Tuesday, August 3, 2010

White Box House Rule: Backgrounds

For my upcoming white box S&W game I'll be using character backgrounds as an option. I like this concept since characters will still fit on a 3x5 character sheet but be given a good deal more flexibility and "crunch" for players who like a few extra choices.

Before I get into the backgrounds I need to explain how I am planning on dealing with most actions requiring a die roll. For most situational encounters I'm planning to use a d6 action resolution system where the GM sets the challenge level. Higher will be better and the player must achieve result greater than or equal to the challenge level with modifiers added in.

Challenge Levels:
1-3: Routine
4: Moderate
5: Challenging
6: Difficult
7: Heroic
8-10: Legendary


+1 for relevantly high stat
-1 for relevantly low stat
+1 for use of Background pump
+2 for use of Background Double Pump

A couple of points about this system:

1 - don't make characters roll for routine checks if you think it would be routine for the PC's to succeed unless there is a special way that the PC's could succeed. You could have them roll against a higher difficulty level - if they fail they succeed at the task because it was routine for them, however, if they succeed at the higher level difficulty they can get extra information or some extra bonus because of that.

2 - You shouldn't need to use a lot of extra modifiers - just move the challenge level up and down to reflect the circumstances. It may be routine for a character with the RANGER background to track ogre tracks, but it may be hard for him to follow them if they move into a stream, or along rocky cliffs where there are no imprints, or if it is raining really hard and the earth is sloshy. Just adjust the difficulty modifier.

3 - Use the character's background in determining the difficulty level (more about backgrounds and their powers later). A character with the soldier background may have a routine or moderate difficulty level against knowing the crest of an opposing army, but he probably has a legendary challenge level to decode the necronomicon.

Typical challenge levels for dungeon feats - I would set most secret doors, traps, hear noises, climb walls, etc... at a 4-5 difficulty (moderate to challenging) - you can then modify it up or down depending on roleplaying of the characters.


I'm planning to allow the characters to take backgrounds at the start of their character. Humans will get two slots and non-humans only 1 slot, this is to reflect the versatility of the human race and also offset some of the racial bonuses that non-humans get.

A character background should be a single word, a short statement, or at most a sentence. The player can work with the GM to detail what a background is "good for" - these backgrounds can be a lot like Risus cliches or typical subclasses

Example Fighter backgrounds that are sub-classes: Soldier, Thief, Ranger, Knight, Paladin, Buccaneer, Swashbuckler, etc.. Example cleric sub-classes: paladin, druid, mystic

Alternatively you could use a short phrase or sentence like: Bastard Son of the King, Backgammon enthusiast, Seeking Revenge against the Serpent Cult, Born in the Saddle, etc...

After you get the language for a background, and work out what they could typically be used for, you assign one or more available slots to the bckground.

Each "slot" in a background can typically be used once per play session or adventure (the DM decides the "refresh rate"). To use a slot, you must explain to the DM how you think your background applies in a situation and then you can affect the following:

1. Re-roll any one roll.
2. Ask the GM to re-roll any one roll (if it was a hit, it must be before damage is rolled, but you could also ask the GM to re-roll a damage roll).
3. Gain a +20% to any non-damage die roll (+1 on a d6, +4 on a d20, or as close as it can be approximated).

Players can use these twice in the same die roll (to get a +2 on a d6 action resolution roll, or a +8 on a d20 attack roll) but they will be "burning" more of their power quicker in the adventure...

I think as the characters advance I'll give them one more slot (to use in a new background or add to an old background "strengthening" it) maybe every 5-6 levels? So if they had 2 slots in "Knight" they could either take a third slot in Knight or add on another background at 5th or 6th level. New backgrounds must be explained in some way and "mesh"with the overall character concept.

Also, I think there will be a lot of subtle use of these backgrounds in determining the relative challenge levels for my action resolution system. Sneaking past the palace guards would perhaps be of moderate difficulty for the character with the thief background wearing soft leather armor, but would be heroic or legendary for the paladin in full plate.

I'm pretty excited about using this system, I think it will be fast and fun.


  1. Ok, this is *very close* to what I was thinking about for using Risus cliches to augment Swords & Wizardry. Bravo. I'd love to hear how it works in play.

  2. That's cool about you thinking down the same road. I think swords and wizardry is just stripped down enough to allow tacking on other rules tweaks. Risus type cliches are a really good method of action resolution and a cliche is extremely efficient in capturing the "essence" of a background or sub-class without creating a list of 100 skills that are bound up in that phrase.