13th Age: Backgrounds

13th Age has a lot of things I love and a few things that bug me. I’ll be talking about them in a series of blog posts. The first is a favorite.


Backgrounds are 13th Age‘s answer to a skill system. Say you want to play a thief type. You don’t have to allocate points to picking pockets, climbing walls, sneaking around in the dark, and fast-talking. You just write down “thievery” and you get everything that thievery suggests to you and the GM and the rest of the players. When it’s time to do something a thief would do, like climb a wall, your GM asks you to make a skill check. You pick an appropriate background–in this case, Thievery works well–and explain how you’re using it to climb the wall. Often it requires no explanation. The GM tells you what ability modifier to add in (probably Dexterity, maybe Strength, depending on the situation), and you roll d20 + level + background + ability modifier and compare to a standard target difficulty (usually 15 for heroic-tier characters).

What this means is that you don’t have to play games to be a competent thief, or whatever background you’re describing for your character. Maybe in D&D 3E, you created a thief and forgot to put points in Climb–or more likely, Use Rope–and now you’re in some situation where you need to tie a clove hitch to escape the Heliotrope Assassin’s Guild, and you’re arguing with the DM about how it’s pretty clear your character would know basic knotwork. In 13th Age, writing “Thievery” probably covers that, as long as you can make a good case for it. Rulings, not rules, right?

Better, instead of writing “Thievery,” you write “member of the Thieves’ Guild of Tenrook.” Now you can make a case for contacts with other guild members and fences. If you’re feeling frisky, you write “Head of the Tenrook Thieves’ Guild, the ‘Gray Monks’” and now you have all that thief stuff, all that stuff about contacts, and you can probably make a case for leadership ability or intimidation.

What backgrounds do that skills don’t is create context. They tell a story. That story lets you fill in the gaps when it comes time to figure out your character’s capabilities.

In my Tenrook campaign, Stephanie’s character is a ranger (by class) but has a background as “secretly the head of the assassin’s guild” and another as “special courtesan to the Prince of Tenrook.” She’s perfectly set up to do things like sneak around, spy on people, seduce them, and talk people into or out of things. Class (e.g., ranger) becomes a fighting mode more than anything else. She’s a ranger because she knows how to fight with two weapons and she has a wolf companion that fights alongside her. But she’s essentially a courtesan and a secret assassin and a serious player in Tenrook politics (secret head of the guild!).

I have to encourage some players to take their backgrounds to the next level. Some people write down “Thievery” and that’s good enough for them. I tell them that doing that is cheating themselves of the social skills they get by connecting their character to an organization. Also, who you are and who you know are more interesting than what you can do, since the former suggest the latter. Here’s the formula I describe to the players:

  1. Figure out a skill you want to have.
  2. Figure out how you learned that.
  3. Figure out what people you knew, what group you joined, when you learned that.

That is your background. For example, I create a cleric character and I want him to know about demons. I could write down a background called Demonology and put points in it, but I’ll trust in the formula. How did I learn that? Let’s say I studied under a prominent demonologist… no, let’s amp this up. I was enslaved to a demon lord named Fyrax, who made me his Chief Torturer. I bided my time, gathering allies, until we headed up a slave revolt and escaped. Now Fyrax is after me. For my background, I write down “escaped slave, Chief Torturer to the demon lord Fyrax.” I figure my guy became a cleric as penance for all of the evil things he did as a torturer. Awesome, right?

That’s why I love backgrounds in 13th Age.

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  1. By Thoughts about Games on June 13, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    [...] I love and hate about 13th Age. You can read the first installment, which discusses backgrounds, here. This one is about a character’s one unique feature–which I love. What I don’t [...]

  2. By 13th Age in Toronto – Thoughts about Games on July 5, 2012 at 12:49 am

    [...] is a fairly personal thing and I want the players to be invested in the choices, especially the backgrounds, motive, icon relationships, and one-unique-thing. I suppose I could pregen everything but those [...]

  3. By 13th Age: Official – Thoughts about Games on September 14, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    [...] with all the mechanical stuff done but the player fills in the interesting bits, like the backgrounds (freeform skills) and one unique thing. It plays in two hours and contains no actual scenario. [...]

  4. [...] good, the bad, the ugly. This first post is about the One Unique Things (which I call Hallmarks), backgrounds, and Icon relationships the players [...]


  1. OK, now this is cool. I wish it was in the book. My chief complaint about “13th Edition” is that the flags don’t actually (inherently, in obvious ways) do what flags or character setup things do in actual indie games: create conflict. Context/background, sure. But they don’t actually create adventure seeds automatically the way, say, a good set of Beliefs does.

    Moreover, they don’t naturally tie the characters together.

    Posted June 2, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Permalink | Reply
  2. Wish what was in the book?

    Yeah, one of my follow-up posts is going to be about how all of the various parts of the character are disconnected: backgrounds, one unique feature, class, icon relationships…

    Posted June 2, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Permalink | Reply
    • I wish your guidelines for how to do backgrounds was an actual rule!

      Posted June 2, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Permalink | Reply
  3. Oh, I do, too. I will recommend that with my next playtest report. =)

    Posted June 2, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Permalink | Reply
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