Sorcerers & Speakeasies (Part 2: Backgrounds)

Okay… so maybe I now AM working on a Sorcerers and Speakeasies 5e supplement. Mostly, I’m having someone else work on it right now, while I just offer outlines and notes. But since it’s on my mind, and I need content for my blog anyway, here are some more thoughts.

Given that 5e is a robust, flexible, well-supported game system we need to ask ourselves: what do characters really need to fit in to our 1920s setting? Equipment, obviously. Since we are sticking with the normal species there’s no need for change there. We’ll make adjustments to the classes, but only as needed. Maybe a few spells to augment the feel of the setting (Tannison’s Terrible Tommygun, anyone?) But there’s actually not a ton of hard rules changes needed.

That brings us to backgrounds.

Many of the backgrounds in 5e conceptually work fine for our 1920s “Djinn and Tonic” campaign. We’d need to update available equipment, including for each background, but we can do that easily (once we have an equipment list… so this is something I have an excellent freelancer working on right now). Similarly we’d want a conversation about languages (do we have all the 5e languages and all the real-world languages? Do we decide German is elven, so Netherlandic is drow, West Scandinavian is old fae, and so on?), but once that’s settled languages are easy. The personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws generally work fine (I think we can trust players to update any anachronistic terms to 1920s-appropriate equivalents).

Beyond that, looking at the PHB, Acolyte, Charlatan, Criminal, Entertainer, Sage, Sailor, and Urchin all work pretty well as-is. Some context might be worth adding, but each of those backgrounds can easily be adapted to Sorcerers & Speakeasies with a small entry that gives an update to equipment and maybe proficiencies, and a short description of any conceptual tweaks that need to be mentioned.

We might want to do just a bit more work for Folk Hero, Guild Artisan, Hermit, Noble, and Outlander. The core of those work fine, but the details might need a tad more adjustment. Luckily, the concept of Variant backgrounds can handle that just fine. Local Favorite is an easy variant for Folk Hero, Union Member for Guild Artisan, Dedicated Academic for Hermit, Upper Class Scion for Noble, and possibly WWI Veteran for Outlander.

It could be worth doing a few more variant for the backgrounds that already work well too, just for specific flavor. Gambler is an easy variant for Charlatan, Gangster for Criminal, Scientist for Sage, and so on.

Now that doesn’t mean we may not want to add some new backgrounds as well. Journalist comes to mind as a common 1920s trope worth supporting on its own, and maybe Masked Vigilante if we want specific support for it. Copper, Detective, Driver, Engineer, Pilot, Smuggler, Rum-Runner… there’s tons of fun stuff we can do if we want to. In each case we should ask if it needs it’s own background (if we do Smuggler, Rum-Runner is a pretty obvious variant–same with Copper and Detective or Diver and Pilot). Dilettante could be a variant of Noble, but maybe Dandy/Flapper deserves its own? We can touch on things like Made a Deal at the Crossroads (if we don’t borrow the idea for the Warlock), or Blasted By Lovecraftian Horror if we want to support more mystic backgrounds in keeping with our magic-and-machines.

We don’t want to get TOO specific. I suspect we want Archaeologists as a form of Sage or Hermit, and Banker/Grocer/Typewriter Repair Man are likely just suggestions for some kind of Crafter or the Guild Artisan. We should think hard about whether Spy, Photographer, Athlete/Sports Star, Student, and the dozen more than come to mind are really worth having their own entries at all, but certainly some will.

A LOT of character flavor can come from backgrounds, so we’d want to think about if we want to make any variants just for that reason.

For example, look at the Entertainer background. It has 10 Entertainer Routines listed. There’s nothing wrong with being an actor, dancer, or juggler, but “jester” doesn’t speak to the 1920s. Let’s look at what a revised table might look like.

Entertainer Routines

Pick 1-3 routines, or roll a d10 to pick them randomly.

  1. Stage actor
  2. Dancer
  3. Carnival barker
  4. Clown
  5. Juggler
  6. Jazz instrumentalist
  7. Big Band instrumentalist
  8. Singer
  9. Radio actor
  10. Ventriloquist

That doesn’t change the game rules at all, but it does feel very much more grounded in the culture of the Roaring 20s.

This also means a Backgrounds chapter of a Sorcerers and Speakeasies game could contain a lot of flavor without loading down players or the GM with a lot of specialized rules. If we want to sneak in references to Adventurer’s Inc., Hexers, Grendels, and Taxi Heroes, we can put all that into Backgrounds just to help flesh out the world.

Speaking of helping:

Want to See More of This? Back my Patreon!

Today’s post only happened because I was able to turn down some small freelance projects, giving me spare time to consider these questions, and replace the income those would have brought in with money from my Patreon. Even just the price of a cup of coffee each month makes a big difference in how much content I can put out on my blog!

About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on February 17, 2020, in Anachronistic Adventurers, Diesel Pulp, Game Design, Microsetting and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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