If I were to pick a fantasy author whose work I love and have read avidly but had the least impact on the way I play D&D, that author would be Fritz Leiber. When I first discovered Appendix N in the 1e DMG, the first books I went out and got were Leiber’s stories about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. After reading them, I stopped looking to Appendix N for inspiration because Leiber demonstrated to me the serious limitations of D&D and I didn’t want to be further disappointed by anything else on that list.
I don’t know anybody that doesn’t have that literary hero that they want to emulate in D&D. For a lot of guys I grew up playing D&D with, that character was Drzzt Do’Urden. (Not so coincidentally, he is also the reason I don’t like using drow in any campaign I run). For me, that character has long been Leiber’s Gray Mouser. Unlike all the Drzzt fans, however, there was no easy way for me to play the Gray Mouser in D&D.
Sure, I could play an elven Magic-user Thief, or dual-class with a human or multi-class in some of the newer versions of the game…but none of those options would be the Gray Mouser from 1st level. Given the fact that most long-running campaigns I have ever taken part in end around 5-7th level, the effort to go dual- or multi-class never really appealed.
Thus, I had avoided all things Leiber in my D&Ding because it reminds me of what I can’t do. That is, until now.
In my opinion, the most important mechanical innovation that 5e has brought to the table is the Background. Not only does it offer up some interesting backstory to a character, but it expresses this story with some mechanics — a couple of proficiencies and a kind of perk that come with the territory. When I first read through the SRD to see how I would use it, my first impulse was to declare the that Rogue class is no longer mechanically necessary. All of the things a thief/rogue brings to the table can be handled through the Background mechanic.
In other words, I can finally play the Gray Mouser from 1st level on. Human Wizard/Sorcerer/Warlock with a Criminal Background. Done. Finally.
The Background Mechanic doesn’t stop there, though. As I was editing down the 5e SRD to make Ba5ic, I came to realize that 5e doesn’t really understand what it has in the Background mechanic. I can completely understand why — the game is tied to classes that have existed since the 70s and it can’t really jettison those traditions. In redacting the SRD, however, I kept finding myself asking the question: What if we did?
This is why Ba5ic only has three classes: the Adept, Expert and Warrior. These are simply generic mechanical chassis upon which to place Backgrounds that result in truly literary characters: Sorcerers that can’t cast magic, for example.
In other words, the Background mechanic is a means of making D&D into a set of mechanics that can be used to create a plethora of concepts. The reason I could never play Gray Mouser was that D&D has always been about concepts that have mechanics to justify them. While that works and has done so for decades and (hopefully) decades more, I have always chaffed at the limitations that such frameworks operate under. While the concept might be really cool, I have usually found myself wanting a different concept that the mechanics can’t always handle.
Long-time readers of this blog will know that my go-to Supers RPG is Champions. Regardless of how many excellent Super RPGs have come out over the years (and there are many — V&V will always have a place in my heart), Champions just does it better. The reason is simple: it is a game of mechanics that invites you to dream up concepts to place upon those mechanics. Thus, instead of a Firebolt (which uses the same basic mechanic as a bunch of other offensive spells in D&D), Champions has Energy Blast, which is explicitly those mechanics, without the flavor text of “You hurl a mote of fire at a creature or object within range.” I am free to think of those mechanics as anything from a Fireboat to a flying rocket-propelled fist.
Used in the right way, Backgrounds could very well be a means by which to strip D&D of its concepts and leave only mechanics and an invitation to go wild with our imagination.
While I think Ba5ic falls short in this lofty vision, I think it is a step in that direction. I feel justified in saying this because my oldest decided to start her first D&D campaign as a DM with her friends. Knowing that she probably couldn’t get away with not doing 5e, she asked if she could borrow both my Essentials Rulebook and my (now rough draft) copy of Ba5ic. She pitched both to her friends and they chose Ba5ic because they felt they could have (and I quote) “weirder” characters.
Ba5ic should be generally available in printed format soon.
16 minutes ago