DnD 5E backgrounds guide

A comprehensive guide to choosing and roleplaying 5E backgrounds.

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In DnD 5E, player characters (PCs) are made up of several components from specific lists in the Player’s Handbook (PHB) and its subsequent supplements and modules. 

Here’s the bare bones anatomy of a PC:

You also have other components that flesh out your character, such as Stats, Armor Class, Skills, Abilities, Hit Points, and so on. But we’re going to focus on one basic component: your background. 

An often overlooked character ingredient, your chosen character background gives you roleplaying power and your PC a life history before becoming an adventurer. Depending on how you go about it, the background fluff given in the PHB can complement or even inspire your PC’s backstory. 

To get the most out of your background, integrate it into your backstory. The background can be a beginning point of character development. For example, your PC’s background as an urchin, sneaking around for food and to get out of trouble, could have a natural progression into becoming a  rogue as an adventurer. But your background could also be simply your history, who and what you were before becoming an adventurer, and you can use this as a point of stability before  something happened for your PC to become an adventurer. 

Enriching your PC’s backstory isn’t all your background is good for, however. Choosing one of the many backgrounds in the PHB grants you the following boons to match each:

  • 2 skill proficiencies  relevant to the background. These grant you a bonus equal to your proficiency modifier when you have to roll a check for those skills.
  • An additional, often helpful, ability pertinent to your former profession/lifestyle.
  • A coin purse with a predetermined amount of gold to add to your personal coffers. 
  • Starting Equipment. This one is pretty unimportant as you can choose to exchange your equipment for more gold and purchase items you find more relevant. 
  • An additional Language (…maybe). Ink your quill and take note, this is only available for certain backgrounds. Fret not, however, between you and the rest of your party, you’ll all likely have more languages than you have things to talk about with the NPCs you’ll be chatting up.
  • Other proficiencies (…also maybe). Your background can also give your proficiency in different tools, instruments, gaming sets, and types of vehicle, giving you a mechanical basis for swindling passers-by at dice whilst shouting ‘ahoy matey.’ 

Here at Dice Cove, instead of parroting back what is already available in the PHB for you to read and then asking for a cracker– we want to explain the content and cast Guidance to help you figure out which background is right for your next character. Whilst we’re only going to cover the PHB backgrounds here, typically each adventure will include new backgrounds and as of this article, there’s well over 40 backgrounds to choose from! 

Acolyte Background

Proficiencies: Insight, Religion

  • 2 Languages 

Feature: Shelter of the Faithful

Looking to reinforce the religious themes of your Cleric or Paladin? Or perhaps you want to inject some of that flavour into another class. If you have said yes to the previous, Acolyte is for you. This background tells the world you have spent your life essentially as a non magical priest, serving either a single god or an entire pantheon, and provides you with what you needed in your old life: Insight and Religion as your skills, two languages of your choice. Your former acolyte also gets a fitting parcel of belongings as they wave goodbye to the other members of their temple: a holy symbol, a prayer book/wheel, 5 sticks of incense, vestments, and a set of common clothes. Donations from the faithful will also get you a hefty pouch of 15GP.

The Shelter of the Faithful feature will grant you and your party free healing (as long as you cover costly components), and the ability to house [just] yourself at the modest level at any temple or shrine to your deity. If you happen to be near a temple that holds a special place for you–perhaps where you served–then you can even request assistance from the priests there, provided it won’t put them in danger of any kind.

Charlatan Background

Proficiencies: Deception, Sleight of Hand

  • Disguise Kit, Forgery Kit

Feature: False Identity

Everyone has to make a living, it just so happens that before you were raking in that adventurer coin, yours was made in a way the local Watch would disapprove of. Rigged games on a street corner, selling property that isn’t yours (or for sale), snake oil, or even just good ol’ fashioned questionable charm; whatever your chosen con, you were presumably good enough at it to make a living, or bad enough at it that the king’s coffers paid for at least one of your meals. Living this way has taught you the art of Deception and Sleight of Hand, the use of disguise and forgery kits. You also managed to get your slick hands on all you needed to practice your craft: a set of fine clothes, a disguise kit, your chosen con’s tools (weighted dice, useless coloured liquids, or even the signet ring of an imagined Duke). How well does crime pay? For you, it looks like about 15GP worth–no wonder you took up adventuring. 

Should the law or your latest BBEG, come looking, your False Identity feature has you covered with a fake identity, complete with paperwork! If further papers are required, or you want a side hustle as a forger, you can fake any document, official or personal (provided you’ve seen an example and the handwriting you’re imitating).

Criminal Background

Proficiencies: Deception, Stealth

Feature: Criminal Contact

You’re no simple conman; you’re a hardened criminal who made your coin through a variety of seedy acts: from blackmail and burglary, all the way to being an enforcer or hired killer. This life trained you well to survive in the underworld, with Deception and Stealth, the use of thieves’ tools, and (for passing the time between nefarious acts) a gaming set of your choice all in your wheelhouse. To blend into the night you have a set of dark common clothes, with a hood to hide your face (whether in shame or for criminal efficiency), and a crowbar, presumably part of how you earned that whopping 15GP. Can you feel that sarcasm? It’s not disapproval–it’s disappointment, as you were probably not a very good criminal. Good thing you’ve changed your line of work! 

Still, your time with the baddies made you some friends. The Criminal Contact feature lets you pass messages to your criminal cohorts no matter where you are, potentially opening up all kinds of illicit assistance, should your adventuring require it. Variant: Spy. Perhaps you have the same skill set as a common crook, but ply your skills for a greater cause, this variant proposes you may have been a spy for the crown, or a freelancer, selling what you do best to the fattest coin purse.

Entertainer Background

Proficiencies: Acrobatics, Performance

Feature: By Popular Demand 

Belching notes as a singer, moving a crowd to your rhythm as a musician, or making even the surly barkeep swoon as a poet: you may or not be a Bard in the middle of a dark dungeon, but the performing arts are how you paid the bills and spread some joy in duller days. A life of pleasing the crowd has trained you in Acrobatics and Performance, a musical instrument of your choice, and the use of a disguise kit for more flashier shows. Between shows you’ve accumulated an instrument of your choice, a costume, a favor from an admirer (a lock of hair, love letter, or trinket, that’s between you and your stalker), and a pouch of tips adding up to 15GP. Good for you! 

If you’re in a strange place and looking for work, your By Popular Demand feature will allow you to find somewhere to perform. Whilst you perform there nightly, they’ll provide you with free lodging and food, the locals will even recognise you and, probably, like you! Variant: Gladiator. Perhaps your stage is an arena, your instrument a sword. If that’s the case, a more gladiatorial form of entertainment fills your resume. This variant allows your feature to instead allow you to find a place to fight, be it a coliseum or secretive fight club… Just don’t talk about it. You can also trade out your instrument for an exotic but cheap weapon instead, like an intimidating looking trident or net. Remember to request feedback, after all shouldn’t you be sure they’re entertained?

Folk Hero Background

Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Survival

  • 1 type of Artisan’s Tools
  • Land Vehicles

Feature: Rustic Hospitality

A symbol of hope against local oppression, a guardian angel in the face of nature’s wrath, or the villager that stands and fights when the monster comes calling; whatever you’ve done, it has elevated you in your community as a hero. Your humble beginnings have prepared you for an adventuring life with Animal Handling and Survival, a type of artisan’s tools of your choice, and land vehicles. Your belongings are also unfortunately humble, amounting to a set of tools, a shovel, an iron pot, and a set of common clothes. At least you managed to save up 10GP the honest way. 

Your Rustic Hospitality feature will allow you to find shelter amongst other commoners, even going so far as to hide you from people you may not want to find you, though they won’t put themselves at risk to do so.

Guild Artisan Background

Proficiencies: Insight, Persuasion

  • 1 type of Artisan’s Tools
  • 1 Language

Feature:  Guild Membership 

A master of your craft, whatever that may be, you’ve spent years honing your skills and raised yourself from the life of an average feudal commoner. You’ve learned Insight and Persuasion, the use of your choice of artisan’s tools, and a language of your choice, all valuable in your old life of gold and trade, and hopefully still useful in your new calling. 

Your Guild Membership feature is a great one, you can get free food and lodging at your guild, they’ll pay for your funeral (how nice of them), defend you legally if there’s a good case to do so, and, depending on the city, the guildhall may also be a good place to meet powerful allies and patrons. If you’re in good standing with your guild you can even gain access to powerful political figures. Although, good standing probably means more generous donations of gold and possibly magic items. Why did I say more generous? Well, because you need to pay 5GP per month in guild dues, which can either be an expensive background, or cheap legal insurance depending on your perspective. Variant: Guild Merchant. If you aren’t a master of a craft, but rather someone that sells goods made by actual masters, this variant may be for you. Instead of artisan’s tools proficiency you may instead have another language to facilitate trade or navigator’s tools so you can make it from market to market without getting lost along the way. The biggest change here though is that you can trade the artisan’s tools from your equipment in for a mule and cart, putting you in prime position to start charging your fellow adventurers to haul their loot back from the dungeon. You’re a businessperson at heart, after all.

Hermit Background

Proficiencies: Medicine, Religion

  • Herbalism Kit
  • 1 Language

Feature: Discovery

Whilst the whole plane may now be your playground, you previously chose to live in seclusion, either as part of a sequestered community or in lonely isolation. Your years of solitude have taught you Medicine and Religion, how to use a herbalism kit, and one language of your choosing. In your hut you’ve accumulated a scroll case full of notes from your studies or prayer, a winter blanket, a set of common clothes and an herbalism kit. A simple life doesn’t pay well, however, your coffers only contain 5GP and you don’t have a belt pouch to tote it around. 

Your Discovery feature is an odd duck, but it can be potentially campaign-shaking. During your seclusion, you discovered some kind of great secret or truth that could change everything. Obviously DM-dependent, so we can’t really recommend it highly, but if your DM loves a good story hook then this may be for you.

Noble Background

Proficiencies: History, Persuasion

  • 1 Language
  • 1 Gaming Set

Feature: Position of Privilege/Retainers (Variant)

Your family is kind of a big deal where you come from; they own land, collect taxes from the people on that land, and as such you come from privilege. That privilege can afford tutors that taught you History and Persuasion, a language of your choice and a gaming set of your choice. Your wardrobe is stocked with a set of fine clothes, a signet ring, a scroll of pedigree and your walking around money, amounting to 25GP. 

Your Position of Privilege feature shows your place in high society, people assume you’re meant to be where you happen to be, commoners try to stay on your good side, and other nobles will acknowledge you as not a peasant. If you must, you can secure an audience with the local nobility, though if you’re playing a Rogue you may not be welcome back for tea. Variants: Knight and Retainers. Perhaps of lower standing but of greater valor than other nobles, you’re a minor noble at arms as it were on a path to higher status. The second variant swaps out your Position of Privilege for three retainers, they won’t follow you into battle or tolerate abuse, but will act as messengers and servants. If you also took the Knight variant, then one of your retainers will become a minor noble themselves, serving as your squire hoping to attain knighthood themselves, whilst your other retainers may be a groom to care for your mighty steed and a servant that cares for your armor, as well as helping you don and doff it.

Outlander Background

Proficiencies: Athletics, Survival

  • 1 Language
  • 1 Musical Instrument

Feature: Wanderer

You grew up in the wilds, providing food for yourself from nature rather than popping to the grocer’s like those stuck up city folk. Such an independent lifestyle has taught you Athletics and Survival, a language of your choice, and a musical instrument to pass the dark nights. Your worldly belongings amount to a staff, a hunting trap, an animal trophy, a set of traveler’s clothes and a pouch complete with 10GP for when you must trade with civilization. 

Your Wanderer feature allows you to provide food and fresh water for yourself and up to five others–those helpless urban party members would probably starve otherwise–as well as honing your mind to avoid getting hopelessly lost. As a result you have a fantastic memory for maps and the land, always able to recall the general layout of the terrain around you.

Sage Background

Proficiencies: Arcana, History

  • 2 Languages

Feature: Researcher

A dedicated scholar, you’ve spent your years before you took up professional hiking adventuring, scouring musty books and fragile scrolls, soaking up knowledge like a Gelatinous Cube soaks up party remains. All that keen study has taught you Arcana and History, and two languages of your choice (though I can’t say much for your accent). Your desk drawers have built up a bottle of black ink, a quill, a small knife, a set of common clothes, and a letter from a dead colleague posing a question you’ve been unable to answer so far. Your research funding stands at a towering 10GP–budget cuts, am I right? 

You were a Researcher, a feature which allows you to at least know where to find information and whom to ask for it, even after years of study the answer is often medieval Googling. It’s worth bearing in mind knowing where to find what you seek doesn’t equate to access to it. Your DM may say the knowledge you want is in a dangerous place or inaccessible; some things aren’t for mortals to know, at least not without risking life and limb in some dusty tomb first.

Sailor Background

Proficiencies: Athletics, Perception

  • Navigator’s Tools
  • Water Vehicles

Feature: Ship’s Passage

Ahoy, matey! Without making assumptions about your beverage of choice, let’s just say that before you set your sea legs down on land longer term, you served on a boat. Whether it was a merchant ship, naval vessel, expedition voyager, or a scoundrous pirate ship is your choice. Your time on the rolling waves taught you Athletics and Perception, how to use navigator’s tools, and of course, water vehicles. Your footlocker contains a belaying pin (that acts as a club), 50 feet of silk rope, a set of common clothes, and being the superstitious sailor you are, a lucky charm. What you haven’t invested in gold earrings has left you with a pouch of 10GP; if you were a pirate, perhaps you weren’t the most successful. 

Blood is not thicker than water in your case, as other sea dogs will always have your back… at least in some regards. Your Ship’s Passage feature allows you to secure free passage on a ship for you and your party, though you can’t be sure when or how far your seamates will be able to take you.

Soldier Background

Proficiencies: Athletics, Intimidation

  • Land Vehicles
  • Gaming Set

Feature: Military Rank

Before your life of risking grievous injury and death for adventure, you risked grievous injury and death for meager (but more reliable) wages. Whether you served as part of a great army, or humble local militia, you learned the ways of war and how to use the terrible tools it demands. As a veteran, you trained in Athletics and Intimidation, land vehicles, and one type of gaming set of your choice. Your pack contains an insignia of rank, a set of bone dice or deck of cards, a set of common clothes, and a trophy from a fallen enemy. Your wartime savings amount to a pouch of 10GP. 

The Military Rank feature you’ve earned lets you garner respect and authority within your old military organisation, despite being retired. Flexing your rank can allow you to: exert influence over lower ranked soldiers, requisition simple equipment, and even borrow some horses for a time. If a friendly encampment or fortress still recognises your rank, then you can still get your boot in the door.

Urchin Background

Proficiencies: Sleight of Hand, Stealth

  • Disguise Kit
  • Thieves’ Tools

Feature: City Secrets

Life was hard for you before you made it as an adventurer; you slept on the streets without any family or loved ones to watch over you whilst you rested. You fought for food fiercer than others fought for gold, and in these harsh circumstances you grew stronger instead of breaking. The school of hard knocks taught you Sleight of Hand and Stealth, how to use a disguise kit and even thieves’ tools. You’ve managed to hide away a small knife, a map of the city you grew up in, a token to remember your parents by, a set of common clothes and a pet mouse–your only companion before you took up adventuring. Your belt pouch jingles to the tune of 10GP, though whether you begged or ‘borrowed,’ it is up to you. 

The difficult life you’ve led has granted you the City Secrets feature, which exploits your intuitive knowledge of the urban jungle to allow you and your companions to travel at twice the speed out of combat if within a city.

BYOB – Bring Your Own Background

If no backgrounds fit the life history of the character you have in mind, make your own!

That’s right! It’s within the PHB rules to create your own background if you like, with the listed backgrounds more acting as examples than limited options. Always check with your DM first before doing this, as they have the final say for what’s allowed. But if you’re an Adventurer’s League player, then go ahead, custom backgrounds are entirely allowed.

How to Make a Custom Background

Easier than it might sound, ‘Customizing a Background’ (PHB pg. 125) covers this. Simply choose:

  • Two skills of your choice
  • Up to two tool proficiencies or languages (or one of each) that are found in the sample backgrounds
  • Whether to take the equipment package one of the sample backgrounds provides or use the gold for equipment method found in chapter 5.
  • An appropriate trait, bond, ideal, and flaw
  • A feature that works for your custom background, or work with your DM to homebrew one

Whatever character background you end up adding to your PC’s story, own it. Immersing yourself in everything from your PC’s background and class, to their personality traits and flaws, is the best thing you can do for yourself as a player to get the most fun out of your sessions. Ready to create your character? The next step is to roll for stats, just remember to pay a tithe to the dice gods before rolling. 

Expert Writer