5E Customizing Backgrounds Core Rule - Public Service Announcement

Yep. If a player chooses their own background skills and tools and comes up with their own name for their custom Background, then they are playing by the default rules. If you, as a DM, disallow this, then you are not playing by the default rules. You are playing by your own house rules.

In other words, if a player invents a background called the Brewer and chooses Nature, Medicine, brewer's tools, and Dwarven as their proficiencies, then they are playing by the default rules. They're allowed to do that, and they don't need a DM's approval.
The thing is your "Brewer" would make sense in most settings. The issue is if the player creates a custom background called "Astronaut" with Religion, Animal Handling, Thieves' Tools and Disguise Kit.

Of course, this it's quite possible that one of the standard backgrounds wouldn't make sense either: e.g. "sailor" in the desert, or "faction agent" where there are no factions.

Which is why every background, core or custom, needs to be run past the DM for approval.
 

Coroc

Hero
If I had my way, this paragraph in the rules would be in glowing text and emit a beckoning melody whenever you turned to Chapter 4. As it is, many players, even including long-time players, seem to have no idea about it's existence.

Customizing a Background
You might want to tweak some of the features of a
background so it better fits your character or the
campaign setting. To customize a background, you
can replace one feature with any other one, choose any
two skills, and choose a total of two tool proficiencies
or languages from the sample backgrounds. You can
either use the equipment package from your background
or spend coin on gear as described in chapter 5. (If
you spend coin, you can’t also take the equipment
package suggested for your class.) Finally, choose two
personality traits, one ideal, one bond, and one flaw.
If you can’t find a feature that matches your desired
background, work with your DM to create one.

Unlike gnomes, half-elfs, feats, and multiclassing, this isn't called out as an optional rule. It's as core as hill dwarves and ability checks. You are in no way bound to the skill, tool, or language choices of a chosen background. This means that every single PC is entitled to 2 skills of their choice from the entire skill list, and a combination of any 2 languages and/or tools.

We don't really have a long list of stickies I could ask to have this added to, but maybe if I remember I'll bump it once a year or something for new players.
True this should be sticky @Morrus ?
 

DM Dave1

Adventurer
By the letter of the rules, a player could show up with a Background called "Brewer" that grants Perception, Stealth, thieves' tools, herbalism kit, and the noble's "position of privilege" feature. And, by the letter of the rules, the DM has no recourse without resorting to house rules.

The only thing this proves is that the rules are not a legal document, and that nobody should put any stock in the letter of anything. In practice, if a player truly feels entitled to exploit this loophole, the reasonable course of action is for the DM to kick them to the curb.

The Bolded concern above is canceled out by this part of the RAW:

If you can't find a feature that matches your desired background, work with your DM to create one.
EDIT: and this from page 5 of the DMG:

Sometimes mediating the rules means setting limits.
 
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Arilyn

Hero
I don't think many players are coming to the table, clutching their backgrounds possesively, refusing to modify their peasants with noble privilege or rocket scientist with poisoner kit.

But the backgrounds in phb should be just a sampling. I can think of several off the top of my head, which are perfectly valid: healer, shepherd, messanger, scout, innkeeper, servant, herbalist, etc.

The feature is the tricky one, if a new one is being created, because it's so easy to come up with one that is too strong, compared to backgrounds in phb. It's not that players are trying to power game, it's just the features are rather lacklustre.
 

Weiley31

Adventurer
Yep. If a player chooses their own background skills and tools and comes up with their own name for their custom Background, then they are playing by the default rules. If you, as a DM, disallow this, then you are not playing by the default rules. You are playing by your own house rules.

In other words, if a player invents a background called the Brewer and chooses Nature, Medicine, brewer's tools, and Dwarven as their proficiencies, then they are playing by the default rules. They're allowed to do that, and they don't need a DM's approval.
Male DM: You finally arrived to the town after a long journey, but the Tavern had closed down years ago.

Dwarven Brewer: WOMAN, I AM THE TAVERN!!! *whips out the keg and everybody starts to party it up in the Town Square.

Male DM: Wait.....what!?!?!?!?
 

Sword of Spirit

Adventurer
Fair enough, but it doesn't come across that way, when you use the word "entitled".
Good point. Re-reading it (I didn’t even recall using that word), I can see how it might be taken as antagonistic to DMs, though that’s not the intent (I’m a DM as often or more than a player, and I have my own restrictions and house rules).

The feature is the tricky one, if a new one is being created, because it's so easy to come up with one that is too strong, compared to backgrounds in phb. It's not that players are trying to power game, it's just the features are rather lacklustre.
I‘m not sure a background can even be too strong if you’re just using the options given and not creating new background features. (Though some of the variant ones in later books like Ghosts of Saltmarsh really irritate me because they don't follow the rules and do things like give you two features and 1 skill. The PHB background pattern is solid, don’t mess with it.)

Lets take one of the players in my current group. She’s playing a fighter who is an honorable assassin, with nimbleness and rogue-like abilities. Conceptually, she went with the Faction Agent from SCAG, because that’s what she is. But to customize it for the character concept she took Stealth and Thieves’ Tools. She’s a variant human, and all four of the other skills she picked (including Perception) were already on the fighter‘s class list.

So there is an example of (unintentionally) choosing to customize to get the “power options”. What does this do for the character’s power level over sticking with default Faction Agent choices? Not much. The character wears medium armor to avoid a Stealth penalty from it, rather than heavy. The ability to occasionally not suck at Stealth is likely a net loss compared to having an AC 3 points less than they otherwise would. As far as Thieves’ Tools, 100 sessions in and I’m not sure when the last time it was used was (if at all). The reason? Because the party’s rogue has Expertise in it and so the fighter never needs to use it. I suppose the ability to make use of it if the rogue is out of commission is a benefit to the party and a chance to shine...but overpowered? No.

The thing is, tools, languages, and background features aren’t a power boost, and about the only skill that is is Perception, which literally half of the PHB classes get on their class list. So the only power issue that can arise from background customization (as long as you keep it to the PHB principles and don’t make features that grant actual power increases or change the number of skills and tools/languages granted), is that the 6 classes that don’t have Perception on their class skill list have the option to take it anyway. Is that really anything near overpowered? I can’t see how. You could completely remove class skill restrictions (which is virtually what customizing backgrounds ends up doing) and it would have almost zero effect on game balance.
 

Prakriti

Hi, I'm a Mindflayer, but don't let that worry you
The thing is your "Brewer" would make sense in most settings. The issue is if the player creates a custom background called "Astronaut" with Religion, Animal Handling, Thieves' Tools and Disguise Kit.

Of course, this it's quite possible that one of the standard backgrounds wouldn't make sense either: e.g. "sailor" in the desert, or "faction agent" where there are no factions.

Which is why every background, core or custom, needs to be run past the DM for approval.
Sure, but the same is true of classes and races as well. Not every setting has everything. But as I said above, the assumption is that the default rules are in play unless the DM says otherwise. And the default rule is that players can customize Backgrounds at will.
 

Prakriti

Hi, I'm a Mindflayer, but don't let that worry you
And, if you come to the table with a customization that you haven't reviewed and gotten an ok from the GM for... well, that's a pretty crummy way to start your game.
No more so than a spellcaster coming to the table with a list of prepared spells that hasn't been reviewed and okayed by the GM first. A player who swaps out their Background proficiencies is playing by the default rules just as much as a spellcaster who chooses spells other than the ones suggested in the "Quick Build" section of their class.
 
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Bacon Bits

Adventurer
And, if you come to the table with a customization that you haven't reviewed and gotten an ok from the GM for... well, that's a pretty crummy way to start your game.
I guess I don't really see how a custom background is any different than buying your equipment a la carte instead of as a starting package. Custom backgrounds are not an optional rule or a variant rule. Custom backgrounds are just the rule the book presents.
 

Sword of Spirit

Adventurer
And, if you come to the table with a customization that you haven't reviewed and gotten an ok from the GM for... well, that's a pretty crummy way to start your game.
I would agree with that only inasmuch as I think all character concepts need to be discussed with the DM and other players before being created. For my preferences, just showing up with a PC expecting to play them is a bad way to start a game in general.

But choosing to customize a background according to the way the core rules specifically tell you, as the player, to do it, is conceptually no different than choosing to play a hill dwarf fighter.

That’s a huge part of my point—because people aren’t as familiar with the background customization rule they want to treat it like a variant option a DM can opt-in to, like feats or gnomes, rather than a default option that DMs can opt-out of, which is what it officially is.
 

Rikka66

Explorer
I guess I don't really see how a custom background is any different than buying your equipment a la carte instead of as a starting package. Custom backgrounds are not an optional rule or a variant rule. Custom backgrounds are just the rule the book presents.
Probably because backgrounds are something many DMs expect to have a lot more buy-in of. My personal policy is that I'd like if you could look over the published backgrounds for something initially, and if we needed we can modify it. I've never said no to a custom background, but I do expect to at least get to review so I can know where everything on your character sheet is derived from.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
I guess I don't really see how a custom background is any different than buying your equipment a la carte instead of as a starting package. Custom backgrounds are not an optional rule or a variant rule. Custom backgrounds are just the rule the book presents.
A custom background isn't really any different from custom starting equipment, but neither is the DM completely out of line asking you to roll for starting money at the table (or taking the average, which is my own approach).
 

Salthorae

Imperial Mountain Dew Taster
This "brewer" has, not only a complete inability to brew anything, but influence within high society as a result of their noble birth.
They look like they are pretty good at brewing up troubles with those skills and features though! :)

I agree with the OP though. Some DM's seem very put out by the very concept of NOT selecting one of the pre-written Backgrounds and resistant to customized backgrounds despite this very core rule.

I'm not saying "make it up and try to force a DM to let you do it because RULE", I'm saying, you can by the rules easily do it. It's right there in the rules, so I don't understand why some DM's I've seen/played with are SO resistant to the idea.

Same with duplicative features. If you get the same skill/tool from race/class/background you can choose ANY to get at that point. Some DM's are very resistant to that as well. Seem odd to me.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
I agree with the OP though. Some DM's seem very put out by the very concept of NOT selecting one of the pre-written Backgrounds and resistant to customized backgrounds despite this very core rule.

I'm not saying "make it up and try to force a DM to let you do it because RULE", I'm saying, you can by the rules easily do it. It's right there in the rules, so I don't understand why some DM's I've seen/played with are SO resistant to the idea.

Same with duplicative features. If you get the same skill/tool from race/class/background you can choose ANY to get at that point. Some DM's are very resistant to that as well. Seem odd to me.
I can't speak for DMs who are starting from "no," but I want to know the backgrounds because I want to tie the characters to the setting and the campaign. If you pick "sailor" for your background and I'm looking at starting in a landlocked city, we need to work out how your character came to be there. If you're using a custom background, I want to know what it is, because I want to know what exists in my world. I'm always willing to work with a player if they want a background other than what's in the PHB; I just want it to be a discussion.
 
L

lowkey13

Guest
That’s a huge part of my point—because people aren’t as familiar with the background customization rule they want to treat it like a variant option a DM can opt-in to, like feats or gnomes, rather than a default option that DMs can opt-out of, which is what it officially is.
Unless you are playing AL, this is a distinction without a difference (other than being of interest, perhaps, for rule lawyers).

I personally love the placement of the custom backgrounds, because it serves as a reminder that the backgrounds listed are just example of what can be done. And that the enumerated ones are not the end-all, be-all.

That said, I cannot imagine playing at any table without discussing character concepts, rules, and campaigns with the other players and the DM prior to play. And I certainly wouldn't want to play with anyone who insists on something over the objection of either the DM or the table in general because of a supposed distinction between opt-in and opt-out rules.
 

Salthorae

Imperial Mountain Dew Taster
I just want it to be a discussion.
Absolutely. When I DM I'm totally open to it. I've played with more than one DM both IRL and online who when asked were just a straight "nope" on the custom background. It boggles the mind that they'd not even be open to the idea or discussion of a core rule

I think they must be coming from a "what are you trying to sneak by me?" mindset, though I don't know for sure.
 

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