Another reason I like the Background system of 5e is that it mitigates the need for the Rogue/Thief class. Since various backgrounds grant characters skills that normally are filled by the thief, the class has become redundant. This got me thinking about what other classes might be made redundant and I came to an interesting conclusion: it is possible to get rid of all of the classes except for the original three and express them all with Backgrounds.
This, of course, necessitates doing something with the 5e skill system, which I have said before is not something that is necessary to interpret as a pure skill system. I propose that these “skills” are actually broad Areas Of Expertise (AOE). Rather than telling players what their character can’t do (as I would argue a traditional skill system does, even the Thief skills from early editions of D&D), these suggest to players what their characters can do.
Here is the difference: a skill system defines what each skill is and then tells players when they can’t do something (when they fail a roll or fail to have the proper skill). An AOE, as I envision it, is a means for a player to argue that their character should succeed at a particular task.
For example: a character with Survival finds himself on a ship needing to lash down the sails in preparation for a storm. The player can then come up with some story from their character’s previous life that would justify saying Survival allows his character to succeed:
There was this time during a bad rainstorm that Bessie got caught in a gulley underneath a fallen tree branch. I’m gonna use the same knots that we used to pull that branch up to lash down the sails.If the story or the reasoning is sound, no dice need to be rolled and yet another layer is added to the history of the character.
I am thinking of giving every character four AOEs: two based on their character class and two based on their backgrounds. This allows me to break up the skills of 5e into three categories: Class Skills, Non-Class Skills and Tool Skills.
Each class would have four skills that are not available to the other two classes:
- Cleric: Insight, Medicine, Persuasion, Religion
- Fighter: Athletics, Animal Handling, Intimidation, Perception
- Magic-user: Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature
This leaves six skills and nine tool skills that are only available through a background. Thus, it would make sense to have nine backgrounds that would allow a character access to two Non-Class Skills and one Tool Skill as well as one extra Class Skill. I named these nine Backgrounds after various classes that have popped up in D&D throughout the years:
- Assassin: Poison (Tool Skill), Deception & Stealth (Non-Class Skills), Investigation (Class Skill)
- Barbarian: Gaming (Tool Skill), Performance & Survival (Non-Class Skills), Insight (Class Skill)
- Bard: Instrument (Tool Skill), Acrobatics & Performance (Non-Class Skills), History (Class Skill)
- Druid: Herbalism (Tool Skill), Deception & Sleight of Hand (Non-Class Skills), Animal Handling (Class Skill)
- Illusionist: Forgery (Tool Skill), Acrobatics & Deception (Non-Class Skills), Persuasion (Class Skill)
- Monk: Navigation (Tool Skill), Acrobatics & Sleight of Hand (Non-Class Skills), Athletics (Class Skill)
- Paladin: Artisan (Tool Skill), Performance & Survival (Non-Class Skills), Religion (Class Skill)
- Ranger: Disguise (Tool Skill), Stealth & Survival (Non-Class Skills), Nature (Class Skill)
- Thief: Thieves’ Tools (Tool Skill), Stealth & Sleight of Hand (Non-Class Skills), Intimidation (Class Skill)
Note: This leaves three skills that are class specific: Medicine (Cleric), Perception (Fighter) and Arcana (Magic-user).
Also note: All of these categories are intended to be very broad, and thus while some AOEs don’t seem to fit, they can easily be explained by moving slightly beyond the old D&D class title. For example: Deception and Sleight of Hand don’t seem to go with Druid very well; however, if you understand the Druid to be akin to a faith-healer, hedge-mage or veterinarian these things begin to make sense. Deception can be useful when someone who needs to hear good news in a time of disease and epidemic. Sleight of Hand can be used to describe a surgeon’s hands as well as a pick-pocket’s.
To round things off, each background would come with it a type of contact that a character could reach out to in times of need.
If one wanted to go full-on Classic Traveller, it would be a simple matter to create a table to randomize both the Background (a d10 where a ‘0’ represents Player/Referee choice) as well as the skills. A d6 can be used to determine two skills at once with the following pattern where A, B, C and D represent the four skills associated with a Class or a Background:
1: A + BThis would result in some really weird combinations that would force players to be creative, so I would love to use it myself, but I expect most players would prefer to just choose.
2: A + C
3: A + D
4: B + C
5: B + D
6: C + D
I am making a b/x-5e hack, "into the unknown" where I am riffing on similar themes with proficiency. except I dumped skills as requiring too decision points during character creation and basically make class and background each their own "Proficiency area". And the way I am going makes it pretty simple to subsume all the various classes under the basic four ones (I like rogues).
Here's a few samples on how I adjucate proficiency:
Everyone Can Try Anything
When trying to determine if your character can do a given task, the golden rule is as follows:
Everyone can, more or less, try anything.
Think of the baseline for a 1st level adventurer to be a young Indiana Jones, minus the archaeology bit, adjusted for attributes, background and class.
In other words, never assume that you can’t do something because it is not on your sheet.
Assume that you can because you’re an adventurer!
Adjucating Proficiency Areas
Since proficiency areas are rather broad, some groups may find it hard to determine when to give proficiency or not – It may even devolve into hard negotiating sessions where players constantly argue for why their background should make them proficient in just about anything tangenially related to their profession.
In the end, the GM is the final arbiter, but a rule of thumb to use is this: If a proficiency area could grant proficiency, it probably doesn’t. If it should, it does. In other words, the defining aspects of an area give proficiency, not periphery tasks that one could imagine might have seen use under that area.
Nonetheless, it will not be terribly unbalancing either if the GM errs on the side of granting proficiency. The Bounded Accuracy of the game means that bonuses from being proficient are roughly in the same ballpark as being naturally talented (high attribute). Some GMs may even encourage players‘ to argue for proficiency as a way of developing their backstory.
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