The Questionnaire

In the past, I generally required players submit story backgrounds for my perusal. They didn’t have to be extremely detailed, nor did they have to be totally complete. The backgrounds just had to give me a good feel for the character and provide a number of plot hooks that I could weave into the campaign. Usually, I’d get anything from a single page detailing where the character grew up and some important events in their lives, to ten or eleven page short stories.

As the years passed, I realized that there are three things wrong with this approach.

First: Not everyone wants to write a novel before the campaign begins. What if the character dies in the first session? It happened in one of my games—I killed two 1st-level characters in the second battle!

Second: What if the player decides that he doesn’t mesh well with the group and wants to bow out? It’s a lot of work for very little payoff.

Third: Although story backgrounds were interesting to read, they created more work for me; more work because I then had to distill the backgrounds down to the important information, removing all the exposition until all I was left with were bullet points.

After many years of this, I realized there was a better way: send players a short questionnaire and simply ask for a sentence or two each. Of course, nothing stops players from writing their backgrounds as a story first, and then using that story to quickly fill out the questionnaire. In fact, this is how I do it. Best of all, when done as a story first, it’s perfect for posting to the campaign site for posterity’s sake.

Of course, not every question has to be answered right away. For example, if a player were to say, “You know, I just can’t think of any fears for my character,” I’d try to help him think of one; sometimes it takes a collaboration between folks to get the ol’ brain juices flowing. However, if in the end the player truly can’t decide on any fears or perhaps doesn’t want any to begin with, that would be fine.

When answering the questions, it’s important to do so with as much zest and seriousness as one would expect if they were the DM. Every answer provided should offer a plot hook or idea for further adventures. It’s never a good idea to send back answers that are obviously meant to be a joke. For example, I once asked a player to tell me what his character’s favorite item was. He replied with, “A squishy ball that I squeeze when upset.” I also asked him to name a place in his homeland and he said, “The Grand Canyon.” Suffice it to say, those kinds of answers don’t help at all.

For those who don’t like to determine their character’s history before the game starts (typically because they’re better at making stuff up on the fly or want to see how their character interacts with the others first), remember that answering nine short questions won’t prevent a player from leaving a great many things undefined at the start. The questionnaire is just a loose frame that assists your DM with integrating every character into the larger tapestry of the campaign world.

Also, ignore the misconception that 1st-level characters are children with nothing of importance behind them. I’ve played 1st level 50-year-old men with a smorgasbord of enemies, cherished items, fears, loved ones, and missed chances; all the things that make a character interesting. Of course, an 18 year old, 1st-level character has had just as much time to have all that stuff too. Sure, your character might be too young to have an enemy—but remember the old saying, “The sins of the father shall be visited upon the son.” You can and will inherit your family’s enemies.

Lastly, there’s no specific age a character has to be before he can start having dreams and goals. My favorite Dragonlance character, Raistlin Majere, had wants and goals since the age of 8—he was an interesting, tragic, and well-developed character even at that age. For a more well-known example, look at Romeo and Juliet. They were tweens when all that happened!

The bottom line is, the people that populate the worlds of D&D without any wants, dreams, desires, fears, or enemies aren’t player characters—they’re innkeepers, tailors, blacksmiths, stable hands, and bakers…

…otherwise known as non-player characters.

Download the questionnaire here.