The notion of your D&D character having a background is integral to fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. It grants you a precious few skill proficiencies, and a combination of tool and language options. While background was a part of 4E, it wasn’t nearly as prominent or impacting as it to your D&D character in this edition, and I think the reason for making background such a big deal is directly related to the attempt of 5E to harmonize mechanics and roleplay.
Mix and match your background
There are certain class and background combinations that seem to go together as naturally as peanut butter and jelly. These would include options like a cleric who used to be an acolyte or a rogue with the criminal background. Options like these just make sense to most people. And while I love a good PB&J, peanut butter goes great with other things, like chocolate, or pickles — what? Don’t knock it until you try it!
While there’s nothing wrong with embracing tropes when it comes to your D&D character class and background choices, things can get really interesting when you mix and match the combinations, and these can lead to greater stories.
The next paragraph contains spoilers for Critical Role, Campaign 2. If you want to avoid spoilers, then just skip to the next section of the article.
An excellent example of a D&D character with a class and background combo that evokes some interesting storytelling is Beauregard from Critical Role. While her monk class might lead you to presume she would have the hermit background or possibly outlander, her true background is criminal. Over the course of the story, we got allusions to her having seedy connections, and it tantalizes us to watch her story unfold, questioning her allegiances and her motives. Then, when Marisha outright stated the background for her character, Beau’s entire story gained new depth and intrigue. What’s more, it made for a much more compelling story, and it even took her allies in-game by surprise.
Power of trope subversion for roleplaying
Often, we as players presume certain things about a D&D character based on tropes. I’ve covered a video on the power of trope subversion in your RPG, which I’ll link below.
The really wonderful thing about using your background to subvert tropes is is adds depth to your character. To take our example of a criminal rogue, it’s just sort of expected the rogue would have ties to the seedy underbelly of the world. However, let’s take our criminal and make her a paladin instead. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: My first 5E D&D character was a criminal tiefling paladin!] Maybe she got involved with the wrong people, and after leaving her hometown to escape the criminal world, she joined an order of knights as a squire. She takes her oath, and continues on adventures with her friends. Within the group, she’s the moral compass. When others might opt for a morally questionable solution, she steers them to make the hard decisions. For a time, she’s really grounded herself as a paragon of morality and her oath… until her old contacts show up.
The party suddenly learns of their friend’s past, and everything seems turned on its head!
“How can she be a criminal? She’s the best of us all!”
Maybe the time comes for her to answer for her crimes, and it’s up to the party to find a means for her atonement that does lead to lifetime imprisonment or the chopping block? Story potential abounds in these scenarios. What was once a bread-and-butter paladin with the personality one might expect has been turned on its head with the revelation of her background.
Multiclass? How about Multi-background!
In this week’s video on my YouTube channel, I discussed the idea for a feat called Storied Past, in which your character gains an additional background.
This option allows for characters who maybe have a more nuanced or complicated past that can’t necessarily be codified in just one background. Whether part of the character from creation or used as a means to develop them during a campaign, I think this optional feat allows for players to tell stories they want to tell with their characters and opens the background system to new and exciting potential!
Let’s hear your thoughts! Do you have any characters with an especially memorable class and background combination? What sort of background combinations do you think might enhance a character you are playing or would like to play? Let us know in the comments, or start a discussion over on Nerdarchy’s Discord server!
If you liked this content, and you want more like it, then please head over to my YouTube channel and drop me a like and a sub! I post new storytelling content on Tuesdays, and Thursdays are all about RPGtube over there. So, let’s build the community!
Steven Partridge is an aspiring author and experienced tabletop gamer.
As a child, he dreamed of growing up to be a dinosaur, but as with many children, his childhood dreams were dashed when the rules of reality set in. However, our valiant Steven never allowed this to sway his ambition. He simply… adjusted it to fit more realistic aspirations. Thus, he blossomed into a full-fledged nerd with a passion for the fantasy genre.
When he’s not working on his debut novel or filming YouTube videos, Steven can be found lap swimming, cooking up some pescatarian cuisine, or playing D&D with his friends. He works in the mental health field and enjoys sharing conversations about diversity, especially as it relates to his own place within the Queer community.