Unbloodied Heroes 3: Interludes, Backgrounds and Retraining

This is the third blog of my Unbloodied Heroes series exploring alternatives to 4e’s noncombat mechanics. In this blog, I will describe proposed mechanics for Interludes. The blogs in this series are:

Unbloodied Heroes 1: An Introduction
Unbloodied Heroes 2: Exposition from Point of View
Unbloodied Heroes 3: Interludes: Backgrounds and Retraining
Unbloodied Heroes 4: Travel and Group Efforts
Unbloodied Heroes 5: Exploration and Individual Efforts
Unbloodied Heroes 6: Skills Reimagined
Related to this blog series are my prior series on Combat Investment, Social Challenges, and Protagonocentrism.

Interludes

Interludes describe what happens to PCs when they are not adventuring as a team. “Adventuring” in this context is not limited to combat, but to any attempt to engage in an endeavor as a team, and includes most skill challenges, traveling, attempts to garner information, to engage in a business venture, etc.

Interludes generally occur when the characters go their separate ways in between adventures. A wizard may seclude himself in a library to engage in arcane research. A cleric may perform routine duties at the local shrine. A bard may perform in tavern-halls about the town. A fighter may visit his mentor and share war stories. Equipment is upgraded, and skills are retrained during interludes.

Generally, interludes should not be played out. An interlude involves a single player and the DM. The rest of the party will be twiddling their thumbs during this time, something I try to avoid. For frequent players, the Dungeon Masters Guide 2 has some good ideas for involving players in other people’s interludes, but I generally, simply gloss over them.

Players can dictate what they do during the interlude between adventures as long as they do not dramatically change the world. Unless your players are very tolerant of watching someone else get a solo adventure, do not roleplay out these interludes. Try to incorporate these stories into the adventures themselves. You can include exposition imparted to the warrior through his mentor. Maybe the wizard uncovers a hidden prophecy during his research. This rewards the player directly for his commitment to thinking of his character as fully developed with a life outside adventuring without taking gaming time away from the other players.

In Fourth Edition, two mechanics govern what players may do in between adventures: the Background mechanic, introduced in the Players Handbook 2, and Retraining, introduced in the Players Handbook 1. At first blush, these mechanics appear utterly unrelated. Backgrounds are static, chosen at 1st level and never touched thereafter. Retraining affects feats, powers, and skills, and can be used every level.

But both these mechanics handle activities of the characters that occur “off-screen” as it were. Backgrounds describe what a character did before becoming an adventurer, and retraining describes a character’s priorities in between adventures (as it pertains to their adventuring skills). I propose these mechanics be expanded and then harmonized.

Expanding Backgrounds

Presently, characters can choose from a dazzling array of Backgrounds, but only one can give any sort of mechanical benefit. And the benefit is often a +2 bonus to a Skill. (I’ll explain why this benefit is a bad idea in a future blog in this series.) I think it would be more helpful for fleshing characters to expand the Background mechanic into three categories, each of which will give separate benefits:

CULTURAL BACKGROUND
Culture represents the circumstances of one’s birth and upbringing. These backgrounds might be specific to a race, social caste, geographic culture, or family. Characters born under an omen or subject to a prophecy might be able to reflect this with a Cultural Background. Some characters may wish a background in which they were raised in a variety of cultures. A Cultural Background called “Cosmopolitan” can accommodate this as well. The benefit of a Cultural Background can include granting fluency in one or more languages, proficiency in an exotic or superior weapon, or granting a character a learned trick borne from being raised in a specific culture.

ENVIRONMENTAL BRACKGROUND
Environment represents the physical location in which a character was raised. Environmental Backgrounds can exist for each different type of terrain, from tundra to desert. An urban Environmental Background should exist for city-dwellers who have never previously left the confines of civilization. Exotic Environmental Backgrounds, for characters raised in the Elemental Chaos, in an Astral Dominion, or even in the Hells, should also be available. For characters whose childhood was spent constantly traveling from one location to another, an Environmental Background called “Itinerant” should be made available. The benefit of an Environmental Background can include bonuses when attempting to travel through or survive in a given environment. The Background may also be used to improve other skill checks made on specific terrains. An Environmental Background of Tundra, for example, may grant bonuses to defenses against attacks that render the target prone.

OCCUPATIONAL BACKGROUND
The Occupational Background represents any formal training the character may have received prior to becoming an adventurer. This category should accommodate most occupations, including performers, craftsmen, and laborers. This Background should not be used to make additional money, but it can be used to prioritize exposition concerning certain types of appraisal. An Occupational Background may also place a Skill on a character’s Skill list, or grant a character a new way to use a trained skill (but not a straight bonus).

Retraining Harmonized

Retraining recognizes that as a character develops, priorities might change. Presently, in between levels, a character can retrain a single feat, trained skill, or power. I propose expanding this. Each subcategory of Background (Culture, Environment, and Occupational) can be given a series of expansions that can be taken instead of a character’s usual retraining. This allows a character to delve more deeply into their culture, environment, or occupation. One Background retraining should be allowed in each tier of play. Each Background should explain the benefit that one gains by expanding this Background.

By allowing characters to expand their Backgrounds, it keeps players focused on the non-combat, role-playing aspects of their characters. They will be developing not only their character’s combat ability, but their roleplaying as well. (Note these benefits should not replace or obviate roleplaying; they should enhance it.)

These expansions should not grant advantages in combat. Rather, they should be additional uses of a skill or a new way to garner information or to interact with an environment. The Paragon and Epic Tier expansions can also allow characters to accomplish impossible tasks with their Background.

Stay tuned for my next blog where I discuss rules for travel and other group efforts.

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