D&D: A Beauty of 5E – Backgrounds and DIY

We discuss the idea behind Dungeons and Dragons backgrounds and how to make your own.

Hello again. Edwin here. It has been a while, but I am back and I want to talk to you about one of the many things I find absolutely beautiful about the newest edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Backgrounds are a wonderful additions to the game. They bring an element of combining a character’s backstory and who they were prior to an adventure with ways to change game play. Not only do they provide rules, but they also bring suggestions and ways that the backgrounds may interact with a character’s personality. They also provide the means on how your can come up and create your own backgrounds and the rules to use them so long as your Dungeon Master gives your permission. They are a wonderfully fascinating element that we will go more in depth on today.  There are two things I really want to talk about when it comes to backgrounds.

You have to come from somewhere the DM can burn to the ground

You have to come from somewhere the DM can burn to the ground

The first thing I wanted to talk about was the premade backgrounds. Backgrounds were a great addition to the game for quite a few reason. In previous editions, if you wanted to play like your background, you had to take your resources and spend them in such a way that while playing, you could act and feel like your back ground. This often resulted in skills points or feats being spent in order to feel like your back ground. If you were a blacksmith, you had to take your resources and spend them to feel like you could perform a basic blacksmith task. This was fine if you were a class that had the resource to spare. Some of the classes who didn’t have the resources were just left out in the cold. Clerics in particular had very few skill points and only got base feats. This often left you with a character who had a backstory in words alone. You weren’t any good at what you backstory needed to do . You could end up being a sailor who was bad at sailing and things like that. There were not a lot of options. The few options you did have often felt like they hurt you more than helped you. In the new edition though, back grounds actually provide you with additional skills and extra little abilities that really help you feel more like your background mattered just a little more. For a lot of people, you often didn’t need these extra little bits for a backstory to matter. It is important to me because it felt like more of my character could go to the backstory. It was this tiny bit that really helped draw me into character creation and helped me get past simply filling out a character sheet and became more about making a character.  They also gave you small abilities that never required a dice roll and often changed how you interacted with the world. The more often they were usable, the weaker they often were, but they we all pretty cool. From gaining free lodging if certain conditions were met or gaining free passage on a ship to simply changing the way people saw and interacted with you, the abilities are not something that is required, but they can constantly remind you of who your character was. The options for the backgrounds also came with a little chart for several options that further added depth to the character. They often times provided sample flaws, bonds, and in general, helped flesh out your characters and really bring them into the world. They become more than a simple person has run around killing monsters their entire life. The best part is, the options for backgrounds are nearly endless. This brings us to our second point.


Time for a little DIY

Part of what I really love about 5th edition D&D is that you are given the options to customize everything. As long as you get your Dungeon Master’s approval, you can customize your background to fit what you want to have. The set up for all the backgrounds is pretty universal. You need 2 skills that work with the background, you need a combination of two extra languages or tools. The last thing you need is a background specific ability. The abilities are balanced by how often they can be used. The stronger the ability is, the less often it should come into play. The more often the power is used, the weaker it should be. Here are two of the backgrounds I have been working on for the game my group plays. Once again, you need your DM’s permission to use anything not in the book.

The Bodyguard

Skills: Insight, Intimidation

Tools: None

Languages: 2 Languages

Background Ability: Letter of the Law

“Your job has caused you to have more than a few encounters with the law. Over your years of protecting people,you have learned just when and where you can fight and defend yourself in civilized society without legal recourse. People are more hesitant to fight you in town because you know that fine line between self defense and attacking someone.”

The idea behind this background is that your skills are based around being able to tell if someone is a threat through insight and being able to prevent fights through intimidation.If you don’t have to fight someone to guard your boss, the better. If intimidation is less of something you would like to see in the background, you can always swap it for perception to better notice threats. Also, in regards to tools and languages, there really aren’t many tools that would work with the background. You could always trade a language for either a gaming set or proficiency with land vehicles. The background ability is more powerful, but is something you wouldn’t really use all that often.  You know when you can start fights and you can often simple bluff people out of trying things. Thugs, thieves, and the seedier type of people will think twice before messing with you and your party.

The Mason

Skills: History,Persuasion

Tools: Mason’s tools, Cartographer’s supplies,

Languages: None

Background Ability: Maker’s Mark

“From your studies in building, you can tell basic details of any structure. You have a rough idea of minor details of a building such as the race who constructed it and how old the building is. You also have the ability understand the language all craftsmen share called craftsman’s cipher which may provide more clues and hints about certain structures”

The idea behind this background was to have something that felt like it had the elements of both what you could see and had a few secrets of the trade. The skills were picked because you have to know the past of certain structures and you had to learn from past mistakes in design. You than have to convince people of how things need to be done. You could have the best plans for something, but if you can’t sell, them, they are pointless. The tools are pretty self explanatory. Mason’s tools for smaller jobs like buildings and cartographer’s  supplies are for larger scale jobs like bridges and roads. All of these can be customized to whatever you think your engineer should. The background power is one that wont get much use, but it can also be the DM’s best friend.

So there are two examples of custom backgrounds. You can mix and match a lot of things to really make your background come out more during play. They show what you can do with the ability you have for creation in D&D 5th edition. Explore and see what you want to make for yourself. You will find that you have the world at your fingertips in terms of backgrounds.

Hopefully, this has got the creative juices flowing. Everyone should try at making a custom background. Add your own personal touch to the game.

  • TweetleBeetle

    5E is so much better than the MMO that was 4th. More variety, more rules that resemble traditional D&D, and more scenarios that encourage role playing as opposed to combat. In fact, 4th was only combat, and bad combat at that.

    I can’t give Pathfinder credit, as it’s just a ripoff of D&D, and really didn’t make any improvements on it.

    • Xodis

      Video game settings made for 3.x: Diablo, Warcraft, World of Warcraft, Mass Effect, Fallout, Everquest, Dragon Age, and even more.
      video game settings made for 4e: None

      5e is the greatest D&D ruleset to date IMO, but calling 4e a MMO style RPG just means you never played it, and saying that ONLY combat existed in it just proves it further.

      • Shawn

        While his statement might not be entirely accurate Xodis, he’s not far off the mark. Wotc did try to quantify role playing into a game mechanic that was, for the most part, ineffective, especially in organized play.

        • Xodis

          I’m not sure that is true. 4e brought in a lot of players that are now playing 5e, but I think the controversy and edition war was really what the failure was.
          4e was making a LOT of money, and still staying on top until right before they announced the cancellation of 4e and the creation of “D&D Next”.
          4e catered to the masses who wanted simplicity and not the excel sheet that came with 3x/PF, but met PF standards in terms of diversity and options.
          In the end 4e had a nice following, but the division of its audience was its only real failure.

          • Shawn

            I’m inclined to disagree somewhat Xodis. I think 4e, while, perhaps, getting rid of the complicated math, failed on a different level. All the abilities and spells were pigeonholed a set formula. Spells werent’ really spells anymore, so in that regard it was more like an MMO: Here is a class with a set amount of abilities and here are a few optional abilities that play much like any other, only real difference is the name and how many dice go with it. I’m exaggerating a bit her, but I think you get the idea. This took away many of the flexibility available in other editions. No one was really unique, becuase they all basically played the same. Only difference was ranged or melee. They tried fixing it with Essentials and brought back more traditional classes, but by then people had enough of 4e. It was time to go back to basics.

          • Xodis

            I didn’t get that at all. When we played (and I wasn’t really a fan to be honest) our characters seemed completely unique. Sure a lot of the mechanics were similar but different enough to have their own flavors. Most abilities seemed flavored towards the role a class would have, and usually had extra abilities built into them making them fun.
            Example: A Ranger with Dual strike allowed him to pop off 2 shots at different or the same target but with a negative to hit; Just like 3.x’s Rapid Shot feat but without the added complexity that game from the game design.
            Biggest perk IMO, was the balancing between spellcasting and non spellcasting classes.

          • Shawn

            Yeah, I remember the abilities and how they worked and balance is good, but I think they made them all too similar. I guess, part of my issue with the whole edition, even though I had fun in a few games, it was a drastic departure from what I knew as D&D, and that departure made the game feel like a sorry A$$ step-child to D&D. What I did like is the, options for races more than anything else and one class -the swordmage was an excellent design and happy to see a version in the new edition -the eldritch knight.

          • Xodis

            Yeah, I’ve always been a fan of Gish classes, so I enjoy the EK and the Sword Mage both. I agree though 4e was a departure from classic D&D, which is what led to its controversy. Under any other name than “Dungeons and Dragons” though, it would have been a resounding success and probably still supported though.

          • Shawn

            I think you right about it’s success under a different name. It was an innovative way to do things to some degree.

      • Edwin Allen Juengel

        This would have been completely true save for one instance for me. The never winter night’s MMO felt like 4th edition and it made the system work like I have never seen before. It legitimately made me enjoy the system itself. I loved my Protection Fighter. It also put into words my issue with 4E.I will admit I never gave it a more solid go through more than once.

      • JN7

        I played it and I agree completely. I was absolutely an attempt to make MMOs work on the tabletop. I hated it and I like MMOs.

    • Shawn

      And it’s much better than 3.5 ever was

    • Edwin Allen Juengel

      You need to give pathfinder credit where it is due. It took the 3.5 system, listened to the player base, and changed a lot of the gripes people had with it. Where 3.5 focused on making your own content, Pathfinder fixed some issues 3.5 had and than proceeded to stylize itself into it’s own unique beast. They released tons of content and have it all available for use and than pregenerated tons of content so you could be anything. It didn’t fix the core issues with the system, which was primarily the balance curve of some classes, but it did bring them closer together. It became more half and half and not CoDzilla, Charger, or Batman Wizard versus every other class in the game.I must say, I love the Pathfinder art over D&D art any day. D&D art isn’t bad, I just love the style and narrative that the Pathfinder books have.

    • Chaosrex

      Maybe, i won’t argue with that, but 4th was perfect to initiate new people to tabletop RPG, because things was somewhat simple.

      You wanted to cast a spell?, read the power card, and we where rid of the awefull and stupid Vancian magic systeme.

      I know people who started playing other RPG’s because they started with 4th Ed, where despite its glaring defaults was still simple to use and understand for a non-RP player.

      Now if only 5th wouldn’t go backwards and use vancian magic again, it would have been perfect.

      I liked my Revenant Hexblade in 4th, and of what i saw the Warlock in 5th seems interesting.

  • Ronin

    Just played a section in Out of the Abyss and one of the players mind controlled an Earth Elemental to start punching the other ones. I rolled to hit and twice it got a natural 20 and dealt 75ish points of damage. I think I need to start raising the challenge rating. xD

    • Edwin Allen Juengel

      But Earth elemental are CR 5. how did it hit for that much?!

      • Ronin

        Ah, you’re right. Apparently I’m prone to doing math wrong when it’s super late at night lol. It might also be because the “Siege Monster” rule we interpreted as doing double damage to objects and structures, but creatures as well. (4d8+5)*2 for natural 20 on one attack and (2d8+5)*2 for one attack. However, I forgot that the earth elementals it was punching was resistant to bludgeoning so it should have hit for half. Definitely was stretching the rules, but considering the players had to fight 3 of them one at a time at level 4, I was ok with making the encounter easier by rewarding creativity. 😛

  • Matthew Pomeroy

    I have to go against the grain here, but having played each edition, I find 5th ed a steaming pile. It is more minimal product for maximum cost and is nothing more than a very watered down version of 3rd ed. the inspiration mechanic is not well conceived and the advantage disadvantage is still just random. Overall the trend of making games that the players and GM need to complete for the company is a bit disturbing, especially with the price tags associated. The $50 dollar phb is IMO the worst PHB for its price yet produced.