Review Fix chats with “The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide” author James D’Amato, who discusses the creative process behind the book and why RPGs still matter in a day of CGI and video games.
About the Book:
The book has fill-in-the blank narratives, prompts, and fun activities to help readers customize their character for their favorite role play game. Using this guide to build out backstories for RPG avatars makes it fun to determine traits like just how evil she is, what his dating profile looks like, or even where she got that scar, bringing the characters fully to life.
Review Fix: What inspired this book?
James D’Amato: To be completely honest my publisher approached me with a concept. However, I’m extremely excited that they did. For the past few years during interviews and private chats with other game designers, I’ve been discussing the concept of “personal play.”
Most folks when they picture RPGs think of a group of players sitting around a table together. That’s definitely a huge part of the core experience but there’s a lot more that goes into playing than just what you do with the table. When building characters, creating adventures, and looking forward to the next game session, players are usually alone. Lots of folks think of that sort of thing as disconnected from actually playing the game. However, you can’t exactly play without characters, and those characters don’t get to do anything if there’s no adventure.
In my mind, that means that all those activities are actually part of the game. When you are alone thinking up new aspects to your character’s story, you’re still playing. Even if no one else is around to notice. For some people, personal play activities are actually what they enjoy most about RPGs. There are a few games that play with this idea, but mostly to make it a group activity which changes the dynamic.
What really excites me about this book is that we’re creating a resource for people to encourage their own personal play experiences. Folks can sit around a table without any dice or rules, and tell stories together. RPGs provide a structure to make that activity easier and more fun. This book provides that same structure for play that happens mostly in your head and often away from the table.
I’m hoping it will open existing players up to expand their game experience, possibly provide more space for players who enjoy personal play to have more fun, and contribute to the ongoing design conversation about what RPGs can do.
Review Fix: Do you think shows like Stranger Things have helped keep the RPG narrative alive?
D’Amato: Absolutely! I should point out that the role-playing community has existed for decades even without nods from the media. However, shows like Stranger Things undeniably excited people’s imaginations again. It’s so much easier to imagine yourself playing an RPG if you watch characters from your favorite TV show enjoying one!
As someone who’s made a career in RPGs, I’m thrilled to watch the renewed interest in these games. It’s a fascinating part of our culture that encourages people to indulge their creativity and learn how to communicate. It’s also pretty dorky, and in the past, there has been some wild negativity about the whole thing. It makes sense to me that the hobby had trouble growing in the past. We are in an incredible new era though, where these games are so much easier for people to discover and enjoy. They’re even a little bit cool.
Review Fix: Why do RPGs still matter?
D’Amato: That question could inspire its own book! There are so many things that I find truly special about the genre. Perhaps the most important though is the expectations of its audience.
Pretty much all entertainment is consumed passively. Folks watch movies, listen to music, and read books. Through entertainment, we absorb ideas that inspire us and help us connect with the world around us. Ultimately though, it’s a one-sided conversation unless we decide to create something on our own.
A role-playing game on the other hand openly invites you to create something for yourself. It puts the audience in the director’s seat and makes them the author of their own fiction. I think engaging in any kind of creativity is nurturing. It helps us exercise our minds and express ourselves. With RPGs, there’s no pressure to create something profound or original, just the expectation that you try to enjoy yourself.
It’s funny that you ask why these games “still” matter when the medium is so young! RPGs, as we understand them, were created in the 70s. They’ve barely had time to develop. In my mind, as an art form, these games are very much in their infancy. Receiving increased attention these days means we’re going to see some really exciting stuff in the next few years.
In the last few years alone we’ve seen the rise of streams and podcasts like Critical Role, The Adventure Zone, and my own One Shot Podcast that record these games to tell stories to an external audience. We’re pioneers in a new world of artistic expression!
Review Fix: What makes this book special?
D’Amato: This book is intended to help people have a more rewarding role-playing experience. I already think of RPGs as one of the best ways to engage with self-expression. I know I have a lot of listeners in my audience who get inspired by what we do on One Shot and want to play the way we do but don’t know where to start. The “how to” sections in most gaming manuals can only go so far. Most of them describe what a game is supposed to be like, but never really help you get there. The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide is a toolkit that gives folks concrete steps to take in order to add depth to their game experience. I think it’s the kind of thing a lot of people have been looking for.
Also, this book specifically prioritizes a type of play that has been kind of overlooked. Most games treat personal play activities as incidental experiences that happen along the way to a “real” game. With this book, players who really enjoy imagination exercises can really indulge themselves.
Review Fix: How is it different from other similar books?
D’Amato: It’s hard to say. There aren’t many similar books exactly. There are plenty of books dedicated to helping folks develop their role-playing skills. The vast majority of that sort of writing is directed at the player in the “game master” or “dungeon master” role, which is great, but that only serves a portion of the role playing population. A lot of advice books instructive, giving folks methodology, theory, and language to process how they approach RPGs.
It’s super valuable to hear different perspectives on what makes for great roleplay, but it’s hard to carry all of those ideas into practice. The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide has exercises people can use to cement these lessons and learn by doing. It’s almost like a workbook to accompany your studies that helps you practice.
It’s a very different approach and that’s why I think it stands out.
Review Fix: Who do you think will enjoy it the most?
D’Amato: As I’ve said before there is a demographic of players who get most of their fun out of making characters and developing them alone. RPGs have always supported their type of fun, but never directly. This book aims to directly engage that sort of play.
Review Fix: What are your goals for this book?
D’Amato: Part of me also hopes that this book will make a good entry point for folks who are new to RPGs. Thanks to Stranger Things, podcasts, and streams there is a ton of new interest in RPGs. Even with hobby shops across the country hosting game nights and platforms like Roll20, which allows players to connect and play through the internet, it can be difficult for people to get into RPGs.
It’s actually a pretty common experience for folks who already love to play to feel like they don’t have the time to organize a game. Finding a group of people who are also interested, making time, and learning a new game system are all tall orders. Especially if you have never played and don’t really know if you’ll like it.
The exercises in The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide allow readers to engage in some of the same imagination play that happens at a roleplaying table. It gives folks the opportunity to investigate a little more before deciding to dive into a new hobby.
My main mission with the One Shot Podcast over the last five years has been making RPGs more accessible. I’m hoping this book carries my work on the show forward in a new way.
Review Fix: What’s next?
D’Amato: Well! I’ll continue my work hosting the One Shot Podcast where I record role-playing games I run for groups of improvisers, game designers, and other notable nerds. Most folks think of D&D first and only when they picture RPGs. However, it’s a really diverse genre with games structured to support all sorts of stories. For instance, my favorite game, Star Crossed, is a two-player RPG about forbidden romance. Players work together to tell the story of two characters who really want to be together but have something important keeping them apart. It’s a very different game from D&D. On my show, I showcase these lesser known games so people can see what they are like.
In October we’ll be featuring a game of Kids on Bikes, a game which was actually inspired in part by Stranger Things. For that series, I’ll be welcoming author Patrick Rothfuss onto the show to join us. If you’ve never heard an RPG be played before, or you’ve never listened to One Shot specifically it’s a great time to check us out.
As far as writing projects go, I have a lot of game design work on my plate. However, writing this book gave me the motivation to put together a general RPG advice book of my own. It’s something I’ll be thinking about as I layout my production schedule for next year.
Review Fix: Anything else you’d like to add?
D’Amato: I’m not sure how much of your audience is familiar with RPGs so I figured these explanations might help provide context for the interview and might even be better served going first:
Role-playing games or “RPGs,” are a type of analog game where players collaboratively tell a story, using dice, cards, and other tools to create a random element. If you know what they are, you’re probably picturing Dungeons and Dragons. It was the first RPG and today it’s still the most popular. D&D defined the genre, and it’s the only household name, but these days there are literally thousands of different RPGs that span a multitude of genres alongside the classic sword and sorcery fantasy of D&D.
In my opinion, the core of RPGs, and what sets them apart from other games is the storytelling. Players still sort through puzzles and fret over inventories and hitpoints like they do in video games, but there is a freedom tabletop RPGs provide that other games cannot. When you’re playing an RPG if you say something happens, it does. All of the action in the game comes directly from the players and takes place in their shared imagination. If you’ve never tried one before the experience is unlike anything else.
Since these games are so creatively driven lots of players to treat them like an art form, and work hard to improve their experience. Which I suppose is why I wrote The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide.