[D&D Next] Background Features as Opportunities for Roleplay

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.


  1. Great post. This is actually exactly how I feel about backgrounds and themes. As I’ve said on a couple of other blogs:

    I’m looking forward to when the finished product comes out and I can try to combine themes and backgrounds to come up with my own “kits” so to speak. I see allot more immersion and roleplaying in a way that harkens back to my 2e days.

  2. There were backgrounds in older D&D too, but somehow their meaning for the character was mainly the bonuses (Hmm, sailor gives perception, perhaps my rogue was a pirate). I like how this background has now been promoted to an important element in the character. And as it’s now so important, it’s easier to justify other things because of the background.

    And it looks like the backgrounds combine mechanics with the theme quite well, which I think is one of the most important features in a rpg. In 4E, I felt I had to concentrate on the power mechanics so much that there was little room for ‘feel’. The skills and other features of backgrounds become a nice packet, something that you would have been looking for anyway when creating the character, now it’s just provided to you already prepared. I really like how different elements have been separated from the class ‘core’!

    I wonder if you still can choose skills in a background from a longer list, much like 4E’s skills per class?

  3. Hmm… Sounds like the same thing I also have implemented in my game, only I didn’t have 40 years of experience with writing game systems…

    But let’s not end on a negative note. At least they are trying to bring back role playing in a way that brings the system gamers and the role players together in the same system.

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