Backgrounds: An Alternative to Racial Ability Scores
Backgrounds: A Sensitive Subject
With the announcement that the upcoming Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything is going to include optional rules for detaching ability score modifiers from race selection, there has been quite a bit of outrage from the purists.
While some are excited that they can finally play a dwarf wizard or a halfling barbarian without being disadvantaged, old-school players fear that this approach dilutes their games.
(This does seem to ignore the fact that the rules are optional, but grognards gonna grognard)
Funnily enough, I’ve often experimented with alternate character generation systems, as shown in my Level Zero Session Zero post.
In this system, while I did still use racial ability modifiers, I also placed greater importance on both background selection and a free-floating ability modifier. This allowed my players a great deal of flexibility with their character creation, not locking them into certain classic class/race combinations.
Of late, however, I’ve started to think that if we are going to detach ability score modifiers from race, why not attach them to the oft-undervalued element of D&D 5e: backgrounds.
Using Backgrounds for Ability Score Modifiers
Let’s be honest: background selection in D&D 5e isn’t the most exciting element of character creation.
You get a couple of proficiencies, some flavorful (but largely useless) equipment, and a ‘feature’ that is so ephemeral in its application that your DM is basically forced to invent uses for it.
So, why not place a little more importance on your background selection by shifting ability score modifiers from race to background? Wouldn’t it make more sense that your life up until this point was more influential than the circumstances of your birth?
This is especially true if your drow ranger or elf wizard was raised in another culture. Why can’t your goliath raised by wizards have a higher intelligence? Or your half-orc have been raised by priests who inspired greater wisdom?
While a far from perfect system, the below is the new backgrounds system I’ll be utilizing in my next D&D 5e game to shift the focus away from race selection while placing greater importance on a character’s background.
Your race will still decide racial features and the like, while your background – the meat upon which your character’s life experience should be built – is more than just a handful of proficiencies and flavor.
|BACKGROUND||SOURCE||PRIMARY MODIFIER||SECONDARY MODIFIER|
|Acolyte||Player's Handbook||+2 Wisdom or Charisma||+1 Intelligence|
|Anthropologist||Tomb of Annihilation||+2 Intelligence or Wisdom||+1 Constitution|
|Archaeologist||Tomb of Annihilation||+2 Intelligence or Dexterity||+1 Wisdom|
|Charlatan||Player's Handbook||+2 Charisma or Intelligence||+1 Dexterity|
|City Watch||Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide||+2 Strength or Wisdom||+1 Constitution|
|Clan Crafter||Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide||+2 Intelligence or Dexterity||+1 Wisdom|
|Cloistered Scholar||Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide||+2 Intelligence or Wisdom||+1 Charisma|
|Courtier||Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide||+2 Charisma or Intelligence||+1 Wisdom|
|Criminal||Player's Handbook||+2 Dexterity or Strength||+1 Charisma|
|Entertainer||Player's Handbook||+2 Charisma or Dexterity||+1 Wisdom|
|Faction Agent||Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide||+2 Wisdom or Charisma||+1 Intelligence|
|Far Traveler||Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide||+2 Wisdom or Constitution||+1 Intelligence|
|Folk Hero||Player's Handbook||+2 Strength or Dexterity||+1 Charisma|
|Gladiator||Player's Handbook||+2 Strength or Dexterity||+1 Constitution|
|Guild Artisan||Player's Handbook||+2 Intelligence or Charisma||+1 Wisdom|
|Hermit||Player's Handbook||+2 Wisdom or Constitution||+1 Intelligence|
|Inheritor||Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide||+2 Intelligence or Charisma||+1 Constitution|
|Investigator||Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide||+2 Intelligence or Wisdom||+1 Charisma|
|Knight||Player's Handbook||+2 Strength or Charisma||+1 Constitution|
|Mercenary Veteran||Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide||+2 Strength or Constitution||+1 Dexterity|
|Noble||Player's Handbook||+2 Charisma or Intelligence||+1 Constitution|
|Outlander||Player's Handbook||+2 Wisdom or Constitution||+1 Strength|
|Pirate||Player's Handbook||+2 Strength or Dexterity||+1 Charisma|
|Sage||Player's Handbook||+2 Intelligence or Wisdom||+1 Constitution|
|Sailor||Player's Handbook||+2 Strength or Dexterity||+1 Constitution|
|Soldier||Player's Handbook||+2 Strength or Dexterity||+1 Constitution|
|Spy||Player's Handbook||+2 Charisma or Intelligence||+1 Dexterity|
|Urban Bounty Hunter||Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide||+2 Charisma or Wisdom||+1 Constitution|
|Urchin||Player's Handbook||+2 Constitution or Dexterity||+1 Wisdom|
|Waterdhavian Noble||Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide||+2 Intelligence or Charisma||+1 Wisdom|
The above is just a rough draft of what I’m planning to use in my next game, but you can see that it definitely errs on the side of the mental scores (Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma), with relatively few backgrounds providing a boost to the physical stats of Dexterity, Strength, and Constitution.
I’m not sure what the solution might be to this, but I’m also not sure I care. The physical stats can still get a boost from secondary ability sources, and there is nothing stopping a person from simply placing their higher abilities in the areas that matter to them.
The idea that all orcs are automatically better fighters than 90% of halflings or elves has never sat well with me, but it makes a hell of a lot more sense that a seasoned mercenary or soldier will make a better fighter than a cloistered scholar.
While I’ve yet to test this at my table, I’m hoping to do so shortly, and we shall see what people think about not having to feel limited quite so much by race selection!