You’ve rolled your character, arranged their ability scores to your heart’s desire, and picked out their class. You’ve filled their inventories; picked out their spells, feats, and powers. You even managed to pick out a name before the game began.
But who are they, really?
What made Boethius the Barbarian of Banzabar leave home? Who are his parents and does he have any siblings? Are they living? Does he have enemies or friends that could aid him? Is he an outcast, or a beloved citizen of his native lands? Is he wealthy, poor, or did he have his fortune taken from him? In other words; who is he, and how does he fit into the world around him?
The AD&D 2e Dungeon Master’s Guide looked at these very questions and declared that there shouldn’t be any rules to determine the answers. Instead it recommended a style of cooperative story building between the Dungeon Master and the players. The text gave the following example:
When a player says, ‘My dwarf’s a rude and tough little guy who doesn’t like humans or elves,’ you can respond with ‘Fine, he’s probably one of the Thangor Clan from the deep mountains regions.’ This type of cooperation spurs your creativity, and involves the players in your world right from the start. You must come up with answers to their questions and ways to make their desires work in the campaign. They will be rewarded with the feeling of getting the characters they want . . .Cook, 12-13
A character’s background is a role-playing tool. It provides the player with more information about his character, more beginning personality on which to build. It should complement your campaign and spur it forward . . .”
This sort of cooperative world building works wonderfully even in established game worlds as it allows the players to feel a deeper since of connection to the events happening in the game. For example, a murder in a dwarven hold may be a passing anecdote in one game, but if it’s a murder in the Thangor Clan then suddenly you’ve got a reason why a player is paying attention. They own a connection there; and the closer you strike to home, the closer they’re going to pay attention.
D&D 5e built on the foundation that older editions laid by making backgrounds into a significant choice for the players that had in game consequences. Now you could choose to be a former profession and gain some skills, proficiencies, languages, and equipment; but in doing so you had to ask what changed.
Two words that spur a thousand questions. Why did you stop being a soldier? Why did you start adventuring? Where were you a soldier? Who did you fight for? Do you still have friends there? Enemies? Where did you get the money to start? Where did you learn those skills?
Why are you, you?
It’s the same questions we’ve always been asking but now we have a bit more of a guide to help us start out. And I find myself wondering if we’ve lost something in doing so.
There is certainly room for the same sort of cooperative world building that we’ve always done, but any standardization of a process takes some of the creativity away. Every former soldier starts out with the same prompt:
War has been your life for as long as you care to remember. You trained as a youth, studied the use of weapons and armor, learned basic survival techniques, including how to stay alive on the battlefield. You might have been part of a standing national army or a mercenary company, or perhaps a member of a local militia who rose to prominence during a recent war . . .Mearls, 42
I’m not against the prompts as their designed to help spur a player’s imagination in creating who their character is; but I can’t help but feel like we’re limiting ourselves by using them.
Cook, David “Zeb.” Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. USA. TSR, Inc, 1993. pgs 12,13
Mearls, Mike and Jeremy Crawford. D&D Basic Rules, Player’s Basic Rules Version 2.0. USA, Wizards of the Coast. 2014. pg 42
2 thoughts on “Backgrounds, or, Who Even Are You?”
Nice article and thoughts.
I think 5e was trying to make it easier and prompt people to flesh this out and provide a framework. However they ended up codifying it which means they can kill the creativity. Experienced gamers will take is as a guide and play around. Others will use it as a crutch or rules lawyer it.
I have been thinking about a simplified version for NPCs where needed based on a script writing hack, summarising a character in three ways:
While most modules especially 5e break the NPCs down in detail if you needed to come up with the NPC and who they were quick to then free form as along as you had the above you can wing it. Using the tables from PHB you might easily roll it up or create an easier summary table.
E.g. you capture a goblin and charm him and turn him into a retainer. But what makes him tick?
Strength: Vicious little fighter who never quits.
Desire: Hates being the smallest and wants to show and be the big man.
Flaw: greedy. Always wants gold. To show he is the big man.
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