How much backstory is too much backstory for a TTRPG character? To be frank, I am not sure if there is a clear line to draw, but let me spell out my opinions on getting player backstory as a DM, and how I create it as a player. Usually, I do not write out my whole backstory all in one place before the game starts, and usually, it’s not really developed for a while into the game. Of course, I find it good practice to provide your DM/GM with an outline, keeping hypothetical blanks where names, places, and other proper nouns should go. After talking to the DM/GM and getting an idea about the setting, I’ll start from the family unit of my character and work my way out. What is my character’s age and look? Who are their parents, siblings, other family members? Maybe even their found or adoptive family. Where did they grow up, and what was their childhood like? Those are some easy starting questions to get a rough outline to work from.
After that, I’ll talk to the DM about my place in their setting. How do the people of the world feel about certain types of magic? Am I allowed to carry my big f**k off sword into a tavern? Are there certain organizations or symbols associated with my class or race? With that information, I can also decide if I want to ask more questions about one of those organizations particularly, and if it strikes my fancy, I can talk to the DM about being a part of an organization to be incorporated later. The last step I usually take is to create a rough outline of my character’s motivations. These will evolve throughout the course of the game, especially if they are completed. If my wizard’s only motivation for adventuring is because I couldn’t get into the fancy wizard school, what happens if they suddenly get accepted? What is keeping my character with the party if I can fulfill my only motivation?
This is where I want to shift over to how I as a DM deal with a player character’s backstory. I will ask my players about their backstory with detailed questions that resemble the ones I ask myself as a player to get them to think and find ways to incorporate them into the lore of the story and/or setting. Of course, I find it good practice to pillage their backstories and character interests for plot hooks as the game goes forward (they make it too easy, sometimes). Who hasn’t had a party go to save/assist a distressed family member or two? But I have seen the issue where a player character will fulfill their single goal and be left floundering for a reason to stay at the table and sometimes “for the good of the party” is not motivating enough. At this point, there are some pretty easy things to do. The most simple one is to dangle a magic item or other in-game rewards that may entice them to stay and work on building their stats. In many cases, this alone will work until another major plot comes along to snag them for the ride to level 20. If rewards do not work or seem to only give a temporary fix to the concern then it’s time to dig deeper into their backstory and find something that ties into the overarching narrative to keep them invested. Maybe a minion or the BBEG themselves takes something or someone of importance to the player character(s) and the only way to win is to press on together. The possibilities here vary drastically based on your party and your characters.
Admittedly, you also want to refrain from having your character have minimal motivation to even join the party or be a part of the game in the first place. Character trust and relationships in-game take time to build, and of course, a stranger will not be the one to give your character their motivation to stay with a newly formed party. Create your own reasons to traverse a new world/land with strangers. It is not their responsibility to give you a reason to stay. That lies on your own shoulders, mind, and creativity. It is also NOT the sole responsibility of your DM/GM. It is true that in part, your DM/GM is tasked with maintaining the quality of your game, but there will be moments after a big discovery or battle that your character may feel confused about their next steps. Instead of asking “So what do we (or I) do now?” and giving blank stares around the table, give your DM/GM a chance to move the story along and trust that there is more to come that will be worth your character’s time and effort. If you find that your character may be running out of motivation work with your DM/GM and don’t put your party on the spot. That’s unfair to ask early on in-game and doesn’t make other players feel like you want to be there. (Which likely is very untrue!)
Finally, I will also say it is important to be flexible with your character backstory ESPECIALLY during the character creation phase of play and while you work out details with your DM. If you see your character as a rakish swashbuckler, firing duel pistols into combat, you’ll be upset if you bring that character to the take with a DM who may not allow gunpower. As with many things in TTRPGs, communication between players and DM/GM is super important.
I hope this is helpful as an insight into my method of backstory creation. So, please tell us all about your backstories.