D&D 5e PHB Readthrough, Chapter 4: Personality and Background

4 personality types farsideTwenty pages of actual roleplaying-related information in a Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook?  What’s the world coming to?

Welcome to the next in the series of my D&D Fifth Edition PHB readthrough and review. We ground through all the classes last time; now, a lighter chapter.

In many earlier editions of D&D, the extent to which personality and background were covered could be described as:

1. A sentence or two telling you to “make one up”

2. The alignment section – “What else do you need?” Maybe religion and height, weight, and hair color, if you consider those “personality.”

I think both 2e (“alignment only”) and 3e (half a page saying “make up a personality and background and maybe have some tattoos or something”) could be fairly described in this way.

Now, don’t get too excited, hardcore immersionists – since this is D&D, we have to hook rules to this stuff, don’t expect 20 pages explaining the actual art of creating a realistic character or anything.

So first we have a page of name, sex, height/weight, distinguishing marks and scars, just like your PC’s eventual rap sheet. In a move towards inclusivity, in the Sex section they mention that you can be something other than simple M or F, and/or be gay or whatever.

This couple sentences has caused a good bit of squabbling online.  I’ll just say:

1. This is a good thing. Back in the 2e days you couldn’t be black or gay in D&D, so this is a pretty big change. (I joke… Kinda.)

2. If you don’t think this is a good thing, STFU. I am not looking to host a comment war from the anti-gay/woman/tranny/whatever contingent (or the “I’m not anti, I just don’t understand why it has to be brought up…” contingent). Comments below in that vein will be deleted, period. Go talk about it somewhere else if you need to.

Alignment is back to the normal alignments from every edition except 4e, with independent law/neutral/chaos and good/neutral/evil axes.  I wish it said out loud “alignment is a [descriptive] tool, not a [prescriptive] straitjacket” like it does in 2e; the best they do is to note that “individuals may vary.” I assume the arguments about “you’re not playing your alignment!” will continue for another decade. That’s a missed opportunity.

Languages!  You can learn them.  Apparently druid language and thieves’ cant are back, but not, blessedly, alignment languages.

Now to personality.  Besides a couple sentences with some guidance about what makes a good personality trait, you choose Ideals (things you believe), Bonds (relationships), and Flaws (personal problems). Well, one of each at least. The Backgrounds that are to come suggest some of each of these.  Borrowed from modern indie games is the concept of Inspiration; basically you can get a free “use this to get advantage on a roll” token (limit one at a time) for acting according to  your ideals, bonds, or flaws. This is a pretty tentative step – you only pick one of each and it’s up to the DM whether it’s really ever going to come up or not – but I think it’s a healthy, positive step to helping people build characters that are more than a collection of kill points.

Next we have backgrounds, which are mainly bundles of proficiencies, languages, equipment, and suggested characteristics. For example, “Acolyte” or “Entertainer” or “Soldier” or “Urchin.” Or you can “Customize” one (kinda like make up your own, but more oddly worded).

An Aside On Proficiencies

Basically “Proficiency” usually just means “you can add your proficiency bonus to the roll” in 5e, so you don’t have to have skills to try something – but having a skill makes you better at it, and a toolkit lets you do something you couldn’t do otherwise. Many things you’d think of as trained skills aren’t actual skills – if you want to be a woodcarver, you don’t get proficiency in woodcarving, you get proficiency in a woodcarving toolset (though  you can use it without the proficiency, you just don’t get to add your bonus).

This is a little confusing because they don’t have a “Skills” or “Proficiencies” chapter – they just mention all this in passing in various other places. The definitive list of 18 skills finally shows up later in Chapter 7. Proficiencies in armor, weapons,  and tools are explained in Chapter 5 (wearing armor you’re not proficient in gets you disadvantage on attacks and STR/DEX checks and you can’t cast spells in it – yes, if your wizard is proficient in plate you can cast in it fine; weapons and tools just lack your proficiency bonus), and saving throws are explained in Chapter 7 as well.

Anyway, for example, the Urchin background grants proficiency in Slight of Hand, Stealth, Disguise kit, Thieves’ tools, and some gear.  You also get a single special “Feature,” in this case ability to move twice as fast while travelling in the city. Suggested personality traits include”I ask a lot of questions” and “I don’t like to bathe,” suggested Ideals include “Respect” and “Retribution,” suggested Bonds include “I’ll fight to defend my home” and “I owe a debt I can never repay,” and suggested Flaws include “I’ll run away if outnumbered” and “I’d rather kill someone in their sleep than fight fair.”

Oddly, the Ideals get tagged with alignment ties – “Respect” is good while “Retribution” is evil – but other things don’t (“Kill someone in their sleep?”) I wish they hadn’t done that, especially because these all are on random tables for if you want to roll.  If you’re LG and roll “Retribution” what do you do?  I’d expect you’d come up with a LG-complaint version of its “eat the rich” concept, but the alignment tag raises unanswered questions of “So can I not take that, or what…?”  My advice is to ignore that alignment tag on the Ideals.

In conclusion, this is a good chapter and really helps raise the bar on roleplaying in D&D.  My only meaningful concern is that they don’t explain clearly enough that all this – alignment, but the rest too – is all helpful description of a real , complex fictional person and not something a character “must do” – there will be an unlimited number of arguments over “You’re not playing your Urchin right/Lawful Good right/retribution right/etc.”, just because that’s how many clueless gamers have done it over the last 40 years. Recently in 4e we saw this with the roles – “You can’t be a Striker and do X!” I think they should have learned from history and couched this a little better, just so people have to put up with 20% fewer twerps in their future. Any noobs reading this – please just treat these as approximate descriptions of someone’s personality and NEVER EVER get into squabbles of “you can’t do that it’s not your alignment…” You make the world dumber when you do.

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One response to “D&D 5e PHB Readthrough, Chapter 4: Personality and Background

  1. So they are indeed shortchanging Skillls (as the Basic rules led me to expect)?

    Disappointing. 😦

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