Variant Backgrounds: Explorer, Mechanic, Politician, Scientist, etc.

The following is a batch of variant backgrounds I've been including in the options I present to my players: mechanic, politician, explorer, hunter, professor, and scientist.


Art by  Michele Frigo

Your craft is the building and maintenance of machinery. Your experience might involve gunsmithing, steam engines, gas lamps, blast furnaces, printing presses, threshing machines, or industrial mills, drills, and pumps. With the right resources, you can build and maintain these types of post-industrial machinery. Your hands are strong and careful, and you have plenty of experience getting them dirty. Rather than a guild, you belong to a union or society dedicated to technological progress. Such societies are the rivals of artisan guilds, whose members tend to be displaced by industrial machinery. Perhaps you’re a factory inspector, railway engineer, or a firearm manufacturer.

Choose tinker’s tools, carpenter’s tools, or smith’s tools for your artisan’s tools. Your skill proficiencies are Investigation and Perception, and if you wish proficiency with vehicles (land), vehicles (water), or firearms may replace your additional language.


In a constitutional society, the influence of committees and parliaments rivals that of the aristocracy. Though many politicians are of high birth, many come from more humble roots. The most successful are shrewd and cunning leaders. Perhaps you are the prefect of a small city who rose to political prominence, or a calculating senator poisoning your way to the top of the food chain. If you wish, you can choose the People Person feature below instead of Position of Privilege.


You have a natural aptitude for remembering people. If you’ve met someone in person, however briefly, there’s a good chance you recall significant details about them. Maybe you never forget names, retain a clear memory of something they explained to you, or perhaps you notice details about their appearance that no one else would focus on. Even years later, these details stay with you.

A good number of politicians began their careers with an interest in law. You might choose to switch out Position of Privilege or People Person for the lawyer’s feature Legal Training, especially if your political position involves legislation.

  d6  Personality Trait

  1. I get excited when I’m in the public eye or given attention.

  2. I’m flirtatious with most people, and it seems to get me places.

  3. My words are calculated very carefully, especially when a group of people is listening.

  4. There’s only one life to live. Why should I waste it in ceremonies and meetings?

  5. Government is meant to protect the simple pleasures of life, like drinking and wenching.

  6. I’ve got all the answers.

  d6  Ideal

  1. Protection. Power and authority exist to defend the weak and downtrodden. (Good)

  2. Influence. I’m always looking for opportunities to do a favor, and get one in return. (Neutral)

  3. Obedience. The law is the law is the law. To be civilized is to follow rules to the letter. (Lawful)

  4. Might. It makes right, and I prefer to have the bigger stick. (Evil)

  5. Accountability. The world is full of people in high places hiding their mistakes. (Chaotic)

  6. Liberty. No one tells me how to live my life. (Chaotic)

  d6  Bond

  1. My political career was backed by an influential organization, and now I can’t get free of their control.

  2. I managed to book a meeting with one of most important people in the nation. Now what do I say to them?

  3. No one knows it yet, but I have the perfect answer to a widely misunderstood political issue.

  4. People from my hometown or constituency won’t stop coming to me with their problems.

  5. I recently lost incriminating evidence that someone might use against me.

  6. I have a valuable connection in espionage or private detective circles.

 d6   Flaw

  1. Everyone has a vice right? Well, I’ve got them all.

  2. Crime pays. Weekly, in fact, if I turn a blind eye.

  3. I always say what I think I’m expected to say.

  4. When it comes right down to it, I’m apathetic about most parts of my life.

  5. The better part of valor is making a deal with the enemy, offering up my friends if need be.

  6. Beneath all the speeches and rhetoric, I’m pretty unintelligent.


Some wander the wilds in order to civilize them. They make and maps trails, develop relations with native cultures, and bring evidence of these achievements back to their homeland. Many of the same skills are shared between explorers and other outlanders, but their goals tend to be quite different. You might have set out to prove a geographical hypothesis, been hired to create a trail between two distant cities, or perhaps you’re looking for a mythical site rumored to be hidden in the wilderness.

Instead of a musical instrument, you’re proficient with vehicles (land), vehicles (water), or navigator’s tools. You can replace one skill proficiency with either the History or Nature skill. If you wish, you can use the Local Guide feature instead of Wanderer.


Your connections with the local inhabitants of a wild region provide you with a guide who knows the roads you mean to take. He or she warns you of the dangerous aspects of the journey, advises you on the best ways to forage for food and water, and can bring you to key landmarks in the area. If you pay a modest fee, the local guide might even agree to carry your equipment and hunt for you.


Not every wilderness-dweller is concerned with the lay of the land. Hunters focus on the creatures that live in the outlands, using the senses and skills of a predator to track their game. While their motives vary, the best hunters share a deep respect for the majesty and power of nature and its beasts. You might be the last true hunter of your tribe, a lone archer living off the land, or a hired gun who keeps the bears and wolves from hampering an expensive expedition.

If you wish to be a hunter, you may replace your musical instrument proficiency for proficiency with the poisoner’s kit. You gain the Tracker feature instead of the Wanderer feature.


You know what beasts are native to an area, and you can identify their movements well enough to find one of a given type by tracking for 3 hours of downtime. You can’t use this feature to find a particular creature, but you can discover likely dens and hunting patterns of local beasts within half a day’s journey of your camp.


You have chosen to dedicate yourself to formal research and instruction in a chosen field. As part of an institution for higher learning, you’ve read most of what there is worth reading in your area of specialty. Prospective students who have heard your name come to you with questions and favors. When you choose this background, choose a field to determine which skill proficiencies will replace the sage’s, or roll a d20 and consult the following table.

 d20 Academic Field    Skill Proficiency

  1. Anthropology        History, Religion

  2. Arcane Studies      Arcana, History

  3. Archaeology          History, Investigation

  4. Architecture           History, Investigation

  5. Art History             History, Religion

  6. Astronomy             Arcana, Religion

  7. Biology                  Nature, Survival

  8. Chemistry              Medicine, Nature

  9. Economics             History, Investigation

  10. Engineering            Investigation, Perception

  11. Government           History, Insight

  12. History                   History, Insight

  13. Literature               History, Insight

  14. Languages              History, plus two additional languages of                                  your choice

  15. Mathematics           Investigation, Perception

  16. Medicine                Medicine, Survival

  17. Mythology             History, Performance

  18. Philosophy             Insight, Persuasion

  19. Psychology            Insight, Persuasion

  20. Theology               History, Religion


Scientists study nature, hoping to solve its puzzles one by one and form a better understanding of the physical world. True scientists know, however, that every question answered brings two more to light. Whether privileged thinkers in the public eye or secretive madmen, scientists live on the cutting edge of progress, hoping curiosity will lead them to the next great discovery. Roll on the table below to determine which proficiencies will replace the sage’s. Add the corresponding tools to your starting equipment as well.

  d6  Scientific Field Skill Proficiencies           Tool Proficiencies    Languages

  1. Astronomy          Arcana, Investigation       Navigator’s tools       One of your choice

  2. Biology               History, Nature                Herbalism kit

                                                                              Poisoner’s kit

    3.  Chemistry           Medicine, Nature             Alchemist’s supplies

                                                                              Poisoner’s kit

   4.  Engineering         History, Investigation      Tinker’s tools

    5.  Geology               History, Nature                Mason’s tools            One of your choice

    6.  Physics                History, Perception                                             Two of your choic

Background: Medium


You have somehow learned to tap into the Spirit Realm, allowing you to communicate with spirits that linger at the edge of the veil between their world and the Material Realm. The contact is never earth-shattering, but you use it often in small ways, including to make a living. Whether you gather others at a table to contact their dead, or seek out haunted locales to placate angry spirits, people tend to look to you for help with the occult.

Skill Proficiencies: Arcana, Performance
Tools: Disguise kit, one type of musical instrument
Equipment: A holy symbol or spellcasting focus (arcane, druidic, or psychic), strange robes, a large tome on demonology and the Spirit Realm, a flask of holy water, a bundle of twelve candles, a tinderbox, a vial of exotic perfume, a small bell, and a belt pouch containing 10 gp

Feature: Séance

You can receive messages from nearby spirits through your holy symbol or spellcasting focus. Sometimes this puts you into a trance in which you can only speak simple phrases or answer yes-or-no questions on behalf of the spirit. More often the contact is subtle and difficult to sense. You might hear a simple message to a loved one, gain knowledge of details from the ghost’s life, or elicit a small demonstration of its presence (such as flickering lights or knocking sounds).

You can’t be sure of the accuracy of the communications, or if the spirit you’re speaking to is even who it purports to be. There are many devious ghosts who entertain themselves by tricking sensitive mortals. When you seek to contact a spirit, specifiy whom, if anyone, you’d like to speak with. Your DM then rolls secretly on the following table to determine the result.

 d12 Séance Result

  1. None
  2. A violent ghost that attacks anyone present
  3. The spirit of an arbitrary dead plant or animal
  4. The spirit of an arbitrary plant or animal that died in your current location
  5. An arbitrary unborn spirit
  6. An arbitrary spirit from ancient history
  7. An arbitrary spirit that recently died
  8. An arbitrary spirit that died in your current location
  9. A well known spirit from ancient history
  10. A well known spirit that recently died
  11. A spirit whose identity you specified
  12. You enter a trance and become stunned for 1 minute. While in the trance, the specified spirit controls your body. The trance ends if anyone touches you.


Gifts such as yours don’t leave a person unchanged. You might manage to appear well adjusted, but as with your interactions with the spirits, nothing is as it seems. You might have the air of always being distracted, or perhaps you stare deep into others eyes  as if you see into their souls. Maybe you seem weary, or are suspicious of everyone. Whatever effect the spirits leave on you, they have taught you not to take anything for granted.

  d6  Personality Trait

  1. I act haughtily with those who don’t believe in spiritualism.
  2. I give a lot of well-meaning advice.
  3. My etiquette is impeccable.
  4. Everyone is a friend, or potential friend.
  5. Despite my gift, I’ve always been a serious skeptic.
  6. I rarely speak. At any moment the spirits might tell me a critically important message

d6    Ideal

  1. Kindness. There are souls in anguish, living or dead, and I can help them. (Good)
  2. Love. I lost someone close to me and I’m determined to stay close to their spirit. (Neutral)
  3. Knowledge. This gift will one day teach me something truly profound if I perfect it. (Neutral)
  4. Fame. This is my ticket to celebrity. (Neutral)
  5. Duty. I have a responsibility to bring important messages across the veil to many people. (Lawful)
  6. Dominion. I decide what their dead loved ones say. I have complete control over them. (Evil)

  d6  Bond

  1. No matter what I do, I can’t speak with the spirit that’s most important to me.
  2. Someone powerful got an answer they didn’t like from a spirit, blamed me, and destroyed my life.
  3. There’s one mysterious spirit that torments me, and I know there’s a reason.
  4. I learned a secret about myself or the afterlife that no one else knows, and it’s tearing me apart.
  5. A spirit told me the location of its hidden treasure.
  6. I have a wealthy patron who gets me into the highest circles.

  d6  Flaw

  1. I bluntly speak the truth without regard for people’s feelings.
  2. When it comes down to it, I trust the dead more than the living.
  3. Showmanship is more important than honesty.
  4. The dead terrify me.
  5. I believe that no one can or will understand my burdens.
  6. I’m convinced that nothing really matters in the grand scheme of things. Death is the great equalizer.

Background: Lawyer


You have studied law, qualifying you for legal services in a particular jurisdiction. This understanding has sharpened your verbal skills and taught you how to use narratives to influence people. Language is one of your greatest tools. Your career in law might garner you respect or derision, depending on your history and prevailing cultural attitudes toward lawyers.

Skill Proficiencies: Deception, Persuasion
Languages: Two of your choice.
Equipment: A book of legal theory and case histories, a pen and bottle of black ink, 3 sheets of paper, fine barrister’s robes, a letter desperately pleading for legal help, and a belt pouch containing 15 gp

Feature: Legal Training

With your DM, choose a nation or legal system in which you have jurisdiction. You are familiar enough with the law and courtroom procedures of that area to litigate, draw binding contracts, or competently plead a case before a judge or magistrate. With sufficient skills checks, you can also forge legal documents. In your downtime, you might earning a living as a barrister, judge, proctor, or solicitor.

  d4  Law Specialty

  1. Barrister. An orator and law expert, you plead cases before a judge on behalf of others.
  2. Judge. You hold court and decide the outcome of legal proceedings as a judiciary authority.
  3. Proctor. Your authority is over church law within a specific religious organization.
  4. Solicitor. You represent the legal interests of others outside of the courtroom, handling contracts and giving legal advice.

Suggested Characteristics

Lawyers come from many backgrounds and personality types. You might be a purehearted advocate for the downtrodden, a corrupt official advancing a personal agenda, or just an amoral sleazebag looking for a break. What these all have in common is the ability to talk themselves out of a tight spot.

  d6  Personality Trait

  1. When I get nervous, I talk. A lot.
  2. I’ve always got my nose in a book or three.
  3. I speak in flowery language, especially when lying.
  4. When something important is happening, I tend to lecture or give emotionally charged speeches.
  5. I’m a pathological liar.
  6. I have a certain word or gesture that I use repeatedly.

  d6  Ideal

  1. Mercy. Everyone deserves second chances, even people who don’t appreciate them. (Good)
  2. Truth. I can never tell a lie. (Good)
  3. Wealth. Gold is my oldest friend, motivator, and confidant. (Neutral)
  4. Exactitude. Anything that isn’t correct or perfectly in order is a thorn in my side. (Lawful)
  5. Justice. Rules exist to protect people, and I don’t tolerate those who violate them. (Lawful)
  6. Influence. If I can pat the right backs, they’ll pat mine. (Any)

  d6  Bond

  1. I refused to give someone legal help, and now that person’s life is ruined.
  2. My closest friend began as my client. Now we’re inseparable.
  3. I got out of law after a particularly high-profile case.
  4. My area of expertise is always bringing people to my door.
  5. I’ve signed more forged documents than genuine ones in my career.
  6. A mysterious person is blackmailing me.

  d6  Flaw

  1. I’ll do or say anything to “win.”
  2. My cushy lifestyle is everything to me.
  3. I’m incapable of letting an argument go, especially when I’m correcting someone.
  4. My knowledge of the law is encyclopedic, but I have terrible people skills.
  5. I get very upset when people don’t treat me with respect and formality.
  6. I can and do make every conversation about me.


Background: Doctor


As a trained medic, surgeon, or physician, you’ve seen all sorts of injuries and illness. You’ve learned how to handle common medical situations without breaking a sweat, and your familiarity with important cases and treatments comes in handy.

Skill Proficiencies: Medicine, Persuasion
Languages: Two of your choice.
Equipment: 3 healer’s kits, a vial of antitoxin, an anatomy sketchbook, fine clothes, a magnifying glass, and a belt pouch containing 10 gp


You have a place of practice where you commonly see patients, and where you can get clean water, linens, ointments, and other items useful to treating the sick. At your practice you have records of local and famous medical cases, references for diagnosing rare illness, and contact information for other medical professionals that you can ask for assistance. In times of war or pestilence, you may be called on to treat the injured or infirm.


An infirmary can be a shocking place, and doctors practically live there. Not much can faze them—even non-medical situations that strike others as odd or uncomfortable don’t make doctors bat an eye. For some, though, the constant reminder of harm can make them overprotective or neurotic.

d6    Personality Trait

  1. I listen patiently to the complaints of others.
  2. I’m used to having an assistant when performing intense tasks, and at times expect others to fill that role.
  3. I’m uncomfortable with emotional intimacy.
  4. I take my downtime very seriously, and resent things that pull me away from relaxation.
  5. People always complain about my long-winded and patronizing explanations.
  6. I deflect stress and difficulties with humor.


d6    Ideal

  1. Charity. As a trained medical professional it’s my responsibility to care for the sick. (Good)
  2. Science. My top priority is the enlightenment of the medical community. (Neutral)
  3. Wealth. It pays to be the only one with the antidote, and that’s who I want to be. (Chaotic)
  4. Connections. I have a professional reputation to maintain among the nobility. (Lawful)
  5. Immortality. I went into medicine to pursue my obsession with curing death. (Neutral)
  6. Sadism. A part of me really likes inflicting pain on others. (Evil) 

d6    Bond

  1. The cure for a particular ailment is out there. I’ll find it to save myself or a loved one.
  2. As a medic for the military, it’s my duty to care for wounded and sick soldiers.
  3. Hospital administration is breathing down my neck about the odd methods I employ.
  4. I’m a country doctor. I’ve acted as midwife, veterinarian, surgeon, and coroner to most of the families in these parts.
  5. I run a side business buying cadavers from body snatchers.
  6. Since the time I saw a flesh golem created, I’ve been conducting experimental procedures trying to replicate it.

d6    Flaw

  1. Whether helping a patient or setting up camp, I’ve always got a routine that I insist on.
  2. I take out my anger by being condescending towards others.
  3. I can keep a strong stomach during surgery, but I’m a coward in battle.
  4. I spend nights conducting strange experiments.
  5. I’m impatient with people expressing pain.
  6. I’m addicted to one of the medications I give to my patients.
The Gross Clinic  by Thomas Copperthwaite Eakins

The Gross Clinic by Thomas Copperthwaite Eakins

Background: Cultist


Sometime before adulthood, you got involved with an obscure religious sect that demands strict obedience. It may not be an evil group, but it is certainly secretive about its beliefs and practices. There are many unusual deities or ideals that you might embrace. Whatever they are, it’s unusual and offputting to others. Sometimes your leaders plan illegal or taboo acts for you to commit that further the cult’s agenda. These plans don’t necessarily harm others, but sometimes they make members of the cult uncomfortable. Not that they’d ever admit it.

Skill Proficiencies: Persuasion, Religion
Tool Proficiencies: Disguise kit
Languages: One of your choice.
Equipment: Common clothes, ritual robes, a small cult idol (holy symbol), a book of teachings, and a belt pouch containing 15 gp


The exact nature of your cult’s worship depends on its beliefs, and which god, entity, or philosophy you embrace. Your cult could be a radical sect of an existing religion, or it might worship a strange god.

d8    Belief

  1. Primordial Cult. The world was stolen from the primordial gods, and one day they’re going to get their due.
  2. Cult of Sowm. Sowm, the First Mother, isn’t dead, but lives in hiding from her murderous son Daemoth.
  3. Cult of Sarnoss. Civilization and industry are a blight on the natural world.
  4. The Hollow Crown. All the gods were killed centuries ago, and now the religions of the world only seek to maintain their false power.
  5. Order of the Emptied Chalice. The Black Arcane arts are gifts from the gods.
  6. The Black Lotus. Consciousness and the material world are illusions.
  7. Fundamentalist. If I am prepared, death will grant me godhood.
  8. Racial Cult. There is only one race the gods approve of. The rest are abominations.


When your cult’s leader teaches or pronounces an edict, you’re privy to the information. You know what rites or tasks your brethren and sisters of the inner circle have planned, and (subject to DM discretion) you have some sway with the cult’s leader. You can usually lodge with fellow cultists if need be, and they may keep you fed and supplied in return for performing tasks and following the cult’s strictures, which you and your DM should define.


Cults are often driven by the charisma and manipulation of a single leader. Trust in that leader is essential for the believers to continue faithfully within the group. Often the death of the leader jars the members of a cult to their senses. Consider who the leader of your cult is, what your relationship is, and determine how secure you are in the beliefs you’ve been taught.

d6    Personality Trait

  1. No one can shake my faith, even with proof.
  2. I don’t hold an attachment to worldly things, since I’m destined to inherit much better.
  3. My sanity is slipping after years of seeing things not meant for mortal eyes.
  4. My brothers and sisters of the order are dearer to me than life.
  5. My face is always an expressionless mask lacking empathy or feeling.
  6. I indulge in worldly pleasures to drive away the guilt of partcipating in disturbing rituals.

d6    Ideal

  1. Faith. I long for the day when all my beliefs will be vindicated. (Good)
  2. Ministry. Anyone and everyone is a possible convert, if I can get them to trust me first. (Neutral)
  3. Power. This cult is a lie, but I can use it to influence others and get what I want. (Evil)
  4. Obedience. I support my leaders. Even when they cause me pain I know it’s for my own good. (Lawful)
  5. Safety. I comply with this nightmare of a religion just to stay alive. (Neutral)
  6. Vengeance. The cult harmed me and now I stay involved to sabotage its goals. (Chaotic)

d6    Bond

  1. It started with seeking approval, but now I’ve fallen in love with my cult’s leader.
  2. My best friend was sacrificed or hurt by my brothers and sisters in the cult.
  3. My parents raised me to believe in this, and they still watch my devotion like hawks.
  4. I’ve come into possession of an artifact that disproves my cult’s beliefs.
  5. My leader has entrusted me with a secret quest that the other members can’t know about.
  6. I fell in with the cult’s enemies, and now I feed them information on our activities.

d6    Flaw

  1. I like to reference obscure scripture and teach others what they should believe.
  2. The most casual happenstance might be a sign from my god.
  3. I’ll sacrifice anything to further my cult’s agenda: friendships, possessions, even your life.
  4. I have a secret sin or practice that would brand me as a hypocrite.
  5. Sometimes the letter of the law causes me to violate the spirit of the law.
  6. I’m intolerant and disparaging to those who look or believe differently.