Review: 'The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide'

"The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide: Prompts and Activities to Create the Most Interesting Story for Your Character" by James D’Amato "The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide: Prompts and Activities to Create the Most Interesting Story for Your Character" by James D’Amato ADAMS MEDIA

“Cooperative narrative” is a term used to describe a lot of tabletop RPGs, since players and their gamemaster have to work together to create a compelling story. And while there is plenty of literature available to help GMs improve their storytelling abilities, advice for players is a lot less common. Luckily, there’s a new book to help players craft better narratives for themselves - "The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide: Prompts and Activities to Create the Most Interesting Story for Your Character."

Just as the name suggests, Backstory Guide contains 100 different activities and worksheets to help you flesh out your character in a tabletop RPG of your choice. Those exercises are split up into three tiers based on your character’s level: “Humble Beginnings,” “Veteran Heroes,” and “Myths and Legends.”

In practice, the book functions more as a way to season your character’s story with a bit of flavor rather than cooking it from scratch. That is, you don’t need every single exercise in the book to create your character. "Backstory Guide" has activities for just about every player type, but squeezing them all together wouldn’t create a cohesive narrative.  For example, some exercises focus on particular backgrounds such as orphans or religious figures. Others zero in on traits related to combat abilities, like scars from melee combat or your relationship with your spell-slinging apprentice. Those narrative elements don’t necessarily clash, but the more you stack on top of each other, the more cluttered your backstory becomes.

That’s not to say that hyper-specific activities aren’t useful. To the contrary, the guide is excellent at teaching players how to wield tropes in engaging ways. The character you create may be cursed, for example, but what dumb thing gave you that curse anyway? And how can you get rid of it?

James D’Amato, the author of "Backstory Guide", cut his teeth as an improv comic, and his wit shines throughout the book. Even if you don’t find an exercise useful to your specific character, at the very least you’ll be entertained by it.

Admittedly, it seemed as if some parts of the book functioned more as a way to let D’Amato flex his comedy skills than as a way to build your character. For example, I got a kick out of his bit about how far you’d be willing to go to accept a job offer from a shady guy in a cloak, but the scenario seems like it would work better as an in-game encounter rather than an anecdote for a character’s backstory.

Still, the writing is very good, and though the book’s tone tends to be comedic, there are still plenty of activities to help you develop more serious elements of your story. I also loved that it was organized by level, as it gives you an excuse to come back to your character later in the game and refine their personality as they mature. And for game masters, those nuggets of new information that players add to their characters can come in handy for developing new plot threads in your campaign.

If you’re the type of person that’s looking for inspiration in creating your next character, or if you’re trying to find ideas to make your current character more interesting, "The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide: Prompts and Activities to Create the Most Interesting Story for Your Character" is worth your time. You may not use every exercise in this book, but they’re all worth reading.   

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