Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Backgrounds as Races (or races as backgrounds)

Just because they're short doesn't mean they steal stuff
I've spoken a bit about how a system defines the way you play the game. D&D is a combat-heavy system, so it lends itself to complex combats and simple exploration/interaction. It's an excellent system for dungeon crawling, which is probably why "Dungeon" is in the title.

But a system also adds another bit of input on how you play the game, by including different races and classes. The Player's Handbook is the first book a player usually sees or buys, and if there's elves in there, by Pelor they are going to want to play elves. If they see stats for pets, they will demand pets. If there is a wizard class, there have to be wizard schools, and the players will want to join them.

Most Dungeon Masters are fine with these ideas. In fact, most Dungeon Masters play in settings right out of the modules, where all the handbook races are represented. The Forgotten Realms (perhaps by virtue of the D&D Adventurer's League) is still one of the most popular settings in D&D.

And in the cases where a DM wants to get creative and craft their own setting, it's easy to say "elves in my setting aren't snooty pricks, they are weird moon creatures!" Or to simply remove gnomes from an area because they don't live in that country. Or even to say "tieflings get different spells than the ones listed in the handbook" like they id in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes.

But you can't get rid of the races entirely.

Why? Because of their stat boosts. In a system with bounded accuracy like D&D, the difference between a +2 ability modifier and a +3 modifier in a primary ability score will come up dozens of time in a session, tipping the scales on several rolls. Every little +1 helps. That's why the Adventurer's League doesn't award +1 weapons until level 5, and AC-boosting armor and shields are considered quite game-breaking.

In a game where every stat point matters, you'll find that certain race-class combinations become incredibly common. Elven Rangers, Dwarven Fighters, and Halfling Rogues are simply more powerful than other combinations. And while you'll find plenty of people who are interested in role-playing a particular race, there are many more who want to use a particular class and be good at it. Due to the rules and focus of the game, class is far, far more important than race to a character.

So, without a major change, you can't remove race options, because you are essentially asking players to take a hit to the effectiveness of their class.

So, let's talk about making a major change.

Backgrounds as Races

Let's say we are running a setting that is entirely human. Arthurian England, for example. Or some sort of sci-fi post-apocalypse game where humans haven't had enough time to mutate into new races or be visited by aliens. In such a scenario, would every human have the same background and abilities?

Of course not. They might be able to use smithing tools or an herbalism kit due to their background. They could speak certain languages, and have different equipment. And there's no reason why they couldn't have different ability scores, too.

Depending on your art style, they might still look the same, though
The basic human template assumes every human starts with a +1 in every stat. It's one of the weakest and most boring races in the handbook. The variant human is much better, granting +1 in two different stats, a skill, and a feat. Feats are incredibly powerful at first level, but the +1 in two different stats is still a bit lame. That's not even enough to get an ability score to an extra +1 modifier.

I have a house rule in my current games: if you don't roll at least one ability score to be 14 or higher during character creation, you can reroll your stats. Why? Because the game is built around the idea that nearly all first-level characters will have a +3 modifier in their primary stat. A +5 to hit is the minimum needed to get the 65% hit rate the game designers were shooting for. That's why the standard ability score array features a 15 in it - they assume you'll bump that up to 16 or 17 with your racial bonuses.

So, we need to add higher modifiers to the human class. And different backgrounds is the perfect justification to do it. After all, if you are a Charlatan, wouldn't it make sense for you to have a higher-than-average charisma? If you were a smith, wouldn't you be a bit stronger? By co-opting the backgrounds, we can create the mechanical diversity of races without needing the races themselves.

Normally, a background in 5th edition comes with a few perks already: you get 2 skill proficiencies, 2 language/tool proficiencies, some flavored equipment, and a perk. I've discussed before what goes into these backgrounds, and it's best to use them as a base when creating stat-boosting backgrounds.

Of course, stats aren't the only thing you'll want to boost when creating these new backgrounds. After all, races come with plenty of other features, proficiencies, and bonuses aside from stats. To estimate the power of these features, I've used the Detect Balance system from Eleazzaar. This lead to the following point-buy system that can be used to estimate human abilities. Each character should get about 25 points to start with, with a maximum of 30.

Ability Score Increases (A single ability score can only benefit from an increase once.)
  • Ability Score +1 - 4 points
  • Ability Score +2 - 8 points
  • All Ability Scores +1 - 16 points

  • Common and 1 Standard Language - 0 points
  • Common and 2-3 Standard Languages - 1 point
  • 1 Exotic Language - 1 point
  • Tool Proficiency - 1 point
  • Skill Proficiency - 3 points
  • Expertise on a skill with specific application - 2 points
  • Skill Proficiency and Expertise - 6 points

  • 30 feet - 0 points
  • 35 feet - 2 points
  • 30 feet climb - 2 points
  • 30 feet swim - 2 points
  • Ignore nonmagical difficult terrain - 3 points
  • Not slowed by Heavy Armor - 2 points

Physical Abilities
  • Hold Breath (15 minutes) - 1 point
  • Powerful Build (+1 size for carrying things) - 3 points
  • Nimbleness (move through space of larger creatures) - 2 points
  • Acclimatized (ignore penalties of a certain environment) - 1 point

Advantage on Rolls
  • Advantage on Rare Roll (e.g. History checks about a certain city) - 1 point
  • Advantage on a Situational Roll (e.g. Animal Handling checks) - 2 points
  • Advantage on a Common Roll (e.g. Perception checks to look for traps) - 4 points
  • Advantage on a Very Common Roll (e.g. Initiative checks) - 8 points

Weapons and Armor
  • 1 Simple Weapon Training - 1 point
  • 1 Martial Weapon Training - 2 points
  • Natural Weapon/Unarmed Strike (1d4) - 1 point
  • Natural Weapon/Unarmed Strike (1d6) - 2 points
  • Natural Weapon/Unarmed Strike (1d8) - 4 points
  • Natural Weapon/Unarmed Strike (1d10) - 8 points
  • Light Armor Training - 2 points
  • Light/Medium Armor Training - 4 points

  • Feat - 20 points
  • Tinker (from the Rock Gnome) - 1 point
  • Lucky (from Halfling) - 4 points
  • Toughness (+1 HP per level) - 5 points
  • Cantrip - 3 points

As you probably have guessed, I've turned this into a PDF here.

Pictured: 7 people who had to choose the same race for the bonuses
Thus, using this system, we can create pure human backgrounds that confer the same mechanical powers a race would! Here are some examples from the Player's Handbook.

Charlatan (Gambler)
In addition to normal background features, the character gains:

  • Dexterity +2 (8 points)
  • Charisma +1 (4 points)
  • Common and 1 Standard language (0 points)
  • Thieves Cant (exotic language, 1 point)
  • Dice Proficiency (1 points)
  • Advantage on Insight Checks versus bluffing (common roll, 4 points)
  • Lucky (4 points)
  • Mage Hand Cantrip (3 points)

Charlatan (Swindler)
In addition to normal background features, the character gains:

  • Charisma +2 (8 points)
  • Wisdom +1 (4 points)
  • Common and 2-3 Standard languages (1 point)
  • Thieves Cant (exotic language, 1 point)
  • Deception Expertise (6 points)
  • Lucky (4 points)
  • Tinker (1 point)

Soldier (Blacksmith)
In addition to normal background features, the character gains:
  • Strength +2 (8 points)
  • Constitution +2 (8 points)
  • Common and 1 Standard language (0 points)
  • Smith's Tools Proficiency (1 point)
  • Expertise on Performance checks to craft items (2 points)
  • Not Slowed by Heavy Armor (2 points)
  • Powerful Build (3 points)
  • Unarmed Strike 1d4 (1 point)


In addition to normal background features, the character gains:

  • All ability scores +1 (16 points)
  • Common and 1 Standard language (0 points)
  • Thieves Cant (exotic language, 1 point)
  • 30 feet climb (2 points)
  • Hold Breath 15 minutes (1 point)
  • Nimbleness (2 points)
  • Advantage on History checks about home city (rare roll, 1 point)
  • Slingshot Training (1 point)
  • Unarmed Strike 1d4 (1 point)

As you can see, not only does this system allow you to make more specific backgrounds, it also allows you to modify background features to suit a particular character. Do you want your Indiana Jones-esque rogue to be able to use a whip? That's only 2 points here, but in the normal system it would require an entire feat.

This system allows for more diversity of background-class combinations, and helps players all start on a level playing field when it comes to ability scores. And, of course, it allows the DM to create balanced settings with heavy race restrictions.

In some settings, "Wood Elf Ranger" might as well be synonymous with "Elf"
As a last note, I've built this system under the assumption that humans are not innately magical, and might learn a cantrip but don't have any magic for themselves. Of course, I'll have to add that in for Ahneria, but this is the basic system.

Thanks for reading!

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