Now that I have a few 5e campaigns under my belt, I’ve started feeling like the PHB backgrounds are the one area of the game sadly lacking in diversity. Many of them don’t seem to have very complimentary traits/ideals/bonds/flaws, and rolling randomly can often come up with seemingly contradictory results that require some hand waving and jumping through mental hoops to justify.
So many just don’t make sense or give any kind of synergistic benefits to the majority of classes, so you’re left with hundreds of sage wizards proficient in Intelligence skills (or dextrous casters with a checkered past for the stealth option), charlatan, criminal, and urchin rogues, and soldier fighters/paladins.
I’m going to experiment with allowing my players to come up with their own custom backgrounds with a set of personalized traits/ideals/bonds/flaws. We’ll see how it goes.
Custom background construction rules
Skill Proficiencies: Any 2 (cannot take stealth and perception unless you give up a tool/language)
Tools/Languages: Any combination of 2.
Background Feature: Should be non-mechanical and downtime related. The more flavorful and tied to the background concept, the more leeway I’ll give something that seems a bit more powerful than the norm.
Starting Equipment: One of the kits/tools gained under Tools/Languages worth no more than 50 gp, or one piece of adventuring gear (holy symbols and the like) priced the same, a set of clothes, and up to 4 pieces of adventuring gear or flavorful trinkets worth a total of no more than 50 gp. Again, if these values are at the higher end of the allowed, then I’m going to look for supporting flavor from the background description.
2 Personality Traits: Questions to ask here are “What does my alignment and my background say about my personality.”
1 Ideal: What do I hold most important due to my background and life experience.
1 Bond: Who or what from my background connects me to the campaign world. This can be a person, place, or group.
1 Flaw: What one feature of my personality, related to my background and life experience could my enemies use to exploit me and cause me to act against my own best interests.
I’m interested to see what players would come up with. If the “background” ends up being more of a “backstory” with the mechanics tacked on (but fitting), then so much the better. I’d much rather see “The third son of a widowed and destitute former merchant who fell in with the wrong crowd and was apprenticed to the local temple of justice in lieu of losing a hand for thievery and found his calling as a paladin than another “acolyte” or “criminal”. Granted, there’s nothing preventing someone from using the acolyte or criminal background for that and then choosing traits that match the backstory, but perhaps the player wants Perception as a proficient skill. In this case, during his first week of temple guard duty, his laxity led to a former acquaintance stealing some priceless relic and almost led to his expulsion from the order when they thought him complicit in the theft. Since that day, he has vowed to never lapse in his alertness when on duty.