RIP, 2014 PHB backgrounds


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If you write a book and some people don't read it thoroughly, that's on those readers, not the writer. You can lead a horse to water . . .
So I've worked as a classroom teacher, and like probably everyone whose ever had that job I learned in my first week in an actual classroom that students will almost never read the actual instructions of an assignment, say a worksheet, no matter how clear and strategically bolded they are, if based on the layout of the assignment or some other extrinsic factor they think they already know what they are supposed to do with it. An RPG is different in that they seem to disproportionately appeal to the sort of people who do actually read the rules, and usually the knowledge of commonly overlooked things actually written in those rules gradually filters out to the rest of the community. But otherwise I think the dynamics are basically the same.

Very few people read a book like the PHB word for word. Rules that run counter to common assumptions people make based on the presentation will routinely be overlooked or misunderstood. In a system where you have to choose a race, a class, and background and then there is a section with extensive options for each, and the prior two choices don't have a presumption of being able to create your own custom option, people are naturally going to think they're supposed to pick one of the set options. People are particularly likely to skip sections that seem like boring front matter that are in the way of them reading about all the neat backgrounds.

That being said, since the consequences of people not reading the instructions thoroughly in this instance are just that they have a background that's maybe not as much to their exact tastes as the one they would have invented, I think the accessibility benefits of listing out pre-made backgrounds far outweigh the consequence of a large segment of players thinking they are mandatory.
 

I've made more characters than I can count in 5e and I've always used the custom background option. Making that the default really feels, IMO, like the developers catching up with how the game is played, much like the floating ability score modifiers.

The people that I play with usually swap skills out on the backgrounds, so the idea that people have been actually using them straight out of the book is pretty surprising to me. If they want people to understand that picking feats and skills is the default, they really should just put that text up front as part of the process and list pre-mades explicitly as examples as an afterthought. In the 5e PHB, the custom option is presented as a little side thing that apparently many missed. Just make that the main text and the pre-mades as a sort of side-bar.
 



Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I think if we conducted a survey of D&D users, we'd find that very few of them use custom backgrounds, even though they've been a choice in the PHB since 2014. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect the same thing with the 2024 PHB.
I think part of the problem is that customizing your background reads like an optional rule you’d need to ask your DM about. This is in part because it’s presented after the list of backgrounds, and in part because not all backgrounds are created equal, which makes changing some of the benefits feel like cheating. The UA fixes both of those problems, and so far I haven’t actually heard from anyone who doesn’t understand that custom is default in the UA. I have only heard people saying “well, people are going to treat the examples as the default anyway.”
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Maybe under language phrase it as "Pick any language (for example Halfling)". So you're got your picked-out option, but it's super-clear that it's just an option.
Are we also going to do that with the tool, the two skills, and the ability score increases? At that point, why write the same thing 18 times instead of once at the beginning?
 

Staffan

Legend
Are we also going to do that with the tool, the two skills, and the ability score increases? At that point, why write the same thing 18 times instead of once at the beginning?
Because tools and skills are more clearly associated with the background. I don't have the file available right now, but no-one is going to object to a Farmer background giving you proficiency in Animal Handling, Nature, and Farmer's tools – that's perfectly reasonable. But then adding "halfling language" because "many farmer's almanacs are written in halfling" seems like a Big Stretch. Most of the other background languages had similarly dubious justifications.
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
So I've worked as a classroom teacher, and like probably everyone whose ever had that job I learned in my first week in an actual classroom that students will almost never read the actual instructions of an assignment, say a worksheet, no matter how clear and strategically bolded they are, if based on the layout of the assignment or some other extrinsic factor they think they already know what they are supposed to do with it. An RPG is different in that they seem to disproportionately appeal to the sort of people who do actually read the rules, and usually the knowledge of commonly overlooked things actually written in those rules gradually filters out to the rest of the community. But otherwise I think the dynamics are basically the same.

Very few people read a book like the PHB word for word. Rules that run counter to common assumptions people make based on the presentation will routinely be overlooked or misunderstood. In a system where you have to choose a race, a class, and background and then there is a section with extensive options for each, and the prior two choices don't have a presumption of being able to create your own custom option, people are naturally going to think they're supposed to pick one of the set options. People are particularly likely to skip sections that seem like boring front matter that are in the way of them reading about all the neat backgrounds.

That being said, since the consequences of people not reading the instructions thoroughly in this instance are just that they have a background that's maybe not as much to their exact tastes as the one they would have invented, I think the accessibility benefits of listing out pre-made backgrounds far outweigh the consequence of a large segment of players thinking they are mandatory.
For proof, watch the Critical role Vox Machina live play, 100 episodes in they are still getting rules wrong. Although in some cases I never could decide if Matt was getting the rule wrong or implementing a house rule.
 

Gorck

Prince of Dorkness
Something about creating custom backgrounds as the default method just doesn’t sit right with me. Life is about trade-offs. One background might have something you really want, but also something you don’t want. Another background might get rid of the thing you didn’t want from the first background, but doesn’t have the thing you did want. This makes for a significant decision point for the player: which option is more important for my character.

I understand sometimes a player might have a specific design in mind for their character, but there isn’t an existing background that fits the theme. That’s a perfectly valid reason for creating a custom background. But when people are just cherry-picking all the items that they want every time they create a new character, there’s no longer a give-and-take; it all becomes just take. You can’t always get everything you want; sometimes you need to make compromises. But when you CAN get everything you want, that cheapens the decision-making process and renders each choice less meaningful.
 

Amrûnril

Adventurer
Something about creating custom backgrounds as the default method just doesn’t sit right with me. Life is about trade-offs. One background might have something you really want, but also something you don’t want. Another background might get rid of the thing you didn’t want from the first background, but doesn’t have the thing you did want. This makes for a significant decision point for the player: which option is more important for my character.

I understand sometimes a player might have a specific design in mind for their character, but there isn’t an existing background that fits the theme. That’s a perfectly valid reason for creating a custom background. But when people are just cherry-picking all the items that they want every time they create a new character, there’s no longer a give-and-take; it all becomes just take. You can’t always get everything you want; sometimes you need to make compromises. But when you CAN get everything you want, that cheapens the decision-making process and renders each choice less meaningful.

But each of the elements is a trade-off in and of itself. Do you want your character to be proficient in Stealth or in Perception? Do you want to increase their Dexterity or their Constitution? Should they speak Dwarvish or Halfling? Those choices are more interesting if you can consider them in their own right rather than being limited to predetermined (and somewhat arbitrary) combinations.
 


While I love the idea of the background features giving concrete meat to the backgrounds, basically none of them did anything... except for Outlander's Wanderer, which went the other way and removed half the reason to have Survival as a skill at all. Which is not exactly better.
Yeah, Outlander is the "you already have these proficiencies, so pick whatever you want" background for druids and rangers I DM for.
 



The "this is your life" section from Xanathar's is excellent for this kind of thing. In fact, I think background creation should be part of a Session 0 procedure that the whole group follows. Backgrounds should be part of a discussion on the setting and themes for the campaign and the preferences and goals of the players. The example backgrounds shouldn't be expressed as individual "packages" that you can pick up, but rather take the reader through how to express your idea for a character into 5.5's mechanical terms, in coordination with your dm and everyone else at the table.
 

Kannik

Adventurer
I noted in the survey that a "wilderness"-type background was missing (which was surprising to me, given how common of a trope it is in fantasy games and fiction).

But I also noted/asked them not to remove the riders from backgrounds as well. Even if the potential reason to remove them is that some groups (many?) forget they exist I recommended they keep them as they help drive RP and the narrative, and as such they are used often in our group to good and flavorful effect. Fingers crossed they add it back in...
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
Something about creating custom backgrounds as the default method just doesn’t sit right with me. Life is about trade-offs. One background might have something you really want, but also something you don’t want. Another background might get rid of the thing you didn’t want from the first background, but doesn’t have the thing you did want. This makes for a significant decision point for the player: which option is more important for my character.

I understand sometimes a player might have a specific design in mind for their character, but there isn’t an existing background that fits the theme. That’s a perfectly valid reason for creating a custom background. But when people are just cherry-picking all the items that they want every time they create a new character, there’s no longer a give-and-take; it all becomes just take. You can’t always get everything you want; sometimes you need to make compromises. But when you CAN get everything you want, that cheapens the decision-making process and renders each choice less meaningful.
I agree, but I rarely see a player that will accept a down side to any character decision they make if they don't have to. All but one of my players flocked to the Tasha's ASI changes, for example, and it wasn't because they wanted to play a half-orc sorcerer with a 16 CHA.
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
Adventurers League figured out in short order how to mix-and-match the component parts of a Background. There is even a thread on optimising the choices to get extra GP.

If customised backgrounds are to be the norm, create two dozen that each express a common RPG character, and attach the AL instructions.
 

FitzTheRuke

Legend
I've always hated how in D&D Beyond, they make you either pick a background, or create your own from scratch. They don't make it easy to pick a background and then just change a single element (like a language, tool, or even a skill).

This is basic functionality that I hope they remember to implement when they put in whatever final form 1D&D looks like.
 

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