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Bookrat's Advice on Designing Background Features (5e)


5th Edition (And Beyond)

Shadow Lodge

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5th Edition has introduced a new mechanic for character creation: Backgrounds. In previous editions, backgrounds were often fluff or had mechanics regulated to a small aspect of the character, such as a single feat or a background skill. But with 5e it’s now built in to the character design process. Each background gives one mechanical ability called a Feature. The key to designing a good Background Feature is to recognize that it gives strong, yet limited narrative power to the character.

RULE 1: GIVE BACKGROUND FEATURES NARRATIVE POWER

So what is Narrative Power? Narrative power is a non-combat ability that allows a PC to change the narrative. Yeah. What the heck does that mean? It can be difficult to describe, but it’s something that a PC can do to change the story and bypass challenges built into the plot. One example I’ve seen posted around the web is the Desert Journey: A long desert journey has ample challenges in dealing with water, food, and extreme temperatures. A character who can cast Create Food and Water and Endure Elements has strong narrative power in this scenario. So does a character with Teleport, who may be able to ignore the journey altogether. In previous editions, strong narrative power was often the realm of casters, which gave them an edge over other classes. This had led to many debates over caster vs martial power levels and even led to the creation of a Tier system to explain the power/option differences with classes. High Tier classes had strong narrative power; low tier classes did not.

Much of this disparity has disappeared with 5e, and a decent portion of that is due to background features – which give narrative power to every character in limited doses.

And it's important to remember that narrative power is something that a PC can do to effect the world, not something that the world does to the PC. For example, a homebrewed feature I found read, "Others assume you're just a face in the crowd and ignore you unless you're in a place where you obviously shouldn't be." Now, while I can find some nifty uses for this, it's not really something I'm doing to change the narrative. It doesn't give me narrative power.

Each of the background features in the PHB are good examples of strong narrative power – from granting a complete second identity to always being able to send messages through a criminal network (even across long distances) to always being able to secure passage on a ship for you and your entire party to automatically being able to gain an audience with local nobility to always being able to find a safe place to rest/hide when commoners are around… There are even two new features in the Out of the Abyss campaign; the first lets you automatically have knowledge of the underdark (and if you fail an int check for knowledge, you know someone who knows it or knows where to acquire it), the second lets you find food (unless the GM says that it’s impossible) for up to six people and you can always backtrack your steps in the Underdark (which helps when you get lost, a very common problem in the Underdark).

You may start to notice a trend here, which brings us to Rule 2:

RULE 2: BALANCE THE STRENGTH OF THE NARRATIVE POWER WITH THE FREQUENCY OF USE

Features which may be used all the time should have weaker narrative power. Features which are limited in scope should have stronger narrative power. The Urchin’s feature lets the character and their party move at twice the speed in any city during non-combat situations. This seems kind of weak, but it can happen in any city, anywhere in the world. And it certainly reduces the time to get from Point A to Point B in a city; important when time-based challenges are used, like the chase rules or an “Against the Clock” style challenge. Conversely, the soldier can get free equipment like weapons, armor, and mounts for herself and her entire party, or even gain access to secure locations, but only if it’s with the military she belongs to. Travel to another country, and the soldier loses much of the narrative power from the feature. The soldier has strong narrative power, but it’s limited in scope. The urchin has relatively weaker narrative power, but it can be used in many different situations and locations.

RULE 3: DO NOT DESIGN BACKGROUND FEATURES WITH A COMBAT BONUS

As I’ve been running some 5e adventures, my players have wanted to tailor their character backgrounds to better fit their character concept. As the PHB only has a handful of backgrounds to choose from, we’ve had to go to the net to find other ideas (the PHB does give some good advice on how to mix the backgrounds to better fit the character concept, but this doesn’t help with the feature). We’ve now tried many different features in the game and there is a clear difference between the features which add narrative power and the features which add combat bonuses. The features with combat bonuses feel lacking.

D&D is inherently a combat simulation game; while many can play combat-lite games well, the majority of the mechanics of the rulebooks are built around combat. Every character and every class already has ample options for engaging in combat. Features which grant bonuses or grant advantage/disadvantage to situations which primarily happen in combat will be rarely noticed and become a sad footnote on the character sheet. You may notice that none of the features in the PHB grant combat bonuses; this is because the ability to act in combat rarely provides narrative power (consequently, this is why combat focused classes in previous editions often filled the ranks of the lower tiers).

Here’s an example: one of my players picked up a homebrewed background we found on the net. His background feature granted him advantage on grapple checks and gave opponents disadvantage to pick his pockets (or any ally within 10’). This is a very bad design; half of it doesn’t even help the player do anything (it forces the GM to roll twice and take the lower, often without the player ever knowing it happened). The other half happens so rarely that much of the time my player forgot he had it. It doesn’t allow him to change the narrative at all. Conversely, another player had a feature which allowed him to find safe food and water for up to 6 people so long as they’re underground (without rolling a survival check); this was a huge narrative advantage when they escaped a drow prison without any of their gear.

RULE 4: BE SPECIFIC ENOUGH TO HELP THE PLAYER

A good feature is specific enough so the player has a good idea how it can benefit him/her. The Urchin moves at twice speed. The Outlander can find food and doesn't need a map, Nobles can gain audience with other nobles while the Folk Hero can gain shelter from the common folk.

Here's a bad example I found on the net: "It's easier for you to interact with beasts." I brought this feature to my players and none of us could figure out what it means. Questions that were brought up: How much easier? What can I do with it? Can I automatically tame beasts? Do wild animals still attack me? Do I still have to roll skill checks (unlike almost every other feature).

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The Hermit from the PHB is probably the most challenging one to design, so you can follow these same bits of advice to come up with a good discovery. I've seen some good ones on the net, such as "You have found that magic and life-force are linked and that by draining a small area you can wield greater magical powers. If you defile an area, you can gain advantage on the next spell you cast." Darksun, anyone? Another is "You've discovered an empty pocket-dimension that you can access by being in complete darkness." I've also seen this used to tie a character into a plot hook, but be careful with this; using a background feature as a tie-in to a plot doesn't grant the character narrative power. If you're going to do this, also grant the character knowledge about the plot that will be useful for the entire campaign. One example would be a discovery of a lost city (where the plot of the campaign is finding the city and exploring it); the discovery may also grants detailed knowledge on this lost city that the character can use to navigate and survive.

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That's it. Designing a good background feature is all about giving a player a little bit of narrative power (and understanding what "narrative power" means). I hope this helps!


This is awesome & very helpful!

Thank you.

Carry on!

--C.

Shadow Lodge

Thanks, Psiphyre!

I noticed that when giving examples of the Hermit Discovery, I didn't follow my own advice.

Instead of having the earth-defiling discovery grant advantage, it should cast a spell as if it were one level higher. Since this can be extremely powerful, I may limit it to certain schools (tailored to the character). This way, out of combat spells can benefit. Since spells already grant a lot of narrative power, and since this ability can be use often (and probably will), a good limiter on this power increase is not out of hand.

Here's one I designed for one of my players who is playing an investigator.

Investigative Noir: When you examine a crime (or similar) scene, you get a sense of the type of person(s) involved with the event in question, as well as how many were present and their general roles with the scene.

Here's one I designed for a guard - The Blue Line: Your association with the guards allows you to get away with small crimes in areas where other guards would recognize you as one of their own. They will often come to your defense if you're accused by someone who is not a higher ranking member of the force. Alternative: You've dealt with so many different people that you've learned to recognize certain characteristics and particulars of different people; as a consequence, you never forget a face, even if it is disguised (except through magical means).

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My really long post got wiped.

:-(

But I would like to work on Features, plus new background traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws.

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Also, the background features tend to allow you to skip the potentially tedious stuff to get to the main event.

Nobles just get to go to the ball, they don't have to worry about securing an invitation.
Charlatans don't have to spend time worrying about establishing their second identity, they've already done that prep work and it's ready to go.

RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

My urchin half-elf rogue (thief) is a parkour specialist (Expertise in Acrobatics and Athletics), so that urchin background feature is REALLY apt--basically, my guy is running and jumping and climbing and balance-beaming through shortcuts across the city. :-D

Shadow Lodge

SmiloDan wrote:

My really long post got wiped.

:-(

But I would like to work on Features, plus new background traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws.

I've lost many a long post, too. Now, I tend to write long posts in word before posting. Or if I'm on my phone, a note app.

Shadow Lodge

Petty Alchemy wrote:

Also, the background features tend to allow you to skip the potentially tedious stuff to get to the main event.

Nobles just get to go to the ball, they don't have to worry about securing an invitation.
Charlatans don't have to spend time worrying about establishing their second identity, they've already done that prep work and it's ready to go.

Yup! That's part of the narrative power they have. It also allows them to bypass skill checks to do certain things.

Nobles don't need to make a persuasion check to secure an audience. The Outlander doesn't need to make a survival check to secure food in the wilderness.

Overcoming plot points, bypassing dice rolls and skill checks, avoiding the tedious aspects of accomplishing small goals - these are all narrative power. When I used Create Food and Water and Endure Elements as examples of narrative power, they also fit into these three descriptions as well.

RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

I hate roleplaying shopping. Is there a background for that? :-P

Shadow Lodge

Soldier. :)

"...You can invoke your rank to exert influence over other soldiers and requisition simple equipment or horses for temporary use..."

Ok, so you still have to do the tedious work of getting it, but at least it's free. Temporarily.

RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

Wow! That's awesome!

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Likewise the Noble background variant, Knight, gives you retainers you can task with going to the market and such.

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I just want shopping to occur between sessions, not during precious table time.

That's what email is for. Buying magic swords and iron rations.

Shadow Lodge

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Features from the published D&D books:

Free lifestyle (poor, modest, or comfortable depending on background and circumstance) OR gain membership/rank in organization
AND
Free healing for you and your party OR Strangers automatically like you OR Strangers protect you and will lie for you OR Free legal assistance & political access OR automatically get away with minor crimes OR borrow equipment and mounts for you and your party
AND MAYBE
Gain non-dangerous assistance from NPC allies of same organization (if belonging to one)

Automatically find food for yourself and five others in certain terrain (eg wilderness or Underdark)
AND
Know geographic layouts OR can backtrack steps if lost

Double out-of-combat movement speed in specific terrain (eg city)

Automatically know things about a subject (eg Underdark cities, cultures, and routes) and know where info is if you fail INT check

Automatically secure passage on travelling vessel (eg a ship) in exchange for work for you and your party

Gain a few NPC assistants who follow your non-dangerous commands and will obey your orders if you treat them well

Access to high society; not questioned about where you should or shouldn’t be; those of lower status try to please you

Gain a single trustworthy and reliable contact who you can always send/receive a messages (need access to some community to send/receive messages)

And the hermit: “Gain forgotten lore.”

We can use these as good examples of features. Notice how some of the weaker ones - like increased movement - can be used in many different locations, while some of the stronger ones (free healing/equipment + lifestyle + assistance) can only happen at specific locations. For others, like having an ally (or three) and gaining knowledge, they may seem vague but their power in the game should be increased depending on how often they’re used (adjust for your personal game).

Now I’m going to discuss 10 good examples and 10 bad examples of homebrewed background features I’ve found on the net. I’ll note that I easily found 10 bad examples before I even had half of the good examples filled in as I searched.

Here’s some good examples I’ve seen on the net (homebrewed):

1)“People are always nice to you; you can always find shelter due to pity and even those who would normally be cruel to you are simply neglectful or dismissive.” This is similar to one of the “gain a lifestyle” features above, but since it can work everywhere it may be good enough on its own. This is for a Deformed or Crippled background, but may be applied to others, such as cursed.

2)“You have a reputation as a healer. You can gain an audience with practically anyone just by offering your services, even if protocol would normally prohibit it. By examining chemicals, you can determine if the substance is intended to harm or heal.” A little bit weak, but usable everywhere. Even in places where you wouldn’t be known, it would be easy to build up a quick reputation and then you can start using your feature again. This is for a healer or doctor background.

3)“You can always remember specific and detailed information and conversations regarding your mark, even if you only heard something for a brief moment or two in a passing conversation. You can easily recall and draw features of people and places you come across. You automatically identify clues about your mark’s movements and dispositions that other’s may miss.” This is a solid feature. It’s very powerful, but specifically limited to the individual(s) you’re trying to hunt down. This is for a bounty hunter, but can be applied to many different backgrounds, including police investigators, inquisitors hunting heretics, big game hunters, undead hunters, and more.

4)"People are afraid of you, both criminal and innocent alike. They will ignore minor crimes. They will honestly answer questions you ask out of fear.” This is a solid feature. Similar to the Pirate feature, you can commit minor crimes (like gaining a lifestyle for free simply by refusing to pay for it), and you get honesty out of people. Due to its power, I would limit it to where you are professionally known. This is a background for an executioner.

5)“You effectively gain the Scent trait, allowing you to detect and recognize scents that are important in your life, like dangerous monsters from your homeland and the scent of your friends.” I’m not sure how the scent ability works in 5e, but if it’s anything like previous editions, this is a powerful ability. It’s a bit limited in scope, as you can’t use it to smell out items or find unknown monsters (depending on the GM, I might allow it), but it can let you detect monsters you’re innately familiar with and your allies. Good feature that has strong narrative potential. This is for a “raised by wild animals” type background.

6)“When in a city, you know where to get information. You always can find someone who either knows something or knows someone who knows something about what you need to know. You also never forget a face.” This is a twist on the knowledge-based backgrounds. Instead of having knowledge on a specific subject and knowing where to find that info, you know where to get info on everything (while not automatically having knowledge on any one thing). It is a nifty and decent feature, weakened a bit by being limited in scope (can only use it in cities). Brought back up into balance by giving the ability to always remember a face. This is for an investigator type background.

7)For a convict background, “In any given town, you can usually find an ex-convict you knew or someone who knows a convict you knew who is willing to help you. They provide shelter and food (poor-moderate lifestyle) and will hide you from the law if necessary. You always count as having thieves’ tools with a 30 minute notice, as you can scrounge up enough scrap and borrowed items to create a full kit.” This is our standard fair with a nice twist: you can gain free equipment, but it’s a specific type, plus you can always gain assistance from an old friend from the prison. I’d drop the 30 minute limit, though, as other background features don’t have such a limit for acquiring gear.

8)Brewpub Legend: “You have a reputation for making good beer. When arriving in a new location, you can usually find fans of your craft (unspoken: strangers tend to like you). Other aficionados recognize you and are helpful. You can gain access to important community leaders with ease.” This is a solid feature. Combines the Entertainer’s “everyone like you” with the noble’s or guildmember’s “gain access to political people” features. This is, obviously, for a background in brewing. :)

9)Former Slave: “You know the inner workings of great households, castles, temples, etc; and you can always find the ‘servants entrance.’ You can often talk your way inside (unless your companions give you away), and can generally move about unnoticed.” I absolutely love this feature. It is right in the ballpark for narrative power and introduces a whole new way to interact with the game which players, GMs, and game designers often forget exists: servants. Heck, when is the last time you saw a map that included servant’s halls and passageways?

10)Demagogue: “You’re an expert in the rumor mill and can put rumors into circulation in your current location (1/week) that will last for at least a month and may spread to other locations. If you’re ever arrested in a location where you’ve spent at least a week and publically accused, an angry mob will form demanding your release.” Another cool use of a feature that grants an interesting bit of narrative power. I really like the ability to spread rumors; can be useful when trying to denounce someone on the throne or build up your allies’ reputation.

Here’s some bad ones I’ve seen on the net (homebrewed):

1)“In communities, you always gain work, but can never gain shelter. People need your service, but they don’t like or trust you.” Features shouldn’t punish characters, but even if they do, then the benefits should be powerful. Always being able to find work is simply not worth it, especially for PCs who will always be able to find work anyways.

2)“You are a part of a museum or university. You can gain access to the facilities and can go on expeditions with the organization if your specialization is needed.” This is bad only because it’s not enough. All the organization-based features from the PHB also come with other benefits, such as free healing or free equipment. So not only is this limited in frequency of use, it’s also limited in narrative power.

3)“You gain a patron. Your patron may demand things from you. Your patrons enemies may try to kill, capture, or bribe you. You gain enemies of your patron and have gained enemies yourself.” This is absolutely horrible. Not only do you not gain any written out benefits, but you gain a ton of negatives. Only by reading between the lines would you be able to determine that a patron could give you a lifestyle, equipment, healing, magic, etc… But since none of that is specified, you may not get any of it.

4)“In order to use this background, you must be humanoid.” Flat out the worst background feature yet. It doesn’t give you anything; it just lists a requirement for choosing the background.

5)“Gain free lodging; those of your organization will not attack you and will take your side in arguments; you gain advantage to grapple, others gain disadvantage to pick your pockets.” This is another bad background. First, it gives combat bonuses – a big no from my 4 Rules for designing features. Not being attacked by your organization should be a given (even if it is a City Guard organization). It does give free lodging (aka a free lifestyle), but should also provide other narrative powers instead of a combat bonus.

6)“You look exactly like someone else and are often mistaken for them. Every good and bad thing they’ve done, you’re automatically assumed to have done.” This can be good and bad, but I’m very afraid of it because it’s entirely dependent on the GM rather than giving narrative power to the character.

7)“You have been forced from your home; you have a memento of your past that you try to keep with you. You have some connections remaining from your past.” Having connections can be decent, but only if the feature also grants access to them. Since this background specifically states that you’ve left home and that your connections are all back at home, they won’t be of much use. Gaining a memento also isn’t of much use, as it’s an item and not narrative power.

8)“You gain advantage on checks when you interact with children and a +2 if you’re the same race. Whenever you make actions that involve protecting children, you gain advantage on dice rolls and +5 on damage rolls.” NO COMBAT BONUSES! Not only does this not give narrative power, but all it does is grant bonuses and advantage. If this were a good feature, then you would automatically be trusted by children and anyone who works with children, and they would do favors for you (including running messages, showing you hiding spaces to get away from the law or anyone else, and more). And that’s just to start.

9)This is for a gypsy background: “You live for refinement and the applause of the crowd, and the coin it can bring. You’re an expert at performance and proficient in survival on the road. Living on the road with a troupe also leaves you with many kin in many traveling shows. All gypsies stand in defense of the family and are known to each other by subtle caravan markings, hand signals, and ceremonies. Any gypsy found violating the tenants of the family will find themselves ousted.” This one had potential. One look at the name “Family Everywhere” and I was excited to see it, but it turned out to be extremely vague (remember Rule 4) on the benefits while being specific with the punishments. It should be granting many allies in varying (and changing) locations that can grant free lifestyle (poor to moderate), as well as access to equipment and/or magical services, and shelter from the law (they’ll lie to protect you and hide you). It’s just like an organization, but the location isn’t static.

10)Travelling Merchant: “You start the game with some random equipment!” Ugh. Don’t. Just don’t.


Notable mentions:

1)Here’s one I found that had a feature and an alternate feature for a farmer, but neither was good enough on its own. I feel that if they were combined, they’d be a solid feature. “You can determine the weather a few hours in advance, can easily track time and date without tools, you understand the circle of life” and “You fit in as a commoner and are unassuming. City guards tend to ignore you or half-heartedly search you. Most people just ignore you.” It also had a disadvantage, “if you’re in a place commoners shouldn’t be, you stick out like a sore thumb and draw attention.” You may wish to drop this.

2)Diplomatic Immunity: “In lands where you’re recognized a legitimate diplomat, you can get away with many minor crimes due to diplomatic immunity. Abuse of this power will see it revoked.” I feel this should also grant a moderate lifestyle (depending on the hospitality of the country you’re in) and access to political figures.

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I'm going to start posting example background features as I design them for players.

Here's one for a player who wanted to have a background as a chef:

Gourmet Chef: You are able to cook nutritious and delicious meals even from the lowest quality ingredients. In addition, rations last twice as long for up to size individuals. You may aso gain an audience with high ranking officials by acting as their visiting chef, so long as they have heard of your culinary prowess.

For that last bit, here's how I would rule it in my games: the country you're from has heard of you. The higher level you are, the further your reputation extends, starting with neighboring countries and then further out. Additionally, you can start your reputation anew in a foreign land through roleplaying. Gaining an audience means that you also lose that night's worth of activities in order to cook.

Sovereign Court

Nice. My wife would love this.

Shadow Lodge

Thanks, Lorathorn!

bookrat wrote:
In addition, rations last twice as long for up to size individuals.

Oops. Noticed a typo. ...for up to six individuals.

Damn autocorrect.

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Gourmet Chef reminds me of the delusional "demigod" from the Powder Mage trilogy. He gained renown with all the movers and shakers, and was able to provide provisions for the troops. :-D


bookrat wrote:

Thanks, Lorathorn!

bookrat wrote:
In addition, rations last twice as long for up to size individuals.

Oops. Noticed a typo. ...for up to six individuals.

Damn autocorrect.

No kidding, I was assuming you'd dropped a word, and the background feature didn't grant any benefit for individuals larger than medium-size; y'know, 'cause they need to eat more. But the thing with a max party of six works too. :)

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Haha, yeah, hitdice.

If you guys have any requests, let me know and I'll come up with something.

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Reincarnated Ancestral Hero

Circus Performer

Gypsy

Cabalist

Serf

Apprentice Craftsman

Pilgrim

Leech/Sawbones/Medic/Barber

Gambler

Teamster

Courier

Explorer

Mad Scientist

Shadow Lodge

Ok, some immediate thoughts:

First, we want to recognize which is a legitimate background and which isn't. Reincarnated Ancestral Hero is not a background. It may be something that has happened to you, but that's not how you grew up. You would either pick the background from the hero's life or the new life. If the new life, then you grew up as a reincarnated ancestral hero in a noble house, or living on the streets (urchin), or in a guild hall (guild artisan). Something along those lines.

Next, we want to recognize when a background is similar to another one for the purposes of the feature. A circus performer is an entertainer. Use the Entertainer background. A cabalist would have the same feature as the Acolyte. An apprentice craftsman would be a Guild Artisan. The Explorer and the Pilgrim would have the same feature as the Outlander. And the mad scientist would have the same feature as either the Sage or the Hermit (the Sage even as Discredited Academic, which is easily flavored as a mad scientist). Courier would have either the Guild Artisan or the Urchin feature. Teamster would have either the Guild Artisan feature or an Urchin variant (overland travel instead of city travel is reduced by half).

That leaves us with some legitimately new potential backgrounds.

Gypsy's are also family orientated. Such a feature would grant something similar to the acolyte or the sailor; whenever a gypsy family is nearby, you gain free shelter in the form of a modest lifestyle for you and up to five others. You may also call on their assistance in the form of free travel from one city to the next, so long as you and your companions agree to work for the caravan during the travel time. This is not always garunteed, as you can never be sure if a gypsy caravan will be at the same location you are.

A Gambler is someone who wins some and loses some quite often. Ergo, in any given settlement, you gain any lifestyle for half price, representing the day's winnings and losses. In addition, you can gain an audience with a local crime boss if there is one (it's up to you and your GM if this meeting is by your choice or if the crime boss sought you out for some reason).

Leech/Medic/Sawbones/Barber. Barber? That seems out of place to the rest. Always, for a quick rundown, any of these could just have the Guild Artisan feature. However, if we wanted to go down the more medical route, excluding the barber, then we could do something like:

Medic/Leech/Sawbones/Barber: With your craft tools you can treat illness and disease of someone under your care. For each day of downtime you spend treating a patient, that patient is treated as having three days of downtime for the purposes of recuperating (PHB 187). In addition, you can trade out the Patient's Constitution saving throw with your own medicine check. You can treat up to your proficiency modifier in patients per day of downtime. Spending your downtime in this manner counts as having a comfortable lifestyle.

All that's left is Serf and I'm kind of at a loss for that one.


Exclude the barber from the the more medical route? That's where the barber pole comes from, it was the bloody bandages wrapped around a signpost!

Shadow Lodge

Hitdice wrote:
Exclude the barber from the the more medical route? That's where the barber pole comes from, it was the bloody bandages wrapped around a signpost!

That's fair; I'll edit my post to include them. I looked up the history to see if I was missing something. Guess I didn't go back far enough to catch that they were also surgeons and dentists before the 19th century.


The barber is still unlikely to be treating illnesses that can't literally be removed from the body.

I think that a former serf is mostly likely to have become a Folk Hero, because mediaeval serfs were tied to the land and certainly wouldn't be adventuring without leaving that life behind.

Shadow Lodge

Arakhor wrote:
The barber is still unlikely to be treating illnesses that can't literally be removed from the body.

You make a good point, but it's not meant to be perfect simulation, it's meant to be a general medical practitioner under different names. Heck, even real world pseudoscience may be legitimate in a D&D world.

Shadow Lodge

Serf would probably have the same feature as this slave homebrew background:

You know the workings and ways of great households, castles, temples, and other institutions and locations. You can always immediately locate the "worker's" entrance to such a building or compound and, as long as your companions do not give the game away, can often talk your way inside. You can generally move about within such a location without notice, following the patterns and demeanours of working staff.

Credit: Morrus, EN World, Link

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Wouldn't a serf be tied to the land, for the most part, and generally not have access to the great households or castles of his distant lords?

What about a scarred background? Like, you were mauled by a wild beast, beat up by hooligans, ravaged by a demonic presence, or assaulted by renegade knights?

Shadow Lodge

SmiloDan wrote:
Wouldn't a serf be tied to the land, for the most part, and generally not have access to the great households or castles of his distant lords?

Ok, so a serf is essentially a farmer, so we could tie those two in together. It would have something to do with agriculture, maybe being able to read the weather and the seasons for crop rotations, identify plants and which parts are edible vs dangerous.

Maybe something like: Your knowledge of agriculture and plants allows you to always provide food for up to six people. In addition, whenever you're in a settlement, you can work the land to provide yourself with a moderate lifestyle. And something else.

I'm just not feeling the serf, here. Seems better as a Folk Hero, for those serfs who manage to get out of serfdom and into adventuring and campaigning.

Let's look at the language of the Folk Hero: "You come from a humble social rank but are destined for so much more." Serf fits that perfectly. And the Folk Hero's feature is "Since you come from the ranks of the common folk, you can fit among them with ease." Then it grants you the ability to hide within their ranks, rest and recuperate while being hidden, and they'll shield you from the law if they're able and it doesn't risk their own lives.

I think that works really well for any commoner, whether a serf, farmer, laborer, trapper, shepherd, servant, messenger, whatever.

Quote:
What about a scarred background? Like, you were mauled by a wild beast, beat up by hooligans, ravaged by a demonic presence, or assaulted by renegade knights?

I wouldn't say that a single event would define an entire background and upbringing, encompassing everything the person knows, is capable of, and their personality. It would have to be an on-going thing, and that thing has to be someone unique to everyone else.

Someone who is scarred from a demonic possession could easily be a noble or a serf or a pilgrim, with the scarred part changing who they hate or influencing their class (such as a ranger with a hated enemy).

Sovereign Court

Maybe a Paige or court servant background? Something like that might better reflect the lowly members of a nobles retinue.

Shadow Lodge

Lorathorn wrote:
Maybe a Paige or court servant background? Something like that might better reflect the lowly members of a nobles retinue.

Are you requesting this or suggesting to use the same feature as the slave background for this? Because the slave feature background would work really well for this, much better than using it for the serf background.

Sovereign Court

bookrat wrote:
Lorathorn wrote:
Maybe a Paige or court servant background? Something like that might better reflect the lowly members of a nobles retinue.
Are you requesting this or suggesting to use the same feature as the slave background for this? Because the slave feature background would work really well for this, much better than using it for the serf background.

Yes, the slave background works. Ultimately, anything that can be related to a current background is better than creating a new one.

RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

Beastmaster?

Shadow Lodge

How are we defining a beastmaster? If it's anyone who raises animals, that can still be a number of other backgrounds. For example, a dog master could easily be a commoner or a nobleman or an outlander.

RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

Like a feral child who was raised by beasts, learned to make them his friend, and likes animals in general.

Like the Beastmaster, Tarzan, Mogli, etc.

Shadow Lodge

I've been thinking about this for a week now. Here's what I'd want to do with it:

You can communicate simple ideas through gestures and animal sounds to animals native to the environment you were raised.

If that's not good enough, add in an ability to get food. If it's too powerful, limit the type of animal to be specific to the ones who raised the character.

RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

I think a McGuyver-like background that let you make simple pieces of equipment from random raw materials would be cool.

An "expert shopper" that would making buying and selling loot (especially magic loot) easy and not a mind-numbing and plot-stopping grind.

For example, if it takes 2 months to commission a magic sword, the BBEG will have taken over the kingdom while the heroes twiddle their thumbs waiting for it. Or the PC doesn't get a magic sword and uses his hard-earned cash on high-end prostitutes--I mean "carousing."


Good thread bookrat, and good suggestions. Here's one I made for my current campaign for one of the PCs:

Shepherd

While many people are trained to work with animals, the shepherd's long hours tending to his flock has instilled in him the ability to work with even the most obstinate of herd animals. Where others fail in soothing an animal or corraling it, the shepherd has a better chance to succeed. This ability also extends to working with canines typically employed in shepherding duties. Lastly, others working under the direction of the shepherd can benefit from the shepherd's expertise.

I treat this as an auto success for any routine shepherd duty, and as advantage on animal handling checks for herd animals or shepherding dogs for something more difficult.

Shadow Lodge

Tormsskull wrote:

Good thread bookrat, and good suggestions. Here's one I made for my current campaign for one of the PCs:

Shepherd

While many people are trained to work with animals, the shepherd's long hours tending to his flock has instilled in him the ability to work with even the most obstinate of herd animals. Where others fail in soothing an animal or corraling it, the shepherd has a better chance to succeed. This ability also extends to working with canines typically employed in shepherding duties. Lastly, others working under the direction of the shepherd can benefit from the shepherd's expertise.

I treat this as an auto success for any routine shepherd duty, and as advantage on animal handling checks for herd animals or shepherding dogs for something more difficult.

I like it. It is fairly limited in scope (how often are you really going to interact with a herd animal?), so I'd make that auto success happen even on the really difficult checks (everything but 25+ DC and maybe even that). No need to change the wording, it's just how I'd interact with it as a GM.


I tend to view backgrounds as rather far-reaching and if the player can make some kind of connection of their background to the task at hand, I'm likely to given them a bonus.

As an example, while the shepherd might not pack a lot of punch on the surface, if the group finds a slain herd animal, I'd give the shepherd a bonus to determine if it was killed by a typical predator or not. Same with interacting with other sheperds - the Shepard background could have a + to a persuasion check.

In that vein, I like to keep the background fairly limited and then allow the player's creativity to expand its usage.

Shadow Lodge

That works too. My general recommendation is that as you limit the scope, you should increase the power. Conversely, as you broaden the scope, you should lower the power. It's a balancing act.

RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

I just re-watched "The Force Awakens" and wonder if a Scavenger archetype might be appropriate? I'm thinking of Rey.

Maybe grant proficiency in Investigation and Survival, a tool kit (tinkers?), and a vehicle type (air, land, or water depending on the campaign)?

The narrative feature might include fixing things take half as much time as normal, the capability of jury-rigging equipment from junk, and/or getting use or value out of junk (like being able to re-sell goblin scimitars, for example). Maybe something akin to Use Magic Device?

Equipment might include an extra trinket, a pair of goggles, sturdy gloves, a scroll or manual written in an unknown language, and a shovel.

Shadow Lodge

SmiloDan wrote:

I just re-watched "The Force Awakens" and wonder if a Scavenger archetype might be appropriate? I'm thinking of Rey.

Maybe grant proficiency in Investigation and Survival, a tool kit (tinkers?), and a vehicle type (air, land, or water depending on the campaign)?

The narrative feature might include fixing things take half as much time as normal, the capability of jury-rigging equipment from junk, and/or getting use or value out of junk (like being able to re-sell goblin scimitars, for example). Maybe something akin to Use Magic Device?

Equipment might include an extra trinket, a pair of goggles, sturdy gloves, a scroll or manual written in an unknown language, and a shovel.

Ooo, I like it.

How about:

Scavenger: You are adept at turning junk into useful equipment. By spending a few hours searching and tinkering, you can effectively acquire any tool or item with a value less than 50 gp. Jury rigged weapons do one damage die less than their counterpart in the PHB, to a minimum of 1d4. Jury rigged armor is 1 AC lower, to a minimum of 11 AC. By spending a week, you can acquire an item that works as effectively as an item in the PHB up to 1000 gp. This can include repairing items you may already own. The ability to find any given junk to make an item is dependent on the material present (ask your GM if scavenging is available). Selling junk items is often difficult, and you can rarely get more than 1/20 to 1/10 the value, depending on the situation (and the GM). Some people may flatly refuse to purchase junk items, where others may find value in it.

RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

OK, so it looks like you can find an item that is normally worth 50 gp and sell it for 2.5 gp? How does that compare with (non-adventuring) daily income? How does that compare with the crafting rules?

I think the scavenger should be able to find useful equipment and/or make a sustainable income from scavenging, but it shouldn't make one wealthy or even middle-classed.

I also think if there is going to be crunchy numbery goodness applied to the narrative feature, it should be a bit random and unreliable. For example, you declare an item you are looking for, make an Investigation or Survival check, and apply the results of that check towards "paying" the price of the selected item. On a natural 1, you apply the results of the check towards the price of a random item. On a natural 20, if the result would exceed the price of the selected item, you can apply the excess towards an additional item or gain a trinket.

I should probably check the equipment list for a range if item prices, and the PH & DMG for downtime activities and daily income amounts.

Shadow Lodge

Good points. I was aiming at allowing the feature to basically come up with equipment, but not get rich off it, but it looks like I didn't account for it well enough. You could probably just say you can't sell anything directly, but using the feature for downtime can yield the equivalent of a poor lifestyle. This is more elegant than actually calculating value.

RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

It looks like you can practice a profession for 8 hours of down time and earn a modest living and 5 gp. Maybe earn 1d6 gp daily towards the price of an item and earn a poor living, with the option to pay 1 gp for modest or 2 gp for comfortable?

Shadow Lodge

That's a sound idea. I like it.

RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

A player of mine might use this.

Scavenger

You grew up scrounging for survival in junkyards, middens, and other heaps of garbage. You find treasure in other people’s trash. You have a talent for innovative solutions and fixing the unfixable. Your pockets seem to be filled with useless junk, but you always seem to have the right tool for the job.

Skill Proficiencies: Investigation, Survival.

Tool Proficiencies: Tinker tools, your choice of air vehicles, land vehicles, or water vehicles.

Equipment: A multi-tool you can use as a tinkers toolset, a complicated mechanical device you still haven’t quite figured out yet, a crowbar, a set of common clothes, and 10 gp.

Scavenge: You can use your downtime activity to scavenge material or items from a junkyard, midden, or garbage heap. You can earn 1d6 gp after scavenging for one day. As an action, you can search your pockets for a specific piece of equipment that can conceivably fit on your person. Roll 1d100. You find the desired piece of equipment if its price in silver pieces is less than or equal to the result of your roll. You cannot use this ability again until after you spend 1 day of downtime activity scavenging.


So, just a thought for a background of a current or past member of a cult.

Dark Cultist

You grew up as a member of a dark cult, one that performs vile rites to appease and serve an obscure or unholy power. You may have joined the cult of your own will, or without your consent (either born into it or brainwashed). Either way, you discovered something that caused you to part ways with the cult, and now have to journey out into the world once more.

Skill Proficiencies: Choose two from Arcana, Insight, Investigation, Religion.

Tool Proficiencies: Disguise kit or Herbalism Kit.

Equipment: Your choice of tool kit, an artifact taken from the cult* (if chosen), signet ring or pendant with the symbol of your cult, common clothes and hooded cultist robes, a tome or scroll of the cult's texts, and a concealed pouch holding 10 gp.

One of the following features:

* FEATURE: Cult Artifact
The Artifact may be something inherently useful, such as a dagger or shield, or something strange but not inherently useful, such as a necklace, amulet, or bracelet. It responds to certain stimuli (blood, spellcasting, killing blows) by glowing, growing or shrinking in size, or other transformations, and appears to be nearing a type of "hatching" stage. At some point, enough stimulus triggers some sort of activation.
Members of your cult recognize the Artifact, and will provide shelter and a poor lifestyle. Members of other dark cults recognize the Artifact as well, and may provide a comfortable lifestyle in return for being allowed to examine the Artifact. The Artifact cannot be disposed of: if a weapon, it will only stay in its sheath or your hands. If a ring or amulet, it cannot be take off of your body.

FEATURE: Knowing and Known
You can easily learn about various dark cults, with both contacts in the local cults and additional Proficiency in Intelligence (Investigation) checks to gather information on a dark cult. Disguising your own cult membership from other cultists actively seeking out their fellows requires a Charisma (Deception) check.

FEATURE: Ritual Greetings
As a member of a dark cult, you can easily identify other members of secret cults by recognizing the pattern of certain secret-keeping behaviors and odd actions. You can expect to be recognized as a member of such a group, and can easily insinuate yourself into a cult by duplicating standard greetings and vague proclamations common to such groups. You can expect to receive free healing and care in such dark basements and hidden temples that cults meet in, and that members of another dark cult will support you, as a fellow member, at a poor lifestyle. You can also expect to be asked to perform a minor task for the cult, in return for a modest lifestyle.

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