Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The ABCs of Character Origins

Gruff underground dwarves, woodland elves, pastoral hobbits--we all know the stereotypes. Recent versions of roleplaying games have tried to lean into them a little less fully. Allowing them, sure, but also allowing characters to play against type, and build the characters they want.

To that end, the newest version of D&D tied all the ability bonuses to backgrounds, which generally reflect the career you had before adventuring, while making the racial options (now called species) more focused on biological traits rather than cultural ones. For example, by giving dwarves tremorsense, but no longer the usual weapon training. While I appreciate making things more open, I feel like this goes a little too far.  For one, neither background nor species reflect the culture of the character, and I'd like that to have a role.

So rather than just selecting species and background, I think you should build your characters with ancestry, background, and culture.


Ancestry is the term used by Pathfinder 2e, but I think I prefer the word Kind, partly because it fits well--dwarvenkind, elvenkind, and humankind. I don't like species, because it overlooks a key aspect in many fantasy realms: they can interbreed.

I like giving each Kind an ability bonus (with options), a couple of traits, and a decent list of talents (feats) which are specific to them. Here's my first draft for the four main ones: humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings.


Ability: +1 to Fortitude or Will
Traits: Low-light vision and blindsight (10'), Dwarven Toughness (increase levels of fatigue and ignore the penalty for the first two or three levels)

Dwarven Talents: Resistance to Poison, Hard to Knockdown


Ability: +1 to Agility or Mind
Traits: Low-light vision, Ignore 1 level of difficult terrain

Elven Talents: Ranged attacks bonus, Elven magic


Ability: +1 to any
Traits: Extra talent and skill and specialization

Human Talents: Quick learner (additional skills + languages), Dabbler (learn a magic school even if you don't meet pre-requisites)


Ability: +1 to Agility or Will
Traits: Small, Lucky (roll a Fortune die when roll low double)

Halfling Talents: Hard to See, Courageous

I want to get rid of darkvision as it exists in D&D 5e. For one, everyone has it, and two, the way it works based on range from a character doesn't make much sense. Instead, I'd give low light vision, where dim light is treated as bright light, and treat light according to the distance from the source, not from the one seeing it. For complete levels of darkness, I would give dwarves not darkvision, but blindsight. That can have a limited range, as it's specifically understood to not be sight, but to act like sight. Since no one has a way to see through complete darkness, we don't have to worry about magical darkness working against darkvision.

One of things I'd like to do is take some of the features which are iconic traits in other games and make them talents, which are like feats in that you can take them at certain levels. But I won't make players choose between talents and raising their ability scores.

For people who are of mixed-kinds (half-elves, et cetera), I'll let them choose the ability of one kind and one trait from the other (possibly two, if each Kind has at least three traits). But they would have access to all of the talents of both Kinds, as well as a special talent that lets them pick a trait from either parent Kind.


Culture is how someone is raised. It can be connected to their kind, but it doesn't have to be. I'd expect to have cultures such as Dwarf Hold, Elven Forest, Human Town, and Halfling Settlement. But I'd also have other ones, such as City (with the understanding that cities are mostly cosmopolitan, and many Kind settle there), Rural, Wilderness, Seafaring, and Plains. The culture would grant a language, weapon training (often in martial or specialized weapons), perhaps armor training, and +1 to an ability depending on the culture (usually granting a choice between two possible abilities). There would also be a skill and a specialization based on the culture.


Background is an important part of a character's past. It basically represents their career prior to adventuring. They may have been a smith or a miner or a guard or a wizard's apprentice or an acolyte. The background grants +1 to one of two abilities, a skill and specialization related to their background (Labor, Craft, and Profession for a lot of them, but perhaps some of them offer more adventuring skills), and some basic equipment associated with the profession.


When building a character, players select a Kind, a Background, and a Culture. This grants them three ability points, which they can put all in different abilities, the same ability, or spread out, as long as no ability exceeds 4 at least one. Their Culture and their Background should each grant them a skill and a specialization, their culture grants them a language and weapon training, and their Background grants them some basic equipment. This is before selecting a class.

Expert and Expert hybrid classes (Adept and Skirmisher) get the most skills and specializations. But I think that even Warriors, Magi, and Champions get some skills and specializations.

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