Each player at your table has a story to tell. They have loving crafted their character and are excited to share their backstory with the group. The problem is, the other party members are just as excited about their own characters and don’t really care about the other player’s characters.
What is a Dungeon Master to do? How do you connect all your player’s backstories together to create a singular story in which all can participate? While there are a lot of moving parts, weaving together backstories doesn’t have to be a feat of alchemy!
To connect character backstories in Dungeons & Dragons 5e, use the following character traits to create shared goals, memories, enemies or experiences:
- Character’s Purpose: what are they hoping to find or gain?
- Character Flaws: specific vices the character just can’t seem to break
- Past Relationships: any meaningful relationship will do (parental, friendships, romantic, even vengeful)
- Events that scared the character: an attack on their village, their home burning down, any event major or minor
- Locations: where did the character grow up? Is there a place they visited often?
- Secret and/or Gossip: these can be the best ways to tie characters together! The reveal is always fun!
While you certainly won’t use all of these at the same time, the purpose of this list is to give you options that will work with your group. Some groups might be united against a single villain they have all encountered previously while others might find they have a similar connection with a sacred location.
This list will give you the flexibility to be able to tie ANY group together into one exciting adventure in which everyone gets to shine!
Always Work WITH Your Players to Create Backstories
When starting a new campaign, it can be very tempting to try to force your players into your mold. You know what you want your story to be, how the world works and what your villain is trying to accomplish, you just need to plug in your players and go!
This approach can, and almost always will, leave several players on the sidelines. Your players have ideas on what they want the world to be like and what role their character will play in it. If you reject all of their ideas, they will not be as invested in your campaign.
A better option is to work WITH your players to create your world. Allow players to have a say in what your world looks like. Let them imagine cities and locations and create new political structures or alliances.
While you may have to veto some ideas (“No, not everyone has a pet dragon”) you will be surprised how many creative and amazing ideas come from creating a world together.
Working together has the added benefit of making your players more invested in your campaign as a whole. When players feel involved in the decision-making process they feel as if the world is truly their own.
Help Your Players Write Complex Characters
Now that you have created a world your players are excited to live in, help them write complex and interesting characters.
Unless you are DMing for a veteran group of players, it is likely your players might struggle to develop a complex character.
Static vs Complex Characters
In writing, characters that have a purpose, who grow and adapt throughout the story in order to meet that purpose are called “Complex characters.” Those characters that do not grow throughout the story and who, by and large, stay the same are called “Static Characters.”
In order to tell a more interesting story and, ultimately, link your players’ backstories together, your PCs need to be complex. This means they need to have goals, a purpose, relationships, flaws and other characteristics that will help them change over the course of the story.
It is likely your players are more concerned about which spells to take and which hit-dice to use than on this delicate process of character development, that’s where you come in, DM.
As the DM, your primary job is to give the players situations and problems which will change their characters over time. The hope is that this group of rag-tag adventurers will become heroes, but who really knows.
In order to do this correctly, you need to have something to work with from the start. Don’t just leave it up to your players to figure their characters out on their own. Most of the time you just will get a few half-thought-out flaws and traits pulled from the back of the PHB which they will never look at again.
A far superior solution is to guide your players through this process to ensure they have a complex character and you have the information you need to tie that character into the overall story.
Cheat Sheet for Complex Characters
The easiest way I have found to do this is with a Character Sheet. No, not the one that has all the stats on it, one just for characteristics.
And, yes, I know the character sheet has a place for “backstory” “flaws” and “traits” but it is just simply not enough to really guide players in the process of creating truly complex characters.
After searching, unsuccessfully, online for such a sheet, I have created my own. This sheet helps players think through the most important aspects of their character while also providing you with an easy to read cheat sheet of their traits! It’s a Win-Win for sure!
Before your first session, have your players fill out this sheet and get it back to you. This will give you all the information you need to weave together their backstories seamlessly AND it will ensure your players have thought through their characters BEFORE the first game.
You can either click on the image above to print the character cheat sheet or join our DM Leauge to get the fillable PDF download. (I promise, I am not spammy and I will never send you anything I wouldn’t like to receive myself!)
If your players need more help creating their backstory, I highly recommend this post by Geek and Sundry.
Now that you have your players have their backstories and you have the cheat sheets, here is how to use them to weave together character backstories.
How to Weave Backstories Together Using the Cheat Sheet
Now that you have helped your players work through their character creation, it is important to find a way to connect the party together before they ever even meet. You can do this in a variety of ways, using one or several of the options below.
Keep in mind that you DO NOT have to connect the entire party together with one event, purpose or relationship. However, all members should have at least one connection to another member of the group.
These connections are important because they drive party decisions, keep all players invested in the party and give each character a chance to shine.
Use the following parts of the Cheat Sheet to find/create connections between character backstories:
Question to ask: Why is your character out adventuring?
There are endless reasons a player character might take up a life of adventuring. It could be as simple as seeking treasure and glory; or as complex as searching for a mystical item that might bring a lost loved one back from the dead.
In this category, the goal itself isn’t important, it is simply necessary that the player has a goal and that they are working toward it. If a player is having a difficult time thinking of a goal, here are some of my favorites to get them thinking!
- Seeking a stolen family item
- To restore family honor after a terrible misfortune
- Raise the funds to set up a bakery for mom
- Earn enough money to impress a noble family so he/she can marry their son/daughter
- Kill enough creatures to satisfy the darkness within
- Figure out how to get rid of a mysterious entity that has haunted the family for generations
- Save a terminally ill friend/family member
- Prove their strength to a verbally abusive parent
- Prove the world wrong, a street urchin can become someone great!
Any of these are a great place to start and you will notice the rest of the backstory will start to materialize just by picking a goal!
While their backstories may not be the same, if the goals are similar, this can be a great way to tie characters together. If two characters are seeking rare magical items, tie those items together in some way that fits into the greater plot of your campaign.
Here is an example: Two players are both seeking a magical stone. One seeks the power to heal, the other the power to destroy. The stones, they find out, are actually a part of an ancient crown comprised of 5 stones which belonged to a blood-thirsty Queen. Her remains, along with her crown, were sealed away.
These two players will likely work together to find the clues to where the Queen was buried and what the other 3 stones do. If their motivation is strong enough, they will attempt to rob the tomb, unleashing your main Villain.
You can do this with any goal your party members have, but it only works if they have a goal connected to a strong motivation. As DM, you need to make sure this is the case.
Find a way to connect goals together, and then connect those goals into your overall campaign. This is easiest if you don’t have your campaign set in stone and can create new events to fit your characters’ goals.
Question to ask: What specific vice does your character always fall for?
Flaws are an underutilized part of D&D. A character is only as good as their deepest flaw. All people have flaws, even the best of people, it is what makes us people. Having characters without specific flaws is just boring.
Have your players come up with 2-3 specific flaws for their characters. Resist the urge to let them write weak flaws such as, “I like to drink too much.” Instead, point them deeper by asking more questions.
In this case, I would ask, “What made them start drinking?” “When does your character find the urge to drink irresistible?” “Do they know when to stop?” “What kind of a drunk are they? Irritating, loud, aggressive, touchy?”
These types of questions keep the player thinking about the deeper aspects of their flaws. If the character is an angry drunk who always starts a fight when they drink, this leads to incredible party role-playing opportunities!
In the same way, other flaws can connect characters and parties together in meaningful and entertaining ways. Characters who share the same flaw can help one another to overcome it.
On the other hand, characters who do not approve of another character’s flaw can attempt to “save” or “reform” them. This is also entertaining! There’s nothing better than a lawful-good Paladin trying to teach a neutral, criminal Kenku that, “Stealing is BAD.“
Connecting Characters with Flaws
While characters can be connected by overcoming shared flaws together, they can also be connected by the flaw itself.
Depending on what the flaw is will depend on how you connect them as the DM, but here are some examples:
|One Characters Flaw||Another Character’s Connection|
|I owe so much gold to a tavern in the city that the tavern owner sent me out adventuring to earn it back. Either I bring back a lost family item or I go to jail for a very long time…||I am the son of the tavern owner. I am accompanying this vagrant to ensure he doesn’t run out on his debts or steal our family heirloom.|
|I owe a LOT of money to the local crime lord. I ran out on my debts a long time ago and cannot return to the city or he/she will kill me.||The same crime lord of the city I grew up in killed my father over an unpaid debt, leaving my mother destitute. She died in the gutter a few years later and I have vowed revenge.|
|I tend to believe anyone. I gave my family’s savings to a street merchant once in exchange for a healing potion that would cure anything! It didn’t work though, and my mother said, “Come back with the money or don’t come back at all!”||I can sell ANYTHING! I will never forget the time I sold piss as a cure-all to some poor chump! HA! I am banned from several towns because of it though. Bum rap really.|
As you can see, the possibilities here are endless! Positive or negative, flaws can really bond party members together. If you see some flaws that look like they could go together, make sure to take advantage of them!
Question to ask: what relationships are most important to you?
Known on the official D&D character sheet as “bonds” relationships are vitally important for building complex characters AND weaving character backstories together.
It could make sense for multiple party members to have a connection with the same person, positively or negatively. It is even possible that one character sees the person as an angel who saved them, while the other sees them as the devil himself.
You can either do this naturally as players come up with their own connections or you can tell players about this connection if their backgrounds fit.
This category is so wide open that it is almost difficult to describe. The connection could literally be anyone in your world!
For example, one player could have been saved from a burning building by a man passing through the town and, therefore, idealizes him. Yet, that same man could be the criminal who murdered another player’s father for a few silver pieces.
My advice would be this: if a major part of multiple players’ backstories hinges on one person, especially if they don’t know who that person is, try to find a way to make it the same person.
If it doesn’t fit smoothly, don’t force it. But if there is a connection, use it!
Key Memories or Events
Question to ask: is there an event or memory that defines who you are?
Another popular method of connecting character backstories is to use an event that affects all the party members. This usually requires the DM to give the entire group guidelines, such as “You are all from the same city.” Because all the players are from the same city, one event could affect them all and the memory of it could bring them together.
This event could be a natural disaster, a political move, or invasion. Whatever the event, it is likely your players will want to set it right or get revenge, which is exactly what you want. For more ideas and how to use them, see the chart below!
|Event||How to use it|
|A political uprising of the common people leaves the capital city in ruins. The royal family is slaughtered as the nobility run for their lives.||A member of the royal family (player 1) escapes the palace and hides in a nearby shed. He/she is discovered by a street urchin (player 2) who shows him/her how to survive on the streets.|
|A foul blight is ruining the harvest, bankrupting small farms and businesses alike.||The city is paying adventuring parties to find the source of the blight and end it. People from all walks of life are gathering together to form adventuring groups (your party is one of them) in order to save their family businesses or just to get out of the city.|
|The woods are becoming increasingly more dangerous. Bandits are plundering unchecked by the law, evil cultists are kidnapping people for unholy rituals, and there are even rumors of Hags.||Each member of the party could have been affected by the increasingly dangerous woods. Some players could have lost family members, others could have a friend kidnapped and they are hoping to recuse them, and another could have had a little sister kidnapped and turned into a hag.|
Using Memories to Connect Characters
Another option is to use memories of the same or similar events to connect players’ backstories. This could be the memory of a creature that haunts them, an event, a person, or even a reoccurring dream. Perhaps another player has a similar experience or memory, though they have no other connection to one another.
In this case, the shared memory or dream could cause the two players to seek answers together. You as the DM could use this however you want! Is it a prophecy? A warning? The plot of some evil creature? It’s up to you!
Question to ask: where did your character grow up or where are they most familiar?
Locations are not necessarily the best of connections, but they can lead to other ways to connect characters. Being from the same town means characters may know some of the same people, long for the same foods they miss or share memories of growing up there.
Shared locations can lead to some natural connection, but only if you have painted a picture of the area well. Players need to feel like they really know the area they are from. Have thing sense of ownership will connect players from the same area quickly.
In addition to having players be from the same area, you can use a few of the methods above to connect them even more through events and people!
Question to ask: What secrets are you hiding?
My favorite way to connect players is through the secrets they are hiding. Everyone has a secret, even if it is innocent. Have your players come up with a secret then tie a few of those together and watch the fun!
If your players are having a hard time coming up with a secret, here are a few tried and true ones that could easily play into other character’s backstories!
- I was a member of a gang when I was a kid. We once burned down a shop with the shopkeeper inside, I have never EVER forgotten the screams. I still hear them occasionally at night…
- I don’t know how I can use magic. One night I woke up to a lady in white standing by my bed. She touched my head and I could suddenly do incredible things. She said she would come back someday and I would have to return her favor.
- I once stole food from a poor child on the street to impress my snobbish friends. The look in his/her eyes still haunts me.
- (Paladin) I don’t really believe in my religion and I am looking for an opportunity to break my oath. Religious life SUCKS.
It would be easy to link other players to any of these secrets or to use them in the main plot. Even if none of the secrets turn out to be usable in connecting players to other players, they will still increase the complexity of your characters and can be used for some fun role play!
Quick Guide Recap:
While connecting all your characters together through their backstories is no easy task, it can be done in a variety of ways. Just remember these tips:
- Don’t force it! If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Not all characters MUST be connected
- Look for natural or potential connections between characters using the cheat sheet
- Work with players to create backstories that will line up with what you have in mind
- Encourage players to come up with their own connections to one another. You don’t have to do all the hard work!
- Whenever possible, use people, places, and events to connect your party through shared experiences.
Your players have worked hard to come up with a great character. Give them the attention they deserve by including their story into the main plot of the campaign. Always strive to connect characters together to increase buy-in for one another and, above all, keep being awesome, DM.
Until next time,
May your game have advantage, my friends!
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