DnD Backgrounds

Published on August 6, 2021

Backgrounds are a small but important part of every DnD character. They provide a way to express your character’s backstory through mechanical means, primarily through skill, language, and tool proficiencies, starting equipment, and roleplaying features. In this article, we take you through the process of how to choose your character’s background to optimize your build.

What is a background in DnD 5e?

Unless your character was born yesterday (which is very unlikely if they aren’t a Warforged), they will have a backstory.

Backgrounds provide a way to express your character’s backstory through mechanical means, primarily through skill, language, and tool proficiencies, starting equipment, and roleplaying features.

When creating a character as described in the Player’s Handbook, a background is typically chosen after selecting the race, class, and ability scores of your character. Depending on the background you choose, you are provided a number of boilerplate suggested characteristics that can help shape your character’s personality by defining their Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws.

What backgrounds are available in DnD 5e?

The table below contains a quick reference for all of the backgrounds available in official D&D 5e sources. Even though these backgrounds have been published by WOtC, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your DM will allow them in their campaign. Always confirm with your DM when choosing a background outside of the ones included in the Player’s Handbook.

Name Source Feature Proficiencies
Acolyte Basic Rules Shelter of the Faithful Insight, Religion
Acolyte – Baldur’s Gate Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus Shelter of the Faithful Insight, Religion
Acolyte (Luxonborn) Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount Shelter of the Faithful Insight, Religion
Anthropologist Tomb of Annihilation Adept Linguist Insight, Religion
Archaeologist Tomb of Annihilation Historical Knowledge History, Survival
Athlete Mythic Odysseys of Theros Echoes of Victory Athletics, Acrobatics
Azorius Functionary Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica Legal Authority Insight, Intimidation
Boros Legionnaire Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica Legion Station Athletics, Intimidation
Celebrity Adventurer’s Scion Acquisitions Incorporated Name Dropping Perception, Performance
Charlatan Player’s Handbook False Identity Deception, Sleight of Hand
Charlatan – Baldur’s Gate Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus False Identity Deception, Sleight of Hand
City Watch / Investigator Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide Watcher’s Eye Athletics, Investigation, Insight
Clan Crafter Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide Respect of the Stout Folk History, Insight
Cloistered Scholar Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide Library Access History, Arcana, Nature, Religion
Courtier Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide Court Functionary Insight, Persuasion
Criminal – Baldur’s Gate Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus Criminal Contact Deception, Stealth
Criminal (Myriad Operative) Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount Criminal Contact Deception, Stealth
Criminal / Spy Basic Rules Criminal Contact Deception, Stealth
Dimir Operative Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica False Identity Deception, Stealth
Entertainer Player’s Handbook By Popular Demand Acrobatics, Performance
Entertainer – Baldur’s Gate Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus By Popular Demand Acrobatics, Performance
Faceless Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus Dual Personalities Deception, Intimidation
Faction Agent Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide Safe Haven Insight, Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature, Religion, Animal Handling, Insight, Medicine, Perception, Survival, Deception, Intimidation, Performance, Persuasion
Failed Merchant Acquisitions Incorporated Supply Chain Investigation, Persuasion
Far Traveler Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide All Eyes on You Insight, Perception
Fisher Ghosts of Saltmarsh Harvest the Water History, Survival
Folk Hero Basic Rules Rustic Hospitality Animal Handling, Survival
Folk Hero – Baldur’s Gate Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus Rustic Hospitality Animal Handling, Survival
Gambler Acquisitions Incorporated Never Tell Me the Odds Deception, Insight
Gladiator Player’s Handbook By Popular Demand Acrobatics, Performance
Golgari Agent Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica Undercity Paths Nature, Survival
Grinner Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount Ballad of the Grinning Fool Deception, Performance
Gruul Anarch Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica Rubblebelt Refuge Animal Handling, Athletics
Guild Artisan – Baldur’s Gate Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus Guild Membership Insight, Persuasion
Guild Artisan / Guild Merchant Player’s Handbook Guild Membership Insight, Persuasion
Haunted One Curse of Strahd: Character Options Heart of Darkness Arcana, Investigation, Religion, Survival, Arcana, Investigation, Religion, Survival
Hermit Player’s Handbook Discovery Medicine, Religion
Hermit – Baldur’s Gate Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus Discovery Medicine, Religion
House Agent (Cannith) Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron House Connections Investigation, Persuasion
House Agent (Deneith) Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron House Connections Investigation, Persuasion
House Agent (Ghallanda) Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron House Connections Investigation, Persuasion
House Agent (Jorasco) Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron House Connections Investigation, Persuasion
House Agent (Kundarak) Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron House Connections Investigation, Persuasion
House Agent (Lyrandar) Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron House Connections Investigation, Persuasion
House Agent (Medani) Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron House Connections Investigation, Persuasion
House Agent (Orien) Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron House Connections Investigation, Persuasion
House Agent (Phiarlan) Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron House Connections Investigation, Persuasion
House Agent (Sivis) Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron House Connections Investigation, Persuasion
House Agent (Tharashk) Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron House Connections Investigation, Persuasion
House Agent (Thuranni) Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron House Connections Investigation, Persuasion
House Agent (Vadalis) Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron House Connections Investigation, Persuasion
Inheritor Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide Inheritance Survival, Arcana, History, Religion
Investigator Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft Official Inquiry Investigation, Insight, Perception, Investigation, Insight, Perception
Izzet Engineer Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica Urban Infrastructure Arcana, Investigation
Knight Player’s Handbook Retainers History, Persuasion
Knight of the Order Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide Knightly Regard Persuasion, Arcana, History, Nature, Religion
Marine Ghosts of Saltmarsh Steady Athletics, Survival
Mercenary Veteran Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide Mercenary Life Athletics, Persuasion
Noble Basic Rules Position of Privilege History, Persuasion
Noble – Baldur’s Gate Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus Position of Privilege History, Persuasion
Orzhov Representative Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica Leverage Intimidation, Religion
Outlander Player’s Handbook Wanderer Athletics, Survival
Outlander – Baldur’s Gate Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus Wanderer Athletics, Survival
Pirate Player’s Handbook Bad Reputation Athletics, Perception
Plaintiff Acquisitions Incorporated Legalese Medicine, Persuasion
Rakdos Cultist Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica Fearsome Reputation Acrobatics, Performance
Rival Intern Acquisitions Incorporated Inside Informant History, Investigation
Sage Basic Rules Researcher Arcana, History
Sage – Baldur’s Gate Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus Researcher Arcana, History
Sage (Cobalt Scholar) Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount Researcher Arcana, History
Sailor Player’s Handbook Ship’s Passage Athletics, Perception
Sailor – Baldur’s Gate Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus Ship’s Passage Athletics, Perception
Sailor (Revelry Pirate) Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount Ship’s Passage Athletics, Perception
Selesnya Initiate Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica Conclave’s Shelter Nature, Persuasion
Shipwright Ghosts of Saltmarsh I’ll Patch It! History, Perception
Simic Scientist Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica Researcher Arcana, Medicine
Smuggler Ghosts of Saltmarsh Down Low Athletics, Deception
Soldier Basic Rules Military Rank Athletics, Intimidation
Soldier – Baldur’s Gate Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus Military Rank Athletics, Intimidation
Spy (Augen Trust) Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount Criminal Contact Deception, Stealth
Urban Bounty Hunter Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide Ear to the Ground Stealth, Insight, Deception, Persuasion, Stealth, Insight, Deception, Persuasion
Urchin Player’s Handbook City Secrets Sleight of Hand, Stealth
Urchin – Baldur’s Gate Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus City Secrets Sleight of Hand, Stealth
Uthgardt Tribe Member Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide Uthgardt Heritage Athletics, Survival
Volstrucker Agent Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount Shadow Network Deception, Stealth
Waterdhavian Noble Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide Kept in Style History, Persuasion

Optimizing character builds using backgrounds

Mechanically speaking, backgrounds play much less of a role than a character’s race or class. This is for a number of reasons:

  1. Backgrounds are chosen at the beginning of character creation and they don’t evolve as your character levels up.
  2. Backgrounds only contain small bonuses to your character, usually in the form of a couple of skill, tool, and/or language proficiencies, starting equipment, and a small roleplaying feature.
  3. Backgrounds don’t contain any combat-related features such as attack bonuses or spellcasting benefits.
  4. As per the Player’s Handbook, backgrounds can be customized to include any combination of feature, language, skill, and tool proficiencies, which somewhat trivializes the choice. 

Customizing Your DnD Background

If the prepublished backgrounds don’t provide the right feel or proficiencies for your intended build, don’t worry! There are three often-overlooked rules that will allow you to customize your character’s background so that it fits exactly the way you want it to.

Duplicate Proficiencies

If you pick up the same proficiency from two (or more) sources, you are able to replace the duplicate with another proficiency of the same type. 

Customizing Your Origin

Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything introduced a way for players to customize their background in the event that the one they chose does not contain a feature they were looking for.

This table summarizes the ways that you can swap proficiencies out for other ones.

Proficiency Replacement Proficiency
Skill Skill
Armor Simple/martial weapon or tool
Simple weapon Simple weapon or tool
Martial weapon Simple/martial weapon or tool
Tool Tool or simple weapon

Customizing a Background

The Player’s Handbook contains the following suggestions for players looking to completely customize their background:

Step 1: Choose a Background – When creating a custom background, you must always start with a prepublished background as it indicates the default feature, proficiencies, traits, equipment, and starting gold of your custom background.

Step 2: Choose a feature – Choose whether to swap your background’s feature with another prepublished background’s feature, as seen above in the table under “What backgrounds are available in D&D 5e?”

Step 3: Choose any two skill proficiencies – There is no penalty for customizing a background to fit your character. All backgrounds come with two skill proficiencies and this option is no different while allowing for maximum customization.

Step 4: Choose a total of two tool proficiencies or languages – Again, no penalty here as all of the published backgrounds have two tool or language proficiencies.

Step 5: Choose your starting equipment – Your character’s starting equipment is based on your class and background. While you are able to forgo your class’s starting equipment and instead roll for your gold and spend it how you wish, there isn’t a system for this when determining the starting equipment from your background. This likely won’t be a massive problem because the maximum amount of gold any background starts with is 25gp, which will be made up for very quickly in a typical D&D campaign.

Conclusion

Even though backgrounds are often overshadowed by other character options such as race and class, they are still a crucial step in character creation. Backgrounds can provide important skill proficiencies which, depending on the skill, can massively influence your character’s playstyle. Tool and language proficiencies come up much less often than skill proficiencies in typical D&D play, but they can be quite important in certain exploration and roleplaying situations.

Backgrounds also heavily affect your character’s backstory, which can dictate the stories and plot points that your DM prepares for the campaign. 

Mike Bernier

Mike Bernier is the lead content writer and founder of Arcane Eye. Outside of writing for Arcane Eye, Mike spends most of his time playing games, hiking with his girlfriend, and tending the veritable jungle of houseplants that have invaded his house. He is the author of Escape from Mt. Balefor and The Heroes of Karatheon. Mike specializes in character creation guides for players, homebrewed mechanics and tips for DMs, and one-shots with unique settings and scenarios. Follow Mike on Twitter.

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