One of the things that makes DnD (and other roleplaying games) so interesting is the connection each player has to their character.
In board games, the “character” – if there is any – is generally very flat, has little dimension, and is motivated by 1 or 2 very streamlined goals. Most of the time there is no real “character” – simply the player and his or her own abilities. Rarely do personal experiences get brought into a board game.
In video games, characters tend to be more fleshed out (arguments of poor-quality characters in video games aside…). They have histories, they have abilities that differ from the player. However, everything the Player can do within a videogame is predefined. Every ability or manuever was programmed in… every emotional plot twist is contrived by the writers.
In DnD, the GM creates a story, but within that story, each character (and the player controlling them) has almost complete freedom. They have unique abilities… they can look at a situation in a way that the GM never even thought of, and most importantly, they can bring their player-defined backstories into play. As a result, different sets of players with their own unique characters could end up with an entirely different story than all the other groups, even playing through the same ‘campaign setting.’
I’ve noticed that many new DnD players – myself included – initially focus on abilities, powers, defeating bad guys in combat, and those type of things. It’s easy to get excited about this cool fireball i can throw, or how bad-adam I am with my greatsword. But eventually, and not very much later, they start looking at it more like a story, and less like a video game. In video games, you run through room after room (or set-piece) and clear each area until you get to the next. In DnD… not everything that moves has to die.
One of the questions my group likes to ask when facing any situation is, “What would your character do?” Following this mantra can really spice up a story. It can cause trouble and plot twists where one might not expect it. And that’s why having a decent character backstory can really help the player.
I’m currently running a Psionic Dromite named Obre. Dromites are kind of like halflings with a few bug-like qualities. Psions are like wizards, but using the power of their mind instead of magic. But more importantly, Obre is out adventuring in the world to gain experience, knowledge, and power, in hopes that he one day might lead his people. I wrote out a long backstory (probably overkill for most players. Maybe I’ll post it here some time) detailing his growth starting out in his hive, then into some of his early adventures. I gave him a mate, and then wrote part of his backstory so that she got separated from Obre and he doesn’t know what happened to her. Also, there were several monsters Obre helped to kill, and a small village that he FAILED to save from a raiding army of Orcs. Also, Obre is of the fire-caste, which are somewhat defined by rashness, as well as quickness to anger, but also laughter.
With those few features defined – rash, quick to anger, trying to become a king among his people, trying to increase his power – as well as a few historical details – the village he failed to save, the loss of his mate – the driving force behind Obre is often easy to define. Obre rushes into rooms sometimes, without thinking. Sometimes he does things that might not be the best plan, just because time was running out and it was the first thing he thought of. He’s gotten depressed when a particularly rough attack left him several levels lower- the loss of that power and the abilities with it was devastating. Many of these resulted in plot points that were unexpected or unplanned, but they add an element to the story that makes it unique.
I’m not claiming to be the best at this – and certainly, the other players in my group are all getting pretty good at asking “What Would _____ do?” – and it really fills out the campaign and allows the players to define their own story within the GM’s world.
And that’s a big part of what RPGs are all about.
Heck yeah! One easy way to do this when you don’t have time to write a backstory (or just can’t think of one) is to write out a list of 5 or so personality traits. Sometimes they spark backstory or sometimes the adventure is so short that a backstory seems wasted and you just need something to make the character 3D. It works.