13th Sage: Can “Good at Everything” Be a Background

13th Age logoOne of the most frequently-asked questions about 13th Age involves backgrounds; and overwhelmingly, it seems to come from people who have been playing d20 System games for a while.

The question takes different forms, but in essence it’s this:

What stops a player from putting the maximum number of points into a background called “Good at Everything”, breaking the game by giving themselves a +5 bonus every time they do anything that requires a skill check?

Taking the question at face value, the answer is that it’s up to the GM to stop the player from doing that if he or she wishes. The rules say that broad backgrounds are not as good as specific backgrounds for a variety of reasons. And they say that the GM is free to houserule the game as they see fit. But they don’t forbid broad backgrounds.

But as stated, it’s the wrong question. Let’s try it this way:

Is “Good at Everything” a legitimate background in 13th Age?

Taking the intent of backgrounds as read, no.

But if you want to roll up your sleeves and dig into the 13th Age-ness of this game by turning backgrounds into story, then yes.

Why “Good at Everything” is not a legitimate background in 13th Age

Looking at the examples of backgrounds in the 13th Age core book, we can see that they represent things that any normal person could realistically do given the time and opportunity:

Acrobat, alchemist, animal trainer, architect, aristocratic noble, assassin, Cathedral servitor, chef, conwoman, dinosaur hunter, goblin exterminator, hunted outlaw, knight errant, Legionnaire of the 17th [Legion], magecraft, priest, refugee, scout, shepherd, soldier, spy, temple acolyte, thief, torturer, transformed animal, traveling martial arts pupil, tribal healer, tunnel scout, wandering minstrel, warrior poet

No normal person, even a fantasy hero in 13th Age,has the time or opportunity to become good at every single conceivable skill in the world.

But hold on: what about “transformed animal”? Surely that opens the door to someone being supernaturally good at things?

Why yes. Yes, it does. Which leads us to…

Why “Good at Everything” is a legitimate background in 13th Age

If you want the background “animal transformed into a human by magic,” a 13th Age GM will ask you, “Who transformed you, and why? Was it a gift, or a curse? What advantages and disadvantages come from this transformation? Are there any other transformed animals out there? Are they your allies or your enemies? What’s your attitude toward the transformation — do you want to be more human, or would you just as soon go back to being a bear?”

Likewise, “good at everything” has a story behind it. Are you good at everything because an icon magically made you that way? Which one, and why? Were you created to be their instrument? If so, did you rebel and escape or are you still their agent? What kinds of things do they have you do? Are there other “good at everything” Übermenschen out there? Are they your allies or enemies? Is there a demonic ritual that requires sacrificing a “perfect man”, so that evil sorcerers are hunting you?

This is how we recommend you handle a “good at everything” power play. A player pays for their +5 bonus to every imaginable skill check by giving the GM free rein to make their character’s life extremely interesting.

If they’re up for it, the results can be some exciting adventures. If not…maybe they should change that background to something a little safer.

13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

4 Responses to “13th Sage: Can “Good at Everything” Be a Background”

  1. evilbob says:

    Excellent response!

  2. John L says:

    I think this is all really covered by this phrase:

    “Jack of all trades

    …master of none.”

    If someone claims to be “good at everything”, I would give them a minor bonus. But, I would not let them develop a proficiency in anything unless they start giving up equivalent useful backround in “everything”.

  3. Rob says:

    I think if one of my group came to me and asked for this my response would be somewhat delayed, as I recovered from falling on the ground laughing.

    Noooooooo way!

    I’m perfectly ok with people having abstract magical in origin backgrounds, I might consider letting someone have it at 1/4 value I guess, similarly to John above.

    Their comes a point where GM’s have to just put their foot down.

  4. shadowcentaur says:

    This is the way I handle background checks and stretching how far they go.

    Clear cut: “Master Thief” picking a lock: “Ok”

    Borderline: “Clockwork Knight” lassoing a drowning ally: “Really?” “Well, all the clockwork knights are picked from former ranch hands that drove mechanical oxen in great drives for sale in Forge” “Ok fine”

    Pushing it: “Necromancer Lieutenant” trying to avoid slipping off an icy ledge by using his enchanted jawbone that he just made up as an ice pick: “Ok, make up a story on the spot that entertains the whole group about how that happened in your past” “Everyone think that was cool? Ok, take your bonus”

    If your background is “Good at Everything”, you have to justify EVERYTHING you EVER do with an impromptu story about your past. Since the only players who would take a background like that are those who just want to get free points for no creative effort, it self-regulates. Or if you do have a creative player, it gives him an outlet for amusing anecdotes about his past.

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