Player Backgrounds in D&D 4e

One of the hits on fourth edition D&D is that there are no non-combat skills that allow players to roleplay. There are backgrounds available, but most people choose them for skill bonuses rather than for real background improvement. The shorthand skills method I will be using for my next game is that each player can declare two areas they are skilled in outside of the main skill system. This could be things like cooking, sailing, clock repair, mining, stone work etc. Whenever the PC needs to take a skill check in an area related to one of these skills they count the check as one level of difficulty easier than it would normally be. So if you picked sailing, and needed an athletics roll to climb the rigging and fix a loose rope, normally this would be difficult, but for you it would be moderate. If it was already an easy check you pass it for free. This doesn’t mean that things that are close count, mining isn’t dungeoneering, it is mining items from the ground, climbing a tower isn’t the same as climbing rigging etc., but if you are in something directly related it counts. This is better than the +2 bonus you get from the current backgrounds, but isn’t over powering.

Background categories can’t be adventuring ones but must be more usual things (see samples below) someone might be involved in. I will be warning players that these will be integrated pretty closely to character background story.  I can see players wanting to stretch this pretty regularly if it isn’t clearly explained so here are some examples.

Sailing: would cover most basic ship activities, knowing where things are, how to set sails, climbing rigging but wouldn’t cover ship building, non-ship rope climbing, areas where air ships differ from sea ships.

Town Watch: should cover basic unit drill, military ranks, common civil punishments but not give combat bonuses or allow warlord type skill checks.

Apprentice: Where to find spell ingredients, history of local wizards group but not expanding burst range of spell, how to bind demons etc.

Weaponsmith: Basic forge work, metal working, creating basic weapons not applying arcane runes, working unobtanium, crafting vorpal weapons.

  1. Nicholas says:

    Actually, I think the lack of these dedicated skills is a strength of 4E, not a detriment… If something is for Roleplay purposes, it doesn’t need rules mechanics, and conversely if something needs a mechanic, it isn’t roleplay.

    If a PC wants to be able to tailor a suit, sail a ship, or play a lute, just let them if that’s in their backstory. It is flavor only.

    I don’t understand why people feel the need to roll dice for their storytelling aspects. I am perfectly fine with stipulating Gorag the Handsome can sing well and play a mean lute. He gets some applause. Oh, wait, what? He wants to seduce a maiden or get people to pay for his drinks? Now we’re out of RP and into game effects. Try Diplomacy! If he put some effort into his RP description of his methodology I’d probably award a circumstance bonus.

  2. Brett says:

    Broadly I agree, but it is a Roleplaying game, not just a roleplaying session without rules so I think having some soft borders helps, as does providing rewards for giving backgrounds to players who may not be as into the roleplaying side of the game. If you as a more roleplaying type player say you grew up on a farm and should know the difference between a Coromyr Pure Bred and a Dragon Coast Heifer I would likely just give it to you, but if you say growing up on a farm should allow you to able to jump into a House Cannith threshing machine and shut it down, that is where I give you a bonus to the difficulty because of your background, but you still have to make a skill check. If it is something with no challenge or need of a roll, I have no trouble just just RPing it, if it has challenge and your background applies, you get a bonus.
    .-= Brett´s last blog ..Player Backgrounds in D&D 4e =-.

    • Nicholas says:

      Absolutely, I’d agree there. But those can be made as some kind of circumstance bonus to existing skills, rather than requiring the creation of say a “Farming” skill. I guess the question really is whether it is better to try and quantify those all at once, or whether to leave it open to ad hoc negotiation between Player and DM. I lean more toward the latter. Adding too many specific “Background” notations in skills areas gets close to adding a second level to the sublimely simplistic “Trained” mechanic, and also kind of infringes on what they seemed to be aiming at with Skill Powers. Skill Powers, at least according to the cursory glance I’ve given them, seem to be split down the middle between “Combat Useful” and “Roleplay” in design.

      If the Player is just trying to compensate for his or her “dump stat” though, I’m not sure exactly how symathetic I’d be. As is there appear to be plenty of things in the rules as is that allow you to bypass “dump stat” issues. For example, Utility Powers or Skill Powers that allow you to substitute your primary attribute. There is an Arcana Skill Power that lets you use Arcana in place of a social skill like Diplomacy or Intimidate, I expect there are many others as well.

  1. There are no trackbacks for this post yet.