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Character Backgrounds for FRP

By Ronald Pehr.

Originally published in the Space Gamer #60, reproduced by permission of the author.

One of the most interesting yet neglected aspects of a fantasy role-playing game character is his background: who he was, what he did, and where he was from before embarking on his adventuring career. Some games barely mention the idea (D&D), some use it merely to determine starting characters' possessions (RuneQuest, Dragonguest). Chivalry & Sorcery, portraying the Middle Ages of Western Europe, gives more emphasis to background than other FRPGs; characters' chances for various encounters and their ability to earn money depend on their backgrounds. However, even in that game, background soon gets left... well, in the background. Characters acquire money, skills, and status as adventurers, and the background soon becomes irrelevant. Unfortunately, background skills and abilities are of little aid to adventurers in acquiring experience points (or whatever indices of achievement a game provides); these are generally garnered by looting and killing.

One way to expand the characters' scope of activities is to give them experience points or other status increases for achievements other than random murdering (C&S does this to a large extent). Another way is to provide opportunities to succeed by use of "mundane" skills. May- be being a trapper won't help you kill that marauding dragon but it might help you figure out what to use as dragon- bait. The following chart provides randomly- chosen backgrounds for FRPG characters, with benefits or liabilities which may persist throughout the game career of the characters, influence their courses of action, and hopefully convince their players to role-play appropriately. As with any chart, the important ingredient is the game referee's ingenuity and imagination.

Random background rolls are not necessary; any other appropriate method, such as referee assignation or limited player choice, can be used. There are similarities to the background chart presented in C&S. This is simply because pre-gunpowder civilisations sophisticated enough to foster adventurers are going to have some similarities. The majority of people will be farmers (or other food-gatherers); there will be people in populations centers be it cities, castles, or city-states, and there will always be a class which is independently wealthy due to economic or military position. (These may or may not have the trappings of formal nobility.) The chart is definitely biased in favor of a disproportionate number of urban dwellers, and concentrates on those with good education or exotic skills. This is not to suggest a population with the indicated percent- ages, but rather the population spread likely to provide adventurers. Such people might be more open to new phenomena and changing ideas, and be more likely to become adventurers.

Wherever a bonus of some type is mentioned on the chart, "plus one" refers either to the die roll of a single die (such as a 20- or ten-sided die), or the roll of several dice which are added together (e.g., two or three six-sided dice). When the game you use specifies percentile dice, consider "plus one" to be equal to 5%. In any case, "plus one" is in the character's favor. If a die roll requires low rather than high numbers, then the plus would instead be subtracted.

Where a skill from the background chart duplicates a skill otherwise found in the rules of your game (for instance, The Fantasy Trip allows certain mundane skills), it is up to the referee to decide if the character must devote one of his skill choices to that background skill, gets a "freebie," or gets the skill at enhanced ability if he does have to use up a skill choice.

When a background skill conflicts with a chosen adventuring profession (most likely in D&D, where professions are in- flexible), there are several alternatives;

  1. The skill is forsaken. "Sorry, Master Butcher, if you want to be a Cleric, you've got to forget how to use cutting implements "
  2. They are combined in such a way that the letter of the rules is preserved. "Sure, I'm a Magic-User, but I'm still a barbarian at heart, so I go berserk with my dagger."
  3. The skill is allowed, but always at "first level," or basic chance, and can never be improved. The basic social class divisions are shown below.

Basic Social Background (1d6)

1: Barbarian

2-3: Rural Background

4-5: Town / City Background

6: Craftsman / Professional / Gentry

1-5: Craftsman / Professional

6: Gentry / Nobility

Professions in Social Classes


This is a character who is from a culture with a lower technology than the civilization in which the characters commence their adventures.

Barbarians may have unique skills appropriate to their culture, and particularly to their climate (e.g., Eskimo adaptation to cold weather) but will be unsophisticated concerning the nuances of civilised living, unfamiliar with local customs, and economically disadvantaged (roll 1d6):



A character from a primitive tribe in which women have the dominant social position.

Amazon women will be extremely proud, fearless, and will consider male characters they encounter to be little more than animals, or at least inferior until convinced otherwise. If there is a difference in your game between the statistics of male and female characters, female Amazons are rolled as males. A male Amazon will be difficult to play; presume he escaped from tribal domination, and he won't have any combat skills.

Otherwise, play him as a barbarian (see roll 4-5, below).

An example of Amazon women in our world would be the Dahomey warrior-women.



A character from a primitive tribe with little outside contact. Savages will not have metal equipment or money.

An example of a savage in our world would be the African bushmen or Australian aborigines.

All savages, regard- less of other game skills, will be experts at outdoor hunting and tracking (e.g., D&D Ranger, C&S Forester).

Some might have weapon talents peculiar to their culture: boomerang, blowgun, throwing club.



The lightly armed and armored member of a wandering culture, typified by Mongols or Bedouin. Nomad characters will have contempt for farmers and distrust for city dwellers.

A nomad character will usually commence the game owning a horse or equivalent riding animal, and either a light sword or horse bow, or both.

He will generally possess expert skill at riding.



This is the "typical" Viking or Celt. Barbarians may have had contact with civilization and understand its ways to some extent (e.g., Conan).

A Barbarian character will have the ability o berserk in combat, regardless of his others skills or profession. If your game rules do not provide for this, allow plus four on physical attacks for one-half as many turns as the barbarian has hit points (or the equivalent), once per day.



This is a character who is not primitive, but rather has some problem which causes him to be shut out of the local civilization (roll 1d6):

  1. Outlaw:
    The character is outside any legal barriers, belonging to no guild, owning no property, serving no overlord. The character will have no money, though he may have appropriate professional equipment (a weapon, a magic book, etc.), and will have no means of earning money in the local civilization except for adventuring, charity, or crime.

  2. Criminal:
    The character has, or is believed to have, committed a major crime. He is actively sought for his crime(s).

  3. Foreigner:

    Shipwrecked or otherwise cast adrift, the character is probably ignorant of local customs and speaks the language poorly, if at all.

  4. Slave:
    The character has escaped from slavery. Like the outlaw, the character has no legal rights, and like the criminal, will be captured if local representatives of the law find him.

  5. Afflicted:
    The character is suffering from some sort of disease or defect (leprosy, crippled). This will be a congenital, not an acute condition.

  6. Heretic:
    The character is known to be totally opposed to the local religious power structure. If your game has an alignment system, the character is opposite whatever most people in the local culture are.


Rural Background:

Characters in this social stratum would be "peasants" or "yeomen"; that is, farmers or those who live away from population centers and who either work on somebody else's land or own farming land which produces little or no surplus. The majority of people in a pre-technological society will be in this class (roll 1d20):

(1-2) Farmer: Knowledge of agriculture, weather, etc. Plus one on identifying plants, weather, unusual terrain; plus one reactions from sentient plants, Druids, or other farmers.

(3-4) Rancher: Knowledge of domestic animals. Plus one on identifying or handling any sort of trainable animal.

Trapper: Basic ability to set and disarm trapping devices. Plus one on bar- gaining abilities and woodcraft abilities.

(6) Miller: Can obtain rations at half-price. Plus one on recognizing edible/ poisoned food.

(7) Forester: Basic abilities of a Ranger, Forester, Woodsman, etc. If character in this profession is an adventurer, plus- two on all related class skills.

(8) Hunter: Plus two with chosen missile weapon.

(9) Fisherman: Knowledge of fish, weather, currents, etc. Plus one on identifying fish, unusual aquatic conditions. Plus one reactions from other fishermen.

(10) Blacksmith: Plus one on identifying manufactured items. Able to repair metal articles, except arms and armor.

(11) Armorer: Plus one on recognizing enchanted weapons. Able to repair arms/ armor at half-price.

(12) Animal Trainer: Plus one on identifying, and on reactions from, wild animals.

(13) Miner: Knowledge of digging, new construction, sloping passages, sliding doors. Plus one on recognizing them.

(14) Soldier: Plus one to hit with missile weapon or plus one damage with hand weapon.

(15) Sailor: Can sail.

(16) Carpenter: Can build or repair wooden objects for half-price.

(17) Innkeeper: Knowledge of proper food and drink. Plus one reactions from civilised people.

(18) Valet: Knowledge of courtesy and courtly behaviour.

(19) Laborer: Plus one to strength or equivalent characteristic.

(20) Tinker: Plus two recognizing and fixing mechanical devices.


Town/City Background:

Characters in this social stratum would be unskilled and skilled laborers and workers in population centers. They would either work for some- one else or have an independent business too small to do more than support a family at marginal standard of living

(roll 1d20):

(1) Innkeeper: Knowledge of proper food and drink. Plus one reactions from civilised people.

(2) Blacksmith: Same as from Rural background.

(3) Armorer: Same as from Rural background.

(4) Tailor: Able to repair clothing. Can purchase garments, other than armor, at half-price.

(5) Teacher: When associated with an- other character, can add own level, skill factor, etc. to character's learning ability.

(6) Clerk: Knowledge of literacy, bookkeeping, etc.

(7) Laborer: Same as from Rural back- ground.

(8) Valet: Same as from Rural back- ground.

(9) Miller: Same as from Rural back- ground.

(10) Carpenter: Same as from Rural background.

(11) Tinker: Same as from Rural back- ground.

(12) Cook: Plus one on recognizing edible/poisoned food.

(13) Greengrocer: Can obtain rations at half-price.

(14) Cobbler: Construct leather items.

(15) Barber: Crude medical knowledge.

(16) Butcher: Plus one damage with hatchet or knife.

(17) Undertaker: Recognize living people (as opposed to undead).

(18) Drover: Knowledge of beasts of burden. Plus one on identifying, training, or handling such animals.

(19) Soldier/Constable: Same as from Rural background.

(20) Skilled Laborer: - Roll on chart below.

(Roll 1d6, re-rolling 6s. This gives you your 10s bracket: 1 = 1-10, 3 21-30, etc.

Then roll 1d10 within that bracket.)



Characters in this social stratum will live in or near population centers, work for a rich person, or travel about to sell their skills. They may belong to a guild, which may or may not have political power beyond the scope of regulating the profession. Because many professional skills are quite comprehensive, it may be difficult to quantify what talents a beginning character has. In some cases, a character with a professional background has, in effect, a full-time calling which may be as interesting and useful as playing a more standard FRPG character. By all means, encourage players to play as one of these unique characters. If the game rules do not allow this, presume that the craft or profession is a sub-class which the character retains and continues to develop at only one-half the normal learning cost (whether in money, time, or experience points) in addition to his official, adventuring profession. In cases where skills listed as craftsman/professional are the same as those from pre- ceding charts, the assumption is that the character had extensive formal training in the skill and that his family has a successful business based on that skill.

  1. Merchant or Trader: Know value of items, bargaining ability.
  2. Banker, Pawnbroker, Moneychanger-: Evaluate precious items, recognize counterfeit money.
  3. Goldsmith: Evaluate precious metals, including enchanted ones.
  4. Jewelcrafter: Evaluate jewellery, improve value by working it.
  5. Gemcutter: Evaluate raw gem- stones, improve value by working it.
  6. Chef: As for Cook.
  7. Brewmaster: Make wine or beer. Evaluate quality thereof.
  8. Tailor: As on previous charts.
  9. Dyer: Use chemicals to alter color or texture of clothing.
  10. Weaver: Make wool/cotton into cloth. Obtain garments made of those substances at half-price.
  11. Tanner or Cobbler: Construct leather items; obtain boots, saddles, leather armor at half-price.
  12. Architect: Understands construction. Will notice secret panels, new construction, sloping passages, etc. at plus two to roll.
  13. Shipwright: Design ships, under- standing equipment aboard them.
  14. Mason: Build stone walls, arches, etc., at half-price.
  15. Carpenter: As for previous charts.
  16. Glassblower: Make objects from glass.
  17. Chandler: Make candles, lanterns, torches, etc.
  18. Sailing Master: Can command any sort of nautical vessel.
  19. Navigator: Can navigate, but not necessarily command, vessel. Always knows directions outdoors at night.
  20. Sailor: Can sail.
  21. Diver: Can swim and dive. Will generally be able to remove armor to avoid drowning, even after an armored fall into water.
  22. Armorer: Can repair metal armor, or weapons other than swords, and obtain them at half-price.
  23. Blacksmith: Make and repair met- al objects except arms or armor.
  24. Swordsmith: Make and repair swords, recognize enchanted ones.
  25. Fletcher: Make arrows at half- price, recognize enchanted ones.
  26. Bowyer: Make bows at half-price, recognize enchanted ones.
  27. Painter or Sculptor: Make paintings/sculptures. Plus one on recognizing forged, unusual, or enchanted works of art.
  28. Orator or Poet: Plus two on reactions from royalty, intellectuals, and their peers.
  29. Bard: Knowledge of songs, music, stories; can perform on musical instruments. Many games already have rules for Bards.
  30. Dancer, Juggler, Performer: Plus one to dexterity or equivalent characteristic. Able to exercise appropriate skills.
  31. Cabinetmaker or Wheelwright: As for carpenter.
  32. Perfumer or Inkmaker: Familiar with scented or colored liquids, able to analyse them at plus two, make them at three-quarters price.
  33. Potter: Construct clay and ceramic objects at half-price.
  34. Locksmith: Understand locks and similar mechanisms. In games that have thief-type characters, the locksmith will! have the ability of a thief (plus three if he is also a' thief) in addition to whatever else he can do.
  35. Accountant or Scribe: As for clerk.
  36. Cartographer or Calligrapher: Draw maps and make signs.
  37. Lawyer or Interpreter: Able to use courtly language, know two extra foreign languages.
  38. Sage or Teacher: If the game does not already have this class, use as for teacher, listed previously.
  39. Physician: Characters can heal wounds at whatever basic ability is allowed by the game rules, by non-magical means.
  40. Astrologer or Alchemist: If game rules allow these as specific professions. the character will be plus three in using these skills.
  41. Engineer: Design siege equipment.
  42. Slaver: Will be able to estimate the abilities (and street value) of people by talking to them and watching them; plus one to bargaining.
  43. Executioner or Torturer: Plus one damage with a bladed weapon of choice.
  44. Scout: If game rules provide for a spy-type character, use those rules; other- wise, these characters have forester and thief-type abilities requiring stealth.
  45. Assassin: Extra damage, as appropriate to surprise effect.
  46. Beggar: Gains 1d6 of the lowest denomination coin when obtaining a favorable reaction when begging. On best possible reaction, gains 1d6 of the next- highest denomination coin.
  47. Courtesan: Enhanced charisma or equivalent, social graces.
  48. Martial Artist: This presumes specific training in hand-to-hand combat. If game rules have no such sub-class, allow plus three in striking without weapons or in grappling.
  49. Thief: The character has received actual instruction in techniques of larceny and may develop these as a sub-class. If the character actually is a thief-class, he performs at plus two.
  50. Royal Guardsman: An actual monarchy in your background world is not required; this profession merely presumes the character had intensive training since childhood to be a military leader (as medieval knights received). The character will have soldier skills, and will be able to lead units of other soldiers with plus two reactions from them.


Landed Gentry/Nobility:

Characters from this social stratum are independently wealthy; their families own land from which income is derived, or a business so successful they need not do any of the actual labor, but merely direct their employees and servants. In most FRPG worlds, and in most cultures in history, characters from this stratum will be members of an hereditary nobility, entitled to various formal displays of courtesy. Whether or not this is indicated for your background world, characters will still derive the same economic benefits of being born with a silver spoon in their mouths, with or without such formality.

Starting a Life of Adventure

Most games allow the character some amount of money to purchase equipment before starting his adventuring career. Sometimes this depends on social stratum, sometimes on professional class. The former method seems more realistic. In addition, a character should have whatever personal clothing and equipment would be appropriate for one of his profession and position. Profession would mean both his background as rolled from these charts, and his adventuring profession if the game rules require him to select one. Thus, whatever else he has, a carpenter would have tools, a courtesan would have cosmetics and alluring clothing, a calligrapher would have pen and inks, etc. In an FRPG world, characters would not be likely to start out with money beyond a bit of pocket-change; rather, they'd have necessary objects. In most games, armor is the biggest expense and is what characters purchase once they have accumulated the money. However, those electing to be some sort of adventurer, and who have trained for it, and have families which encouraged such training will possibly have armor and weapons already, in addition to their personal effects.

To determine this, roll I d6:

Rural Background/Town Dweller/Barbarian:

Multiply by 10 to find the initial amount of money possessed (in whatever denomination allowed for beginning characters). These characters (except barbarians) will never have armor; barbarians may have armor appropriate to their origins (leather for nomadic horsemen, chainmail shirt for Vikings, etc.). Fighter- types may commence with three weapons, part-time fighters (such as thieves) may commence with two weapons, those normally of non-combatant professions (magical-types) may commence with one weapon.


Multiply by 10 and add 60 to find initial amount of money. Weapons are as above. For armor, roll 1d6 again: On 1-2, they commence .with no armor, on 3-5, they commence with leather-type armor, on 6 they commence with mail-type armor.

Landed Gentry:

Multiply by 100 to find the initial amount of money. Weapons are as above. For armor, roll 1d6 again: On 1-2 they commence with leather- type armor, on 3-4 they have mail-type armor, on 5-6 they have plate-type. Characters may, of course, select armor with lesser protective value if they desire.

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Page created; Friday, 11 January 2002 , last updated; Thursday, 27 May 2004 .