Not-So-Improv Improv

What makes RPG characters interesting is three things; Where they are, where they come from and where they’re going. More oft than not, where they came from tends to shape where they are and going. We’re here today to talk about backgrounds, a fantastic mechanic that is a part of the character creation process in 13th Age.

Whether it’s built into the system or not, any person who creates an RPG character makes up at least a small snippet of a back story for the character. It adds depth, it can add goals, it makes the character that much closer to being a real person. Sometimes, it even makes them relatable. This is what fuels the creativity in RPGs, the people (whether it’s a PC or NPC). Without people/characters, we don’t have a game, yeah? With other d20 systems it seems like character background is sort of optional, it has no bearing on the game. Usually you have a list of skills or abilities that you can spread points across. But that’s exactly the problem I have with that, it’s skills that they determine. Not only that, with the point system when the skills are so clearly defined, what if the skill I want for my character conflicts with a skill that makes sense for the class? Or what if a skill I want simply isn’t in the list? The fix for this was 13th Age.

Instead of having a list of skills on your character sheet, all you have is a little blank space labeled “Backgrounds.” Now, we know what the definition of the word itself is, but what IS a background in this context? Well, essentially, it’s a skill or profession or maybe a previous experience. The purpose is the same as a skill, it gives you a bonus to a skill check. It helps answer the question “Who is your character and what does he/she do?” When building a character’s backgrounds, you have 8 points to spend on a background title, with no more than 5 points in one background title. Once the numbers come into play, I most often find that people jump straight in and say, “Okay, well I want a background in alchemy, magical knowledge and demonology,” or whatever sort of basic title you can imagine. This is NOT what a background is for! Using things like that are so one dimensional that you might as well still have skill tables. Your background title should tell a small story about what you’ve experienced, it just makes it more interesting and more versatile. Your background is supposed to be able to cover multiple skills as well! Yes! Doing more than one thing with a single experience. Crazy, right?

So some examples. If you have a background that you simply title “Alchemy,” you have actually backed yourself into a corner. How ever many points you put into that alchemy background can only be used for alchemically related skill checks. Disappointing? I think so. How about something more like, “Apprentice of a Horizon Alchemist.” Now we’re talking! This tells us that your character has been a part of an apprenticeship, lived in the city of Horizon for a time and learned some stuff about alchemy. How does this help? Well, you could potentially apply this background if you’re trying to strike up a conversation with someone. Your GM tells you that the bloke in the corner is wearing clothes that actually remind you of the streets of Horizon. Now when you talk to him, maybe you can bring that up and add your background bonus to your charisma roll to open the door for a conversation. Maybe this guy from Horizon knows something about the city you’re currently in that can help your endeavors. See how this works? A couple of background titles like that and you can pretty much build a character that gets a bonus to any skill check.

There’s bound to be someone out there rubbing his hands together thinking, “YES! Another game I can break!” Well, actually, no. In order to add a background to your skill check, first you must make what I call a “sales pitch” to your GM about why your background applies to the current situation. From there the GM gives you a “yay” or “nay” to the bonus. However, even if your GM says no, your sales pitch still tells you something about your character’s experience, which you had just invented. So not only are you fleshing out a story for your character that didn’t take place in the current game, you’re exercising your improvising muscles and may or may not be using your sudden creation to your advantage. In a single statement, this is exactly why this mechanic is brilliant. What backgrounds do some of your characters have? Post a comment!


Stay Metal \m/

2 Comments on “Not-So-Improv Improv

  1. In 5e I’ve got a character with the Folkhero background, which does give them some specific bonus skills, but also has a much more ambiguously specified effect of being able to gain the sympathy of commoners which suggests some similar roleplaying interactions.


    • Thanks for the comment, Joshua! I do like how WotC is starting to make character background more integral to their flagship game. Some aspects of it is done well, but I feel they still have a long way to go.


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