October 5, 2016

Nature vs Nurture: Races and Backgrounds

The ongoing philosophical debate about the influence of one's genetics and one's upbringing on their behavior as an adult is one that's taught to many students. Broadly, it can be thought about as the difference between free will and determinism, but for most of us, it more meaningfully refers to who we praise and blame for our talents and faults. Of course, this debate has also seen its fair share of scientific research, which has largely concluded (rather anticlimactically) that our personalities are really a synergy of genetics and upbringing.

The structure of D&D characters attempt to reflect this dichotomy, but in a largely biased way.

Understanding Your Character 

D&D is a roleplaying game, and as such, the characters you assume in it should be as true to life as possible, as long as it's convenient for the purposes of the game. This means you're playing with more than just stats -- your character is an approximation of an imagined person. It should have all the trappings of a real-life personality, with strengths and weaknesses, personal faults, ideals about the way the world ought to work, and strong connections to other people and institutions of the game world. Without these traits, your character is more of a cardboard cutout than a persona to be assumed. And indeed, there's a space on the character sheet for all these things, but it's not quite distributed equally.

D&D & Human Nature

The mechanical system of Dungeons and Dragons makes some very large, and possibly dangerous assumptions about human nature. Your Background, the approximation of your profession and upbringing, bestows all your personality traits, and offers next to no mechanical benefit for the mechanically rigorous part of the game. By contrast, your Race bestows almost nothing to your personality, and offers very substantial mechanical benefits. This imbalance is problematic, to say the least.

On an analytical level, this means that D&D assumes that your personality is due almost entirely to your upbringing, and owes almost nothing to your genetics. This is problematic when it comes to thinking about your characters realistically, but it also ignores the fact that a large amount of culture should be tied up in your character's race. According to the base assumptions of the game, there should be no difference in personality between a half-orc charlatan and a gnomish charlatan.

Also, this means that your chosen Background has almost no effect on how your character actually performs at his chosen tasks. A rogue that was a guild artisan should sneak and hide just as well as a rogue that was a criminal. But no matter the character's background or life experience, a halfling should always be better at sneaking than a human of the same class.

A Better System

If the mechanics of D&D characters and their personality traits were more equally distributed between Backgrounds and Races, the system would better represent reality, and give more opportunity for interesting, dynamic characters. The actual solution is a small system overhaul of the race and background systems, and might be a project we bring you in the future as a variant rule. In this proposed system, races and backgrounds would each give +1 to one or two ability scores (never +2), and each would give useful features, a personality trait or two, and a skill or tool proficiency.

In the new system, a character with a very unified skill set would be motivated to choose a race and background which synergize with the same ability score increases. For example, a player wants to play a rogue character that is very focused on Dexterity-based weapons and Dexterity based skills, like Stealth and Acrobatics. Therefore, he would choose the Halfling (which gives +1 to Dexterity, the Acrobatics skill, and the Lucky feature) and the Criminal background (which also gives +1 to Dexterity, for a total of +2, along with the Stealth skill, and a feature which allows you to move faster on the first round of combat.) These skills and ability scores work together to make an ideal base for a rogue character, and choosing only one would still improve a rogue from the base.


  1. Sounds like the basis to 6e to me :P

  2. I've given some thought to this as well, and I've noticed some weird stuff in the racial abilities.

    For example, all dwarves must, by necessity of their racial traits, have been raised by dwarves. They have proficiencies in light and medium armor. The bonuses to all things stone-work related could be explained as innate magic, being brethren to the earth, etc, but proficiencies?
    Similarly with elves and their weapon profs.

    Of course, making such parts of the character inherent to race does make a strong statement regarding the self imposed isolation of those two races.

    Not sure if I have a point so much as just making observations.

  3. Simply put, the base rules are both racist and classist.
    I don't know about you, but this sounds like the beginnings of a Patreon project to me...

    1. Agreed. I think I speak for all when I say we would be excited to see that.

  4. I really hope you are all joking because this is the dumbest thing I have ever seen.

    1. Huh? The article advocates a system of variant rules that more appropriately balances the influence of Race and Background on a character's stats and personality traits. I'm not sure what you're on about.

    2. I mean the player sets the personality traits not the gamesystem,and if you read the backround section you can pick and choose pieces of backrounds. Also what waffle said about it, they really don't like writing for outside of forgotten realms so yeah all the race stuff makes sense because the race is written for the setting of forgotten realms.

    3. I don't see how that is contradicting what is posted here. Do elaborate.

    4. " According to the base assumptions of the game, there should be no difference in personality between a half-orc charlatan and a gnomish charlatan." this. hell its even wrong there is a chart to roll that makes it different. and nature versus nurture is an out dated view, as evidenced if you do any reseach into it at all, because if my parents were raise a certain way they are going to raise me that way. They also do put a bit into the nature part with different types inside races and if you say what about humans in the world 5e is written in all humans developed in one area of the world and then spread out there isn't much difference to show.

    5. I think you're confusing the point here about the difference between personality traits and 'real features'.

      A player must necessarily choose a race which has real, tangible benefits to the character's stats, but provides no personality traits, and a background, which provides exclusively personality traits and ribbon features. When push comes to shove, your background only influences roleplaying, and doesn't do anything to influence your character actually being better at things, whereas the race actually can give you more HP, more damage, and a higher AC.

      Subraces still don't add personality traits - just more mechanical benefits.

    6. I think what he is saying, and what I agree with, is that the reason these things are seperate is because backgrounds are entirely meant to be a flavor thing. The base rules flat out say mix and match whatever you like as printed to your desires.

      Your proposed system means that instead of the huge variety of background concepts (I have a Goliath Fighter who is a dwarf merchant's adopted son in my sunday game) you reduce background to "Does this give me the stats I want? Cool. Im going to pretend I took the background that actually goes to my concept".

      While your ideals are noble, they flat-out don't work in the mechanical assumptions of 5e. One of the strongest points of 5e is that your background can be ANYTHING. You can be a rogue who was a general/sergeant. You can be a Wizard who was a Knight at court.

      You can be anything at all that you want, and you are never penalized with inferior mechanics for fluff decisions.

      Please don't pollute that aspect of 5e.

    7. Further to mention, races are just a collection of features and stats with suggested fluff. You can reflavor them into anything you want, DM permitting.

      Personally, I would standardize races as "Pick one +2 & +1, Pick one perk, pick one skill" as the core package and then have actual races provide one Crunchy Ribbon (Dwarf Stonecunning, Elvish Trance, Water Genasi Water Breathing+Swim Speed, ect) and some more personality options.

      But, literally, the reason that 5e assumes it is nurture over nature for personality and everything is to /preserve player freedom and creativity/.

    8. I think you guys are looking at this the wrong way. A system overhaul in this sense is meant to minmax your statistics in a more realistic way. This isn't meant to open up roleplay options. You can still be a dwarf wizard that used to be a criminal, but his stats won't back up the play style. The way this is set up is a more realistic way of looking at nature (race) + nurture (background) producing a living, breathing person.
      Criminals in the real world can't make it to high status positions because they weren't raised in an optimal way for that position, but they can still be born with an innate talent. How the original system is set up encourages players to focus on racial modifiers determining a mechanical play style, and then a background that adds personal depth. This system gives you mechanical consequences for that personal depth, which in my opinion, is realistic.

    9. @Shardin: I think we agree a lot more than the article lets on, and I should probably explain how I currently use backgrounds in my home games:

      I don't.

      Backgrounds are meaningless for anything other than roleplay, and to encourage good roleplay and good player creativity, I basically allow my players to completely ignore them and leave that line blank. My players like being able to make a more flexible backstory, without acquainting themselves with the background system at all. As the DM, I give them their bonus skill proficiencies once I know their backstory.

      There's no mechanical consequence and no real purpose to your character having a history, with prior experience and learned skills. This doesn't hamper my game at all, but it does pose a problem of logical consistency to the edition, which could (perhaps) be solved by adding mechanical weight to a character's background, to make it more equivalent to their race.

    10. As is, Background CAN provide mechanical benefit in that they often are accompanied with extra skills, proficiencies, and a fluff ability. Nature vs. Nurture as a Race vs. Background argument, doesn't really hold here. Nature is more the stat block from either point buy or die roll. A puny +1 to a thing because of 'genetics' isn't a big enough swing. And background is more a fluid roleplay interpretation of the character, as per the book you can mix & match background stat increases with background features and then call it whatever you want. What you'd instead be creating with this system is instead of having people auto-choose something like Halfling for a Rogue, you'd force them to choose Halfling Criminal for a rogue. You'd cut out the usefulness of half the backgrounds to instead have forced Class/Background combos because you'd be gimping yourself hard not to take that combo. What fun is it to say "well, you're a melee fighter so you NEED to take Soldier." "Oh, you're a Wizard? Guess you're taking Scholar." "Oh, you're a Druid? Well then you're an Outlander". It doesn't add anything to the game to force people into certain backgrounds to make their class and race fit... it just makes your choices more restrictive. Unless we decided to then go the route of 4e and literally make a class & race variant for EVERYTHING but now include background into it. Want to be a Halfling Paladin Sailor? Well your stats won't work so here's a new class with paladin abilities that uses Halfling modifiers and Sailor modifiers. Want to be a Halfling Paladin Scholar? Cool, we have a completely new and different class that isn't a halfling paladin sailor but totally has renamed versions of the same abilities just so you can use your favorite stats. Want to play an Elf Barbarian Folk Hero or an Elf Barbarian Guild Artisan... that's okay, we've created two different elegant rage beasts that will sue exactly what you need. OR we could just let you choose a race and class you want while letting background continue to add additional skills you want.

  5. This also implies the issue of racial/cultural specific background, which is a huge can on worms in and of itself.