A player asked me a question the other day during a gaming session. “Do we know how to tie ropes?” Thinking of all the nonsense of Use Rope in Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, I sighed, preparing to give an answer that I was going to be frustrated with. But a player suddenly spoke up: “Wait, my character background says that I was a sailor! I’d totally know how to tie knots!”
This was an amazing and awesome moment of realisation. My players suddenly understood what their character backgrounds truly meant: they were not just a way of getting proficiencies and starting equipment. They were mandatory roleplaying.
The mandatory nature of backgrounds in character generation for D&D 5e forces players to actually think about their character, and engage in cooperative storytelling. You shouldn’t get me confused with some hippy encouraging story over mechanics (and probably rolling FUDGE Dice to boot!). Instead, I’m all for getting players to properly roleplay and tell stories that are important. This is often an interesting challenge in today’s gaming environment where many new players to tabletops only have “RPG” experience from computer games, and need weaning off bad preconceptions (that’s a blog post in it’s own right).
Beyond that, the backgrounds are the perfect way of creating many characters that just didn’t work before. To mechanically represent a Wizard who grew up on the streets, in 3.5 you’d have to waste some skill points on Hide or Sleight of Hand, or spend a Feat on a weapon proficiency (I’ve seen this done, for rapier, on a Wizard). Serious compromises, all for a bit of flavour.
In D&D 5E, to make the same Wizard, you’d just take the criminal background (or charlatan, or whatever suits best). Done. That’s it. You’ve got appropriate skills, that you’re most likely, good at. This is very unlike throwing around a few skill points in D&D 3.5. Instead, you’ve got tool proficiencies, you’ve got recommended personality traits, everything, all right there in basic character generation.
Backgrounds are also the perfect place to customize a character. They’re intended to be customizable beyond the examples in the book. As such, they’re intentionally open ended. For a character I recently made, I asked the DM to allow me to swap one of my background skills for rapier proficiency, because it really fit the character’s backstory. I’m not sure whether that made the character more or less powerful, but that wasn’t the point: he learned to use the rapier as a youngster, and so by his background, that’s what he did.
If you’re making a new 5E D&D character, stop and really think about what your background means. Whenever your character’s trying to do something that isn’t obviously covered by a skill, ask yourself: would your background mean you’d know how? Did you learn to tie ropes as a sailor? Did you run a shell game as a charlatan? Forage for berries as an outlander? Find books in a library as an acolyte? Use your background as an enabler to do cool things. Finally, DMs: let them do it!