The soldier background in 5e offers a great opportunity to do some collaborative worldbuilding with your DM. After all, what is a soldier without an army? Here are some starting questions to help you build the organization before diving into your character’s background:
- Is this a formal or informal army? Meaning, are you a career soldier, or is it expected that you return to your previous life after your term of service?
- How does class play into rank? Can only nobles and peers hold officer positions?
- What recent conflicts did the army fight in? What was the outcome?
- What is the structure of the army? Is it loose or highly ordered?
You may also enjoy learning about historical armies and military history. Wikipedia is my favorite first stop, and the sources they cite at the end of any article can be a great starting point for further discovery. So let’s dive into the soldier background.
Contrary to popular belief, barbarian tribes aren’t disorganized hordes of roaring savages. Some are thoroughly disciplined and the whole tribe works as a cohesive unit, surging down into the valleys to conduct their raids before disappearing into the forest.
Depending on the environment your tribe inhabits, you may rely more or less on villages and other “civilization” to give you food. A desert tribe may trade sand gems and bronze dragon scales for food and water, with their soldiers providing escort services to the tribe and merchants.
If you choose the soldier background for your barbarian, consider these questions:
- Why did you enter service? Was it to play to your natural talent as a warrior or out of some higher obligation to the tribe?
- Who do you admire in the army? Who is your military hero?
- What battles have you fought in, if any?
- Why did you leave the army, or are you on leave?
Here are some personality traits for your barbarian soldier:
|1||I respect those who have proven themselves in battle.|
|2||I am a very gentle soul, taking great care to not harm others unnecessarily.|
|3||I will try to talk my way out of conflict whenever possible.|
|4||I love nothing more than the thrill of battle.|
|5||I feel great shame that I did not perish with my comrades.|
|6||I am a coward at heart, desperate to avoid physical harm.|
A bard may be a curious soldier, but their skill with magic and their ability to inspire and lead others can lend them to be effective officers. Your soldier background bard may have entered the armed forces out of a sense of patriotic pride, or after hearing thrilling stories about the glories of battle.
They may have even been pressed into service, a common practice throughout time. Perhaps they are fighting for the wrong side, or even joined the fight out of economic desperation. Think about what event made you enter the service. Did you see much combat, or did you join during a time of peace? What rank were you and what friends did you make in the army?
It can be helpful to define one or two events that shaped your character’s time in the army. As a bard, was it when you just weren’t able to save a companion? Or perhaps you decided to start playing the flute in honor of a fallen comrade? If you acquired your skills in the service, who was your mentor and how did they shape how you approach the world.
War is a shock to every participant, so you may want to consider how your character deals with that trauma through their art. A place of inspiration could be in the art that emerged post World War I in which many artists of all disciplines used art to try to understand the sheer horror of that war.
Here are some personality traits for your bard.
|1||I use humor to relieve stress, and sometimes my jokes are poorly timed.|
|2||I prefer to keep my distance emotionally from my friends so that it hurts less when I lose them.|
|3||I am anxious to stay in one place for any length of time.|
|4||I studiously practice my instrument or art, with a fierce dedication.|
|5||I owe my comrades my life and will do anything for them.|
|6||I have a specific ritual I perform each night to honor the fallen.|
Modern armies have had chaplains or religious people who help provide spiritual guidance to the soldiers, comforting them during the war. In D&D 5e, a cleric with the soldier background could be a medic, using their magic to help repair wounds and combat the enemy’s magic.
This could be a very interesting background to play with a pacifist character, whose personal mission in the war was to save lives instead of taking them. They may have enlisted because of a spiritual pull to help, or out of outrage over the carnage.
Of course, you also have clerics of a god of war, whose duty might be to not only win glory for their god, but to encourage honorable fighting, inspiring soldiers, and performing last rites for the dying. Clerics of a god of death may be responsible for the disposal of the dead, or in more evil-aligned armies, the raising of…um… creative reinforcements.
Think about why you enlisted, who you met, and the relationships you made in the army. What was the fight you fought in? How did you perform? What were one or two events that happened when you were fighting that shaped your character? Why did you leave the service?
Here are some personality traits for your character:
|1||I am not above fighting dirty. Winning means living.|
|2||My faith is my strength and I turn to my god when in need.|
|3||I sing hymns to my god while in battle, drawing on them for strength.|
|4||I will refuse to fight rather than take a life.|
|5||I believe that battle reveals the true shape of a person’s character.|
|6||I despise cowardice and treat them like the scum cowards are.|
A druid with the soldier background may seem strange at first, but druids make excellent spies, artillery, and shock troopers with their spells and wildshape. An elven or gnomish army may not be complete without a phalanx of druids.
War can be seen as a product of civilization, but many species wage war on each other, from ants and termites to the territorial struggles of apes and monkeys. Your druid may see war as a natural outcome of a population growing beyond the means of their environment to support them.
They could also be motivated to join the fight out of a sense of duty to their people or nation, just like any other soldier. Like clerics, they may join the army to help heal the wounded and minimize the impact of the conflict on the natural world. Animals suffer as much as people when war threatens.
Consider all the basic questions of why and when you fought, but also clarify your character’s philosophical or spiritual stance on conflict. How did it change because of the conflict? What do they do now in response to the trauma of battle? What do they want most of all? Peace? A chance to prove themselves? These are fertile areas for character development and growth.
Here are some personality traits for your druid soldier:
|1||Conflict is the natural state of things, the strongest will survive.|
|2||I will offer aid to any injured being, enemy or ally.|
|3||I love helping the people I fought to save and will always offer to lend a hand.|
|4||I feel like I betrayed my circle by enlisting, and that guilt haunts me.|
|5||I lost many friends in the war, and I am hesitant to make new ones.|
|6||War taught me one thing: civilization must fall.|
The fighter with the soldier background is the natural pairing. The army may be the fighter’s home, where they grew up, learned their skills, and gained a sense of purpose. To them, civilian life may be a more frightening challenge. In the army, everything is given to you: your clothes, your food, your orders. How do they react when now loose in that world?
People fight for all kinds of reasons, and your character’s motivation to kill and die for the success of the army’s struggle must be compelling. Whether you were pressed into service or joined willingly, your character will have developed some great need to use as a point of focus to get through the worst of the struggle. Do they have family back home they want to return to? Or, maybe they are fighting for their freedom?
Some enlist not fully realizing the magnitude of the conflict, and perhaps they are simply fighting to survive. How does that shape your character? What specific events in their service shaped their world view? What do they want now that they are adventurers? Many soldiers become mercenaries once the war is done. After all, what other profession do they know?
Here are some personality traits for your fighter soldier:
|1||I have a trinket that I always keep on me. It reminds me of why I fight.|
|2||I have learned how to suppress my fear, but that has led me to suppress any emotion.|
|3||I take whatever chance I have to party. It might just be my last.|
|4||I will sacrifice whatever I can — even my life — for my comrades.|
|5||I regret not becoming a musician or artist or scholar, but I try my best at those arts when I can practice.|
|6||I have a morning ritual that I will perform no matter the circumstances.|
A monk raised by a more militant monastic order could make a great candidate for the soldier background. In fact, your order may be the military. More so than the fighter, battle may be all that you really know. Monks require a lifetime of training to master their ki, living largely apart from the rest of society. What happens when your monk leaves the monastery for the battlefield? Does their training sustain them or do they crumble?
A monk could also enlist during their pilgrimage, perhaps joining a cause they deem worthy or recognizing that ending a conflict early may save the most lives. Monks are at their center, philosophers, with their martial skill an extension of their mastery of their mind. What is your monk’s philosophy and how does it square to taking a life? When is that justified?
Does your monk take on the burden of killing so that others do not have to? Or do they avoid it at all costs, having witnessed the futility of battling over land and wealth?
What do they see as the root of the conflict? Being outsiders to some extent, do they recognize that most wars are waged by the wealthy and fueled by the blood of the poor? If so, do they try to stop this, or do they see it as a natural outcome of how society is structured? Don’t shy away from choosing a core motivation for your character that includes radically reshaping the world they live in, especially if you find that compelling.
Here are some personality traits for your monk soldier:
|1||I weigh every decision to take a life carefully and seriously.|
|2||I have a ritual to help process my experiences and emotions, like journaling, flower arranging, poetry, or tea ceremonies.|
|3||I will defend the weak at any cost to myself.|
|4||I see the world as one big adventure and war the greatest test.|
|5||I laugh easily and joyfully at triumphs and weep deeply at any sorrow.|
|6||I hold grudges and find ways to get vengeance despite my monk’s training.|
Paladins, like fighters, lend themselves easily to the soldier background. Archetypically, they are soldiers in the fight against evil, so it stands to reason that many began that fight in the service of a formal military. They may have even been part of a crusader’s army and served in a war.
Your paladin’s life may have been defined by a series of struggles and wars, perhaps without much break. They could have started out as a grunt in the army, and perhaps only received their training as a paladin after attaining a certain rank. A paladin soldier would benefit from fleshing out their military organization and the order that they are a part of, especially if they are different entities. Perhaps they qualified to petition to join the order only after they proved themselves sound tacticians or good soldiers.
At the core of your paladin, there needs to be a solid, passionate reason why you fight. A paladin’s power doesn’t necessarily come directly from a god, instead, they are fueled by their own sense of righteousness and zeal. What events inspired this zeal? Why did they join the army? Why did they become an adventurer? Is the campaign seen a mission they are performing for their order? Who do they owe allegiance to, and who are they loyal to? These may be two very different things.
Here are some personality traits for your paladin soldier:
|1||I live by my order’s code and I will defend it with my life if I must.|
|2||I accept that the world is painted in shades of gray, but morality is black and white.|
|3||I carefully consider every action to be sure I understand its potential harms and boons to those involved.|
|4||I crave to prove myself in battle, eagerly throwing myself into any fight large or small.|
|5||I feel the weight of my oath heavily and often think of leaving the order.|
|6||I disguise myself when we go into town. I am tired of people trying to be on their best behavior around me.|
A ranger with the soldier background may have learned their skills before entering the armed forces, finding that their unique talents for tracking and surviving in the wilds gave them an edge as an advanced scout. The armed forces are also a great place for them to be trained in these skills. Rangers are not unified by code, or a martial ethos, but instead by a distinct wanderlust and curiosity.
That desire to see what is beyond the horizon may have played an important role in your experiences in the military. Were you often out of position because of this, or did you use it to your advantage to secure your territory against threats?
Alternatively, many ex-soldiers become mercenaries and bounty hunters. After all, what else are they going to do with their skills? You and some of your army buddies may have formed a mercenary group after the latest conflict, leading you to join the adventure. Or perhaps you joined up with a company hoping to replicate some of the comradery and order that comes with military life.
Think about your character’s decision to join the armed forces, to stay in long enough to get their rank. Why did they choose that path in life? Did they have a choice? What do they want out of life now that their service has ended, or has it ended yet? What friends do they have in the military? What do you hope to achieve now that your service has ended?
Here are some personality traits for your ranger soldier:
|1||I will stand up for what is right no matter the risk.|
|2||I have a crude sense of humor and mouth worse than a sailor’s.|
|3||I play the strong silent type, but really I am just shy.|
|4||I am haunted by what I did in the war, but I do my best to forget it.|
|5||I protect those who remind me of my lost comrades, even if it’s illogical to do so.|
|6||I take great pride in my service and wear my uniform wherever I go.|
A rogue with the soldier background may have been a spy or scout, or perhaps their battle style was more suited to backstabbing and less about wearing heavy armor and waving a big sword around. Rogues excel in any job due to their sheer breadth of skill. Every squad can benefit from someone who can disarm a trap as easily as they can conn their way past the gate guard.
Rogues who choose to become Masterminds may have served as tacticians or squadron leaders, while rogue thieves may have been intelligence operatives. Think about what role your rogue played in the military and what they think about their service. Was it an honor or did they do it out of necessity?
Your rogue’s roll in the military can be a great place to add some color and exciting details to your character’s background. Get creative and work with your DM to expand the world that your character inhabits and their place in it.
What does your rogue want most out of life? And, did that change as a result of their time serving as a soldier? Did they want glory only to discover that war is not at all like what the bards sing about? Did they want to rise through the ranks and seize power, becoming a warlord or petty king? Or, did they just want to survive to get home to their loved ones?
Here are some personality traits for your rogue soldier:
|1||I’d sell mother if it meant I could get ahead.|
|2||I feel like I betrayed my comrades by quitting the service.|
|3||I downplay my military service. It isn’t a time I want to remember.|
|4||I swore vengeance against an enemy combatant that got the better of me.|
|5||I have a story for every scar I have — even if they might change a bit in the retelling.|
|6||I can only trust people after I have seen them in battle. Battle is the true test of merit.|
A sorcerer with the soldier background may have discovered their bloodline only after joining the service, or perhaps joined because of their powers. They could have been pressed into service. Maybe military service is compulsory for sorcerers in the land they live in. Sorcerers likely served in whatever role their magics were most suited for, some being living artillery, others being spies or infiltrators.
Your background should touch on these moments:
- Your character’s connection to their bloodline and how they feel about it. Is it a burden, or a blessing? Are they neutral on it?
- What impact has their powers had on their life? Have they always known or have their new powers created an emotional distance between them and their squadmates?
- What do they think of people who cannot naturally perform magic? Are they envious of a simple life or revel in their power?
Sorcerer soldiers may become reduced to mere weapons in the military, especially in a more formalized standing army. They may not have been given the chance to develop normal social skills if they were recruited very young. They may even not know what to do without a military structure. Thinking about your relationships in the military can be a great place to discover characterization.
Here are some personality traits for your character:
|1||The battlefield is my home, I feel deeply uncomfortable in any other situation.|
|2||I carry my war trophy proudly with me. It is a symbol of my honor and status.|
|3||I take great pains to hide my abilities. I want to just appear normal.|
|4||I pity and condescend to those without magic. What a sad existence.|
|5||I take my time to speak, always careful with my words.|
|6||I always find an excuse to celebrate with a little drink or food.|
Warlocks with the soldier background may have made their pact to advance in rank, or perhaps were recruited after their powers were mistaken for a sorcerer or wizard’s skill. Spellcasters are always in demand for those looking to blow other people up, and warlocks offer a range of abilities that are necessary in a magic-filled world.
Whether or not you hide your pact may depend on the culture you come from. Some nations may be built on collective pacts with the Fae or a devil or what have you, and may even require it for service as an officer.
Your warlock’s choices to make the pact can be influenced by their service in the military. If they made the pact after leaving, was it to replace some power they lost? Did they keep their powers secret? Perhaps their new powers prompted their discharge from the service, or they were transferred to an elite squad of warlocks specializing in putting down magical threats. Build out the world with your DM and you’ll have a rich backstory with lots of hooks for adventure.
Here are some personality traits for your warlock soldier:
|1||I keep to myself most of the time, but when I get some ale I become a party animal.|
|2||I find myself playing my memories from my service over and over in my mind as if trying to find where I could have done something different.|
|3||I regret my pact and do my best to hide it. It was a foolish decision from a desperate time in my life.|
|4||I took up a hobby of flower arranging while in the military. Arranging flowers helps calm me down.|
|5||I have sworn vengeance on those who started the war I fought in. They should suffer as much as I did.|
|6||I never back down from a challenge.|
Wizards with the soldier background likely served based on their chosen school. Illusionists acting as spies, evokers as artillery, abjurers protecting the camp, diviners scouting the enemy’s location remotely, and so on.
You could have been trained in a military wizard’s academy, or been recruited with promises of unlimited resources for your research. Perhaps all those with magical aptitude are required to serve a tour of duty, or perhaps a looming threat caused you to decide to join, leaving your research behind.
A wizard on the battlefield is a vulnerable target without their companions. Flesh out who these people were and what the shared experiences in the war were. How did your character react to the stress of battle? Did they believe their actions were justified? Did they think they were doing the right thing only to realize the suffering that war caused? Work with your DM to create the military organization that they were a part of, and the people who made it up.
Here are some personality traits for your wizard:
|1||I keep detailed notes of every combat encounter in order to improve my tactics.|
|2||I feel a certain responsibility for my friend’s wellbeing and will do anything I can to keep them happy.|
|3||I have dedicated my life to dismantling the organization I once served after I saw its true colors in war.|
|4||I throw myself wholeheartedly into whatever I am doing, almost obsessively.|
|5||My loyalty must be earned through honest action. Words are cheap.|
|6||I wear my uniform despite not serving for quite some time.|
Next week we will look at the final background from the Player’s Handbook, the Urchin.
Have you ever played a character with the soldier background? Tell me about them in the comments!
Art credit : WOTC PHB