Backstory: Three Myths About Family

As a Game Master I love when the players in my campaign give their characters compelling backstories. A well crafted backstory gifts me with all sorts of connection points between the character and the campaign, which in turn helps the player feel immersed in the world around them. By this point in my GMing career, I have read thousands of characters backstories. Almost all have included the character’s family in some way, and that way has usually been pretty hard on the family in question. There are some cliches that always seem to pop up whenever I see a family come up, based on player misconceptions about how a backstory needs to function.

Today I wanted to look at what I consider to be three myths about how families have to be used, and talk about some alternatives.

Myth #1: The only good family is a tragic family – I’ve lost count of the backstories that start with, “Their family was killed by…”, “…became an adventurer the day their family was murdered by…”, “After their families tragic death in the Stoat Migration…”. Repeat after me: your character’s family does not have to be dead to be part of the backstory. There are plenty of reasons why your character might take up a life of adventure without being driven by the death of everyone they love. Maybe your family is forcing you into a job/marriage/alliance you don’t want. Maybe they’re happy for you to live your own life, but it’s a super large family and adventuring is the best way to make money and send some home to help them out. Maybe you had a fight with a sibling and one or both of you is running away to cool off. Or your parents are famous retired adventurers and you are off to make a name that eclipses theirs. There are so many great ways for a family to inspire a character without the need for them to end up dead.

This is also a good time to point out something I tell all my players about their backstory: that it represents what the character believes to have happened, but not necessarily the truth. So if the player insists their character’s family is dead, fine. That is certainly what their character believes. Until they are passing through a village market and hear someone humming a song they only ever heard in the cradle…Mother?

Myth #2: Including a family means putting a target on their back – I have heard this from a number of players. Why should they include a living family in their backstory when the GM is probably going to kill them off to push the story forward. And I admit I do see many Game Masters, most new to GMing, use this as a quick way to motivate characters. If countless movies and comics have taught us anything, the death of one’s family motivates many a hero. But frankly, it’s lazy. It’s also limiting because it can really only be done once with any impact. Even if you fake their death, you’ve lessened any future impact because the player will always wonder if they’re actually dead the next time.

Much better to have the family inspire, or even present adventure hooks of their own. After all, if there’s a big problem in the home town, who better to ask for help than the famous adventurer in the family? Perhaps at their lowest point, when they feel all is lost, that’s when the character insists on going home for a rest and takes the party with them. Let them have that taste of the familiar while they rest, maybe throw in some hometown adventure while they are there. Most of all, allow the character to remember why they are doing what they do, let their family get them ready to go back to the fight.

Also consider that folks die all the time for very simple, normal reasons. If you want there to be a death in the family, have it be non-plot or monster related. A parent is old and it was their time, a sibling has a tragic accident that wasn’t the fault of any outside agency. These can be effective ways to explore themes of loss and death with your players, without making it the crux of your story. Of course, always check in and see how your players will feel about turns like this before you do them. Safety first.

Myth #3: A character’s family is in stasis until needed – This is something I see both players and GMs falling prey to. Partially it can be blamed on the ambiguous nature of time in most tabletop games. It can be hard to know exactly how much time is passing, and so difficult to advance the character’s backstory elements accordingly. But as we all know, a family isn’t tucked away in a box between visits, they have lives of their own and they are busy getting on with them when we aren’t around. The same applies to a character’s family.

So when a new interaction with a character’s family is imminent, GM should ask some questions. How long has the character been away? What and who has changed in that time? If it’s been years, have there been major changes to the home, the home village, the surrounding area? Is it safer or more dangerous than when the character was home last? The sibling who was an infant when the character left is now a young child, how do they feel about this older sibling they’re essentially never met? Who is happy to see the character and who was hoping they’d never return?

Once you’ve answered enough of these questions to satisfy you, now you can play out a character’s return home. And because you’ve put in this time it will hopefully be a much more rewarding experience for the player. Important to remember, where things are when they eventually leave again is your new starting point to ask all of these questions again, before the character’s next visit.

Hopefully pointing out these three common myths will help you and your players both craft compelling backstories, with plenty of anchor points for the crafty GM to use for their game. What are some common myths you’ve encountered in character backstories? What are some things you’d like to see in their place? Comment on our Facebook Page or reach out to us on Twitter.