The Mercenary Veteran background was introduced in the Sword Coast Adventurers Guide and represents a great way to roleplay your character.
If you want to play a skilled, tactical fighter but you’re not interested in the nobility of knights or soldiers, the mercenary veteran may be a great background for you.
You gain proficiency in athletics and persuasion.
You have proficiency in land vehicles like carts, chariots, and sleds. You also have proficiency in one gaming set of your choice.
The following items are added to your starting equipment:
- The uniform of your mercenary company (traveler’s clothes)
- An insignia that proves your rank within the company
- A gaming set of your choice
- A pouch containing 10gp
Feature: Mercenary Life
You know a ton of information about mercenary companies, which you can identify based on their emblems. You’re knowledgeable about the commanders of mercenary companies and usually have some information about their reputation and recent contracts.
You’re also able to find your way to the social hotspots for local mercenaries, like inns and taverns. Finally, you’re able to earn a living through mercenary work during extended downtime.
The mercenary veteran background uses the same suggested characteristics as the soldier background. These can be found on p140-141 of the Player’s Handbook:
|1||I’m always polite and respectful.|
|2||I’m haunted by memories of war. I can’t get the images of violence out of my mind.|
|3||I’ve lost too many friends, and I’m slow to make new ones.|
|4||I’m full of inspiring and cautionary tales from my military experience relevant to almost every combat situation.|
|5||I can stare down a hell hound without flinching.|
|6||I enjoy being strong and like breaking things.|
|7||I have a crude sense of humor.|
|8||I face problems head-on. A simple, direct solution is the best path to success.|
|1||Greater Good. Our lot is to lay down our lives in defense of others. (Good)|
|2||Responsibility. I do what I must and obey just authority. (Lawful)|
|3||Independence. When people follow orders blindly, they embrace a kind of tyranny. (Chaotic)|
|4||Might. In life as in war, the stronger force wins. (Evil)|
|5||Live and Let Live. Ideals aren’t worth killing over or going to war for. (Neutral)|
|6||Nation. My city, nation, or people are all that matter. (Any)|
|1||I would still lay down my life for the people I served with.|
|2||Someone saved my life on the battlefield. To this day, I will never leave a friend behind.|
|3||My honor is my life.|
|4||I’ll never forget the crushing defeat my company suffered or the enemies who dealt it.|
|5||Those who fight beside me are those worth dying for.|
|6||I fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.|
|1||The monstrous enemy we faced in battle still leaves me quivering with fear.|
|2||I have little respect for anyone who is not a proven warrior.|
|3||I made a terrible mistake in battle cost many lives— and I would do anything to keep that mistake secret.|
|4||My hatred of my enemies is blind and unreasoning.|
|5||I obey the law, even if the law causes misery.|
|6||I’d rather eat my armor than admit when I’m wrong.|
To put it bluntly, many of these characteristics suck for a mercenary veteran. The fantasies of playing a mercenary and a soldier are fundamentally different from one another and most of the soldier characteristics don’t fit a mercenary veteran.
You don’t have to use these, though! You can, and should, create characteristics that better fit your character’s concept and backstory.
In fact, if any of the mechanics for mercenary veteran don’t perfectly fit your character, you can use the rules on p125 of the Player’s Handbook to tailor the background to your preferences.
Creating A Mercenary Veteran Backstory
A Working-Class Hero
Most mercenaries come from relatively lowly backgrounds. Even the poorest nobles can aspire to being knights and those in the middle are more likely to become soldiers. Mercenaries fill an unromanticized role, which is more likely to be left for poorer people to fill.
You may have joined up with a mercenary company before you even reached adulthood, grasping for the chance at a comfortable life.
Conversely, you could also be a dishonored soldier or knight, forced into mercenary work to avoid poverty. The profession of arms is all you know and mercenary work is all that’s left to you.
How “Veteran” Are We Talking?
Your backstory needs to match the starting level of your campaign. For many players though, the term “mercenary veteran” may get their imagination overly excited.
As a level 1 adventurer, you start with a level of expertise that most commoners will never attain. You could have a ton of experience fighting for various sides in various wars. You probably performed competently in those situations.
That said, you probably never single-handedly killed a troll. You’re probably not the captain of your mercenary company or even the second in command. These achievements would imply a degree of experience beyond what could be expected for a level 1 adventurer.
Choosing A Mercenary Company
The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide provides a few suggestions for mercenary companies that your character could be a member of. These are The Chill, a band of goblinoid mercenaries; Silent Rain, who comprise entirely of elves; and The Bloodaxes, who were originally outcast dwarves but now have much broader membership.
These factions may not exist in your DM’s campaign world unless you’re playing in Faerûn. If you are playing in Faerûn then other factions, like the Zhentarim, may still be a better choice because they’re more likely to be tied to the story than niche mercenary companies.
Your first step in choosing your mercenary company should be to ask your DM which groups are most likely to be relevant to the story. Those groups will, more often than not, be your best choice.
The campaign will often include much more of your backstory if you’re part of a faction that’s relevant to the campaign’s central story.
You can also create your own mercenary company. For this, you can just come up with a cool name and call it a day. If you want to put in a bit more work, you can also invent one or two characters who you’re close to within the company.
A couple of war stories also don’t go amiss – these can help to characterize the company itself and your role within it.
How To Roleplay A Mercenary Veteran
Mercenaries aren’t associated with notions of honor or bravery. These characters will take an advantage anywhere they can find one.
For an example of the fighting style of sell-swords, you should take inspiration from characters like Bronn from A Song of Ice and Fire.
Mercenaries are defined by their willingness to fight and kill for money. These characters are usually very mercantile.
They may be constrained by a duty to their own company, or a desire to uphold their company’s reputation, but treasure shouldn’t be understated as a motivating factor for almost all mercenaries.
Merchants of Death
Mercenaries are unromanticized killers. Where soldiers may be motivated by idealistic notions like honor or patriotism, mercenaries have no illusions of what their work entails.
Mercenaries are regularly confronted by the realities of killing and death, with no ideological filter to make it glorious or just. They could be natural killers or they may be emotionally harrowed by all they’ve witnessed and done.
Mercenaries may come to view life as worthless or to take pleasure in ending it. Conversely, they might dispassionately view unnecessary killing as unpaid work.
In both of these cases, a mercenary might keep a tally somewhere of their body count. If they take pleasure in killing, that might be as a tattoo on their body or as marks carved into the handle of their weapon.
If not, their tally might be in a pocketbook. The act of keeping this tally is a small piece of roleplaying but it can do a lot to characterize your character for the other players in your group.
Which Classes Best Suit A Mercenary Veteran?
The rogue class is a great choice for a mercenary – sneak attacks can be a great roleplaying tool that allows you to portray a dishonorable fighter. The battlemaster subclass for fighter also has a bunch of great options for this – shove attacks, disarming attacks, and other maneuvers can all be flavored as dirty fighting.
Other classes also mesh well with a mercenary background. Bards would be highly valued in a mercenary company for their versatility and ability to boost troops’ morale. Anyone with proficiency in cook’s utensils or brewer’s supplies would also find a welcoming home in a mercenary camp.
Rangers can make excellent scouts and guides for a company on the march.
Wizards, warlocks, and sorcerers don’t clash with a mercenary background but they’re less obvious choices for a mercenary character. Depending on how magical the world is, these characters might be treated with only begrudging respect and a little suspicion by the rank and file of a mercenary company.
Paladins, artificers, druids, and monks may require a bit more work to explain how they became mercenaries. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t attempt to play these classes as mercenaries but you may need to be more creative with them.