One of the most puzzling comments I have ever heard from people after they’ve read the D&D Next Playtest Packet materials is that Background Features do nothing except provide skill bonuses. It’s a strange sort of opinion to have, as the Backgrounds are perhaps one of the brightest spots of hope in D&D Next for me.
For those unfamiliar with them, Characters in D&D Next now have Backgrounds, which represent a character’s vocation beyond that of a simple Class. Instead of being just a Rogue, for instance, the pre-generated Halfing Rogue in the Playtest packet has the Commoner Background. Backgrounds list three skills that gain a +3 bonus, and bestow the character with a Background Feature, a perk of sorts that ties in with their vocation.
Some of these may be mechanical in nature, but the Background Features that I found most interesting were the ones that went out of their way to provide flavor. The Commoner background for example, assumes that the character has a trade of some sort that they are skilled at and can earn a living from. Furthermore, others of the same trade recognize the character’s skills and may be friendlier or more forthcoming with information.
This is the sort of thing that fires the imagination. I’m not looking for “Character gains a +2 bonus to Gather Information rolls when associating with NPCs with the same trade.” I’m looking for opportunities beyond rolling dice and static bonuses that can be used in a game. In some ways, it actually acknowledges that roleplaying has a place in D&D, as there aren’t any hard mechanics to back it up. Instead, the aforementioned Halfling can saunter into a guild of his trade, talk shop, win friends, and earn favors and gain crucial information regarding the quest without needing to roll anything.
It’s elegant, mature and displays that the writers are willing to trust gamers with being able to run a game beyond simple mechanics. Not everything needs to be boiled down to pure bonuses to die rolls to make a game.