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D&D 5e Character Backgrounds

To me D&D 5e is perfect... well almost. Let me take you through a history and analysis of the world's favorite TTRPG and my own improvement, a D&D 5.01e, if you will.

7 months ago

Latest Post D&D 5e Character Backgrounds by Tracy Parks public

No system is perfect, but when a core element makes the game play so difficult or prevents you from having fun, then I take up issue. 3.x was great for introducing intuitive maths to D&D ("+" are good, "-" are bad, you don't need to memorize THACO or consult a chart to see if you hit, etc.), something that it was drastically lacking previously. Pathfinder took the intuitive maths and ran with it, but both suffer from the same bloat problem: too many feats, skills, and sundry character choices. Oh it was great having all these options, at first, but after a while the amount of options became overwhelming and eventually it broke the game play at its core and, in fact, right at character creation.

It's Role Playing not Roll Playing

Failing to mention the horrifically bad system of 4e, 5e came out and here was something that brought back the aspect of role playing that 3.x, Pathfinder, and 4 were missing: Role Playing. Now there is a growing number of gamers out there that cling onto the vestiges of D&D from the days of yore known as the OSR, and much of this renaissance is great and I admire many of the original ideas that have come out of this. I love the "old school" feel of the adventures and the grittiness that has come out of many talented people in this movement, but I diverge at the stand point of going back into the "1st" edition rules. I left those behind for a reason, a reason that 3.x introduced: intuitive maths!

Lordy, whoever wants to take the time to algebraically compute whether or not you accomplished what you are trying to do, is out of their mind or really needs to just take more maths classes because that is just not fun in my book. If you personally do find that fun, then by-all-means find a group that also enjoys that and keep at it. I am not stopping you.

1e/2e had a catalyst to spark imagination that 3.x/Pathfinder just didn't have. But 1e/2e had horrible maths and janky table of tables within other tables - not as bad as Roll Role Master, mind you - that just gave wanting to learn the game or even introducing it to other with a bit of a curve. 3.x changed all that and people that hadn't normally been interested in playing TTRPGs flocked to the new edition. 3.x, however, was flawed from the start and just became a bloated unstoppable behemoth.

Time keeps on slipping... slipping... slipping...

Fast forward a number of years and skipping a complete edition, we have 5e. At first I was hesitant to jump on the 5e bandwagon as 4e gave me a bitter taste. But upon reading it I realized that the new 5e keeps the intuitive maths that I'd come to appreciate and removed much of the bloat that was central to the core of 3.x. 5e gave us back the first role playing game that we had originally fell in love with as well as opening up an appreciation of TTRPGs to an even greater number of people. To some this may seem as a blight, but for me and many others, we see it as a blessing.

To me, 5e has brought the role back to the role playing games. Indeed, there has been a significant resurgence and new interest in TTRPGs in general, mostly thanks to 5e as well as some popular steaming shows like Critical Role, which uses 5e. So while no, 5e didn't alone bring back the popularity of the TTPG, it most certainly has been one of the most significant contributors.

1... 2... 5! - 3 sir!

I have one hang up with 5e though: backgrounds. The placement in the PHB was odd and I found it overly confusing. At first I thought it was required, I later learned that it's just there to guide players to creating interesting characters. However, many of the backgrounds provide bonuses that may very well improve a skill or add an additional proficiency benefit. So not adding a background is really just shorting yourself some bonuses that not just benefit your character technically but also may enhance your RP of that character. It makes sense, for example, that a background as a sage would give you some better insight in history (or arcana). The placement of this section, however was misplaced.

Let's take as an example I am creating a new character. I go through all the paces of the PHB and going through the step-by-step procedure as outlined there, the first thing you do is choose a race, you then go through class, ability scores, and then finally select your background based upon what you've already chosen. To me this could better be handled if you picked the background  at step two rather than your class. For the most part - well at least for me - when I go to create a character, I already have an idea of what I want to play. I know I want to play a half-orc bard (as an example). But this is just a high-level character development. There's nothing to this character. I don't really have a personality and neither does the character (joke).

Now in essence with this in mind, I've kind of already went through steps 1 and 2, but I've not fully gone through them. I may have already chosen a half-orc bard, but I've done absolutely nothing beyond that. Ive not gone through what type of bard, sub-race, etc. that this character will be. For a high-level perspective, I want just that. I Don't want to start narrowing down anything for the character until i figured out where they came from. What's their background?

You can't know where you're going until you've known where you've been

Ok, so i want to play a half-orc bard in the next game, but that's all I've got now. According to the PHB I have to go through all the parts of the race and class before I can even go to the abilities. Now, granted, all this is just how the book is presented and going out of order or in your own way is anything but illegal or not allowed. These are guidelines and after all, we do this to have fun. The approach I am suggesting is just to help those of you like myself that get hung up on this part of character creation.

Instead of going through the normal path of race, class, abilities, description, and equipment; try grabbing a general idea of what you want to play and don't feel that you have to stick to that even. In my case I have the half-orc bard. Next I find out how and why they wanted to be a bard. This is where the backgrounds come in, before fleshing out the class. To me, I treat the backgrounds as my character's Level 0, the profession that they had just before becoming an adventurer (Level 1). Being in this profession somehow managed to lead them down the path of adventuring. In the case of my bard here, I could go with the typical tropes of charlatan, criminal, or entertainer, but it might be more interesting to start somewhere else like sailor or soldier. Granted the common backgrounds for bard are fine and one could make a great and rounded character by using the more common "Level 0" professions, but I want something of an interesting challenge.

Soldier as an example, brings up even more questions: how/why did this character become a bard from a life of soldiering? Where they in the field of battle against enemy forces inspired by their own battle bards or skalds? Where they in a tavern or small town on leave and happened upon an impressive bard who taught them the ropes? So much depth of possibilities just from going a bit out of the norm.

It's your destiny, child

Going from just what is in the PHB for the soldier's background you gain proficiencies in athletics and intimidation which saves you the trouble of having those as a bard. You also have a reason for them to be present in your character. Going through the suggested characteristics, you have so much available to you that would make your bard so much more interesting, like a personality trait of "I'm haunted by memories of war." A "metaphorically" haunted bard has so much depth to them over the standard choices from charlatan: "I fall in and out of love easily" or "I have a joke for every occasion". The quintessential bardic trope of an easy going charismatic face of the party is fine and all if that is what you want to play, but imagine our half-orc as a soldier who haunted by the constant battle and the horrors of war meeting a traveling bardic troop in a small boarder town while on leave. They see the beauty of the art/craft and decide then and there to be a bard and uses their new found profession as a means to express their pent up feelings and emotions that have built up over the course of their past life in hardened battle.

From there we can begin to flesh out the rest of the traits: ideal, bond, and flaw. We could pick: "Greater Good" for ideal, "I fight for those who cannot fight for themselves" for bond, and "the monstrous enemy we faced in battle still leaves me quivering with fear" for flaw. Now all of this is just taken straight from the PHB. I've not even looked at other supplements or even house rules/third-party stuff.

Once we have all that fleshed out and we have something far deeper than "Oh they are just a bard", I go through and start planning out sub-classes and the like. With this I make the character fit the background, rather than have the background fit the character.  I feel like this method opens up so much more possibilities and depth.

Tracy Parks

Published 7 months ago