I’ve recently been reinvigorated by D&D 5th edition to further detail my campaign world that I’ve been DMing in for near on 20 years. I tried in 3.5 and 4, but it was an extremely long and cumbersome process.
I think that this edition has a few simple ways of giving characters a campaign setting feel: Backgrounds, Feats, and Devotional Oaths. Let me show you what I’m thinking!
In prior editions, there seemed to be a ton of work that needed to be done in order to create a unique and flavorful rule set for a D&D game. You’d need feats, Prestige classes, Spells, Magic Items, and varied other little details that would need to be filled out, and hopefully options for each of the 9 or so basic classes. Additionally, they were putting out books at such a prodigious rate, and this continued into 4e, that it was going to be hard to keep up.
5th has both slowed the pace of the releases and has introduced a few ways in which all characters are treated equally, enabling me to feel much more confident that what I do will both have an impact on the character creation, and not be invalidated in just a few months, or worse, weeks.
The first of these simply additions, and one that seems ignored because they are so generic, are backgrounds.
Backgrounds are, in the most basic, what you were prior to adventuring. They also have the interesting ability to add a few details to your character that you’ll always have, and nearly always reference by saying “because I am a,” which feels very strong for providing a campaign systems flavor. The PHB provides a number of rather standard and easy to follow backgrounds that allow you to hit a variety of different conceptual beginnings, and I can’t see removing them from the game and replacing them with your own, instead supplementing them with what you’ve created. Backgrounds like Charlatan, Acolyte, Hermit and Solider will always be a solid choice, no matter the flavor of your setting, and can always be chosen by those less vested in the details of your world. However, there are a lot of interesting and creative ways to encourage your characters to delve into the world.
I’m currently looking at the below Backgrounds:
Thraxian Barbarian – While many barbarians are viewed as simpler, darker beings, the people of Thrax are connected to nature in a surprising number of ways, with even the most brutish of fighters able to gather food and tend to simple wounds.
Black Widows Thug – Once a large and influential network of villains and thieves, the Black widows have a reputation for direct action and a penchant for poisons. While others may lurk in the shadows waiting for the right time to break in undetected, the Black widows simply break.
Killbaran Legionary – With a long and varied history, Killbar’s soldiers are both revered and reviled. Students of war both in the empires heights and now as a broken shell, they take their preferred method of death seriously, learning spear, shield, survival and spells if possible.
Tyndarian Noble – with a hierarchy deeply entrenched and scrupulously detailed, Tyndarian Nobility has persisted in its houses and families for generations. Looked upon with both fear and awe by the peasantry, they not only amass great fortunes and lands, but also lead their charges to battle, vying for some lost chivalric honor.
Hilean Guildthief – In stark contrast to the Black Widows, the city of Hilea’s thieves guilds fight a secret war among themselves vying for power and control over the cities politics in the background of everyday life. Being caught, and worse, being revealed is the worst fate for on of the guildfolk.
Exile – Many of the races on Tysis have suffered greatly, loosing family, friends and even their homelands. These durable, weary and skilled exiles have made their way into the world, plying their trades, negotiating deals and attempting to make a way for themselves.
Brokensail Pirate – Piracy is lucrative, but it takes a special form of piracy in order to keep a dragon from eating your city and all its inhabitants. Pirates from Brokensail are a desperate, gambling lot, but that kind of pressure in your every day life tends to make you grateful for the little things.
I think, and I need to do a lot of work on them yet, that these backgrounds, along with a few others I’m still sorting out, will allow characters starting at any level, to be able to relate better with their characters place in the world and the uniqueness that they have playing in this setting rather than in Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk.
My world has always had a tinge of elemental reasoning to it. Its suffused throughout the lore, the gods, the planes and the opponents almost always have a tinge of the elemental powers.
With the new way feats are presented: As optional ways to refine and reflect your characters choices in life, that the ability to awaken your elemental potential here is really interesting. I’m thinking something along these lines. Some are likely too powerful, but I’m just kinda putting out what comes to mind
Advantage on a thematically related skill check or ability saves
Resistance to Given damage type
Bonus damage (likely proficiency) when using that damage type
Cantrip like ability related to the Element (firebolt, Chill touch, ect)
I might even go so far as to create feats for each nationality, but we will see if it feels needed. I strongly believe it will not.
Finally, something I’ve considered my own, and very much in keeping with the spirit of the setting – The Gods.
My gods are both undeniable and consistently out of reach. They are fighting a war against their hated foes and traitors, the Accursed, but must have favor curried with them, or your body and soul is given over to the demon queen to literally haunt the living. having a patron god is legitimately the only way to prevent your corruption.
But, while it is interesting on some level to have characters simply believe in the gods and have that be part of the character, I also want the characters to be able to call upon the gods, a slight divine favor, a boon, gifted to those who devote themselves.
I think that, upon character creation, when your god is picked, you receive the boon. These boons would act much like a supernatural ability from 3rd, something you can simply do, calling upon the favor of your god, but having it be a willing and, importantly for me, active action. You would literally need to call upon your god for aid and succor.
There are a few I am looking at, differing based on the god, but along the same lines, each 2x day (maybe one use at a time, recharging at a short rest, but that’s possibly to complicated. ), and increasing in efficacy at 6th, 11th, and 16th level.
- Bonus Damage (d6, 2d6, 3d6)
- Bonus AC (2/3/4)
- Resistance to a single damage roll
- Absorb damage from an attack (d8, 2d8.3d8)
- Roll a die and add it to/replace any roll (d4/d6/d20 and replace)
As I said, these are all ways in which I think I can make my game inviting, characterful and unique without having to resort to detailed, balance-altering work. I’ve got a few weeks off from the campaign, so I’m likely to try and get a few of these put to paper in the meantime (at least the gods that my party worships) and see what happens!
What are your favorite ways to customize your campaigns?