing your character out the door to adventure before you resort to a tragic backstory. After all, if you put the most dramatic stuff in the character’s past, then anything that happens during game runs the risk of falling flat. Leave some room for dramatic twists and turns to happen during play so that you have plenty of room to escalate the stakes and role-play through your own big moments. And a family or happy home left behind provides plenty of plot hooks for you and your Storyteller to use.

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