Do you want to make your adventuring feel more personal? Bring your backstory to the foreground with these “active hooks” that you, the player, can use.
There’s a lot of talk in D&D about providing your DM with plot hooks. Things like, “oh I have parents who I’m looking for,” or “I hope to one day discover the mysterious cause of my magic amnesia” or “I stole a magic fish once and someone wants it back.” But what they don’t tell you is, you can build a backstory that’s full of hooks for you, the player.
Call it an “active background” or “plot hooks for players” but the DM isn’t the only one who can make your character’s story come into play. Here are five quick backgrounds (and tips for using them) that any player can use. Most of them boil down to “have a goal, pursue it,” and most importantly “tell the other players about it.” There’s a saying in improv, ‘be obvious’ which typically means it’s better to err on the side of being a little too clear about something. You might be a guy who likes food who constantly says “boy I sure like food,” and that’s great. Everyone knows it. Similarly, these backgrounds are loaded with things you can share with your party and bring everyone in on the fun.
Duelists are a powerful fantasy archetype. They’re a little more out of the pike and shot era, since the word duelist conjures people fighting with rapier–but that’s more of a weapons choice than a backstory hook. If you want to play a character whose background is them as a duelist consider: you’re a person who has been formally trained in fighting. It’s not typically to the death, so that means you’ve probably studied a lot of techniques, and are looking to prove yourself at any turn.
All you have to do is challenge friends and foes to duels. They can be to first blood, or simply to touch the opponent. Or if you’re a magic user, then you can maybe have some magic duels. But really it’s more about your personality. You’re playing someone looking to challenge others and win acclaim for their prowess. You should be concerned with making a name for yourself, or at least besting opponents whom you think are worthy.
Things to think about: what is your dueling style? What special techniques do you know? Whom have you bested? Who has bested you? Is your character cautious or reckless when it comes to fighting? Will you challenge your party, and what do you want to learn from their fighting styles?
For this backstory hook, all you have to do is want to figure out a magical secret. Perhaps you were a student in a magical academy, or maybe you were a Warlock who made a bargain with an eldritch entity. Whatever the case, now you’re driven by the need to uncover magical secrets. You can be as specific as you like with these–you could be setting out to learn a specific spell, or you could get a little more vague and make it about observing some kind of magical event out in the world.
Whatever you decide, just take an interest in whatever magical things are going on around you. Even if it’s not your own particular brand of magic, whenever someone casts a spell, that’s a chance for your character to see the world at work. You’re curious and inquisitive, and you know the answer even if others don’t.
Things to think about: what secrets have you learned so far? What magic would you love to uncover? What are you afraid to learn? What arcane truths will you tell your fellow party members next?
For this one, you could have sworn an oath to protect someone (for best results, we recommend swearing to protect someone in the party). Maybe they saved your life once, or they lent you money you’re never able to repay, or perhaps they just helped you move. Whatever the case, your bond with this party member (preferably) means you’ll do what you can to protect them.
This could mean trying to keep them out of harm’s way, or following them into the dragon’s mouth to make sure they come out safely. When playing this backstory archetype, think about your relationship to the other character. Is it a pleasant one? How do you feel about your debt? Will you ever feel satisfied that it’s been repaid?
Bonus points if the person you swore to protect one day becomes your sworn enemy after they betray you/their ideals/the cause.
This backstory is all about trying to prove yourself to someone. This could be a close familial relation, like father, mother, brother, or sister. It could be a friend you look up to, or a mentor figure–but there’s someone out there who you want to look good for. That’s why you’ve taken to risking your life and limb, because you want to impress them or earn their approval.
This means figuring out all the ways in which you might try and impress them, as well as having moments where you feel like you’re not living up to what they would want. For best practices, try and come up with a few sayings that the other character might have passed on. If they don’t give you their approval, why? Is it something you ever think you could earn? When you talk with the party, maybe explain what that approval means to you.
A Dish Served Cold
Someone out there needs to get what’s coming to them. And in this case, the point of your sword/the blade of your axe/the bolt of your fire is what’s coming to them. This one might lend itself to be a little broodier, but you could also just be very excited to say a specific phrase when you come upon the person who wronged you and you finally get to avenge whatever wrong has been done to you.
Key things to figure out here: who wronged you, and what did they do? How does your character feel about it? Is it a single-minded pursuit, or do they feel like they have to become a powerful warrior to one day take revenge? How often do you tell the party about why they have revenge coming? Do you rehearse with your friends what you’re going to say when you finally track down that six-fingered man?
These are simple, but effective ways to get a quick backstory that will put your character on the path to any adventure. Having a simple want and some fairly broad goals can go a long way towards giving your character a more active role in the party, and a stronger voice whenever you’re playing them.
Good luck, and happy adventuring!