Stories are filled with heroes from humble origins, and each culture spins its own version of the story. In Dungeons & Dragons, the world is often filled with larger than life heroes battling epic villains, and the folk hero background allows you to at least start your adventuring career more humbly.
Folk heroes are distinct in that what defines them is not magic power or skill with weapons, but a single, selfless act that earned them the admiration of the peasantry. They cement themselves as a hero of the people with this act, even if the consequences dog them for the rest of their life.
It’s time for some working-class solidarity as we explore the Folk Hero background.
Barbarian Folk Hero
Barbarians lend themselves well to folk heroes. They already come from humble origins, far from civilization. The first place to start is whether or not your heroic act happened before or after you left the tribe.
Next, choose what the defining event was. Whether or not you meant to perform the heroic deed selflessly is less important than how it was perceived. A goliath barbarian who stands alone against a monster might do so simply to add to his own glory, with little thought to the peasants living nearby.
Barbarians are more likely to embrace their folk hero status, as their culture may be filled with stories of folk heroes who rise up from common origins to fight against impossible odds. What you chose to do with your fame is up to you, but be careful that you don’t forget the little people who helped you get to where you are.
Here are some personality traits for your barbarian folk hero:
|1||My pride may be the death of me.|
|2||I retell my heroic deed at every chance I can get|
|3||I can never let those in need go unhelped|
|4||I resent the praise I get. I was simply doing what was right.|
|5||The best part of being a folk hero? The food!|
|6||Each day I feel obligated to up the epicness of my past deeds.|
Bard Folk Hero
Bards with the folk hero background bring up the question of whether their fame was manufactured, or real? Bards control the news in a typical medieval setting, so feel free to elaborate on your humble beginnings and rise to fame.
Bards weaponize opinion, and a folk hero may be the perfect cover for more nefarious plans, should you have them. Other bards may be true freedom fighters, fighting for a better world for the people. Bards benefit from taking an ideological stance with their background. Whether it is an opportunistic one or a selfless one, having a defined attitude toward your fame will help largely inform your character and their adventuring career.
And of course, what is a bard without a ballad of their deeds?
Here are some personality traits for your bard folk hero:
|1||If people saw me out of costume they wouldn’t recognize me.|
|2||I fight for the people against injustice and predation.|
|3||I’ve toppled more than one king with a well-placed word.|
|4||Every conversation is a fight, and I am an expert with words.|
|5||I secretly love the attention I get and I get anxious when I’m not the center of attention.|
|6||My fame is a mistake but I’m too deep in the lie to set the record straight.|
Cleric Folk Hero
Clerics naturally have a more direct connection with the masses with their role as conduits between the gods and mortals. The folk hero background can strengthen that connection.
Western religious mythology is loaded with examples of selfless men and women of various faiths sacrificing themselves for the good of the people — but that doesn’t mean you have to!
The cleric who bravely stands up for the people, or whose peasant origins are never forgotten, is a great option for people who want to give some moral backbone to their characters. This background works for clerics who are a little less selfless too.
While most clerics enter the faith out of a genuine desire to do good, just as many historically entered because it was politically expedient, or offered a way out to those who stood to inherit nothing. Your cleric may have identified a potent political opportunity and taken it, earning the respect of the people.
Here are some personality traits for your folk hero cleric:
|1||My God directs me to spread justice, I was just doing my duty to the faith.|
|2||By helping the masses, I bring myself closer to the divine.|
|3||It was a vision that led me to be where I needed to be.|
|4||The last time I heard the voice of my god was at the defining event. I wonder why they have gone silent.|
|5||Peasants often overwhelm me with requests for healing. I’ve come to resent that.|
|6||I play up my fame in each new town. Why not? I earned it!|
Druid Folk Hero
Druids may find their origin story in the folk hero background. They may have discovered their connection to the natural world by standing up against an ogre alone, or by stopping a flood. The background includes the origin of being a relatively ordinary person before the defining event. Deciding what that role was can help inform how you relate to the natural world.
A brewer might find they especially enjoy coaxing plants to give forth good grain to be turned to beer. A carpenter might use their druidic powers to carve living wood. A blacksmith might shape the earth to create tools and plows for the peasants.
Unlike the nobility and merchants, the peasants are intimately connected to the land. A folk hero druid may serve as a healer, spreading the Old Faith as they encourage the growth of crops and healthy livestock. A druid folk hero can benefit from establishing where in their community they fit in.
Here are some traits for your druid folk hero:
|1||I feel more a part of the people I come from than the natural world.|
|2||It is my duty to help anyone I can.|
|3||I practicing my craft helps me relax.|
|4||I am uncomfortable with all the attention my fame has brought me.|
|5||I love delighting the peasants with small feats of magic.|
|6||I have my favorite bar where I know I can get the best beer in the kingdom.|
Fighter Folk Hero
A fighter folk hero likely takes the military path. Perhaps they stood up against a ranking officer to defend enlisted soldiers. Or their bravery and courage may have granted them the reputation of a hero among the other men. Fighters with the folk hero background should consider what rank they were at in the military.
A standing military begs the question of why? Was there a recent war? If so, with who and what was the outcome? These questions can be great story points for your DM to work into the campaign.
If you decide to go with a different defining moment, then did that moment lead you to develop your skill with arms? Maybe a passing swordsman witnesses your act of bravery and decided to teach you. Relationships make the richest foundation for any backstory.
Here are some personality traits for your fighter
|1||I feel guilty for being the only one to survive from my unit.|
|2||I enjoy the discipline I learned after training and I resent having to break that routine.|
|3||I have a distinct scar left from the heroic deed that I often try to hide.|
|4||I am on the run from the authorities after standing up to them.|
|5||I am unable to let an act of injustice to go unpunished.|
|6||I enjoy showing off my skill and will do so at any chance I get.|
Monk Folk Hero
A monk folk hero can draw inspiration from Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II. In the film, Jackie Chan plays a monk who fights against a corrupt company to help protect the interests of a town. Really you could look at any number of kung fu and samurai movies for examples of traveling monks or martial artists defending the peasants.
What you should consider is why your monk decided to act in the first place. What were you doing in the town when you passed through? What was your initial reception? Did the peasants reject you at first?
If you chose a more martial path, why did you enlist and why did you fight for a king or a cause? What was your home monastery and why did you leave?
Here are some personality traits for your monk folk hero:
|1||It is in battle that I truly find peace.|
|2||I left my monastery to witness the world, little did I know how dangerous it would be.|
|3||I enlisted to defend my monastery when the other monks refused to act.|
|4||I have a fondness for the peasants that I saved and often bring them gifts.|
|5||The only thing that pisses me off is people interrupting my meal.|
|6||I often act like a fool, but I don’t let anything get by me.|
Paladin Folk Hero
A paladin fits nicely with the folk hero background. Nothing is more Arthurian than a knight gallant fighting off a monster to protect society. You can easily play into this archetype, having a kind of chaste courtly love with your admirer. This can fit well in a high fantasy campaign where good people are paragons of goodness, or in a more grimdark campaign where the paladin fights to hold onto their inner goodness.
Paladins can let their background build to the eventual Oath that they take. For example, those who take an oath of conquest do so because their defining event opened their eyes to the chaos and darkness that threatens civilization.
You should also consider how your former status as a peasant influences your character’s opinion of others. Do you trust the lower classes more naturally, or do you find yourself reflexively bowing to nobility? The background can provide you with a variety of relationships that may become key players in your character’s development.
|1||I first felt the holy fire burn within me the day of my defining event.|
|2||I seriously doubt my ability to ever live up to the stories people tell of me.|
|3||My relationship with my admirer is a secret that gnaws at me.|
|4||I trust that I have a glorious future ahead of me. The gods have made it known.|
|5||I am resentful of those who assume they know me just because they know my reputation.|
|6||I am obligated to live up to the image that the peasants have created for me.|
Ranger Folk Hero
Rangers are described as the ones on the edge between civilization and the wild, and the folk hero background fits right into that. Your role in the village before the defining event may have led you to be the natural choice to stand up against the threat. It could even be that a passing ranger took you under their wing after witnessing your bravery.
If you decided your character enlisted, they may have served as a scout or light infantry. Think about their war experience and what they lost or gained. Why did they enlist? Who did they leave behind when they left the service? Why did they leave?
A ranger with the folk hero background also benefits from a humble beginning. Your defining event can be the moment where your character turns from a mere hunter to a true ranger. Perhaps even their animal companion first makes their appearance here before joining the ranger later in their adventure.
|1||Being the center of so much attention delights me.|
|2||I avoid town because I am always forced to shake hands and kiss babies.|
|3||I revel in retelling my story and will do so at any length.|
|4||I always repay the kindness that is done to me.|
|5||I despise authority and will challenge it whenever I can.|
|6||I hope that I can find a town where I am unknown for a change.|
Rogue Folk Hero
Rogues are opportunists but your rogue may have a heart of gold under that smarmy smile and quick blade. The folk hero background can help round your background out to include a somewhat normal life beyond the typical life of crime.
Rogues make an interesting folk hero as sneak thieves and criminal types are often not the types to stand up to authority openly or to self-sacrifice. However, a rogue is defined by their skills more than their morals. Perhaps you are something of a Robin Hood, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.
They may even bend their fame into a lucrative opportunity, where the people are free from outrageous taxation — with a generous protection fee of course. Your relationships with the peasantry may be the defining aspect of your character. Who were your enemies, your friends? Why did you leave the village for a life of adventure? Do you resent the fame you have or does it provide a unique cover for heists?
|1||I use my fame like any other tool or weapon in my kit.|
|2||I have a book to keep a record of my admirers, in case I forget.|
|3||There’s nothing you can’t do with a charming smile and a quick blade.|
|4||The stories of my glorious battle may be… greatly exaggerated.|
|5||I write letters home to mother. She thinks I’m a money changer in the capital.|
|6||I resent the attention I get… I wish I could stay anonymous.|
Sorcerer Folk Hero
A sorcerer easily fits into the folk hero background. You could be a servant who discovered their sorcerous origin after standing up to their abusive lord. You could be a journeyman artisan whose magic causes the same disaster you end up preventing.
Because your class and background both offer hooks for your backstory, consider how you might be able to combine them. Perhaps there were always legends of your ancestor’s travels in the feywild or perhaps they were some distant founder of the town. Think about your relationships before and after the heroic event. Did the once distrustful townspeople realize that you are someone worth their time after you chased off a wild grue? Did you finally earn a place of respect, perhaps with a little fear mixed in, after standing up to the local lord? If you decide you were enlisted, how did that experience shape you? How were your magics used in battle, or did them manifesting cause you to be discharged?
Here are some personality traits for your sorcerer:
|1||Being the center of so much attention delights me.|
|2||I worry that I can never live up to the stories they tell of me.|
|3||I often miss the days of being just another random peasant.|
|4||I keep a running list of who helped me and who hurt me before I became famous.|
|5||I am distrustful of any person in authority.|
|6||Once I set my mind to something, I am determined to do it.|
Warlock Folk Hero
Warlocks make natural folk heroes, and indeed the tale of their deeds can serve as a kind of cover for their sudden powers or even as the first act in service to their patron. Warlocks are defined by their relationship with their patron, and folk heroes are defined by their relationships with their community. Think carefully about how your character feels about each of those.
Maybe they made the pact with the archdevil order to save their village from a terrible plague, or their encounter with the fey or divine creature was when that link was established. While warlocks are stereotypically secretive about their pact, yours might be celebrated by your community as a point of pride. After all, not every village produces those who are chosen by the gods or by an archfey.
Warlocks who entered the service and became recognized among the soldiery may owe their fame to the unseen influence of their patron. The choice you made to accept the pact and the choice you made to stand for the people are the two major choices that define you. Consider them carefully.
Here are some traits for your warlock:
|1||I will do what I must to make sure the people I love are happy.|
|2||I worry that my secret pact will come to light and everyone will see that I am a fraud.|
|3||I draw my strength not from my patron, but from the community that raised me.|
|4||There is no more powerful weapon than that of an angry mob.|
|5||I love being the center of attention and will tell anyone who listens of my deed.|
|6||I haven’t seen much of the world, but if it is anything like the stories, I am eager to explore!|
Wizard Folk Hero
A wizard with the folk hero background seems to me like a strange combination. Wizards have a tendency to cloistered life, engaging with ancient tomes more than with living people. But, every wizard has to come from somewhere. They may have even earned their fame by defending a village at no cost to themselves.
You could even be a hedge mage, providing your magical services to the peasantry instead of the nobility. Even peasants can benefit from a well-placed mending spell, or enjoy a prestidigitated fireworks show.
Gandalf is actually a really great example you could follow, specifically how he is regarded by the hobbits. Something more of a legend, or a fairy tale than a living being. Consider what your relationship to the community is. Perhaps you cast a spell from a scroll, saving the village and that act earned you a position in the local wizard college. Or if you were in the service, what role did you play? How did you conduct yourself in the war? Was there a war? What was your combat experience as if there was one?
Here are some character traits for your wizard:
|1||I resent the ritual and pomp that the wizard college demanded. I prefer to live simply and rustically.|
|2||People seem to resent it when I lecture them about the subtleties of arcano-agriculture.|
|3||I have recorded all 17 versions of my story and I can tell you exactly how many are true: 0.|
|4||I always repay the kindness that is done to me.|
|5||Despite my magical training, I can still farm with the best of them. I’ve never forgotten my roots.|
|6||I get deep satisfaction from helping others.|
The image is of Joan of Arc from Musée Dobrée / Public domain.
Next week we’ll be exploring the Guild Artisan.