I was listening to a podcast on D&D 5 discussing its design. They mentioned the Backgrounds as being one of the coolest things in the game. I was wondering: Is this innovation created by the D&D 5 designers, or did this pre-exist in prior role playing games in a recognizable form? If D&D 5 was not the original innovator, which published RPG first presented this idea of Backgrounds?


1 Answer 1


Backgrounds and skills

Empire of the Petal Throne

Prof M.A.R. Barker's campaign world (influenced by OD&D) was published in 1975 by TSR. It included during character creation Original skills and Professional skills. (p. 15-18 of the rule book).

The original skills varied from plebian to noble, and ranged from bricklayer to hunter to botanist. How many you got were a result of a die roll: you could start out skill rich or skill poor. You earned more skills as you progressed in level.

The Professional skills were segregated by profession (warrior, priest, magic user). For the warrior they amounted to proficiency in weapons/tools. For priests and magic users, they folded in basic spells used by the two spell casting classes. (page 18-19). Skills were added as one progressed in level. (This framework as compared to D&D 5e's class/archetype skill increases lacks the gaps in between levels).


An early example of formally exploring backgrounds was during the RPG boom in the mid-to-late 1970s in Traveller by GDW (1977). Skills that could be used during the game from the character's background were determined during character creation. One could already have had a career in something else, and perhaps knew how to pilot a spaceship or have a tech proficiency that helped address challenges as the game was played.

The Arduin Grimoire

There was a set of RPG books (derivative of D&D) that began with the Arduin Grimoire (Dave Hargrave). It was published in 1977. The book had tables for unique features for a character based on his background, some of which provided bonuses and stat changes for the character.


For D&D, an early formalizing of character backgrounds, termed "Non-Professional Skills," was in the Dungeon Masters Guide for First Edition AD&D (1979) on page 12. A table of 21 Secondary Skills was provided (the skills were to be rolled for) with guidance for the DM included:

When secondary skills are used, it is up to the DM to create and/or adjudicate situations in which these skills are used or useful to the player character.

In the 1e Unearthed Arcana (1985) the background of social class (from lower middle class to Upper Class) of the Cavalier directly influenced how much money and equipment that class had.

This idea was expanded in subsequent additions and has become an integral part of the game. From the RP perspective, this has been a boon. It helps flesh out "who the character is" which both adds flexibility to play and improves role playing by giving the character some depth.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Added EPT as being before Traveller by about two years. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 3, 2016 at 13:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ It might also be worth mentioning D&D 4E. Backgrounds were implemented in a very similar fashion (granting skill proficiency, bonuses, and languages), and is most likely the direct parent of 5E backgrounds. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ethan
    Apr 4, 2016 at 17:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ethan As I don't have those books, I don't feel competent to add that and IIRC backgrounds predated 4e by quite a bit ... so that's why I said "This idea was expanded in subsequent additions and has become an integral part of the game." I had forgotten that EPT had backgrounds and such until I was digging through my old EPT stuff for something else and realized I'd given Prof Barker short shrift in favor of Traveller! (oops) \$\endgroup\$ Apr 4, 2016 at 19:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ I guess it depends on what particular feature of the backgrounds is being considered innovative. If it's the sense of "stuff happened off screen that explains the character" then it probably traces back to well before the creation of writing. A specific mechanic or use of 5E backgrounds can likely be traced through different paths though. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ethan
    Apr 4, 2016 at 19:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Actually, backgrounds in Traveller had mechanical impacts on what the player could or could not do. Depending on which books you got in 2e, there was a whole host of NWP stuff that began early and were added to later. EPT had backgrounds and professional skills as two separate ways to influence play later. If you would like to edit in a concise description of the 4e backgrounds mechanic, that would be great. I am not up on 4e. Never go it. Turned in my 3.5 books in for loose change at a 2d hand book store shortly before 4e came out, WoTC was on my thumbs down list at the time. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 4, 2016 at 19:28

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