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I feel like background features are a little more "final" than normal feats. Take for example the Outlander features Wanderer.

You have an excellent memory for maps and geography, and you can always recall the general layout of terrain, settlements, and other features around you. In addition, you can find food and fresh water for yourself and up to five other people each day, provided that the land offers berries, small game, water, and so forth.

I'm really confused as to what this means to gameplay. So if he can "always recall the layout of terrain", does that mean he can skip checks for getting lost? Can and should the DM just decide when and how this applies?

In my situation, I'm playing Out of the Abyss, and wondering if "and so forth" includes stuff in the Underdark. Which is nothing like the things listed. Does it apply anyway, letting him auto-succeed on foraging checks? Or does it like not apply at all.

I'm sure these situations come up a lot with background features. Because they're all so generally applicable and don't involve rolls. As a DM, how should I deal with these features when I feel they don't super apply, or maybe just don't want them to?

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You as the DM always get to decide if the situation is applicable. The Wanderer feature says "general layout", which does not mean you can't possibly get lost. In most situations, I'll give a character with that feature advantage on checks for getting lost. Foraging likewise is conditional, depending on the foodstuffs available. The Underdark is very different to forage in than the forest. Again, I might give the Forager advantage, or might have him roll normally, but be able to feed 1 or 2 people more than his roll normally would. You could decide that his Foraging experience was completely different, and offers no help in the Underdark, if you wanted.

I generally try to find, or at least allow, ways for the characters' backgrounds to be useful and advantageous, because I think that adds to roleplaying and to interesting storymaking.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd very much caution against this as it screws with player agency heavily. The feature states you can recall, which explicitly details where you've already been or seen on a map. So even if you're injected into somewhere brand new, you can always backtrack accurately because you have that sense of direction (for example: like I do in real life). As for the foraging, so long as the land allows for the collection of edible food, the feature allows for that too. Going out of your way to intrude on something core to the character is likely to make them resentful of why they bothered taking it. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Mar 2 '18 at 5:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ I disagree. The background skills and features are background, not primary. The character's race and class are the main determinants of what they are capable of as adventurers. The backgrounds are mainly supplemental abilities and flavor. As I noted, I generally try to find, or at least allow, ways for the characters' backgrounds to be useful and advantageous, because I think that adds to roleplaying and to interesting storymaking, but it isn't critical to player agency. \$\endgroup\$ – Phil Boncer Mar 2 '18 at 5:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ My background as a technician is physics, electronic theory and troubleshooting to component level. They're background skills and features, not my primary job. However they're INCREDIBLY essential to doing my primary job well. I think the problem here is the assumption that a character's background is "just flavour" instead of the the reason for the character to be who he/she is. I build themed characters, background is key to my roleplay. It's very centric to my character and is a large part of that character's agency. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Mar 2 '18 at 5:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yay. If you think the answer should be different, write your own answer. You play your game, and I'll play mine. \$\endgroup\$ – Phil Boncer Mar 2 '18 at 7:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Lino Frank Ciaralli: I disagree. background are additional flavors not game rules or mecanics. they are not stated this way by the game designer. I pposted my own answer on this fact \$\endgroup\$ – KilrathiSly Sep 6 at 5:46
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As it is written, the definition is:

You have an excellent memory for maps and geography, and you can always recall the general layout of terrain, settlements, and other features around you. In addition, you can find food and fresh water for yourself and up to five other people each day, provided that the land offers berries, small game, water, and so forth.

We can see the use of the term memory in the definition. This implies that for the feature to be useful in terms of knowing your way around generally, you have to have been in the area before. Now, I don't know that much about the Underdark, as I've never played in a group that has gotten there, but I believe that, unless you are playing a drow or part of your backstory has you in the Underdark, that feature will not be handed for you until you are back to where you have been before.

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  • That feature says "you remember the general layout" and not "you remember the exact layout". So this does not necessarily mean that you suddenly auto-succeed and can't ever get lost.

  • The feature is worded in a general enough way, avoiding exact mechanical terms. This seems to indicate that this feature depends greatly on the DM's own personal interpretation, allowing him to on-the-fly decide how powerful he really wants that feature to be.

    You basically can't have a "one true answer" here, because the wording itself strongly invites a DM's ruling based on his preferences.

If you are a player, your best bet is to simply briefly talk to your DM outside of the game and ask him to give you a couple examples where that feature actually could make a difference in the game and by how much, just to get a better "feeling and understanding" of that feature.

If you are a DM, just use whatever mechanics that give you a "Wanderer feature power level" that you feel comfortable with. Just make sure the feature can have a real positive impact in the game, every now and then, so that the player will not feel that he has a mostly useless or valueless feature. Finally, it is also useful to read all the other Background features to get a better ideas of how much power/value/utility they can have.

If you want to focus on the epic battles, and not the gritty details, making navigating the wilderness, avoiding becoming lost, and finding food and water for the party, all be automatic successes, that is quite fine. After all, at higher levels the spellcasters have spells like Create food and Water and Teleport, which completely bypass the Wanderer feature. So letting the outlander shine before that happens is ok.

Another way too boost the usefulness of that feature especially in campaigns with not a lot of wilderness travel is to not limit it's utility to wilderness areas. Even in a big city, the Outlander would know the "layout of the settlement", etc..

Simply making the party require a bit less days of traveling and save a few gp on rations, is quite anti-climatic. Allow the party with an outlander to, once in a while, arrive at the dungeon well before the "time limit", letting them have way more rests than normal (making that adventure much easier), and making sure that the fact that they can "take their time" doing the adventure is entirely due to the competence of the Outlander.

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Having Excellent Memory of something is not a game mecanic in 5E. The only place in the rule where it states recalling things from memory is in the PHB p177

Intelligence measures mental acuity, accuracy of recall, and the ability to reason.

So that means Having excellent memory for maps is DM adjucation. I would personally give advantages on Intelligence Check to recall features of a map that a wanderer has seen before, with the DC according to the time spent studying the map. Looking at a map for 10 minutes and recalling some general features of it is way different from studying it for three days.

Also the part on being able to always recall the general layout of terrain, settlements and other features around you is again NOT a documented game mecanic. So there is nowhere in the rule that states what gameplay advantage that provides to the character other than flavor in the background. So again it is up to the DM to determine what the 'general' layout of terrain around you means. the DM could allow advantage on dice roll on survival checks to avoid getting lost. As you can see nowhere in that description of the wanderer it states any rule, game mecanics, dice roll or allowing to not get lost. And the ruling of all D&D gameplay rules are :

All general rules apply unlkess a specific rules states otherwise

nowhere in that description I see written that the getting lost check or the Intelligence check on acuity of recall is not to be considered. So yes a wanderer CAN get lost, CAN starve if he does not spend time foraging AND succeed in the survival checks required by the rules AND must make Intelligence check to recall information from memory of maps he has seen in the past. But a DM could adjucate to provide advantage on the checks above due to the context of the wanderer abilities.

Background are flavor and additional skill and tools.. they do not superceed general gameplay rules.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If the Outlander must follow the same rules as any character for foraging, why the feature is so precise about "find food and fresh water for yourself and 5 others people provided that the land offers (resources)" ? It seems a bit too specific for something intended only as flavor. \$\endgroup\$ – Nahyn Oklauq Sep 6 at 9:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ There's literally a feat for perfect recall in the mechanics of the game called Keen Mind. This answers premise is wholly incorrect. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Sep 6 at 20:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Lino Frank Ciaralli feats are an optional rule not all gamemaster are using feats in their games. This answer is based on the general rules not specific variants that some gamemaster might opt to use in their game. Also what you mention also proves further that recalling perfectly something will not be granted by a mere background as there is a specific FEAT that provides that and feat are considered exceptional and rare abilities \$\endgroup\$ – KilrathiSly Sep 8 at 12:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Nahyn Oklauq: As stated, it indicates the PC will find food for 6 people including himself if food is readily available. That means the Outlander needs to look for it. IF he looks for it, he will find it if in an environment that has plenty of food available based on the DM designed location. He sill needs to look for it and gather it. It also means that if the outlander finds food, it finds enough for 6 people (6 pounds of food and 6 gallon of water) instead of needing to roll a dice to determine de qty of food found. \$\endgroup\$ – KilrathiSly Sep 8 at 12:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KilrathiSly - Everything is an optional rule. Please don't bother with those useless fallbacks in a game where rule zero is: what the DM says goes. Comments are meant to help answers become better than they already are. If you aren't including feats, your answer isn't going to be as thorough or useful as an answer that does. How you choose to use this information is up to you. I'd like to suggest reviewing the answers current score and revising your rigid position. Don't worry mate, we all went through this. We aren't here to attack you, we're trying to help. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Sep 8 at 14:45

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