This article was first broadcast in Episode Sixty-Two on 20th February 2019.
Ryu: Blah. Okay, time to kill some characters.
Lennon: We hid the hat again, just so you’re aware.
Ryu: Yeah that never matters, but anyway, I’m not going to need KayDee’s help for this one; I’ve got another player that’s decided “annoying edgelord” is a cool character concept, and they’ve come up with mechanics where they’re in such mental anguish that even brief moments of happiness count as a short rest for them because they’re so rejuvenating. “Rejuvenating” isn’t “resurrecting,” though, so that character isn’t going to see a session two.
Ostron: You know you’re asking to just have them come back with another annoying concept unless you give them some suggestions.
Ryu: Do you have any? I’m all ears at this point.
Lennon: I think we can throw something together.
In past editions of D&D, the idea of character backstories imparting skills or abilities to characters was usually met with skepticism and worry; all abilities were generally supposed to come from class features, racial bonuses, or magic items and allowing any other sources usually meant questionably balanced homebrew content.
However, 5th edition has not only embraced the idea, it’s nearly made it a requirement. If a character starts a campaign and hasn’t chosen a background with the extra skill proficiencies and roleplay bonuses, they can end up behind the curve in character ability.
There are a ton of official sources for backgrounds out there, particularly if you venture into setting specific adventures and source books, but sometimes people feel like the background doesn’t really fit with your vision for a character. Or, sometimes you have an idea for a background involving extreme trauma or other life-altering events and you think it should be reflected in your character beyond just “my charisma score is low and I’m proficient with stealth because I had to hide so much”.
Before we start, we just want to give our standard disclaimer when dealing with custom character ideas: the first step should be talking to your DM early and often. At the very least, you don’t want to surprise them with a totally new idea at the first session; it’ll go much smoother for everyone if you talk about it beforehand. It’s even possible your DM could have suggestions for ways to improve on your idea or could help you if you’re stuck with some aspect of it.
Now as for the idea itself. If you only want to change the lore aspects of things, that’s something your DM shouldn’t have a problem with. Say, for example, you want the benefits the “Outlander” background provides (specifically, proficiency in Athletics, Survival, and a musical instrument as well as knowing an extra language) but you want those to have come from being held in a foreign land and being trained as a slave for auction. That type of change shouldn’t faze the DM, and they may actually welcome it because of the opportunities for extra story arcs that provides.
But a more troublesome case, and the one Ryu’s dealing with, is when you come up with a backstory that not only doesn’t fit with the official backgrounds, but also provides non-standard bonuses. For example, no official backgrounds provide proficiencies in both Performance and Stealth, but if you’re playing a character who’s been spying for the hedonistic cult of Rakdos on Ravnica, those proficiencies make sense.
While the approach is non-standard, as mentioned, you’re still staying within the bounds of the original rules; the background is providing two skill proficiencies, possibly a tool or item proficiency, and maybe another RP bonus. If you have a good story justification, this should still pass muster with the DM.
Alas, the issue I’m facing isn’t as straight-cut. I’ve got a character whose background is supposed to introduce effects that don’t typically come from backgrounds. There are a couple of ways to do this that will make the DM more disposed to buy into the idea. First of all, don’t try for something that’s obviously just an attempt to circumvent the rules for the sake of making the character more powerful. If you try that, either the DM is going to shut you down, or they’re going to make you pay for it down the road.
The only way that kind of thing might be okay with the DM in normal circumstances is if you also include some sort of reciprocal drawback. In the example I had, where the character gets a short rest if they’re happy, an acceptable trade-off might be if that’s the *only* way they get the benefit of a short rest.
However, a better approach is to make the effect completely non-standard and not an obvious benefit or drawback. Say you want your character to come from a line of Oracles, and they’re adventuring to help awaken their power. One idea could be that every time you take a long rest and/or sleep, you’re beset by dreams, and these dreams either enhance or disturb your rest. You make a check or a save, and on a failure you lose 2 hit die worth of HP to start the day, but on a success you gain that many hit die worth of temp HP.
Introducing a random element, either one that randomizes whether the background provides a bonus or a drawback or one that introduces the possibility of nothing happening can reduce the amount of eyebrow raising when you suggest your idea. This mechanic can be seen with the Wild Magic Sorcerer. Not only does the wild magic table have a variety of results that vary from good to bad to inconsequential, but there’s a decent chance nothing at all is going to occur.
Now one thing you should not do is assume that a background giving nothing but drawbacks to the character will get an automatic okay. In fact, whilst it may initially seem, from a players perspective, a great idea this is just as much work for a DM as if the character was entirely filled with bonuses. If you hamstring your character mechanically for the story and have no way of overcoming that, you’re actually making a lot of people’s lives harder. The DM will have to consider that your character is not as capable as the others and re-balance their adventure accordingly, and the other players will have to overcome whatever shortfall you’ve now introduced. With some groups this may not be a problem and the extra roleplay opportunities will be seen as a benefit that outweighs the drawback, but don’t assume that just because your custom background makes your character worse, it’s an easy win.
Now we’ll reiterate, the suggestions we’ve given here are general guidelines based on our experiences and anecdotal feedback from other DMs. It’s possible your DM may be perfectly fine with a background that gives you an extra spell slot that regenerates after a short rest because you were bitten by a snake that ate a dragon egg when you were a toddler. Or they may insist that *everyone* take backgrounds that remove key abilities from every race or class. But as long as you keep the lines of communication open and formulate your idea well, you should be able to have your custom history ready to go.
Ryu: Okay, I’m going to give my player these notes to read as I’m setting their character sheet on fire.
Ostron: I thought you said you *weren’t* going to be getting the Killer DM’s help.
Ryu: You notice I said only his *character sheet* is getting set on fire.
Lennon: Okay, well just in case fire gets out of hand, we’ve got a lot of water in the Scrying Pool so let’s head over there and see what the listeners have to say.