13th Age’s move from a Skill-based system to a Background-based system has far greater reach and power than is immediately evident on the first pass. The mechanics can handle a multitude of interesting nuances better than the standard d20 skill lists despite being a much smaller amount of information. In order to make the best use of Backgrounds, there are two key concepts to understand and master.
1) Backgrounds reify story. If you don’t like the word reify, try thingify – they’re synonyms. Backgrounds add mechanical weight to the story you give your character. They’re sort of the 13th Age Higgs boson to use a weird metaphor. You were a low-level imperial soldier before you struck off on your own? Cool. Imperial Soldier +2. You ran an inn before other adventurers showed up and burned it down? Awesome. Resentful Barkeep +3. Anything you did before taking up the adventurer’s mantle is easily converted to a Background.
2) Backgrounds can’t break the game. Go back and read that again. Get it good and deep in your head. Many problems with skill lists in other d20 systems showed up in skill substitutions. It might be super easy to get a crazy Arcana score and then take feats that let you use it for Diplomacy, Bluff, Rope Use, whatever. Suddenly you’re better at all these skills than the people who are supposed to be good at them and are going the normal way to get there! 13th Age’s hard +5 cap prevents that. Skills rolls stay within a predictable range of bonuses and while having a bonus is still better than not having one, not being ‘trained’ in a skill (by having a relevant Background) isn’t going to shut you down.
What about Extra Backgrounding? What if one character has 20 Background points and everyone else has 8? Isn’t “more points” better? The answer is no.. sort of. A character with a single overly generic Adventurer +5 Background could sit down at a table with another character who has 400 Background points in 80 different Backgrounds, but if every roll is limited to a single +5 bump due to Background they’re effectively equal in mechanical power. Neither of these situations are recommended of course, but the hyperbole is helpful in pointing out the resiliency of the system.
Armed now with this perspective, here’s a few interesting tricks you can do with Backgrounds to ramp up the detail, flexibility and fun of your 13th Age games.
Item and Relationship Backgrounds
Backgrounds reify story – any story. They point out the things that help your character succeed at adventuring. Why can’t Backgrounds be items, then? This was exactly the case at one of the official PAX East demos this year. A new player picked up the Bard sheet and after a moment of consideration wrote “Eldritch Flute of Destruction +4” as one of his Backgrounds. After a moment’s explanation to the table, the bard proceeded to tunnel through walls, bend bars, blow open treasure chests and generally be a one-man wrecking crew with his custom “magic item.” It wasn’t helpful in combat of course (you need to get a good twelve, maybe fourteen measures of music out of the thing before stuff really gets shaking) but that didn’t matter. He had a ton of fun laying waste to the dungeon and had there been an actual dwarven miner in the party, they would have been on about equal terms. Consider also a wizard whose backstory may not itself be very interesting (standard academy training and all) but shows up with a Crystal Orb of Scrying +3, a Robe of Illusions +3 and some Ritual Incense +2 as her gear!
If Backgrounds can be items, they can also be other characters. Throw Peter Parker into 13th Age and one of his Backgrounds is bound to be “Uncle Ben”, probably somewhere at +3 to +5, for all those times he needs to call on his dear departed uncle’s wisdom. For a slightly more in-genre example, Mulan might have a “Mushu +2” Background for when she needs to steal a small item, make someone laugh or start a fire.
If the number of Backgrounds available to a character and the resulting power of that character aren’t mathematically related, a GM could allow rolls during non-combat scenes to create multiple temporary Backgrounds as resources for the party. The ranger tracks some desired quarry through the woods and since her roll was well over what was needed for the tracking effort, earns a “Clear Path +3” temporary Background. Later, the mummy escapes from the tomb and the PCs need to hightail it to safety. The Ranger probably doesn’t need any help navigating through the trees but the Cleric and Paladin clad in plate mail would probably love to use that +3 to further secure their getaways. Before the group goes back the Wizard researches the mummy’s magic, picking up a “The Mummy’s Illusions +2” temporary Background. That Background saves the Fighter’s hide when confronted with what is supposedly a GIGANTIC red dragon. These sorts of little boosts are nice rewards since 13th Age isn’t terribly interested in mundane treasure and the economics of arms manufacturing.
A tip of the hat is due here to Quinn Murphy and his excellent post on the idea, which you can find here. The idea, in short, is that some Backgrounds might be negatively applied to represent curses or long-term injuries. The adventurer who lands the last blow on the night hag sustains a “Stuttering -2” Background that comes into play whenever social skills are needed. Whether the Stuttering Background replaces the character’s normal Background or merely stacks on top is going to be a call by the GM but could work either way. Perhaps a player dropped to 0 HP and who fails two death saves also racks up a negative background such as “Cracked Rib -2” or “Broken Foot -4” to represent chronic injury. As a quick and dirty fix assume each such Background drops by 1 during a full heal, though a GM should feel free to play with the rules a little so long as everyone knows up front how things are going to work.
A 13th Age game that is flexible with its Backgrounds can even handle more complicated ideas like sanity loss. Imagine a party of heroes staggering out of some portal somewhere. They’ve seen things Mortals Were Not Meant To Know and faced Evils From Beyond Time. You don’t just walk away from that unscathed. Any hero who is down at least two Recoveries needs to make a standard save. If down more than 6 Recoveries, it’s a hard save. Alternatively, have everyone make a standard save but include whatever negative Backgrounds they picked up along the way. Whatever the method, if a character fails that save, he must rewrite one of his Backgrounds to reflect the experience. Thus the Wizard with the “Giant Grimoire +2” now has a Tome of Forbidden Magic +2, the “Treasure Seeker +1” Thief now “Smells Gold And Danger +1” and the “Eager Evangelist +4” Cleric has become an “Apocalyptic Prophet +4.” The characters have maintained their numerical strength, but the change in Background wording affects how skill rolls are explained. Even more amusing, the incremental advance these characters earn could be explained as being ‘unlocked’ or ‘uncovered’ by their slow descent into madness!
Whether you take all or some of these ideas back to your table, the bottom line is to remember that Backgrounds shouldn’t be static. Backgrounds represent vital information about your character’s behaviors, beliefs and situations. Use them boldly to give meaning to the events of your journeys.