Random backgrounds or backstories help fast character generation and make it easier to start a new campaign. This post includes some random character backgrounds for fantasy roleplaying games.
Using the Character Background Tables
Conan, what is best in life?
– Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Each player rolls two dice, each on one of the tables below, and the GM rolls secrets on the Plot Twist table at the bottom.
Unique names for each result speeds up character generation, helps to reference the result later and makes the results more straightforward to use as adventure hooks.
Then challenge the player to come up with what the result actually means in the setting your group has picked for the campaign. Doing this as a group makes it easier to look for similarities and parallel stories.
For example, if two characters have past troubles with criminals, this should be the same individual or organization, and suddenly you have one of the villains for the new campaign.
Generating the backgrounds gives you a hook for the first session and perhaps a the basic plot of your campaign’s entire first act.
Use this table to establish an immediate goal for the character.
- Local Trouble: Local criminals and law enforcement view you with suspicion.
- Pay Criminal Debt: You owe a substantial amount of money to criminals. The criminals have not threatened you, and they do not have to.
- Local Thug: You have a local enemy you need to deal with if you are going to stay in the area.
- Lost Chapel: Your church sent you to find a lost chapel in the area, and a local sage has more information.
- Lost Catacomb: Your family had a crypt in the area. You do not know its exact whereabouts or its current state.
- Mage Ruin: You know there is a mage ruin in the area.
- Elven Ruin: The elves once had a settlement in the area.
- Lost Caves: You know there is a system of caves in the area.
- Lost Deed: Your family is owed land in the area, but a local faction is in possession of the deed, and they are unwilling to return it to your family.
- Monster Hunt: A faction offered you a reward if you slay a monster dwelling in the area.
Use this table to establish a long-term goal for the character.
- Dead Parents: Your parents were killed when you were young, and the assumed killer was last seen in the area.
- Missing Sibling: One of your siblings was lost under dark circumstances.
- Ruined Stronghold: Your family once owned a stronghold, a mighty fortress of the realm, that was destroyed and abandoned. Legally your family still own it.
- Lost Estate: Your family was indebted and lost your ancestral home.
- Cloak and Daggers: A faction has asked you to be their informant. You have not promised anything, and do not know what this means, but they expect an answer soon.
- Criminal Parent: One of your parents is a criminal, and you fled facing prosecution.
- Lost Ship: You or your family owned a ship that was stolen and is now used by pirates and slavers.
- Lost Weapon: Your family owned an ancestral weapon, which was lost or stolen and now is rumored to be in the area.
- False Accusations: One of your parents was once accused of a horrible crime. The authorities never proved the crime, but the false accusations derailed the lives of the entire family. You sometimes think of the life you could have had.
- Radical Ideas: Radical political or religious ideas has split your family, and some family members have picked up some dangerous beliefs.
Secrets of the Past
Use this tabel to dig into the dark past of the character.
- Fallen House: Your family was under attack by unknown perpetrators, leaving several dead. You do not know why, it left you scarred, and you suspect is not over yet.
- Haunting Spirits: Spirits seem to follow you and watch you. You do not know why, but clearly, they want to tell you something or have you do something.
- Monster Patron: Your family has a monstrous patron, a dark figuring hiding in your shadow. You either serve or seek to escape this creature, and your family’s future depends on your actions.
- Treasonous Mentor: Authorities accused your mentor of treason, which includes you by association. You never figured out of the accusations were right, but you believe they have changed your life for the worse.
- Sworn Enemy: You or your family have made a powerful enemy, and the enmity is likely to become lethal if it runs it current course.
- Death Warrant: A faction wants you dead, and you are on the run.
- Guiding Visions: Visions and foresight guide you with a sense of purpose, and perhaps you hear voices.
- Artifact Custodian: Your or your family hide an ancient artifact of great power, and have been doing so for generations. You have no idea what the artifact does, but you are sure it will become dangerous if activated or others learn about its whereabouts.
- Artifact Hunt: Your family was the guardians of an important artifact, but you lost it and may have doomed you all. Someone from your family’s past charged you with finding or assembling the artifact.
- Sacred Bloodline: You are a descendant of an important prophet or demigod, and some consider your blood holy. This may be a well-kept secret, has caused problems in the past, and are likely to do so again in the future.
Use this table to tweak the plot.
- All Lies: Everything the character holds true is lies, the character is being set up, and enemies are closer than expected.
- Mixed Identities: The names are wrong, through deception or misunderstanding.
- Cult Interest: An enemy cult investigate the character, attempting to unravel secrets.
- Unknown Enemy: An unknown enemy have an interest in the character.
- Deadly Rival: The character has a rival, someone else looking for the same goal.
- Friendly Faction: There is a faction with common cause as the character, and could be very helpful if found and contacted.
Why Use Random Character Backgrounds?
Random characters backgrounds are great because it’s fast, simple and forces you to change old ways of thinking.
Elaborate prewritten character backgrounds are fun, but there are good arguments for keeping things simple because roleplaying game campaigns are usually not about just one character, they are about several.
A roleplaying game has many moving parts, making anything too elaborate quickly forgotten, or not fitting everything else going on, so keeping backgrounds adaptable and straightforward will increase their chances of actually having an impact.
Random character backgrounds are great tools for the Game Master as they write a significant part of the campaign if you let it. The idea for the tables above is to lead straight into the current adventure, and this may help you kickstart your campaign.
I tested a version of the tables above in a previous campaign, and we spent the most part of the first act of the story (roughly 20 sessions) just resolving character backgrounds, and still had a few loose ends before moving on to the next act.
This had a couple of advantages. The characters became rooted in the setting and kept the action personal. The campaign was no longer my story, it is about the characters.
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Need more random options for your game?
Character backgrounds have been a part of roleplaying at least since Marc Miller’s Traveller (1977). In Traveller you established your career up to the beginning of the campaign, which included some random elements.
The Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign (2013) devotes 30-something pages to character and class backgrounds, leading to story traits and feats.
The Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook (2014) has some backgrounds to tweak the character with a small character feature and a couple of tidbits about the character. Some of this is available for free on D&D Beyond.
The Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (2017) expands this with more events and background details.
On a final note, have a look at Geek and Sundry’s ideas on how to write killer RPG character backstories.