Backstory: Three alternatives to being an orphan
We get it, you want to have a great D&D backstory. For Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, and plenty of other tabletop games, it’s the heart of the experience. Before you can even break in your first set of dice you need a character. An interesting D&D backstory is key to creating this character. We don’t want to be derivative. “We're just air conditioners. I mean, after all, we're just walking around on the planet, breathing, conditioning the air.” — Ongo Gablogian. Don’t be a derivative air conditioner. Be an exciting air conditioner. And a central part of how to make a good D&D backstory is getting rid of the orphan trope.
The Orphan Trope
D&D backstories are the beginning of every adventure. Not only can these stories inform your D&D style of play, but they can also strengthen the bonds you make with other party members. But there’s typically one glaring flaw that’s present in nearly all beginners’ backstories: being an orphan. It worked for Aladdin. It worked for Batman. We’ve seen Uncle Ben die so many times Marvel didn’t even bother this time around. In a vacuum, it works. I’ve made plenty of characters with no parents. It gives them some immediate depth and character before you even get to know them. Unfortunately, it’s so effective and easy that it becomes lazy.
If No One Has Parents it Loses all Meaning
Look around at the other players at the table. If everyone’s D&D backstory revolves around being an orphan it becomes, say it with me, derivative. At some point we need to start questioning the parenting methods of the Forgotten Realms, I mean come on. Yeah, it makes your character edgy. It makes them tough. They’re a street rat raging against the system, just trying to get by. But, much like making phone calls, it’s played out. It’s not an interesting D&D backstory because everyone’s done it. It loses all meaning. Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives to try out if you want to avoid this trope.
1. Family to Model
Sometimes having a family is actually a good thing. You heard me, teenagers. When your dice fail, they’ll be there as your ace-in-the-hole. They’ll bail you out of jail. They’ll be the reason you love what you love. If you start off as a squire, have your D&D backstory be that your dad was a royal guard. If you’re a level one monk, your mom can be in charge of a famous temple. Parents are like real-life superheroes. Why wouldn’t you want some in your campaign? Making a good D&D backstory doesn’t mean getting rid of all comfort.
2. Family to Reject
A family to reject is a great D&D backstory to highlight what makes your character different. Think of Daryl Dixon from the Walking Dead versus his evil brother Earl. Or, maybe your family is known throughout the land as paragons of virtue which leads to angst about your own evil choices, like Kylo Ren. Or, even loving someone with such different values might make you want to save the BBG instead of destroying it, like Luke Skywalker. These make for interesting D&D backstories because the family dynamic adds an extra layer to the plot.
3. Family in the Party
This is my personal favorite D&D backstory. Being related to people in your party is a great way to generate trust and add extra urgency when your friend is in trouble. And they don’t have to be your parents. Unlike what Psychology tells you, not everything is about your parents. It can be an uncle, sibling, cousin, or anything else. I once played in a party of half-breed characters (Elf, orc, tiefling, to name a few.) We were all half brothers with the same dad: the famous Archmage Bigby! We were the Brothers Bigby, and it was one of the most enriching roleplaying experiences of my life. We cared not only about ourselves but about everyone at the table.
What are you waiting for? Your next great D&D backstory isn’t going to write itself! How to make a good D&D backstory isn’t too difficult if you stay away from the common tropes. Interesting D&D backstories and relationships are around every corner, as long as you know where to look.
My tiefling paladin was raised by his take-no-sh*t single mom, a tavern cook, and one of his life goals is to save up enough to buy the tavern for her out from under the skeevy halfling owner.
My halfling sorcerer’s family still live in the large town where she grew up and she writes letters home once in a while.