The wild assumption that characters had lives before they became mass-murdering heroes
One of the goals of the Cinematic System is to give an unprecedented level of depth to player characters. Background skills are an essential (and fun!) component of this depth: they are the skills characters developed while they were growing up. The set of background skills characters have tends to write the “script” of their background stories.
Background skills work much the same as standard skills or weapon skills: they are improved with background skill points, they have a maximum number of ranks (equal to half your Charisma score, rounded down), and each one has a “key ability” which modifies their check. Cinematic System characters start with (4 + their charisma bonus) x 5 background skill points. This assumes that the more charismatic – and hence more social and confident – characters had more opportunity to pick up and develop skills. Note that the following feats modify background skill point acquisition or background skills: Richer Background (gives you more background skill points), Alternative Approach (calculates background skill points using a base stat other than Charisma), Advanced Courses (sets two standard skills as background skills), and Childish Indulgences (gives you more background skill points to spend in common-childhood skills).
If a character spent time doing something in their youth (swimming, weaving, burning down houses), they will have background skill points in the associated background skill. The following standard skills can be treated as background skills and improved with background skill points: all “Skills Of Sensory Perception” (consider, general perception, intuit distance, listen, smell, spot, taste, timesense, touch), all “Skills That Increase The Base Stats” (body building, common sense, coordination exercises, endurance training, personal hygiene, reading, running, self esteem, superstition development), balance, intimidation, innuendo, jump, language (described in the new Standard Skills section), reading lips, swimming, and use rope.
Many of the background skills are more specific versions of weapon or standard skills. Notice that search isn’t included as a general skill that can be treated as a background skill – that’s because there are more specific versions of search that exist as background skills (such as midden diving and muckraking). In some cases, the ranks a character has in a background skill stack directly with the ranks a character has in the standard skill it relates to when making a skill check. This is called direct-line synergy, and it occurs when both the background skill and the standard skill directly apply to the task in question. A good example of this might happen when a character attempts to climb a tree, and they have ranks in the climb skill and in the background skill climb (trees). In this case, climb (trees) has direct-line synergy with climb, and the character would use all their ranks in both skills when making the skill check (no Matt, the “key ability” modifier is not applied twice). What if this same character tried to climb, say, a rock wall. In this case, the background skill climb (trees) would give the usual amount of synergy: if this character had 5 ranks in climb (trees) they would get a +2 to the climb check for the rock wall. Each of the background skill descriptions will list the other skills – weapon, standard, or even background – which they provide synergy to.
Many of the background skills are listed as “Skill (specific)”, such as in “Climb (specific).” These background skills work like the standard skills knowledge, profession, and craft and are open ended. Usually, we provide some potential choices – in the case of Climb (specific) we list such things as trees, cliffs, caves, masonry walls, etc. You have to choose a specific version of a background skill listed as (specific) when you put a rank into it, although you could have ranks in several specific versions of a background skill. Thus, you could put background skill points into climb (trees) and climb (caves) if you wanted to. Specific versions of the same skill always have synergy with each other, but never have direct-line synergy (or what would be the point of splitting these hairs?).
Some of the background skills have specialization options listed in their description. If you desire, you can choose to take the specialization option, and specialize (restrict) the skill according to the choices given (or make up your own choices). If you do this, each rank you place in the skill gets a matching rank from the universe. The background skill “Dream Interpretation (specialization option)” is like this: if you choose the specialization option and put 1 background skill point in dream interpretation (nightmares) you end up with two ranks in this skill. It is entirely possible to place some background skill points in a background skill and some others in the specialized version of the same skill. You could, for example, put two ranks in dream interpretation and two ranks in dream interpretation (nightmares). Non-specialized versions of skills have direct-line synergy with their specialized counterparts. Thus, the two ranks you place in dream interpretation stack with the ranks you have in dream interpretation (nightmares) if and only if you are dream interpreting a nightmare. If you were trying to use dream interpretation on a dream that was not a nightmare, only the ranks you have in dream interpretation would affect the skill check. The exception to this rule lies in the Specialized Enlightenment feat – characters in possession of this feat get to apply ½ their specialized ranks to a skill check when making a more general version of the skill check. Specialized versions of skills are accounted for separately from non-specialized versions of the same skills. Specialized skills never have synergy with their non-specialized counterparts, so having 5 ranks in grooming (dogs) does not give you a +2 to your grooming skill checks. However, each of your grooming skill ranks stack with your grooming (dogs) skill ranks when making a skill check to groom dogs.
Each of the background skill descriptions have a class label which is either: classless, lower, middle, or upper. We have associated each of the background skills with one (or more) of these labels, assuming a stereotypical, quasi-medieval campaign world. Thus, midden diving (sorting through trash piles) is lower class background skill and athletics, specific is a middle and upper class background skill (because the lower class usually lacks adequate free time to spend on such pursuits). It would be really cool to re-label our background skills’ class associations according to the particulars of your own campaign world. Who knows? Perhaps in some kingdom you’ve developed only the wealthy elite get to legally sort through trash. In any event, you will need to decide if your character is lower, middle, or upper class before choosing background skills (unless you ignore the class associations altogether). You aren’t restricted to only choosing the background skills of your class, but it gets more “expensive” to place background skill points in background skills outside of your class. To gain 1 rank in a background skill one position removed from your social class (lower – middle or middle – upper) requires two background skill points. To gain 1 rank in a background skill two positions removed from your social class (lower – upper) requires three background skill points. The advantage of the middle class is obvious – they are the closest to each extreme and never need to spend more than 2 background skill points to gain 1 rank in a background skill. Note that the Marxist Stealth feat allows these restrictions in class to be transcended when selecting background skill. I’ll conclude this section with the obvious: skills that have no class association are considered to be “in” everyone’s social class, so you don’t need to spend extra background skill points to improve them.
Certain skills have, in brackets, an alignment descriptor such as “evil” – if the character’s starting alignment has this component then skill points can be allocated to it normally. If this is not the case, the skill gets more “expensive” to raise by one for every step along the good-evil axis the character’s alignment falls on [good – neutral – evil]. Thus, a good character wanting to take a rank in the torturing animals skill would have to spend 3 background skill points to attain one rank in it, whereas a neutrally aligned character would have to spend 2 background skill points to get the one rank. These considerations are moot for characters with the Karma Chameleon feat.
None of the background skills can be “used” untrained (with the exception of certain standard skills like listen, that are considered to be background skills, that can be used untrained…yes this can get confusing). During character generation, background skills can NOT be improved with standard skill points (again, with the exception of skills like listen – in those cases you aren’t really improving the background skill, but the standard skill with the same name). After character generation, background skills CAN be improved with standard skill points, provided the character in question spent time performing the background skills to be improved in-game (or otherwise has a role-played reason for improving them).
The maximum ranks a character can have in a background skill at any level is equal to 3 + [their level] + [the number of background ranks they started with in these skills]. Thus, if you start with 7 ranks in telling lies, you could have up to 7 + 4 = 11 ranks in that skill while you were level 1. This rule applies to the standard skills that players can put their background skill points in (such as reading and swimming) as well. Thus, a character with 8 background ranks in swimming can also have 4 regular ranks in swimming at level 1 for a total of 12 ranks (making for one hell of a swimmer).
Ranks in background skills you acquire from the DM, or from sources like feats do not subtract from your background skill point total as determined by your Charisma. Thus, if you had 5 ranks in the knowledge (lay Marxist social theory) background skill as a consequence of gaining the Marxist Stealth feat and had a Charisma modifier of +2 (for a total of (4 + 2) x 5 = 30 background skill points), you would still have 30 background skill points to spend in your other background skills.
Certain characters (such as druids) might have a number of background skills as class skills. In these cases, when putting ranks in background skills that are being treated as class skills ignore the minor amounts of stat points that the background skill descriptions list.
We encourage you to use background skills as a tool to add depth to your characters and campaign worlds. Without a doubt, there will be background skills unique to your game world you will need to include with the list we provide – background skills are good tools for culture building. One of the things we did not include with our discussion of background skills is a consideration of geography: certain skills, such as climb (cliffs) or fishing (ocean) would be harder to acquire for people living in certain geographic areas. When we originally developed background skills, we included a geographic context with each skill much in the way we have social class and alignment associations: we found this to be too difficult to implement, but you might find it interesting. Another thing to consider is the age of certain player character species: would a long-lived (or immortal?), campaign-specific species who begins play at several hundred years old have more background skills than, say, the average pimply 16 year old human PC? If this seems reasonable, you might consider giving the longer lived species the Richer Background feat (or something similar). If you notice, we have done something similar with the standard fantasy species listed in the rules set.