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In this series, we will be exploring each of the backgrounds presented in The Player’s Handbook, 5th edition and see how each can create an interesting character background for your next character. This week we start with the Acolyte background.

As with each character background, consider how your experiences pre-adventure shape your worldview, your personality, your fears, hopes, and dreams. Having a rick background can provide you with the fuel needed to really inhabit your character.

Check out the Charlatan background here.

Barbarian Acolyte

Now this combination might seem strange, but I think it actually integrates really well. Barbarians have a spiritual side to them as shown by the Path of the Totem Warrior subclass. A barbarian acolyte doesn’t necessarily have to be relegated to some monastery with stone walls and the like. 

They can be the tribe’s shaman or priest, or perhaps a priest-in-training before they decided to dedicate themselves to more martial pursuits. A barbarian with a deeply spiritual side would add so much depth to a character class which is often regulated to simply being a meatshield. 

Barbarian acolytes know the rituals to be performed when an ally falls in battle. They know how to placate enraged spirits. They can commune with their ancestors and ask for their blessings in battle. 

You can adapt the acolyte background to be more “barbarian-y” by:

  • Your holy symbol could be a sacred drum, idol, or another ritually-important tool like a knife or chalice.
  • Instead of a prayer book, your character has memorized the prayers and rituals. You could still find it useful to keep track of what prayers your character knows yourself.
  • Vestments can be ritual paint, or a sacred cowl or a shirt made from a special material.

It might be harder to have the feature, Shelter of the Faithful, apply in more urban games, but it could mean that a rival tribe allows the party to stay with them for one night because of your status as a priest.

In addition to the tables present in the PHB, here’s one to barbarian-ify your acolyte:

d6Personality Trait
1Tradition and rituals must be maintained at any cost.
2The gods speak to me, and I listen to (or ignore) their advice.
3I never completed my full initiation and hide that from others.
4I find the gods of “civilized” people weak and useless and I don’t hesitate to let them know.
5I was saved as a child by a god or spirit and have dedicated my life to their service.
6I secretly doubt that the gods exist. If they did, why do so many suffer?

Bard Acolyte

A bard acolyte might actually bring it back to its roots in Celtic mythology. Bards of old were responsible not only for keeping knowledge and arcane lore but also were connected with sacred rituals. Music is part of many religious services, so it wouldn’t be out of place for there to be a bard singing the praises of their god at a temple. And all those sacred prayers need somebody to write them.

Your bard may have been divinely inspired to set off in pursuit of greater knowledge of their god. They may also have doubts and be going on a pilgrimage in order to gain clarity on their faith. You could have even been kicked out of your temple because of that curiosity! Bards also have the potential to be the evangelical pilgrim, eager to spread their message.

Here are some ways to bard-up your acolyte:

  • Instead of a prayer book, why not a hymnal?
  • Your vestments could mark you as a musician or keeper of the sacred words.

Here are some additional character traits for your bard acolyte:

 

d6Personality Trait
1My every word must be in praise of the gods, lest I offend them.
2I might be divinely inspired, or I might be just a bit mad. What’s the difference?
3I find comfort in the sacred songs that I learned as a child and often turn to them.
4I think the best way to draw people to the faith is through music… and maybe a convincing word or two.
5It is important to question everything in the quest for truth. And I mean everything.
6Knowledge is the gateway to true holiness.

Cleric Acolyte

The cleric is the obvious choice for an acolyte background. It helps explain their knowledge of the rituals that need to be performed and provides them with a grounding in the Religion skill. However, the best way to go apply this background is to consider the effect of growing up in a religious community has on your character.

Do they still retain a more provincial mindset, having grown up outside of the larger society? Who do they see as their family? What people or beliefs were especially important to them growing up? And most importantly, why did they leave the community now?

Perhaps those blessed with divine magic are sent out in pilgrimages to sister communities, or perhaps you are the first in a hundred years to have been blessed?

Consider the terms in which you left the temple. Was it amicable or did you have to escape? Were you kicked out? 

You can adapt the equipment by making them specific to your god. Your holy symbol becomes endowed with greater meaning as it is not only a channel through which your god’s divine will manifest but it was a gift when you entered the priesthood.

Here is a table of some more clerical personality traits:

 

d6Personality Trait
1I am the first among my order to truly hear the voice of the gods.
2I am constantly beset by doubt in my faith despite my training.
3I find the glory of the gods in every situation, and always have a quote ready for it.
4I secretly fear the power that the gods have given me. What if I fail?
5I find the vast majority of my religion to be too bond to scripture and tradition. I aim to end that.
6I am a beacon for good in this world, and it is my duty to serve others.

Druid Acolyte

A druid acolyte is very similar to a cleric acolyte. Instead of a more formal religious order, perhaps you were trained by an archdruid or found a home in a conclave of druids far from civilization.
You can combine some aspects of the outlander background. Perhaps you are steeped in a special druidic culture but you are really out of your depth when it comes to civilization. What legends and lore were passed down to you? What do secrets do you keep? How does a druidic philosophy based on balance differ from traditional faiths and how do you apply it?

Your holy symbol might be a sprig of holly or a wolf’s tooth. Your prayer book could be written entirely in the druidic code, and your vestments could be a wolf cowl or a crown of antlers. 

While druidic groves may be few and far between, perhaps you could extend the Shelter of the Faithful feature to extend to those believers in the old faith. It could also be very interesting to develop a relationship with a grove that has been long abandoned and that you now care for.

Here are some druidic personality traits:

d6Personality Trait
1I am meant to renew the old faith and teach the balance wherever I go.
2My faith is strong but quiet. I hardly could explain it to others if I tried.
3I am slow to trust those who treat the natural world as nothing more than a thing to be exploited. 
4I am enamored by civilization and its creations. Imagine what could happen if it were brought back into balance!
5I am watched over by a nature spirit and often pray to it for guidance.
6I hate hierarchies and buck against them whenever I can.

Fighter Acolyte

A fighter with an acolyte background immediately makes me think “Why did they not become a paladin?” 

That may be a good place to start as you develop the backstory. Perhaps you always wanted to become a paladin but just were not gifted with that divine spark. Or perhaps you found your place in the temple as a guardian of a sacred treasure or relic. Maybe you left the religious life young and joined a military force, but continue to keep the rituals you learned as a child.

A fighter acolyte, similarly to the barbarian, can help give your character more layers when it comes to why they fight and how they conduct themselves off the battlefield. 

They could even be in the service of a war god and see their mastery of arms as a kind of special devotion. Consider how religious rituals influence your participation in battle. Do you follow a highly regimented existence, or do you insist on keeping to a particular set of rules in combat?

Here are some personality traits for a fighter acolyte:

 

d6Personality Trait
1On or off the battlefield, I always follow the precepts of my god.
2The gods revel in my skill with weapons. I dishonor them by refusing a fight.
3I never got over being rejected as a paladin. I have abandoned my faith because of it.
4It is my duty to recover a relic that was stolen from my faith. I will do whatever I must to retrieve it.
5I have never been spoken to by the gods, despite witnessing their miracles. Why am I unworthy?
6I am afraid of losing myself without the order and ritual of the monastery.

Monk Acolyte

Monk acolytes are another no-brainer choice for the acolyte background. The real-world inspiration of Shaolin monks is a good place to pull from for your own character. Perhaps you were sent on a final pilgrimage before joining the priesthood as a full member, or maybe you fled before the ceremony?

Do you still turn to your teachers for guidance, or are they unreachable? Do you seek to found a monastery of your own and teach a new generation of monks? 

Take some time to think about what your role is in the greater religion of your god as a monk. Do people not see you as being fully qualified to preach compared to a cleric? Some of the divine-oriented subclasses for monk can also help inform your monk’s role in the faith. 

Here are some personality traits to meditate on:

d6Personality Trait
1Each day is a ritual unto itself and I have promised to keep it.
2I master myself because I see the great capacity for evil within me. I must control it.
3I regret leaving my monastery, but I would never admit it.
4My faith in the gods is demonstrated by each action. So is my doubt in their plan.
5I can only hope that my past sins can be purified by my discipline.
6I secretly doubt that the gods exist. If they did, why do so many suffer?

 

Paladin Acolyte

The paladin is another obvious choice for this background. Paladins gain their strength from sheer faith alone. This could be reflected in their background as an acolyte. Perhaps they were abandoned at the monastery at a young age and have found comfort in their faith’s worldview. 

Is your paladin on good terms with the temple, or has their zeal offended some of the old guard?

What reason do you have to leave the temple? A paladin is driven by a need to vanquish the darkness, which could be a result of your home being destroyed or some encounter with an evil that made you give up your cloistered life.

Consider what lessons your paladin learned while in the religious community. Do they have an overly simplistic view of the world? How do they react when they learn the world is more complicated than black and white, good and evil?
Here are some traits for you to smite (or become smitten with):

d6Personality Trait
1I trust the word of my faith over all else. 
2The gods speak to me, and I listen to (or ignore) their advice.
3I would never tell anyone that I became a paladin for a selfish reason.
4I have never heard the gods speak to me and I hide this from others.
5I trust that the gods have a plan, and from that, I gain strength.
6Suffering creates strength, ignorance breeds foolishness, forgiveness grants wisdom.

Ranger Acolyte

Ranger acolytes can easily create a background similar to the barbarian or druid. They may have had a role as a protector of the sacred grove, or perhaps were part of an order dedicated to hunting down the enemies of the faith. 

Consider how your ranger learned their skills as a tracker or forged a bond with an animal companion while learning the faith. What rituals are important to them? Perhaps they only do the sunrise prayer and little else.

Perhaps you are following in the footsteps of a hero of the faith, and hold yourself up to their measure with each action. 

Here’s a table of personality traits that could track:

d6Personality Trait
1My connection with the hunt is my expression of faith.
2The world is like the hunt, you are either the hunter or prey. 
3I delight in sharing my faith with anyone who will ask. I blaze a trail from ignorance to enlightenment.
4My life is meant as an example to live by, and so I weigh each decision carefully.
5I am watched over by a nature spirit and often pray to it for guidance.
6I hate hierarchies and buck against them whenever I can.

Rogue Acolyte

This is one where it could be harder to square the skills a rogue uses and life in a religious order. However, you can easily weave the two together by either making your rogue a devote of any of the more nefarious or shadowy gods. If that doesn’t appeal, you can play them as somebody who was never really fit for a life of religion and leaving the faith was the best thing they ever had done.

Rogues have a reputation of being more self-serving than other classes, but you can add an interesting spin to your character by giving them a deeply rooted faith. Perhaps circumstances forced them to learn the skills of a thief in order to prevent their order from dying out. Or maybe they are part of a religious order of assassins. 

Either way, consider what parts of the faith your rogue holds dear. Likely they don’t care much about the precepts of conduct that some good-aligned god proscribes, but maybe they still perform the Sun Welcoming ritual every winter solstice. 

Here are some personality traits to steal:

d6Personality Trait
1I tend to trust those of the faith than nonbelievers.
2My contacts in the monastery often provide me with fresh marks, and in turn, they get paid well.
3I would never tell anyone that I became a paladin for a selfish reason.
4I doubt the gods exist, but why risk being wrong?
5I can only hope that my past sins can be purified by my faith.
6I find the vast majority of my religion to be too bond to scripture and tradition. I aim to end that.

Sorcerer Acolyte

A sorcerer with an acolyte background makes me immediately think of a cleric in training that suddenly discovered their magical heritage and that event interrupted their life goals. Perhaps they left the monastery in order to try to find their place in the world. 

Another take is a sorcerer who is an acolyte who has been desperate to perform divine magic their whole lives only to discover that the power they thought was god-given actually came from some other outsider. Do they accept that truth or try to bury it?

You can also play as the divine soul subclass. Maybe your bloodline was discovered when you were a small child, or yet unborn, and you’ve been raised in a monastery your whole life thinking that you have some divine mission to fulfill. What does that sense of divine purpose do to shape your character’s world view? 

Consider how your faith views magic and what stigmas are attached to it, if any. Are you sent out of the community because your wild magic is unpredictable or are you hailed as a second coming?

Here are some personality traits to manifest:

d6Personality Trait
1I tend to trust those of the faith than nonbelievers.
2My contacts in the monastery often provide me with fresh marks, and in turn, they get paid well.
3I would never tell anyone that I became a paladin for a selfish reason.
4I doubt the gods exist, but why risk being wrong?
5I can only hope that my past sins can be purified by my faith.
6I find the vast majority of my religion to be too bond to scripture and tradition. I aim to end that.

Warlock Acolyte

An acolyte who was perhaps jealous of their more advanced peers. An acolyte who thought the could bypass rituals and chanting and just get to the point already. An acolyte is chosen by a deva for some inscrutable divine purpose. An acolyte tempted by their desires to abandon their faith.

These all make great backgrounds for warlock acolytes. If your pact is with a being that is not the same entity you worship then why did you enter the pact? Do others know or do you keep it a secret?

Or in your tribe, are there no clerics only warlocks who make pacts with the local archfey? 

Think about how your character feels about their religion and their place within the organization. Who have they told about their pact and what would happen if that knowledge would get out? They could even be part of an organization of warlocks with safe houses in every city.

Here are some personality traits to employ:

d6Personality Trait
1My faith is rewarded by the pact made with me. It’s not my fault if it was with the enemy team.
2I use my faith as a shield against the power that seeks to corrupt my soul.
3I can trust no one, not even my pact siblings.
4I never truly believed in anything, only in the strength of my will.
5I have been chosen for a mission of divine importance and I will do anything to fulfill that mission.
6I am afraid of losing myself without the order and ritual of the monastery.

Wizard Acolyte

A wizard with the acolyte background could quite easily work, especially if the wizard’s preferred subject of study is not the arcane but the divine. An order of wizards dedicated to a god of magic could also work, where they hope to bridge the gap between the two. Or maybe the style of magic you were taught was more ritualized and religious in philosophy but held no god as the object of worship.

Think about the tension between learning arcane magic and religious ritual at the same time. Is there tension or did you have to hide your studies? What would the members of your community think if they found out?

Why did you leave? Were there secrets you wanted to learn but couldn’t within the confines of the temple? What parts of religion is important to you? What prayers do you lean heavily on in times of need, or is there a mantra you use when trying to solve a problem?

Here are some personality traits to copy to your spellbook:

d6Personality Trait
1I often see the faith differently, and that has made me something of a pariah.
2I forget frequently where I left my spellbook, but I know every scripture by heart.
3The mind is divine and should be explored.
4Magic is my faith and religion.
5I am impatient whenever it takes somebody too long to figure out something I had down five minutes ago.
6I love sharing my knowledge of magic or religion whenever I have a chance. No, I do not overshare!

 

More backgrounds to come next week with the Charlatan!

Want tips on roleplaying your favorite races? Check out them out here.