Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Few Problems with D&D 5E Backgrounds

As I've read the new 5E Player's Handbook, had players create new PCs, recreate old PCs and use pre-made PCs I've come to realize that I have a few problems with them.  That's not to say that they're not a good addition to the game, just that there are things about them I'd like to tweak.

Here are the shortcomings that I've found so far:

  • They don't tie the party together.  
    • Seriously, this is a big one.  The backgrounds all seem to focus on where the character came from and a little on how the character fits into the world or is motivated to adventure, but they provide very little that ties one character to another in a party.
    • Unlike Dungeon World bonds, there's nothing in any of the backgrounds that clearly indicates how your character would be bound to the other weirdos in your band of thieving murder hobos, I mean, your party.
  • They're not great about providing plot hooks/reasons to adventure.
    • Here is an example of how a player could make a character with the Entertainer background who has no plot hooks/reasons to adventure taken from the background.
      • Personality Trait: "I'll settle for nothing less than perfection." (This one almost screams "I won't last long adventuring" to me).
      • Ideal: "Beauty. When I perform, I make the world better than it was. (Good)." (Might be an admirable Ideal, but it doesn't really give the player any idea why the entertainer might decide to travel far from the crowds of a city or village to battle goblins in a wild forest or skeletons in a dungeon).
      • Bond: "My instrument is my most treasured possession, and it reminds of someone I love." (This one almost, almost could read of a plot hook, but not quite.  As a DM I'd be tempted to steal the instrument and use that as the hook, but the very next bond down in the PHB is that very shtick, so a player who chooses this bond doesn't want that or they would have chosen it.)
      • Flaw: "Despite my best efforts, I am unreliable to my friends." (Honestly this one just reads to me like that character is just going to oversleep in the inn while the rest of the party fights the orcs.)
    • Maybe I'm being a little uncharitable, but really, what I want from the backgrounds is to provide impetus to the player, to give them a few easy sentences to refer back to when they inevitably go "wait, why does my character care about this Lich again?"
    • I think a better implementation would be to have every Ideal provide motivation and every Bond provide a plot hook or at least a jumping off point (ie. the Entertainer's Bond of "I want to be famous, whatever it takes." at least provides a reason why that character would be an adventurer.
  • Finally, my last problem with the backgrounds is that many, many more than I like encourage players to just be annoying, the Personality Traits and Flaws especially.
    • Some examples, all taken from the Sage background.  Keep in mind that there are only 8 Personality Traits and 6 each of the Flaws presented in the book as examples.
    • Personality Traits
      • I... speak...slowly...when talking...to idiots...which...almost...everyone...is...compared...to me. (Yeah, that's going to go over well with the other PCs and NPCs.)
      • I am horribly, horribly awkward in social situations. (This one isn't as bad as the other two examples, but it doesn't take much imagination to see how it could become annoying if not done well.)
      • I'm convinced that people are always trying to steal my secrets. (Another one, not as egregious as the first example, but with plenty of room for it to be implemented poorly.)
    • Flaws
      • I speak without really thinking through my words, invariably insulting others. (Really not necessary since 2 of the 8 personality traits, a full quarter of the options presented pretty much have the same impact as this flaw...)
      • I overlook obvious solutions in favor of complicated ones. (Probably not too bad, but also a possibly abused 'flaw')
      • I can't keep a secret to save my life, or anyone else's. (This one is actually interesting and could be done well, but I also cringe to imagine it being played as an annoying blabbermouth).
    • And unfortunately the Sage is not an isolated example of backgrounds which have options which easily sink into the "just annoying for the other characters" trap.
But, not wanting to just point out flaws, I plan on taking some time to present additional options for the backgrounds in the PHB that provide additional options that hopefully will provide better motivation and more interesting personality traits and flaws that will at least be more interesting, even if they are still a little annoying.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I felt like they could have madlib'd that shit with a few blanks for [Party Member]. Even my beloved appendix in the Hoard of the Dragon Queen doesn't tie the party to one another, but to the module's plot in general.

    Anecdote warning: In the first session of my 5e game here, the GM was still trying to use the inspiration rules, and eventually had to stop us and say that flaws weren't the most important thing (we were close to It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia levels of yelling). Now, I got other issues with that, but I wouldn't be surprised if the current D&D backgrounds can randomly divide a party more than make it coherent.


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