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D&D Burgoo (3.5): Don’tcha got a job, or something?

PCs are adventurers. I get it. They’re not slaving away at some lousy 9-to-5 job hoping the boss won’t drop a ton of work on their desk before the weekend or pining for that promotion that will never come.

It’s not in their makeup. They’re adventurers! They’re goblin-killers and tomb raiders and dragon-slayers, for goodness sakes. They don’t punch-in at a timeclock and they aren’t worried about the 401K. 

If they want something, they go for it. When they see injustice, they take action. And if there is plunder involved, don’t stand in their way. You just might get run over.

So, why as the DM, do I suggest (note, I don’t say insist) that the PCs invest ranks in either Craft, Profession, Knowledge or Perform? Short of crafting magic items or bardic music, they have little application in your basic dungeon crawl. If the game is about adventuring, why am I worried about how the PCs make a living?

Because …

It’s a shortcut backstory 

If you’re blessed by players who love to craft elaborate backstories explaining how their PC came to the adventuring life, great. To be honest, I’ve found few gamers who fit that mold. A lot would rather not even bother coming up with a name for their character for the first few levels if I didn’t insist on that much, at least. 

But asking them to devote at least a couple of ranks in one of the trade skills at least gives them a shorthand version of their apprentice-aged years. The trade skills aren’t a perfect fit. But it’s a beginning.

And maybe next time, you might inspire the players to write (or say) a sentence or two about the character’s origin.

Heroes are special people in a (largely) mundane world

This second bit presumes something on my part, I know.  Your game world may well differ. But I see the baseline D&D fantasy milleu filled with ordinary people doing ordinary things, just as in our medieval times. But the heroes (and villains) who occupy this world have special abilities, command powerful magic, and perform feats that outshine most folk.

But they didn’t start out that way, obviously. Training, luck or divine intervention fashioned them to be heroes. But to give them a sense of place, a sense of the world they belong to, it’s fitting they at least have something in their skill set that allows them to relate to the world at large. Doesn’t it make sense to have a heroic ranger demonstrate the capability to craft his own longbow? Shouldn’t a wizard brew her own alchemical mixtures? Certainly the fighter once made a living hiring out as a merchant or city guard? Those are the things I mean. 

Now I’ve toyed with the idea of instituting a house rule, allocating 2 bonus skill points to every character so they can apply them in the trade skills. Two ranks in a given skill won’t unbalance anything, the players don’t feel like they’re being “forced” to buy ranks in a largely background item, and it accomplishes my goal of having them fit into the world around them.

What do you think of my solution? Or should I try to tie Profession more closely to wealth, as the d20 Modern rules do? Have you tried something else that works in your campaign? I’d love to hear what works for you.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "D&D Burgoo (3.5): Don’tcha got a job, or something?"

#1 Comment By robustyoungsoul On June 30, 2008 @ 5:51 am

I just never really thought of it. I mean, if I’m playing D&D or Shadowrun or something I charge a rate of living fee every month or so of gametime, but never really gave a hoot how they earned it. I mean, they earn most of their money adventuring, that’s why they became adventurers, right?

Maybe I’m missing something.

#2 Comment By Rafe On June 30, 2008 @ 6:04 am

I used to give a free profession or craft in 3.x as well as 4 free knowledge points (lack of knowledge skills in old editions was pretty ridiculous).

In 4e, there are no craft or profession skills for the reason that the PCs are adventurers, not farmers, blacksmiths or small-game trappers. For 4e, simply have them work something into their background. Then choose one skill that is relevant to their “background skill” and give them a +1 circumstance bonus.

#3 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 30, 2008 @ 7:51 am

I think that this is a great tactic to get the PCs backgrounds into the game, but long ago I decided that PCs without a background aren’t a big deal. If you don’t want to provide the GM with a hook then that is fine. I can roll with that.

The only time it becomes an issue is when a player says something like “You know, if I’m a fighter I must know someone who makes swords. I’m going to that shop and I’m going to ask the he give me a discount on a quality blade.” If the player provided a detailed background that included someone like an uncle who was known for making great swords I would work with it. But if you didn’t provide that background my answer is something along the lines of “You know of a shop where such goods are crafted and sold, but the owner and craftsmen don’t really owe you any favors nor are they close to you. Why would they give you a good deal for no reason other than you know them?”

Good players take the hint and switch tactics and start dealing. Bad players start making up reasons why they deserve the deal. “I’m a loyal customer who has done business with them for years.” or “I saved his daughter from the goblins once.” Sorry. If you didn’t take the time to write a background, you can’t pull it out of your ass once the game begins.

#4 Comment By Nephlm On June 30, 2008 @ 10:05 am

Patrick, why not let the character retroactively define his history? Clearly it isn’t in conflict with his existing history and once the temporary advantage has passed it remains part of his history.

He has created a temporary advantage, but he has also created something to that can be hooked. I’d of course only accept it if it was interesting and provided those long range hooks.

#5 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 30, 2008 @ 10:32 am

For D&D at least, living expenses is something I combine with another pet peeve into a “double handwave.”

It always seemed unrealistic to me that treasures were always parceled in such exact amounts: 800 gp, for example. So the tacit assumption in my campaign is that you actually found 812 gp (or whatever), and I just took 12 gp (or whatever) “off the top” for living expenses.

So you’ve got 800 gp to split amongst the party and spend on useful gear, along with the occasional indulgence “beyond your means” – a big bribe, a night on the town, a fancy costume for the Jester’s Masque. The more you find, the more there is “on top,” so as the PCs advance in levels, they can enjoy higher standards of living.

I find this method is easier to keep up with, -and- it’s more in line with what the game’s PC Wealth tables are actually worried about.

Mind you, one of our PCs -has- a day job, but that’s more in keeping with her character (and a source of story material) than anything else…

#6 Comment By RunebladeJack On August 30, 2016 @ 7:33 pm

I encourage my players to take the pile of coins and divide them into equal piles (one for each member of the team), and what is left as a remainder gets tossed into the “written off for expenses” bucket. Sometimes they will also write off a set amount of cash for expenses upon arriving to town for the same reason to insure it is handled. If the players are pretty generous about this effort, then I hand wave the cost of mundane items such as food and drinks at the inn.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On June 30, 2008 @ 10:43 am

In the past, we’ve done as you suggested and just gave out a few skill points for a background. It does a good job of implying a history, but is easily forgotten or overlooked after a few levels. It’s not much effort and gives you some payback, particularly if you keep an eye out for making it relevant to the PCs every once in a while.

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 30, 2008 @ 10:49 am

When it comes to D&D 3.5, I also toyed with the “free skill points” idea, but mine was 4 free craft/profession/knowledge points. I also toyed with the idea of giving one free skill as a class skill, but nearly everyone I talked to was going to pick Tumble. *sigh*.

Another way of doing it may be to bribe the players for backgrounds by offering free skill points/class skills in return. This may turn into “gaming the GM” by making up an outlandish background to explain a ridiculous depth and breadth of skills.

Now that I’m partial to Savage Worlds, I’m a fan of the “if it’s in your background, you can do it” school of thought. Basically, if it makes sense that your character should be able to do something, he can. This does require buy-in from the players, and an understanding that debating the GM over what is acceptable is discouraged.

#9 Comment By lynxnc On June 30, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

In the game that I play, when we have the rare downtime, we’re either living off of the money that we’ve obtained during adventuring, or we get money by doing odd jobs, such as guard duty, casting spells, using our profession or craft skills doing whatever. Most of our party can hunt, and gather herbs and other useful things such as that to earn a few coins. Between the little odd jobs and our cash on hand, we have enough to live comfortably. Also, most of our fighter types have a few skill points spent in leatherworking or metalworking(armor or weaponsmithing), so if nothing else, we can make quick emergency repairs to our own arms and armor in the field. With this, they can do basic leather or metal working while in town for cash. If nothing else, perhaps becomming a helper at a local shop. With skill points, my GM’s rule is, if it makes sense for your character to have this skill, don’t worry about thinking about class/cross class skills. If we can justify it to him, he lets us have it. We can’t get carried away by any means. But for example, if we salvage a boat, and our group along with a couple sailors that survived the pirate attack, sail for a couple weeks back to our town, he lets us take up a point or two in sailing because we have just had an intensive 2 week crash course in sailing. However, if we don’t get on a boat for another year, he tells us NO when it comes to us adding another point or two. We are honest with him about what skill points we spend, and when in doubt we ask him.

#10 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 30, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

Nephlm – I don’t think that is a very good approach. If you didn’t draft a background you should not be able to reap any benefit from one made up on the spot just to justify said benefit. A player that writes up a background provides potential pitfalls for their character that the GM may take advantage of, so if they receive any reward they also set the stage for problems as well.

Plus, what kind of incentive am I giving that player to create a background? Aren’t I discouraging those players who do write up backgrounds? I want to let the players know that if they put in the time and effort to hand me a background, then I am going to make sure that they are rewarded in some way. I’m not going to reward a player for telling me the PC’s background when it is convenient. It sends a mixed message.

#11 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On June 30, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

The only difference between a backstory that was made before the campaign started and one that they make up on the spur of the moment is who has the opportunity to use it first. ie: you get first dibs on pregen ones, they get first dibs on spontanious ones. Pardon me for saying so, but refusal on this sounds more like “I want the cookies first” than a legitimate excuse. If it really irks you, just make a house rule that ANYONE can sponataniously add to their backstory for the equivalent of an action point.

Troy: Re: names:
I just realized yesterday my 2nd lvl cleric had no name! whoops! So, in a pinch I named him Hubert Manson (“Hugh Man” or just “Hey Hugh” for short).

#12 Comment By farfromunique On June 30, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

I was wondering… I have a player who is somewhat gung-ho about creating a back story… And I haven’t fleshed out my world all that much yet. I was planning on fleshing it out more and more as the group gains levels. Think that’s a good plan / bad plan? And how can I respond, past “I don’t know yet”?

#13 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 30, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

@Farfrommunique: You could always invite your player to flesh out the world for you by using the background elements they create as setting elements.

You could also detail one decent-sized area of the world upfront, and recommend that your players make characters from that region.

#14 Comment By Dasis On June 30, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

I agree with Patrick that when the PC first entertains the thought of “shouldn’t i know someone who makes swords” in game for an immediate reward; he should be dealt with in the manner Patrick suggests. But i would add one thing which i believe includes your idea that “growth” happens in game, that if this fighter wished to start up a dialouge with these sword smiths, maybe bribe, and take them for drinks and really go after the dangling carrot, then yes background has been created. The main difference i think is the amount of effort one takes to gain these “background” advantages. If my player applies no ‘out of game’ or ‘in game’ effort, why should i give him a cheaper price on swords. I would not give him the dragon hoard because he just told me that this dragon is his cousin. I think the amount of effort is valid and proportional to the award. Truthfully i think that is all that is being said.

Last, Free ranks in craft, profession, and knowledge i think really help the process with background creation in characters. The bigger point is for the DM to write these points down then use them in game. It is always fun to watch the dumbfounded fighter, realise a use for the profession fisherman. “So what my knotts are stronger in this rope allowing me to climb with an extra +2… cool”

#15 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 30, 2008 @ 5:11 pm

Matthew J. Neagley – I disagree. The difference is that one back story is a back story, and the other is just a reaction events in game. The player who writes up a back story before the session begins is trying to help define how that character will play in the undiscovered world of the game. The other player is trying to gain an advantage through minimal effort and a poor tactic.

Dasis – I see your point and would say that the only minor difference in my eyes is that a back story is static. It cannot be changed once the session begins (or should not be changed in most cases). Now when a player does what you described and roleplays the PC trying to get on the sword smith’s good side that isn’t really a back story. It is a dynamic in game event (and should be encouraged). There is effort on the player’s part and it should be rewarded. Other than that difference you are spot on.

The way I see it, even if a player writes a back story that gives them huge advantages (“I’m a noble and I have a stable with a Pegasus given to me as a gift from the gods.”) that is still a static element. I as the GM can work with it (“A rival has attacked your castle while you were away on business. Your pegasus was killed when the stables accidentally caught on fire. Your family has been cast out of the royal courts and their titles seized. The gods demand that you seek vengeance for this crime and deliver their justice to the offender for destroying their generous gift to you. It is as much a test of faith as it is a test of your skills. The gods bestow upon you a single silver arrow. You’ll know when it is time to use it.”)

The player may have tried to abuse the back story option, but I can still reward them in the form of a quest designed with them in mind, a goal for their PC, and a nifty item that is probably going to lead to a cool spotlight moment for the PC.

Compare that to a player who says “What is the obstacle? I didn’t write a back story, but my PC just happens to have been good friends with an expert in that particular subject and he trained my PC well. I should be allowed to roll with bonuses to overcome the obstacle.” (yes, that happened once at the table although I wasn’t the GM). For that kind of situation I’m not going to reward the player for reacting to the obstacle by trying to sidestep the system. I’d probably respond with something like “Oh yes, you are an expert in that but you were trained in the Western style of the elves, and this particular widget is done in the southern style of the dwarves. Your assumption though has lead to a serious mistake. You better roll. The penalty is…”

One is an attempt to provide substance to the game world, and the other is meta gaming if you can even call it that.

#16 Comment By Swordgleam On June 30, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

I like the idea of free/bonus skill points for background. When I’m a player, I like to have background skills, but the narrativist in me always has to wrestle with the gamist in me who wants to optimize my skillset. I have a feeling that my players go through a similar struggle. Having a certain number of points that could only be used for background skills would solve that problem nicely.

I think the solution to the “smith gives me a discount” problem is something along the lines of, “The smith says, ‘Of course, a discount for my good buddy AverageFighter! Hey, AF, since you’re around, could you go pick me up some of those orcish swords? I hear there’s orcs in the hills to the west, and I’d like to study their weaponsmithing. The new sword you want should be done by the time you get back.'”

Then the player isn’t getting something for nothing. It’s the same as if the player had roleplayed doing a favor for the smith, and then later you chose to have the smith give them a discount. It just happens in the reverse order.

The “I trained with an expert in that” problem is harder to equalize immediately, but you could later have that character expect favors. If you do that sort of thing often enough, players will start realizing they can’t get free bonuses without some kind of consequence.

#17 Comment By Omnus On July 1, 2008 @ 6:19 am

Soooooo…a young man apprenticed to be a wizard since age 8 must have a craft skill or profession besides “wizarding”? I would think that in many cases, the class justifies the job. Fighters don’t need much of a stretch to be guards (and damn good ones, too), clerics can be…well, clerics, wizards can charge for magic, rogues can steal to make a living…what am I missing? I’m opposed to granting the free points after character creation, because successful adventurers are probably focusing their studies on what keeps them alive. Giving a few freebie points is fine during character creation, but I would tie those into backstory more than force someone to have a Craft or Profession. You want to play a feral kid who was raised by wolves and became a ranger? Fine…have training in Nature (or Survival) for free. You’re a noble’s sixteenth son? Well, you probably were taught to ride, recognize heraldry, and how to negotiate. I realize that if your players don’t give you backstory to hang points from, you can’t do this, but I’d advocate giving out points as a reward to encourage the good behavior you want (buy-in to your game with a backstory).

One time I had a player who refused to work with me on any kind of backstory in a campaign in which I had rewarded the other players with up to five freebie skill points for theirs. As a “reward” he got a skill point in Profession (farmer) as a rock-picker, but that’s as far as I ever went.

#18 Comment By Nephlm On July 1, 2008 @ 11:35 am

If the point is to have characters who have hooks that you can use to hang story off of, and a player has not found natural inclination or the GM’s bribes sufficient to write such a backstory does the desire for such hooks go away?

I’d argue that it does not. So when a player retroactively writes some bit of backstory, even if it is for temporary advantage, it is in the best interest of the GM and the game to say “yes, and” or “yes, but”. He isn’t gaming the system anymore then the noble with the gifts from the gods is. For many players, they quite reasonably don’t trust the GM to make their backstories matter unless they are made at a time when the game starts to have focus.

I’ve had many characters who had detailed backgrounds tying me to a place and a community and the first thing the GM did was move us away from that starting place never to return. If that happens to often why would a player bother to make a static history?

The Player is choosing a reward that ends up mattering in the game, “I claim the reward of cheaper swords, in exchange, I have a npc I care about and whom I owe favors for the favors he’s done me.” That is a hook that makes the game better.

It might be better to have a static backstory before the game begins, but if the player isn’t giving you that, this second method should be embraced. The first method allows you to make a story that is about the character, the second allows the player to make a character that is about he story. Far better than a character with no connections to the story.

#19 Comment By Snargash Moonclaw On July 8, 2008 @ 6:32 pm

@farfromunique – Good character backstory can provide a lot of inspiration and outright creation of pieces of a setting. Scan aways down in [1] and you’ll see a couple of rather long posts I wrote – 1) going into how and why to do so and 2) including a specific backstory and what I developed from it in the setting. Not everyone creates in the same way, but for me this sort of collaboration hugely enhances my creative process.

#20 Comment By Lord Inar On September 24, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

The Fantasy Trip had professions you selected for your character, along with Talent requirements, weekly pay and the likelihood that you would die during your job.

It was different from Traveller’s character generation in that it was interlaced with roleplaying, to the point of a discussion about how you balanced adventuring with work. The list made for a nice backstory springboard, but I never really used it much.

#21 Comment By Burn_Boy On December 17, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

I’m putting this up in a house rules Wave my group has. We’ve been rather discouraged from putting any points in crafts or professions because our first DM didn’t like letting us use them. I played a Fighter once and put points in Weaponsmithing thinking “Oh, cool. I’ll be able to make my own weapons and such.” and I was psyched about doing that. My weapons being my own would give me a connection to them and give my character more depth. But, once I had 12 ranks in Weaponsmithing I decided that, during one rest period, I wanted to craft a Masterwork Bastard Sword and then take it to get an enchantment on it but he said no. When I pressed the matter he claimed it was because I didn’t have a Bastard Sword as a template. This kinda showed everyone that Craft and such were useless skills. Hopefully by implementing this, we can change it. Plus by encouraging back stories I can bring in old enemies from the past to make the story more personal to the players.

#22 Comment By Mitchell Morin On July 15, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

The campaign I’m running (that I ran a version of once before, with different people), was in a world that was rebuilding after some kind of magical apocalypse or cataclysm has wiped out most of the planet, and towns were trying to build up again from scratch… players are encouraged to have a day job, and in fact help be part of rebuilding the town (it grows when new players join). Also, in between sessions of exploring nearby ruins or such, time passes, and they help run stuff in the town. If they miss a session, in game they are still working at something in town while other characters go out adventuring.

#23 Comment By RunebladeJack On August 30, 2016 @ 7:40 pm

My favorite game was nearly always Traveller, and that one provides the background and career skills for you in character generation. When it comes to fantasy, I have always wanted to make sure my character had a profession skill in case the law came around looking for those “no-good / can’t keep a real job / pesky adventurer types”. Herbalism and Healing usually kept me welcome no matter where I ended up.