Developing a Character: No Backstory Required!  

Posted by Dristanel in

I’ve been roleplaying in some form or another for over ten years and in MMOs for nearly as long. For me, it’s a great way to get immersed in a game. And I know a lot of people, if given the choice and opportunity, would probably try it. I played on one of the most progressed PvE servers in Everquest and still found that if you roleplayed with people, they would generally roleplay back.

One of the things stopping most people, I believe, is that they just don’t know where to get started. RPers – and RP servers by association – have earned the reputation of being elitist and unapproachable. And I’m not going to lie, there are certainly people out there who can act like that. But for the most part, there is no roving Gestapo of RP Police. And I’ll let you in on a little secret:

Creating a new character to roleplay is just as intimidating for us as it is for you.

I still feel nervous introducing a new character, even to my own guild. I recently rolled a priest who I knew was going to have an explained ‘in’ for being around the guild, and I’m still mulling over how I want to play it.

You may think you need this precise, sprawling backstory because someone, somewhere is going to ask and you’re going to look like a fool if you don’t have an answer for what your character did six years, four months, and three days ago at 1:05PM.

Here’s another secret:

Most of us don’t work out a detailed backstory until well after we’ve established the character in the present.

Now I have a friend who is a stickler for detailed backstories in PnP games. As a DM he designs plot hooks specifically affected by character backstory. He likes us to have some sort of tie to at least two other players in a game, to reduce the amount of ‘Who are you and why are we here?’.

But in games like World of Warcraft, I don’t think you need to be anywhere near that thorough. Part of this stems from the fact that Blizzard has created a very detailed, very immersive game-world, and we all play within it. You can make certain assumptions about backstories right off the bat.

Additionally, this game takes place in the present and the future. It’s a social, continuous setting that is ever-changing. You will find that what happened in your character’s past really becomes far less important than how they react to the present.

That said, I can offer some tips that have worked well for me through several MMOs:

Develop a personality – a role you want to play

This is a game, and while there are certainly folks who create a character just for roleplaying purposes, most of us intend on playing our characters, as well. Decide on the class you want to play, because if it’s not something you enjoy, I can almost guarantee you won’t really enjoy the character.

Consider your class and how many different roles can be played within it. You can come up with one word that will tell you a great deal about how your character views the world. Physician. Assassin. Soldier. Runt. Confessor.

Start viewing the world through your character’s eyes

So you’re out in the world, doing the same tired quests you’ve probably done a million times. Your natural reaction, by this point, is to just click Accept, run to point A, kill X of mob Y, and run to point B. Do yourself a favor: read the quest text. Look at the world around you. Consider the reactions of the role you’re playing.

Let’s say you want to play a soldier. He’s probably going to have a very duty-driven response to these menial tasks, no matter how silly they seem. Or maybe he just wants to be where the action is. Perhaps he’s appalled at the notion of being someone’s errand boy. Maybe he’s just grateful for the chance to prove his worth. Maybe his parents pushed him into becoming a solider and he’s very glad to not be killing things.

Every reactionary step tells you a bit more about the character you're playing.

Find other people

Get thee to a city! But don’t start saying thee. Seriously. No.

I will admit, on some servers the RP in cities is absolutely non-existent. The Scryers is, in general, one such server. But I think that’s because most of us are so used to not RPing out in the open that we just don’t do it.

I remember walking into a med bay in Star Wars Galaxies and stumbling upon a series of emotes from a human who was frantically fiddling with several devices, babbling to himself the whole while. I had to stop and watch, and then felt compelled to interact with him. He was interesting and – most importantly – he was interacting with the world.

When you go into a city, you can’t just start roleplaying and expect someone will join you. People need something they can be involved with; something they can react to and have an opinion about. Start up a conversation in Dalaran about the tremors. I bet you’ll get a few bites.

When you do get someone to RP with you, keep it casual. Don’t force your character on them. If you were sitting in a bar, you wouldn’t suddenly divulge your entire history to a stranger. Unless you were really drunk, I guess. Then they’d have to be really drunk to listen. And then… well. You know the rest. You wake up the next day with nothing but your socks and an empty can of Reddi-Wip by your side.

The point is, it’s often the mundane that helps us define a character in the initial stages. If someone is discussing something so simple as their favorite foods, your character might list a few that they hate. Then you have to consider why they hate them, and that tells you something about who they were and who they are.

Eventually as you continue roleplaying this character, it will become more clear just how they fit into their role and what decisions led them down their path. Writers often say characters develop themselves, and I believe this is true. If you let them exist in the world, you’ll find they will react in their own way, and this in turn will tell you more about who they were, who they are, and who they want to be.

This entry was posted on Sunday, February 21, 2010 at Sunday, February 21, 2010 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


It's always amusing to me when people say they aren't roleplayers, but then have definite ideas about what their character would do, what their personality is like, or have strong opinions about lore.

Good post: I think people need to realize that you don't need to write the Wheel of Time and do everything in character to be considered a roleplayer.

And yeah, it definitely adds a lot more depth to MMOs.

June 12, 2010 at 8:41 PM

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