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?
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.