As I have been working on the Heretical RPG project, I’ve been struggling with backgrounds. It’s not that there aren’t a ton of them out there already – there are. But they’re also not clearly something I can just, well, steal.
It’s one thing to go out and get permission both implicit (via the OGL) and explicit (because I wrote the author and asked if I could incorporate his work into my project) to use something.
It’s quite another to just go yoink something, which I won’t do. ’cause skeezy.
Anyway, as I was contemplating backgrounds, I was having a hard time, mostly with making them balanced. I want the backgrounds to have real bite, as they do now. But I also don’t want the backgrounds to overshadow race and class.
I was struggling a bit, and posting some content to the discussion board, when one of the playtesters challenged me to come up with not a set of backgrounds, but rather a metasystem to generate the backgrounds.
I initially said something to the effect of ‘I like it, but that’s not my mission here, because being ready-to-play is a big part of what I’m doing.’
But the more I thought about it – and this tester is good at nudging me about things – the more I thought that a metasystem was not just good for the game, it was good for me right now. It would help me keep the backgrounds, well, in the background while making sure there were no real losers in there. Oh, you want to pay (umm), a blergkrablong? Well, you’ll be pelted with rotten fruit and never find lodging in a town, but hey, you get the Deception skill, so bonus!
As I was contemplating in the shower before I headed off to my 15-year anniversary dinner with my lovely wife, it hit me on how to have my cake and eat it too. We’d bandied about with some very high power versions of things (where I thought it would overshadow class and race), and some lower power stuff, where I was allocating maybe 10 points here and there, but it just wasn’t working how I liked it.
Then it hit me, and the results as I’ve worked through the backgrounds slated to appear in the game, it was clear to me that the results weren’t crazed.
So, while I could just hide it until the game is released, I’m publishing it here and now, because honestly, why not?
Backgrounds by point allocation
If there’s not a pre-built background that speaks to you as a player, you can always create one. Use the following guidelines.
Allocate 20 points between each of the four categories below:
- Background Feature: 6 points for the first, an additional 12 points for the second.
- Skills and/or tool proficiencies: The first two are 3 points each; more are 6 points each.
- Languages: 2 points each for the first two, 4 points each for additional languages.
- Equipment/gold: 10gp per point for the first 5 points, 5gp per point for the next 5 points, and 2gp per point thereafter.
Background Features are the hardest. They should be something vaguely worth getting advantage on a subset of a skill under certain conditions. No roll on a minor thing, that just comes to you, or a fairly easy roll on something important. The feature might enable you to bring in 1gp per day (enough to cover modest living expenses for food and shelter but little else), or be a source of work, information, or solace under certain conditions.
Skills and tool proficiencies are straight-forward because they’re explicit. You can (mathematically) have no more than four, but that means you get four skills, no languages, no equipment or extra starting money, and no class feature. Even then, that starts to get to the point it overshadows the skill-basis of the rogue, and rogues, with a background that contains four skills would be darn scary. I was tempted to price them 3 points for the first skill, 6 for the second, and 9 for the third (max three), but there are backgrounds such as the Acolyte in the SRD with two skills, two languages, a class feature, and 40-50gp worth of equipment, and I wanted my method to be able to reproduce, at least somewhat closely, the only background in the SRD!
Languages were something where I didn’t want to have someone simply starting the game with the ability to speak 20 languages. Three to five seemed OK as an upper end. I decided on a pricing scheme that would have ideally costed languages out at 2.5 points each for the first two, and 5 points each for the rest, which would have given five languages maximum. I didn’t want to deal with half-points, so I rounded down to 2 and decided that if you really wanted six languages and nothing else then more power to you.
Finally, gold. The maximum gold you can roll based on class is 5d4x10 = 200gp. I didn’t want going all-in on gold to overshadow even these “rich” classes, so I decided 20 points in money should be worth about 100gp. But that meant issues with backgrounds such as the Acolyte, and that led to the diminishing returns scheme above. It works out. The gold should mostly be taken in the form of equipment, but there are certainly cases where a background with 50-75gp and little tangible goods to show for it makes sense
So, how did I do?
The acolyte gets two skills. That’s 6 points.
The acolyte gets two languages. That’s 4 points.
The acolyte gets a feature, Shelter of the Faithful. That’s 6 points.
That leaves 4 points, which equates to 40 gold.
For that, you get A holy symbol (5gp), a prayer book or prayer wheel (books are 25gp), 5 sticks of incense, vestments (maybe 5gp as a “costume”), a set of common clothes (5sp), and a belt pouch containing 15 gp (15.5gp including the pouch). That’s 51gp, and it could be argued that the prayer book isn’t worth a full 25gp, either. So not too far off, and even if the acolyte is 10gp heavy, I can always take it way and say “a pouch with 5gp” to make it all even.
An Alternate Approach
It was pointed out (in the usual charming reddit way) that there’s a better pattern if you want to hew to the norm.
Pick two skills
Pick two languages or tool, kit, game, or musical instrument proficiencies
Pick one class feature
They said “roll for gold,” but no, that’s not right. It does seem that you’re getting about 50gp worth of stuff, mostly. That’s not crazy talk.
The equivalence of languages and tools means that we can go like this for the base costs:
- Skills: 3 each for the first two.
- Language/tools: 2 each for the first two
- Class feature: 5 for the first
- Gold: 10gp per point for the first 5 points
If you want more than that in any category, it costs twice as much to get it. Going all-in on gold for 20 points gives you 50+15x5gp = 125gp, which happens to be the average of the higher roll for gold of 5d4x10gp, so that’s not too bad, and is even simpler.
Want three skills? 12 points, leaving 8. No languages or tools gives you a class feature and 30gp.
Even simpler than the original method, and still balances out well.