July 5, 2017

Just Ignore Backgrounds

Comments from the Finger: Despite what this article might profess, backgrounds are super important; the ones in the PHB are just a little sub-optimal, something I'd like to spend time tackling.
     Also, sorry for the lateish post: I did, perhaps, too much America this weekend.

In 99% of all games, I tell my players to ignore Backgrounds completely, instead just picking two skill proficiencies of their choice. I have no idea how controversial this might be, but I'd like to try to put forward my arguments in favor of it, and compare what everyone else does in their own games.

Backgrounds Don't (Necessarily) Make Good Roleplay

The backgrounds in D&D 5e do a number of things, chief among them reminding players and DMs alike that interesting characters with rich backstories should be central to every campaign. Indeed, I think the fact that personality traits are front and center on the default 5e character sheets does a lot to emphasize this, which alone sets 5e apart from other editions. Picking a background from the PHB does not, however, ensure that a character has a well thought-out backstory.

In fact, the default backgrounds in the PHB tend to hamper interesting characters, since it seems like most backgrounds are designed to go with particular classes. If you've already decided you're playing a rogue, a Criminal background seems like the only logical choice. If you're playing a cleric, it seems like you need to pick an Acolyte. There's a couple of exceptions to this (being born into a wealthy family and taking the Noble background, for example, is as disproportionately beneficial in the game as it is in real life) but the vast majority seem glued to a class.

You can mix and match backgrounds and classes, but the results are just as likely to feel reaching as they are to be enriching. If your character is a Criminal cleric, that might have interesting implications, but a Guild Artisan rogue is a little confounding.

And even if you do find a class/background combination that is interesting to play, such a combination does not also necessarily generate an interesting background story, which is a key element to any background. Those important details still fall upon the player, which now must also abide by the scope of their background as they write it.

Noob Traps

Another recurring problem I have with backgrounds is that, mechanically, they leave new players spinning in circles. Whereas a race and class provide abilities that are frequently useful, backgrounds exclusively provide ribbon benefits. While this makes sense (backgrounds are for roleplay, not powergaming), I've seen many new players straining their brain, trying to figure out how to best use features included in their background. Veterans are more likely to ignore these features altogether, but to everyone else, they're more of a liability, a useless feature on every character sheet.

Roll 'Em Up Fast

Since many of my regular players are pretty busy, my games tend to be sporadic one-offs. This is great for us; we can try lots of characters in a variety of weird and awesome setting (Dark Matter, for example.) But this means, of course, that we need to spend time before most sessions rolling up new characters, which quickly becomes a chore, and always cuts into valuable play time. It's a necessity, therefore, that we roll up our characters as quickly as possible.

Cutting backgrounds makes a lot of sense in this situation: we don't plan on staying with any characters for an extended period, and few of us can remember the specifics of any backgrounds, which means each of us need to drag out the PHB for each background. Plus, having a defined background limits spontaneous roleplay; it can be lot more fun figuring out your background and history on the fly.

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How do you use backgrounds in your game? Do you use any variant rules, or do you use them as presented in Core? Let us know in the comments!


  1. Build your own feature. I'll let then take what ever Ptypes, Bond,ideals, and flaw, and then they take any 2 skills, languages or tools in any combination, and what ever feature they think can represent their backstory ability, and finally they get 35-40 gold to build a background equipment set(if applicable (sometimes I let them roll sarting gold and get background equipment if it's a particularly hard camp where they find money less))

    Also l, how was everyone's freedom day.

    1. It's worth pointing out we run almost year long campaigns.

  2. I agree when it comes to default ones. They aren't terribly evocative. I love the concept, though, so a bit of elbow grease does the job.

  3. For me, the background is a good starting point that you ask them to fill in. "Alright, you're a hermit, what kind of a thing were you doing? Would this work as a discovery?" You make sure that you immediately tie them into the world and cause them to feel like they're invested and their character naturally flows into the world.

    Now, for me, I do large sweeping campaigns over multiple years that require a lot of work, and it's nice to have the base background, but if that really doesn't work for someone, I make it up as I go. Most of the time, it's far easier to modify one of the options into something that actually fits the picture of their character or explains how an odd/rare race showed up here and acts a certain way.

    1. Yeah I've also viewed the background as more an interesting side note about what your character was before the call to adventure happened

  4. We technically use the backgrounds, but pretty much only the skills and languages parts. The name of the background should fit the character's backstory, but that's pretty much it, as no one uses the features, personality traits, or even equipment the background offers (we don't start at 1st level). Also, our campaigns are REALLY long (the last one was about 2.5 years), so the backgrounds of most characters tend to become meaningless (who the hell cares you were always bullied at wizard school when you can cast Finger of Death?).

    We do use the character backstories, and they have (sometimes lots of) impact on the game, but I generally agree that the presented backgrounds are useless for veteran players. However, they do help beginners understand the game better, roleplay more, and create more (relatively-)memorable characters. so I usually use them with the elementary school groups that I DM to.

  5. My group has been doing this for about a year now. Take two skills, a tool and a language of choice and the DM gives you an Exploration or Interaction benefit when it comes up in play.

  6. I tend to ask my players, especially my new players, what their backstory is and then try to find a background that fits that.
    So instead of them thinking about making their character fit the background, it's the background fitting the character.

  7. I have players make their own background, including some little benefit.

  8. some unlikely class/background combos I've made:
    urchin monk (stole a scroll from a monk and uses the techniques to steal)
    soldier bard (a skald whose duty it is to keep troops in high spirits)
    noble rogue (prince who ran away from the crown to pursue a life as a thief)

  9. Guild artisan craftsman. Rouge criminal. Paladin haunted one.
    Warlock scholar. That last one great my teachers told me to be patient that ill understand someday.i dreamt rhat night with the school and everyone covered in flames. A deal for power how could i refuse

    1. Let me tell ya folks.its hard being a member of the cloth its easier to burn it away.
      Fiend patron bladelock.named percidal.lets his tiefling flag fly a little to much