5E Customizing Backgrounds Core Rule - Public Service Announcement

Bacon Bits

Adventurer
In case you failed to notice, none of the mechanical abilities are representative of what the background is actually supposed to be. A brewer should be good at brewing, because that's what those words mean. This "brewer" has, not only a complete inability to brew anything, but influence within high society as a result of their noble birth. (Which they don't actually have, because they weren't actually born noble. But people are still inclined to think well of them, because of their noble birth, as a brewer.)

It's a direct violation of the central premise behind any role-playing system: that the rules of the game reflect the reality of the game world. None of these abilities reflect anything about what it means to be a brewer.
Honestly, the Brewer you describe sounds like a member of the Teamsters union under mafia rule. I don't see why a Dwarven guild of brewers might not eventually rise to a political position, which might then see corruption from the mafia. You're a "Brewer," except you're actually an organized criminal whose benefit of Position of Privilege is entirely due to overwhelming corruption and the threat of reprisal.
 

Saelorn

Hero
Honestly, the Brewer you describe sounds like a member of the Teamsters union under mafia rule. I don't see why a Dwarven guild of brewers might not eventually rise to a political position, which might then see corruption from the mafia. You're a "Brewer," except you're actually an organized criminal whose benefit of Position of Privilege is entirely due to overwhelming corruption and the threat of reprisal.
And honestly, that sounds great, but it isn't something you can try to sneak into a DM's setting without their permission. If they aren't going for it, then invoking RAW isn't going to convince them.
 

Arilyn

Hero
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).



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.
Absolutely. I was narrowing in on the feature part of the background, like getting room and board for free or being member of a guild. It can be hard to come up with new features, as they do very little. It's easy to come up with features that are better, without meaning to.

In terms of skills and proficiencies, it makes no difference what combination players choose.
 
Honestly, the Brewer you describe sounds like a member of the Teamsters union under mafia rule. I don't see why a Dwarven guild of brewers might not eventually rise to a political position, which might then see corruption from the mafia. You're a "Brewer," except you're actually an organized criminal whose benefit of Position of Privilege is entirely due to overwhelming corruption and the threat of reprisal.
Had enough of Dwarves talking with Scottish accents?

Try brewer-mafia Dwarves with old-timey gangland accents!

"Da King Undah da Mountain wants a word wi' youse…"

"... or you'll be sleep'n wi' da' Cave-Fishers, see..."
 

Bacon Bits

Adventurer
And honestly, that sounds great, but it isn't something you can try to sneak into a DM's setting without their permission. If they aren't going for it, then invoking RAW isn't going to convince them.
The whole point is that the game assumes that the DM will outline whatever exceptions to the basic rules are going to be used for character creation. I think it's absolutely reasonable to assume that every DM can be expected say, "With the exception of these changes, variants, and options, generate your character following the rules in the PHB." In fact, I think it's unreasonable for a DM to do otherwise. And the point being made here is that under those conditions where you just follow the rules in the PHB, you're allowed to customize your background.

Yes, under this situation, you technically still need the DM's permission. They still get to review your character. But you technically need the DM's permission to do everything.

You can't play a human without the DM's permission.
You can't play a fighter without the DM's permission.
You can't roll a single die without the DM's permission.
You can't play D&D without the DM's permission.

They're the referee. That's what that means.

"But you need permission," is just not a meaningful counter argument.
 

Saelorn

Hero
Yes, under this situation, you technically still need the DM's permission. But you technically need the DM's permission to do everything.
According to RAW, you don't need the DM's permission to customize your own background. It's the one thing in the entire game where you could (theoretically) show up with any combination of proficiencies and powers that you want, and the DM is supposed to just take it. Because that one section of rules is poorly written, and inconsistent with everything else in the book.

It's one of those cases where the RAW really should be ignored, and the rules for inventing your own Backgrounds should be put right next to the rules for inventing your own spells and feats, with the intention that they actually be used.
 

Phazonfish

Explorer
The whole point is that the game assumes that the DM will outline whatever exceptions to the basic rules are going to be used for character creation. I think it's absolutely reasonable to assume that every DM can be expected say, "With the exception of these changes, variants, and options, generate your character following the rules in the PHB." In fact, I think it's unreasonable for a DM to do otherwise. And the point being made here is that under those conditions where you just follow the rules in the PHB, you're allowed to customize your background.

Yes, under this situation, you technically still need the DM's permission. They still get to review your character. But you technically need the DM's permission to do everything.

You can't play a human without the DM's permission.
You can't play a fighter without the DM's permission.
You can't roll a single die without the DM's permission.
You can't play D&D without the DM's permission.

They're the referee. That's what that means.

"But you need permission," is just not a meaningful counter argument.
This. If this thread was "PSA: Humans are core" people would be like "Yeah, and...?" But since it is something that seems like it should be a variant, people are responding with the equivalent of "So you are trying to sneak/force a standard human character into your game without specifically asking your DM if humans exist in their setting?"
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
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.
Yep. The way I frame it to my players is that you get any 2 skills, and a total of 2 between any standard languages and tool proficiencies. The backgrounds listed are just examples of thematic combinations. For Background Features, pick one from any of the example backgrounds, and for starting equipment take the equipment from the background your feature comes from.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
This. If this thread was "PSA: Humans are core" people would be like "Yeah, and...?" But since it is something that seems like it should be a variant, people are responding with the equivalent of "So you are trying to sneak/force a standard human character into your game without specifically asking your DM if humans exist in their setting?"
To be fair, it is within the DM’s prerogative to decide that humans don’t exist in their setting. The DM should probably tell the players so before they start making their characters, and likewise DMs who don’t want to allow background customization should tell that to the players before character creation. But yeah, even “core” rules elements are subject to DM veto.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
Until today, it had never occurred to me that character Backgrounds could be so contentious. Certainly not to the point of needing "glowing text and...a beckoning melody." Why is it preferable to choose a background from a list, or preferable to create your own? Both seem like good ways to do it. Either way, you're going to need to check with your DM to get your character inserted into the setting and the story.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
This. If this thread was "PSA: Humans are core" people would be like "Yeah, and...?" But since it is something that seems like it should be a variant, people are responding with the equivalent of "So you are trying to sneak/force a standard human character into your game without specifically asking your DM if humans exist in their setting?"
Not exactly.

First, it's in the rules. I don't think this particularly needs a PSA, any more than "Hey, you can play as a human" does. But then again, we've been playing with custom backgrounds since the beginning, and I guess I should not be shocked, at this point, that people fail to RTFM. Even five years in. ¯\(ツ)


The pushback in this thread, IMO, started because of the usual divide between those who insist something must be in the game, and those who believe that the RAW are just a starting point for the table to play. It's kind of a divide that happens fairly often.

Again, I have yet to play a game of D&D where I haven't discussed my character with other people before starting play, so this whole, "You get to do what you want, and no one, I MEAN NO ONE INCLUDING THE DM CAN STOP YOU" is really foreign to me. YMMV.
 

dnd4vr

Keeper of the Seven Keys
Yes, under this situation, you technically still need the DM's permission. They still get to review your character. But you technically need the DM's permission to do everything.

You can't play a human without the DM's permission.
You can't play a fighter without the DM's permission.
You can't roll a single die without the DM's permission.
You can't play D&D without the DM's permission.

They're the referee. That's what that means.

"But you need permission," is just not a meaningful counter argument.
I can't quite agree for the very examples you've given and it goes back to my post (#2) on the first page. In your post, as DM, I could tell you no humans, no fighters, don't roll initiative or make a check until I ask you to roll, and even get the hell out of my house you aren't playing because you are late. Granted, I'd be a prick of a DM for it, but it is within the DM's purview.

Now, I completely agree for a good DM, all of this should be covered from the beginning, preferably before a lot of time was put into the character.

According to RAW, you don't need the DM's permission to customize your own background. It's the one thing in the entire game where you could (theoretically) show up with any combination of proficiencies and powers that you want, and the DM is supposed to just take it. Because that one section of rules is poorly written, and inconsistent with everything else in the book.

It's one of those cases where the RAW really should be ignored, and the rules for inventing your own Backgrounds should be put right next to the rules for inventing your own spells and feats, with the intention that they actually be used.
Yes, you do because you need the DM's permission for everything. The vast majority of the time the DM will say (most) everything goes, so it isn't an issue. For this, it shouldn't be either IMO but like when checking for races allowed or other things, I don't think it is unreasonable for the player to check, "I have an idea for a custom background, is that okay?"
 

Phazonfish

Explorer
To be fair, it is within the DM’s prerogative to decide that humans don’t exist in their setting. The DM should probably tell the players so before they start making their characters, and likewise DMs who don’t want to allow background customization should tell that to the players before character creation. But yeah, even “core” rules elements are subject to DM veto.
Absolutely. But the point is that the DM's right to veto what they want goes without saying.

Not exactly.

First, it's in the rules. I don't think this particularly needs a PSA, any more than "Hey, you can play as a human" does. But then again, we've been playing with custom backgrounds since the beginning, and I guess I should not be shocked, at this point, that people fail to RTFM. Even five years in. ¯\(ツ)


The pushback in this thread, IMO, started because of the usual divide between those who insist something must be in the game, and those who believe that the RAW are just a starting point for the table to play. It's kind of a divide that happens fairly often.

Again, I have yet to play a game of D&D where I haven't discussed my character with other people before starting play, so this whole, "You get to do what you want, and no one, I MEAN NO ONE INCLUDING THE DM CAN STOP YOU" is really foreign to me. YMMV.
I agree with you on just about everything here. I'm happy you posted this though, because it helped me find the phrasing I was looking for. I suppose what is baffling me here is that people here have been suggesting that "custom backgrounds are allowed" is not a safe starting place even though they are RAW and you should assume they are not allowed until you have explicit permission.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Again, I have yet to play a game of D&D where I haven't discussed my character with other people before starting play, so this whole, "You get to do what you want, and no one, I MEAN NO ONE INCLUDING THE DM CAN STOP YOU" is really foreign to me. YMMV.
Pretty much this. The positioning of the OP gave me that "no one can stop you" vibe, which I just have a problem with in the context of cooperative play.

If it had been presented as, "Hey, can't get quite what you are looking for? Remember that, within the rules, you might be able to modify a background to get what you need! Talk to your GM about it!" and the whole discussion becomes different.

Framing matters.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
I agree with you on just about everything here. I'm happy you posted this though, because it helped me find the phrasing I was looking for. I suppose what is baffling me here is that people here have been suggesting that "custom backgrounds are allowed" is not a safe starting place even though they are RAW and you should assume they are not allowed until you have explicit permission.
On that, two things-

1. I always go to the default that these things are discussed. I think that from the OP (which had the unfortunate word, "entitled") to some particular comments on the first page (which seemed overly aggressive in terms of what RAW means in terms of particular tables), I think the conversation started with that divide.

2. That said, the flip side of it is that there is nothing wrong with this. Heck, IMO the "custom" option is the default (name, backstory, two skills, two total language/tool, 2 traits, 1 ideal, 1 flaw, 1 bond, 1 feature), and you can choose from the pregens if you want. There is nothing OP about it; but I think there was an immediate, "Oh, don't you powergame on me" reaction.


But common courtesy always wins out. Talk to the DM and the other players and discuss what you're creating. Ideally, maybe everyone makes their characters together. :)
 

Weiley31

Adventurer
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.
I honestly can see a DND Brewer character having high CHA.

Male DM: Suddenly, the evil Lich Lord Argosax interrupts your Town Square Tavern Party

Argosax: You fools, your mistake was gathering all in one spot. Now suffer my wra-

Dwarven Brewer: Shut up and drink!!! Rolls Persuade check

Argosax: But I don't want to drink, I WANT TO BE EVI-Brewer scores a Nat 20 roll plus CHA modifier

Everybody as Argosax starts downing the WHOLE keg: CHUG CHUG CHUG CHUG!!!


Male DM: This is why I stopped playing with you guys.
 

dnd4vr

Keeper of the Seven Keys
Now, a funny thing to me in all this, is our group has only been playing for about a year and a half, and maybe 20 PCs in that time, and every time we have simply used a background already in the books. No customization needed.
 

Mark Finn

Villager
I play with a lot of new players and so the backgrounds as written are a great framework for them, as there's an awful lot to process during character creation and session zero. Sometimes having those clearly-defined backstories are a good thing. And the backgrounds I've written up for my world follow that same model.

But for me, as a DM, I think they are one of the best things about 5th edition; they anchor the player character to the world, and give the DM hooks to use to drag the character into the overarching story. This is, I think, essential to the experience of playing great D&D and a simple mechanic to help both players and DMs utilize that is a good thing.

That said, I can't imagine a scenario where one of my players came to me and wanted to swap out Nature for Medicine or Artisan's Tools for Vehicles (Land) that I wouldn't, after listening to the reason, say, "Sure, go ahead, that makes sense." But that's the culture I've established at my table; I encourage them to be collaborators.
 

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