Monday, December 29, 2014

5e Options W(h)ither Modularity - Background Proficiency and Skills

A Mercykiller, but he's missing the Planar Mancatcher...

I had the chance to run a D&D 5E Planescape game yesterday, and I did a few things right and/or a few things turned out well.

  • 5th level seemed to provide each character with a good set of options without overwhelming players with too many choices.
  • I pre-made most of the PCs but took some player input on what options they'd like.
  • I gave a pre-game speech so that the players knew that none of their characters would necessarily know each other but that my conceit for the game was that they'd all be tied to a central NPC and learn to work together on the fly. While there was at one point a pivotal encounter where each of the 6 PCs kinda came up with their own conflicting or complimentary plans, we did avoid any real out and out intra-party fighting.
  • Since part of the plot involved figuring out some mysteries, I gave each PC three contacts, each described by a sentence. This worked out really well because the players could glance at the background sheet I provided and quickly figure out who their PC might know who could assist instead of trying to come up with a way to solve the mystery from scratch without much context.
  • I let Thomas talk me into picking up the Arcane spell cards (and he grabbed the Druid spell pack).  They definitely resulted in less of the players flipping through the books for spells, but I can't quite give them top marks because they don't have any notation on the cards to indicate which spells require Concentration, which is a Big Fucken' Deal for 5E spellcasters.
What was most frustrating was discovering that 5E was less Modular than expected. One of the big things that the designers at Wizards of the Coast were promoting about the new edition was its modularity, where you could easily customize the rule set to fit your group's play style. And the playtest (aka D&DNext) was often pretty modular, as they swapped in and out different rules they were trying out. So having run a bunch of the playtest, having run a fair amount of the "final" or published version of 5E since it came out in July and being enamored with the 13th Age Background rules (see this post or the 13th Age SRD) and because the Dungeon Master's Guide includes a take on this background/skill check variant I thought, "Well, I'll just use 13th Age Backgrounds instead of the 5E Skill list and it'll be super easy."

I gave the player's fair warning, explaining how I thought they would work like this:

For the game I'm going to use 13th Age style backgrounds instead of the D&D 5E skill list.  What this means is instead of having proficiency in a bunch of skills, you'll have a background associated with your race, your class, your faction and two more since you're playing a half-elf.  Then when you want to make a skill check, to apply your proficiency modifier to the roll you just need to explain why your background would give you skill for the check.
For example, my 13th Age character is a Rogue with the background of "Former Lieutenant of a group of Forest Bandits" so when I'm tracking a wounded foe through the forest, instead of rolling a perception skill check like in D&D, my GM has me roll a Wisdom check and then I say that I'm adding my background as a Forest Bandit because it would have given me experience tracking in the woods.  But later when we assemble a group of low-level thugs to help with a raid on an enemy camp, I could also use my "Former Lieutenant of a group of Forest Bandits" background to add to a Charisma check to inspire them.

Hopefully that makes sense? So instead of choosing from a list, you tell me what you want your character to do and I tell you what ability score to roll and then you can tell me which of your backgrounds applies and why and I'll probably allow it because it's easier to apply a broad background than a skill and so if you can briefly say why it would make sense it probably does.

Alas, I was wrong. While the DMG has four paragraphs on "Background Proficiency" what they don't include is any advice on how to truly implement the optional rule. They assume that you're using the backgrounds from the Player's Handbook, which I have separate issues with,  so talking with Thomas, we came to the conclusion that maybe I should give each character a set of four or five backgrounds thusly:
  • A background covering Race/Upbringing, such as "Grew up in a Githzerai colony in Limbo as a Leather worker's child" (so it would cover topics like Limbo or the Githzerai or their enemies, as well as leather working and proficiency with leather working tools).
  • A background covering Class, such as "Apprenticed as a wizard with a Hag in the Grey Waste" (not only covering "Arcana" but also Hags, the Grey Waste, its inhabitants, etc)
  • A background covering the PC's Faction, as I wanted Factions to be emphasized, like "Fated namer and clerk in the Hall of Records"
  • A background covering what the backgrounds in the PHB would cover, that is a general 'background' background, like "Appraised and fenced jewelry in the City of Brass"
Then if a race, class or faction would generally provide extra skill proficiencies, I decided to add a second general 'background' background. It worked out alright in the game, but it really would have been nice to have some additional guidance from the DMG for implementing this and dealing with all the places that Skill Proficiencies are baked into the 'default' character creation rules. Elves, Half-Elves and Half-Orcs all have a skill proficiency component in their racial abilities, and all of the classes do as well, but there's no advice for how to make sure that the background covers these proficiencies.  The way the DMG reads it seems to assume you use just the backgrounds from the Personality and Backgrounds chapter of the PHB which leaves it up to the players and DMs to try and decide how then to incorporate any racial/class skill proficiencies.  And unfortunately I'm noticing a bit of that in the DMG, places where they give an option and describe the way the option would work but they don't give any advice for how to fit that option into the game so that it works well with all the other rules as written.  And that makes D&D 5E much less modular, at least in my opinion, than was previously advertised. 

Full Disclosure: The idea for title of this post is totally stolen from a post of Thomas', plus he did most of the heavy lifting writing up the Planescape/5th Edition conversion rules I used.

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