Backgrounds Are Important – By Ben Clemmer.
It’s been a busy couple of weeks for the Storytelling Breakdown team. Our most recent episode on films for different Halloween eras is an informative listen regardless of when you listen. We’ve got another 362 days until Halloween.
The episode features a Spotlight from Ella Abbott, who in addition to coordinating SB social media, also produced a Halloween special for her own podcast last year. Listening to Coffee & Cryptids is a joy.
Caleb and I, along with Stephen Stachofsky, recorded a conversation with 89.1 WBOI’s Julia Meek about our Halloween episode and included one scoop that can now be more formally announced.
Stephen Stachofsky will become a full time co-host of Storytelling Breakdown starting in 2022.
*For our listeners, you’ve heard Stephen on Cinematic Icons: Halloween Eras, Rogue Producers: A Star Wars Story, the Spotlight with Casey Stombaugh for Meyer Productions Presents: The Clemmer Cut #RestoreTheSnyderVerse, and the Spotlight for Episode IV: The Foresight To Retain International Merchandising Rights. Those have all been amazing highlights and examples of Stephen’s thoughtful ideas and love of stories.
And in some cases, our really long titles.
Adding Stephen to the hosting ranks is an easy decision, not just because of what he’s already done for Storytelling Breakdown and will do, but because of how far back we go. I have known Stephen since our sophomore years of high school, competing in speech and debate for North Side (him) and Bishop Dwenger (me). We reconnected in college and knowing Stephen’s background coming into all of this made collaborating with him an even more exciting prospect. He’s also written several fantastic blogs on Darth Vader, the Star Wars Expanded Universe, stories to share with his children, film soundtracks, playing video games, and several blogs (the first being numbers 6, 7, and 8) on Dungeons & Dragons.
With those last ones, Stephen created a monster, at least with me. At the beginning of 2021, when Caleb and I recorded our community update episode and talked about RPGs, I had played D&D before but I had never tried to DM a game. I know how to DM the Fate Core system. I had played D&D 4th edition, but running a game in 5th edition was intimidating as hell. I went through an entire campaign in 4e and never really fully understood the system. Playing a wizard in 4e was probably part of my problem. I knew enough to roleplay my character, make checks when needed, and use my spells and weapons in combat. Running D&D combat and learning a system I had limited experience with, 5e, just wasn’t something I felt up to doing.
And then the pandemic gave me more time to myself and Stephen wrote blogs about his own experience attempting to learn D&D 5e. Suddenly I had an opportunity and a roadmap, and I began to study up. I invested in the same core books, pulled out my polyhedral dice set from my 4e days, and began to weave together elements for a campaign. Even though it falls on the DM to bring basically everything in the world to life, I knew familiarizing myself with character creation would be an important early step.
Don’t get me wrong, I am glad that there are websites that make character creation easy. Fill in a few boxes. Choose options from some drop-down menus and you’ve got a character by the end.
But what do you do if you want an option that’s not available on the website?
Yep, I was about to work with as much homebrew content in D&D as I did with Fate Core, if not more… much, much more.
I’ll keep this next part somewhat vague because this character has yet to appear in any campaign, but he was the impetus behind me deciding I wanted to learn to write out a character sheet by hand, using my books and only pulling something off the web if I needed a reference.
I realized for character creation, I only needed three things to guide my way, out of a seemingly endless list of possibilities and combinations. I needed to know my character’s race (would they be a dragonborn, a half-elf, or a halfling?), their class (would they be a paladin, a rogue, or a ranger?) and their background (would they be an acolyte, a haunted one, or an exile?).
Backgrounds are important. Yes, this is a loose connection to what I was talking about earlier with how long I’ve known Stephen, but we’ve had looser connections on this blog.
In studying 5e, much of my early focus was placed on combat and monsters. When I shifted my energies to characters, race, class, abilities, spells, and equipment were a primary focus and I hardly paid any attention to backgrounds. In fact, in going back and forth between a character’s class in the Player’s Handbook (PHB) and their weapons. I was bouncing from chapter three to chapter five, skipping chapter four where backgrounds could be easily found.
I can’t remember when it clicked, but eventually it did, and I realized the background was basically the third leg of a tripod. The background gave you proficiencies that might be completely different from what you picked for your class. There could be overlap allowing you to pick a second, third, or fourth choice on the class list if your background duplicated your top skill picks. As I discovered homebrew subclasses and backgrounds, this made it even easier to flavor individual character aspects (yes, I still use Fate terms sometimes) to the point that what was on the sheet matched exactly who I was picturing in my head. Once I was armed with the race, class, and background, creating characters freehand was easy. Please read that as easy, not quick.
I do still have an online version of my character for Stephen’s campaign, but now that I have a handwritten version of him, I now have another version that I can deploy as an ally to the party for the group I’m running. Granted, he’s a rogue who betrayed the party after a single dungeon crawl, but still, it was amazing to have the option.
Maybe a half-elf rogue wasn’t going to raise red flags, but his background is “haunted one,” so yeah, he’s got issues.
As always, thank you for indulging my thought exercises and listening to the podcast. Look for new episodes on the last Friday of every month.
*Thank you to Brittany Smith for the awesome pictures featuring our hosts, as of 2021.