Character Backgrounds vs Player Backgrounds

For 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, a character’s background represents the beginning of their story. It gives your character a roleplaying-based start since it gives the player a starting point for deciding how they transitioned into their new adventuring life. 

Character Backgrounds Bring Variety

Character backgrounds also offer specific game-mechanic enhancements for your character. This includes things like proficiencies, languages, equipment and even money. There may also be special features tied to your character’s background. They also come with suggested characteristics for a character’s personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws.

I really like how the Background mechanic helps promote thinking in a roleplaying mode from the start. I think it also helps to avoid too many cliche “dark and mysterious” character backgrounds. 

By providing some out of the box options for players to read through, I’ve found a definite increase in the variety of character backstories.

But what about a player’s background?

What about Player Backgrounds?

First, each player at the table has their own characteristics. They have a variety of personality traits – many of which may not be easily written down as a brief sentence. Just like the characters, the players have their own ideals. Not only about the game, but about life in general.

Players have bonds of their own. It could be the friendships with the people at the table, the importance of their family, their job, or a variety of other real-life goals.

It also goes without saying that the players all have flaws (not me, or the rest of the Dungeon Masters; we are perfect in every way and never make any mistakes.)

How about their special features? Maybe they are willing to host the game at their house because they have a perfect game room setup. Or they might even own a pizza shop! This, for obvious reasons, could be a very popular special feature.

What about those skills, proficiencies, and equipment?

IT professionals might know all the ins and outs of setting up both streaming software and computer hardware for online games. Artistic players may love to draw and offer to put together character portraits. Some players may be great cooks who love to make snacks and other treats for the group.

Ok…that leaves the background description itself. It’s a little more complex than a profession or job title. For adults with careers, part of their background description could be anything from teacher to IT specialist, college student to doctor, or mechanic to hairdresser. 

However, their personal life also comes into play. They may be mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, adoptive parents, adopted children, and the list goes on and on. Maybe they grew up in one town their entire life. Or they could have moved around a lot as a kid. 

But it’s important to remember, each player had a background even before they started in their profession. Unfortunately, most people have experienced some sort of trauma in their lives. Players may have had a troubled childhood. Some players may have even experienced assault at some point in their life.

The point is, we are all a group of real people getting together to play make-believe characters. But sometimes topics that come up in the game may hit close to home for some of the players. I highly recommend doing what you can at the beginning of the campaign to take this into consideration and avoid as many problems as possible.

Running a Session Zero is so important. Part of that session should be discussing hard and soft limits to help address issues before they occur in your game.

Leveraging Player Backgrounds

So how do we leverage Player Backgrounds as well as we do Character Backgrounds? 

First – it’s not a 1:1 relationship. The Character Background mechanic was built into the game, and leveraging Player Backgrounds is really up to you.

So take the time to get to know your players. Find out what they like, what things are important to them, and what they do outside of the game. This obviously works best with long-term ongoing campaigns, but even some discussion during Session Zero can reveal some really interesting things about your players for a short term campaign.

In the end, just remember that it’s real people playing make-believe characters in a game. I don’t say that to diminish the game. Just the opposite. We don’t want the amazing game we play to include content that could hurt our players. So just be sure to make it an inviting, inclusive, and safe gaming table for everyone.