Since getting a copy of The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide for my birthday, I’ve turned to it again and again for experience deepening my games. Its exercises are fun, diverse, and well-written so it’s a joy to do even if you feel your character is pretty deep already. I think it’s universally useful but it is written with a fantasy setting (particularly a D&D game) as the default so here are my thoughts on using it with some other genres.
I want to start off by saying that every exercise in this book is great and highly recommended by me. Some are just universally useful like #62 Mountains and Molehills, about building up your fellow gamers’ choices, which will make you a better member of your gaming group hands down. You can also help to flesh out the game world and give your character some preexisting adventures through #91 Five Lives, when you describe who has touched their existence, or #96 Five Enemies, which is a little more intuitive.
The exercises I specifically call out below are just ones that I think would work well in the listed genres with minimal adjustment. If you get the book and see others that I missed, or you think of a new way to use one that I’ve listed, hit me up in the comments!
You can’t take everything with you when traveling the stars and #4 What Gets Left Behind can help establish some things in your life from before you joined Starfleet, signed on with the Rebellion, or took a job on a Firefly-class transport. Conversely, #17 Five Things You Packed but Shouldn’t Have and #42 Five Things You Can’t Throw Away will help your bunk or cabin to feel like a place someone lives in rather than just an empty set.
You can flesh out alien habits in the same way with #14 Where I’m From. This includes prompts to think about where your character sleeps, how people back home socialize, and so on but it is especially good at breaking up the monoculture idea that sometimes plagues sci-fi settings. Once they leave their home, #44 A Traveler’s Taste can make them feel like the competent interstellar travelers you want. Add in alien pets using #55 Hero’s Best Friend and add your alien’s weird quirks using #65 Irrational Taste. If your alien’s home is lost or destroyed, give it some pathos with #87 Alive Only in Memory.
When creating the sorts of alien communities you expect in an intergalactic setting, #8 My Associates can help to establish the full sensorium. D’Amato here goes through sight, sound, and smell which gives you a chance to react to your alien companions and gives them a chance to describe their weirdness. A similar excercise but more geared towards psychology is #20 What Does It Mean to Be… ? which can help you as a player to stop playing your Twi’lek or gelatinous blob like a human in make-up.
You can take the sci-fi standard of a rival crew/captain/Jedi with exercises #26 Rival and #52 It’s More Than Personal and make someone unique to your story. Likewise, #32 Mentor can do the same for your teacher and master, or just the old smuggler who taught you how to stay ahead of the authorities. Remind them that they’re criminals (if they are) with a Cortex notice using #51 Wanted, substituting setting-appropriate options, of course.
When thinking about the strange cultures that might exist in a blasted landscape, #3 Holidays makes a great way to create that culture you come from or the one that you’re collectively building. You get a similar benefit from #6 Five Lessons in determining the hard life lessons your character has learned. This could be “don’t trust that zombies stay dead” or “delving requires risk to earn success” depending on how you answer these prompts. Secrets are also a staple of postapocalyptic stories and #56 Unheard Confessions and #84 Private Secrets can both help you to slip them easily into the narrative.
Make your feral orphan characters a little less generic with #10 Orphan Details, substituting “nanotech” or whatever for the few magical references. You can also breathe life into the “desperate loner” type with #13 What Drives You Forward, #23 On the Line, and #27 The Taming of the Wolverine which give you prompts to transcend the clichés that might otherwise populate your wilderness. Think about their life before the story starts with prompts like #15 Finders Keepers and #38 Never Have I Ever which are thought experiments on what you’d do when no one’s watching.
Give your GM some barbs to work with by thinking through #19 Five Fears. If nothing else you’ll have terrors to face that aren’t swarms of bugs or radioactive zombies for once. I feel like this should just be a standard part of a Red Markets campaign, for instance. When you move past these, use #58 Conquered Fears to see what that means for your life in a hopeless world.
Though it requires a bit of adjustment, #9 Across a Crowded Tavern can give you a way to bring a group together. In some urban fantasy settings (like Shadowrun) everyone is in the know and you can use your normal RPG tools for bringing PCs to each other. For games in worlds like The Dresden Files or the Chronicles of Darkness, though, this can be hard. Across a Crowded Tavern puts the initiative on the players to say what their characters are good at and why other PCs would pick them out as special.
Giving magic a truly special feel, setting it apart from the mundane world, can be done with #28 My Grimoire, #29 Familiar, but Not Too Familiar, #78 Pocket Dimension, and #82 Terror of Wisdom which are full of interesting and creepy inspirations. You can also introduce fun misconceptions with #45 I’ve Heard Stories about These when your characters are hitting the books to find out what they’re up against. Maybe your players know a wendigo even when their characters don’t, but the characters might have heard they always hunt in packs which is just plain false. Push them to feeling uncomfortable too with #46 Cursed to ramp up the creep factor around the city.
If you’ve got a noir feel to the game, whether Dresden Files or Invisible Sun, you can give your GM fodder with #37 The One That Got Away or #69 Honey Pot (designing the perfect trap for yourself!).