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Backgrounds & Skill Checks


Selecting your backgrounds is one of the fun parts of character creation where you get to make up story elements to add to the game. Each background is a piece of your character’s history that contributes to your character’s ability to succeed with non-combat skills.

Instead of assigning points to skills as with other d20 games, in 13th Age you assign a certain number of points (varying by class) to backgrounds. With backgrounds, you still choose how to allocate a certain number of points that function as bonuses to d20 skill rolls. But these points aren’t pegged to individual skills. Instead you put them into backgrounds, which are broad categories of experience (cat burglar, for example) rather than specific implementations of that experience (climbing and hiding).

Backgrounds don’t sync to a specific ability score, though some backgrounds obviously may get used more often with certain ability scores than others.

Assigning Background Points
The number of background points you get is based on your class (see page xx for class chart). For example, the fighter allocates 6 points, while the rogue allocates 10 points. Assign your background points to as many backgrounds as you want, up to your total points. You can assign a maximum of 5 points to a single background (and minimum of 1).

When you roll a skill check to find out if you succeed at a task or trick, the GM generally tells you which ability score is being tested. Then you (or in rare cases the GM) choose the background you think is relevant to gain the points you have in that background as a bonus to the skill check. In rare cases, the GM may tell you that the background you’re arguing for isn’t actually relevant and that you won’t get to add the background points to the skill check. In other rare cases, your roleplaying approach to the situation and the background you’ve suggested using may change the GM’s assessment of which ability score should be tested as the basis of the check.

Most skill checks require your skill check to equal or beat a Difficulty Class (always abbreviated as DC) that’s set by the environment you are operating in order to succeed. Other d20-mechanic games use a variety of ways to set skill check DCs; as you’ll see on page XX in the Environments & Skill Check DCs section, we mainly care about whether your character is in an adventurer-tier environment, a champion-tier environment, or an epic-tier environment. Low-level characters can stray into areas they don’t belong, but they shouldn’t expect to succeed with many skill checks there.

Making Skill Checks:
D20 + relevant ability modifier + Level + the number of points in a relevant background vs. a DC set by the environment

You can’t apply multiple backgrounds to the same check; the background with the highest bonus applies. For example, if Silke has “Traveling Acrobat +2” and “Cat burglar +4,” she could get a +2 bonus to checks to tumble and a +4 bonus to checks to pick a lock. If both backgrounds applied equally to a situation (such as a check to balance in a precarious place), she would use the +4 bonus, not add them together for +6

Skill Check Example
Kasarak the half-orc wizard grew up in the wild mountains north of Axis and trained as an assassin in the service of the Three before breaking free of his masters’ hold and making his way into the service of the Emperor.

As a wizard, Kasarak has 8 points to put into backgrounds. Kasarak’s player decides to split the 8 points as follows:

ï‚· Imperial Mage +4
ï‚· Tooth of the Black Fang (assassin training in the service of the Black Wyrm) +3
ï‚· Wild Mountain Tribe +1

Kasarak is a 3rd-level adventurer, and he has to spend a night alone on top of a mountain waiting for a griffin courier from the Emperor. The GM decides that even repeated castings of light spells aren’t going to help Imperial Mage make any difference, and asks Kasarak to make a Con skill check using his Wild Mountain Tribe background to avoid being damaged by a night of exposure on the cold slopes. Kasarak says, “Well, yeah, this is no big deal to my people, but I’m even better than you’d think at waiting in terrible conditions because that was part of my training with the Black Wyrm; the most important part of being an assassin is being able to wait until the moment to strike, and often you have to wait in the worst places where no one expects you.”

The GM buys it and tells Kasarak’s player that Kasarak can use his Black Fang background, so the player rolls a d20 and adds +3 for Black Fang, +3 for Kasarak’s level bonus, and the half-orc’s Con mod of 1, a total bonus of +7 vs. the normal adventurer tier environment DC of 15. If the DM thought the mountain was particularly nasty it would be a hard check, a DC of 20.

Choosing Your Backgrounds
Most players choose backgrounds that help them make sense of their character’s past. If you’re stuck, think about jobs your character has had. If you’re still stuck, give the job a setting. Still stuck? Use the short list of backgrounds below or the lists at the start of each class section.

The fun of roleplaying diverse characters is figuring out how your background might help in unexpected ways. GMs can interpret backgrounds benevolently or rule out cheesy ploys. 13th Age isn’t about min-maxing, so background and skill use is meant to be about fun in-character methods of attempting to advance the plot.

Some players will want to choose backgrounds that correspond to their character’s class. The most boring way to do that is to say Well, I’m a fighter, so I’ll put 4 points into a fighter background.” We usually don’t settle for that in our games. Instead we ask players to figure out what type of fighting their characters did in the past. Did the fighter learn weapons as a gladiator? A bounty-hunter? A bodyguard? Or perhaps as a former sentient magic weapon turned into a dwarf as a reward for long service (which would probably also involve the character’s one unique thing!). So long as the GM agrees, you should feel free to create a background story about a group that the character was part of or perhaps a special magic or monastic style that’s part of the character’s past.

On Languages
It’s a staple of our fantasy games that most everyone can speak the same language (call it common) while individual races and monsters have their own preferred languages (elven, dwarven, orcish, gnollish, etc.) and that there are even stranger Big Languages in the world (magic languages, god tongues, Abyssal, etc.). Our attitude toward languages is that you should pay attention to them when it’s cool and ignore them when it’s not. Is it cool that the orc berserker screams “Many parts are edible!” in orcish as he attacks? Absolutely. Is it cool if no one understands the battlecry? Not so much.

So we assume that most everyone speaks a common tongue and that when people say things in other languages, anyone with a relevant background should be able to speak enough of the language to piece it together, especially if they have backgrounds that make that more likely.

Choose the Relevant Ability Score
For players, the point of this background/skill system to is to encourage roleplaying and creative solutions to problems. For the GM, it’s the chance to make all of the ability scores matter at one time or another.

The wizard won’t be able to solve all her problems with her high Intelligence when her attempt to run across the floor without stepping on fluctuating ley lines requires a Dexterity skill check using her magecraft background. The same problem confronting the rogue might be a Dexterity check using his thief background.
A fighter might use his Wisdom in combination with his gladiator training or a tribal champion background to figure out which enemy is most dangerous while the conversation is still going on among the party and NPCs. A bard with a good line of patter might be able to learn the same thing with a Charisma check using her conwoman background to get one of the enemies to point out who their strongest warrior is.

Natural 20s and Fumbles with Skill Checks
When a PC rolls a natural 20 with a skill check, the GM should feel free to give that character a hell of a lot more success than the player expected.

When a PC rolls a 1 with a skill check, the skill check fumbles and fails, perhaps in a particularly bad way. But a failure isn’t always entirely terrible. . . .
Updated by :Robert (Jackoftales) on November 13, 2013 08:41