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Character Background Made Easy

posted Monday, October 29th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Player Advice

My last post described the tricky aspect of introducing new players to D&D. The simple method, like the origins of D&D, is to introduce D&D first as a kind of game played with dice where one player controls a dungeon full of monsters and the rest control adventurers who work together to beat the dungeon. With a good Dungeon Master, players soon learn that clever, out-of-the-box thinking can lead to innovative solutions and reveal the remarkable freedom of action that characterizes tabletop roleplaying games.

From here, we can move into more characterization and character development. This should come naturally as players build and develop their characters, and players in my game frequently start out with only the most basic of backstory which is filled in and even radically changed as the character progresses. Some players, however, might be short of that initial background idea that can begin to define a character as more then a set of numbers. For the “roll-players” that need an extra push, you can reward them with a minor bonus character ability that relates to the backstory they’ve chosen.

Behind the cut is a chart which you can use to generate backstories. Roll randomly or allow players to pick, DM’s choice.

  1. Acolyte: You are a minor clergymember of a religious order (but not a cleric). Bonus: +2 to Knowledge (religion); knows a single 0th level cleric spell which can be cast twice per day.
  2. Alchemist: Your professional is to unravel the secrets of reality and keep them for yourself. Bonus: +2 to Craft (alchemy) and Knowledge Arcana checks.
  3. Apprentice: You were a wizard’s apprentice, but never completed your training. Bonus: Know two 0th level arcane spells which can each be cast once per day.
  4. Avenger: You are consumed by need for revenge against some villain who wronged you terribly in the past. Bonus: +1 to Will saves; +1 morale bonus to hit creatures of the race or organization of your archnemesis.
  5. Barbarian: You hail from a so-called “uncivilized” tribe, and tougher than civilized folk. Bonus: +1 to Fortitude saves and Strength checks.
  6. Blacksmith: You forged weapons and armour for a living. Bonus: +2 to Craft checks involving metalworking, gain fire resistance 1.
  7. Explorer: Your purpose in life has always been to travel and discover the world. Bonus: +2 to Knowledge (dungeoneering) and saves vs traps.
  8. Hero’s son: You’ve inherited the reputation of a legendary figure, and have big boots to fill. Bonus: Start with a masterwork weapon.
  9. Merchant: You’ve made your living through a talent for salesmanship. Bonus: +2 to Bluff, 25% bonus starting gold.
  10. Noble: You are of aristocratic lineage, but abandoned high society for your own reasons. Bonus: +2 to Diplomacy checks, 25% extra starting gold.
  11. Nomad: You come from a distant land of travelling people. Bonus: Know any two extra languages; treat Speak Language as a class skill.
  12. Peasant: You come from a poor lineage, but are unusually brave. Bonus: +3 to saves vs fear.
  13. Performer: You’ve made your living as an actor, musician, or other hopeful celebrity. Bonus: +2 to Diplomacy and Perform checks
  14. Pirate: You’ve made your living on the high seas as a privateer. Bonus: +2 to Balance, Intimidate and Profession (sailor) checks.
  15. Scholar: You have dedicated yourself to the accumulation of Knowledge. Bonus: +1 to all Knowledge skills; all Knowledge skills are class skills for you.
  16. Soldier: You served as a warrior in an army. Bonus: +2 to Ride checks, free masterwork light or medium armour.
  17. Spy: You once served as the eyes and ears of an army or powerful individual. Bonus: +2 to Bluff, +1 to saves vs fear.
  18. Survivalist: You have spent many years living as a hermit in the wilderness. Bonus: +2 to Survival checks, and +1 on saves vs poison.
  19. Thief: You were a bandit or pickpocket before you decided to take up adventuring. Bonus: +2 to Sleight of Hand checks and 25% extra starting gold.
  20. Town guard or detective: You’ve made a solid career out of keeping your community free from crime. Bonus: +2 to Spot, Listen and Sense Motive checks.

Not all of these abilities are especially powerful, since they’re free bonuses. You can always beef them up to be more powerful if you’re happy with that. Thanks to my online buddies Cronocke, Ymdar and IIsi50MHz for their help in compiling this list!

Comments

  1. JT

    October 29th, 2007

    Interesting idea, but the bonuses are all over the map—some better than a feat, others adding merely a touch of flavor. I think that works fine in a scenario with high randomness (e.g., when players roll for stats and hit points) but it might be nicer for a more unified approach.

    Also, bonuses help a little to define a character, but penalties help even more. Being dumb or clumsy forces roleplaying, and is often rewarding. How about the following modifications?

    1. Acolyte: +2 to Knowledge (religion); knows a single 0th level cleric spell which can be cast twice per day, -2 to Bluff checks.
    2. Alchemist: +2 to Craft (alchemy) and Knowledge Arcana checks, -2 to Diplomacy checks.
    3. Apprentice: Know two 0th level arcane spells which can each be cast once per day, -2 to Concentration checks.
    4. Avenger: : +1 to Will saves; +1 morale bonus to hit creatures of the race or organization of your archnemesis, -2 to Sense Motive and Bluff checks when blinded by revenge.
    5. Barbarian: +1 to Fortitude saves and Strength checks, -2 to Diplomacy checks.
    6. Blacksmith: +2 to Craft checks involving metalworking, gain fire resistance 1, -2 to Sleight of Hand checks.
    7. Explorer: +2 to Knowledge (dungeoneering), +1 to saves vs traps (like trap sense), -2 on Craft (any) checks.
    8. Hero’s son: Start with a masterwork weapon, -2 on Disguise checks.
    9. Merchant: +2 to Appraise, 25% bonus starting gold, -2 to Intimidate checks.
    10. Noble: +2 to Diplomacy checks, 25% extra starting gold, -2 to Bluff checks.
    11. Nomad: Know any two extra languages; treat Speak Language as a class skill, start play illiterate (as per Barbarian).
    12. Peasant: +2 to saves vs fear, 25% less starting gold.
    13. Performer: +2 to Perform checks, +25% gold when using Perform to earn money, -2 to Profession (any) checks.
    14. Pirate: +2 to Balance, Profession (sailor) checks, -2 to to Swim checks.
    15. Scholar: +1 to all Knowledge skills; all Knowledge skills are class skills for you, -1 on Strength checks.
    16. Soldier: +2 to Ride checks, free masterwork light or medium armour, -2 to Diplomacy checks.
    17. Spy: +2 to Bluff, +1 to saves vs fear, must succeed on DC 10 Concentration check to tell the whole truth in difficult situations.
    18. Survivalist: +2 to Survival checks, and +1 on saves vs poison, -2 to Diplomacy checks.
    19. Thief: +2 to Sleight of Hand checks and 25% extra starting gold, must succeed on DC 10 Concentration check to not take money when there is no perceived harm (e.g., when searching a monster with other players far away, you will under-report the amount you found and pocket the rest).
    20. Town guard or detective: +2 to Spot, Listen and Sense Motive checks, -2 to Bluff checks, must succeed on a DC 10 Concentration check to not react (negatively and potentially with violence) to a perceived crime.

  2. Jonathan Drain

    April 2nd, 2008

    JT: I don’t want to penalize characters for taking these, like with Unearthed Arcana traits. It’s better balance, I agree, but my aim here is to encourage min-maxers to give some consideration to character background, rather than add extra min-maxing.

  3. KasraKhan

    July 19th, 2008

    PHB2…?

    In addition, I force my players to consider familial ties, flaws, fears, and likes. I even recquire quotas for some stubborn players. Of course, they thank me later.

  4. Capt_Poco

    August 21st, 2008

    Nice catch there Kasra, though Drain’s idea has a little more crunch than the PHB2 version. Actually, I think the whole idea would be greatly simplified (and the professions balanced) if you just gave players +2 to anything related to their profession and -2 to anything unrelated. The rest of the penalties/bonuses you give seem more like token effects to get some flavor across, though I feel like giving away class skills may be a little overpowered. In any case, the PHB2 has some excellent pre-fabricated backstories for your characters, most of which are better than average (i. e. kobolds ate my babies. I seek revenge.)

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