One D&D Backgrounds

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 30 August 2022

Now that we’ve taken a look at the changes to the fantasy races (Part 1, Part 2), let’s look at the backgrounds. Clearly this is one of the biggest areas of change since the start of 5e. There are a number of facets to look at these changes and I’m likely going to miss a few of them.

One D&DOne D&D


First, let’s look at what a background looks like from the start of 5e. I will leave out the flavor text

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. You are not necessarily a cleric — performing sacred rites is not the same thing as channeling divine power.

Choose a god, a pantheon of gods, or some other quasi-divine being from among those listed in appendix B or those specified by your DM, and work with your DM 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, or even an occult group that served a fiendish master that you now deny.

Skill Proficiencies: Insight, Religion
Languages: Two of your choice
Equipment: A holy symbol (a gift to you when you entered the priesthood), a prayer book or prayer wheel, 5 sticks of incense, vestments, a set of common clothes, and a pouch containing 15 gp
Feature: Shelter of the Faithful
As an acolyte, you command the respect of those who share your faith, and you can perform the religious ceremonies of your deity. You and your adventuring companions can expect to receive free healing and care at a temple, shrine, or other established presence of your faith, though you must provide any material components needed for spells. Those who share your religion will support you (but only you) at a modest lifestyle.

You might also have ties to a specific temple dedicated to your chosen deity or pantheon, and you have a residence there. This could be the temple where you used to serve, if you remain on good terms with it, or a temple where you have found a new home. While near your temple, you can call upon the priests for assistance, provided the assistance you ask for is not hazardous and you remain in good standing with your temple.

Now, let’s look at the background of the same name in Unearthed Arcana:

Ability Scores: +2 Wisdom, +1 Intelligence
Skill Proficiencies: Insight, Religion
Tool Proficiency: Calligrapher’s Supplies
Language: Celestial
Feat: Magic Initiate (Divine)

You devoted yourself to service in a temple, either nestled in a town or secluded in a sacred grove. There you performed hallowed rites in honor of a god or pantheon. You served under a priest and studied religion. Thanks to your priest’s instruction and your own devotion, you also learned how to channel a modicum of divine power in service to your place of worship and the people who prayed there.


Book (Prayers) Calligrapher’s Supplies
Holy Symbol Parchment (10 sheets)
Robe 3 GP

From Feature to Feat

One of the biggest shifts is the move from feature to feat. Most of the features appear to have been intended to connect characters to the world, to give them networks of folks that they could tap into for help and assistance. When 5e was released, there was a huge push for factions to help provide connections as well.

An issue I could see with the features as often written is that they often required a Dungeon Master to make flesh out those networks. Even many adventures didn’t necessarily provide tie ins for them. They were ambiguous and unclear, which can work great depending on player and DM but can also be frustrating or unused.

By moving to a Feat, things are now more defined. In the case of the Acolyte, it also addresses an issue often remarked upon which is that they cannot perform any divine magic unless they happened to take a class that allowed it.

Previously, feats were an optional rule that allowed the player to forgo an ability score improvement to take on a feat. Now, instead of adding a background’s feature, one can add a first-level feat related to the background.

If you’re interested in the shift for backgrounds that exist in both the Players Handbook and Unearthed Arcana Playtest, here’s what the shift looks like.

Background PHB Feature UA Feat
Acolyte Shelter of the Faithful Magic Initiate (Divine)
Charlatan False Idenitty Skilled
Entertainer By Popular Demand Musician
(Guild) Artisan Guild Membership Crafter
Hermit Discovery Magic Initiate (Primal)
Noble Position of Privilege Skilled
Sage Researcher Magic Initiate (Arcane)
Sailor Ship’s Passage Tavern Brawler
Solider Military Rank Savage Attacker
Urchin City Secrets Lucky

Ability Scores

As mentioned in previous articles, another big change is that it’s now backgrounds that provide ability score bonuses instead of the character’s fantasy race. This makes a whole lot more sense to me. What you do and what you apply yourself to shapes what you are good at.

Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything has an explanation of why ability scores were originally tied to the fantasy races and why they gave alternate rules for apply ability score increases.

The Ability Score Increase trait in a race reflects an archetypal bit of excellence in the adventurers of this kind in D&D’s past. For example, if you’re a dwarf, your Constitution increases by 2, because dwarf heroes in D&D are often exceptionally tough. This increase doesn’t apply to every dwarf, just to dwarf adventurers, and it exists to reinforce an archetype. That reinforcement is appropriate if you want to lean into the archetype, but it’s unhelpful if your character doesn’t conform to the archetype.

Now that we are moving away from using ability scores to help define archetypes, how can the game help create that sort of story within the rules? We get an interesting look into that in terms of the languages.


One of the more subtle changes is in how languages get assigned. Before we get into how languages help define the setting and create archetypes, let’s look at how language assignment via backgrounds has changed over the years in 5e.

In the Players Handbook, fantasy race typically bestowed about 2 languages to the character and 7 out of 16 of the backgrounds would add 1 or 2 more languages.

Book Backgrounds with Languages Backgrounds without Languages
Players Handbook Acolyte (2 of your choice)
Guild Artisan (1 of your choice)
Hermit (1 of your choice)
Knight (1 of your choice)
Noble (1 of your choice)
Outlander (1 of your choice)
Sage (2 of your choice)
Folk Hero

In later books, it’s interesting to see how few backgrounds don’t add languages.

Book Backgrounds with Languages Backgrounds without Languages
Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide City Watch / Investigator (2 of your choice)
Clan Crafter (Dwarvish or 1 other)
Cloistered Scholar (2 of your choice)
Courtier (2 of your choice)
Faction Agent (2 of your choice)
Inheritor (1 of your choice)
Knight of the Order (1 of your choice)
Uthgardt Tribe Member (1 of your choice)
Waterdhavian Noble (1 of your choice)
Mercenary Veteran
Urban Bounty Hunter
Curse of Strand Haunted One (2, one must be Abyssal, Celestial, Deep Speech, Draconic, Infernal, Primordial, Sylvan, or Undercommon)
Tomb of Annihilation Anthropologist (2 of your choice)
Archaeologist (1 of your choice)
Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron House Agent
Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica Azorius Functionary (2 of your choice)
Boris Legionnaire (1 of Celestial, Draconic, Goblin, or Minotaur)
Dimir Operative (1 of your choice)
Golgari Agent (1 of Elvish, Giant, or Kraul)
Gruul Anarch (1 of Draconic, Giant, Goblin, or Sylvan)
Izzet Engineer (1 of Draconic, Goblin, or Vedalken)
Orzhov Representatives (2 of your choice)
Rakdos Cultist (1 either Abyssal or Giant)
Selesnya Initiate (1 of Elvish, Loxodon, or Sylvan)
Simic Scientist (2 of your choice)
Ghosts of Saltmarsh Fisher (1 of your choice) Marine
Acquisitions Incorporated Celebrity Adventurer’s Scion (2 of your choice)
Failed Merchant (1 of your choice)
Far Traveler (1 of your choice)
Gambler (1 of your choice)
Plaintiff (1 of your choice)
Rival Intern (1 of your choice)
Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus Acolyte (2 of your choice)
Faceless (1 of your choice)
Guild Artisan (1 of your choice)
Hermit (1 of your choice)
Noble (1 of your choice)
Outlander (1 of your choice)
Sage (2 of your choice)
Folk Hero
Acolyte (2 of your choice)
Sage (Cobalt Scholar) (2 of your choice)
Volstrucker Agent (1 of your choice)
Criminal (Myriad Operative)
Sailor (Revelry Pirate)
Spy (Augen Trust)
Mythic Odysseys of Theros Athlete (1 of your choice)
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft Investigator
The Wild Beyond the Witchlight Feylost (1 of Elvish, Gnomish, Goblin, or Sylvan)
Witchlight Hand (1 of your choice)
Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos Lorehold Student (2 of your choice)
Prismari Student (1 of your choice)
Quandrix Student (1 of your choice)
Silverquill Student (2 of your choice)
Witherbloom Student
Spelljammer: Adventures in Space Astral Drifter (2 of your choice) Wildspacer
Total 47 20 (32 if we count each individual House Agent background)

Unlike in the PHB where approximately half of the backgrounds provided languages, across the remaining books, we’re looking at 47 backgrounds that do versus 20 or 32 that do not. So the move to just standardize that the background will assign one language makes a lot of sense.

The subtle thing is how they provide which language the background will assign.

Language Backgrounds
Abyssal Cultist
Celestial Acolyte
Common Sign Language Urchin
Draconic Noble
Dwarvish Guard

Elvish Entertainer
Giant Guide
Gnomish Artisan
Goblin Soldier
Halfling Farmer

Infernal Charlatan
Orc Gladiator
Primordial Sailor
Sylvan Hermit
Thieves’ Cant Criminal

From this list, we have a bunch of world building, right? The strategies of goblinoid generals are widely studied by soldiers and are so revered that soldiers learn the Goblin language to study them. Elvish is key for recording and studying lore, whether in the form of books or ways of entertaining the masses. So much of the knowledge used by guards or stone masons is tied to the Dwarves and thus folks with those pursuits learn Dwarvish. This world building ties the different groups to trades or roles.

In addition to the language from the background, players get to choose one language from the standard list and provide their own reason for why their character knows it.

Skill and Tool Proficiencies

While all backgrounds in the PHB provided skill proficiencies, tool proficiencies were not universal. In the UA playlets, a core component for the background is adding a tool proficiency. This overall feels more like a tweak to make it easier to custom build backgrounds rather than a major change.

Likewise, while there are some changes in the skill proficiencies, most of them remain the same. Here’s a comparison of the backgrounds that are in the PHB and UA.

Background PHB Skills UA Skills
Acolyte Insight, Religion Insight, Religion
Charlatan Deception, Sleight of Hand Deception, Sleight of Hand
Entertainer Acrobatics, Performance Acrobatics, Performance
(Guild) Artisan Insight, Persuasion Investigation, Persuasion
Hermit Medicine, Religion Medicine, Religion
Noble History, Persuasion History, Persuasion
Sage Arcana, History Arcana, History
Sailor Athletics, Perception Acrobatics, Perception
Soldier Athletics, Intimidation Athletics, Intimidation
Urchin Sleight of Hand, Stealth Insight, Stealth

As you can see, very few of the skill proficiencies have changed. The ones that have are interesting. Artisans get “Investigation” instead of “Insight.” I like this because “Investigation” seems to be a rare trait and a lot of art is about experimentation and discovery.

The Sailor moves from “Athletics” to “Acrobatics” which is a good way to further distinguish sailors from soldiers.

Finally, the Urchin has “Sleight of Hand” move to “Insight.” The background talks about how they only resort to theft when nothing else has worked to get what they need, so having both Thieves’ Tools and Sleight of Hand was probably a bit too much.

Overall Thoughts

I went right into the details when discussing the backgrounds, in part because it was the easier part to discuss. Overall, backgrounds were given a bit of a promotion. There is a solid core that remains from the earlier version in that skill proficiencies largely stay the same, some of the equipment was shifted around, in part to give every one a tool proficiency, and while languages were expanded a bit, they were there in many backgrounds already.

The move of ability scores to background helps the game sidestep some of the issues around them being tied to fantasy race which helps the game feel lighter to me. I get that Tasha’s said to ignore it if it didn’t fit your concept anyway but not having to do the work of ignoring is much easier. And moving from the features that I always struggled to use at the table to a feat helps give it that oomph that makes me want to pick or create a background.

And that’s something we should talk about here, there are 3 ways proposed to use backgrounds:

  • Use a prebuilt background
  • Choose a prebuilt background and alter it
  • Create your own background

It’s an extensible system to provide something for just about everyone.

Speaking of extensible, these suggested changes point to the flexibility of the 5e system. Using an older version that applies the ability scores? Either forgo the ability score increases from the older fantasy race or the ones from the background. But you can use bits from each.

What will be interesting is going forward, what gets the plain moniker of “Orc,” the original Player’s Handbook version or whatever comes from the play test.


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