Dungeon Master’s Guild Review: Backgrounds, Vol. 1

Full Disclosure: Shamus Williams, author of this product, asked me to review it.

This product is an interesting opportunity for me, as a reviewer/critic/whatever. When I review a class, archetype, or subsystem, I have a lot of crunchy bits to talk about. So much, in fact, that I think I went a little overboard last time, with the Swordmage. I left basically nothing to the imagination.

With this one…if I talk about the crunchy bits, there’s really not much for people to spend money on. Therefore, I’m going to have to be a bit more careful with my wording on this review.

Before we begin, here’s a link to the document in question:

BACKGROUNDS, VOL. 1, BY SHAMUS WILLIAMS

The version of the product I am reviewing is the one posted on March 30, 2016. If the product is updated in the future, those updates will not be included in this review.

It costs $1 US. Like with the Swordmage, this review is going to ask one simple question: does this product deserve your dollar?

Product Statistics

It’s 9 pages long, and is very plainly a copy-paste from a Microsoft Word document. There are a few typos along the way, and It has only the barest of formatting with basic headings and sub-headings, but with little to make the document actually pop. Much of the formatting is also inconsistent, and the header of the document could easily be mistaken for a section heading, as it is the same size and font as the rest of the document. That font, by the way, is Times New Roman.

The cover page looks fine, and definitely differs itself from many of the other DM’s Guild products. However, the image chosen has very little to do with the rest of the document (a fighting angel on a document mostly focused around animal husbandry).

All of this is unfortunate. A document’s formatting is akin to presentation and plating in the culinary profession. Regardless of the actual flavor or quality of the dish, if it looks amateurish, people will be immediately turned off.

My suggestion to Shamus would be to do some simple font-searching online. There are thousands of free, downloadable fonts for MS Word that can help to make your document unique. Find one that is easy to read, and yet feels different enough from the standard Times New Roman/Arial/Calibri that gets used so often to create an individuality to your products. My second suggestion would be to simply take some time to format and edit your document. Justify your lines, ensure that everything fits neatly on the page and is easy to read. Take inspiration from your favorite textbooks/reference guides/RPG manuals and create something that will INVITE people to read your document, instead of making them muscle through the currently-poor formatting to reach your content.

The Backgrounds

Backgrounds are an interesting beast. With many facets of the game (classes, subclasses, feats, spells, etc.), separating the flavor from the crunch is pretty easy, and they can be analyzed individually. With backgrounds, however, these two aspects are intrinsically tied together. They are also specifically non-combat focused, instead granting skill and tool proficiencies, and offering features that can help to enhance the exploration, interaction, and investigation pillars of the game.

This product offers four new backgrounds for your game: The Animal Trainer, Flying Cavalry, Innkeeper, and Teamster. Every background includes personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws.

Animal Trainer

This background is about what you’d expect. It focuses on the training of animals, though it gains a proficiency with land vehicles for some inexplicable reason. One could argue that the intent is to suggest guiding oxen or horses who are pulling a wagon, but this seems redundant with the Teamster background also available.

In addition, I’m not a huge fan of the background feature offered. It gives bonuses when working with domesticated animals, and removes penalties when taming wild ones. In that way, it breaks much of the unwritten code used for almost all background features: Tell the player about the common sense in-world benefits this background gives them. If you notice, most background features are basically just things that are common sense benefits of being a member of that background. Soldiers have a rank that gets them places. Folk Heroes are idolized by the people. Nobles have noble access to people and places that commoners do not. None of them give a tangible, numerical benefit, but rather just inform the player of a thing that they can do within the world. This one gives actual mechanical benefits, and that rubs me the wrong way.

The personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws are really where this background shines. While a couple of the bonds could arguably belong in other categories, and a few of the flaws stink of an old man sitting on his porch shouting “Stinking Hippies!” at passers-by, these characteristics are, overall, very well written. They’re rich, flavorful, and interesting, with things like “If you don’t get your hands dirty, you aren’t really working” and “I owe my teacher a debt I can never repay.” Truly, above anything else, this seems to be where the author was having the most fun.

Flying Cavalry

This was the background for which I was the most excited. I’ve been playing a lot of Fire Emblem, lately, and the wyvern and pegasus knights are some of my favorite units in the game. I was wondering how one might translate that into a background. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan.

It focuses on the idea that you are an elite military commando who rides into battle on a flying mount (mostly suggesting griffins), and has a very “best of the best” attitude. It’s the only background I’ve ever seen that has a mechanical requirement, and its feature is very much an overpowered combination of three other background features.

Even its personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws are the least of the whole document. They all focus around how awesome you are and how much people love you. It’s a perfect background for someone who wants to play a Mary Sue character that everyone loves, right down to the fact that it seems custom-built for players who want to exploit the system in order to get a powerful monstrous mount early on in the game.

On top of all of this, it seems to actually be tailored to a game where everyone is a member of the flying cavalry, since it states that it requires 50 hours of your time each week.

Overall, I think this option is fine if you want to start a game around 5th or 6th level and want a game tailor-made for a group all from the same military unit, but is far too powerful for a starting adventuring party.

SPECIAL NOTE: The Retired Flying Cavalry

While the standard Flying Cavalry is frankly a bit much, I absolutely love the Retired Flying Cavalry variant. It gifts you with a cavalry saber, which is always awesome, and its feature grants you military contacts and falls much more in-line with a standard background. In addition, I love the idea of a grizzled veteran who was once one of the best in the world, but now is simply one of the adventurous rabble.

Innkeeper

The idea for an innkeeper background is one that I’m surprised didn’t make it into the Player’s Handbook. After all, it makes much more sense for a group of PCs to meet in a bar if one of them already owns the bar.

The skill and tool proficiencies are fine, and the advantage of gaining a new language fits in with the flavor of the background. I also like the benefit of its feature, essentially reducing the cost of food, drink, and board at an inn, and allowing you the option to work at inns for a day’s wages and free room and board. I’d reduce the price even further, but it’s not as if finding room at the inn is an obstacle in most games, so it’s probably fine.

I’d also like to note that this is the only background in the document with a Specialty option. You know how Criminals have a “criminal specialty” choice, where you determine whether you’re a murderer or a blackmailer? This one is about how you came to leave your work at the inn. And some of the options are actually pretty cool.

The personality characteristics are pretty good, as well. Not quite as good and rich as the Animal Trainer, but a far sight better than the one-note flying cavalry. They fit really well into the niche that the background creates.

Teamster

This is probably the most unusual background option in the document. All of the others make sense to me as something the player would want to choose as a background. Animal trainers are cool, innkeepers are a great way to integrate into the campaign’s origins, and flying cavalry are just super cool. A teamster, though? Like, you’re basically the medieval equivalent of a trucker. I won’t say that a player who’s presented with the option wouldn’t take it, but I can’t imagine them coming to me and asking to customize a background in order to become a teamster.

Then again, maybe they just want an excuse to use the term “lot lizard” in the campaign. Don’t google that.

Their background feature is probably the best in the document, since it grants an appropriate amount of leeway to the character and also scales based on the scale of the campaign. In effect, it gives you area knowledge re: your route as a teamster. I can’t give much more than that without giving the whole thing away. The personality characteristics are similar to those that the Innkeeper gets, but instead of focusing on down-home idealism, it’s got more of a rough-around-the-edges bent. Overall, it’s a fine, if a bit niche, option.

Conclusion

So, is Backgrounds, Vol. 1 worth your money? Does it deserve your dollar? I really want to say yes. The author was extremely professional and polite in their interactions with me, and I want to show them a courtesy by telling everyone to go out right now and buy their product! But I simply can’t say that in good conscience.

The poor formatting, editing, and amateurish layout make it really difficult to read, and the design work feels like it needed another pass or two before it was ready for purchase. It’s only a dollar, but I have to weigh that against the fact that there is a LOT of content on the DM’s Guild that is either priced similarly or even less (much is Pay What You Want), and is much more professionally-designed and presented. Add that to the fact that the sheer amount of content here is minimal, and I simply can’t recommend it to the common DM’s Guild shopper.

HOWEVER! To be fair, there are some really good ideas in this document, and the personality traits are top-notch. I, personally, have a group of players that tend toward pre-packaged backgrounds, rather than customizing their own, so new backgrounds are always welcome at my table. They even tend to roll their personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws, so my dollar is well-spent if only for that. If you’re in a similar situation to myself, then maybe you should consider picking up a copy of Backgrounds, Vol. 1, if only to support Shamus Williams and encourage him to continue designing.

If YOU have a product that you’d like me to review, or perhaps you simply have a question, a complaint, or a simple message you’d like to send, then go ahead and hop over to my Contact Page, where you can contact me directly. If you enjoyed this review, then why not show it by clicking the Like button below, or sharing it with your friends, and be sure to read my other DM’s Guild review, for Juan Marcano’s Swordmage.

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