Creating a Character

So... you've decided to try your hand at one of those "Role Playing Games" that your friends have been talking about for a while. They sound exciting... you'll get to fight monsters... swing swords... throw magical fireballs around... It has always sounded like a lot of fun! One of your friends is going to be starting up a new campaign, and you're invited. All you need to do is create a character, and you're ready to go!

Wait... Create a character? What does that mean?
Creating a character for a role-playing game requires that you complete two distinct, but related tasks. All RPGs have rules, and those rules rely on a fixed set of (usually) numerical characteristics that define your character's abilities. You will need to generate all of these statistics, and they will be used to deal with the mechanical aspects of playing the game. But that part of the game is Roll-playing. It isn't Role-playing. And role-playing is the part of the experience that makes our hobby special.

In order to Role-Play your character, you need to know something about them: who they are... how they were raised... what they did before the first day of the first adventure. You need to understand at least a little about their culture and heritage so you know how they fit into the world before they took up adventuring. You need to know what they learned and did in their pre-adventuring life so you can better understand any special abilities they might be starting with.

In short, your character needs a Backstory.

But how do you build a backstory? What should you include? What should you leave out? What pitfalls should you avoid? Let us explore......

Cultural Background - Who Are Your People?

The first pitfall lurks at the very beginning. Many people start out by naming their character, and giving your character a name early on is important since it will help you to think of the character as a person and not a collection of game statistics. But names are based on factors like culture, family history, and tribal traditions. The odds are that you will playing in a well-defined world with established cultures dictated either by years of "canon lore" in the literary marketplace, or hours/days/weeks/years of work put in by your Game Master in a home-brew setting. An out of place name can break "world continuity" even before you get started. And so we start by defining your character's Cultural Background:
Ancestry / Species / Race
Different game systems use different terms, but this is the group of sentient beings to which you belong. Are you a Dwarf, an Elf, or a Halfling? Are you a Vulcan, a Romulan, or a Klingon? Are you a Vampire, a Mortal, or a Lycan? Your choice here will select the base cultural history that defines your character's place in the world, especially relative to other species that you may encounter.
Heritage / Ethnicity / Culture
Within your species or race, there are likely several subgroups, each with its own unique culture. Most cultures will be based on political divisions (nationalities), environmental differences (wood elf vs sea elf), or philosophy (pacifist vs warrior-centric), or a combination of these. Your specific game and world will dictate your options.

Identity - Who Are You?

With species and culture defined, you should have enough information to describe the general environment in which your character was born and raised. Were you raised in a nomadic tribal society? A huge modern city? The cavern that your clan has occupied for a thousand years? Regardless, you will have enough information to make your next few choices to define your character as an individual - to give your character an Identity.
Given Name(s)
Culture will provide guidance on naming traditions. A single given name is almost universal, but some races and cultures may bestow multiple given names to a child - especially if the family is important.
Family Names / Surnames
Some races and cultures will make use of family names as we recognize them; a child will take the surname of one or both parents. Others may use a "clan name" from a wider family structure. Still others may replace a family name with the character's current or former profession, for example "Alric the Baker". It is possible that your chosen culture doesn't use a surname at all.
Many game systems today have removed gender-based variations in character abilities to avoid the real-world society landmines that accompany the topics of gender, gender identity, and sexual preference. From a rule standpoint, we could ignore these topics, but from a role-playing standpoint, they may be be important to you and your gaming group. Then again, they may not. Before venturing here, discuss with your Game Master to make sure the entire table is on board with how these options will be treated (or ignored).

Most character sheets will at least ask for a Birth Gender - and won't do anything with it. Beyond this, if it is appropriate or necessary for your game table (your Game Master will let you know, you may also wish to specify how your character will Gender Identify.

Whether gender is going to be a "thing" at the table or not, it's worth addressing personal pronouns. Will the simple, traditionl "he" and "she" be used? Or will everybody just be a "they"? Does your table even care? Work this out with the Game Master and the rest of the table, though... don't assume.
Sexual Preference
This may determine how will your character interact socially with others = both PCs and NPCs. It may also impact how certain game situations are roleplayed, including those involving Negotiation, Intimidation, Charming, Persuasion, and any similar skill checks that your game system may employ. But make sure this topic is "in play" at your table before deciding on anything that may possibly make other players uncomfortable.

Personal History - What Have You Done?

Now that we know who your character is, it's time to address what they've done in the past.

Circumstances of Birth

You don't need to embellish things here - just stick to a few facts. What seettlement / mountain pass / sailing ship was the location of your birth? Who were your parents - or do you even know? Assuming you know your birthday, what date was it? That's all you really need.

Prior Profession or Situation

This one is important. It is also the place where the biggest pitfall in the whole backstory process is lurking.

Everybody wants to be the child of the king, who received martial training from Sir Lancelot, scholarly training from Sir Isaac Newton and Plato, and diplomatic training from Henry Kissinger, and who has a trust fund established by Bill Gates. But if you are starting your game as an entry level character, you can forget it. Unless you are playing with a table full of epic superhero progenies, you are most likely some sort of commoner with one or two extraordinary talents. Accept this and move on.

Even some prior experience choices that seem "right" at first can be problematic unless a quirky detail gets added. A former soldier that was involved in the last "great war" may sound like a logical prior position for a Fighter character... but why is a 10-year fighting veteran just a 1st level Fighter? Perhaps service was in the quartermaster corps, or as personal secretary to an officer, but a foot soldier that survived 10 years on the line would not be a 1st level Fighter! Almost every TTRPG system presumes that an entry level character is three things: Poor, Minimally Trained, and Ill-Equipped. And this brings us to the next decision you need to make.

Many gaming systems have a fixed list of options that may be called "backgrounds", "past jobs", or something else. Try to choose something that is appropriate for your given culture. Sometimes the application of some creativity can make an anomalous prior job sem okay. A nomadic culture that travels the vast savannas to track herds of wild game isn't likely to have a "tavern keeper" - but it may have somebody who knows how to make alcoholic beverages for special celebrations.

Accomplishments & Achievements

Don't get carried away here. The odds are that you're not famous... yet. You didn't discover a new school of magic while training as a second year student. You didn't personally defeat an entire platoon of trolls in the last war. You didn't steal the Crown Jewels of Balalaika from their impregnable vault. But you may have run a profitable general store (until it accidentally burned down), or survived 2 years as a mercenary guard on a camel caravan.

Failures & Embarrassments

Here, you can get creative - just don't get too carried away describing things. Nobody is perfect, and accidents happen to everybody. There are many reasons for failures and embarrassments, and not all are fully within one's control.

Failures and Embarrassments are one place where a Game Master can draw on your backstory to create future story hooks. Perhaps the nobleman who challenged you to a duel - the duel you avoided out of fear - is still looking for you. Perhaps that fire set in the stable, killing your employer's prize chariot horses wasn't really your fault, but your employer expects you to repay him in full for the lost beasts.

One very good use of failures or embarrassments is to set up the next thing on our list to consider: your reason for abandoning your former way of life and embarking on the Adventurer's path.

Reason for Becoming an Adventurer

This is the linchpin that holds your entire backstory together. Perhaps you really were the third son of the king. But he disowned you, and banished you from the kingdom with nothing more than the clothes on your back. Now your choice to become an adventurer makes sense.

If your prior situation was one that already made it clear that you are poor, minimally trained, and ill-equipped, you already have a reason for becoming an adventurer. Otherwise, remember that you need to define a bridge from what you were doing before to what you are going to do now. And that bridge has to leave you poor, minimally trained, and ill-equipped.  

Selection of Player Character Class / Profession

In many game systems your choice of prior situation will determine some of the starting skills and abilities of your player character. And it may dictate some of your starting gear. But do your Game Master a favor and don't make her explain why you can't start out with the +12 Divine Sword of Foe Smiting because your daddy was a famous adventurer who taught you everything he knew before he passed away.    

Final Details and Embellishments

Title or Honorific
These are almost always often a consequence of current job or position, but they may also reflect a prior position. Alternatively, they may be inherited (especially among nobility).
Nicknames / Aliases
In some races and cultures, a childhood name will be replaced by an adult name. (But to oldrer family members, the childhood name will likely remain in use either to tease or as a sign of affection.)
Perhaps your chosen formal name is long and complicated, or difficult to pronounce. A preferred "short name" or nickname that you would be willing to use when your character introduces themself to another character would be a good idea.

Mental characteristics

Personal history

Your character's personal history is what "backstory" is all about. In order to give you the material you will need to role-play your character effectively and consistently, you need to understan where the character is coming from.

But the backstory is not a memoir... it is not a detailed chronicle of the daily life of your character up until the first day of adventuring. It should be a summary of the game-mechanic selections you made to define your character, with 'flavored' narrative explanations of how your choices will direct your role-playing. The backstory is a tool for you to use for better role-play. Its purpose is to provide the explanations for why your character will behave a certain way, or why they have certain extraordinary skills. If your character will have certain pre-conceived notions about some group of people (a race, or culture, or class, for example), your backstory should explain why.

Your backstory may - and probably should - consist of two parts. Your "public" story should include all of the information that you wish your fellow player characters to , or why they have describe how your character is expected to react to certain situations.specific sections that are designed to provide you with information you need to explain why your character will act certain ways in certain situations. It will also provide your Game Master with information that can be used to flavor the campaign you are about to join with bits that weave your character into the fabric of the game world. In all likelihood, your character grew up in the world in which they will be adventuring, and experiences of growing up will have shaped the character's personality. If your character was magically dropped into the world from someplace else, that other place else will have molded your character's personality.

Your backstory should provide brief narrative descriptions of the game-related choices you made regarding race, culture, prior employment, and current choice of class.


Education may be important for some choices of former profession or current class. A wizard character, for example, is assumed to have spent some years of study just to master even the simplest cantrips and handful of low-level spells that they start out with at low levels of experience in the game. One does not walk out of a farm field and pick up a spellbook and begin casting! On the other hand, some classes require little or not formal pre-training. Barbarians are a product of their inborn traits and upbringing... Conan didn't go to "barbarian school" to learn how to fight!

Education may take several forms as well. Obviously, training in a formal academy or university setting counts as education. But so does an apprenticeship! Your character may have been a blacksmith before deciding to adventure, and if so, the skills of a blacksmith were almost certainly taught by being apprenticed to an older, experienced blacksmith. Some former jobs make use of "on the job training" - a little more than an apprenticeship, but by no means a classroom education. Shopkeepers, some artisans, artists and performers would all fall into this category.

To describe the education of your player character, first take a look at your choice of prior profession (background). Think about how your character acquired the skills to do that job, and explain it in a sentence or two. Now look at your choice of Class. The class descriptions will guide you as to whether or not some period of training was likely before you set out as an adventurer. If such a training period was necessary, write a sentence or two about that experience of your character as well.


Some taboos - alternatively called anathema in some gaming systems - will be dictated by selections you make during the character creation process. Certain races or cultures may have some societal norms that include avoiding certain impermissible actions. Religions will almost always include a behavior code of "do's" and "don'ts". Some classes may also introduce taboos.

Character Creation To-Do List

1. Cultural Background
  1. Species / Race / Ancestry
  2. Ethnicity / Culture / Heritage
2. Identity
  1. Given Name
  2. Surname
  3. Nickname
  4. Birth Gender
  5. Identified Gender
  6. Pronouns
  7. Sexual Preference
3. Personal History
  1. Birth Circumstance
  2. Prior Employement / Situation
  3. Reason for Change
  4. Chosen Adventuring Profession
Title or Honorific
These are almost always often a consequence of current job or position, but they may also reflect a prior position. Alternatively, they may be inherited (especially among nobility).
Known Languages
Your specific game mechanic will most likely determine how many languages your character will be able to speak, understand, read, or write. There will also likely be a list of permissible languages to choose from, which may be dependent on some of your choices during character creation.

If you do know any languages beyond your natural first language, your backstory should include a line or two describing why you know other tongues, and perhaps even how you learned them.


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