Saturday, January 5, 2013

Trimming the Fat, Part 3: Backgrounds

This sporadically appearing series features bits of 4e that I have scrapped from my games and fanzine. Previously, we covered sunrods and skill challenges. Today, we look at backgrounds.

It isn't the idea of backgrounds that's bad, it's the execution. Some backgrounds are clearly more powerful than others. I feel that all backgrounds should confer basically the same level of mechanical benefit or there will be less incentive, even for casual players, to choose a background based on its flavor. And to be honest, the flavor that's there isn't always so great in the first place. The current list of backgrounds is also so outrageously bloated that it will give you a headache just looking at it.

I propose the following rules for backgrounds: The player comes up with his/her character's backstory. The player can then choose between receiving a +2 bonus to a skill that has something to do with their backstory, or adding a skill to their class list that has something to do with their backstory.

Doesn't this make a lot more sense? This is nice and clean, and encourages players to give a little extra thought to their characters. It also balances out the power level of background benefits.

That's what you will see in the mag! Anybody want to share some houserules on backgrounds? Leave a post!


  1. I completely agree - backgrounds were badly executed, especially once they stared introducing ones which broke with the "+2 to a skill, or add it to your class skill list" formula and you had everyone be born under a bad sign.

    I did basically the same thing when I was running 4e, but it's really no different than just reflavouring the mechanics. Seems to me that one of the great things that 4e did was divorce roleplay from mechanics, and backgrounds were kind of the last vestige of that.

  2. Hm, I think campaign-specific Backgrounds with unusual benefits can work well, and less complex than Themes, but they really need to be created by the GM for his/her own campaign, which means no charbuilder.
    I was looking at the Scales of War backgrounds recently and they seem rather nice for a Points of Light/Nerath campaign, and more flavourful than the PHB2 ones.
    But I definitely agree that free choice of a wide range of variable-power backgrounds can cause trouble, I've just had that with a player who took a Regional background for the benny, totally unaware of the implications of that background.

    1. "I think campaign-specific Backgrounds with unusual benefits can work well...but they really need to be created by the GM for his/her own campaign."

      I don't disagree with this, in fact, I have done this before myself. If individual DMs want to come up with something that fits their campaign, go for it. This is just a "generic" rule that evens out the power level of backgrounds, and ensures that they serve their real purpose (providing a minor mechanical benefit based on a PCs backstory).

    2. Yep, you want to avoid everyone taking "Windrise Ports" for the mechanical benefit. If the GM designs them himself he can consider whether he does want to mechanically encourage a particular background, perhaps for thematic reasons. Eg if I were running my Wilderlands 4e campaign* over again I would like to give the Altanian Barbarian background a cool benefit, because they are the Conanesque guys the campaign centred around.

  3. I agree for the most part, when I started my first 4e campaign I basically decided that backgrounds were for small mechanical benefits that help your RP (want to be a stealthy fighter ect) and of course no HP backgrounds they are just too OP

    I did give my players 3 extra health to make sure very low levels were not too lethal though

    for simplicity sake I make a short list of universal backgrounds and let the players pick.

    • 2 skills are now on your class list, you gain a +1 bonus to both skills
    • gain a +1 to three skills
    • +2 to one skill
    • Pick a knowledge skill in which you have training, you may reroll any check with that skill but
    must use second result.
    • Remove the armor check penalty from one trained skill.
    • You may use your primary stat in the skill that represents the power source of your class
    (marshal:athletics or acrobatics | arcane, psionic:arcana | primal:nature | divine:religion)
    • Gain terrain walk in Earth, Forest, Urban or Ice
    • Gain a Language, you must meet any qualifications for it.
    • Gain +1 initiative, and proficiency with a military, or simple weapon of your choice.
    • Gain +1 initiative, and +1 to a skill of your choice
    • you gain 3 resistance per tier in a damage type of your choice. This resistance stacks with other
    sources of resistances.

  4. You are so right with this critique. Campaign based background are the right idea (Pathfinder adventure paths often use these as well). It looks like 5th edition is going to be more in line with your proposal -- create a short backstory and get some minor benefit from it. The samples from the play test packet have been pretty good and I'm looking forward to seeing more in the PHB.