Text Based RPGs: Your Character Background in Five Steps

text game character

By Zhade Barnet

Text-based RPGs are supposed to feel 'real', and the greatest part of this immersion is being surrounded by believable characters. Say last week at work, somebody walked past and flicked my ear. Next I know, I'm standing before him with balled fists. Did I overreact? Am I crazy? Well, that depends on why it got me so mad. If it's because 'I'm violent', then looming unemployment is the least of my worries. If it's because I spent three years in a foreign prison, scrabbling for cockroaches at dinner time whilst guards flicked my ears every hour on the hour, then you'd cut me some slack.

Your character in a text-based RPG is no different. She isn't a collection of numbers that allows you to kill things with keystrokes for no reason; she's a living, growing person whose past influences her in ways she may not always understand. This article will show you the 'top-down method' for writing effective and fulfilling character backgrounds in text adventure games.

1) Read the Lore

Yes. I'll state this in every article I write about text adventure games. Get used to it. Sure, if you're a fan of your chosen genre, you could write your background without even looking at the lore - but it'll be uninspiring, bland. And you know what? It's lazy. If you want to make something generic, then why are you playing an online text game? Go play an RTS. Read the lore - not obsessively, but enough to really weave your character into it. Make your character an intrinsic part of the online text game world by choosing the places, factions and events that interest you, and list them down for inclusion into your background.

2) Choose Goals

This is where the 'top-down method' leaves the beaten path. Counter-intuitively, you'll now choose and prioritize the three goals that are most important to you in your online text game playing experience. Once you've done that, you'll give them to your character. Say I want my character to be the most successful shopkeeper in his online text game world, I want him to be a famous bard, and I want him to destroy the Assassin's Guild in these text games. So now that's what he wants, and every action he takes should be moving him towards this.

3) Ask 'Why?' 

Take each goal in turn and ask "Why?" five times. My character wants to be the most successful shopkeeper in the online text game world. Why? Because he believes that it's the most reliable way to get rich. Why? Because his father was a successful shopkeeper. Why? Because his family is a long-standing commercial empire. Why? Because they are originally from the Eastern Continent, and when they arrived here three centuries ago their exotic goods were in high demand. Why? Because their feud with another family back home got so heated that there would soon be bloodshed.

Wow! We learned lots about my character through that exercise. Already, we can see his background coming to life. And that was only with one of his three goals! If you find yourself hitting a dead-end in text online games, just persevere. Hell, if you fall short of the magic five, nobody's gonna shoot you, but if you can ask 'Why?' five times for each of your goals you're well on your way to a spectacular character background.

4) Any Further Questions?

Your online text game character is unfolding before your eyes, and you have the broad strokes of his past. It's time to follow those niggling questions that will branch the story out. Does my character harbour a desire to return to the Eastern Continent one day? Does he thank the rival family for making his ancestors flee? Does he really want to be a shopkeeper, or does he only think he does because it's what his family has always done? Has he ever killed an animal, or indeed a person, before?

5) Bring It Together

You've now accumulated a lot of information about your character, but it may be looking a little disjointed. This is where you tidy it all up and join the dots. If you haven't already tied in all the elements from the lore that took your fancy, then either find out where you want them to go at this point, or put them away for now. There's no reason why you can't incorporate the element into your character's future rather than his past. Despite what anybody says, your finished background needn't be in flowing prose. Bullet points are fine. Flow diagrams, a poem, stickman sketches, whatever you like; just get the order of events and the connections between people and places very firmly in mind.

You've done it! You've gotten a feel for the online text game world you'll be playing in, chosen the goals your character will begin with and linked them firmly to her background. You've followed the trails that interest you and fleshed them out, and probably noted a few more that you will answer in future as you get to know your character better through playing the online text game. Finally, you've tied it all together in a framework which is meaningful to you. Now pat yourself on the back, limber up those fingers, throw yourself into your character and go conquer the world in one of your favorite text RPGs.

If you are interesed in creating an indepth character as outlined in this article then try out the Iron Realms RPG text games.

Zhade Barnet is a player and text game enthusiast from www.IronRealms.com



Avoid being a sparklepyre, no matter your background, for the love of god. No matter what you're playing (even Aetolia) you'll be SHUNNED AS A NONBELIEVER.



This was pretty helpful. I tend to get stuck on backgrounds.

I also got stuck with character backrounds

Yeah, it definitely can be slow putting together a background or at least a more complete one rather than pieces and parts. But like step 5, as you form more parts and pieces just link it together and there you go.

The way it has -always- worked for me is my first character is the standard boring background character that doesn't have much of a background and after learning the game, it's history, etc you learn what you like and what you can do and I write a background based on that.

If elves don't exist in your game, don't characterize yourself as an elf.


I think tsok'aa are the Achaean answer to elves, and I am digging the fairly recent addition of the discovery of tsol'dasi to Achaea. I'm hoping to see the same sort of development occur with tsol'teth, and both of them become playable races, which would be so much fun.

Great article, I especially like the third point to ask 'Why?' five times.. I'll have to start trying to do that myself and see how it works out.

it works rather well.

it took me five or more characters created the hard way to get it right. If I only had read this article before...


It's better to err on the side of hiding your background than wearing it on your sleeve... or in your description. Epic backstories are unbelievable at best.

Agreed. I wish ingame backgrounds could be edited, too. Probably will never use it because it can't be.


I REALLY like the idea of asking 'why' five times on something. It takes some effort, but it's easy to see how that can provide ideas to flesh out and strengthen a character.


Overall, a well written article. I'm not sure how things are in other games, but there are many of us (myself included to an extent) who could benefit from this, in Midkemia. Kudos.

I've a terrible habit of asking 'why' once, and spending more on the when, where, and how to fit the details into the lore I know... and making somewhat vague guesses at best if it's my first character in a given place. MUDs that demand a pre-defined background before you can see, in game, a general sense of *how* things mesh between pre-written background on the world vs the player base, even if only on the surface, lend themselves *far* too much towards either the very unrealistic or the very cookie cutter histories... and is one of the three* things that's turned me away from every non-IRE mud I've tried over the years.


Rather than developing a character well before I roll them, I define them as I go, going from some generic idea to define them, and building their tone, reactions, and immediate motivations on that. Once I've a general sense of the character, often built from the character's first few interactions with others... I start into asking 'why,' but the systematic, deliberate, "Ask 'why' 5 times," is something I really do need to adopt myself.


* 2: unnatrual feeling command sets (and this complaint from a Linux+TinyFugue user),

3: lack of sensible IC tone


good points on creating a better background, will try it out!

This is a really great article, especially for people that might be just starting out in order to help them shape and define their characters.

It is!


I hated coming up with backgrounds simply because I wasn't sure if I was supposed to talk about life before being reborn and where it was or what happened to cause me to be reborn and yadda yadda yadda. It was all a pain to me.

It's easier to me to think of an background story in MKO than it would be in any other game as there is so much knowledge you gain simply by reading the books. And I love them!

Tsol'aa have the richest history of the achaean races.

how many other races have split off into like 10 sub-races

I agree with Daay above. There is so much to be gathered just by reading the Midkemia books. Not to mention, they are amazing books!

Never thought I'd see a guide for writing backgrounds. This is a good one!

Backgrounds take a good deal of thought, and be aware that sometimes your background can cause people to react to you differently.

to creating a background is writing the first paragraph. I'm still guilty of not writing a background for my character yet. It's not hard and people don't expect or pressure you to put down a 6 page-monster of a background story for your character. But it's true, backgrounds do cause people to react to you differently, and it means that one should take careful considerations on what is written for others to view.

The one word of warning I'd add is be careful with inventing parents, in case you want to join a family in-game later on! If your character's parents are an important part of his or her background, keep the details as vague as you can muster - unless you are fine with potentially there being no-one of that description willing to roleplay your parents! 

was what my character had been upto between the choosing and starting life in the city. I mean technically your apprenticeship would have kept you in your city as an apprentice and you would already be well known, yet no one knows you when you start.

The Kingdom has many cities to it, and even though it's not in the game you CAN be from the eastern half of the Kingdom, or from Roldem, or Kesh. I haven't seen a Quegan character yet that I know of, that might be fun.


Zylo himself is from LaMut. He moved to Krondor because he had some strange belief that things would be better off for him there. Turns out he was right. But, that explains why nobody knew him when he started out! Only thing it DOESN'T explain is why I randomly appeared in the middle of the city, instead of at northgate or some such where I'd normally come in.

I play my character without a background, although I don't do much real RP either.  I kind of just let things come as they do, and it has worked out so far!

Preparing a background is generally something you may want to hold off on doing until you have a real grasp of lore.  Often the history on the website is incomplete and you are better off getting in game and getting a full handle on the lore.

Thank Estarra that the portal of fate is supposed to give you varying amounts of amnesia. My first few characters relied on it quite heavily before I learned the lore; and I'd say my grasp on it is still not very good.


Good article. I had given my character some basic goals, but the asking why five times thing will certainly flesh him out a bit more.

I think that's actually half the point of the Portal of Fate. We, as the experienced characters, are supposed to fall back on it when a new player steps through who doesn't know the lore, or the geography, or even the basics of MUDs as well as we do.


"Don't worry about it, little one. The Portal sometimes leaves us confused and scared, but that's okay, you'll understand it better once you've gotten a hold on the basics."

In Achaea at least, I'm a lot more interested in someone's activities after the Trial than before. Remember that backgrounds are primarily a tool to set the stage for moving forward, and use them as such. They aren't even particularly necessary for epic stories later on; a mundane teenager who managed to make it through the Trial can amount to great things in the future.

I usually just make mine up as I go.. whatever comes to mind as the roleplaying flows. I find my 'in the moment' sort of winging answers to questions and whatnot, really helps me flesh a character out a bit more, than trying to sit and come up with something from nothing.(also gives me the ability to ask about the political and personal undercurrents that involve the other characters around me/background of the actual game/etc.

Do you give the same answer every time though?

hehe why is the key for everything ! 


nice article.

I've never done a background on any of my characters.... maybe I should start. <.<

Your background is just that - a background.

It is not necessary to constantly remind every person you meet that you were abused as a child by a priest of Sung before escaping into the streets of Krondor, only to be captured by a sadistic Mocker who beat you to a pulp and kept you locked in a chest in the sewers for months before you were found by a Pathfinder, causing you to become the depressed adventurer you are today. 

Certainly your background will define your character and his or her actions, but constantly telling everyone about your background unless you are asked to or it is called for only makes you seem self-centred and annoying.


oh and you can always like your description to backgrounds! :)

You could, especially if there are anything special. Like a scar, tattoo whatever.

Why is actually a good question and one I (as myself and not a character) ask all the time in life, but why me, why this, why now, why there.... why why why why why! I'm almost as bad as a little kid. And remember not all questions have answers.


I loved this article. I write backgrounds for my characters on Imperian but I have always thought there was something missing even when others have told me I am a good writer. This may just help me flesh out my backgrounds (and there for my characters) a bit better in future.

I love asking why and finding out the ins and outs of things. I think this is a great way to turn my love of why's into my own character so as to flesh him out even more. Thanks for the article.





It's always good to have an established background. Hopefully this will shed some light on the subject for those that are still waffling about this. 

Honestly, aside from the rather short things usually required for House novices, I haven't really done much with backgrounds in Achaea. For other gaming like D&D I've done rather extensive backgrounds to help set up goals for the character in the beginning...and it has indeed been much like the stuff suggested here.

I have always had trouble coming up with a background.  This article was very helpful for me to start putting together something meaningful.  I typically shrug it off until I come up with a good background.

Very nice article.

I'm still working on background, but this helps!

It's very easy to rush with your background.

Really like this article. It hit on the thing that is probably the most important. To read up on the lore of the setting you are playing in. I try to do that as much as possible, but I admit that when it gets really lengthly sometimes I just fake it.

I like to have an unflattering background - Koneechu is lazy and fat. Letting other people insult you is a fine way to get them interested.

Another way to do it is, awhile back I had a sheet with 365 questions for your character to help you form some of those hard-to-reach opinions. Dunno if a question-a-day is the right way to go though

The problem with my charachter backgrounds is I tend to make them far too complicated. Maybe trimming it down to the essentials of the why questions and then trying one of those flow chart thingies will help.

Also, once in a while, try to make a character that's NOT a hero, or ultra beautiful or ultra special...go for some average backstory

My first character's background was horribly complicated :P

I'm going to do my char's background now, you inspired me :P

I'd add that to any new character created, you should be flexible. If you jump into a game with the character's story set in stone, it'll be harder to join an IC family or a variety of other things. As the game evolves, so does your character. So a little flexibility never hurts.

When I've made alts, I tend to have a bit of background knowledege about them ooc. On an IC level they're still trying to regain their memories from the flame. (In Achaea at least!)


Of course, my alts never last...

Having a background at least gives you a bit of direction. When I started my character, I think the hardest part was figuring out which family to join and start my adventures in RP (as much as I could). I definitely agree that doing a bit of research and trying out different cities will help in figuring out what class/race is best for you and how you want to work out your background.

Starting one isn't really the issue. Continuing it and making note of how much your character has grown is hard.

I first started playing Achaea several years ago, and created a character with poorly defined goals (my biggest goal was probably to play a character of that race and class.)  Naturally, the background was weak, and after a while the novelty wore off and I left.

A while later, I decided to come back with a character with a strong goal.  As a result, I've got a strong background, and the character has gone far longer than before, and I am toying with ideas of several other characters (each defined by my goals for said characters.)

I've always been scared of writing my background since it then becomes permanent...

makes me smile. Though I imagine people could take it way overboard, and go off onto tangents that completely destroy the point.

I find it difficult to come up with a background and then trying to fit it with what my characters end up doing in the game. If I create a whole backstory that my character is an orphan or something, I may later regret it if I seek to find a family in the game.

The string of 'why' questions is always a good way to flesh out some history.


Backgrounds give you a lot of room to work. When I played Achaea (pretty briefly), I didn't know anyone who really did any background or history writing, but almost everyone was an orphan who'd been abused and then found. It was um. Fairly dull! I was like that myself. Which is a big reason why I went to Lusternia. People wrote backgrounds and they were rich and interesting. We have a player named Catarin who wrote the history of the Paladin's guild (and was given a historical family name as a reward!). Lusternia makes it possible to really go above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to writing histories.



I've found this sheet to be incredibly helpful with character creation. Don't feel forced to fill everything in though, it's quite normal you character may not know things because situations where these would come to light have never been encountered. A little improvisation is fun anyway. 

That's twothingsism. Kudos.

Seriously. It helps. :)



That's the advice I'd give on backgrounds. Just -wait- a few years until you know a little something about Achaea, and about who you want to be in it. I know there were some houses that used to require new members to write their backgrounds. Most of them stopped, I think; and all of them should.

It's not bad to have a background in mind, but chances are, you'll change it up a bit once you start getting into the game. And that's fine. Once you've established your character a bit, you'll have a better idea of what that background entails.

This probably would have helped me a lot when I was new to Achaea. My background is the epitome of generic. Though at the time, I kind of designed it that way, since I didn't really know what I wanted to do.

Normally I play through a game for a time before writing up a background for a character. But with these steps I can actually have one at the ready as opposed to pulling one out of thin air and memorizing it when questions or events come up.

This is not only good for writing backgrounds, but for story writing and telling in general.



However, for me, backgrounds aren't half as important as the personality your character will actually manifest in the present.


Backgrounds are good guides for that, though! And it can't hurt to make it.


of writing a background is having it come through in the character's actions.  I tend to get the same character behaviours, no matter how detailed or different a background I write.  Think I'm just a bad actor.

And these are good guidelines for learning how to do so.

Some good points.  Why would you mar them by constantly placing them in in such very boring context of "text games"?

This is a good set of guidelines for a character...I personally tend to sort of follow the same general thinking, but the majority of it just sort of...comes out through RP!


awesome article.

I like the suggestion about asking "why" 5 times.

Sadly, not too many care.

who bothers with backgrounds? people change stuff about them quite often, it doesn't make sense anymore.

I did that with Korri, though I had to slowly water it down for practicality issues



I prefer backgrounds to be flexible. I wanted to adopt a novice, but because my race and background were not according to his fixed background, we missed out on some family RP. I kept my own background rather vague at the beginning and let it become more clear when I found my place in the realms.

Fun to read ^_^