My Mother’s second-best sword: Small things, big echoes

I want to talk to you about making your characters better.


I’ve made a lot of characters in my time. I love doing it – there’s a purity, I think, to a character sheet after you finish the final draft; you’ve explored the system and shown your working, you’re fizzing through things that they might do and say, how they’d react to hypothetical situations. You might even start thinking about their voice, or draw a picture of them. (That’s what I do, anyway, if I have too much time and character on my hands and no-one to stop me from doing it)

I want to talk to you about making your characters better; this is short, and simple, and it should help you a lot, if you play the same way that I do – not scraping too far under the surface of a character for too long, in other words, keeping flexible and leaving personality traits mutable and juicy.

When you come to write down backstory – don’t. Don’t do it. Trust me on this one. We all do it. Instead, create anchors for your backstory to hang off, items that leave echoes in the world. Try and think of them in terms of small things that leave big echoes.


The best example of this that I can think of is My Mother’s Second-Best Sword.

Those five words count for so much. They ask questions. Why was your mum so good at fighting? Is it a cultural thing where you’re from? As a fighter, was she a rebel, a loner? Was it expected of the womenfolk? Was she any good at fighting at all? Why didn’t you get the best sword – is she still wielding it, alive, battling enemies in some far-off land? Did it go to your much more successful older brother? Did you lose it? Was it stolen?

Think of these questions, and then don’t answer them until you’re at the table. Say something like “I draw my mother’s second-best sword, and charge into battle.” The other players know about it, now. It’s started to inform your decisions, your actions, your roleplaying. You’ve got relationships baked into your character from the ground up. The GM gets access to all those hooks, too, all the characters suggested in it. Does your dad show up, tears in his eyes, and ask for it back so they can bury it with her?

You could have just written “Sword” and carried on, and that’s fine too. But I think this is better. Plus it saved you an hour of writing about your difficult childhood with your mother and siblings. You’re not tied into anything except from those five words, and even then, you can ignore ’em if you want. “Yeah, it’s my mum’s sword. It’s shiny.” Leave it at that. You can use it as much or as little as you want, as can your GM, and they didn’t have to spend hours wading through your backstory trying to crowbar it into their plot, which – believe me – they will thank you for.

Warrior Woman (stolen from somewhere, apologies)


They don’t have to be magic, and often it’s better if they’re not. Magic items should have their own histories, external to the character, handed down and pawned and sold and gambled between users – your character’s starting equipment, which is usually mundane, has much more story impact on how they feel and what they think at any given second.

If you’ve played FATE you’ll be no stranger to what I’m talking about here, although I was doing it long before I read that incredible system (if you’ve not read it, for God’s sake read it, it’s free online and it’s one of the best systems on the market at time of writing). Anything that requires players to make up their own traits does it, of course, so things like Wushu and Dogs in Vineyard are both good at it too, in very different ways. There’s a lot of this in Apocalypse World, too, with making fronts; the GM is explicitly barred from writing up anything but the barest idea of what the enemies are, lest they start to build a story that ignores the players.

And so this is perhaps of more use to games where story isn’t the express focus of the game, where there’s no mechanical reward for pursuing it – D&D, Pathfinder, Dark Heresy, Esoterrorists – because often it’s hard to feel like you’re making an impact on the world, that you belong in it, right after character generation. There’s a sense that you’re fresh out the clone vats.

Next time you’ve got the chance to do it, give it a go. Look down everything on your equipment list, and give it at least an adjective. Give it more if you can. How did you get these things? Why do you choose to carry them around with you from place to place, trusting your life to them? Don’t go overboard, of course; don’t force it. But have a think, and seed your character sheet with tiny story bombs for you or the GM to detonate later.


Here are a handful of examples to get you started:

The best gun that I could afford.

Stolen city guard armour (from a different city).

Torn regimental cape from a forsaken regiment.

A suit made up of parts from three to five different original suits.

My most exquisite power-rapier.

A helmet with a hole punched right through both sides.

A coat that’s been slept in for what looks like seven years.

A wooden tower shield that looks suspiciously like a police station door.

A battle-wizard’s potion bandoleer (looted).

Black wooden Mage’s staff, authorised by the Council of Knives.

Grandma’s knuckledusters.

Dad’s favourite dress.


If you’re feeling generous, drop some more in the comments below. I’d love to read them.