Why do we do the things we do? What guides us to believe the things we believe?
Each of us is shaped by our own unique blend of experiences, which creates a lens of perspective, through which we observe and interact with the world around us.
For example: whenever I got sick as a child, my mother would give me chicken broth and read “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” to me while I rested. Now, whenever I am sick, I always feel better after curling up with a book and some chicken soup. It doesn’t matter how sick I am…merely the act of returning to something that became synonymous with a sense of love and comfort seems to do the trick! That childhood experience continues to influence my perspectives to this day.
Simple, right? I’m sure that you could list at least a dozen examples of your own perspectives that were shaped by past experiences. All it takes is a little self-reflection and you can discover quite a bit about your own point of view!
In Session Two of our D&D Storytelling Workshops, we shared memories of past events and talked about how those experiences affect us today. We also discussed the idea that characters in a D&D game are no different. Creating believable characters– whether it’s a fearless, half-orc ranger or a humble, halfling farmer– requires an exploration of perspective. Granted, this can be quite a bit more difficult, as now you aren’t exploring your own memories but crafting those for an imagined character, but determining perspectives for your Player Character (PC), Non-Player Character (NPC), and even your Villian is essential for developing an immersive D&D world.
Creating a backstory for your PC hero isn’t a new concept, by any means! However, how do you think those early years affect your PC now, as they travel throughout the realm? Did they lose their childhood home to a goblin attack? Were they an arcane prodigy, sent off to an academy shrouded in mystery? Too often, I see players create a tragic or impactful backstory only for them to ignore the psychological effects of those experiences to their PC.
A character who lost their home may have a very different perspective compared to a character who grew up with a solid sense of belonging. Perhaps they are envious, or even resentful of those with secure homes. Or perhaps they adapted to a more nomadic life, and now cherish the sense of community created by their traveling companions versus having a physical location to return to at the end of each adventure? On the other end of the scale, maybe the search for a place to call home is now a significant driving force in the actions of this character. Once they find a physical home, they may never want to leave…they may even protect it with their lives.
As you can see, there could be a multitude of different perspectives stemming from a single event in your PC’s past. A backstory is more than just ideas jotted down in a notebook…it feeds your PC’s actions and reactions to the world for an entire campaign. Unless, of course, the DM decides to throw something new at you and your PC undergoes some radical development in a new direction…Perspectives can change too if the event is significant enough 🙂
As a DM, NPCs are of your most powerful tools. They are quest-givers, keepers of clues and information, adventuring companions, and all-around conduits to the world you have created, with its myriad of cultures, histories, and social frameworks.
In fact, an NPC can be so utilitarian, that DMs often fall into the trap of making them, well…boring. An NPC can be a powerful tool, yes, but be wary of making them feel like a tool for players. Just like PCs, NPCs have their own perspectives. You don’t necessarily need to create a full backstory for your NPCs, but if you include a few notes on their history, or what is important to them, then you immediately elevate them from the status of a “tool”, to a dynamic part of your story.
In the workshop, we discussed two potential NPCs: Phil the Farmer and Pug the Barbarian (who, as it happens, is a talking pug). Here’s what we determined:
When a monster (the kids were fond of giant scorpions that day) attacked the village, Phil the Farmer was one of the first villagers to respond. Unfortunately, he met a rather untimely end…
So why, if there is a party of assumedly well-equipped adventurers in town, would Phil spring to action? Perhaps he always dreamt of becoming a daring adventurer himself, ever since he was a child. He couldn’t pursue that dream because he had too many responsibilities at his family’s farm, but when his home is attacked…well that changes things. He is caught up in a heady mix of heroism, adrenaline, and fear. What else would he do, in that situation, except to attack the beast?
In that scenario, we took an NPC action and imagined why they did what they did. Every action has some sort of motivation behind it.
Now for the next example: Pug the Barbarian.
We didn’t get around to determining why Pug became a barbarian, or what caused him to develop the ability to speak Common (perhaps he was owned by a curious mage?), but we did explore a critical piece of Pug’s perspective: how he feels about cages. As you might imagine, a dog is happier outside of a cage. Sure, they might be ok for sleeping, but during the day who wouldn’t rather be running outside, in the sunshine, following the intricate scent trails throughout the realm? The kids decided that Pug doesn’t simply dislike cages. He hates them. Maybe he had a bad experience as a pup…the cause is still a mystery. All we know is that the mere sight of a cage, either from the inside or the sight of someone else in a cage, spurs Pug into a rage the likes of which no animal control officer can oppose.
In this situation, we took an alternate approach to Phil the Farmer, where we explored the reasons behind a perspective. With Pug the Barbarian, we explored the effects caused by a perspective. Both points of view are important things to consider for your NPCs, particularly the ones your party will be interacting with most frequently!
Last, but certainly not least, the villain! Some of my favorite tales are those that show the “bad guy’s” side of the story. By the end, you find yourself questioning if they were really all that bad at all!
Every story has some sort of villain, whether it’s a person, organization, or even a more ambiguous force or concept. When it comes to people and organizations, think about the motivations behind the villains’ actions. Think about…what is today’s magic word? Perspective!
Rarely does the villain do something purely for the sake of doing something bad– there’s usually something to be gained from the evil-doing, that may not always be evil! Sure, evil wizards dabbling in necromancy are pretty nefarious…but even those characters might not be so black and white! Why did they turn to necromancy, to begin with? That line of work isn’t exactly…safe? Healthy? What inspired them to follow that path?
In the workshop, we returned once again to Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”– specifically, Smaug. It is easy to name the ancient red dragon as the villain of the piece (chromatic dragons always have a bad reputation), but even a dragon has reasons for hoarding all that gold. While it’s not explored in the book, we wondered, together, what caused Smaug’s hatred of the dwarves all those years ago? Did they do something to Smaug or one of his clan in the past? Was it really just the desire for treasure that caused him to drive them out of the mountain?
Regardless of the villain’s role, giving them motivations and perspectives makes for a much more dynamic story than a simple “Oh that guy? Yeah, he’s bad. Why? Because he does bad things, of course!”
So…at the risk of being redundant: When creating characters for your story, always remember that perspectives matter. Each of those characters– good, evil, or otherwise– would have had experiences that affect the way they see the world, and how they interact with it. Not all of your characters need to have pages and pages of backstory developed…but spending some time with the points mentioned above will transform your characters from mere tools and set pieces to dynamic elements of your story that will lead to more memorable moments for your players!