Flesh out your hero with an anecdote or two

Many Dungeons & Dragons players define idiosyncracies for their heroes – quirks that usually have no mechanical impact on the game, but  make characters unique and memorable. But it is the rare player who takes that initiative a step further and actually invents a story, or anecdote, describing how those personal mannerisms came to be. Doing so can lead to a better role-playing experience for everyone around the table, since these character quirks help to enmesh player characters (PCs) with the game setting.

The utility of this practice is directly related to the emphasis on role-playing in a given game. In combat-heavy D&D campaigns with little role-playing, telling everyone that your PC rogue is afraid of the dark or your warlord hates walking east may earn you an annoyed stares, especially if the dungeon master (DM) decides that your self-inflicted quirk has an impact on your PC’s combat ability. In games that are role-playing intensive, though, the anecdotes behind the quirks can add anything from drama to levity to a D&D session.Developing these quirks and the anecdotes that gave rise to them is most easily accomplished by referencing a character background, although it is not strictly necessary to do so. A written background will suggest events or mannerisms that could lead to logical behaviors or feelings; in such cases, players can work from their PCs’ backgrounds to decide what those should be. In the absence of a prepared background, players can reverse the process, deciding on some interesting traits or mannerisms, then creating background notes to explain them.

Quirks and idiosyncracies can take a variety of forms, including:

Appearance. Consider a hero who has a visible scar(s) from lashing, fire or monster attack; adding that physical detail to a hero’s appearance also adds an opportunity to explain it. Vocations held by characters before they became heroes can create quirks, also – a hero who spent much of his youth at sea will probably have a sailor’s rolling gait well into old age.

Emotion. Typically, the strongest feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, embarrassment, humor,  joy, nostalgia or security are rooted in pivotal events in heroes’ lives. Encountering circumstances that evoke memories of those events can bring those feelings back to heroes’ “emotional surface,” where other heroes in the party are likely to notice.

The full array of standard fantasy background tropes fall into this grouping, such as the tragic loss of parents, abusive situations, slavery, home towns being burned by evil raiders and so forth; these events will produce the strongest emotional reactions, which are easiest to portray and easiest for other players to detect. But emotional quirks can be far less dramatic and still be effective. Imagine a sarcastic, wise-cracking heroine who is oddly deferential and kind to every blacksmith she meets. It may take several such meetings before the other heroes notice the pattern and ask why, to which the heroine can answer that her father was a blacksmith, and she extends her respect for her father to them.

Speech. Since most game information is shared through speech between the players and DM, adding unique phrases to a character’s speech can leave other players asking the heroes for an in-game explanation, especially if the phrases don’t really match the hero’s image. As example, consider a heroine who curses by saying, “bilge water!” since one of her worst experiences was pumping filthy water from a ship’s bilge during her youth in slavery. Or imagine a large, strong, but dull-witted fighter who always says, “with great certainty” instead of “yes.” Inquisitive heroes may learn that the fighter once served under a sergeant who often used that phrase.

Having a brief list of idiosyncracies and the anecdotes that support them at the start of a campaign gives players another tool for engaging with the game’s setting. It is important to note, though, that such lists aren’t just tools for players. A DM can use similar quirk lists for important non-player characters (NPCs) as a device for deepening the relationship that the heroes have with the NPCs, and deepening the connection that the players have with the game setting.


5 comments on “Flesh out your hero with an anecdote or two

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  2. ClefJ says:

    An example, perhaps: A cat/racoon looking teenager has a great phobia of medical treatment and is slightly prejudiced against women. It doesn’t affect his efforts in combat much, however when considering NPC interaction, it would be difficult for him to go anywhere near a convalescence ward or anything equivalent to a cleric or white mage, and favors conversation with male characters more than female.

    The reason or, anecdote for this is that he was not always so odd looking; He used to be a normal human, yet was experimented on by a deranged, female scientist and transmuted into who he is now. The medical practices are what gives him his phobia and demeanor towards most women, brought about in his young age.

    Is this an appropriate example?

  3. Lucas says:

    The character I’m playing now with my group has the longest backstory I’ve ever personaly encountered. Mostly because I’ve gotten carried away and have enjoyed writting it, but also because I was allowed to reroll my character (after the first one turned coat and left the group) at lvl 10, leaving me 10 levels worth of backstory to make up for. Doing so has allowed me to easily draw from the characters history to determine his reaction to different social and combat encounters that the group runs into. As such I’ve been getting alot of props from the group for great spur of the moment in-character decisions and also alot of nice RP experience points from my DM 🙂 I’d recommend anyone who wants to make an interesting character and not just a player character, go ahead and bang out a little backstory. And don’t just make it up, write it out. That way you can go back and look over it, or expand on it whenever you like.

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