April 20, 2009

PHB2 Character Backgrounds - A Modular System for Emerging Complexity

The recently released Player's Handbook 2 offers 4E Dungeons & Dragons players and DMs a new game option: player backgrounds. These are a set of simple rules that allow you to apply in game bonuses to certain skills based on the character backgrounds you might choose at the time of character creation. D&D players who are familiar with the Forgotten Realms' regional benefit system will no doubt see many similarities in this new option as well.

The 4E character background system found in the PHB2 offers up a fairly comprehensive set of backgrounds to choose from. There are 62 backgrounds that fall into five broad categories: Geography; Society; Birth; Occupation and Race. The last of which is the largest since there are two or three backgrounds for each of the 15 player character races in the game (thus far). Each background description is limited to one short paragraph and a set of one or more associated skills.
 This was a welcomed surprise in comparison to the 3rd Edition PHB2 - which only provided 11 archetype backgrounds drawn out over 8 or 9 pages in the book. It was too unwieldy of a system to use effectively.
At the time of character creation, players can choose as many of the modular background components as they like, but one of them will provide any in-game benefits to skill rolls, bonus languages, class skills, or regional benefits. Its very straightforward and provides a foil for players (especially those new to the game) to help shape their characters backgrounds by picking a couple of these and making them work together.

The basic template for each background is:
[NAME]: One or two statements, followed by two or more questions.
Associated Skill(s): A list of skills; one of which can be chosen to give a +2 bonus or be treated as a class skill.
This very simple system is not meant to be all inclusive. It also allows DMs who are home brewing up their campaign worlds with a quick way to add a few backgrounds seamlessly into the mix. While this no doubt may be regarded by some as "too formal" or "too regimented"; its important to remember that not every player is a creative genius, and 60 or 70 backgrounds in a modular format can be just the trick to help fuel their imaginations.

This system also works extremely well with an emerging complexity approach to generating character background. How? Simply don't answer all the questions presented in the background until there is a need to do so in game. For example, below I've included the character background Birth:Among Another Race from the Players Handbook 2.
Among Another Race: Your were born among a race other than your own. Did you grow up among the trees of an elven forest, deep in a dwarven mountain fortress, or in a halfling caravan? Did your family live among that race when you where born, or did some other circumstance bring you there?
Associated Skill: A skill the other race gains a bonus to.
Lets say that you are playing a human that lived in an Elven community as a child. Don't answer the second question at the time of character creation; leave it open ended. Then, later in the campaign you answer the second question to make the storyline a bit more connected. Let's say, for example, the DM introduces a new villain into the game and you decide then that this villain killed your family, which is why you lived with the elves as an orphan.

Another thing to consider is to start with those first questions, and then - without answering them - brainstorm a few additional questions. Write them down on the back of your character sheet or in your notes, and then use those unanswered questions to help build your character's background on the fly as the campaign progresses.

For the DM, remember too that using these background with an emerging character could be applied to any longstanding NPC or villain that needs fleshing out. It works very well.

I am curious to know how other players are balancing character background generation with the in-game rules. How are you limited "power-creep"? So, how are you handling character backgrounds in your campaigns in general? NPC backgrounds? Does this new modular background system presented in the PHB2 work for you?


  1. We've been using character backgrounds when we play LFR games, and let me tell you it's simply a power-grab. The role-playing implications are completely forgotten. The PCs see this as a way to get something for nothing and exploit it.

    My preference as a DM is not to allow them. It doesn't seem right to give the PCs something without a down side to keep things balanced. And having them go up against NPCs who hate the country they're from over and over again is boring.

    If you're going to use character backgrounds I'd only allow it in long-term campaigns where it will actually mean something, and if the PCs don't remember the role-playing reasons for getting those advantages then I'd deny them the benefit.

  2. Character backgrounds like this work VERY well for players who are new to the game. It helps those new players get over the character creation paralysis that can happen when they're told "you can play anything"; it helps them focus on a few unique aspects of their character.

    Whether or not you include the mechanical bonuses is up to you; in my own game, I'm not doing so, but only because it's a homebrew conversion of the Eberron setting to 4E and I wanted to wait on those until the 'official' Eberron books come out. My players powergame, sure, but they're very good at powergaming while remaining in character, so I won't object to Eberron versions of these backgrounds being put to good use.

  3. Ameron: I agree that FR backgrounds can be cheap and over-powered, but the PHB2 backgrounds are much more watered down and therefore far less susceptible to power creep.

    The effect PHB2 background bonuses have on combat is negligible, and their application in non-combat roleplaying is essentially no more than an official acknowledgment of a concession I'd argue the DM should already be making for her players. It's a broad circumstance bonus or a house-ruled skill/language swap, that's all.

  4. We use the Backgrounds in the Forgotten Realms books for our FR game. My DM ties XP to roleplaying (I think this might be presented as an option in the DMG or he might have gotten the idea elsewhere). Each character has 4 traits (basically adjectives like "pious" or "helpful"), one each associated with Alignment, Class, Race and Region. We get some amount of XP for each if at the end of a session we can point out how our character displayed that trait, plus a bonus if we get all four (it's 100 XP at low levels, he said he'll probably raise it once we hit high enough levels that that isn't significant). Since this game is a fair bit lighter on combat than some 4E games probably are, the net result is we advance at a pretty normal place, and we make an effort to RP.

    For example, my character is from Baldur's Gate, which is a very big, cosmopolitan city with pretty much every race present, so I picked "tolerant" as my trait. My character gets mad any time someone brings up a racial stereotype, and won't even attack goblins or orcs unless he's convinced they mean him harm.

    IMHO, if you want players to actually roleplay, and then only distribute rewards for killing monsters, you've got a broken incentive system.


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