Jastinia of Windhelm: Writing Backstories

Playthrough links

Skyrimers are notorious for having more fun modding the game than actually playing it. As we learned in my last post, I’m no exception to that meme. But old-school roleplaying game players know this idea of the setup being more fun than the gameplay didn’t start with Skyrim. We can trace that back to tabletop roleplaying games. I’m a ’90s child, so for me those were masterpieces like Vampire: The Masquerade, West End’s Star Wars, Shadowrun, and, of course, (Advanced) Dungeons and Dragons. #bringbackTHACO! This was an era where digital RPGs were still making the jump from blocky Final Fantasy VI graphics to the grandeur of Ocarina of Time and eventually Baldur’s Gate II. To get their RPG fix, most of my friends turned to pen, paper, and dice for playing their chosen heroine or hero. Or just preparing to play them. Because for prospective dungeon/game-masters, the only thing more fun than actually running a session was creating it. And for prospective adventurers, the only thing more fun than playing a new character was designing them.

In today’s post, I’m going to introduce my newest Skyrim character, Jastiana of Windhelm, as we get ready to start our next playthrough. By exploring her narrative design today, and her technical design in a future post, I’ll give some fun ideas about how you can make your own characters for RPGs generally, and set up a new playthrough for Skyrim and the Ultimate Skyrim modpack specifically.

Meet Jastinia: creating a backstory

I’m willing to bet anyone who ever played RPGs remembers designing their first character. And, let’s be honest, you probably remember their whole 10+ page backstory. Or their 30,000-word spinoff novella. Much to the chagrin of my early gaming groups, I had this same enthusiasm for holy epic backstories. It was only years later I realized players tended to prefer the summary version and not the dramatic retelling. That’s because long backstories aren’t necessarily effective backstories. Shorter histories can actually be better at setting a character’s stage while also giving them direction. As we look over Jastinia’s backstory, we’ll meet our blog’s new protagonist and also explore some ideas behind making compelling characters in a limited game setting like Skyrim.

  • Keep the backstory simple
    Gamers like me often want to write their own character prequel before starting the game. Or prequel trilogy. But many of the best characters in our favorite tales have simple, accessible backstories that get unpacked over the adventurer. This has been true for characters from Odysseus and Circe all the way to Luke and Leia. Save the longform epics until after you’ve started playing! At the beginning, your character just needs some basic motivations and history. Here’s the 60-word CliffNotes for Jastinia before we break out the fan-fiction:

Jastinia grew up an Imperial orphan in Windhelm, eventually finding a home among other outsiders and trying to help them. By the time she turned 16, she knew it wasn’t enough to be their advocate; she also needed to be their champion. She joined the Stormcloaks to fight for outsiders like herself and prove Windhelm was their home too .

  • …but embrace storytelling
    Just because your character needs an intro soundbite, doesn’t mean you can’t write something more involved. Longer-form writing connects you with your character, their world, and the creative energies needed to tell stories. My only advice here is to not give your character unearned achievements. If they’re a retired draugr and daedra slayer seeking redemption in the Companions, they better not be starting at level 3. A low-level character hasn’t earned that kind of backstory and it won’t feel plausible to you, your co-gamers, and/or your audience. But other than that, write away and don’t let the lore gatekeepers stop you. Here’s the less CliffNotey version of Jastinia’s origins:

Life behind Windhelm’s walls is harsh, unforgiving, and above all else, cold. But it’s even colder if you’re born an Imperial. Jastinia never understood why mom and dad settled in Windhelm after sailing north. Did they enjoy the constant threats and insults from guards? Did they want their daughter’s Nordic peers to bully her slight shoulders and southern-green eyes? As a child, she escaped from the fights and insults to the docks where the strange but beautiful Argonians eked out an existence in a city that shunned them even more than it shunned Jastinia. At first it was just to stare at their alien faces. Then it was their stories and songs. Their unsung industry, their unappreciated skills. Kindness when she asked questions or asked for help. Acceptance for the outsider girl who knew them by their names instead of boot, scaleback, or mudsucker.

After dad vanished, after mom lost the house and eventually herself to Windhelm’s gutters, the Argonians knew the abuse awaiting 8 year-old Jastinia once the Jarl sent her to a Riften orphanage. They adopted her into their Assemblage instead. Windhelm didn’t care if some foreign child wanted to wallow in an Argonian warren: one extra bed at Honorhall for a more deserving Nord. Jastinia’s new Argonian family didn’t endear her to her Nordic peers and their disapproving parents, but she no longer noticed. She was too busy learning metalworking from Neetranaza. Hunting from Stands-In Shallows, footwork and skirmishing from Scouts-Many-Marshes. Shahvee ensured the girl always had food on her plate and a pillow under her head as long as she worked her share. She did; splitting logs for their fires, negotiating with bigoted guards, and running errands into Windhelm where Argonians weren’t allowed.

By the time a teenage Jastinia moved from the Assemblage into her own room at Sailor’s Rest, she was no longer just helping Argonians. She’d become an unofficial ambassador for many of Windhelm’s outsiders: the Black Marsh natives she loved, the Dunmer living in squalor, the Khajit traders pushed beyond the walls, and the refugees and poor who crowded Windhelm’s streets and sewers. Women and men who scraped by like mother before she’d died, a nameless “Beggar” in the inheritance letter the Hold Steward sent Jastinia days after guards found mom’s mutilated body. But even as Windhelm made small concessions to its downtrodden, Jastinia knew it wasn’t enough. They would always be outsiders… unless one of them proved they were more. Jastinia pledged to join Jarl Ulfric’s Stormcloaks to show she wasn’t a weak, craven outsider like the guards always jeered. To elevate her voice in the Palace of the Kings, to fight for the freedoms of outsiders throughout Eastmarch, and to show Windhelm this was their home too.

So she trained and prepared. Practiced with her Argonian mentors, apprenticed at Orengul’s forge. Learned greatswordsmanship from the legendary Torbjorn Shatter-Shield, who’d been impressed with the youth’s boldness (if not her heritage) ever since she’d confronted him about unfair Argonian wages. She tested herself in the tunnels under Windhelm’s streets, the tundra beyond its oppressive walls. Planned, prepared, and waited until the 31st of Last Seed, 4E 201. Her 16th birthday. The age of adulthood. The age of enlistment.

  • Save room for growth
    Backstories should include natural space for character development. Especially unspoken hints about looming challenges. If Jastinia’s motives for joining the Stormcloaks seem misplaced (join the Legion, dummy!), you’ve figured her out way more than she has. The parentless, 16 year-old girl is desperately looking for acceptance and approval in the only home she’s ever known, and the Stormcloaks are one of the easiest and most available options. We can hope the reality of Stormcloak service meets Jastinia’s dreams, but I think we all know she’s in for a rude awakening.
  • Don’t write everything
    Orphan narratives are overused but still great for new characters, especially younger ones. Not just for the Bruce Wayne factor either. It’s hard enough writing your own backstory and fitting it in a setting. It’s even harder to add parents. Or, for other characters, to add a spouse and children, your old army buddies, previous adventuring companions, or even neighbors in a hometown. When writing a new character, you don’t need to draw out every detail and social network in their biography. Just the important stuff. Either ignore it entirely or, better yet, use narrative tricks to dodge the issue. Orphaned characters like Jastinia don’t need much backstory on mom and dad, just like outsiders don’t need existing relationships with every resident of their home town.
  • Expand in-game content
    Both from a gameplay and a development perspective, it’s easier to anchor your character to in-game content than made-up events. Many of Jastinia’s story details relate to specific Windhelm NPCs, mini-quests, and areas. She’s befriended Argonians and dark elves by handling their problems (Viola’s ring, stealing skooma, renegotiating wages, etc.). She’s received training in two-handed weapons from Torbjorn, evasion from Scouts-Many-Marshes, and sneaking from Stands-In Shallows (thank you, Immersive Speechcraft). She’s taken on simple missive quests for non-Nordic citizens, mostly gathering and local delivery tasks. Finally, she got her first few levels fighting skeevers and spiders in Windhelm’s sewers, and eventually hunting larger beasts around the city. I’ll talk about this more in the next post, but these in-game details guide your early character progression. They also create connections you can invest in over the game. If some random vampire kills poor Shahvee in a radiant event, you can bet Jastinia will drop everything to hunt that monster down.
  • Invent lore-friendly backstory
    Skyrim has a lot of content, especially modded Skyrim, but it will never have a quest for every biography. Sometimes you need to get creative with how quests link your character to the larger world. Other times you have to make up your own quests or character/story connections. For Jastinia, I realized you can actually sleep in the Argonian Assemblage after you persuade Torbjorn to raise their salary, so this was a perfect home I could incorporate into her origins. Similarly, it’s realistic the old-school Torbjorn would send his pupil to test herself against Eastmarch’s wildlife. Or that Scouts-Many-Marshes/Stands-In Shallows would train Jastinia in Windhelm’s sewers, the closest environment to their native Black Marsh. This gave me narrative reasons to explore the sewers and Windhelm outskirts beyond just “grinding for levels.” It will also give me incentive to complete some of their quests later (retrieving respective amulets for Torbjorn and Shahvee).
  • Plan major story events…
    Successful writing is all about outlines, and that’s just as true with college essays and creative writing as RPG character design. Jastinia is no exception. Without spoiling too much of her journey, here are some checkpoints. She’ll join the Stormcloaks and run minor missions before Ulfric figures out a more effective use of an eager, Imperial-born soldier. This may or may not send her east to Haafingar, where she may or may not complete increasingly risky undercover assignments. Let’s hope the bad guys don’t capture an Imperial-born Stormcloak loyalists. Some of these plotpoints will be real quests: Jastinia will need to slay that Ice Wraith on Serpentstone Isle to initially join the Stormcloaks. Others will be creative reimaginings of existing content: what if the traitor Stormcloak who gives the Jagged Crown to the Legion wasn’t a traitor at all? Still others won’t be quests at all but rather self-imposed missions (Immersive Patrols gives endless civil war combat opportunities on the roads). All of this gives me a coherent arc to follow from level 1 through probably the late 10s or even early 20s.
  • …but stay flexible
    Checkpoints are important but mapping out a character’s entire Skyrim journey can do more harm than good. Skyrim’s radiant event and AI package offer endless random encounters to drive a story. One of my late 2020 characters was buying carrots at the Dawnstar market-stand when two hapless Bandit Explorers raided town. They somehow aggroed and murdered poor little Alesan, who had been a little brother figure for my character. No bandit in the Pale was safe again. On another playthrough, I fully intended to avoid the Companion storyline having already turned it down in Whiterun. And then Vilkas and Ria saved me from a rogue Fire Wizard attack on the trails south of Riverwood. If you keep your story open to game engine possibilities and unexpected quests, you’ll enjoy organic and immersive narrative moments you’ll totally miss if you’ve scripted every step of the journey.

One final tip before we wrap for the day: don’t be too ambitious! I can’t tell you how many characters I’ve rerolled and rebooted when my epic storyline was taking too long to unfold. Just like most Dungeons and Dragons groups never really adventure beyond level 8-10, so too do most Skyrim playthroughs never run longer than level 20-30. This is especially true in UltSky/Requiem where early- and mid-game content tends to offer the most fun. If you know you don’t have the capacity to draw out a storyline beyond that, don’t make a character who peaks at level 50 after becoming guild leader of every faction in Skyrim.

Jastinia’s a little ambitious for a first blogging project on this site, but I think posting her Take Notes entries will help me stay engaged with her journey. There’s a big difference between merely playing a character alone versus posting about her experiences to an audience. Or more specifically, reposting an in-game, first-person written account of her days in Skyrim. It’s hard to beat that level of roleplayed, narrative immersion and I owe it to Jastinia to let her grow and develop. A little reader accountability never hurts either.

Getting mechanical

Character biography? Check. Fangirly short story? Check part two. Now we just have to translate all these limitless written ideas into Skyrim’s very limited game engine. Building a character in a Word document is one thing but operationalizing those concepts in-game is an entirely different challenge. Also, I swear we’re going to start playing this dang game eventually! As you can probably tell from this post’s pictures, Jastinia is alive and well in my save folder. At this point, I’m just blogging to catch up with her .ess file form. Soon, brave warrior. I promise.

Join me next time when I talk about the game mechanics, leveling progression, and technical character creation steps that go into new roleplayed playthroughs. Thanks for reading and I hope this exploration of Jastinia’s backstory helps inspire your own characters. Come find me on Reddit or the UltSky Discord channel if you want to chat or share your own character outline/novella for a past or future playthrough. See you all soon!

13 thoughts on “Jastinia of Windhelm: Writing Backstories

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