Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Building Backgrounds and Builds

Recently, one of my players asked me to write an article on how a character's background affects their build. I was thinking about it, and realized that reading and knowing a character's background has some real value to the Dungeon Master as well. Not just from a story perspective - mechanically, too!

This article won't be about the story aspects of a background. Honestly, if you want to play a particular background, they are all good. Make a solid character.

If you are looking to munchkin this stuff, or don't care about your background, these suggestions might be helpful. I'm going to go through a few mechanical considerations, and then get to the good DM-relevant stuff after that.


So, the main mechanical consideration for a background is the proficiencies that come with it. There are two topics to cover here: Skills and Tools.

For skills, there are two that are always useful: Perception and Stealth. That's because these skills are used to get the jump on encounters. See traps before they spring! Surprise enemies! Avoid enemies! Don't be the clanky one that brings the party down! Good stuff.

For Perception, there are surprisingly few options that grant the skill. Sailor is the only one in the Player's Handbook that does, and from the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, Faction Agent and Far Traveler can grant it. Most characters will be able to get Perception from their class skills, but if you are a Cleric, Monk, Paladin, Sorcerer, Warlock, or Wizard, you might consider taking one of these backgrounds or creating a custom background that includes Perception.

For Stealth, we have the Criminal and Urchin, or the Urban Bounty Hunter from the SCAG. This is also a tricky situation, since only Bards, Monks, Rangers, and Rogues can get Stealth from their classes. You'll definitely want to consider taking a stealth proficiency, especially if you'll be moving in heavy armor (with disadvantage).

As for other Skill Proficiencies, that depends on what sort of campaign you are playing. Talk to your DM before the game and see what kind of challenges you will be facing.
  • For Hexcrawls, Survival, Nature, and Animal Handling are useful
  • For Political games, Insight and any Charisma skill is useful
  • In an Low Magic Setting, the Medicine skill is indispensable
  • In a High Magic Setting, Arcana is very useful

Who knew that years of butcher experience would lead to an expertise in killing monsters?
Next up is Tool Proficiencies. This would normally be a fluff category as well, but since Xanathar's Guide came out, tools actually have great mechanical benefits. Make sure to check with your DM to see if you can use tools in these ways.

Here are my favorites among the tools listed in Xanathar's Guide:
  • Alchemist's Supplies: make acid and fire. Neutralize acid. Identify poison without magic. Good stuff.
  • Cobbler's Tools: What? Yes. Make hidden compartments in your shoes. So many good uses. Allows your party to travel further, too!
  • Cook's Utensils: Another surprising one. Buff your allies' hit dice! Spot poison/impurities in food! Nice.
  • Land/Water Vehicles: "While piloting a vehicle, you can apply your proficiency bonus to the vehicle's AC and saving throws." Score another point for the Sailor background!
  • Smith's Tools/Tinker's Tools: great for cleaning up after an encounter with a Rust Monster or Grey Ooze. Plus, with enough time, it can be used to craft custom gear!
  • Thieves' Tools: The ability to pick locks and disable traps was already good, but now you can MAKE YOUR OWN TRAPS. Holy schmow. Even if you aren't a rogue, this could be useful.

A lot of these benefits are great even if only one character in your party can do them. One player handing out Vials of Acid for everyone to use is all you need. If another character already has a particular tool covered, consider selecting a different one.

Other Stuff

Class: Monk. Background: Monk.
In addition to your proficiencies, backgrounds come with some items and languages.

Languages are mostly campaign-situational, so we can't discuss them in general. Talk to your DM and ask if there are any particular languages you should pick up. That said, the Sage, the Anthropologist (from Tomb of Annihilation), and the Haunted One (from Curse of Strahd) have better access to languages, so use those if you need many languages or obscure languages in your campaign.

The items listed are generally useless, sadly. Even the highest GP background (noble) will only let you survive a day and a half at a noble-level lifestyle, or two weeks at an average lifestyle. It's better to not focus on the items for your build. Unless you really want a pet mouse (Urchin).

And as far as personality traits go, it's generally best to work with your DM on all of them. I've had plenty of players who pick their flaw or bond without knowing anything about the campaign, and then are surprised or disappointed when they can't use it at all.

Background Features (and DM stuff)

The last thing to look for in a background is your Background Feature. This is the part of your background that lets you interact with the world in a different way.

These are meant to give you an advantage in certain social situations, build bonds with the NPCs or the world, or help you discover quests more easily. This lines up fairly well to the "Three Pillars of Play" in the DMG: Social Interaction, Exploration, and Combat. Admittedly, the Background Features don't give you direct combat advantages, but they can certainly help your character find combat more easily.

When selecting your Background, consider which of these three elements of D&D you are most interested in. Then, use your background to give yourself an advantage in that area.
  • "I want to make local contacts and not have to worry about paying for room and board."
    • Acolyte, Entertainer, Gladiator, Folk Hero, Guild Artisan, Noble, Soldier, City Watch (SCAG), Clan Crafter (SCAG), Faction Agent (SCAG), Knight of the Order (SCAG), Mercenary Veteran (SCAG), Uthgardt Tribe Member (SCAG), Waterdhavian Noble (SCAG), Haunted One (Curse of Strahd)
  • "I want to have an interesting effect or advantage in certain social situations."
    • Charlatan, Folk Hero, Noble, Pirate, Far Traveler (SCAG), Cult of the Dragon Infiltrator (Hoard of the Dragon Queen), Anthropologist (Tomb of Annihilation)
  • "I want NPC allies that can help me fight monsters!"
    • Folk Hero, Knight, Haunted One (Curse of Strahd)
  • "I want to explore the world without having to worry about the details."
    • Outlander, Sailor, Urchin, Uthgardt Tribe Member (SCAG), Deep Delver (Out of the Abyss)
  • "I want to find information and gather quests without trouble."
    • Criminal, Guild Artisan, Sage, City Watch (SCAG), Cloistered Scholar (SCAG), Courtier (SCAG), Urban Bounty Hunter (SCAG), Dragon Scholar (Hoard of the Dragon Queen), Underdark Experience (Out of the Abyss)
  • "I want a personal plot thread for my character!"
    • Hermit, Faction Agent (SCAG), Inheritor (SCAG)

By carefully selecting your Background Feature, you can work with your DM and shape your game in the way you like.

The obvious choice
Dungeon Masters: take careful note of the Background features your players choose. They may not be consciously signalling the shape of the game they wish to play, but they will definitely use these features at every opportunity. If you have a player who can gather information, that means your game needs to have:
  1. Opportunities to gather information
  2. Fewer challenges related to gathering that information

I've had multiple sessions where my players have used a single ability to negate hours of work on a particular challenge. If your players have these abilities, don't be afraid to let them be used! But on the flip side, don't build any large challenges around the situations those abilities negate. If you start your game off with "the goal of the session is to get enough gold to afford to live", the Entertainer in the group will just perform their way out of the game.

Interestingly, you can see what sort of things the designers saw as extraneous: most parties will be able to ignore tasks like looking for room and board, hunting down information, and certain aspects of travel. It almost makes you wonder how much they thought about Exploration and Social Interaction as pillars of the game, as opposed to just making D&D into a combat engine...

Anyway, with this guide you can see which background you should take based on what sort of game you'd like to play, and why 90% of your players will be choosing the Sailor background. You're welcome.

Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. Very helpful! And i love that you both mentioned the links to player psychology in choosing the background as well as the original game designer's psychology in presenting the options in the first place.