the 5e races redone as backgrounds

I’d like D&D race to have less mechanics attached. I’m perfectly happy to play a halfling thief without the Dex bonus nudging me into it. But on the other hand, I want some rules behind race: if being an elf just means writing “elf” on my character sheet, the “race” box is as irrelevant as those “weight” and “eye color” boxes that I haven’t filled out since high school.

What’s the lightest possible representation of, say, a dwarf that still feels like a dwarf? Attribute bonuses and weapon proficiencies can go: I’m going to give Bimli, my dwarven fighter, an axe and a high Strength because that’s how I picture Bimli. What about the other dwarven traits? I don’t need darkvision: dwarves carry lanterns. Dwarven resilience? Stonecunning? Sure, I’ll take those: I’d like the rules to acknowledge my hardiness and my knowledge of underground places.

At this point, I could represent a dwarven character with a 5e background. (A background gives you a single trait, a few skills, and a few other miscellaneous pieces of junk.)

Background: Dwarf
Trait: Dwarven Resilience. You have advantage on saving throws vs poison.
Skills: Athletics, Dungeoneering, History
Languages: Dwarven

Note that I’ve added Dungeoneering back to the 5e skill list, and that it’s a perfectly acceptable representation of Stonecunning.

Here are some things I like about this solution:

  • The Dwarf background is now mutually exclusive with other backgrounds: if your background is Dwarf, you studied mining and other dwarfy stuff, so you’re not a peasant or a jester. On the other hand, if someone wants to be a dwarven sage, they can take the Sage background. They’re mechanically the same as a human sage, except that they write “Dwarf” on the Race section of their character sheet.
  • It posits a world where, apart from a zany magical trait or two, “race” differences are explicitly cultural differences. This sidesteps a lot of fantasy-racism creepiness.
  • It removes a step from character creation: instead of race/class/background, you just choose class/background.
  • It makes character creation easier in other ways. You don’t have to adjust your 3d6 or 4d6-drop-lowest attributes in any way, and you don’t have to find a place to write five racial traits on your character sheet.
  • 18 is the highest starting strength, and it’s rare!
  • For the first time ever, humans are reasonably balanced with other races. A dwarf character has access to exactly one more background than humans do. (And if a human character was raised by dwarves, I’d be OK with her taking the Dwarf background.)

    OK, here are the 5e races as backgrounds:

    Dwarf Heritage
    Trait: Dwarven Resilience. You have advantage on saving throws vs poison.
    Skills: Athletics, Dungeoneering, History
    Languages: Dwarven

    Elf Heritage
    Trait: Fey Ancestry. You have advantage on saving throws vs charm effects, and you do not sleep.
    Skills: Perception, Nature, Stealth.
    Languages: Elvish.

    Halfling Heritage
    Trait: Small and Lucky. You cannot use large weapons. Reroll a natural 1 on any d20 roll.
    Skills: Acrobatics, Diplomacy, Stealth
    Languages: Halfling.

    There is no Human Heritage background. Humans can choose any of the standard backgrounds.

    The latest playtest document also includes a bunch of “unusual” races. Many of them are exceptional in that they have magic powers. You might rule that some of these races must take their racial background: for instance, a dragonborn must take the dragonborn background – otherwise where did the breath weapon go? – and no other race can opt into the dragonborn background – humans can’t breathe lightning.

    Trait: You have a breath weapon, which has complicated rules spelled out in the Races document.
    Skills: Athletics, Animal Handling, Intimidation.

    Trait: Infravision. You can see in the dark. You’re visibly uncomfortable when in direct sunlight.
    Skills: Stealth, Perception, Intimidation.

    Gnome: Just like Halfling. Let’s not split hairs here.

    Half-Elf: Just like Elf. Let’s not split hairs here.

    Half-Orc: Just like Drow. Let’s not split hairs here.

    Kender: I’m tempted to say “just like halfling”, but the kender race description does actually suggest its own mechanics:
    Trait: Little Pest. You can’t use large weapons. If you taunt an opponent, that opponent hates you the most, and the DM should have it act accordingly.
    Skills: Deception, Perform, Sleight of Hand.

    Trait: Hellish Resistance. You are resistant to fire damage.
    Skills: Perception, Religion, Intimidate.

    Trait: Construct. You do not eat, sleep, or breathe.
    Skills: Athletics, Arcana, History.

    Full disclosure: I won’t play exactly this way myself: although I like backgrounds, I don’t really like skill lists. I think I’ll give players two skills: one is their class and one is their background. What that means is up to the DM and players. A fighter with the Guild Thief background will be good at climbing across rooftops, but not necessarily climbing trees. A fighter with the Elf background will be good at climbing trees, but not necessarily rooftops. This approach requires more negotiation between the DM and players, but it more closely approaches my ideal of D&D: “I lost all my books, but I found my dice. Let’s play D&D!”

  • 6 Responses to “the 5e races redone as backgrounds”

    1. katre says:

      This is cool. Not sure I like the Halfling trait, though: fumbles when rolling a natural 1 are too much fun to lose.

      Also, I can totally buy that not _all_ Dragonborn have a breath weapon. Maybe it’s a recessive, or Bob Greenscales just spent so much time studying in the library that his poison glands atrophied or something.

      The main use of rulebooks, in my experience, is to guard against jerks ruining the game. Since I mostly play games with non-jerks I find that “Have dice, will play” works great.

    2. Cody C. says:

      This is a really cool concept. Like you, I prefer races to have only a small handful of abilities. Just enough to keep them interesting while remaining simple and easy to work with. This method really does a good job at achieving that.

    3. 1d30 says:

      There’s a flaw in your representation of Kender: everyone hates Kender the most already even without taunting.

      I’d go a step further: the classes are Fighter and M-U. If you wanna be a Thief, Ranger, Cleric, Druid, etc. that’s a background. Your class is specifically whether you focus more on swords or spells.

      Then I’d let everyone pick 2 backgrounds. That way you can have an M-U who is an Elf and a Druid, meaning he has some elfy ability, and his spell list includes Druid-type spells (including polymorph and animal friendship).

      Or you could have a Fighter with Dwarf and Assassin, creating an effective poisoner, or you could do Fighter with Assassin and Thief for a poisoner/spy type.

      Of course, having a skill list means backgrounds are a pointless collection of skills. If you want a spy/poisoner just pick the skills that apply.

      And, because why not, why have classes at all? They’re just a collection of skills and feats.

      To me it feels like we just need one character type organizer. We don’t need class, feat, skill, trait, background, homeland, etc. Just be a Ranger and you’re good at Ranger stuff. Or a slew of skills or feats which allow customization (and optimization …). I’d make a concession for class + background as you’ve described it. It’s a whole lot like class + secondary skill from 1E AD&D.

    4. 1d30 says:

      On the other hand, I like the idea of each race bringing something to the table that’s so useful, people will talk about “how will we get by without a Dwarf?” in the same way Thorin’s company needed a burglar.

      For example, if Dwarves are really good at spotting traps and secret doors underground, and their detection of slopes helps keep the party from slipping into a lower dungeon level, AND nobody else can do these things as well, being a Dwarf is a really useful thing.

      Elves would operate the same way in wilderness adventure.

      I like the idea of Halflings being “lucky charms”, giving a save bonus to their whole party. Maybe not even limit it to one bonus per party … imagine a group of nothing but Halflings who make almost all of their saves, but they lack woodcraft and underground detection which is a huge problem.

      As usual, Humans bug me because there’s seemingly nothing they’re better at unless you handicap the Demihumans. For example, if heroism and gaining levels is primarily a Human endeavor, and the base animals can’t do it at all, and monsters rarely can (including some Humanoids), but Demihumans are able to gain some levels, then gaining levels is the Human racial ability. But by now everyone’s used to trophies for all the runners-up, everyone can do anything if they believe in themselves, if the game goes up to Level 80 then everyone expects to be Level 80. Nobody wants to play a gimped 4th level Halfling Fighter when everyone’s enjoying 8th level. So that’s not an option. As far as I can tell, many people want to play a specific type of character (she wants to play an Elf F/M, one guy always wants to be a ninja, she wants the tallest character with the biggest sword possible) and if that character isn’t fully supported and completely lacks a ceiling, there will be grumblecakes.

      I feel like one possibility is carrying capacity. I envision Dwarves not as the Warhammer “Sphere of Muscle” but as a scrawny Grimm’s Fairytales version. Halflings are clearly not athletic and are small. Elves are lithe but will never win a weightlifting competition. So compared to them, Humans are physically bigger and stronger. You could give everyone else a STR penalty, but it might be better to just give Humans a carrying capacity boost. In this case, the average is a Demihuman standard, and Humans are superior.

      Also, in general, humans have great endurance compared to other land animals. Aboriginal hunters typically “run down” their prey after injuring them. Might as well give humans more endurance than Demihumans as well. You could just give a small bonus to general athleticism.

      But in order for these to work, you’d need to stray away from the current “dwarves are the strongest and sturdiest badasses” trope, and the perennial “elves are just better at everything” that started way back in OD&D.

    5. X says:

      You could extend the 13th age background concept in this direction and use the “I have no clue what elves do in this world, you tell me” hack. Then they roll their dice with the appropriate modifier (+4 wood elf from the valley of endless fog) whenever they feel it’s appropriate in the context of the character. (well, I guess I know some natural stuff, and I probably have a bonus when talking to squirrels, and I probably have a good sense of direction etc) I think that’s fine for all non-combat rolls. I feel like feats should cover any mechanical stuff that players want to do specifically, and you can “buy” 1-4 feats for free if you’re that race (Long sword proficiency, sees well in the dark, advantage on perception, can’t be charmed) – Like you could be a non elf race that gets those but you would have to spend a feat which might not be worth it

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