background benefits

WOTC introduced Backgrounds in PHB2, more than a year ago now. In that book, backgrounds were billed as a story element with only minor mechanical effects. Indeed, the mechanical benefits were limited to a piddling +2 to a skill or the ability to train in a cross-class skill – unarguably worse than a feat.

I assumed that the background benefits would inflate in the coming months, but they didn’t. New books are coming out all the time, introducing new backgrounds with new fluff, and all with the same small benefits applied to different combinations of skills. This shows restraint that I’m not used to seeing in D&D or in any frequently-updated game.

The only books that provide non-generic background benefits are campaign books: for instance, Forgotten Realms has location-specific background benefits that are often as good or better than most feats. This implies that non-trivial background benefits are tied to specific parts of a campaign world. This has kind of amazing implications. A DM using a homebrew world, who bans campaign-specific content, has implicit (though unfortunately not explicit) design space: player benefits that are
a) tied to parts of the DM’s campaign, which provides a convenient way to trick players into learning about its history and geography;
b) not in competition with WOTC-designed benefits, so the DM-created content won’t be ignored by players cherrypicking the best mechanics from all the books; and
c) created by the DM, so they can be designed for specific characters that the DM or players would like to see.

PHB3 isn’t out yet; I hope this trend continues, and, if it’s intentional, I hope it’s made official at some point so every DM can start creating their own homegrown backgrounds.

One Response to “background benefits”

  1. Rory Madden says:

    I thought for a second I’d have to break some bad news to you, but after a quick check of the Character Generator, I realized the Scales of War backgrounds published in Dragon Magazine are actually part of the Scales of War Adventure Path published in Dungeon Magazine, which is close enough to its own campaign world. That path has some truly broken backgrounds (though probably on par with the forgotten realms backgrounds). One obvious choice is auspicious birth, which allows you to substitute your highest ability score for Constitution for the purposes of determining hit points (but not healing surges). This boggles the mind, as it’s SO MUCH BETTER than a +2 to a skill, especially at earlier levels, where it can be equivalent to taking Toughness twice!!!

    Interestingly, the Eberron backgrounds only give the generic choices, so it’s only Scales of War and Forgotten Realms that have the wacky backgrounds. I suspect that these initial backgrounds are anomalies that were introduced before WotC figured out what they wanted backgrounds to do (they were introduced prior to the PHB II which is where generic backgrounds first appeared), so probably even campaign worlds in the future won’t have particularly unique backgrounds.

    The generic system is a little lackluster, but I do appreciate the small bit of flavor it provides. Also, the skill bonus is fun even though it does throw skill challenges even more out of wack.

    I agree that backgrounds are a fun way to introduce cool things/house rules into a campaign world, though I’m not sure how comfortable I am with making my own… I do like the background you made to make humans more viable though!

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