Nationality and Character Backgrounds

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 6, 2011

Most players select a background for their PC during the character creation process. In many cases it’s done for purely mechanical benefits. Being from this location may give you a resistance to fire, while this one may give you a bonus to your initiative. In all cases it also gives you access to a new skill or a bonus to one specific skill. When it comes to power gaming, no one overlooks a background benefits.

The background options that I see taken most often are the geographic backgrounds from the Forgotten Realms. Usually the player doesn’t really care that his PC is from Waterdeep, Akanul or Cormyr, they just want to additional benefit that being from those places provides. And that’s fine. It’s not the ideal reason to choose a background but it’s well within the rules. Any character can have any background.

This season during D&D Encounters: Beyond the Crystal Cave the adventure strongly encourages the DM to insist that the PCs choose one of the three backgrounds provided. This helps give the players a good in-game reason as to why such a rag-tag and mismatched adventuring party would work together. Being from one of the three areas directly impacted by the happenings in the adventure gives PCs a strong motive for accepting the mission.

While at first a few of the players in my group resented being told they had to choose one of only three options (none of which they felt provided particularly appealing benefits) after only two sessions these same players really started working their background into the way the characters behaved. Without any prompting from me, the players instilled within their characters a sense of national pride.

Normally the six players at the table have a sense of camaraderie between them, but now they’ve formed bonds with the others who share their geographic background and it’s affecting the party dynamics. The leader will heal the PCs from his home town before healing the PCs from one of the other two locations. The Rogue has an easier time convincing the PCs from his home town to delay and then flank with him. The PCs aren’t doing anything to sabotage their allies, but they are showing favouritism to their fellow countrymen.

Pride in ones homeland (be it a city, province or country) isn’t something I’m used to seeing in D&D games outside of Eberron. In fact, before this adventure most players I game with never bothered making any kind of reference to their character’s background during play. To them it was just one more item to select and fill in on the characters sheet. But in this circumstance, with only three backgrounds to choose from, it meant that in this party they had allies they could trust immediately (those with the same background) and allies that would have to earn that trust (those with a different background).

Thinking in broader terms, in campaigns where the PCs can choose from any of the hundreds of backgrounds available, what would it take to make nationality a bigger focus to the heroes and to your game? I’ve played in many games where there is discrimination because of race, but never because of ones birthplace (again, the exception being Eberron). What would happen to a party that adventured together for a few levels, earned each other’s trust, and then as conflict between neighbouring regions began realized that the PCs themselves were on opposite sides? Just how strongly do these PCs believe in their sense of nationality – enough to disband? Not likely, but certainly there exists the possibility that it could create unexpected tension.

It’s likely that the PCs would put aside their differences and feelings of national pride for the good of the party, but this will have consequences outside the party. Interactions with NPCs will be more difficult if they see the party composed of people from both sides of the conflict. The local PCs will have to justify affiliation with PC foreigners. This should create interesting role-playing possibilities for the entire party, especially if the PCs travel back and forth between the two regions engaged in the conflict.

When choosing a background, players need to give it more consideration than just the mechanical benefits it gives their PC. It’s an important option that can really help players get a sense of who their PC is, where he’s from, what he did before he became an adventurer and likely where he thinks he’ll go when it’s time to retire from adventuring. Playing up a PCs background can be an integral part of the character development process and is a great way for two otherwise similar characters to differentiate themselves from each other.

I encourage DMs to look at the backgrounds that their players have selected for their PCs and see if there’s an opportunity to make this a part of the campaign. Maybe it’s even something to discus with the players before beginning a new campaign and creating new characters. Tell them that their background will matter more than it has in the past and that they’ll be expected to react accordingly where they hear about things happening in their homeland.

Do you know the backgrounds of the PCs in your adventuring party? How important do you think the PC’s nationality is for most players? Do you think DMs should make more of an effort to introduce story elements tied to some or all of the PCs’ backgrounds?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Thorynn December 6, 2011 at 11:59 am

I think its easier to do given a limited scope such as Beyond the Crystal Cave. For instance, in my fairly new pirate campaign, there are 3 main pirate gangs. Once the party declares their allegiance to one, it will influence their interactions with the others. In most official campaign settings, there are so many nations and such wide swaths of land in between them, it may never come in to play. But as far as local factions, it could provide a really compelling story-telling element, and lots of opportunity for cool role-playing scenarios.
Thorynn´s last blog post ..So many great systems – so little time – pt.1

2 Philo Pharynx December 7, 2011 at 11:20 am

You mentioned that things were different in Eberron. I’ve also experienced this. I think the major reason is that Eberron has fewer regions than FR, and encourages people to choose one of the nations of the main continent. When there are fewer nations it makes it easier to remember and identify. In addition, the echos of the war make national identity something meaningful. With FR, there are so many regions that the main book barely touches upon each one. Many only get a couple of paragraphs. To get more, you need to delve into lots and lots of books, many of which are for earlier editions and are long out of print. If you aren’t an FR scholar then it’s hard to say what makes a Dalelander different than a Cormyrian different than a Marcher.

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