While Dungeons & Dragons 5e has a distinctly less feudal flavor than the game’s earlier editions, nobility, titles, and the divine right to rule still have an important place in the fabric of the game’s many worlds.
While player characters may accrue titles, a stronghold of their own, and even dominion over entire kingdoms throughout the course of a campaign, every true noble knows that by far the best route to rank and status is being born to it.
If you want to be the lord of a dwarven mountain kingdom, a halfling sheriff, an errant duke cut off from their family fortune, or any other character elevated to a position of power and privilege by the circumstances of their birth, the Noble background is a great place to start.
Tool Proficiencies: One type of gaming set
Languages: One of your choice
Feature: Position of Privilege
Your noble birth (which gave you access to levels of education, etiquette and personal hygiene not often seen in the rough and tumble adventuring life) means that people are inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt.
High society welcomes you as one of their own, and people tend to just assume that you’re allowed to be wherever you are – presumably out of a well-founded fear that you’ll ask to see their manager and have them executed.
Commoners make every effort to accommodate you and avoid your displeasure (see above manager-execution theory), and high born folk treat you as an equal.
This also means you can often leverage your social rank to gain an audience with a local noble when those doors would otherwise be shut to a lowly adventurer.
The Noble background is one of my favorite backgrounds included in the 5e basic rules, largely because it has the effect of integrating your character into the politics of the game world.
I like running politically sophisticated games, where things like social status, ancient alliances, and shifting political motivations matter.
The Noble background also lends itself to a very old school element of the game which has definitely fallen out of fashion in 5e: strongholds and domains.
Back in early editions like B/X and AD&D, once characters started hitting higher levels (and amassing eye-watering amounts of gold – which was also the main way you gained XP back then… man, old school D&D was wild) it was expected that you would put your tens of thousands of gold pieces to use by building your character a stronghold, establishing them as the ruler of the local area.
You’d recruit soldiers to defend your borders, priests and alchemists to manufacture potions, and collect taxes from the peasants who came to settle your lands.
It’s a style of play that can feel very alien to more modern players and DMs, but I maintain it’s a great way to challenge players as they start to hit higher levels with problems that they can’t necessarily solve with the individual acts of violence that have served them well thus far.
Whether holding dominion over a stronghold appeals to you or not, the Noble background does a great job of situating your character within the wider world (something I know every DM with a 300-page lore dump at the ready will be happy to facilitate) and even help give you some agency in building the world with your DM.
Hot Tip For Dungeon Masters
When I run games, I always try to get my players to use their backstory to flesh out parts of my world. Whether it’s a far-off kingdom on the other side of the sea, a single tavern in a sleepy village, or a sprawling network of thieves and assassins, this process not only makes your players more invested in the world by making aspects of it theirs, but it sure does cut down on prep time.
When you choose the Noble background, work with your DM to come up with an appropriate title for your noble character, determining exactly how much authority it confers (not to mention where it’s recognized) and how your character relates to the family that is the source of their rank.
Noble Titles From History
Duke/Duchess: Ruler of a Duchy, second only to royalty.
Marquess/Marchioness: Ruler of a March – usually a sell-settled area of land at the border of a Kingdom or Empire.
Earl/Count/Countess: Ruler of a County, an area of land usually part of a Duchy.
Viscount/Viscountess: A lower form of Count.
Baron/Baroness: The lowest form of landed nobility, ruling over a Barony.
Other Titles: If you want to give your nobility a less distinctly Anglican flavor, try these options.
- Župan: Slavic equivalent of a Count
- Jagir: A Persian title akin to a Baron, meaning Land-Holder
- Herzog: German form of a Duke
- Graf: German form of a Count
- Vidame: A minor rank of French aristocrat
A noble character’s family is almost as important as the character themself. Whatever title you hold was likely passed down to you by your relatives, and your family’s influence can ensure that wealth, position, and privilege can come with a distressing number of strings attached.
Decide whether your family is old and established or only recently came into their title. Decide how much influence they wield.
Do they rule these lands, or is their title essentially meaningless? How do other aristocrats view your family? What reputation do they have among the common people?
You should also work to determine your position within your family. Are you the sole heir to the family title? Are you a distant relative so far down the line that your more important kin pay you no mind – so long as you don’t embarrass them? What’s expected of you by your family?
Did you choose the adventuring life as a way to escape those responsibilities, or are you dutifully working to rebuild your family’s fortune and reclaim your ancestral home from those who took it from you?
Lastly, if it’s interesting to you, design a coat of arms for your family. I like using this one, personally. Your family’s coat of arms can inform any insignia of rank (like a signet ring) that you wear, the color of your clothes, and the design you paint on your shield if your character carries one.
Noble characters were likely born into a lifestyle to which the vast majority of characters will never experience. You probably had access to better education, food, and living conditions than most folks could dream of, and it’s no surprise that it affects your worldview somewhat.
When you choose the Noble background, choose a Personality Trait, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw from the tables below – or feel free to invent your own.
|1||My eloquent flattery makes everyone I talk to feel like the most wonderful and important person in the world.|
|2||The common folk love me for my kindness and generosity.|
|3||No one could doubt by looking at my regal bearing that I am a cut above the unwashed masses.|
|4||I take great pains to always look my best and follow the latest fashions.|
|5||I don’t like to get my hands dirty, and I won’t be caught dead in unsuitable accommodations.|
|6||Despite my noble birth, I do not place myself above other folk. We all have the same blood.|
|7||My favor, once lost, is lost forever.|
|8||If you do me an injury, I will crush you, ruin your name, and salt your fields.|
|1||Respect. Respect is due to me because of my position, but all people regardless of station deserve to be treated with dignity. (Good)|
|2||Responsibility. It is my duty to respect the authority of those above me, just as those below me must respect mine. (Lawful)|
|3||Independence. I must prove that I can handle myself without the coddling of my family. (Chaotic)|
|4||Power. If I can attain more power, no one will tell me what to do. (Evil)|
|5||Family. Blood runs thicker than water. (Any)|
|6||Noble Obligation. It is my duty to protect and care for the people beneath me. (Good)|
|1||I will face any challenge to win the approval of my family.|
|2||My house’s alliance with another noble family must be sustained at all costs.|
|3||Nothing is more important than the other members of my family.|
|4||I am in love with the heir of a family that my family despises.|
|5||My loyalty to my sovereign is unwavering.|
|6||The common folk must see me as a hero of the people.|
|1||I secretly believe that everyone is beneath me.|
|2||I hide a truly scandalous secret that could ruin my family forever.|
|3||I too often hear veiled insults and threats in every word addressed to me, and I’m quick to anger.|
|4||I have an insatiable desire for carnal pleasures.|
|5||In fact, the world does revolve around me.|
|6||By my words and actions, I often bring shame to my family.|
Variant Noble: Knight
Knights rank among the lowest of noble titles, and the position is sometimes bestowed as a result of deed rather than birth. You can read our full breakdown of the Knight background here.
Variant Feature: Retainers
As an alternative to your Position of Privilege feature, when you choose the Noble background, you can instead elect to employ three retainers – commoners who follow you around to help maintain the quality of life your station demands.
These retainers can be attendants, messengers, squires, cooks, or any other type of servant you like. You can send them on errands into town to buy supplies, deliver messages, meet with potential allies, cook your meals, keep watch while you sleep, take care of your party’s mounts, and otherwise make your life more comfortable.
It should be noted that your retainers will not fight for you or accompany you into dangerous situations. You are responsible for their upkeep, food, and equipment, and they may abandon you if they find themselves frequently endangered or abused.
Retainers are another core aspect of old school D&D that’s fallen by the wayside in 5e – largely, I think, due to the fact that the action economy renders a dozen 1st level fighters insanely overpowered.
It used to be perfectly normal (in many cases even encouraged) for your party to have a whole host of torchbearers, porters, mercenaries, even hired clerics on hand to help provide a buffer against the more dangerous contents of a dungeon.
Having retainers on hand back in the days when there were no death saving throws, and many effects (like poison) just killed you instantly, was also a great way to create a pool of potential new characters to join the party whenever someone beefed it inauspiciously on the first level of the dungeon.
It’s an element of the game (especially in smaller parties) that I’d love to see more of in modern D&D especially at a time when more and more people seem to be rediscovering the joy of playing in smaller parties (of two or three players) or even solo.