4e: Backgrounds Are Weird

Hey, do you know how character Backgrounds work in 4e?

Because chances are you kinda don’t know, and I’m a great big 4e nerd and I’m not sure how they work either.

an icon of a target

Okay, up front what’s a background? It’s a character option that you pick for your character, based on where they’re from and what life they’d lived up until now. They’re usually small bonuses, a +2 to two skills, or sometimes, a new class skill. There’s one background that stands out ahead of the others in terms of its being useful and not particularly challenging to get – born under a bad sign which just kind of implies you’re about to have the life of an adventurer, and it gives you some bonus hit points.

A lot of characters, in my experience, are born under a bad sign.

And this is because born under a bad sign is really powerful and it doesn’t actually infringe much on you, nor does it require you to go digging around in a bunch of lore books (or really the compendium) to find background material that works the best for your character in this campaign for these skills. Or, again, you probably search the compendium for the skills you want or the class skill you know your class won’t get you. Like, for all that these things are meant to make you feel like you belong somewhere the actual mechanical incentives to really care about that seem somewhat diminished. It lacks some sinew is a problem with it.

an icon of a dice with question marks over it

But the strangest thing is, the rules don’t really specify how backgrounds work. There’s no glossary entry for them. They first appear as best I can track down in a Dragon magazine, and they just seem to be a thing that happens as a byproduct of being from an area – and like, that opens questions like are you from an area enough? How many years are from that area? What about the long-lived characters like elves or dwarves? They’re in lots of places for lots of years, maybe? Or maybe not?

This is silly, in its core it’s pretty obvious how this works and most people I know work out the same kind of way that Backgrounds ‘should’ work. Because it seems obvious, given the way themes and classes and races and all the other components of character building work, right? They should work this way, so it’s obvious they work this way.

It’s funny given how much of 4th edition D&D is extremely strictly defined, and how many mechanical systems within it are carefully clarified, that whenever you come across one of these hiccup points, one of these places where the rules kinda 404, the player’s intuitive experience of the rules system kinda fills its place: ‘well yeah duh obviously it works this way.’

an icon showing a pyramid of circles

As with the Themes before them, Backgrounds suffer from a tiering problem. Some backgrounds are just extremely good, and being extremely good, they make all the other backgrounds that do the kind of thing they do feel much worse. Getting a +2 to a skill can be good, if it’s a skill you care about, but what if there’s a background that gives you a +2 to two skills you want. Getting a skill added to your skill list is good, but getting free training in a skill is better. Then what if you don’t care about skills? What if your job is something else?

Eehhhh then you probably take born under a bad sign.

This here is a design challenge you should know about in general. There are a lot of backgrounds, their sheer volume becomes a part of their problem. Players aren’t going to be able to parse out a giant pile of options and that giant pile of options becomes overwhelming and the overwhelming nature of those options mean that instead of being presented with thousands of great choices players are instead presented with a puddle of slush. But the fact that there’s a searchable database that makes the system more interactable isn’t a solution to the bad system design in and of itself.

You can cut a background into three basic families; a bonus to some skills, training in a skill, or ‘something weird.’ Everything else tends to not be worth the time. The something weird category are cool but probably shouldn’t exist – they do enable the existence of some weird builds, and I’m inclined to allow them on a case by case basis. But the thing is, mostly, all a player is getting out of a background is a skill they don’t have access to otherwise (which is itself a problem of the skill system, more on that another day), or the ability to push a truly great skill to the next level.

What I’d propose is a lot simpler:

  • Everyone picks either two skills to receive a +2 Background Bonus, or a single skill they can be trained in
  • Backgrounds, like the places, have a table signifying what their skill bonuses may imply about how your character grew up there

This of course is complicated but the thing I like about it is that players don’t have to start by finding where they come from that has the skills they want: Everywhere has the skills they want. They instead can look at the skills they want and what possible keywords that implies about their backstory, the kind of people they might be, and if those things add depth to their other ideas for the character.

This also probably snookers a lot of backgrounds that aren’t about places and are more about social class. There are a lot of those! Backgrounds all over the place aren’t about whether or not you came from an area and are much more about the physical space you’re in. The alternative point I’d suggest is to instead get rid of all the place stuff – because every place can have every benefit, really – and instead focus entirely on the social class stuff.