The Urchin 5e background offers a potential rags-to-riches story and any class can benefit from its skill proficiencies. It also comes with its own adventure hook: how did you get enough money to live modesty for ten days? Was it a gift? A lucky find? The loot from a final crime?
That — and the pet mouse (which is awesome) — can help add some interesting depth to your character. Your impoverished life before the beginning of the campaign can lend itself to exploring themes of class, privilege, and how societies treat the most vulnerable of their populations.
Whether you’re playing in a grimdark setting or a more high fantasy setting, a character who rises from the most undesired, ignored and pitiful beginnings can make a fun and exciting character to play.
Barbarians are stereotypical from distant tribes but a barbarian urchin has plenty to be angry about. They may have found that tapping into their battle rage was the only way to survive on the streets, battling people and the elements for food and shelter.
Your barbarian with the urchin background could be from one of those tribes, transported to the city at a young age, and forced to adapt. They may be like an urban Mowgli, more comfortable among the rats and other pests than with “civilized” people.
Think about what your barbarian did to survive in the city. Who were there friends? What major lessons about the world did they learn? Who were these enemies? What do they want above all else? Freedom? Life beyond the city gates? Wealth?
If your barbarian has a connection to their culture, how do they express it? How much do they know about those traditions and from whom did they learn them?
|1||I fiercely guard what is mine, every little scrap of it.|
|2||I never go to sleep without securing my surroundings.|
|3||I will immediately consume any and all food and drink offered to me.|
|4||I love taking people down a notch and will always try to do so.|
|5||I am very proud of what I have managed to accomplish in the streets.|
|6||You touch my mouse, you lose an arm.|
The bard class and the urchin background can fit very nicely. Your character could have turned to performance as a way to make some money, or at the very least get some bread and a roof over their head. The skills offered by the urchin background can help your bard play more rogue-y, sneaking and thieving with the best of them.
Some key moments to develop for your backstory is how your bard got their first instrument or learned their first song, speech, acrobatic tumble or however they perform. This is a pivotal moment where they got (possibly for the first time) a sense of hope and direction in their life. With this skill, they were no longer consigned to a life in the gutter but could dream of something more.
How did they acquire their other skills, especially any knowledge skills? How did they get their magic training? Was it from watching and mimicking a local college of bards, or did they win a scholarship at a competition? How did you acquire the funds you start the game with and what does your character want most of all? A quiet, comfortable existence? To see the world? To get revenge? Make your character’s core motivation flow from the events of their backstory, using their decisions made in response to their circumstances to craft your character.
Here are some personality traits for your bard urchin:
|1||I lie impulsively and sometimes without thinking.|
|2||I like to adopt a new persona in each town I go to, and sometimes in each shop.|
|3||I never take a gift without promising to repay it.|
|4||I hoard my food, only eating nibbles of it at a time.|
|5||I will steal without a second thought, often walking away with whatever is unsecured.|
|6||I refuse to wear nice clothes, preferring to blend in or be unseen.|
The urchin background can work well with the cleric class. Similarly to the bard, you may have been taken in by a convent of nuns, or perhaps joined the faith as a way to escape poverty. It can also be that a vision from the gods or divine intervention directed you to take up the cleric’s mantle.
Think about your connection to your god and your faith. How has it helped you survive? How has it been challenged and where does it stand today? What does your cleric want to do? Learn some divine secret or something about their past? To find a higher purpose? To help others? To end poverty?
Whatever you decide, make it strongly rooted in the emotional life of your character and what you ultimately want to play in the campaign. Are you (as the player) curious about a redemption story, or a story about testing your faith? Choosing a theme to explore can be another way in to finding a good core motivation to help form your character around.
Here are some personality traits for your cleric urchin:
|1||I will always extend a hand of kindness first.|
|2||I do my best to live up to the teachings of the faith, but I have a vice I cannot drop.|
|3||I love indulging in the finer things in life.|
|4||I tend to speak my thoughts aloud, I’m so used to nobody listening.|
|5||I wear my holy symbol proudly and will teach any who will listen to my god.|
|6||I take my time to understand whoever it is I am speaking to, listening deeply before speaking.|
A druid who grew up in a city may have forged their connection with the rats and vermin that share the city with humans and other races. They may have chatted with trees in parks, argued with gulls in the harbors, and calmed guard dogs to steal a bit of food from warehouses. The urchin background can offer a cool break from the traditional druid archetypes and can work especially well for those urban-centric campaigns.
As a druid, think about how you first learned about and cultivated your connection to nature. Is there a circle of druids in your city? Did they initiate you into the circle, or did you have to travel outside the city to gain entry into your chosen circle? Perhaps there is a sacred grove in the center of the city, or even beneath it?
What choice did you make to join the circle, instead of just using your latent abilities to make your own way in the world? What does your character want to accomplish in their life? What do you want to change about the world or about yourself? And be sure to develop your relationship with your pet mouse!
Here are some personality traits for your character?
|1||I prefer the company of my mouse to other people. She just gets me, ya know!|
|2||I tend to speak with animals and plants first over people, often forgetting that they are there.|
|3||I dislike crowds and will avoid them whenever I can.|
|4||I make a nest before going to sleep with whatever refuse is available.|
|5||I will pick up anything shiny and interesting and pocket it, even if it’s somebody else’s.|
|6||I refuse to bathe and will not change my clothes.|
For an urchin, it may be that fighting is the only way out of a life of poverty. With the urchin background, your fighter gains some utility, and stealth can always be useful on the battlefield. Their weapon skills may have been picked up on the streets, defending their meager food or sleeping area from guards, criminals, and other impoverished people.
This rough life may have a huge impact on your character’s psyche. How do they react to things when they have spent their childhood fighting for whatever scraps they have? What do they want more than anything? What drives them and what are they willing to do to get what they want?
Perhaps they came under the tutelage of a master and found the battlefield a point of calm in the chaos of their life. They may have even tried to turn away from their more violent childhood and adopt a life of refinement. What did they have to do to get the money? Where did they get the mouse?
Here are some personality traits for your fighter:
|1||I fight dirty, doing whatever I can do to win a fight.|
|2||I love to gamble, and I love to cheat at gambling.|
|3||I am ashamed of my poor upbringing and I hide it as best as I can.|
|4||I don’t feel comfortable in wide-open spaces.|
|5||I prefer striking from the shadows as much as possible, relying on ambushes over direct charges.|
|6||My life has been defined by conflict. I don’t know who I would be without an enemy to fight.|
A monk with the urchin background may have picked up their skills fighting in fight clubs or in street brawls. The Pugilist is a great subclass for a monk with this background. The arena may have offered a way for your character to gain fame and fortune without the expensive upfront costs of having weapons and armor.
Your monk could have refined their ability to channel their ki on their own, or perhaps a monk taught them as a way to end street violence. Think about who you ran with in your childhood. Were you part of a gang, or a solo operator? What do you want most in your life? To finally escape the streets, or to dominate them?
How did your character come by the money they start with? It could be prize winnings from a match, or did they steal it, or earn it? Now that you have begun an adventure, how does your character feel about the life they lead as an urchin? What do they miss and what do they want to forget?
Here are some personality traits for your character:
|1||I never back down from bullies. I learned early on you have to stand up to them, or forever bow to them.|
|2||I spend my money on nice clothes and food almost exclusively. What else do I want?|
|3||I try to resolve conflicts peacefully, only throwing non-lethal punches when pressed.|
|4||I am afraid of horses, big dogs, and cats.|
|5||I will gladly give whatever I have to the poor. I know their struggle intimately.|
|6||I am miserly with my time and resources, never fully committing to one thing.|
The rough life of an urchin can be just the crucible needed to spark the intense zeal that all paladins have. One place to start when choosing the urchin background is to find what event or events caused your paladin to believe so deeply in the cause they champion. Be it a god, an idea, like justice, or a great quest, like destroying every vampire, your paladin’s zealous faith in the righteousness of their cause is what fuels their magic.
As with the monk and fighter, perhaps you were squired to a paladin who saw the potential in you. If so, how did your character handle the sudden shift from a life of freedom and struggle to a life of rigid order and learning? What do they miss about their life on the streets? What do they never hope to go back to?
Another option is to start the game with your urchin having stolen most or all of their items, justifying it as serving their oath. This could be a very fun arch to play, going from a faithless, opportunistic street rat to a righteous and just warrior.
Here are some personality traits for your paladin:
|1||Retribution fuels my faith, I dispense justice without hesitation.|
|2||I have no pity for those who abuse the weak.|
|3||I indulge in the finer things in life whenever I have a chance.|
|4||I prefer sleeping outside on a bedroll than inside in a bed.|
|5||I am impeccable about my appearance, but I have no eye for fashion.|
|6||I do not trust the rich and wealthy. They think of nothing but themselves.|
The urchin background is a great match for an urban ranger. The streets of a city are filled with all kinds of monsters and dangers that rangers are adept at dealing with. Your character may have even taken up work as a bounty hunter to help avoid utter destitution. How do they feel about having to do such violent work? Do they accept it as their lot in life, or do they strive for a more peaceful or comfortable existence?
What does your ranger want most of all? What motivates them to join a group of adventurers? Who did they make friends with on the streets? Who were their enemies? What did they always crave but could never get? What will they do now that they have left the streets (if they’re out in the world adventuring)?
If your ranger has an animal companion, how did they meet them? How does their animal pal feel about their mouse buddy? What did you do to get the money you start the game with? What lengths are you willing to go to to get what you want?
Here are some personality traits for your ranger:
|1||I take careful note of where the exits to any room are, never sitting with my back to one.|
|2||I never bathe – the smell is a natural camouflage.|
|3||I don’t trust people who don’t like animals.|
|4||I will steal whatever I can get my hands on. You never know how useful it could be.|
|5||I always try to haggle down the prices of anything.|
|6||If I can eat it, I will.|
Of all the classes, it seems most probably that an urchin would become a rogue. After all, both rub shoulders with the undesirables and cast outs. Your rogue may have found a family in the local thieve’s guild, or perhaps was able to give themselves a modicum of comfort by stealing from the wealthier citizens of the city.
Think about the key scenes that influenced your character’s choice to become skilled in the skills you choose for your rogue and how they applied those skills to survive in the streets. Who were their friends? Who were their enemies? What did they dream of accomplishing? Why did they choose to leave their life in the streets behind? What opportunity presented itself that they just had to take?
Also, think about what your rogue had to do to get by in the streets. What does your rogue regret doing? What did they have to do in order to get by, even if it went against their moral sensibilities?
Here are some personality traits for your rogue urchin:
|1||I do my best to stay unnoticed. I’ve learned attention just gets you trouble.|
|2||I lie impulsively to those in authority.|
|3||I take my time eating my meals, savoring every bite.|
|4||I still dress as an urchin, it gives me the anonymity to do my job well.|
|5||The things I had to do to survive still haunt me at night.|
|6||I take pity on small creatures and care for them whenever I can.|
With the urchin background, your sorcerer’s journey may become focused on learning about where they come from, who their parents are, and why they were abandoned. Their powers may even have become exploited by others, perhaps being forced to work in an industrial magic item factory for a pittance. Or, they may have used their innate magical abilities to dominate their section of the city, rising through the ranks of the city’s underworld.
Some key points to develop in your backstory are:
- What is my character’s emotional relationship with their powers? How do they feel about them? Resentment? Pride? Fear? Joy?
- What event happened to spark the emergence of their spellcasting? How did that change their life?
- Who were their friends or surrogate family? Who were their enemies?
Here are some personality traits for your sorcerer urchin:
|1||I hide my magical abilities as best as I can from people I don’t trust.|
|2||I prefer to go barefoot, even on rough terrain.|
|3||I feel anxious if I remain in one place for too long.|
|4||I will eat whatever food I have, hardly ever saving some for later.|
|5||I prefer to be in crowded areas, finding comfort in anonymity.|
|6||I have a secret desire to play an instrument after seeing a street performer.|
The warlock and the urchin background is an exciting combination. Who else would be willing to trade their immortal soul for power than the most vulnerable and forgotten? Your backstory could be broken down into two major periods: before the pact and after the pact.
Develop the key moments pre-pact that shaped your decision to make the pact with your patron. Also, consider what your about character attracted your specific patron? Why a feylord over a devil, or vice versa? You can work with your DM to develop your patron and their motivations so that you can start the game with a clear understanding of that relationship.
What does your character want to achieve with their new power? What are they most afraid of losing? What can they not live without? What do they hate most of all? What do they fear? And most importantly: How can your pet mouse not be your familiar?!
Here are some personality traits for your warlock urchin:
|1||I am sociable and love to be the life of the party.|
|2||I take great pride in my appearance and always am carefully groomed|
|3||I despise those with wealth and will steal from them with impunity.|
|4||I find myself holding onto what other people consider garbage. What if I need it again?|
|5||I am gentle with others, speaking softly and with kindness.|
|6||I will take what I want without thought to repercussions.|
A wizard with the urchin background, the central question is how did you come by your training. Perhaps a scholarship got you into the city’s wizard college, or you stole a spellbook and are self-taught. This could be reflected in your skills, for instance, choosing to not take Arcana. However you came by your training, you should also consider why.
Magic is immensely powerful but also very difficult to learn let alone to master. What is your motivation to reach mastery? It could be anything from revenge to rescuing a loved one, to ensuring a comfortable life for yourself to saving the world. And this reason can be flexible and change over the course of the campaign. Perhaps you earn enough gold to satisfy one goal, then what else does your character want? How are they going to work to achieve it?
Create some solid relationships that you formed while training, or during your time living on the streets. Who were your friends? Who were your enemies? Who did you want to emulate?
Here are some personality traits for your wizard:
|1||I pepper in big words into my speech to make sure people know I am educated.|
|2||I try to hide the fact that I have no idea what I am doing, and it’s worked! …so far…|
|3||I keep my spellbook on my person at all times, refusing to let it out of my sight for an instant.|
|4||I tell ribald jokes and swear like a sailor.|
|5||I am not afraid to take credit for the work others have done.|
|6||I have a very strict moral code I live by. It helped me get by in the streets.|
Well, that is the end of our background exploration series! If you had a character with the urchin background, tell me about them in the comments!
Art Credit: Paul Martin