View Full Version : Character Backgrounds

04-05-2010, 11:12 PM
It seems to me that the concept of Character Backgrounds as it presently used in the game is totally abused, or open to abuse. Players pick a background based solely on whatever bonus they think will help their character out. Then ignore their characters background entirely during game play. While I realize that it is the DM's place to work the players background into the game, it seems that a great many, of my players at least, just don't care. In one case the player seemed genuinely annoyed that I did so, as he is mostly a slayer type who cares little for anything else than killing things in the game. As a result, I was thinking of trying to create a more "balanced" system, something with bonuses as well as penalties. I know other systems use such schemes, but I've never used them before, so any input would be great.

04-06-2010, 05:58 AM
I have always been a little wary of background benefits myself. In 3.5, they usually required you to spend a feat. You might just want to not use them at all. I don't in my game, but the players created their characters before the backgrounds were placed in the books.

Alternately, you can just have the players be able to have a set of skills available to them and leave it at that or allow them to choose whatever benefit they want, provided they have a reason for it. Players should not be given incentives to roleplay, in my opinion.

04-06-2010, 08:51 AM
I think if penalties fit the game go for it. But I outlaw certain backgrounds, and I usually have them tell me their background (fluff not numbers) then pick a mechanical background that fits the story. Me on the other hand, usually pick a background then weave the story around it.

04-06-2010, 12:45 PM
Rather than introducing penalties, you might consider a couple of different possibilities. First, you could eliminate background bonuses entirely. They aren't integral to building a 4th edition character, and if your players are just going to use them for their mechanical benefits, then you are justified in axing them entirely.

Another option is to require players to write up backgrounds for their characters to justify their background bonuses they took. Based on the quality of their background, you can allow them to take more or less background bonuses. Or, you might even not have them pick background bonuses, but rather use their written backgrounds to determine them organically.

But, certainly you shouldn't feel locked into using background bonuses if they aren't going to make them part of their roleplay. As I see it, background bonuses are a reward for coming up with a good back story. Paper thin or no back story = no background bonuses, enjoy.

04-06-2010, 01:06 PM
What Farcaster said. With a little extra.

... it seems that a great many, of my players at least, just don't care. In one case the player seemed genuinely annoyed that I did so, as he is mostly a slayer type who cares little for anything else than killing things in the game.
This bit here suggests a conflict in play style, which might not be solved by mechanical changes. If you haven't done so yet, sit down with the problem player(s) and discuss expectations (both yours and theirs) before making any rules changes.

04-14-2010, 10:46 AM
I hover around what Farcaster said. I suspect that the real strength of backgrounds is encouraging otherwise powergamers to add a veneer of roleplaying to their character. Assuming you do your job as a DM, the party is open to it, and the game goes well, this veneer could well expand into a real, fully developed background that can really enrich a roleplaying experience.

Myself, I *encourage* players to pick backgrounds based on the bonuses they provide. I know I personally have wanted to play something for mechanical reasons without the least idea of what background said character might have, so I rooted through the background choices, found one that offered a beneficial skill bonus, then springboarded off that to create an entire background and characterization for my character.

If players are going to use backgrounds (or feats, or skills, or powers, or favored weapon, etc.) as an inspiration for RP, great--if they're not, well, that's another matter. Bottom line is, you can't force players to RP if they don't want to. It's a delicate combination of your game's tone, the sort of players you have, the challenges they face, etc., etc.


Matt James
04-28-2010, 04:55 PM
I like the idea of making a character create (draft up) an actual background for the area they wish to be from. I would also restrict access to specific areas depending on where my story exists for them. That being said, you need to ensure you know what your players expectations are and their play-style. With this information, you can build a story and world for them to play in without offending their sensibilities. In the end, you want to tell a story meant to entertain. Sometimes you have to reach out for those who are drawn to the table to specific reasons.

04-29-2010, 09:20 AM
I use 2 types of backgrounds, i label them "weak" and "strong". Weak ones basically are all bonus, but they have little. They are archetypal - a bodyguard for instance. They are not trade paths but really just something done as a non-professional that characters drifted into. Strong ones are usually vocational and the penalties here, as a DM, require enforcement of roleplaying. I usually have a player build a code of conduct that comes out of being that type of person. They must adhere to it to get the bonuses... like alignment. If they don't... well, its up to you, but i basically say they have lost their idea of 'self' and suffer a -1 on everything until they drop it and lose the advantages or start adhering to the code of conduct.

04-29-2010, 01:45 PM
Across any edition, a background could give a DM a headache. i.e. I'm the lost son of Prince Rubber Ducky of the Kingdom of Tub.

3/3.5E made players spend feats to get mechanical bonuses from it. So for the most part DM's let them have it.
From what I can see of the builder, the backgrounds either add some mechanic or open a mechanic path for players to use without any real cost. As an experiment, since I don't know what I'm doing really on there. It let me choose background after background on there. Ever see a Thay/Alagrond/Waterdeep/Luskan background before.

Really the best option for a DM is to prescreen the character sheet, and the best method to combat an abusive player manipulation of it is to simply say "explain it". If the write-up/telling of the background fluff makes for a good character, allow it.

04-29-2010, 05:00 PM
As an experiment, since I don't know what I'm doing really on there. It let me choose background after background on there. Ever see a Thay/Alagrond/Waterdeep/Luskan background before.
The benefit only comes from one element chosen, so mix-and-match is not really a mechanical concern. A concern for the integrity of the setting, perhaps, but not the 'game' elements.

Really, it's an optional mechanic that can be ignored without consequence if it's not adding any value to the game.

05-11-2010, 11:39 AM
I kind of like the background thing in 4e as it gives a mechanical benefit for taking on some semblance of what the character did before we started playing the game. Many of the backgrounds come with two or three easy to answer questions, that even those who don't want the homework of a background can answer.

In general, as the decades go by, I find player backgrounds less and less important. It's decisions they make during the game that are the most important. I generally just ask each player a question or two about their characters at the beginning of the session to get a better feel for their characters than on requiring a background. They're certainly fun to receive and try and incorporate, but it's become far less of a litmus test for me than it used to. What happened before we started playing really isn't all that important.

Particularly with 4e, where trained characters should pass just about everything that isn't a hard check, so I have no problem with a character taking Caravan Scout just for the +2 Perception bonus so that they can see everything rather than for RP reasons. I mean, I really hope that what they players want to do is anything but being caravan scouts.

05-14-2010, 01:26 PM
This is an interesting discussion, as I've always read the background mechanics as something that fits the original character idea I had, before i even consider whatever benefits they may be. This isn't to say I don't make informed decisions, but I tend to really imagine the concept first, mechanics second. Anyone who campaigns with me knows I don't initially go for min-maxed characters unless it really makes sense. I'm okay with gimping myself in certain areas as it makes for good "flawed" roleplay. This also challenges me to work around self-imposed DC's. If a background mechanically doesn't make much sense, I may just not even utilize x power as much as I would some other trait or racial benefit.