Every story has a beginning. Your character’s background reveals where you came from, your original livelihood, and your place in the world. Your warrior might have been a courageous knight or a grizzled soldier. Your mage could have been a sage or an artisan. Your rogue might have gotten by as a guild thief or commanded audiences as a jester.
Choosing your background details provides you with important story cues about your character’s identity. The most important question to ask about your background is what changed? Why did you stop doing whatever your background describes and start adventuring? Where did you get the money to purchase your starting gear, or, if you come from a wealthy background, why don’t you have more money? How did you learn the skills of your class? What sets you apart from ordinary people who share your background?
You can optionally choose that your character was raised in a culture other than your species’ culture. You can replace the cultural traits of your species with the cultural traits of another species.
You are capable with the Lore skill for your species or the species whose culture you were raised in.
Choose one of the following environments where you were raised. You gain the benefits listed for that environment.
Arctic Dweller. You have advantage on Wilderness checks to forage in an Arctic environment.
Arctic Acclimated. You’re naturally adapted to cold climates, as described in chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Coastal Dweller. You have advantage on Wilderness checks to forage in a Coastal environment.
Coastal. You can hold your breath twice as long as normal.
Desert Dweller. You have advantage on Wilderness checks to forage in a Desert environment.
Desert Acclimated. You’re naturally adapted to hot climates, as described in chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Grassland Dweller. You have advantage on Wilderness checks to forage in a Grassland environment.
Runner. When you use the Dash action, you gain an extra 1.5 meters of movement for the current turn.
Forest Dweller. You have advantage on Wilderness checks to forage in a Forest environment.
Forest Child. You have advantage on ability checks to balance on trees and small boulders and rocks.
Mountain Dweller. You have advantage on Wilderness checks to forage in a Mountain environment.
Mountain Born. You’re acclimated to high altitude, including elevations above 6,000 meters. You’re also naturally adapted to cold climates, as described in chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Swamp Dweller. You have advantage on Wilderness checks to forage in a Swamp environment.
Poison Resistant. You have advantage on saving throws against poison.
Hill Dweller. You have advantage on Wilderness checks to forage in a Hill environment.
Hillbilly. You have advantage on ability checks to balance on inclines, declines, and small boulders and rocks.
Underdark Dweller. You have advantage on Wilderness checks to forage in a Underdark environment.
Extra Language. You can speak, read, and write Undercommon.
Urban Dweller. You have advantage on Streetwise checks to find food and water in an Urban environment.
Extra Language. You can speak, read, and write one extra language of your choice.
Choose one of the following livelihoods. You gain the benefits listed for that livelihood.
Each livelihood gives a character capability in two skills. If you are already capable, you become proficient.
Each livelihood provides a package of starting equipment. If you use the optional rule from the Equipment section to spend coin on gear, you do not receive the starting equipment from your livelihood.
Customizing a Livelihood
You might want to tweak the skills of a livelihood so it better fits your character or the campaign setting. To customize a livelihood, you can choose any two skills to be capable with. You can either use the equipment package from your livelihood or spend coin on gear as described in the Equipment section. (If you spend coin, you can’t also take the equipment package suggested for your class.) Finally, choose two personality traits, one ideal, one bond, and one flaw.
You have spent your life in the service of a temple to a specific god or pantheon of gods. You act as an intermediary between the realm of the holy and the mortal world, performing sacred rites and offering sacrifices in order to conduct worshipers into the presence of the divine.
Choose a god, a pantheon of gods, or some other quasi-divine being, and work with your GM to detail the nature of your religious service. Were you a lesser functionary in a temple, raised from childhood to assist the priests in the sacred rites? Or were you a high priest who suddenly experienced a call to serve your god in a different way? Perhaps you were the leader of a small cult outside of any established temple structure.
Acolytes are shaped by their experience in temples or other religious communities. Their study of the history and tenets of their faith and their relationships to temples, shrines, or hierarchies affect their mannerisms and ideals. Their flaws might be some hidden hypocrisy or heretical idea, or an ideal or bond taken to an extreme.
You have always been fascinated by other cultures, from the most ancient and primeval lost lands to the most modern civilizations. By studying other cultures’ customs, philosophies, laws, rituals, religious beliefs, languages, and art, you have learned how tribes, empires, and all forms of society in between craft their own destinies and doom. This knowledge came to you not only through books and scrolls, but also through firsthand observation—by visiting far-flung settlements and exploring local histories and customs.
Anthropologists leave behind the societies into which they were born to discover what life is like in other parts of the world. They seek to see how other species and civilizations survive—or why they did not. Some anthropologists are driven by intellectual curiosity, while others want the fame and recognition that comes with being the first to discover a new people, a lost tribe, or the truth about an ancient empire’s downfall.
An archaeologist learns about the long-lost and fallen cultures of the past by studying their remains-their bones, their ruins, their surviving masterworks, and their tombs. Those who practice archaeology travel to the far corners of the world to root through crumbled cities and lost dungeons, digging in search of artifacts that might tell the stories of monarchs and high priests, wars and cataclysms.
Few archaeologists can resist the lure of an unexplored ruin or dungeon, particularly if such a site is the source of legends or is rumored to contain the treasures and relics of wizards, warlords, or royalty. Some archaeologists plunder for wealth or fame, while others consider it their calling to illuminate the past or keep the world’s greatest treasures from falling into the wrong hands. Whatever their motivations, archaeologists combine the qualities of a scrappy historian with the self-made heroism of a treasure-hunting scoundrel.
You have always had a way with people. You know what makes them tick, you can tease out their hearts’ desires after a few minutes of conversation, and with a few leading questions you can read them like they were children’s books. It’s a useful talent, and one that you’re perfectly willing to use for your advantage.
You know what people want and you deliver. Common sense should steer people away from things that sound too good to be true, but common sense seems to be in short supply when you’re around. The bottle of pink-colored liquid will surely cure that unseemly rash, this ointment—nothing more than a bit of fat with a sprinkle of silver dust—can restore youth and vigor, and there’s a bridge in the city that just happens to be for sale. These marvels sound implausible, but you make them sound like the real deal.
Charlatans are colorful characters who conceal their true selves behind the masks they construct. They reflect what people want to see, what they want to believe, and how they see the world. But their true selves are sometimes plagued by an uneasy conscience, an old enemy, or deep-seated trust issues.
You have served the community where you grew up, standing as its first line of defense against crime. You aren’t a soldier, directing your gaze outward at possible enemies. Instead, your service to your hometown was to help police its populace, protecting the citizenry from lawbreakers and malefactors of every stripe.
Even if you’re not city-born or city-bred, this background can describe your early years as a member of law enforcement. Most settlements of any size have their own constables and police forces, and even smaller communities have sheriffs and bailiffs who stand ready to protect their community.
Your bond is likely associated with your fellow watch members or the watch organization itself and almost certainly concerns your community. Your ideal probably involves the fostering of peace and safety. An investigator is likely to have an ideal connected to achieving justice by successfully solving crimes.
Rarer than watch or patrol members are a community’s investigators, who are responsible for solving crimes after the fact. Though such folk are seldom found in rural areas, nearly every settlement of decent size has at least one or two watch members who have the skill to investigate crime scenes and track down criminals. If your prior experience is as an investigator, you are capable with Perception rather than Brawn.
You are an experienced criminal with a history of breaking the law. You have spent a lot of time among other criminals and still have contacts within the criminal underworld. You’re far closer than most people to the world of murder, theft, and violence that pervades the underbelly of civilization, and you have survived up to this point by flouting the rules and regulations of society.
Criminals might seem like villains on the surface, but some have an abundance of endearing, if not redeeming, characteristics. There might be honor among thieves, but criminals rarely show any respect for law or authority.
Although your capabilities are not much different from those of a burglar or smuggler, you learned and practiced them in a very different context: as an espionage agent. Vou might have been an officially sanctioned agent of the crown, or perhaps you sold the secrets you uncovered to the highest bidder.
You practice some form of medicine and are skilled at patching up wounds and alleviating ailments. You might be well known among other medical professionals or you may have discovered medicine on your own.
You have medical knowledge… or so it seems. You lack real medical training, and most of your knowledge of medicine comes from hearsay and superstition.
If you choose this variant, your capability in the Medicine skill is replaced with capability in the Deception skill.
Even though you lack medicinal ability, you can still find work treating those who cannot see through your deception. If you are found to be a fraud, you may be in danger of retaliation from patients or their loved ones.
You thrive in front of an audience. You know how to entrance them, entertain them, and even inspire them. Your poetics can stir the hearts of those who hear you, awakening grief or joy, laughter or anger. Your music raises their spirits or captures their sorrow. Your dance steps captivate, your humor cuts to the quick. Whatever techniques you use, your art is your life.
Successful entertainers have to be able to capture and hold an audience’s attention, so they tend to have flamboyant or forceful personalities. They’re inclined toward the romantic and often cling to high-minded ideaIs about the practice of art and the appreciation of beauty.
A gladiator is as much an entertainer as any minstrel or circus performer, trained to make the arts of combat into a spectacle the crowd can enjoy. This kind of flashy combat is your entertainer routine, though you might also have some skills as a tumbler or actor. You can replace the musical instrument in your equipment package with an inexpensive but unusual weapon, such as a trident or net.
Many organizations aren’t bound by strictures of geography. These factions pursue their agendas without regard for political boundaries, and their members operate anywhere the organization deems necessary. These groups employ listeners, rumormongers, smugglers, sellswords, cache-holders (people who guard caches of wealth or magic for use by the faction’s operatives), haven keepers, and message drop minders, to name a few. At the core of every faction are those who don’t merely fulfill a small function for that organization, but who serve as its hands, head, and heart.
As a prelude to your adventuring career (and in preparation for it), you served as an agent of a particular faction. You might have operated openly or secretly, depending on the faction and its goals, as well as how those goals mesh with your own. Becoming an adventurer doesn’t necessarily require you to relinquish membership in your faction (though you can choose to do so), and it might enhance your status in the faction.
In your earlier days, you were a personage of some significance in a noble court or a bureaucratic organization. You might or might not come from an upper-class family; your talents, rather than the circumstances of your birth, could have secured you this position. You might have been one of the many functionaries, attendants, and other hangers-on in a court, or perhaps you traveled in a baroque and cutthroat conglomeration of guilds, nobles, adventurers, and secret societies. You might have been a behind-the-scenes law-keeper or functionary, or you might have grown up in and around a castle. Even if you are no longer a full-fledged member of the group that gave you your start in life, your relationships with your former fellows can be an advantage for you and your adventuring comrades. You might undertake missions with your new companions that further the interest of the organization that gave you your start in life. In any event, the abilities that you honed while serving as a courtier will stand you in good stead as an adventurer.
Almost all of the common people and other folk that one might encounter have one thing in common: they live out their lives without ever traveling more than a few kilometers from where they were born. You aren’t one of those folk. You are from a distant place, one so remote that few of the common folk realize that it exists, and chances are good that even if some people you meet have heard of your homeland, they know merely the name and perhaps a few outrageous stories. You have come to this part of the world for your own reasons, which you might or might not choose to share. Although you will undoubtedly find some of this land’s ways to be strange and discomfiting, you can also be sure that some things its people take for granted will be to you new wonders that you’ve never laid eyes on before. By the same token, you’re a person of interest, for good or ill, to those around you almost anywhere you go.
You come from a humble social rank, but you are destined for so much more. Already the people of your home village regard you as their champion, and your destiny calls you to stand against the tyrants and monsters that threaten the common folk everywhere.
A folk hero is one of the common people, for better or for worse. Most folk heroes look on their humble origins as a virtue, not a shortcoming, and their home communities remain very important to them.
You are the heir to something of great value—not mere coin or wealth, but an object that has been entrusted to you and you alone. Your inheritance might have come directly to you from a member of your family, by right of birth, or it could have been left to you by a friend, a mentor, a teacher, or someone else important in your life. The revelation of your inheritance changed your life, and might have set you on the path to adventure, but it could also come with many dangers, including those who covet your gift and want to take it from you—by force, if need be.
You are a member of an artisan’s guild, skilled in a particular field and closely associated with other artisans. You are a well-established part of the mercantile world, freed by talent and wealth from the constraints of a feudal social order. You learned your skills as an apprentice to a master artisan, under the sponsorship of your guild, until you became a master in your own right.
Guild artisans are among the most ordinary people in the world—until they set down their tools and take up an adventuring career. They understand the value of hard work and the importance of community, but they’re vulnerable to sins of greed and covetousness.
Variant: Guild Merchant
Instead of an artisans’ guild, you might belong to a guild of traders, caravan masters, or shopkeepers. You don’t craft items yourself but earn a living by buying and selling the works of others (or the raw materials artisans need to practice their craft). Your guild might be a large merchant consortium (or family) with interests across the region. Perhaps you transported goods from one place to another, by ship, wagon, or caravan, or bought them from traveling traders and sold them in your own little shop. In some ways, the traveling merchant’s life lends itself to adventure far more than the life of an artisan.
Rather than starting with artisan’s tools, you can start with a mule and a cart.
You lived in seclusion—either in a sheltered community such as a monastery, or entirely alone—for a formative part of your life. In your time apart from the clamor of society, you found quiet, solitude, and perhaps some of the answers you were looking for.
Some hermits are well suited to a life of seclusion, whereas others chafe against it and long for company. Whether they embrace solitude or long to escape it, the solitary life shapes their attitudes and ideals. A few are driven slightly mad by their years apart from society.
You’ve made your living culling the creatures that go bump in the night. The denizens that make a road impassable or curse a tomb are where upon you stake your claim. Days of studying the beasts you stalk has lead you to understand their behaviors and quirks, as well as what tools are best suited to bringing them to heel.
You may hunt alone, as part of a team, or as representative of a large organization. No matter what, you do it relentlessly.
You understand wealth, power, and privilege. You carry a noble title, and your family owns land, collects taxes, and wields significant political influence. You might be a pampered aristocrat unfamiliar with work or discomfort, a former merchant just elevated to the nobility, or a disinherited scoundrel with a disproportionate sense of entitlement. Or you could be an honest, hard-working landowner who cares deeply about the people who live and work on your land, keenly aware of your responsibility to them.
Work with your GM to come up with an appropriate title and determine how much authority that title carries. A noble title doesn’t stand on its own—it’s connected to an entire family, and whatever title you hold, you will pass it down to your own children. Not only do you need to determine your noble title, but you should also work with the GM to describe your family and their influence on you.
Is your family old and established, or was your title only recently bestowed? How much influence do they wield, and over what area? What kind of reputation does your family have among the other aristocrats of the region? How do the common people regard them?
What’s your position in the family? Are you the heir to the head of the family? Have you already inherited the title? How do you feel about that responsibility? Or are you so far down the line of inheritance that no one cares what you do, as long as you don’t embarrass the family? How does the head of your family feel about your adventuring career? Are you in your family’s good graces, or shunned by the rest of your family?
Does your family have a coat of arms? An insignia you might wear on a signet ring? Particular colors you wear all the time? An animal you regard as a symbol of your line or even a spiritual member of the family?
These details help establish your family and your title as features of the world of the campaign.
Nobles are born and raised to a very different lifestyle than most people ever experience, and their personalities reflect that upbringing. A noble title comes with a plethora of bonds—responsibilities to family, to other nobles (including the sovereign), to the people entrusted to the family’s care, or even to the title itself. But this responsibility is often a good way to undermine a noble.
A knighthood is among the lowest noble titles in most societies, but it can be a path to higher status. As an emblem of chivalry and the ideals of courtly love, you might include among your equipment a banner or other token from a noble lord or lady to whom you have given your heart—in a chaste sort of devotion. (This person could be your bond.)
Though the term “knight” conjures ideas of mounted, heavily armored warriors of noble blood, most knightly orders don’t restrict their membership to such individuals. The goals and philosophies of the order are more important than the gear and fighting style of its members, and so most of these orders aren’t limited to fighting types, but are open to all sorts of folk who are willing to battle and die for the order’s cause.
You grew up in the wilds, far from civilization and the comforts of town and technology. You’ve witnessed the migration of herds larger than forests, survived weather more extreme than any city-dweller could comprehend, and enjoyed the solitude of being the only thinking creature for kilometers in any direction. The wilds are in your blood, whether you were a nomad, an explorer, a recluse, a hunter-gatherer, or even a marauder. Even in places where you don’t know the specific features of the terrain, you know the ways of the wild.
Often considered rude and uncouth among civilized folk, outlanders have little respect for the niceties of life in the cities. The ties of tribe, clan, family, and the natural world of which they are a part are the most important bonds to most outlanders.
Variant: Tribe Member
Though you might have only recently arrived in civilized lands, you are no stranger to the values of cooperation and group effort when striving for supremacy. You learned these principles, and much more, as a member of a tribe.
Your people have always tried to hold to the old ways. Tradition and taboo have kept your tribe strong while the kingdoms of others have collapsed into chaos and ruin.
You might have grown up in a tribe that had decided to settle down, and now that they have abandoned that path, you find yourself adrift. Or you might come from a tribe that adheres to tradition, but you seek to bring glory to your tribe by achieving great things as a formidable adventurer.
You spent years learning the lore of the multiverse. You scoured manuscripts, studied scrolls, and listened to the greatest experts on the subjects that interest you. Your efforts have made you a master in your fields of study.
Sages are defined by their extensive studies, and their characteristics reflect this life of study. Devoted to scholarly pursuits, a sage values knowledge highly—sometimes in its own right, sometimes as a means toward other ideals.
As a child, you were inquisitive when your playmates were possessive or raucous. In your formative years, you found your way to a great institute of learning, where you were apprenticed and taught that knowledge is a more valuable treasure than gold or gems. Now you are ready to leave your home—not to abandon it, but to quest for new lore to add to its storehouse of knowledge.
You sailed on a seagoing vessel for years. In that time, you faced down mighty storms, monsters of the deep, and those who wanted to sink your craft to the bottomless depths. Your first love is the distant line of the horizon, but the time has come to try your hand at something new.
Discuss the nature of the ship you previously sailed with your Game Master (GM). Was it a merchant ship, a naval vessel, a ship of discovery, or a pirate ship? How famous (or infamous) is it? Is it widely traveled? Is it still sailing, or is it missing and presumed lost with all hands?
What were your duties on board—boatswain, captain, navigator, cook, or some other position? Who were the captain and first mate? Did you leave your ship on good terms with your fellows, or on the run?
Sailors can be a rough lot, but the responsibilities of life on a ship make them generally reliable as well. Life aboard a ship shapes their outlook and forms their most important attachments.
You spent your youth under the sway of a dread pirate, a ruthless cutthroat who taught you how to survive in a world of sharks and savages. You’ve indulged in larceny on the high seas and sent more than one deserving soul to a briny grave. Fear and bloodshed are no strangers to you, and you’ve garnered a somewhat unsavory reputation in many a port town.
War has been your life for as long as you care to remember. You trained as a youth, studied the use of weapons and armor, learned basic survival techniques, including how to stay alive on the battlefield. You might have been part of a standing national army or a mercenary company, or perhaps a member of a local militia who rose to prominence during a recent war.
When you choose this background, work with your GM to determine which military organization you were a part of, how far through its ranks you progressed, and what kind of experiences you had during your military career. Was it a standing army, a town guard, or a village militia? Or it might have been a noble’s or merchant’s private army, or a mercenary company.
The horrors of war combined with the rigid discipline of military service leave their mark on all soldiers, shaping their ideals, creating strong bonds, and often leaving them scarred and vulnerable to fear, shame, and hatred.
As a sell-sword who fought battles for coin, you’re well acquainted with risking life and limb for a chance at a share of treasure. Now, you look forward to fighting foes and reaping even greater rewards as an adventurer. Your experience makes you familiar with the ins and outs of mercenary life, and you likely have harrowing stories of events on the battlefield. You might have served with a large outfit, or a smaller band of sell-swords, maybe even more than one.
Now you’re looking for something else, perhaps greater reward for the risks you take, or the freedom to choose your own activities. For whatever reason, you’re leaving behind the life of a soldier for hire, but your skills are undeniably suited for battle, so now you fight on in a different way.
Urban Bounty Hunter
Before you became an adventurer, your life was already full of conflict and excitement, because you made a living tracking down people for pay. Unlike some people who collect bounties, though, you aren’t a savage who follows quarry into or through the wilderness. You’re involved in a lucrative trade, in the place where you live, that routinely tests your skills and survival instincts. What’s more, you aren’t alone, as a bounty hunter in the wild would be: you routinely interact with both the criminal subculture and other bounty hunters, maintaining contacts in both areas to help you succeed.
You might be a cunning thief-catcher, prowling the rooftops to catch one of the myriad burglars of the city. Perhaps you are someone who has your ear to the street, aware of the doings of thieves’ guilds and street gangs. You might be a “velvet mask” bounty hunter, one who blends in with high society and noble circles in order to catch the criminals that prey on the rich, whether pickpockets or con artists. The community where you plied your trade might have been a great metropolises, or a less populous location—any place that’s large enough to have a steady supply of potential quarries.
As a member of an adventuring party, you might find it more difficult to pursue a personal agenda that doesn’t fit with the group’s objectives—but on the other hand, you can take down much more formidable targets with the help of your companions.
You grew up on the streets alone, orphaned, and poor. You had no one to watch over you or to provide for you, so you learned to provide for yourself. You fought fiercely over food and kept a constant watch out for other desperate souls who might steal from you. You slept on rooftops and in alleyways, exposed to the elements, and endured sickness without the advantage of medicine or a place to recuperate. You’ve survived despite all odds, and did so through cunning, strength, speed, or some combination of each.
You begin your adventuring career with enough money to live modestly but securely for at least ten days. How did you come by that money? What allowed you to break free of your desperate circumstances and embark on a better life?
Urchins are shaped by lives of desperate poverty, for good and for ill. They tend to be driven either by a commitment to the people with whom they shared life on the street or by a burning desire to find a better life—and maybe get some payback on all the rich people who treated them badly.