Character Background and Culture – DPs vs. Skill Ranks

One thing I’ve noticed from my visits here and on the RM forums is that I appear to be alone in the method I use to develop both cultures and backgrounds for characters. Most GMs use the No Profession skill costs and a number of development points to generate both cultures and background options. I’ve gone a different route.

The first thing I always noticed with cultures and background options developed with DPs is they’re all remarkably similar. When you have (say) 50 DPs and spend them on the X/XX model (one cost for the first pick and another for the second) you’re really creating a series of what I consider flat profiles. Each culture will have a number of Rank 2 skills, maybe a handful above that (usually linguistics), and that’s it. Nowhere do you see the wide variations that result from certain cultures or ways of life (can you really imagine a Mongol horseman or Comanche warrior with only a +10 in Riding? I can’t either). There’s shadings between the cultures, but that’s about all.

Why DPs?

When I was working through this problem with my campaign setting, I decided to toss the entire DP idea out the window. Instead I developed cultures and background options based on the concept of Skill Ranks. In my setting it was easy to balance, since I require players to roll for their character’s origin first and can limit the presence of the more rank-heavy cultures that way. The other tradeoff is cultures starting with better rank profiles normally have access to fewer Professions (I limit those based on culture). When I expanded the idea to non-fantasy gaming I had to take a different approach.

What got me started down this road was the Mongol/Comanche question above. It just didn’t make sense to me, and you couldn’t really get around that with the DP/Skill cost relationship in every version of RM. So I started breaking the whole thing down into skill ranks. If a character needs (say) five ranks to be considered proficient in riding, that’s what she started with based on her upbringing in a nomadic horse-based society. It didn’t matter how much that cost for No Profession, since I wasn’t using DPs at all.

Minus the Magic

These modifications worked so well I decided to carry them through to my modern (or at least non-magic) settings. The basic model initially was the same: I assigned as many ranks as seemed rational to what would be core skills for a Profession (Riding for a cowboy, for example). But those were small patches, and I knew at some point I’d have to take a more systematic approach to it.

That’s when I developed the three cores to my modern character generation ‘system’: Culture; Background Options; and Education/Work. Again I paid no attention to DPs or the concept of No Profession. Instead I looked at what a reasonable level of skill (Skill Rank as it converts to a skill bonus) would be for major aspects of a particular culture or background.


Keep in mind Culture covers the first 17 years or so of a character’s ‘life’, and a +5 for something that’s central to her existence just doesn’t cut it. I ended up with cultures containing an average of 30-40 skill ranks, spread out over a number of skills. Cultures have relative balance based on that, but each has its own particular strengths and weaknesses in terms of skills.

I also use this system to preserve player choice. The skill ranks allocate to Categories in most cases, leaving the player free to assign them to skills within the Category as she wishes. So while two characters from an Urban background will be similar in key areas,  how the players allocate those ranks makes them different.

Background Options

These are best seen as ‘mini-careers’ players may  purchase with DPs during character creation. They don’t use a set number of skill ranks; some are more powerful than others. But those powerful ones cost more in DP terms, and also add to a character’s age and may include some disadvantages as well.

They’re also optional. Sometimes I use them, sometimes I don’t. And players certainly don’t have to buy one. But they do add some extra flavor to a game and combine with Cultures to create some interesting characters.

Education and Work

For any modern game you really have to address what a character either learns in college or what they do for the first few years after they finish high school. To reflect the idea of an academic major, I allocated a set number of skill ranks to one Category (still allowing the player to pick the skill within that Category) and spread a smaller number of ranks throughout other Categories to reflect a typical university education.

But what if the player doesn’t want her character to have gone to college? I took that same number of skill ranks and reallocated them to reflect four years spent in the work force. Again the player has full control over where the ranks go within a Category, but by allocating them based on Category the end result in terms of skill bonuses is very similar to the college template. This template (Education/Workforce) has about 30 skill ranks spread out over five or six Categories.

Why Bother?

Good question. I did this in part because the current Culture and Background system based on DPs wasn’t able to capture the idea of the math whiz with no social skills or the star track team member who had someone else doing all of her homework during high school. By breaking away from the DP-imposed skill development limits you’re able to allocate ranks as you wish. Characters still balance based on total ranks, but they can be wildly uneven depending on how a player allocates  ranks. And if you have a setting using origin rolls, you can create some really unique cultures and control access based on origin.

4 Replies to “Character Background and Culture – DPs vs. Skill Ranks”

  1. I also allocate skill ranks rather than DPs for cultural background. I took the idea from MERP that allocated ranks per category each level.

    As you say allowing the player to assign those ranks to specific skills means you still get unique characters and you can shape a broader education by giving ranks in many categories.

    In my rules a player will spend DPs once and only once in their entire life.

  2. I use # of skill ranks as well to set cultural and vocational skill packages. I was using 30 per package–with fewer meta skills, 60 ranks really adds for a 1st level player. Specialized vocations could get 10+ ranks in niche skills (like a duelist) so they are comparable to a 5th lvl character in their concentration.

  3. I think the point behind the RMU method is to provide one that is more balanced. How do you balance your methods other than assigning a number of ranks? The cost of 30 ranks could vary tremendously depending on what skills you buy. So one culture might get many ranks in expensive skills that would cost a lot to buy, while another might get only the cheap skills that didn’t cost much, and thus you have a Mongol character starting the game with a big advantage — good riding, weapon and armor skills, perception, etc — over another. I think that was what RMU is trying to avoid.

    I do nevertheless like the way your system more accurately represents cultures, and I wholeheartedly agree that a Mongol should have more ranks in riding than 2. I also like the way players get some choice in picking individual skills within a category, as well as the work vs. school path.

    Note that in a recent post, one of the developers said RMU is going to tweak its culture system to give more ranks for culture, IIRC, since first level characters still seem a little weak. So they might be taking some of your ideas to heart!

    1. I think the balancing factor is done ‘by eye’. The GM is assigning the number of ranks and to which categories. It is not a case of Player X turns up with a character that is 90DPs stronger than the rest of your players completely out of the blue.

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