Giving Character Backgrounds And Themes Teeth

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on September 2, 2011

Da Vinci - Man in CircleCharacter backgrounds and themes are a great way to flesh out your character. They provide players with additional motivation to create a compelling back story for their character. This motivation appears in the form of additional class skills, bonuses to those skills and in the case of themes, encounter powers. From a meta-game perspective there isn’t a good reason not to take advantage of these optional elements that are presented during character creation.

By opting in you give your character an edge, simply put you have a more powerful character at your disposal. Beyond the mechanics your character background and theme gives you a role-playing edge. Your choice at character creation reinforces the vision you have for your character. The choice of background and theme gives your back story additional credibility.

In fact you can use the background and theme to either assist you in creating your back story. Playing a Rogue who you envision is down on his luck and from the lower class? The Guttersnipe theme might fit in with your concept and provide you with some additional ideas on how to play your character. Of course backgrounds and themes can assist in supporting a back story you have already created. A character I created a few years ago was inspired by the Beijing Olympics. I was up late at night with my newborn and was watching a lot of gymnastics. I decided I would make a Rogue who aspired not to being an adventurer, but an athlete. In this case the Athlete background is a perfect fit for my character concept.

While backgrounds and themes can provide some substantial in game benefits, there is no down side for selecting one. Even though 4e is very much about rewarding players, shouldn’t the decision to be a beggar or a noble come with something other than just an in game bonus? Does the stigma of begging carry with your character, making it difficult for him to relate and communicate with those from a higher class? This might imply a -2 on Diplomacy or Insight checks in certain situations.

While the mechanics of D&D don’t support this conclusion there is a strong argument for a DM to implement this system. Perhaps if you want to stay away from negative modifiers the DM might simply make the DC higher for a beggar talking to a noble.

What happens when a character advances in level, gains power and begins to leave behind the story based decisions that were made at character creation? Let’s consider the background Society – Poor, the associated skills are Endurance and Streetwise. Assuming we select Streetwise and we take the +2 modifier to that skill as our benefit. This bonus assumes we lived and learned on the street and we made appropriate contacts. Now fast forward 10 levels. No longer is our character living on the streets stealing to get by. Now our character is the one who is handing out coin to beggars. Do we still deserve the +2 bonus to Streetwise? Our character is so far removed from that part of his life. Now should you make a concentrated role-playing attempt to maintain those early contacts it would make sense for the bonus to stand.

However, should you not make the effort does the DM have the right to revoke that bonus? Let’s take a look at two different ways to handle backgrounds and themes. These two concepts have teeth. The intention isn’t to penalize, it is to enforce the role-playing aspects of a decision made at character creation.

Loss of Abilities

In previous editions of D&D when the Paladin acted outside of the boundaries of his code or did something clearly against his alignment he stood a very good chance of loosing access to the abilities that defined him. It was an accepted and understood part of the game. It spawned many clichés and in game jokes. Playing a Paladin wasn’t meant to be easy, it was a challenge to role-play a character according to a strict code.

When we consider this concept with backgrounds and themes, is it fair to invoke the same kind of concept? If an impoverished character at level 1 no longer associates with anyone other than nobility by level 10 should the +2 Streetwise bonus that they have enjoyed still be available to them?

Similarly a character who selects a noble background from one kingdom, but then goes over to the other side or realizes through the campaign that the king is evil. Should the benefit provided by this background still apply?

There are definitely backgrounds and themes where it would be very difficult to impose a loss of abilities. Consider the scholar background. It really doesn’t matter what class the character is, they started life as a scholar and have retained that inherent knowledge that they started with.


Compulsion is an idea that I like. I draw this idea from the Dresden Files RPG and the Fate system. The way this would work is that when a situation arose that intersected with your background or theme you would be compelled to react in a certain way.

Let’s consider a background that is fairly transparent in how it would work: Early Life – Kidnapped. At some point your character was kidnapped, it has scarred your character. Whenever the character learns that an NPC has been kidnapped, before the character can even think about the implications, he has agreed to rescue the victim. Your background compels your action.

If as a player you say no, we can’t do this, the DM reminds you of your background choice. It might seem like railroading, ok it is railroading, but the player has made a choice and should live with the consequences of that choice.

Exactly how a background might compel the character is something that can be worked out between the player and DM. This type of element provides additional depth for the characters story and definitely adds to the role-playing that can occur around the table.

Re-inventing Yourself

If the two options presented above don’t suit you or your gaming group, or if you dislike the idea of inserting penalties into your game consider this third option. Just as you can retrain feats and powers, is opening up retraining backgrounds and themes a relevant option? After 10 or 20 levels of play your character has grown as an individual. The story you started with at level 1 has evolved and as a result your character might not be viewed the way they once were. The impoverished beggar now holds title and lands. In this instance changing your background and selecting a new benefit isn’t out of line.

I strongly believe that backgrounds and themes should support strong story based character creation. Our characters are more than the numbers presented on the character sheet. As a DM I am always asking my players, did you select that background because you gained a +2 to Stealth or because it actually makes sense to your character. Tell me how this skill benefited you as you grew up.

How do you approach backgrounds and themes? Are they an added bonus for your character or do they provide a great way to role-play and add depth to the gaming experience?

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1 JSchuler September 2, 2011 at 12:39 pm

A great article showcasing why I divorced the mechanical benefits of a background from the fluff. You want a +2 streetwise bonus? You got it. Now, what’s your character’s history? Raised by wolves and only discovered civilization two days ago? Welcome to the party! If you can make this strange amalgam of a street-smart wild man work, more power to you.

The fact is, I can find a justification for just about any bonus regardless of the player’s back story. Why did being raised by wolves give the above character a bonus on understanding a city? Because he had to know how to read the pack’s body language, see who was the alpha and know which wolf was about to challenge him. Applied to the mean streets, he can spot the gang leaders from a mile away, and he knows to which “pack” a street urchin belongs. This lets him sniff out information like no one’s business. Since 99% of all possibilities can be accounted for, why should I try to force players into a specific mold, let alone punish those players creative enough to come up with something that’s indefensible? It’s not as if the bonus is game breaking, especially if applied to an untrained skill. And if it is applied to a trained skill, how can you deny the bonus yet allow the training?

Why should we even contemplate taking away a noble’s bonus simply because he no longer likes the king he gave fealty to? Did the god of nobility strike all knowledge of etiquette from his head for this transgression? If we’re going to take away a character’s streetwise for rubbing elbows with the upper crust, shouldn’t we do the same when the party is on a six-month-long sea voyage? What about in a foreign city with an alien culture? If not, what’s the difference? If so, why are we punishing the player for what are basically the DM’s decisions to take the campaign in a certain direction?

Now, adding compulsions, that’s perfectly reasonable, as it’s not actually punishing the player but shining the spotlight on the character. Before, the villain was just another baddie to slay, but after he kidnapped those orphans, that Early Life – Kidnapped player has additional buy-in to the story. Compulsions are, in fact, rewards for having a back story.

But penalizing a player for an odd-ball choice is not my style. I’d rather give them the bonus up front, and then let them explore the implications as the game progresses. Let it be a starting point for roleplay, instead of making roleplay a requirement for entry.

2 Kiel Chenier September 2, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Backgrounds and Themes in Type IV D&D seem to be a mechanical solution to a roleplaying problem. Then again, this goes part and parcel with the current edition’s mechanization of things that fell under the purview of ‘roleplaying’ in previous editions.

I still say the best themes/backgrounds and other character tidbits are best left to the player’s own creation, or supplied by the DM, and should impact character interaction alone, rather than skill checks and other rolls.

But, to each his/her own. Everyone has their own way of playing.

3 Swordgleam September 2, 2011 at 10:18 pm

“did you select that background because you gained a +2 to Stealth or because it actually makes sense to your character”

Answer: Yes.

To my mind, backgrounds with mechanical bonuses are a great way of getting roleplaying out of optimizers. You want that +2 to stealth? Great! Now explain how that makes sense with all the other options you’ve selected for your character.

4 discerningdm September 6, 2011 at 11:30 pm

“To my mind, backgrounds with mechanical bonuses are a great way of getting roleplaying out of optimizers.”

Yes, yes, and yes. Themes, Paragon Paths, and Epic Destinies give players, even optimizers, some “skin in the game”. There are real stakes and real choices that create real differences in outcomes. RP-enthusiasts will create their own stories no matter what, but that’s all window-dressing if the game itself doesn’t back up players by providing mechanical incentives.

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