Character backgrounds that work at Empire (Character Creation Week)

As we’re two and a bit weeks from Empire it’s obviously the best time to think about your new character’s background and creating your character :slight_smile: .

Empire is a big game and the kind of backgrounds that work in an rpg (or a character in a book) don’t necessarily work as well there.

So what kind of character backstory does work? What kind of motivations have worked for you in getting your characters moving and doing stuff? What questions do you ask when making characters? And also how do you spot unfilled niches in a nation or the Empire as a whole for your new character to jump into?


What was written in my backstory only really became “relevant” to my character 4 years into the game.

Really its just fluff. If you want one sure but I don’t think its actually needed to have fun.

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So for my first even I went in with no back story/very little. As I’ve felt the character our a bit more I added to it. I used bullet points instead of continuous text as this let me see what I was putting down in certain turms and after the long winter break it gives me a quick way to get back on character as the bullet points are things like. He is Thane, He distrusts this group, his dad is dead because of this, he has X injury ETC. And it’s just a quick and simple way to give shape to him.


Righto! So did a character background 3 times Now. 4 times when the Mustard Marcher gets his character background.

A background for a character is something that lets you get a good feel for the role you’re to become, The personality. The goals. Where the character came from and how they lived. Background is also great for refreshing the mind when making kit for the character and such.

When making a character from scratch. You can start from many directions. The easiest is by the territory and lineage. These are but defining characteristics that can let character background flourish.

The second thing is that background can grow over time. Start with something simple. But as your character grows in the field, note prominent things down in the backstory too. Like a CV.

So, 50% “How I write when playing Empire” and 50% “How to write a background I can actually work with if you send it to one of my small games”

  • Backgrounds are useful when plot writers want to see who might be interested in a thing.
  • Approximate age is surprisingly useful, as are “I was here in battle X/When X happened.”
  • Group backgrounds are especially relevant as that says “a number of people are after this sort of game”.
  • Use bullet points, as they’re easy to skim read for events
  • Don’t be afraid to leave stuff undefined. You can email in to (EDIT: SORRY WRONG EMAIL) later if you want to add something relevant.
  • It’s not a story, it’s a set of crib notes. This happened and it means X.
    • “I lost all my money in the sack of Sarvos and this means I have a Reckoning against the Grendel”
    • “We only just survived the expanding Vallorn in Brocielande, and this means we’re coming to Anvil in order to ensure THAT SHIT STOPS RIGHT NOW OKAY”
    • I lost a game of poker to a Herald of Callidus years ago and I’m very bothered I might still owe them money"
  • Failure is more interesting than success. Nobody cares that your PC stabbed up a drake in their backstory. That’s over. They’ll care if a Drake chewed you up and that’s put you on a Vigilant quest to make the buggers extinct.That’s happening right now in uptime.

Brother Martin’s backstory started out as:

  • Is a librarian.
  • Showed up at Pickham Monastery about 8 years ago
  • Doesn’t talk much about his past.
  • ???

Over the past 3 years, I’ve occasionally asked someone who’s making a new PC “Hey, do you want to have known Martin and have some sort of story?”. Meaning I’ve retroactively defined things that link him to other characters for good or ill.


Some things that I find useful to think about for rounding out my characters:

  • Where do I live? Where is my home?

Where are the people you care for, and/or who care for you? Where is your bed, where are your change(s) of clothes, your keepsakes and treasures? Note that ‘in my knapsack’ works just as well here as ‘a nice chapterhouse in Casinea’, because the aim is to give yourself a feel for your character’s life and mindset, rather than provide a postal address!

  • What do I do with my time?

Not at Anvil, but in the 353 (minus abstraction level travel time) other days of the year. I’ve played a Freeborn hakima, who pottered about gently meddling and generally serving their archetypal purpose as magical social worker. I’ve been a Dawnish noble, who was primarily a parent but also an artisan. I’ve been a Navarr cheerfully walking the Trods, carrying goods and news and lending a hand wherever seemed useful. I’ve been part of a League family running an expensive and upmarket inn/retreat outside Tassato. I’m currently playing a yeofolk farm manager.

  • Why am I, here and now, at Anvil?

To draw attention to a great injustice against my nation/territory/lineage! To pursue my Ambition of becoming the first Archmage to be murdered during Conclave. To sell magical goods. To sell cake. To wander around gawping. To swindle people out of their money. Because someone needs to mind the camp. Because all my friends/chaptermates/House/Striding are here and I want to help them. Because all my friends/chaptermates/House/Striding are here and insisted I come, so now I’m here I might as well investigate that rumour I heard/research that legend I always wondered about/find a coven to join so I can send fan letters to Eleonaris/Sadogua/Wendigo.
All perfectly viable ideas, some of which will give you more direction and purpose than others.


I’ve only really written one background for Empire, and it seems to have worked reasonably well so far. It was:

  • Short, not long
  • Declarative, not narrative
  • Discoverable, not secret
  • Relevant, not historic
  • From-the-setting, not despite-the-setting
  • Boring, not exciting (controversial, I know, but in general my policy is that a background should increase your uptime fun; not be fun in itself)

It basically read “Farm-buff-o’matic; Mitwold supremacist; make Landskeepers great again”.


Bullet points (Which also helps with writing a background).

*Keep it to the point, not only does it mean the plot team reading it need less time, but it keeps you focused.

*Keep on brief, don’t be the exception to the rule. If the Brief says all marchers were novelty hats, don’t be that person who doesn’t wear the hat and mistake that for cool.

*Use information on the wiki to inform your character background, it grounds you in the world and the plot team search backgrounds using keywords form the wiki >.> tell no one. (also they can’t search keywords that are mispelt).

*Remember if you put in your past you broke the law, there is a chance this will come out.

*If you put it in your background, be ready to play it. If you say you were one of the greatest swords people in the north, you best be able to back that up.

*For the love of virtue do not be the dead empresses lover/assassin/secret child etc. There’s about 500 secret children at this point…

*Don’t be too specific in your background, leave some wiggle room to be able to add cool bits. There is nothing worse than buyers remorse. It can be a bit counter intuitive, but generating a background live as a reaction to the world is cool. It also means that you don’t write yourself out of cool things you might enjoy.

*Don’t forget you can always poke the new player team for advice


The important thing to remember with backgrounds is the way they are likely to get you plot is by some sort of keyword search - not every member of plot team will read them all in detail just in case one is relevant. So if you want attention from eternals, stick the name of eternals you’re interested in rather than describing it in words unlikely to show up in a database search.

Another important tip I’ve heard is that if you have friends and family you might want to turn up and ruin your day (or dead ones to literally come back to haunt you), put in their names. I have heard of PD actually use this as a deciding factor in whose background NPCs showed up in a plotline. I believe PD are unlikely to contact a player to ask for absent names, they will just go with someone else who already put them in.


So here’s my 5 rings :slight_smile:

  • Bullet points good
  • Don’t write an essay, a few paragraphs at most.
  • When you use place, territory, exemplar etc etc names double check the spelling with what’s on the wiki as if the plot team are searching for people connected to x or y they won’t find it if it’s spelt wrong :slight_smile:. Don’t necessarily expect plot attention from your background but they might just link you into something that’s already going on.
  • Use your background to give you some reasons to do stuff in game. My last character wanted to prove his last chapter wrong and become a leading expert + mover and shaker in the Empire. Don’t write yourself as a veteran, give yourself room to grow, starting as someone with promise is better than someone who’s already been there and done that. And give yourself some goals that you can do in uptime at the game :slight_smile:.
  • You’ll get more game by leaning into the brief for your nation than trying to be unusual. You’ll be able to join in with your nation, make more roleplaying connections and play with any plot that’s flung in your direction much easier than if you’re an outsider. In this case don’t try to be a protagonist from a fantasy book or even a PC from an RPG, it’s a much more collaborative thing than that.
  • Don’t expect the plot team to pick up your plot from your background, it’s much better to have a read through the last few Winds of Fortune and pick something to link to. Like you could be an Urizeni driven out of their home by the Druj and you’ve come to Anvil to do something about that. You could be a priest recently returned from helping to lay the unquiet dead to rest in the Mournwold. Are you one of the people from the Isle of Zemress in the Brass Coast? There’s lots of hooks that you could use in every set of Winds.
  • Also have a look for gaps in your nation, even Wintermark has some parts of it’s background not as explored as others. Check the Archetypes page and check if your nation has a Prominent Groups page (e.g. Highguard) as that will give you a hint of territories that aren’t as occupied as others. And ask around the nation FB groups if people have suggestions of stuff that hasn’t been covered as much. Or just read around the wiki pages for you nation as let stuff inspire you.

There’s some excellent advice here.

I don’t read every background but Liam does and then any problem ones are flagged to me to sort out.

My advice would be

Use bullet points. There is a character limit and this saves you space.

Use the background as a vehicle to help you with your character creation. Where do you come from? What do you care about?

Don’t expect plot from it. It may happen, all the backgrounds are available to the plot writers for inspiration but there’s a lot of people out there. You’re background may also be used and you never know. I know background character’s have been used as reference names in other plot when we want a named person to have crafted and item or stuff like that. All background help make the Empire world more real and vibrant.

Be the hero in uptime. Being a hero in your back ground is fine but doing it in the field is better.

You don’t need to make yourself special in your background, we have umpteen escaped slaves, ex foreign nationals and the like. I am confident that being a born imperial citizen makes you more unique!

Check your emails! Make sure PDs contact email for you is relevant. We use this to query points and I think we probably get one reply for every ten queries we send. Your background will not be authorised on the system if there are outstanding queries on it.

Also, feel free to ask for help any time. come to Liam and I and we will sort your query out. It may take us a while as we both have real life jobs to balance too!


I find a character background is most useful to give you things that you are interested in, so it should contain things that are likely to come up in play.

Picking some elements off the wiki (other nations, significant things within your nation, enemies of the Empire, foreign nations, realms of magic, types of creature) to have interacted with in your past means you have something to say when people are talking about things, even if it’s just ‘I hate the X, they killed my dog / sister / favourite chicken’.

As people have said earlier, failure in your backstory is much more interesting than success - having been roundly defeated by / humiliated by something your backstory gives you much more of a motivation to go and do something in uptime than having won however many battles. I generally like to make my character a total mess / nobody in their backstory so that I can more easily celebrate small victories in game.

You don’t have to write all of this in your ‘official’ background - keep that brief and to things that you might want to establish as facts in the game world so that they make sense if they come up in play (and the background checkers can catch you if you’re going off the rails somehow).