I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down to James D’Amato‘s new book, The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide. I knew it would be funny—D’Amato’s work, like the One Shot Podcast, often is. I also knew, from the very long title (and its subheading, Prompts and Activities to Create the Most Interesting Story for Your Character), that it was here to help players design richer backstories for their characters.
But what is The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide (I’ll just call it The Ultimate Guide from now on), really, and who is it for?
At first glance The Ultimate Guide is a collection (and a huge collection, at that) of random tables, multiple choice activities, and writing prompts, all geared toward getting into the head and history of an RPG character. The book is full of whimsy—my favorite activity, “Ventur,” imagines a fantasy dating app and asks, “Whom would your character swipe right?”—and is immaculately produced. This is no slapdash job you might find on DriveThru, this is a professionally produced book, with marvelous, easy-to-follow layout, published by Simon & Schuster.
And I really love some of these exercises. I’m almost always running games these days, but when I do get a chance to play I often feel like my characters’ lives are so much more nuanced than what we see on screen; these are people that I’d like to get to know better. The Ultimate Guide promises to help you do just that, and creates an avenue for you to continue playing the game without your GM or the rest of the party, and it largely succeeds.
While this book is specifically not for groups, what really strikes me—and what I think the ad copy doesn’t do service to—is the way the book does make use of other party members . This is tricky to pull off; while The Ultimate Guide is marketed toward individuals fleshing out their own characters, you’re occasionally asked to write the names of your compatriots into certain activities, and even to impose your own imagination onto other player characters. In “My Associates,” you’re presented with small details you might note about your compatriots, and it encourages you to learn more about these details. This implies a consent among the other players that these details are true about their own characters. It increases communal involvement around the table (assuming everyone’s down), and makes the worldbuilding mutual, something I’m always advocating for.
My biggest disappointment with the book is that much of it is geared toward fantasy. This makes some sense, both commercially and because you can’t have specific examples without, well, being specific. But knowing the diversity of D’Amato’s work (I think it’s fair to say that One Shot has played hundreds of different systems at this point), including writing his own game systems, I expected the book to have wider applicability across settings and time periods. (Don’t get me wrong, The Ultimate Guide is neither explicitly for nor about fantasy settings, and many of its activities can be dropped into any setting, but I found that my favorites, like the goofy “Wed, Bed, or Behead” and “Ventur,” were decidedly earmarked as fantasy in their options.) Even the chapters of the book are laid out according to character levels, a tongue-in-cheek way of signaling adventurers of “Humble Beginnings,” as “Veteran Heroes,” or who’ve become “Myths and Legends.” This isn’t a damming feature, but does feel like it tonally closes off the book from a wider world of campaign-RPGs.
That being said, if playing inside the mind of your characters (that is, roleplaying) is something you enjoy, consider The Ultimate Guide as a service provider, one that provides you hundreds of system-neutral (if not always setting-neutral) exercises to explore any character’s backstory. (And it is, often, quite funny.)
You can find The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide on Amazon. The Kindle edition is $10.99, while paperback is $14.99 (list price; the paperback is actually a little cheaper than the ebook, at least at the time of writing).
I received a free PDF review copy from Simon & Schuster.
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