a cabin in the woods

4 Questions for Building Your Backstory

Backstories are hard. While there are clear guidelines for making the rest of a character, backstory is usually summed up with three words: you need one. Now, with 5th edition, backstory is built into the character creation process somewhat, but with older versions you’re left with a bewildering array of numbers that somehow have to turn into some sort of backstory. But don’t worry… it’s not as hard as it looks.

All backstories can be built by asking your character four simple questions, and then elaborating on those. If you’re using 5e, then consider these as you’re picking your background, and write it as you go to make life simpler later.

1.  Who raised you?

This question is important not only to determine where you’re from, but your character’s outlook and even personality. A nobleman’s youngest son is going to view wealth and privilege far differently than a street rat might. Think about who had the biggest impact on you, where you grew up, and how that has led you to behave or think.

2. What did you do before adventuring?

Unless you were slaying dragons as a baby, chances are that you had a life before the wanderlust hit. Think about when you started adventuring and what experiences you may have had before you started. If you went as an impetuous teen, perhaps you made some big mistakes from experience. If you were older, maybe you left a family or business behind.

3. Why did you start adventuring?

Most adventurers are not born to the life, which means that something happened to make you leave the comforts of home to battle monsters and explore the unknown. It might be tempting to simply say you have wanderlust, and that certainly can be what keeps you on the road, but most people need something to get that ball rolling.

4. Write one experience/person that changed you

Even if your background is that you were a hermit, chances are  at some point you had interactions with someone—be it a relative, friend, romantic partner, or even enemy—who changed you somehow. Perhaps it was an experience that made all the difference and helped define who you are. Whatever it is, write it down and if you get stuck, look back to the previous questions to see where you can start.

As a note, if you’re using 5e, you’ll want to tie these background questions into your flaw, bond, and trait/ideal so keep that in mind.

Do you have a system for building a backstory? Tell me in the comments below!


  1. What I do, is I take something from a friends life or my life and fantify it. I had a friend who recently became paralyzed in his right arm. So, with his help and permission, I said that the character was playing with a bear cub when the mother bear came and tore his arm off. Just tak8ng something from my life and turning it into a backstory.


  2. I love these simple questions. Where, What, Why and Who. perfectly fitting. But although they can help sure up bonds. How would you fit them to Ideals and personalities? I mean I have a past in mind for my characters and these questions ensure I cover the basics but they don’t help me with the core personality (tables seem forced if you already have a backstory/background), and absolutely nothing for flaws (which by the tables are once again forced). CR does flaws well with both Nott and Caleb and I would like to find a way to do that more.


  3. I usually start with my abilities then work backwards. So, if I have a character who’s good at, say, archery, I go “Okay, so how did they become good at archery?” And then, maybe my next question would be, “How did they obtain a bow in the first place?” I find that it helps me stay on track and keeps me from making critical errors and potential holes in my back stories.


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