Backgrounds are a powerful tool for making your players feel part of the setting and invested in the story. Default backgrounds do their job okay-ish, but often they feel impersonal and shallow, being little more than ways to minmax skill competencies.
The problem is that many backgrounds are, intentionally, generic. A guard is a guard, in Neverwinter like in Greyhawk, like in Sigil like in New York. It’s an archetype.
Some books have backgrounds tailored to their settings, and they work great. Look at the guilds in Ravnica. They’re full of personality, give a character a direction and a solid base. They make their place in the world clear.
The Player Handbook says you can adapt backgrounds, but it’s a bit vague, and it’s not easy to do for the players: if they don’t know where they are gonna play, especially in a homebrew setting, how can they be expected to tailor their characters to it? Part of the work, inevitably, must fall on the DM, proposing options to your players and working with them to adapt what they want to play.
This is also important for long campaigns that follow a theme or explore a particular location: if a player wants to make a sailor, and then you start playing Descent into Avernus, they could regret their decision.
So, here are some practical examples and general advice on getting the most out of backgrounds
Rule 1: The players are the ones playing, it’s their characters, their stories, so don’t force their hand. If they want to play something, generally, let them play. You can suggest a change, but if they don’t feel it and just want to play a sailor in hell, the choice is up to them.
Rule 2: Backgrounds can offer opportunities to develop your character, Ideas to bounce off of, or both. It doesn’t need to be elaborate or complicated, in fact, simple and full of empty spaces lets them build on and use it as a jumping point.
Descent into Avernus
So, you’re playing Descent. Big, long official campaign with a clear theme. Go to hell.
The premise is simple: some years ago, the angel Zariel lead a crusade into hell, they got kicked in the teeth and lost, she got corrupted and is a devil. Some of the people that crusaded with her run away and lied, making up stories of great fights and heroic deeds and created the order of the Hellriders. Now, Zariel wants revenge against the city of those knights and drags it to hell.
One of your players is a fighter, they pick a knight or soldier background. That’s when you sweep in and propose “hey, do you want to be a hellrider instead?”
The Hellriders are a type of knight with a clear identity and a strong role in the story, the players will deal with them a lot. Having a player be part of the order gives them a strong incentive to socialize, explore and care, on a personal level, about the story.
“saving the world” is less interesting than saving a single person they care about, for most players.
On top of that, you can use the player as a way to give out worldbuilding: give your exposition to the player, and let them give their version to the rest of the team.
On top of that, a major plot point is that all hellriders have been tricked, and are destined to become devils when they die. Imagine the surprise when the player learns that. What would just be a neat but relatively inconsequential lore element becomes a real, immediate issue for your player.
To create the Hellrider Background I would take the knight background and propose new bonds, specific to the campaign, for the player. There isn’t much need to change features and the skills already fit well.
Other backgrounds like Folk Hero, city guard, soldier and all religious ones can be changed in similar ways to have at least one player be directly involved with the main story
But there is a second great option: the Flaming Fists
A mercenary group that acts as army and city guards for Baldur’s Gate, they are responsible for the early part of the module, giving quests to the players and roping them into the main plot. Relying on authoritative NPCs ordering your players what to do is never a great idea, and there are a thousand ways it can be wrong.
But what if the questgiver is one of the players?
Propose one of your players is a member of the Flaming Fists before the campaign starts. Have them recruit the rest of the party and act as middleman for the order, carrying quests and rewards. Suddenly the player is doing something novel and unique and is given an active role in moving the story forward.
To create a Flaming Fist Background I would take the Soldier background, add the option of taking Persuasion as a skill proficiency, and expand the Military Rank Feature to include the ability to exert authority over citizens in Baldur’s Gate and when dealing with small-time criminals, for example when trying to gather information or get a favour.
Example 2: Dungeon of the Mad Mage
What do mages do? Experiments. Weird experiments on poor guinea pigs causing mutations and abominations. Many die, some turn into unspeakable horrors, but some, somehow, survive.
The new background of the Experimental Subject is somebody that, at some point, was captured by strange figures and sold to insane wizards hiding in a dungeon crawling with monsters and experimented on.
By some miracle, perhaps during an accident where many other creatures run away, perhaps by sheer luck, or by some bizarre machination of the Mad Mage himself, they escaped. All the player knows is that they found themselves into the Yawning Portal, where the adventure starts, with strange mutations, confused memories, and a burning urge to go back in there.
Perhaps the experience was so shocking it left them with holes in their memory, and they hope to learn who they were, before the experiments, and what they lost.
Perhaps they want to get revenge. Perhaps a cure for their bizarre condition. Whatever the reason, they have memories, if vague, of the dungeon.
Skills: Two between Stealth, Investigation and Perception.
Languages: Draconic and another of the DM choice. The player is pretty sure they didn’t know these languages before ending up down there. Something was done to their brain.
Equipment: A rough map of one of the layers of the dungeon, made by the player themselves as they escaped, indicating some sort of hidden chamber where something important is hidden. The player has no memory of making this, but it was in their pocket when they reached the surface.
Proficiencies: Alchemist kit.
Feature: Minor Mutation There is something odd about the player. A tentacle, a third arm of the wrong species, additional eye. It may have no effect or some effect, there are a thousand and one tables for random mutations online. Go wild.
Feature: Flashback While exploring the dungeon the player could remember rooms, traps or NPCs they met down there.
Maybe those NPCs helped them escape, or they were the ones experimenting on them. Up to you. I would pick a specific important NPC in the dungeon and have them be the one doing the experiments, and throw vague flashbacks to the player that give hints to the identity of the fiend.
Example 3: Dragon Heist
We have seen turning a player into a questgiver, a lore-dumper and a plot element, now let’s talk about turning a player into a side-antagonist
This is a risky approach, but if you trust your players and know they aren’t easily angered, it can be very fun for both the player doing it and the rest of the party.
I am NOT suggesting to put a player against the others, Intentionally causing conflict is a horrible idea. I’m suggesting you let a player have personal goals that don’t align perfectly with the rest of the party.
In dragon heist, there are 4 criminal groups, and the campaign only uses one or two of them. I’m suggesting you make your player a member of one of the other criminal groups.
Why? The “secret criminal” player is gonna be roleplaying in a way you don't often see, and you can work with them you can craft a lot of events that wouldn’t work in a normal party. You can feed info to the player, and see them torn apart: do they act on it and risk blowing their cover?
You can have the player do their own “side-quests” during regular quests
In general, it’s great to get that player invested in the story and their relationships with the other players.
There are two approaches: one where it’s entirely secret and no other player has any idea it’s happening, and one where you tell them off-character before the campaign begins, but after that, you don’t give them exact information, so they don’t really know what’s going on.
The second way is safer, for sure.
The way to avoid a PvP situation is making sure the side-antagonist goals aren’t opposite with the players, but parallel: The party is sent to retrieve an object, the side-antagonist also has to kill the person that stole the object. The players want to free the queen from the dungeon, the side-antagonist wants the queen to be indebted to their own faction.
Do not tell them to run away with the whole treasure, is what I’m saying. Perhaps have them be looking for a specific item that is part of the treasure, and make it clear their boss has little interest in the rest.
The player still helps the party, they still honestly participate and don’t sabotage the main quest (they may partially sabotage secondary objectives, as long as it’s nothing vital) but carry forward their own, separate agenda.
The background itself is as simple as taking any criminal background and making it specifically about one criminal faction in the game. Jarlaxus works especially well for this, as he’s not directly interested in what goes on in the city.
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