D&D 5E Review Part 8: Personality & Background

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Thursday, 31 May 2018 Written by Steve

Holy shit, I’m finally done with classes and races! Let’s get through the rest of this thing! I remember an earlier chapter promising what looked like role-playing mechanics, so hopefully this chapter will have something that’s not just a minor variation on the same game TSR has been repackaging since the 70s. The early pages aren’t especially promising: name, sex, physical description, alignment; All things we’ve seen before. 

Ok, maybe not all things we’ve seen before. In the section on sex (next time on Phil & Dixie!), there’s discussion of playing characters who don’t conform with societal expectations in terms of sex, gender, or sexual behavior, because D&D is Woke AF. Don’t get me wrong: Even if this is purely cynical market-tested virtue signalling, it’s still important at this particular in moment in time. It will probably look horribly outdated and old-fashioned when D&D 18th Edition players dig up the book in 5 or 10 years, but if so that’s a win. The comics industry is still struggling to accept the idea that straight white guys born in the 70s isn’t a market with a lot of growth potential, so it’s nice to see D&D actively trying to ensure that the hobby doesn’t die when its current core demographic does. 

I believe they got rid of “everybody with an Intelligence higher than 11 is massively multilingual” thing in 3E, but if memory serves it kind went in the other direction and made you spend skill slots on languages. I’m comfortable assuming this resulted in most characters just speaking the languages they started with. This edition finds a happy medium by giving characters of certain backgrounds bonus languages. 

Three pages in we move into the “Personal Characteristics” section. Rather than ending with the  traditional “your character can have a personality and catchphrases and mannerisms and stuff” paragraph, this version actually makes some of that stuff part of the character creation rules. Every player starts by choosing two personality traits, though the concept is sort of undercut by the “base them on your ability scores” suggestion. They also choose one ideal that drives the character, so you’ll understand why they’ve taken up a career invading and looting the homes of marginalized creatures. Don’t worry, you can base this one on your alignment if coming up with a character motivation makes your brain hurt. Next up is a Bond, which gives your murderhobo an uncharacteristic-for-D&D connection to other people and the world around him. Where I’ve mainly seen Bonds used to establish links between party members, here the Bond is used to establish a link between the character and literally anything else in the world. Baby steps, I suppose. Last but not least, you pick a flaw. Don’t worry, the flaw can be a vice or just something that pisses you off, so it’s not like you have to make a character who’s vulnerable or sympathetic or anything like that. 

So far this section is just formalizing things that most players do anyway. The new lines on the character sheet have even less effect on the game mechanics than alignment in its current (and preferable, in my opinion) barely-even-a-character-trait form. Inspiration tries to give them some game meaning. Just not much. Inspiration is basically a temporary bennie point that you can use to get a bonus on one roll or give to another character. While I guess it’s admirable that D&D finally acknowledge the idea of giving good role-players some kind of game bonus, the unbelievably limited nature of the rule suggests a pants-shitting fear that giving the players a bonus that isn’t explicitly tied to a character trait will somehow subvert the rightful authority of...random die rolls, I guess? It’s a completely alien mindset that I can’t even begin to understand. 

Throughout most of this chapter, there are sidebars comparing Tika Waylan from Dragonlance to a character name Artemis Entreri, who I felt like I vaguely remembered from one of the many terrible D&D novels I read in high school. In the last sidebar, it’s revealed that he’s Drizzt’s nemesis, so I guess there’s just no escaping R.A. Salvatore. About all the sidebars really accomplish is to establish that two wildly different characters are, in fact, different. I guess WOTC pays by the word. Must be nice. 

The chapter ends with Backgrounds, which have come a long way from the d% table in the original Dungeon Master’s Guide. Now they’re basically mini-classes without levels that you just add on to your existing character, kind of like Kits in the old Complete Splat series (but not tied to a specific Splat). They give you an assortment of bonus abilities, equipment, and other perks. For example, the Acolyte background gives you the Insight and Religion proficiencies, 2 extra languages, a goodie bag full of religious trinkets, and goodwill from the church. For complete thoroughness, I should probably review each of the Background options, but fuck that. There are like 15 of them, and I’d like the finish writing this review before GenCon. 

Next time*: Equipment! You know what that means, don’t you? Those sweet, sweet vision distance and encumbrance rules are right around the corner, baby! 

*Two weeks from now. I’m taking next week off to finish preparing for DieCon

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