Hellooooo, sailor (background)!
The sailor background for 5e is a fun option, offering two useful skills and a great feature to find safe passage on a ship whenever needed. Your mileage may vary based on your campaign setting, but if you’re looking for a nautical good time, check out Seas of Vodari (plug plug plug) — which has a ton of sailor background variants among all kinds of other awesome content!
I have always loved stories centered around the ocean and the people who sail its waters. Not to mention the Pirate variant lets you be well… a pirate! And what is cooler than that (don’t say ninja)?
Every ship needs someone who is Stronk and can Lift Things, so why not a barbarian? You can even turn this on its head and be part of a tribe that spends most of its time at sea. Maybe they come ashore once a year to trade, repair and restock before heading out onto the blue?
Your barbarian sailor may have a more spiritual connection with the sea or rivers, perhaps calling on the spirits to bless them with fair weather and fish to fill their nets. This could be a fun opportunity to do a little world-building, developing the culture your barbarian grew up in.
If your barbarian took to the sea later in life, you can use their motivation to do so and connect it with their larger quest. Could they be on the quest for the greatest glory and taming the sea would give it to them? Or maybe they are seeking revenge after a white kraken bit off their leg?
If you go with the Pirate variant, why did you choose to raid other vessels? What crimes did you commit? How does your character deal with that experience? Do they embrace that as part of their identity or do they reject it as an act of desperation that doesn’t exemplify their character?
Here are some personality traits for your Barbarian:
|1||I never like to linger in one place too long.|
|2||I have a special ritual that I always perform before going on any adventure.|
|3||Whenever we come to a new port, I always head for the cheapest tavern.|
|4||I love nothing more than recounting my epic tale for anyone who will listen.|
|5||I will test myself against any physical challenge that presents itself.|
|6||I take any quest very seriously, so much so people call me grim.|
Every ship needs a bard to call up the wind or to refresh the crew after a long day’s toil in the hot sun, or even to strap to the forecastle and pelt with hardtack when boredom sets in. Bards might become sailors to see the world and gather up songs and shanties. Or perhaps they were born with a touch of a siren in them and feel compelled to sing of the sea.
Think about how you gained your bardic skills on the sea. Were you taught by an old sea dog, or did merfolk teach you how to whistle down the wind? What choices did you make to become a bard? Why did you make them and how did doing so connect to your larger life goal?
Why your bard decided to join a crew and sail should be a major decision worth fleshing out in your background. Who are the people you made friends within the crew? Who were your enemies? If you dabbled in piracy, how did your character feel about stealing from others?
Here are some personality traits for your bard:
|1||I have a lover in each port, sometimes these can be difficult to keep track of.|
|2||I take special care of my appearance, always presenting as the dashing pirate/sailor I am.|
|3||I have an extensive repertoire of sea shanties that I sing for any occasion.|
|4||I am proud and never back down from a challenge.|
|5||I am suspicious of new people and I always withhold my trust until they earn it.|
|6||I never pass up an opportunity to play a game of chance.|
A cleric with the sailor background likely worships a sea god as their patron, but they may be followers of a god of weather or storms. Pirate clerics may even worship gods of battle or chaos, finding their piracy to be the perfect avenue to spread the will of their patron. Cleric sailors might also be followers of gods of civilization, intent on spreading order to the relative lawlessness of the seas.
When creating your cleric’s background, some key moments to develop include the decision to enter the church or begin worshiping their god. What made them decide to work as a sailor? Did your moment of conversion serve as the end of your sailing career, or did it precipitate it?
Who on your crew did you gain as an ally? Who would your character turn to when they need safe passage? And why did they stop sailing and become an adventure (if your campaign is not nautical based), or if you left your old crew for your adventuring crew?
Here are some personality traits for your cleric:
|1||I was saved from drowning by my god and this has hardened my faith.|
|2||I understand the fickleness of the sea and accept it when it gives and takes.|
|3||I am deeply uncomfortable with being on land and avoid it at all costs.|
|4||I leap at the chance to tell a parable about my god in any situation.|
|5||I despise those who think they can tame the sea with magic and technology.|
|6||I carry with me a special trinket that reminds me of my connection to the sea.|
A druid is well suited to life at sea. With the sailor background, your druid may have had a role of guiding the ship through storms or pacifying the various wild creatures that threaten a lone ship in a hostile sea. Druids may even make excellent scouts for pirates. What appears to be an innocent dolphin or seal could be a scout assessing the cargo of a passing merchant ship.
When creating your druid’s background, think about why your character decided to go with serving as a sailor instead of working with a coastal circle or protecting the ocean from those who would despoil it.
Druids stand apart from civilization, so your character may feel like something of an outsider, and perhaps their crew and the party are the only people with whom they truly feel at home. Why did you decide to leave your crew and join the party? How did your crew feel about that? Did you leave on good terms with them or were you forced out? If you chose the pirate variant, why did you leave that life behind? Was it because you are on the run or are you trying to live the straight and narrow path?
Here are some personality traits for your druid:
|1||I prefer to spend as much time as possible in the water.|
|2||I have loved ones that I left ashore that I regret leaving behind.|
|3||I get seasick easily, but that doesn’t stop me from loving the sea!|
|4||It is the duty of the strong to cull the weak from the herd.|
|5||I hold grudges and never let a slight go unanswered.|
|6||I don’t trust those who can’t even hoist a sail.|
Fighters can make great pirates and captains with the sailor background. You could have been a marine if you choose to have done some military service, or part of the kingdom’s navy. You might have even joined an expeditionary crew that set sail to seek new lands and adventure. Perhaps you learned your martial skills on the sea, practicing swordplay with swashbucklers. Sailors are a superstitious bunch and that is a great flavor to incorporate into your character. What superstitions do they hold as truth, and which do they dismiss as mere delusion? What about sailing did they love and what task did they just hate? What were their relationships like with their captain and crew? Who did they admire? Who did they hate? Were there rival crews that you’d give anything to send to the briny depths?
Another important question for those campaigns that don’t take place on the sea, is why did your fighter decide to leave life at sea behind? Are you retired from sailing, or stranded by your shipmates? Are you laying low from the law, or did your commission end? And most importantly, what does your character want most out of life?
Here are some personality traits for your character:
|1||I don’t like to brag, preferring actions to demonstrate my strength.|
|2||I am ruthless to my enemies and generous to my friends.|
|3||I have a code of honor that I am careful never to break.|
|4||I keep a mental list of where I have stashed all my gold.|
|5||At the end of the day, I care about only one person: myself.|
|6||I am afraid to get too close to anyone, preferring to leave before things get too intimate.|
A monk with the sailor background could have joined a crew in exchange for passage during a pilgrimage. They could be from an order of monks that is sea-based, training in galleons instead of monasteries. The first place to start when developing your monk’s background is deciding when did they become a monk and when did they become a sailor.
Your character may have started life at sea, but joined a monastery after seeing their prowess in combat, or connecting with their philosophy. If you left your crew to join the monks, how did your crew feel about that? Who did you leave behind?
If you chose the pirate variant, how does the spiritual side of your monk training connect with that? Monks don’t necessarily have to have a religious side, but creating at least a simple philosophical framework can help deepen your character and aid you when making important decisions. A pirate monk may believe that life is an ultimate test of will, and those who are strong and capable should take from the weak. Or they might be labeled a pirate when their goal is to protect the poor and working-class from the predations of powerful merchants and guilds. And be sure to develop what your character wants most out of life, as that forms the core of your character from which all else flows.
Here are some personality traits for your monk sailor:
|1||I hold to a rigid code of conduct, even if the outcome is bad for me.|
|2||My philosophy in life is to experience it in its fullest — the good and the bad.|
|3||I will never leave someone behind.|
|4||I dislike small talk, but awkward silences make me anxious.|
|5||I tend to exaggerate the truth, not by much… well… maybe by a lot.|
|6||I pick up things that don’t belong to me more out of curiosity rather than greed.|
A paladin might take to the sea as part of their holy quest to rid the world of evil and injustice. They could have left their life at sea after having a conversion to serve a higher purpose, or perhaps formed part of the elite corps of marines. The sailor background offers a paladin an interesting life before the beginning of the campaign, implying a life far from a militant order or a cloistered religious life.
The two major moments in your background for you to consider is why did you work as a sailor and why did you become a paladin? If your order is dedicated to patrolling the seas to ensure safe passage for civilians, why did you decide to join them and potentially risk your life?
If you decide to become a pirate, how do you justify crossing the law and sea-mugging people of all their booty? Do you serve a higher law than the law created by mortals? Does your oath require you to do whatever you can to protect the meek — even if that means resorting to murder? What is the core belief that forms the core of your paladin’s faith?
Here are some personalities for your paladin sailor.
|1||I strictly hold myself and others to the tenets of my oath.|
|2||I may be a pirate but I never lie and I am fair with those I capture.|
|3||I keep back a portion of whatever I earn to help those in need.|
|4||I love the attention I get whenever recounting an epic sea tale in the tavern.|
|5||If I can start a brawl, I will — anything to test my strength.|
|6||I am actually very afraid of the ocean and refuse to swim in it.|
A ranger may be called to explore the outermost reaches of the known world, signing up for long-running expeditions and probing the edge of the map. The sailor background could work for those rangers who spent their time before the beginning of the campaign sailing up and down the rivers that crisscross the kingdom. If your campaign is not going to be set near the ocean much, a river-based option might be a great way to incorporate the background.
Rangers can make great pirates, using their skill at tracking to hunt down and capture galleys full of gold, silk, spices, and rum. If you have an animal companion, they could serve as a guide or a scout as your sail — an invaluable asset when many days from civilization.
The decisions you should consider most are why did you decide to take to the sea? And, how did you acquire your ranger training? Both of those decisions can be great starting places for you as you write the background. Especially consider how both of those decisions tie into your character’s main want.
Here are some personality traits for your character:
|1||I am curious to a fault, often poking my nose into where it is not wanted.|
|2||I am stupendously clumsy – but my crew keeps me around as a kind of good luck charm.|
|3||I am reserved and rarely speak, only doing so when necessary.|
|4||I take my time in the morning to awake, preferring to spend at least two hours to get going.|
|5||I feel a need to prove myself and will accept any challenge spoken or unspoken.|
|6||I prefer my own company, staying on the ship when in port.|
The rogue can become the stereotypical pirate with the swashbuckler subclass and the sailor background. Whether you choose to be more like Dread Pirate Roberts, or like Captain Blood, or even Jack Sparrow, your character has chosen to show up in the world in a big way. How do they make themselves stand out? What aspect of themselves do they take special pride in and show off? Do they have a lovely nose? Maybe they always wipe it with a beautiful nosegay for example.
Pirate or not, your focus in the backstory should be on the core desires that motivate your character. Did they join their crew to seek greater wealth and fame then they could have gotten on land? Or, did they join up while young and gain the skills of a rogue as their ship went port to port?
What happened to make your character leave their crew and join the adventuring group (if the two are different)? If you were a pirate, what key moments shaped your life? Did you spare a ship after realizing the violence of your actions, or did you commit atrocities in the name of personal gain?
Here are some personality traits for your rogue.
|1||I only watch out for myself and my crew.|
|2||Nobody insults me and lives.|
|3||I am free with my wealth, giving to friends and strangers alike.|
|4||I live by one creed: From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.|
|5||I take my skills as a rogue as seriously as any artist.|
|6||My secret vice is my deep appreciation for high art, especially opera.|
A sorcerer could easily find passage on any kind of ship, from a merchant’s vessel to a fishing scow to the navy. In a world where sorcerers are basically living artillery, they’d be useful not only for fending off attacks — or attacking — but your spell list might include spells like Gust of Wind to help push the ship along when stuck in the doldrums. A ship could also be a great place to send sorcerers where they won’t be much danger to society. After all, what’re a few sailor’s lives compared to a village?
With the sailor background, your sorcerer may have found a family in their crew, one that values their abilities despite some initial superstitious trepidation. They may even embrace the life of a pirate less for the wealth it could bring and more for the freedom to chart your own course.
Some key scenes to consider for your background include when you joined the crew, when you were accepted by them and any major events that shaped your character’s outlook. What made them decide to leave their crew (if they did), or what happened to them that made them decide to commit to a life at sea? Who in the party do they have a prior relationship (friendly or otherwise) with? What do they want most out of life and how far are they willing to go to get it?
Here are some personality traits for your sorcerer sailor:
|1||I am very superstitious and have at least seven different charms and holy symbols on me at any given time.|
|2||I love showing off my muscles and my magic at any chance I get.|
|3||I have learned the only people you can truly rely on is your crew.|
|4||I hate staying still for too long, preferring to always be on the move.|
|5||I have a very disciplined routine, necessary to keep my power in check.|
|6||I am fearless — being a living weapon can do that to you.|
A warlock may have formed a pact after their shipwrecked in a storm, promising to serve their patron in exchange for saving their life. They may not have fully considered the ramifications of the pact, and now live in dread of what will be asked of them. They could have led their crew to their deaths in seeking out their patron and the power they offer as a kind of sacrifice.
When working on your warlock sailor’s backstory, focus on the key moments of joining your crew, creating your pact, and eventually becoming part of your party. What drove each of those decisions? Does your warlock have a life philosophy that they use to guide their decisions?
Temptation is a theme built into the Warlock class, so spend some time considering what your character would give up their life for. What do they want to do or achieve more than anything in their lives? What about their lives has left them unsatisfied, desperate for more? Did they grow up in poverty? Or did jealousy enthrall their heart? Is it twisted love, or vengeance that drives them?
Here are some personality traits for your warlock:
|1||I see others as mere tools in my great work.|
|2||I live in fear that my patron will come to collect what I owe — only I know I will be unable to pay.|
|3||I find delight in the small things: the sound of the wind on the sails, the creak of the hull, the call of gulls.|
|4||I am immensely curious and want to know everything about new people I meet.|
|5||I am a coward at heart, desperately afraid of getting hurt.|
|6||I never get too close to people, afraid they will find out my dark secret.|
A wizard might join a crew after completing their studies as their spellcaster. Most ships want one, and signing up for a voyage is a great way for a wizard to potentially encounter new magics or further their research. You may have even used your time as a sailor to save up money to afford a wizardly education. While your crewmates celebrated in the tavern, you stayed aboard with a book in hand.
Think about why you sailed, and the emotional reason behind it. Was it to get ahead in life? To escape something? To find yourself? Did you take a gap year to travel the world before returning to do your post-graduate on enchantments?
Piracy can offer a great way to acquire corpses or other unseemly reagents for necromancy and other more frowned upon magics. It may also be a great way to acquire magical items or to fuel a larger magical project.
Some pirates historically were well educated and came from noble families. Your character could too! Most of all — as with any background — define what most motivates your character? What do they want most of all and what are they willing to do to get it?
|1||I party hard now that my studies are done — I have to make up for lost time!|
|2||I am deeply secretive about my work, writing in code and discussing it with no one.|
|3||I see the world analytically, in terms of components, actions and reactions.|
|4||I delight in travel and encountering new and strange places.|
|5||People tell me that I talk too much, but there is so much to explain and so little time. If only they would listen!|
|6||I am deeply afraid of the open ocean and I cannot swim.|
Next week we’ll be taking a look at the Soldier background.
Have you played a sailor character? What nautical adventures did you get up to?
The Image is The Naval Battle of La Rochelle, Chronicle of Jean Froissart, 15th Century.