After having people enjoy my class articles and how to play a certain class, I wanted to get back to it and talk about the different backgrounds in Dungeons & Dragons. This first post I want to do as an introduction to backgrounds, and then later I’ll cover a few backgrounds at once in various posts and talk about them in more detail.
What is a Background?
Seems like a pretty straightforward question and answer. A background is what your character did prior to becoming an adventurer. The less straightforward part is that your character might not have done that thing in a while. For example, if you were an urchin and you’re now 50 years old, you weren’t an urchin that recently. It can also be very recently, though; maybe your adventuring started when you, with the criminal background, were caught by the owner of a mansion and instead of reporting you, they were impressed by your skills, so they hired you to do a job for them and leave them alone, and that’s where the game is starting.
I like it when players use their background to enhance a mystery or something in their backstory that I as the DM can grab onto as a plot hook. It doesn’t have to be a huge plot hook, but if there is something interesting, like an intriguing NPC or place or monster that is in your background, that helps me flesh out the world so that as a player, you feel more connected. Even if you’ve closed your past off — everyone is dead, I now have a traumatic event that happened in my past, etc. — how do you react when something like that happens again?
How Much Should You Use the Book for Backgrounds?
This is a situation where there isn’t really a right answer. As much or as little as you need to. The nice thing about the backgrounds from the player handbook (PHB) is that it helps you figure out things like flaws, personality traits, etc. if you’re having troubles or you only have a loose idea. The downside is that sometimes people feel beholden to use the ones that are in the book. I let my players tweak things as needed, or if they have an idea for a flaw, bond, personality trait, or ideal already, we make it so it works in the game. What you’re trying to avoid is making a character that is Batman and who doesn’t really have a personality, flaw, or bond.
Wait, What’s All in a Background?
A background is something that you’ve done in your past that was an important part of your life. We kind of covered that in the first part, but this is something that defines you heavily at the start of your game. Things can change as your character develops and as possible flaws are overcome or bonds aren’t bonds anymore. Let’s talk about the different parts of a background, though.
You generally start by picking out a single background — it might be that you were an urchin or criminal as mentioned above, but maybe you spent most of your life studying and were a sage, or you did something amazing and became a folk hero. There are a number of these options in the PHB and more in other books. I don’t have all of the other books yet, but I’ll probably be adding some as time goes on.
In each background, you have a few tables that you can roll on or pick from, and this is what I was talking about in the above section. Each background has a table containing personality traits, and then tables for flaws, bonds, and ideals as well. You can roll on them and get a random one to help you figure out your characters backstory, or you can pick, choose, and alter them so that they fit the backstory you already had planned for your character.
The reason that they do this is to give you a spot to start roleplaying from. It helps you fish around less to start a game to find your character if you have a baseline. It also gives you some things, like different proficiency depending on the background you took. Maybe as a Sage you are now proficient in investigation and knowledge about the arcane, but for a criminal background, it might be that you are proficient at sleight of hand and deception. Along with that, it gives you some ability or trait that you can use. For example, if you are a soldier, even retired, other soldiers still recognize your rank. Or if you’re a Guild Artisan, you can also go to the guild of your craft, but those seem to come up less. It also gives you some gear, if you’re getting gear that way, and possibly some more languages.
What If I Have Multiple Backgrounds?
Now that you’ve heard more about different backgrounds, you might be thinking that you fall into multiple categories. That’s certainly possible, so I’m going to go into story mode with you and talk about two different characters, Silver and Syldi.
Silver had a rough life and saw many horrible things. He didn’t know all of what was going on, but has been haunted by some of it. He also didn’t grow up well and was on the street and poor as an urchin. Those two things shaped him into the god-fearing man he is today. So, when Silver was looking at different backgrounds, the player didn’t feel like a single one quite fit. So instead of just picking one, he combined two. He took the skill proficiency, and gear from just one, but when building out his bonds, personality traits, flaws, and ideals, he worked from both lists. That’s one way you can get a couple of backgrounds into the same character.
Syldi, on the other hand, grew up on the street, barely making it. She had to steal from street vendors and eventually caught the eye of the local thieves’ guild. She started working with them until she was able to land on her feet and become a bartender (at least part-time) at the Queen’s Retreat. Syldi would make sense to have a combination of criminal and urchin background. However, Syldi was a thief because of necessity, not because it’s something that she really wanted to do. Her being a criminal wasn’t a defining feature of her as compared to being an urchin, and while she has thief skills (and is actually a Rogue with the archetype of thief), those are because she was an urchin, not because she was a criminal. So, that’s one kind of thing you can lean into; maybe there is one that is more important so that is the one you really get your skills from.
But What if None of Them Are Right?
With Dungeons & Dragons, playing the game and creating characters is more of an art than a science, I’d say. If you can’t find something that works as well as you’d hoped, work with your DM. Maybe the Sage options don’t quite match what you are looking for, because you want to be a student still, and a sage seems like they’d know too much. Work with your DM on it — maybe there are parts you can use from the sage, but then tweak the other parts or come up with your own. There’s nothing that says that you can’t come up with your own background, and if you have a great idea for one, run it by your Dungeon Master.
However, if your background idea gives you four new skills, a bank full of platinum pieces, and the ability to mind control any person within twenty miles of you into giving you their home as your own so you always have a spot to stay, that might be a bit overboard, and as a DM, I’m going to nix that. Certainly, though, come up with your own ideas and skills within reason. Even if you only get a couple of skills like most classes do, don’t give yourself the option of the two best ones for yourself; look at how other backgrounds do it and balance that out on your own. Your student might have skills that look more like a sage, but maybe you’re a student of martial arts; if so, don’t give yourself investigation and stealth because those seem the handiest. You’re probably not getting much investigating done if you’re practicing your sweet kung fu moves.
The same goes with your background traits such as personality, bond, flaws, and ideals. You probably don’t have a personality trait that everyone always likes you. If you suggested that as a personality trait in a game that I’m running, I’d either tell you just get the Charm Person spell or that maybe it’s your flaw — you think everyone likes you. Or, if you decide that your bond is to the empire because you’re the sister of the emperor, that can work, but don’t expect that to get you what you want. You’re going to have to defend the empire against the common folk who think the emperor sucks, and oh, by the way, while it opens a lot of noble doors for you, the emperor is pretty sure you’re trying to steal his throne, but thanks for the plot hook.
Basically, just be reasonable about it. I’ll nix anything as a DM if it is too strong. However, if your DM isn’t going to do that, don’t take advantage of it. The game is meant to be fun for everyone, so come up with your really fun background that the DM is going to enjoy and that you’re going to enjoy; just don’t take away from the fun of the other players.
Finally, What’s the Difference between a Background and Backstory?
This is a question that is pretty simple. Your background is basically your skills that you gained through your backstory. The backstory you choose is going to be what really shapes who you are as a character, and you can slot your background into it. That means, if you’ve spent your whole life apprenticing to be an armorer in the mines of Moria, you don’t have the criminal background. You can work at it from either direction; you can use your background to create your backstory and use those traits, bonds, flaws, and ideals to flesh out what happened to you. Or you can work it from the other direction, where you have a story and pick the background that works for you in that backstory.
Now that you have an idea of how backgrounds work, we’re going to delve more into some of them, and I’ll be giving examples like I did with the classes as to how you can use backgrounds and potentially turn them into something different than what your typical sage or urchin or criminal is like.
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