by Wade Rockett
One of the most frequently-asked questions about 13th Age involves backgrounds; and overwhelmingly, it seems to come from people who have been playing d20 System games for a while.
The question takes different forms, but in essence it’s this:
What stops a player from putting the maximum number of points into a background called “Good at Everything”, breaking the game by giving themselves a +5 bonus every time they do anything that requires a skill check?
Taking the question at face value, the answer is that it’s up to the GM to stop the player from doing that if he or she wishes. The rules say that broad backgrounds are not as good as specific backgrounds for a variety of reasons. And they say that the GM is free to houserule the game as they see fit. But they don’t forbid broad backgrounds.
But as stated, it’s the wrong question. Let’s try it this way:
Is “Good at Everything” a legitimate background in 13th Age?
Taking the intent of backgrounds as read, no.
But if you want to roll up your sleeves and dig into the 13th Age-ness of this game by turning backgrounds into story, then yes.
Why “Good at Everything” is not a legitimate background in 13th Age
Looking at the examples of backgrounds in the 13th Age core book, we can see that they represent things that any normal person could realistically do given the time and opportunity:
Acrobat, alchemist, animal trainer, architect, aristocratic noble, assassin, Cathedral servitor, chef, conwoman, dinosaur hunter, goblin exterminator, hunted outlaw, knight errant, Legionnaire of the 17th [Legion], magecraft, priest, refugee, scout, shepherd, soldier, spy, temple acolyte, thief, torturer, transformed animal, traveling martial arts pupil, tribal healer, tunnel scout, wandering minstrel, warrior poet
No normal person, even a fantasy hero in 13th Age,has the time or opportunity to become good at every single conceivable skill in the world.
But hold on: what about “transformed animal”? Surely that opens the door to someone being supernaturally good at things?
Why yes. Yes, it does. Which leads us to…
Why “Good at Everything” is a legitimate background in 13th Age
If you want the background “animal transformed into a human by magic,” a 13th Age GM will ask you, “Who transformed you, and why? Was it a gift, or a curse? What advantages and disadvantages come from this transformation? Are there any other transformed animals out there? Are they your allies or your enemies? What’s your attitude toward the transformation — do you want to be more human, or would you just as soon go back to being a bear?”
Likewise, “good at everything” has a story behind it. Are you good at everything because an icon magically made you that way? Which one, and why? Were you created to be their instrument? If so, did you rebel and escape or are you still their agent? What kinds of things do they have you do? Are there other “good at everything” Übermenschen out there? Are they your allies or enemies? Is there a demonic ritual that requires sacrificing a “perfect man”, so that evil sorcerers are hunting you?
This is how we recommend you handle a “good at everything” power play. A player pays for their +5 bonus to every imaginable skill check by giving the GM free rein to make their character’s life extremely interesting.
If they’re up for it, the results can be some exciting adventures. If not…maybe they should change that background to something a little safer.