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


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.



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12 responses to “My Mother’s second-best sword: Small things, big echoes”

  1. Sean Smith Avatar

    We had a dwarven brewmaster in one game who wielded a battle tankard.

    1. grant Avatar


  2. Will Avatar

    I’m playing the son of a local lord in a low fantasy game. His father died and his uncle took over as lord (it’s not quite the plot of Hamlet, but it’s not far off). He carries and fights with an unwieldy ceremonial sword presented to his grandfather for services to the king. When he started, it wasn’t even sharp.

    I like this because 1) it shows he’s an idiot who doesn’t know much about the real world, especially the realities of fighting and 2) it shows how much he cares about tradition. His major drive is to reclaim his father’s throne and get revenge on his uncle.

    Beyond that, the GM and I have worked out an arc where the character starts as useless and annoying, but becomes less so over time. The plan is that he eventually discovers his father died of natural causes and his uncle only took over for practical reasons – the last thing he wanted was his idiot nephew in charge. I intend for him to become less selfish and realise that there are bigger problems in the world than reclaiming his birthright – maybe even for him to become a hero. Part of this will probably involve him handing the sword back to his uncle, nicked and dirty, as a representation not just that the uncle is a better choice for lord, but also how hard the character fought in the name of his kingdom.

    Another example was from a Mage game I played. My friend was playing a Viking from a universe where Vikings were really, really Vikingy. He had a helmet with horns on and a huge axe. We eventually convinced him that in the modern era, he’d get arrested for the axe, so he put an enchantment on it that made it shrink or get large again when he rubbed it. This was an obvious source of comedy, and it quickly became a running joke that he only had to make the rubbing motion for the rest of the group to know things were about to kick off.

    I, meanwhile, was playing a broadly sensible Euthanatos, determined not to break the Masquerade – and the main driver of inter-party conflict was trying to prevent the Viking from causing trouble with his Viking ways. Over time, the two characters developed a mutual respect and came to understand, if not agree with, each other. When I finally left the game (because I was moving away), he handed my character the axe, and they embraced. It was a genuinely moving moment for our characters and for us, because of what it represented in and out of the game.

  3. Matt Avatar

    Im currently playing a deadlands game, most of my items have names and as a texas ranger im considered to be a little odd – but its my bullets that got the most attention

    “I’m loading my two with one stone!”

    I just got lucky once, now the name is there

  4. Jon Jones Avatar

    This reminds me of a thread over on about not writing campaigns. It’s kind of a corollary to that thread, really. It was mainly about telling GMs not to focus too much on creating their own story to shoe-horn the players’ characters into, but on doing the opposite. Mining their own backstories and storyhooks to create something that is tailored to what they care about.

    Have you thought about writing an ebook on the subject of role-playing, Grant?

    By the way, whole-heartedly agree about Fate Core. Just tried it for the first time last night and it’s fantastic.

    1. Will Avatar

      What about Bang and his gun? Those smelly little grotz were all brilliant, but Bang was a hero to them, and even to the Orkz, by the end, because of the shoota that may or may not have ever worked.

      1. grant Avatar

        Bang! Man, Bang is probably one of the best characters I’ve ever written. “Proud Gun owner.” That says a lot about him. When I get back in the country, I think an Orks sequel is required…

  5. Nick Avatar

    As someone who likes to lovingly craft a backstory for most of my characters, I have to say that reading this created some blocks in my noggin. There is definitely something to be said about simplicity and, heck, my longest-running, most charismatic and well-known character — among my group — from any game I’ve played didn’t even have a set backstory. Instead, he carried a piece of bone and a halberd that became more and more damaged over time.

    The bone never came into play; playing with such a large group — something like fifteen people rotated through, with only about four consistent players — kind of negated the pursuing of personal quests. But the halberd, with its noticeable chips, burn marks, rebound grips and slightly bent spearhead, proved better than any storybook of the trials our group had gone through.

    That being said, sometimes having a backstory — or, at least, some form of traditionally recorded history — can help the group in great ways. Something that I urge my players to use (and use myself, regardless of GM preference) is the 3x3x3 system. I discovered it while reading up on the Serenity system; the way it works is thus: each player creates a list of 9 different NPC characters that the GM can call upon to make the story more interesting.

    3 of the NPCs are Allies; these are NPCs that would be willing to help your character, whether you seek them out or not. 3 of the NPCs are Contacts; these are NPCs that you may be able to negotiate with for aid, whether physical or otherwise. And 3 of the NPCs are Enemies; these are NPCs that are out to actively harm or hinder your character in whatever way seems fitting.

    This system creates a pool of NPCs the GM can draw upon to create adventures while still appealing to the players. Admittedly (though perhaps somewhat fortunately), it flips the focus of the game from player to player on a session-to-session basis but, for me, that’s part of the appeal. It allows characters to have their time in the spotlight before moving to another character the next session. It also helps create a backstory for each character simply by explaining the relationships between them and the NPCs, while still leaving the rest somewhat ambiguous.

    So your enemy is a rival from your hometown? How was your relationship growing up? What transpired between the two of you to evolve the rivalry into full-blown hatred?

    One of your allies is the son of a dwarven crimelord? How did you manage to earn favor with someone so unsavory? How does his father feel about the relationship?

    One of your contacts is a retired soldier now working as a private bodyguard? How did the two of you meet? If he is old, how long have you known each other? If he is young, how did he escape service from the army? Did you play a hand in it? Was it through dubious means?

    There is a great wealth of story to be told simply by creating a web of people that your character knows and interacts with, whether in the past or present. In a way, I suppose this is very similar to what you are saying above, only presented with a focus on people as opposed to items.

    1. Nick Avatar

      Also, shame on me for being so verbose. Sorry about the novel above. 😛

  6. bfleuter Avatar

    Our level 1 Pathfinder fighter has a Cure Light Wounds potion with a note that reads “In case of trouble – love Mom”.

  7. Fox Avatar

    A receipt from herself (as the second-in-command of a mercenary company that just lost its leader) to herself (as the disliked only child of noble parents) for the value of the company’s current job – tracking down and taking revenge on the old leader’s killers.

  8. Âmesang Avatar

    I find it relatively easier to start with a few traits for a low-level character (typical Who, What, Where, When, Why, How) and add the events of the campaign to it overtime—if the character reaches high level I still try to keep things truncated, using the 3rd Ed. D&D Monster Manual IV and V entries as templates for not only how to write things but how much to write.

    The biggest reason why I still prefer making even a sparsely detailed backstory for a character?

    ‘Cause I can’t remember $%&#. =Þ ‘Cause I’m Dr. Henry Jones, Sr.

    “I wrote it down in my diary so I wouldn’t have to remember!”

    (It’s also why, from an author’s standpoint, it’s good to write a “series bible” that keeps the small but important details handy.)

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