Last Updated on February 22, 2023
There are dozens of backgrounds found throughout the Player’s Handbook and various other sourcebooks for Dungeons & Dragons 5e. Maybe your character started out in life as a soldier or a spy; they could have just as easily been a venerable sage, a mysterious hermit, or even an archeologist if you’ve got Tomb of Annihilation handy.
But what if you want to be something else? What if your character’s backstory (or build) doesn’t fit any of the existing examples?
Whether you’re trying to create a powerful build or just want to make the rules align more closely with your character’s backstory, this guide should give you everything you need to know about how to customize your background in D&D 5e and homebrew your own unique character origins (assuming your DM will allow it).
How Do I Create a Custom Character Background in DnD 5e?
Creating a custom background in D&D 5e is relatively straightforward and described in Chapter 4 of the Basic Rules.
- Choose one feature from any existing background (ex. The Acolyte’s Shelter of the Faithful).
- Choose any two skill proficiencies.
- Choose a total of two tool proficiencies or languages.
- Select a starting equipment package from one of the backgrounds (unless you’re using starting gold to buy all your equipment).
- (Optional) Pick a personality trait, ideal, bond, and flaw for your character from an existing background. If none suit your new character background, work with your dungeon master to invent your own.
But what if your character concept doesn’t match up with any of the existing options in official 5e sourcebooks? If that’s so, then it’s probably time to ask your DM if they’ll allow you to get homebrewing.
How Do I Create a Homebrew Background in DnD 5e?
As with any homebrew options for D&D 5e, it’s important to take care not to make your creations too weak or too strong. If you’re a player and not a dungeon master, you’ll need to check with your DM first to see whether they allow any homebrew at all in their campaign, and then again to see if the specific piece of homebrew you’ve made is okay with them.
Where backgrounds are concerned, by far the best way to make a homebrew background that’s going to stay in line with existing official material is to follow the customization method detailed above.
Stick to two skills and two languages (or tool/instrument proficiencies), and make sure the equipment you provide costs no more than 20-40 gp as a good rule of thumb (and includes clothes); any leftover value can be provided as gold. Equipment can also be a great way to add flavor to a background, even if it’s just how you describe the clothes the character wears.
Beyond that, the most enjoyable and impactful thing to homebrew about your character background is the feature.
Features are, in my opinion, a criminally underrated part of your D&D character. They don’t have any mechanical impact, which is probably why people forget about them. However, they serve to give your character powerful ties to the world of the campaign, reinforce tone and theme, and can even let you draw on the resources of powerful allies to help your cause.
The Haunted One background from Curse of Strahd, for example, grants the Heart of Darkness feature.
Feature: Heart of Darkness
Those who look into your eyes can see that you have faced unimaginable horror and that you are no stranger to darkness. Though they might fear you, commoners will extend you every courtesy and do their utmost to help you. Unless you have shown yourself to be a danger to them, they will even take up arms to fight alongside you, should you find yourself facing an enemy alone.
— Curse of Strahd
It’s not an explicit power that you can tap into x number of times per long rest but rather a narrative cue for the DM that’s not only thematically spot on for CoS’s gothic horror setting but could very well save your life in a pinch.
Other honorable mentions for Background Features include the Inheritor from the SCaG, who has inherited (or stands to inherit) something of great power and value of the DM’s choosing, to the Sage, whose Researcher Feature means that if they don’t know a piece of lore or crucial information, they know exactly where they can go or whom to speak to in order to learn it.
When creating your own feature for your homebrew background, remember these tips:
- Narrative, not mechanical benefits; nothing about it should boost your stats, even if you get access to some powerful benefits.
- Social, Exploration, or Information; Features either help you maneuver in social situations with particular NPCs or factions (the Far Traveler’s ability to gain an audience with local nobles), help you move around (like the Sailor’s ability to secure passage on ships), or help you gather information (like the Hermit’s feature, which lets them just … know something really important or earth shattering).
- Somewhat situational. No background feature should come up every single session (unless the campaign is hyper-aligned with your background for some reason); there are, once or twice in a campaign, abilities to lean on, so making them somewhat specific is a good way to keep them balanced.
Let’s make a background together.
In a past campaign, the local Duke brutally policed the use of unsanctioned magic by means of a secret police force called the Holy and Ancient Order of the Light Undwindled. Their word was law. Being branded an apostate meant death at the hands of a trained cadre of merciless wizard hunters.
Well… that was the sales pitch. The “Undwindlers,” as it happened, were a bumbling order of jackbooted thugs who ambled around the countryside finding people “innocent” of witchcraft in exchange for a hot meal and a warm bed for the night.
One of my players’ characters was a recent deserter from the merciful Undwindlers (having recently twigged to the idea that maybe the organization’s core tenets were less about witch hunting and more of a protection racket wrapped in a rosary), so I whipped up a custom background for them loosely based on the Faction Agent background from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide.
Witchfinder Agent of the Most Holy and Ancient Order of the Light Undwindled
Skill Proficiencies: Investigation or Survival, Intimidation
Languages: Two of your choice
Equipment: A Witchfinder’s Tin Badge and Seal, a copy of the order’s seminal text (“Witches, begone! Being a guide to the identification and elimination of the foul servants of darkness”), a Witchfinder’s uniform (long black coat, flat-topped conical hat, cheap boots), firelighters, and a pouch containing 15 gp
Feature: A Witch?!
Your station not only commands a healthy and appropriate amount of fear in the common folk, but you can also formally accuse someone of witchcraft should they display one or more of the telltale clues (namely, being smelly, unpleasant, not well-liked in the village, owing people money, etc.) and none of the signs of innocence (being a member of the clergy, a noble, or someone currently providing food and shelter to agents of the Order).
And there we have it: how to make a custom background or homebrew one of your own for D&D 5e, as well as my own thuggish witchfinder example. Have you made any custom backgrounds for your own campaigns? Are you thinking about making one for your next character?
Let us know in the comments below, and until next time, happy adventuring.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.