I think character backstory is important. I think creating even a loose narrative to explain how your character got where she is is an essential element of gameplay for most games. It’s the decision-making cornerstone that sets role playing games apart from video games.
It’s difficult, of course, because there’s lots of people who play RPGs as an exclusive avenue for killing things and taking their stuff. And, while I don’t want to belittle that style of play (I engage in it occasionally), I think that having a REASON to kill things and take their stuff should be encouraged. And rewarded.
So. How do we do that?
Well, I think that dndnext is doing a pretty boss job of it with themes and backgrounds. Having them as a springboard to creating a backstory is very helpful, not just to be people who wouldn’t otherwise put much thought into their PCs, but to people who genuinely enjoy crafting backstory. For me, it’s an excellent way to weave my character and the rules into a single, cohesive character whose history provides in-game benefits and allows me to have an interesting, multi-faceted person to do the killing and looting.
I think that experience is an excellent way to reward players for crafting backstory during chargen. Write up a backstory? Get some experience points. Pretty simple and, in my experience, effective. At those low levels when you’re stretching to be effective, being closer to leveling up is sweet.
Weapons and equipment might be my favorite reward for character backstory. Extraordinary abilities and attacks linked to a weapon that is intrinsically tied to a character? Awesome. Let’s say your character was a shepherd before becoming an adventurer, give him a rungu-like weapon with a +2 against four-legged beasts (because he’s darn good at cracking wolves in the head). Character raised in a frozen tundra? Give her a cloak that aids their disguise in cold terrain. And maybe +2 frost resistance.
As a GM, I’d go so far as to keep in mind “unlockable” abilities that, are revealed as the character progresses and plays into their backstory, making decisions that are driven by their histories. It’s a continued benefit to encourage thoughtful role play.
What do you think? Is character backstory an essential element to your game? If so, how do you reward it?