Wishlist: Character Backgrounds

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Problem

Let's start with something I didn't like about characters in 3rd edition (and previous):

Just by the rules, it was not easy to distinguish your 1st-level character from other characters with the same race and class. For example, if you were a half-orc barbarian, you'd most likely put your one feat in Power Attack, and the meager skill points in Climb, Jump, and Listen. There is not much room to go fancy as this is the stuff that you need for a basic, working character.

Whether your half-orc barbarian was a bastard child born to a human woman in the borderlands, or whether he was the proud son of a orc chieftain from the steppe, or whether he's a city brat that became a ruthless mercenary... you could write that in the background story, but the rules did not allow much space to translate it into something on the character sheet.

Books did come up with rules items that allowed to include some background information into your character, such as the regional feats in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting. The problem was, that this background feat was competing for the one thing that defined the "cool special thing" you had for the first 2 levels, your first-level feat. For that Barbarian in the example above, giving up Power Attack is just not an option.

Suggestion

So, here is my wish for 4th edition:

Add an extra feat slot at first level, and make it exclusively for regional feats / background feats. To make the division more clear, split feats (cool stuff you can do) and character backgrounds (things you learned because of your origin), even though they technically work as an extra feat. To quote Mike Mearls: Design game elements for their intended use. (= Don't cram character backgrounds into the feat system)

So, in addition to race, class, feat and skills, players choose a background for their character.

In the 4th ed PHB, there should be a few general backgrounds that work for most races and regions:

Peasant, craftsman, merchant, noble, nomad, savage, academic, monastic, military.

The main place to introduce new backgrounds would be setting books. For example, the ECS would have Talenta Halfling, Aerenal Elf, Valenar Elf, Cyre Refugee, Veteran of the Last War, Sharn City Rat, Dragonmarked House Member and so on.

Examples

Peasant: You're used to working hard from a young age. Reroll a Strength-based skill check once per day.

Noble: You enjoy a high social standing within your race. You get a +5 bonus to Diplomacy checks with members of your own race. Your starting gold is raised to 500 gp.

Monastic: You were raised in a place of religious learning. You gain three Knowledge skills as class skills. One of these must be Knowledge (religion) if it is not on your list already.

Raised by Dwarves: You've been found by dwarves as a child and you've been raised by them as one of their own. You speak Dwarven as a bonus language, and you have access to the dwarven talent tree.

Advantages

For the experienced player, the character backgrounds are a way to create a well-rounded, individual character.

For beginner players, it makes them think about where their character comes from for a moment. Instead of "ahh, never thought of it" or "my village was destroyed by orcs and my parents were killed", you might have "I was born to the noble family of Thornton from Waterdeep". That's much better.
I do think that game mechanics can encourage role playing. I remember Drama Dice from AEG's 7th Sea. They were like Action Points, but they were awarded for role playing, not gained automatically. Many systems have advantages and disadvantages, like the traits and flaws in Unearthed Arcana.

Speaking of UA, that's also where Contacts were, right? I think that is also a good idea.
You know I love this... I seem to recall AE having something like this

Pb
The background traits you're suggesting are rather more powerful than those from most systems I've seen (which usually have a minor bonus coupled with a minor penalty to make 'no background' characters viable), but I haven't yet decided if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Your examples certainly want to make me play characters with traits like those more than said background systems (and hence, fulfill their intended purpose of inspiring additional thought about one's character well), though. And characters with no backgrounds could simply be offered a bonus feat (be it because their players don't give a damn, or because there isn't a suitable background trait for them to choose).

But yeah; I'd love to see something like this implemented.

I need to stop attaching parentheses to every single sentence (I mean; seriously).
I do think that game mechanics can encourage role playing. I remember Drama Dice from AEG's 7th Sea. They were like Action Points, but they were awarded for role playing, not gained automatically.

This is, in my opinion, not a great idea.

You see, historically, when systems provide a core way to reward individual players for "role-playing", what inevitably happens is that the players who play characters who act out more often are rewarded more often. For instance, the player who wants to play a solemn, hard-working fighter type and does it extremely well will often be rewarded for role-playing far less often than the player behind the poorly-played, over-the-top gnome rogue constantly trying to get NPCs into bed. The fighter's player is doing a better job of portraying a heroic character and playing the role, but is receiving less reward for this. Meanwhile, the gnome's player is getting rewards thrown at him because he's making himself visible and causing the DM to laugh at his clowning around.

Now, the common retort is "Well if a DM is handing out more experience to the gonzo gnome than the fighter, he's not doing a good job as a DM." Yeah, that sure sounds like a great comeback on paper, doesn't it? Except then you actually start playing D&D, and realize that as a human being your attention is drawn to things that stand out. You will reflexively find yourself wanting to give RP rewards to the people who act out, because they make themselves visible. So now in order to fairly adjudicate individual RP rewards we have to teach all DMs how to be even-handed and pay attention to the role-playing of the players with more subtle characters. In the end, this turns out to be a fundamentally flawed system.

Beyond this, such a system helps to disrupt the flow of the game, because dealing with role-playing encounters inevitably involves one primary individual with perhaps some small input from one or two other party members. This causes things like the party walking into town to rest for a night, and in the process each character goes off on its own little role-playing sidequest in an attempt to earn RP rewards from the DM. You end up with a single in-game night's worth of resting (and not adventuring) taking an hour of real time as the DM deals individually with each party member. Yes, you might feel like you developed your character a little, but you'll really wish you had something to do during those 45 minutes that the DM was dealing with the other three players.

One of the reasons D&D has succeeded so phenomenally where other RPGs have floundered is that playing the game is exciting. Combat involves everyone, is relatively fast-paced, and has (usually) immediate tangible reward. Role-playing, on the other hand, is drawn out, involves one primary player (and maybe one or two others for support) and often lacks tangible reward. Now, I have a lot of faith in Wizards to develop a social encounter system that does not bog the game down in this way, but individual RP rewards are really not that wonderful in practice.
Tales from the Rusty Dragon (http://rustydragon.blogspot.com) - A 4th Edition Conversion Project Covering Paizo's Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path
I agree that individual RP awards are not, in and of themselves, a good mechanic. Too arbitrary, and generally too weak.

A much better way of using background-based mechanics is to tie Background and XP together (for D&D's purposes, almost certainly as an optional rule). Under this system, players create one or more plot hooks which they have at least limited narrative control over, and which, when they are compelled into play, generate all XP and/or bonus XP.

Since each player defines these at the outset and possesses some degree of control within the social contract and/or rules to compel them, they tend to be considerably less arbitrary than "RP awards."

In many ways, these are a natural outgrowth of the "XP for filling class role" options in 1e and 2e AD&D, except that instead of being defined by class, they are defined individually by the players.
Guys, the thread title is "Wishlist: Character Backgrounds". If you want to discuss player rewards for roleplaying, open a new thread please.
The background traits you're suggesting are rather more powerful than those from most systems I've seen (which usually have a minor bonus coupled with a minor penalty to make 'no background' characters viable), but I haven't yet decided if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Your examples certainly want to make me play characters with traits like those more than said background systems (and hence, fulfill their intended purpose of inspiring additional thought about one's character well), though. And characters with no backgrounds could simply be offered a bonus feat (be it because their players don't give a damn, or because there isn't a suitable background trait for them to choose).

The PHB should offer enough very generic backgrounds that any character fits in there. I think my list (peasant, craftsman, merchant, noble, nomad, savage, academic, monastic, military) covers a lot already, you might want to add Cross-Cultural, Sailor/Fisherman, Outlaw and Beggar/Underworld.

As for the power level, if every character has a background all that matters is that they are somewhat balanced against each other. More powerful backgrounds could be balanced by a disadvantage, but that should be the exception to keep things simple.

As for "no background", sorry, every character was born or created somehow. You don't go "plop" in front of your first dungeon. If it turns out to be really necessary to have a very generic one, I suggest "Other", which gives you a bonus class skill. Yes, that's weaker, to discourage nondescript characters.
And 99% of players will be Nobles, Wow 500 extra gp at Start up.

Player Backgrounds should not be a game mechanic.
People will tend to select 1 particular background
And 99% of players will be Nobles, Wow 500 extra gp at Start up.

So 99% of all players have never heard of wealth per level? Rubbish. How exactly do you think these 500 gp make a difference at level 20? How does it even make a difference after the first adventure? If the rogue finds a +1 dagger in that first dungeon that's already 2000 gp (by 3rd ed standards).

Also, other backgrounds might give other bonus starting equipment. "Knight" might give you a warhorse and plate armor, "alchemists apprentice" 3 free potions. It's a small bonus, but it won't matter anymore at 2nd level.

Player Backgrounds should not be a game mechanic.
People will tend to select 1 particular background

They are already a game mechanic, everytime you see a feat that says "can only be taken at first level". All I ask for is to separate these from the feat system.

And of course backgrounds need to be designed in a certain way that there is not one background that's better than any other. Just like there shouldn't be a feat that's better than all others, or spell, or class, or race, or magic item...
The Occupation rules from d20 Modern are a great precedent from WotC that match what you are requesting.

d20 Modern doesn't, by default, cover Race, but you can choose an Occupation, such as Blue Collar, Military, Student, Investigative, etc, and gives you bonuses to wealth, class skills, starting feats, and weapon proficiencies based on that choice. It worked very well at fleshing out characters and differentiating them, and I wouldn't mind to see those rules come to 4E.
So 99% of all players have never heard of wealth per level? Rubbish. How exactly do you think these 500 gp make a difference at level 20? How does it even make a difference after the first adventure? If the rogue finds a +1 dagger in that first dungeon that's already 2000 gp (by 3rd ed standards).

Also, other backgrounds might give other bonus starting equipment. "Knight" might give you a warhorse and plate armor, "alchemists apprentice" 3 free potions. It's a small bonus, but it won't matter anymore at 2nd level.



They are already a game mechanic, everytime you see a feat that says "can only be taken at first level". All I ask for is to separate these from the feat system.

And of course backgrounds need to be designed in a certain way that there is not one background that's better than any other. Just like there shouldn't be a feat that's better than all others, or spell, or class, or race, or magic item...

Well 500 GP automatically might mean that a character lives to make it to 2nd level let alone 20th

And Backgrounds has nothing to do with selecting a feat at 1st level only..Any character can select those without justifying why they took them. Backgrounds under your system is just another way to "BUFF" out a Character at first level. If you want to "BUFF" just change your game not the whole system for everyone.
Well 500 GP automatically might mean that a character lives to make it to 2nd level let alone 20th

So does being able to reroll a Climb check to avoid falling damage (see Peasant).

You know what the good thing is? Even if every player in the group thinks 500 gp starting gold is "teh uber" (hey, it's their character), starting the game with 4 nobles is no problem and it will just as much fun as any other game.

Backgrounds under your system is just another way to "BUFF" out a Character at first level. If you want to "BUFF" just change your game not the whole system for everyone.

As I wrote above, the goal of this rules addition is to create a well-rounded, individual character, and I'm puzzled how you translated it into "buffing".

Even if that was the case, 4th edition already buffs 1st level characters (hp x3, if the rumors are correct). But the whole character vs. monster balance will see a revamp anyway so it should be easy to include something like this at the current playtest stage and make sure it blends well into the existing system.
And 99% of players will be Nobles, Wow 500 extra gp at Start up.

Player Backgrounds should not be a game mechanic.
People will tend to select 1 particular background

Not true... in Arcanis we have [background] feats which can only be picked at 1st level

Believe it or not; Patrician (which gives 4d6x10 extra gold and makes you a noble and if you are a Val you get a free flintlock pistol) is not always picked... people pick Legionnaire, Canton, and so on…

I think Legionnaire is the most populer

You underestimate the player base by friend.
This is a great idea. Perhaps some racial abilities could be separated as some are inherent and others are cultural. As a 3.x example, not all elves would have to be proficient with the longsword, rapier, longbow and shortbow. What if my elf grew up as a drow slave?
I like the ideas in the original post and am intrigued by the thought of borrowing something like Modern's Occupations. Good ideas, both.
First, a word from someone who *knows* that millipedes can only have one extra feat.

Problem

Add an extra feat slot at first level, and make it exclusively for regional feats / background feats. To make the division more clear, split feats (cool stuff you can do) and character backgrounds (things you learned because of your origin), even though they technically work as an extra feat. To quote Mike Mearls: Design game elements for their intended use. (= Don't cram character backgrounds into the feat system)

I counter-suggest that social background be seperate from feats. It makes for easier access and better record keeping. Social backgrounds might lead to other social backgrounds that are accrued later and also might be key to gaining feats, prestige classes, and vice versa.

An attempt to push roll-playing over roleplaying ensues... wait, maybe it's a PETA declaration...

For instance, the player who wants to play a solemn, hard-working fighter type and does it extremely well will often be rewarded for role-playing far less often than the player behind the poorly-played, over-the-top gnome rogue constantly trying to get NPCs into bed.

Reward is not only laughter but also admiration.

If during the game the player of the solemn fighter roleplays a solemn fighter in conversation and in declared deed, his character would recieve no greater nor less attention in battle, no greater nor less attention when it comes to rewards of xp, and no greater nor less attention when it comes to friendship (depending largely on other issues, of course).

Now, the common retort is "Well if a DM is handing out more experience to the gonzo gnome than the fighter, he's not doing a good job as a DM." Yeah, that sure sounds like a great comeback on paper, doesn't it?

Oh that overworked player who doesn't act at all, just remains quiet and moves their character around? Yeah. The solemn fighter who didn't roleplay would probably get a few xp for warming a chair, declaring actions, maybe moving a piece of sculpted lead around, and rolling dice.
This is a great idea. Perhaps some racial abilities could be separated as some are inherent and others are cultural. As a 3.x example, not all elves would have to be proficient with the longsword, rapier, longbow and shortbow. What if my elf grew up as a drow slave?

Exactly. Several abilities that are racial abilities now (Dwarf attack bonus against orcs, elven longsword proficiency, halfling attack bonus with slings etc.) are cultural rather than "genetic". They should be removed from the racial abilities and moved to backgrounds like "halfling villager", "dwarven militia", "elven woodsman" etc.

I counter-suggest that social background be seperate from feats. It makes for easier access and better record keeping. Social backgrounds might lead to other social backgrounds that are accrued later and also might be key to gaining feats, prestige classes, and vice versa.

Well, by renaming the "regional feat slot" to "background" you pretty much make it a separate ability. Actually we suggested the same here...
Me likey.

-Will
Character Backgrounds... Damm something I require of my players for their PC's (they can't advance above 1st level without an approved background).

Ya know what really encouraged backgrounds? HACKMASTER! Family honor, status of parents, quality of parents (in raising you), social status (low, middle, or upper class).

You even handled if you are right/left handed/ambidextrous and if you were legitimate at birth or not.

Also, EVERYONE rolled on the SAME starting money table, with modifiers for order of birth, social status, class, etc.

I'd love to see a similar kind of system built into 4e right from the start as a way to encourage ROLE-playing. (XP rewards for ROLE-Playing and not just combat would be cool too).
First I'd like to see people pick from a list of (where I'm from/what I do). Most people do choose where they live and what they do for a living. These people had to do something for food before they all met at the local inn and saw the adventurers wanted poster right.

Then I'd like to see people roll for (parents/how they were raised), since children don't get to choose that so why should a player character.

Now make up a story that bridges this gap. Were you raised by wolves, but now you're a courier in a major city? How? Why? And go that extra mile, why did you suddenly decide to become a mage?

Did you choose caravan guard, but now you're of noble birth? How in the heck did you get there? And now tell us what event made you feel the tug of your god and become a cleric?

I've used this method in other game systems for character background creation and it's great since so many of the rationalizations are made by the players so it still gives them room to have a lot of input on what sort of person they are, and it gives them a real basis for opinions, values etc.
I'd love to see Occupations in 4e, maybe coupled with a background equip list like in FR or Conan d20. This would enhance game play, and would help flesh out concepts and character direction.

I'd also like a greater developed character sheet, i.e. more than two pages, with background info, history, contacts, goals, etc. etc.
OOh Yes! Contacts...and the contact's friends, families, and contacts. This sort of stuff is prime DM hook material, and gives the characters a reason to care if they cause massive collateral damage to a community that they and their friends live in.

Quite frankly, I think in some games contacts might be a good way to get across the idea that there can be interactions beyond and between, "kill it and take it's stuff" and "I roll hide..let's get out of here!!"

I think that sort of connectedness in game gives rise to a lot more reasons to role play personal interactions and alternative ways of accomplishing "the mission". If one of your contacts could be implicated or killed if you move openly against the bad guys maybe you NEED to find a more subtle method of neutralizing the threat.
You might want to check the backgrounds in Green Ronin's Black Company or the talent system in Malhavoc's Iron Heroes. Both of them are cool, and offers a great way of diversifiing characters.

Also noone pick the bonus money background options...
I really don't get what's so important about starting gold. Standard treasure for a 1st level encounter is 600 gp, that's 150 gp per character in a first level party. Now guess what's average starting gold for a fighter? The same 150 gp (and that's the most of any class). So, basicly, you'll earn your starting gold again (or even more) on the first dead orc. A few hundred gp extra starting gold make zero difference after you have cleared the first dungeon.

(The calculation is for 3rd edition, 4th may have different numbers but they'll surely don't change the system)

As for Thevail's proposal, I like it but I think it's too detailed for the normal campaign. For D&D, it's enough to have a quick and simple system that recognizes that the character is born and raised somewhere and that it makes a difference.

If you have too many elaborate tables to determine your character background, there is the opposite effect: you don't help the player's imagination, you put it in a corset. When the dice dictate that my parents were grumpy merchants, but I want them to be open-minded gypsy travellers, the system prevents me from playing the character that I want. And that's bad. If a random background generation table works for your group, it's fine, but I don't want to see it in the PHB.
Let me suggest y'all go look at a copy of the HM PHB, specifically Chapter 4. That covers much of what we've been talking about WITHOUT putting the player's imagination in a corset. :D
Guys, the thread title is "Wishlist: Character Backgrounds". If you want to discuss player rewards for roleplaying, open a new thread please.

I guess I did derail things a bit. Anyway, back on topic, I do think that something like this could not only provide some RP potential, but could also be a good way to keep skills like Craft and Profession in the game.
Arcana Evolved does something similar to this, with each character getting one bonus ceremonial feat or talent at first level. The ceremonial feats provide a charcter with things that help establish an identity (for example, Litorian Mage [a feat for Litorian race players who are mages], Chi-Julud [a feat which turns a Giant from a kind, thoughtful creature into a kind, thoughtful rampaging killer], and Dragon Mage [a feat which sides the character with the dragons in the Dragon/Giant war and gives them access to dragon magic]). Talents help give a little roleplaying hook in there too, with Night Owl, Way with Animals, and Born Leader being good examples.