The Sage background in 5e is one of my favorites. It gives you access to a couple of knowledge skills and some extra languages, but what makes the sage background so exciting is the Researcher feature. You basically know where to get a piece of information on the chance that you can’t recall it.
This has huge potential for storytelling. You could have an entire adventure based on trying to get some esoteric answer from a mysterious library! While this background is probably most stereotypically connected with the Wizard, adding this background to any of the more martial classes can add a new dimension to roleplay. Besides, jocks can be nerds too!
If D&D was set in a high school, the barbarian with the sage background is the jock who is secretly good at math.
Where I would start is with the question of what your specialty is. Barbarians are still from productive cultures, and while they may not be structured like the traditional feudal society, they still need specialists who can create potions, watch the stars, and research new methods fo doing things.
The next question to ask would be where did you receive your training? You could be the next in a long line of lore keepers, or perhaps a spirit taught you all that you know. You may even have contacts outside of your tribe that you are in regular correspondence, trading research secrets.
Barbarians may be storms of rage and muscle, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be intelligent and curious about how the world works.
Here are some personality traits for your barbarian sage:
|1||I hide my intelligence around those outside my trusted circle, it is easier to let people think I am an idiot than constantly prove them wrong.|
|2||I love showing off my physical and mental strength at every chance I get.|
|3||I switch languages whenever I am working on a particular problem, elvish for arcana, gnomish for alchemy, and so on.|
|4||I respect those who demonstrate their knowledge without pride.|
|5||I share what I learn eagerly – sometimes too eagerly.|
|6||My research project takes the highest priority over everything else.|
A bard can make a perfect sage, especially if your vision for your character is of someone who loves the art form they practice. They could be an expert not only in the technique of making great art but in all the theory and lore connected to it. They could lecture endlessly about the cultural and historical context and significance of a work, or debate the merits of one art movement versus another.
Some good questions to ask include when did you start your education? Why did you enter academia, and why did you leave to pursue a life of adventure?
After choosing a specialty, what about that specialty excites you? What could your character spend hours gushing over before finally falling asleep from exhaustion?
Here are some personality traits for your Bard sage:
|1||It is not enough for me to understand something, I need to practice it.|
|2||I take copious field notes whenever I encounter a new town, person, or creature.|
|3||I have a favorite pen and I would freak out if I ever were to lose it.|
|4||I don’t take many things seriously, with the exception of my work.|
|5||Education is the key to true freedom, and I am eager to free anyone I can.|
|6||I get frustrated when people can’t keep up with my mind. It is not my fault they are slow.|
A cleric can be a natural fit to the sage background, especially a cleric of one of the gods of magic. A cleric sage may be more removed from the day-to-day rituals of the church and instead be intent on researching esoterica and trying to plumb ancient secrets about their god or the nature of divinity.
You may even be the head alchemist or a professor teaching theology at the kingdom’s prestigious college. What made you leave a cushy post at a college or life as an academic or researcher to go into the field?
Think about why you dove deep into your field, and what about it excites you. Academics are often very passionate about their highly specialized field. You can embrace that and play someone with book smarts but have no idea how to handle money or how in the world to barter.
Here are some personality traits for your cleric sage:
|1||There is an essential question about the reality that gnaws at me, driving my research.|
|2||I seek out the local university, library, or book collection in any town we stop in.|
|3||I believe that anything worth knowing has been written down in a book.|
|4||My faith has been shaken by my research, but I demand to know the truth.|
|5||I am quick to debate anyone on any subject that I am knowledgeable in.|
|6||If somebody knows something that I don’t, I resent them for it.|
Druids can make great sages, benefiting from a combination of the dedication to faith of the cleric and the sheer lust for knowledge of the wizard. The subjects that a druid might study could be more about trying to solve the mysteries of the natural world. What is exactly hidden behind that forest? What ancient knowledge do the trees remember? The rocks?
With their connection to the natural world, they may seek to create a unifying theory of being or understand how we are all part of an interconnected web of life, death, and rebirth. A druid sage may be more inclined to do fieldwork, confident that their wildshape and spellcraft can keep them safe from most dangers. They also may not have the same academic institutions as a cleric or wizard. Their grove might be dedicated to the study of one subject or preserving knowledge over expanding it. In such a case, your druid may buck against tradition as they adventure and encounter new discoveries.
Think about who your mentors and teachers are. Who do you look up to intellectually? Are you trying to emulate somebody? What are you trying to solve, or discover? Why did you delve so deeply into esoteric knowledge in the first place?
Here are some personality traits for your druid:
|1||My research necessitates me entering dangerous situations, but I am a coward at heart.|
|2||I prefer hands-on research. Get messy! Make mistakes!|
|3||I am paranoid that others might steal my research, and I go to great lengths to keep it hidden.|
|4||I have a habit of stopping and talking to the trees at length – they know so much and nobody has recorded it!|
|5||I dislike having to explain something twice. Get it the first time, or forget it!|
|6||My work is more important to me than my life.|
Fighters with the sage background fight with brains and brawn. They might rely on clever tactics and coordinated plans over brute force to take down their opponents. This can be a fun way to bring some characterization into combat.
By choosing the sage background, you can create a character that is more of a renaissance man: a capable fighter and scholar. Perhaps you learned your martial skills by necessity in order to perform your more arduous field research. You should consider what your specialty is — magical creatures? Ancient civilizations? Studies of lost magics? Whatever it is, you’ve devoted a lot of time to mastering its subject material and mastering the use of weapons and armor.
This can be a great background for an Eldritch Knight, perhaps more of an intellectual fighter, preferring to augment combat with spells rather than relying on sheer physicality alone. Whatever you choose, make sure you incorporate a strong reason for leaving academia to venture out into the world. Fighters might have an easier time in this, as conflicts always need soldiers to fight in them.
|1||I always have a choice quote or a clever word to pair with my blade.|
|2||I hide my education under my tough exterior.|
|3||I always seek new knowledge to sharpen my intellect like I sharpen my blade.|
|4||I love a good puzzle and never pass up the opportunity to test myself.|
|5||I measure others by the strength of their mind as well as their body.|
|6||I tend to be emotionally cold and removed from most situations.|
A monk with the sage background may be concerned with subjects rather different from those of other sages. They may be philosophers more than scientists, seeking answers to life’s most potent questions: Why are we here? What is existence? Can it be transcended? If so, can it be done in one lifetime?
Monks master their bodies to a supernatural degree, so a sage may seek to do the same with their mind. They may have a mental discipline that they practice alongside their physical discipline. Your master might even be a long-dead teacher whose writings have formed the core of your training.
What happens when you encounter something that goes counter to those teachings? How much do you depend on your philosophy to form the core of your personality? What is your practical experience in the world and how does the theorizing you’ve done stack up against it? Spend some time to develop a basic philosophical core to your monk. This can aid you in roleplaying your character, giving you a moral framework through which you act and react.
Here are some personality traits for your monk:
|1||The teachings of my master provide an answer for every situation.|
|2||I trust nothing but my mind.|
|3||I can come across as emotionless or unfeeling at times.|
|4||I tend to interrogate others when I first meet them. I want to know all about them.|
|5||I am disappointed when other people are not interested in philosophy.|
|6||I will talk to anyone who will listen to my theories and will continue even when the conversation has ended long ago.|
A paladin sage can combine aspects of the fighter and cleric to create a character who is dedicated to maintaining their physical strength, but backs up that strength with a zealous understanding of the cause they champion.
Paladins in 5th edition are not so much tied to a specific god as a moral code. You may be deeply curious about the how’s and why’s behind each tenant. Instead of blindly accepting them you may question them and pull them apart until you are satisfied that each tenet has merit worthy of your zeal.
Think about your education as a paladin, which came first, the combat training or the scholarly training? Or, did they happen at the same time? Were you raised among paladins, or did you turn to that path after a life in academia? Who do you look up to and who do seek to emulate? What is it that you are trying to accomplish with your education and passion for justice?
Here are some personality traits for your paladin:
|1||I have a habit of correcting people whenever they mention something wrong.|
|2||I like to add my opinion even in other people’s conversations.|
|3||I believe that what I have learned is the absolute truth, and I have a hard time changing my opinion.|
|4||I always have a wry witticism up my sleeve for any situation.|
|5||I often find myself lost in thought, stumbling over things right in front of me.|
|6||I have a favorite book I read from each night.|
Indiana Jones. That’s the first character I think of when I think of a ranger with the sage background. He’s a professor who also goes on wild adventures, discovering lost civilizations and ancient artifacts.
You can use him as a model, but think about what makes your character passionate. What subject do they just absolutely love to learn about and dive deep into? What is missing in your field of study that needs some adventuring to fill out?
Each ranger subclass could be focused on a specific area of study, from the mysteries of the planes to the ecologies of the forests, to even how to perfect the hunt. Your ranger may be a master at finding knowledge to take down ancient and hitherto legendary monsters, or wanting to categorize the different types of new magical creatures that have been emerging from the wilds.
Here are some personality traits for your ranger:
|1||I love a good mystery and will stick my nose into any situation I find intriguing.|
|2||I often will solve a problem out loud, to debate their merits with myself.|
|3||I have a favorite treat that I always carry with me.|
|4||My best insights come from simply stopping and listening to the world around me.|
|5||Snakes… I hate snakes.|
|6||My quest for knowledge overrides any sense of personal safety I might have.|
The mastermind subclass might be the most suited to the rogue with the sage background. They are master plotters and schemers and would benefit from the extra knowledge skills and the researcher ability. Rogues excel at manipulating situations to their advantage and having as much intelligence as possible gives them that edge.
A sage may have found the necessity to pick up a few skills as a thief in order to get a special copy of a book or acquire the plans to a hidden temple. Think about what your rogue’s main objective is. What do they want most of all?
What about that necessitates them seeking out any and all knowledge about how to acquire, achieve, or become whatever it is that they want? Rogue sages could be archaeologists who use their skills to disarm traps and acquire artifacts either for sale or for the public good. They could be motivated by greed as easily as discovery.
Here are some personality traits for your rogue sage:
|1||Profit, not knowledge moves the world. Anyone who says otherwise is a fool.|
|2||I am thrilled more by the quest for knowledge than any actual benefit gained from it.|
|3||I work first in theory then put it into practice, building my schemes out in my mind first before acting on them.|
|4||I have a personal philosophical creed that I developed after years of study.|
|5||I keep sharp mental notes of where any valuables are in any room I enter.|
|6||I prefer to take action first and ask questions later.|
Sorcerers with the sage background can benefit from adopting a bit of the bookish nature of the wizard into their more spontaneous spellcasting. They could have turned to libraries and ancient tomes after discovering their bloodline, intent on understanding their newfound powers. Or you could have experimented on yourself, accidentally infusing your body with wild magic or the blood of a dragon or celestial or what have you.
Consider, like all sages, what specific question you are trying to answer. What pestering unknown drives your character forward? Are you seeking a way to restore life to the dead? To convert lead into platinum? To create a personal plane where you can be a god?
What shaped your choice of what to study? Was it after a major life event or have you always been fascinated with the subject? Think about the emotional motivations driving you to accomplish your quest. How would you feel if you won? How would you feel if you failed?
Here are some personality traits for your sorcerer sage:
|1||I quote from the most intellectually stimulating books to demonstrate how well-read I am.|
|2||I prefer to be alone — crowds intimidate me.|
|3||Most people simply cannot comprehend the magnitude of my work, and I have little patience to explain it.|
|4||I have a hobby, like an embroidery or origami, that helps me focus my mind that I am always sure to have with me.|
|5||It is hard for me to trust people until I see proof of their loyalty.|
|6||I hate combat and will try to resolve things peacefully – like civilized people.|
A warlock with the sage background may have made their pact after learning about their patron in some forbidden grimoire, or after following a paper trail that led them back to the true mastermind behind the throne – a devil. A warlock sage cleaves most closely to one of the main inspirations for the warlock class – Doctor Faust.
He used the knowledge that he gathered from esoteric books and ancient treaties on devils to make a pact with one. As with any background, think about why you struck this bargain with your patron. Why did you need their help to achieve your goals? What did they promise you in exchange for their aid? What price must you pay?
Become as specific as you can about the events leading up to and surrounding the pact. This will form the cornerstone of your character. How did your character change after the pact? Did some of their patron’s personality rub off on them? Did they acquire a new dimension to themselves? What are they seeking to learn more about?
Here are some personality traits for your warlock:
|1||I care very little for tradition and rank, treating everyone the same: beneath me.|
|2||I proudly display my allegiance to my patron.|
|3||I always have a new book to read in my pack, and I keep my eye out for new ones to add to my collection.|
|4||My patron has asked me to keep a detailed journal about odd things like star formations, or how much dew there is in the morning. I don’t question the request – out loud.|
|5||I collect trophies from my adventures and catalog them.|
|6||I will use every advantage that I can to achieve my goals.|
The wizard fits the sage background perhaps the most well. The thirst for knowledge that drives them, the years of study required to master the arcane arts, and that slight bit of insanity that is needed to devote your life to unlocking the secrets of the universe.
Some key moments to start with when creating your backstory are:
- Why did you begin studying magic?
- What hardships did you encounter in your studies?
- What are you trying to learn, prove or discover?
When developing these questions, think about the emotional component behind these moments, and who it was that you interacted with. Who were your mentors? Who were your intellectual enemies?
Most of all, what pulls you away from your studies? What question were you unable to find a satisfying answer to that demanded you venture out into the world? How did you feel about that?
|1||My best friends are my books, and I care for them very deeply.|
|2||I absolutely love gushing about any subject, even those I know nothing about.|
|3||I am fastidious about my appearance and I despise getting dirty.|
|4||My mind moves so rapidly, I often forget that I have stopped talking mid-sentence.|
|5||I am committed to my subject of study, even at the expense of my life.|
|6||I like nothing more than curling up with a good book.|
Next week we’ll take a look at the Sailor background and its Pirate variant.
Have you had any characters with the sage background? Tell me about them in the comments below.
Image credit is Eadwine the Scribe at Work.