The Joy of Backgrounds in D&D 5E
My regular gaming group is starting up a D&D 5E campaign, and I’m doing my usual routine of figuring out what the heck I want to play. Let me unpack that, though. There’s the system side of things, and then there’s the narrative side. D&D has always placed a ton of page-count on the former, what with (depending on edition) spells-per-level tables, lists of powers and feats, and damage breakdowns of bastard sword versus longsword. But the latter... well, not as much.
This isn’t to say D&D – even the systems-heavy edtions – don’t support strong character concepts and sweeping narrative arcs. Anecotally, in my time playing 4E, I played some of the most interesting characters I’ve ever played! I’ll always remember Galen, my doomed Fighter who was on the run from a demonic bargain he made to save his life (and the regicide that his patron demanded of him). I’ll remember Xola’at, my psionic Athasian elven noble, desperate to reunite with his kingdom after it got devoured. I’ll remember my friend’s death-cultist Rogue, a holy assassin claiming souls for the Raven Queen. These were all compelling stories, built because we had the skill to build a narrative hook into our characters. The system gave us little to no guidance.
But now... 5E. There’s actually a decent chunk of pagecount devoted to helping players hit the ground running with cool stories, and nowhere is this better expressed than in the Background system. Backgrounds are phenomenal. I liked them even when I wasn’t so keen on 5E overall, and now that I’ve come to like 5E, I think I like them even more.
I probably don’t have to tell you what Backgrounds are, but for the sake of everyone, here’s a quick rundown. In addition to choosing a Class, you also choose a Background. While the Class is mostly focused on what your character does in combat, Backgrounds handle a lot of exploration and interaction. They give your character some minor equipment, a couple of skills, and some sort of narrative ability, like being able to secure lodging from people who admire your legend, or the benefits concommitant with a military rank. It’s all very loosey-goosey and lightweight, but most importantly, it’s independent of your class. So, going back to my friend’s 4E Rogue, he could make a Rogue, take the Assassin subclass once he gets to 3rd level, and select the Acolyte Background. Galen would probably be a Fighter/Warlock, if the DM allowed multiclassing, but in any event he would take the Criminal Background. That’s it, no bending over backwards to make a class fit the mechanics, no choosing a different Class that fit your model of the story better. It’s brilliant.
What’s more, it’s a dead-simple way to differentiate your character from others. A Bard who’s an Entertainer is iconic, but what if the Bard is a Spy? A Charlatan? A Pirate? These aren’t heavy-duty mechanical blocks – as mentioned above, they’re simply a few skills, a little bit of mostly-inconsequential gear, and a non-combat ability – but they frame the character in entirely different ways. And since they’re so lightweight and transparently-designed, it’s a snap to make your own.
I’m late to the party, I know, but Backgrounds are one of the cleverest ways to focus D&D into a game about telling stories through rich characterization. The game has previously relied on a very light-touch approach, but I feel like it benefits significantly from building a system around it.