Last Thursday I put a post up here talking about how I approached designing the lineage options in Green Lineages, specifically aurx, and I thought we’d follow that up with some discussion on the other end of the spectrum, how I approach designing backgrounds.
I love backgrounds. I think they have loads of potential and are an oft-underestimated part of character creation – the background feature can do a lot to add flavour to a character, and I really like the Personality Traits/Ideal/Bond/Flaw system for informing a character’s personality. That’s not to say they’re perfect, I think a lot of the potential gets left on the table most of the time and I’m not convinced those four characteristics are the most useful four for a player, but I still really like them and wanted to try show off some of that missed potential in the ones in Green Lineages. We did aurx last week, so let’s take a look at the verdant background – the Verdant Copsetender!
Proficiencies & Equipment
I think these are fairly self-explanatory, I’m not sure if there’s much to talk about them. The verdant background is for someone (verdant or otherwise) that grew up in verdant society in the woods, they’re probably close to the natural world, so you get proficiency in Animal Handling and Nature, as you’d probably expect.
Backgrounds in 5E always have two skill proficiencies and either two tool proficiencies, two languages, or one tool proficiency and one language. Verdant copsetenders take the latter option, gaining Sylvan (the language of the verdants) and a proficiency in one artisan tool of their choice. There’s probably only a handful of artisan tools used in verdant society, I don’t imagine they do much masonry or blacksmithing, but maybe you do! I wanted to keep it broad to spark imagination – maybe in your world, verdants smith out of wood or something and the skills are transferrable to metal, that sounds cool to me!
Background equipment usually only gives you four or five things, one of them’s almost always clothes and one’s almost always gold, and I think you miss a trick having the rest as fairly ‘generic’ stuff (I guess it depends on the background), so I gave a verdant copsetender a plant, sapling or seed entrusted to them, and an intricate wooden trinket. Those feel very flavourful to me and one of them comes with a story hook! What plant have you been entrusted with? Why?
That’s basically what my attitude to backgrounds comes down to – they feel like a great vehicle for story hooks and I rarely see them used that way. Most of the time they seem to be chosen at character generation and then largely forgotten about which I’d like to see change.
Background features either come to me really easily or with a lot of trouble, apparently not anywhere in the middle. The copsetender’s was pretty fast, the aurc tribesperson’s took a little longer, but this is what the verdant background wound up with:
Feature: Warden of the Trees
The forests of the world recognise you as a protector and work mysterious magic to shield you from harm. You can always find a safe place to rest in a forest where none will hurt you.
The idea is that the copsetender has spent so much time working in service of the forests that the raw, primal magic of these places recognises you as a friend and works to protect you. What does that mean? I dunno, but it sounds exciting! Maybe it means you just happen to always find a great tree to sleep in, or there’s somehow always an obfuscatory mist around where you make your camp that evening. Maybe the forest literally twists and moves to protect you!
I wanted a feature that would be flavourful but also come up reasonably often and be useful. A lot of background features can be one or other of them at the expense of the other, but I suspect (obviously it varies with campaign heavily, same as most background features) this is the sort of thing that won’t come up every session but will be a neat moment when it does. I can imagine a party deciding to travel through the forest than through the mountains because they’ll be safer that way.
The feature deliberately makes use of more natural language so that GMs can adjudicate what exactly that all means. If your campaign is set entirely in a forest, you may need to tone back exactly what “none will hurt you” means. I’ll keep an eye on feedback in case it needs to be more specific.
Suggested characteristics is where I spend most of my time when designing backgrounds, I know a lot of the time you see custom backgrounds that just point to an existing background’s characteristics as being ‘close enough’, but I like a table and I have my own approach to these. Sort of. I don’t know if approach is the right word.
Personality traits are kind of nebulous, in my experience there’s a lot of overlap between traits and flaws (what is a flaw if not a personality trait, after all) depending on how you choose to look at things, I think ‘quirk’ is closer to how I think of these. A couple of examples from the copsetender are background are “I stop and water every plant that needs it. Every single one.” and “My copse had a small population and being in large crowds makes me uncomfortable.”
My approach with the copsetender was to think about how verdant society differs from, say, human society, and how those differences might manifest. Verdant copses tend to the plants around them and so someone from one might continue that trend with the plants they come across. Verdant copses have small populations and so someone from one might find large crowds worrying. They might also find the opposite! I hope that the personality traits given would help inspire people to come up with their own examples that might fit their idea of their character better.
When I design background Ideals I like to make sure there’s options for each alignment in there. I know alignment is a contentious subject but I think you can get the best and worst people from all walks of life, and it’s a fun challenge trying to see how a background might reinforce each alignment. In the copsetender this is a good-aligned ideal of Empathy (I think we can agree empathy is a good thing), the chaotic ideal of Independence, the lawful ideal of Tradition (verdants feel like they’d have lots of traditions given how long they live), and the evil ideal of Wrath, a copsetender that’s enraged by how ‘civilization’ pollutes the natural world and is set on working to tear it down.
I know that last one gets into contentious territory given the state of the world right now but I definitely feel there’s more Good ways of trying to deal with that issue than getting all wrathful. But also that it’s a perfectly plausible reaction for someone in that environment to have and would make for an interesting story.
Bonds are probably my favourite of the four characteristics we have to work with, and I think these are extremely fertile ground for seeding stories, when I make a Bond table for a background I do my best to ensure every option comes with some kind of story hook: a cospetender travelling the land in search of a cure for a loved one, a copsetender entrusted with the last seeds of an endangered plant, or one whose copse was wiped out and travels the land trying to make it right.
My hope is that no matter which bond you choose (or get, if you roll, I don’t know how people usually choose them), it immediately prompts questions, the answers to which would make for interseting stories at the table. Who wiped out your copse and why? Who is sick and what do you need to get for them? What would you do to find it?
Like I said earlier, I feel like there’s substantial overlap between Personality Traits and Flaws, even though I think flaws are perhaps the most important characteristic on here for a character. I approached these in basically the same way as the personality traits: what is different between verdant and human society, and how might those differences create a specifically negative character trait?
With the copsetender, we wind up with a character who doesn’t perceive time the same way as others and doesn’t act with urgency, or one that’s spent so much time meditating that they’re arrogant and condescending to others, or one that’s picked up a number of vices present in other societies.
Again, I think the difference between a personality trait is largely in the eye of the beholder and how they see the world, so many of the flaws could also probably be personality traits and vice versa.
Overall, while I love the idea of the four different character trait categories, I’m not convinced they’re the best four we could possibly have. I’ll keep using them until such time I feel peopel will put up with me using different ones, but hopefully that gives you an insight into how I approach designing them, as well as the other aspects of a background.
If you’ve yet to pick up your copy of Green Lineages, you can head over to our store or DriveThruRPG and grab your copy. I have also got it converted into a Fantasy Grounds module, I’m just waiting for the last bits of admin before that’s readily available for folks. Thanks for reading!