In this week’s Legends & Lore, Mike talks about the power of character backgrounds in the new Player’s Handbook.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to a Wizards Play Network retailer, the Player’s Handbook can be in your hands this Friday. It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come. At times, it felt like the release date would never get here. At other times, looming deadlines and mountains of work made it feel like it was coming all too fast.

We’ve provided teaser peeks at almost everything in the book, but it occurs to me that we still haven’t released a full list of character backgrounds. It’s been great to see the positive response to backgrounds. They’re a powerful tool for customizing a campaign, and give players a strong foundation for roleplaying distinct characters.

So without further ado, here’s a list of the backgrounds available in the Player’s Handbook. However, in the interest of giving you something to ponder until the book releases, I’ve inserted a false background among the ones listed here. Can you guess which one is the red herring? It’s a real stumper.

  • Acolyte
  • Charlatan
  • Criminal
  • Entertainer
  • Folk Hero
  • Gold Dragon, Ancient
  • Guild Artisan
  • Hermit
  • Noble
  • Outlander
  • Sage
  • Sailor
  • Soldier
  • Urchin

If my little puzzle proved easy to solve, then you’ve had a firsthand experience in seeing how easy it is to make your own backgrounds. In fact, customizing backgrounds is one of the best tools a DM can use to bring a campaign or setting to life.

To start with, there’s no specific balance in the proficiencies that a background grants. You can swap out one tool or skill for another without messing anything up. Features are a little trickier, and it’s best to mix and match the ones given in the Player’s Handbook. However, if you want to make your own features, here are a few guidelines.

Background features should avoid strict mechanical benefits, such as a bonus to a check or to attacks. Instead, the best features are ones that open up new options for roleplaying, exploring, and otherwise interacting with the world.

As an example, the sage background’s benefit is a DM’s best friend for sending the characters off on adventures. It doesn’t provide information or an automatic success for a check. Instead, if a character fails to recall information, she instead knows where she can go to learn it. That might be a pointer to a more knowledgeable sage back in town—or it might send the party to a library long lost within the ruins of an ancient tomb.

The best features give characters a reason to strike out on quests of their own creation, to make contacts with NPCs, and to develop ties and bonds to the setting or campaign you’ve devised. As an example, let’s say you create a Guild Assassin background. The benefit might be access to safe houses and contacts that the guild has established in major cities. The contacts aren’t guaranteed to be friendly, but the character knows they can be counted on.

A character with that background now has a good reason to travel to a city and mingle with the folk there. But more interestingly, you might decide in your campaign that the priests of the god of death have declared war on the guild. When the character arrives in a safe house to find its occupants slain by the death god’s clerics, you have the makings of an instant adventure hook.

Don’t be shy about modifying backgrounds or changing their flavor to suit your campaign. For instance, let’s say you’re running Lost Mine of Phandelver and someone in your group wants to create a new character with the hermit background. As a hermit in the area, the character might have encountered both the druid Reidoth and the cultists skulking around the ruins of Thundertree. The character’s relationship with Reidoth could serve as her bond. She might have a personal stake in driving the cultists away from the ruins, perhaps because she wants to research the magic that still suffuses the town. The hermit’s discovery might involve the strange zombies that infest Thundertree, which could in turn connect to larger elements of the campaign.

Backgrounds represent the glue between a player’s character and the DM’s campaign. Whether you’re running an open-ended sandbox or a tightly plotted epic, you can use backgrounds and their elements (traits, bonds, and so on) to give characters the forward momentum they need to keep the game going.