Magical Mondays: Building Backgrounds   Leave a comment

Quite some time ago, I released a post about the Starstones, a magical feature of an upcoming campaign setting that I was preparing for 5th Edition.  The setting (itself contained within the larger setting of my Cantadel world) was called New Brefton, a once-prestigious city renowned for its place in the history of magical lore.  I suggested a number of possible backgrounds that I would look into creating for the setting, but there wasn’t much info on backgrounds at the time apart from the fact that they would be coming.  Well, fifth edition is here now, and the Backgrounds came with them.  While the Backgrounds lack a bit of the punch I’d been hoping for, they were definitely strong concepts that could be used for every character during creation.

Being the generous fellow that I am, and desperately needing a topic for today since it’s already after Midnight, I’ve decided to show you some of what I’m working on for this 5th Edition campaign.  The focus, of course, is on the magical organizations and features that will be unique to this particular campaign (or, if not unique, at memorable within the campaign.)  A quick look at what I’ve been working with, and with how backgrounds work in general, might help you out if you want to use Backgrounds to flesh out your campaign world a bit more.

Just for a quick rundown, here are the different possible organizations I’d been considering based on what I knew of the setting:

  • Animist: A student of the Animists, a character with this background could use the secrets of Petra Vitae to work wonders relating to spirits, forces of change, life, occasionally death, and automation.
  • Seer: This background allows a person to use the secrets of Petra Cryptos to discover that which is hidden or unknown.
  • Pyromancer: This background grants the figure an affinity for, and greater understand of, fire.  This organization is affiliated with Petra Ignan.
  • Noctumet: This background is for a character who has studied darkness and shadow, and know what it is beyond the mere absence of light.  The Noctumets, sometimes called Night Mages or Shadow Casters, enhance their powers with secrets gained from Petra Nox.
  • Rumor Miller: The fantasy equivalent of a conspiracy theorist, the Rumor Miller keeps an eye on the dark secrets that THEY don’t want you to know about.  The Rumor Miller has lived around New Brefton for a long time, and claims to have seen it all.  Generally seen as insane by most civilized people, they do manage to get their hands on useful information from time to time.
  • Soldier: Functionally identical to the soldier in the Basic rules, but the players have the specific options of having a previous association with the “armies” of the orcish raiders, elvish militia or dwarfish navy (think longboats captained by British admirals).  I mention it here not because of an association with magic, but because it’s one of the main pre-made features of the setting, and it was nice to see a background almost custom built for it already (and because I like the mental image of a halfling player using it, and then being able to pull rank on a gang of orcs later in the campaign by recognizing one of the orcs fighting them and suddenly pulling rank on it by growling at, threatening and insulting it.)

Those were the backgrounds I started working on before I knew what backgrounds would ultimately look like.  I’ve looked over the rules, and they’re pretty simple (which, since it’s after midnight, I fully expect to get wrong.)  Backgrounds typically offer proficiency with a tool, training in two skills or two languages (or one of both), a minor benefit (normally some perk from being part of a larger organization, but not always), and finally some possible equipment.  It’s also worth noting the presence of a number of roleplaying tables that give a number of fresh starting points and character traits, good and bad, that can bring some life into a character.

I’ve not done any real work on the rollable tables or equipment lists yet, but so far the most well fleshed out background is the one for the Animists.  Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • Animists gain no tool proficiencies.
  • Animists may learn the secret language of the Animists, and gain training in a tool (haven’t worked out what yet, but vehicles feel like a decent choice that won’t come up often enough to keep me from breaking the game.)
  • In exchange for not gaining any tool proficiencies, an Animist effectively gains the ability to use a tool while not even in the same room with it.  A number of times per day equal to half of the character’s proficiency bonus (minimum one), the character may animate the object and set it to performing a simple task as if the character was wielding it.  The tool use lasts for a number of hours equal to the character’s proficiency bonus, but one hour is lost for every turn that the item engages in combat rather than working on another task.  Only one such object may be active at a time.
  • Once per week, a character with the Animist background may issue an electric jolt from his or her hands that can heal a number of d4s of hit points equal to the animist’s proficiency bonus.  This attack cannot be used to harm undead.

Now, yes, there are some problems with this.  First of all: once a week, the ability to cure someone of damage will be a big game changer.  Fortunately, at least it’s only once a week… not so with the Animist ability to animate an object.  Mechanically, this doesn’t change much since the player will have to rely on skill proficiencies from other sources since Animists don’t get training in tools.  While it might not change much mechanically, it definitely changes things tactically.  Ideally, this background would also have a tie to an Animist organization (instead of the loose affiliation of enemies that seems more likely at this time), but I felt like anything I added on that front was either redundant, or far too powerful with the setting I have in mind.

Now, I’m not done tinkering with this just yet, but I have a good idea of how my players act and what this background can do.  Having said that, I’ll probably keep something very much the background as presented here.  I’m also considering a background called Cultist, a background that can give even the non-casters some magic while they serve some dark force from within  a city.  My problem with that, though, is that I’m hesitant to offer up such a background to players since most players would want to be free from the influencing effects of an organization of dark wizards.  I could make the backgrounds for the minions of NPC villains, but… honestly I’ve not seen the comments about NPCs with backgrounds yet to see how it affects them.

Ultimately, I’m still thinking that backgrounds are one of the best new things for D&D’s 5th edition, but to use them properly in a way that brings out the magic in a setting requires  I’ll keep you posted as more develops.

That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays.  See you next week!

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Posted September 15, 2014 by John Little in Gaming, Magical Mondays

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