D&D Ideas — Background
Welcome once again to the weekly newsletter. This week’s topic is background, which we discussed in our weekly live chat. We hangout every Monday evening at 8 p.m. EST on Nerdarchy Live to talk about D&D, RPGs, gaming, life and whatever nerdy stuff comes up. Speaking of background in Girl with the Dragon SNAFU characters with a background in entertainment gain a leg up in uncovering more about the unusual relationship between a bard and his biggest fan. A mysterious woman holds draconic secrets and a lesser fiend hides behind it all unless characters find the truth and free her along with 54 other dynamic scenarios in Out of the Box. Find out more about it here. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates and info on how to game with Nerdarchy plus snag a FREE GIFT by signing up here.
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Delving Dave’s Dungeon
Backgrounds are a new addition to Dungeons & Dragons with fifth edition. A background is a great piece of the game adding a some mechanical bits to your character in some combination of skill and toolset proficiencies and languages. The next thing is the background feature, which offers some benefit like a place to stay for the night but requires the character with the feature to interact with a NPC in order to receive the benefit. Finally there are the suggested characteristics. They are great for players who are stuck for how they want to shape the personality of their characters. These characteristics are personalities, ideals, bonds and flaws. You can roll randomly, pick or just use them as inspiration.
I can pull up 83 backgrounds on D&D Beyond. There are some variants like the knight to the noble while others are duplicates but through a filter like Baldur’s Gate.
A backgrounds is a great place to customize your own campaigns and games. We see examples of this with the Eberron, Ravnica and Wildemount specific backgrounds. By either customization of an existing background or creating new ones players can really feel like their characters are part of the world.
I think this is a great way to use homebrew to customize your 5E D&D game. First off backgrounds have a very simple formula when it comes to creation as mentioned above plus each background includes a little bit of gear. One of the key things to remember when coming up with the feature is it shouldn’t do very much mechanically. Any benefit it does offer should primarily come through roleplaying.
There are a couple of backgrounds that break this and I think they are the worst design of the lot. Both involve exploration and unfortunately they actually lessen or take away from the exploration pillar of 5E D&D. It’s unfortunate because one of them is one of my go to background. The backgrounds are outlander and urchin.
Outlander Feature: Wanderer
“You have an excellent memory for maps and geography, and you can always recall the general layout of terrain, settlements, and other features around you. In addition, you can find food and fresh water for yourself and up to five other people each day, provided that the land offers berries, small game, water, and so forth.”
The first part of this background is great. It allows a Dungeon Master to give information about an area to the character, which may lead to more adventure, exploration or even a place to have social encounters. The second part I’m less thrilled with — it just makes a problem go away.
Urchin Feature: City Secrets
“You know the secret patterns and flow to cities and can find passages through the urban sprawl that others would miss. When you are not in combat, you (and companions you lead) can travel between any two locations in the city twice as fast as your speed would normally allow.”
A great ability that doesn’t break the game but also doesn’t really expand it either. It’s very possible this feature could come in clutch in a raise against the clock. I just don’t think it’s what a background should do.
My advice for crafting background features is to come up with something with potential to add to the narrative in a meaningful way but requires active engagement from the character unlike the passive nature of the features I mentioned earlier. For example the acolyte, criminal, sage and sailor backgrounds all give benefits like a place to stay, the ability to send a message over long distances, where to find information or who to book passage from on a ship. These characters can save a little gold by invoking their background feature but they’ll have to talk to someone who might request something in return now or in the future. The real benefit as far as I’m concerned is the NPC or place that just got inserted into the game.
From Ted’s Head
In fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons a character’s background is a major defining piece of their identity. A background shapes how you play them and what they want to accomplish. But there are so many ways to look at a background. Is it a choice of theirs, of their situation or a choice someone else has made for them? I am going to focus on the last part — a choice made by someone else — and create a new background for 5E D&D.
You saw something. It might have been a murder, theft or other criminal act performed by someone with more power than you. And after seeing it you have been on the run ever since. Unsure when your luck will run out.
You carry a token. It might be proof of the crime or merely a handwritten letter you wrote explaining what happened should you fall. The person who committed the crime is better connected, so you fled and seek allies and shelter where you can until such time you can bring the person to justice, or convince them to let you join. It’s your call.
Skill Proficiencies: Persuasion, Stealth
Languages: One of your choice
Tools: One of your choice
Equipment: A set of common clothes, one outfit for a disguise, a token (a letter or some proof of crime), a pouch containing 15 gp.
Feature: Witness Protection
As a person on the run, you have made contacts in several locations. They are friendly to your case but cannot act on your behalf for fear of facing similar reprisal as you. Work with your Dungeon Master to identify who these contacts are and where they can be found.
The book I am currently reading has a title too ridiculous to resist — A Wizards Guide to Defensive Baking. I’m enjoying the action packed into this book and it could be an amazing background for a low level 5E D&D adventurer. I was surprised nothing like this existed, so I felt compelled to create.
The hunted background gives a nice array of options and roleplaying ties with mechanical abilities. Having someone potentially after your character can be fun and give them a reason to travel and or hide. After all as players we are not wholly in control of the story. Perhaps your character only believes they are on the run. The crime happened, but were they observed? Does the hunter think the observer was already apprehended?
Having some contacts around give a hunted character a way to gather information and potentially a safe place to hide in several locations. Also depending on how high up this criminal is this background could be a great lead in for political intrigue in a campaign. This could be linked to a greater story or merely a potential side quest when you feel ready to finally face this journey.
From the Nerditor’s desk
Among race, class and background it’s the last of these I feel impacts 5E D&D characters the most. Whenever I create a character their background is something I put perhaps the most thought into because it represents such an important part of their identity. Background illustrates who the character was prior to taking steps on the road to adventure.
“Your character’s background reveals where you came from, how you became an adventurer, and your place in the world.”— 5E D&D Player’s Handbook chapter 4: Personality and Background
Race or lineage features are immutable parts of a character — the traits they demonstrate as a matter of course from simply existing. And class features are things they gain through experience as adventurers — the traits they earn as a result of following this vocation. Background occupies the liminal space between the two — the traits they gained through being essentially a regular person in the world.
I consider a background very much like a job. This is the thing a character would do to make a living and get by if they didn’t follow through on a career as an adventurer. For me the skills, tools and languages gained through these experiences in many ways feel like the things a character would know the most about. I often use this example as it relates to tools in particular but on a broader scale these are things a character is a nerd over. After all this is the life experience that shaped their decisions before they became a 1st level whatever.
When I wrote about playing 5E D&D as a social magica master I was very surprised to discover how much more impactful a background can be than even I already thought. A background contributes tremendously to the social interaction pillar of play and all those ribbon abilities (I really dislike that term!) are incredibly useful. On a side note the dismissal of noncombat features from any source from a large swath of players sure doesn’t help the perception of 5E D&D as a primarily combat focused game.
The next time you create a character for a 5E D&D game when it comes to choosing their background think about how this time in their life shaped their identity. We can all relate to working for a living. It shapes perceptions, attitudes and skills. When your characters engage with the world around them their background can provide a fantastic viewing lens. An acolyte, noble, sage and soldier all look at things differently.
To get even more from a background I love using This Is Your Life from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. The steps of this process generate some amazing details from a character’s time as whatever their background suggests. At the end of the day it’s something that happened during this period of a character’s life to propel them forward into a career as an adventurer. Give it a try and discover how much it’ll enrich your 5E D&D characters and the experience of playing them!
*Featured image — An accomplished performer and their biggest fan share an unusual background relationship in Girl with the Dragon SNAFU, one of 55 dynamic encounters ready to drop into your game in Out of the Box. [Illustration by Kim Van Deun]