Every character selects a Background, which typically provides a rough outline of your character’s backstory, some suggestions for their personality, and a special feature. The design of backgrounds has evolved over 5e’s lifetime, but the backgrounds in the Player’s Handbook are still great choices.

What is In a Background

All backgrounds provide the same sorts of options in the same way.

  • Special Feature: A unique benefit which allows you to do something interesting and unique.
  • Proficiencies: Each background provides proficiency in two skills, and two proficiencies in any combination of languages, tools, or vehicles.
  • Equipment: A small amount of starting equipment. If you use the variant to buy your own equipment, you do not get this equipment.
  • Suggested Characteristics: Each character starts with 4 personality characteristics to help you shape their personality. The options on each background are suggestions, and include a die roll to help you pick at random if you’re having trouble deciding. If you like a background but don’t like the suggester characteristics, you’re free to come up with something else. You are the arbiter of your character’s personality, and no game mechanic can force you to make your character someone you don’t want to play.
    • Personality Trait: Something notable that your character does.
    • Ideal: Something notable that your character believes.
    • Bond: Something notable that your character feels, or something that they feel attached to.
    • Flaw: Something notable that your characyer does wrong.

Using Published Backgrounds

Most players choose to use published backgrounds. They’re typically well-written and interesting, and provide enough of a basis to help you form your character’s personality. There are numerous options in the Player’s Handbook, more in Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, plenty to find one works for you mechanically. However, creativity is infinite and published content is not, so you may have an idea for a character background that doesn’t neatly fit into the published options.

Customizing Backgrounds

Page 125 of the Player’s Handbook details rules for customizing backgrounds. The rules allow you to pick the feature and the equipment from a published background and replace the granted proficiencies. No mention is given to the “Suggested Characteristics”, but those are primarily intended to serve as examples so you’re free to make up whatever you want there. Mixing and matching gives you a lot of freedom to build one that really suits your character.

For example: Imagine we’re building Rick, a trickery domain cleric. We looked at the Acolyte, which is a good option for most clerics, but the Shelter of the Faithful feature doesn’t appeal to us because it doesn’t fit the selfish, conniving nature of the character we want to play. Instead, we start from Charlatan.

We retain “False Identity” which fits our character concept better, as well as the listed equipment, then we replace the proficiencies with Depection, Religion, Disguise Kit, and a language of our choice. We come up with a clever name like “cultist” or something, we make up some personality traits, and we’re done!

Backgrounds That Grant Feats

Starting with Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dragon Queen, backgrounds now typically grant a feat, and campaigns which use those backgrounds are encouraged to offer players either Skilled or Tough if they choose a background which doesn’t grant one.

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