Every player character has their own background. The Player’s Handbook has a number of easy to use character backgrounds that players can quickly choose. While these are great for getting starting equipment and extra proficiencies, they can be really limiting for your players’ character development in the future. Working with your players, you can modify and expand on official 5E character backgrounds.
How Character Backgrounds Work
A character’s background is essentially where their personal story began, before they became an adventurer or hero. In DnD 5e the character background grants the character certain bonuses. Their background gives them additional proficiencies, languages, and starting equipment. Beyond the bonuses, they also have suggestions for their personal story – things like personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. It is incredibly important that you and your players both realize that these are just suggestions. It can be fun to roll your character randomly and pick your story components that way. But for a lot of players, the offered suggestions can paint them into a corner and keep them from playing the hero they want to.
Preparing for Character Creation
Before your players even look through the backgrounds provided in the books, make sure you provide them with information about the world their character will live in. If your players know nothing about your world before they roll their character, they may end up rolling a character that you will struggle to find room for in your game. We’re not suggesting you should ban people from playing things that they want to, but instead give them some starting information. That way they can use your introduction as a guide for what they are going to make. Often just giving a short description of the world and why the players may be together is enough for them to start coming up with their own back stories that fit well into your world in the first place. For example, if your world is entirely land-locked, having a character with a seafaring background might not be the best option.
Using the Backgrounds for Character Story
Not every background works well with what a character is being built for. A lot of them start with “you have spent your life doing…” which can already restrict what a player was thinking in the first place. We encourage you to work with your players to help them if they want to do something and are not sure where a background fits. Backgrounds are guidelines, not laws. Remember to ask the player if their option works for them or is fun when selecting or modifying backgrounds. If your player wants to do something outside of the official books, work with them to make sure you can incorporate it into the story. You can give guidance on how to best shape that character and their background, but don’t take over their character creation with your ideas.
As an example, let’s say you’re running a campaign that is very high fantasy: heroes of light fighting a great evil sort of thing. This is very general and most provided backgrounds can fit most characters. But if we use our previous example of a land-locked setting with a player who chooses the pirate background, there might be issues. If you work with your player, you can address this. Maybe you have airships instead of water vessels, or instead of pirate you suggest banditry. The setting items are easy to fix. The harder part is in how you help your pirate player enter the role of a hero. What changed in their backstory that set them on this path? Or will they slowly change as the campaign goes on? The best way to tackle this is to ask them. Maybe you end having them be chosen for the task, or they could be tricked into it reluctantly, or they could even be bound to help the kingdom or be executed for their crimes. There are so many ways to make this work, but you’ll have to figure it out with your player. They’re not going to want to be shoehorned into your story any more than you’re going to want to warp your story around their character. Things are often easiest if you work together to craft a character background that is cohesive and will inform set pieces used throughout the campaign.
Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws
The Player’s Handbook proposes traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws as part of a player’s character background and we suggest that you have your characters use these. It might be difficult for newer players to separate themselves from their characters, but these background characteristics can actually help give the player a set of acting guidelines for role playing that character. Not all players are going to be happy with the items provided in the book. For example, your pirate variant player might want to use an ideal of beauty instead of the provided ones for that background. Maybe they were searching for the fountain of youth, or a miracle cure for some sort of disfiguration. What motivates and drives a character is up to the players and they should not be limited by the book. Just about anything can work here. The important part is that your players think about their character’s individual characteristics. How do they act? Why are they questing? What kind of flaws do they have?
Going Completely Off Script
There are some players out there that won’t play if they cannot play what they want to. You should try to work with those players, within reason, to accommodate what they want to do. Don’t go crazy with it, and don’t let them spoil the game for others, but try to let them play the character that they want to be. For a lot of people DnD is a way for them to forget about real problems and be something they aren’t in real life, so don’t box your players in too much if you’re starting a long campaign. Make sure they’re on board with your setting and that you can work together with whatever they throw at you.
The Player’s Handbook gives rules for complete customization. The player can replace any feature with any other, choose any two skills, and they can pick up to a total of two tool proficiencies or languages from the background samples in the book. If you’re having your players get their equipment from their backgrounds, your custom background character can choose to pick a package from another background or do an equipment purchase using the money rolled for their class.
Players Using Their Backgrounds
Backgrounds are an important part of role play. If a player is doing something out of character or crazy given their background, they should gently be reminded of this. Players often need to be reminded of their characters when they are starting out. Some players will need a bit more help and a bigger push. We have a player in one of our groups who needs to be reminded that a lawful good cleric with a sage background probably wouldn’t steal for no reason. This leads to a lot of great fun and table banter, but it’s important to help your players stay in character when they are making decisions that will effect their character’s story line.
Backgrounds are not just there for the equipment and perks, and this is something that a lot of people forget. A character background should be looked at as a sort of instruction manual for feeling out the new character you’re playing. It’s important to know these things about the character and keep their ideas separate in your head from your ideas as a player. Typically, most meta gaming problems occur from players taking actions that their characters wouldn’t or would not know to do.
Backgrounds can be useful and a lot of fun if used correctly. They are guidelines, not strict rules, and should be used to inform the decisions that the players make and the in-world consequences of those actions that you as a DM come up with. Remember, the point of DnD is to have fun story telling together, and backgrounds are an important part of that fun!