Tragic Backstories: 10 Subtle Traumas For Your D&D Backstory
Tragic backstories and D&D seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Whether it’s orcs killing your parents, your home village getting burned to the ground, or being the lone “good” drow elf, having some darkness in your past can often make a very interesting D&D character.
But haven’t we heard these stories so much that they’ve almost become meaningless?
What if your character could have a less than idyllic past, but in a more subtle and creative way?
Sometimes it’s those smaller trials or traumas that actually work to create an extremely deep and relatable character. Not all of us have had our parents brutally murdered right in front of us (at least I hope not…), but many of us have painful or shameful memories from our past that still affect us to this day.
So in this post, I want to give you a few ideas for how you can use subtle trauma to create an incredible D&D character.
What is Trauma, Really?
When we think of trauma, most of us imagine something really awful and acutely traumatic. Losing both your parents at a young age, physical or sexual assault, verbal or physical abuse, growing up in extreme poverty, PTSD, war violence, child abuse, extreme neglect, or any of the other awful things that human beings experience on a daily basis in this world.
However, your body can actually show symptoms of trauma from smaller events that don’t threaten your life! Breaking up with a partner, work stress, moving to a new city, or the isolation of COVID-19 are all perfect examples.
I recently read a book called Patriarchy Stress Disorder that discusses how most high-achieving women actually suffer from symptoms of trauma by trying to attain success in a patriarchal society. I never would’ve thought of this as traumatic, but the more you think about it, the more it makes sense.
How Intense Does Your Trauma Need to Be?
When creating a character (whether it’s for D&D or your next novel), it can be tempting to jump into the intensely traumatic events to make your character feel grounded, relatable, and deep.
Orcs burned down my entire village. My parents were murdered right in front of me! I grew up in an abusive satanic orphanage. I suffered from extreme neglect and grew up on the streets!
If you want to play a character with this sort of backstory, that’s perfectly fine. However, you may want to consider smaller traumas that can also have a big effect on your character.
Jon Snow from Game of Thrones is a great example of this. While Jon was loved and cared for by his entire family (minus Caitlyn Stark…) he was always an outsider as the one “bastard” child. That alienation and the contempt of Caitlyn Stark created a character that always felt like he was never fully at home in his own home. He felt the need to prove his worth by joining the Night’s Watch but then was frustrated when The Watch didn’t meet his high standards. Eventually, Jon needed to realize that even though he had suffered, he was still a privileged rich boy who grew up with training and support. He had to learn to stop looking down on the other “common” boys and grow to become a supportive leader.
Samwell Tarly is also an incredible example of how verbal abuse and resentment from one parent can really impact a character. No matter what Sam did, he was never as good as his younger brother. His father resented him for being kind, intelligent, and “cowardly” (aka disinterested in violence), and forced him to renounce his inheritance and join the Night’s Watch. So when Sam went back to his family home and stole his father’s sword as an act of defiance, that moment really meant something because you’d learned about his traumatic relationship with his father over the course of a few seasons.
Ideas For Subtle Trauma in Your Backstory
So if you’re looking for a few ideas for your next character to give them some darker moments that will impact their personality, I’ve compiled a list of ten possible ideas for you to build off of.
Of course, there are way more than ten, so if you come up with some incredible ideas of your own, be sure to let me know in the comments!
1. Never Measuring Up
Just like Samwell Tarly, maybe your character just never measured up to the expectations of your parents. You could just be failing parental expectations in general, or maybe you were always hidden in the shadow of a more successful sibling. Either way, this is a very interesting backstory element that can impact your character’s personality, wants, fears, and desires.
Whichever path you choose, being the disappointing child is a very impactful childhood trauma that can create an incredibly realistic character. Just remember, having this relationship with your parents or guardians isn’t enough to make your character realistic. The important part is how they cope with the pain of never measuring up.
Your character may rebel from these expectations, preferring to be a warrior rather than the perfect dutiful wife. They may have great feelings of shame over their inability to cast magic like the rest of their family. Or maybe they try as hard as they can to meet their parent’s expectations or outshine that sibling and can still just never quite get there.
For example, one of the characters in my party was sent on a quest by his father to find a magical Gooseberry. He wasn’t allowed to return home without it, but unfortunately for him, Gooseberries don’t exist. The quest was merely a ploy to get him out of the house. The whole party knows this, but none of our characters have the heart to tell him the truth!
2. Emotional Neglect
What if your character’s parental figures just didn’t care about them emotionally, or show them much love or affection? This is actually extremely traumatic for children and isn’t often discussed or used in D&D character backstories.
Maybe your character lived in an overly strict household or had an intensive training regimen that left no time for cuddles or tears. It’s also possible your parents just weren’t emotionally available or weren’t capable of showing you the affection you needed.
I actually used this idea when creating my current druid. She was abandoned in the forest as a child and raised by a dryad that viewed her not as a daughter, but as a stray kitten that she kind of sort of cared for. Because of this, my character went her whole life without the comfort and love of a supportive parent and made friends with plants and animals in lieu of human contact.
Well, actually she befriended fungus and a random skull she found in the woods but that’s a story for another day…
This experience gives me an excuse to have my character be overly attached to the party, and a reason to care about them despite being a socially awkward druid with a Hermit background. They’re the first real family she’s ever had.
3. Getting Lost in a Sea of Siblings
While having a big happy family can be a wonderful experience, sometimes you can get lost in the crowd. If your character grew up in a giant family, an orphanage, or another situation in which they were surrounded by other needy kids, your character may have some trauma from this experience.
Maybe your character felt as if her needs were a nuisance, and it would be best to go with the flow and keep the peace, and now she’s finally just learning to speak up for her own wants and desires as an adventurer.
Or maybe he became a very independent child, insistent on getting his own needs met (by pickpocketing people for coins to buy sweets). He’s used to not ever needing to rely on anyone but himself and now needs to learn to work with others in his party.
It could be possible that this child jumped into the role of caregiver, becoming a second parent. My current rogue Bree is an example of this. She helped raise her younger siblings while her father was busy working, and now that he’s gone, she works hard to financially support her family. This caused her to grow up (and enter a life of crime…) extremely early.
Your character may have also crafted a very unique identity, finding ways of standing out from the crowd of siblings. Whether it’s by making trouble, becoming extremely skilled or intelligent, or making a pact with a demon to become a Warlock… your character just wants to be special and noticed.
4. Bullying From Your Peers or Community
Childhood (or adult) bullying is extremely traumatic as anyone who has experienced it will tell you. Why not incorporate classic bullying into the background of your character to make them more relatable?
Maybe your character was bullied her whole childhood, and then developed sorcery powers as a teenager and can now stand up to those who wronged her. Or maybe your character studied his whole life to become a wizard so that no one could ever pick on him again. Think the classic nerd turned CEO trope!
It’s possible your character was bullied for being a tomboy and now she’s an excellent fighter, or you were the odd one out at your training academy for coming from a poor family.
Maybe your character never quite fit in and now they’re off on an adventure with another band of misfits to get out of their small town, or they were ostracized for being super weird like my druid.
How does this bullying affect your personality? Do you put others down to make yourself feel better, or do you stand up for the marginalized members of society? How does it affect your call to adventure?
5. Sexism or Racism
In a similar vein to bullying, maybe your character dealt with racism or sexism.
Many people who play Tieflings, half-orcs, drow, or similarly misunderstood races often incorporate some form of racism into their backstories. But I think it’s important to consider how growing up with racism can actually impact your character.
Was your Tiefling disowned by their parents when they started growing horns? Was your half-orc bullied in school or shunned by the town for their parentage? How did your character cope with this? Did they try to assimilate and downplay their race, or do they get defensive and angry when others judge based on appearance?
You may even want to work with your DM to discuss how you want your character to be perceived in the cities and towns you visit. Are you hoping a city will be more accepting or do you want this ostracism to be a running theme for your character and her development?
You also don’t need to play one of those “misunderstood” races to experience discrimination. What if you’re a human who grew up in a community of elves who always looked down on him?
Similarly, your character may have experienced sexism in his or her life. For example, I created a female artificer who was shunned by her small town for not being a traditional woman and “good wife” to her husband. She now has a running dislike for “small-minded small-towns” which I hope to soften in the future through character development.
Just keep in mind that D&D is a fantasy world, so if you’d rather have your game be very gender or racially inclusive, be sure to communicate these desires to your DM so they can work with you on this. It’s perfectly possible for your DM to create an inclusive world with racially diverse or strong female NPCs for your game with a little tweaking!
6. Struggling with Poverty
Did your character’s parents struggle to put food on the table? Did you choose the Urchin background and want to have this impact you more than mild flavor? Growing up in a situation where finances are always an issue can really affect your character as an adult.
One of my friends played a character who went through a period as a child where she didn’t have enough food to eat. Because of this, her character always has food on her. She would roleplay handing out snacks to the party or NPC children, and to be honest, I thought it was just a fun quirk until we learned about her backstory!
It’s possible that your character may try to overcompensate for their childhood poverty by overspending and constantly upgrading all of their equipment and clothing. They may make a point of staying at the finest inns, choosing to wear the jewels and gems the party finds rather than sell them. After living their whole life without money to spend on luxury items, it makes sense that your character may want to enjoy the spoils of his adventuring, or put on a show of wealth to impress others.
Finally, you may want to create a character that was wealthy but had it stripped away suddenly. One of the characters in my party grew up very wealthy but her family lost it all overnight. Now she needs to get used to things like sleeping on the ground and not having servants to do everything for her. Watching her deal with this sudden loss has been very interesting, and I look forward to seeing how this character grows in the future!
7. Discouraged From Showing Any Emotion
Did your character grow up in a household where emotions weren’t allowed? While some girls do face this growing up, this is definitely a common issue for boys in our society, even today. The patriarchy hurts men too, and this is one of the most impactful ways.
So how does growing up without being able to learn to express your emotions affect your character? Well, you could go the traditional route of expressing all negative emotions as anger (flying into a barbarian rage). You may also deal with sadness by being productive. Did the death of a party member really impact you? Instead of grieving your character may focus on the tasks that need to be done to honor her.
Does your character jump to violence rather than diplomacy? Are her vulnerabilities surrounded by an impenetrable wall of ice?
Just remember, if you decide to go this route, don’t let your lack of healthy emotional expression keep you from creating solid bonds with your other party members. Yes, you may have trouble being vulnerable or dealing with sadness, but it doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to care about your party or forge meaningful bonds.
8. An Attack on Your Home City or Villiage
Rather than having your home village completely destroyed, a major attack is more than enough to create compelling depth for your character.
If your town was overtaken, maybe your character suffers from survivors’ guilt because her family remained intact but many of her friends lost someone.
Or maybe the raid never broke through the city walls, but you still remember the fear and panic of not knowing whether or not your city would be burned to the ground. The attack doesn’t have to be successful to be traumatic and memorable.
It’s possible that your town wasn’t even attacked, but you always lived in fear of one, sort of like the Cold War. Your character’s town underwent strict rationing, always living in fear of an attack that never actually came.
Now how does this impact your character in-game? It’s up to you! You could go the traditional route and try to fight against the people that attacked your hometown as a child in some sort of revenge, or you may hear the call to adventure to protect another nearby town as an adult.
You may have become a brave warrior to emulate the city guard that kept you safe, or maybe you now focus more on diplomacy, trying to stop wars before they happen.
9. Scattered or Distracted Parents
While your parents may have tried their best, no one is perfect and it’s possible your character may have dealt with parents who were to distracted to properly care for them.
Maybe you had a busy single-parent who needed to provide for you while making ends meet. It’s possible one or more of your parents suffered from alcoholism, workaholism, or were always off adventuring and didn’t have much time for you.
You may want to consider that due to the death of one parent, the other parent “checks-out” in a depression, like Katniss Everdeen’s mother from the Hunger Games.
My new Shadar-Kai’s father is guilty of this. After the death of her human mother, he slowly allowed himself to succumb to the Shadow Curse because he couldn’t bear the thought of living without his wife, even though that meant abandoning his only daughter.
My rogue Bree’s father was also guilty of this as well. When her mother died in childbirth her father threw himself into work to provide for the family, but no one was left to care for all the young children, so Bree had to step up and do it herself.
Your character can cope with this lack of structure in a variety of ways. They can become their own parent, taking care of the younger children, putting food on the table, and providing rules and structure. Because of this, they may grow up quickly or become extremely independent.
They may also have tried their best to “fix” their distracted parent to gain love and affection. Relentlessly acting as the model child but never having their efforts acknowledged. Whatever you choose, this is sure to be a very interesting backstory!
10. An Overly Religious Household or Community
In a world where gods regularly interact with people, most D&D characters worship one god or another. But what happens if you grew up in a household where religion is taken too far?
Maybe you were raised to always live in fear of your god’s punishment, and now work extremely hard to be a good and pious person, lest you pay for it later.
Your character may have leaned into this devout childhood becoming a paladin or cleric, or maybe she rebelled against it and now has active disdain for that god due to her strict and unforgiving upbringing.
Did your character grow up with bizarre non-negotiable rules to properly honor his diety? Was she encouraged to partake in risky behavior because her parents worshiped Tymora the god of luck, and thus her childhood was completely chaotic? Did your character grow up worshiping an evil god, and now he has doubts?
The gods of D&D are so unique and interesting, there are so many different ways this childhood could’ve affected your character!
Using Your Backstory In-Game
I go a bit overboard with my character creation, and always end up with a fully fleshed-out backstory that’s two pages long. I get so involved in what happened to my character, I often have to remind myself to pause and think… but how does this affect her now?
It’s all good and well to have a super awesome and unique backstory, but if your backstory is something you write on a character sheet and never think about again, what’s the point?
If you’re going to introduce trauma into your character’s backstory, don’t forget to think about how it affects him in the game. Think about this trauma when you’re picking your class, personality traits, alignment, and flaws. Why did she choose to be a monk? How would growing up with sexism affect her personality traits, flaws, and alignment?
Not only that, but how does your story affect your personality, wants, needs, fears, and desires? Are you super strict and regimented due to having scattered parents? Are you very independent and willful because you had to care for yourself? Do you always feel the need to boast about your accomplishments to get others to give you the positive feedback you never received from a parent? Maybe you HATE to lose because your older sibling always beat you at everything…
Opening Up to the Party
Now it might be tempting to spill your entire backstory on day one or keep it to yourself because it’s “personal”, but I suggest trying to slowly drip elements of it to your party as you get to know them.
Remember my friend who played the druid who always had snacks? She was hinting at the lack of food in her childhood for weeks before we finally discovered why it was so important for her to always have food on her.
Wait until it makes sense to finally tell the full story. By that point, the other party members will be so invested in your character they’ll be dying to sit down around the fire and listen to you talk about your life before they met you.
Have you used any of these ideas above for one of your characters? Do you have any new ideas for subtle traumas or different ways your characters may be impacted by the situations above?
Let me know in a comment below!