What Do I Know About Reviews? Level Up Your Background (Dungeon Masters Guild Product)
Backgrounds in D&D 5e are one of those rules elements that I love, and that I feel don’t have the impact that I wish they would. I’m always excited to see new backgrounds, but new backgrounds, when utilizing the standard rules associated with them, don’t really end up doing anything more than what they have in the past. The best backgrounds essentially give a player character ideas that they may not have had about their origins, or “permission” to associate themselves with some element of the campaign that they might not otherwise touch, but many times, it’s not uncommon to pick a background and never really think about it after you get your skills, tool proficiency, and languages from the selection.
Level Up Your Background is a Dungeon Masters Guild product that addresses some of these issues, by taking a look at what backgrounds are, examining what they mean, and expanding the rules associated with backgrounds.
The product is 10 total pages, including a cover, and a title page with credits and legal information. It’s full color, with formatting very similar to standard D&D 5e standards. This includes headers, sub headers, sidebars, and tables.
The first section of this product, about a half a page worth of information, details the reasons a character might want to change their background, and what items a character should retain, versus what items a character should move forward. In other words, if your background changes due to an evolving narrative, you aren’t going to change your gear, and your languages are going to stay the same, but maybe some of the tools you once used aren’t as familiar to you as they were in the past.
This section also talks about revisiting traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws when backgrounds change, as well as adding two new personality traits to describe the changes that led you to change your background. What I like in this section is that it briefly touches on creating custom features. I am a big fan of customizing this section of the background, to the point that I often write campaign specific leading questions rather than using the standard lists.
Given the emphasis that Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything placed on customizing and revising characters at different levels, this feels like the perfect time to revisit the concept of backgrounds and frame them as something more fluid. Making backgrounds more “active” also makes them feel like an element of who your character is, rather than a step in the character creation process.
Advanced backgrounds are a new concept to this product. The text suggests that a character might adopt an advanced background somewhere between 5th and 9th level but leaves the exact details up to a player and the Dungeon Master. Once the character completes an important goal tied to their background, it may be time to pick up an advanced background.
There is a list of Player’s Handbook backgrounds and what advanced backgrounds they will most likely move into, although the system seems flexible enough that you should be able to use various additional/third party backgrounds and find an advanced role that would make sense both for the background and the developments of a campaign.
The product then details some advanced backgrounds, which include the following:
- Brigand Leader
- City Shadow
- Famed Captain
- Living Saint
- Palace Guard
- Throne Claimant
Each of the backgrounds includes two elements. One is a “social standing” element, reflecting how your evolved background ties you into the world in which you interact, and the other is a skill-based ability, revolving around a skill application cogent to the background’s story. This might allow you to name contacts, know particular information about society or political situations, substitute a particular skill for another skill in the right circumstances, or the ability to make a particular check to discern information in a given circumstance.
Some of these abilities are situational “passive” abilities, like “at the right place, at the right time, you can use this instead of this,” but others are “per proficiency bonus” abilities, like “make this check to learn this thing you might not otherwise be able to determine.” In several cases, when you are given the ability to discern information that might be beyond a character’s usual capabilities, there is a constrained list of questions you can ask related to the topic, not unlike various information gathering moves in Powered by the Apocalypse games.
I like having “guard rails” for some of these questions, and I appreciate seeing the more recent “per proficiency bonus” game design being integrated into the design here. Reading through the various advanced backgrounds puts me in mind of different setting elements, and of the evolving roles certain characters have over the course of a long running fantasy series (going from a Noble to a Magnate is something Eddard Stark probably regrets). Some of these do push the campaign in a certain direction, or they do assume certain campaign elements are in evidence, so unlike some other character choices, advanced backgrounds might be an element that a character wants to discuss with the group before they assume a particular option.
In addition to advanced backgrounds, we get some background adjacent downtime options. These options follow the same format as the downtime options included in Xanathar’s Guide To Everything, being expressed in work weeks, having suggested complications, and in some cases, the option of spending more downtime or gold to gain a bigger bonus on a roll made to resolve the downtime.
We get new rules for recruiting NPCs, either for an individual, or for an agent acting for a larger organization. We also get downtime rules for training existing NPCs to make them more hardy, better combatants, or to grant them new skill proficiencies. In addition to these rules, there are some guidelines on when to use standard NPCs, and when to use Sidekicks from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
I am particularly fond of the Weekly Wages for Followers chart, with a guide to CR, and different rates based on if the NPC has a combat or non-combat roll to fill.
I have started making lists of wages and more “active” background features for my own campaigns, and honestly, I feel like this product does what I was trying to do in a manner much more succinct, satisfactory, and in alignment with the 5e rules, that I don’t need to spend any more time tinkering with those larval concepts. Heroes of Baldur’s Gate, Odyssey of the Dragon Lords, and Legendlore all play with adding additional rules to supplement backgrounds, but all those lean into “destinies” rather than advancing an ongoing, open ended narrative of who you are right now. While there are definitely going to be campaigns where knowing where you end up is an element you want in the game, there are also emergent narratives that will be better served by just adding more to the summation of who you have been, in the aggregate.
One of the things I have seen with lineage in D&D is shifting more of the design to background passive abilities to more “active” abilities, and this does the same with background. I very much like that design development.
What I’m about to mention is less a criticism, than a wish. As it stands, many of these backgrounds assume that player characters will operate in a campaign setting where there are numerous traditional kingdoms and societal structures (legate, magnate, royal, throne claimant). I have no doubt that a lot of D&D games revolve around those assumptions. That said, the Sword Coast (where most D&D adventures are based), much of Eberron, and a good portion of Exandria have assumptions that revolve more around city states with councils or other government structures. What I would love to see is more backgrounds that look at the kind of advanced backgrounds that might stem more from stories set in Lankhmar or decentralized “Points of Light” offerings.
I would love to see a follow up product that touches on some of the non-Player’s Handbook backgrounds, using them as the basis for more Advanced Backgrounds, as well as potentially touching on some of the paradigms established in Eberron, the Magic settings, or even some of the societal structures that might be emergent in the Demiplanes of Dread.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I think this idea is great. I’m excited about it, and while I wish there were more of these, I also think that the ability to mix and match a social facing background ability with a skill based ability is going to give people a lot more flexibility in filling in the gaps that they might have.
This does a great job of taking ideas and making them fit into the established paradigm of D&D 5e design, while also jumping on and implementing new design vectors of the game. If I had my preference, this would be an “official” optional system added into the game in the next “Everything” supplement, and I’m likely going to be using it for my next D&D game.