This is the blog. Click here to go to the Zenopus Archives website.

Note: Many older posts on this blog are missing images, but can be viewed at the corresponding page in the Internet Archive


The Forgotten Smugglers' Cave: Index of Posts

An index of posts describing the Forgotten Smugglers' Cave, an adventure for Holmes Basic characters levels 2-4.                    ...

Friday, August 8, 2014

20 Backgrounds for OD&D

An Archer from CHAINMAIL

Here are some Backgrounds for human characters in OD&D or Holmes Basic. The idea is inspired by the same concept in 5E and the DCC RPG, although I haven't looked at those closely, having just skimmed Basic 5E a few times, and played in a DCC RPG funnel once.

These particular backgrounds are mostly drawn from the types of Men found in the Monster Descriptions in OD&D Vol 2 (also used by Holmes in the manuscript for Basic), and the Specialists found in Vol 3, pg 22. A few others are sourced from other places in the OD&D rules to make a list of 20 for random rolling. The idea is that since these are mentioned in the books they are the most likely backgrounds for OD&D characters. This is analogous to Wayne Rossi's take on the implied setting of the OD&D rulebooks, and could be used together with that.

I'll eventually post these as a single-sheet reference table (Update: a downloadable one-page pdf can be found here), but for easier reading here they are as a list. Note these are limited to human characters since demi-humans already get their own bonuses at first level. These backgrounds can also be used for NPCs. Note that these backgrounds may be used with any character class, for example you could have a Berserker Magic-User or Smith turned Thief, etc. It's up to the player to come up with a reason why the character took up a character class.

Roll d20 for one in lieu of the standard roll for starting gold
Each background also gets a +2 Reaction Roll with others of the same background

1.  Alchemist
Ability: Beginner's Alchemy (make a Healing Potion in 1 week for 125 GP) 
Equipment: 1 Healing Potion, Mortar & Pestle
Starting Gold: 2d6 x 10
Note: Per OD&D Vol 3, an Alchemist can duplicate a potion from a formula "at a cost of one-half the potion's value" (pg 22). In OD&D Vol 1, the cost for a wizard to make a Healing Potion is given as 250 GP + 1 week (pg 7).

2. Amazon
Ability: Invoke Goddess (re-roll one die per day, but only if wearing bronze)
Equipment: Bronze Armor & Shield (AC 3), Bronze Sword, Long Bow, 2 Flasks Greek Fire (treat as Oil, with +1 damage) 
Starting Gold: 1d6 x 10
Note: This background is inspired by the picture of the Amazon in OD&D Vol 1, with details from the Amazons in J. Eric Holmes' novel, Maze of Peril

3. Animal Trainer 
Abilities: Animal Handling (+4 Reaction Roll for normal animals) 
Equipment: Mule, Guard Dog (1 HD, AC 7, 1d6 bite) 
Starting Gold: 2d6 x 10

4. Archer
Abilities: Rapid Fire (Fire arrows twice per round if not moving or in melee) 
Equipment: Long Bow, Quiver, 15 arrows, 5 silver arrows 
Starting Gold: 2d6 x 10
Note: Their Ability comes from the Chainmail rules for "Archers"

5. Bandit (or Brigand, if chaotic)
Abilities: Evasion (Flee combat without being hit, but only if wearing leather armor)
Equipment: Cloak, Leather Armor, Shield, Short Bow, Quiver, 20 arrows, Treasure Map (ruin)
Starting Gold: 2d6 x 10

6. Barkeep 
Abilities: Ear for Listening (Knows 2d6 local rumors)
Equipment: Fine Spirits (50 GP value, +2 Reaction Roll if a shot is offered, 10 shots total)
Starting Gold: 2d6 x 10
Note: This background is inspired by the section on Rumors in OD&D Vol 3, pg 23

7. Berserker          
Abilities: Rage (+2 to attack & AC 7 if no armor, will not flee/surrender), +1 hp at 1st level)
Equipment: Bearskin Cloak, Tooth-bitten Shield        
Starting Gold: 1d6 x 10

8. Buccaneer (or Pirate, if chaotic, or Sailor)
Abilities: Swimming (-20% chance of drowning), Ship-craft, Rope Use
Equipment: Cutlass, Spyglass, Treasure Map (island), Pet Monkey (1 hp), 50’ Rope with Grappling Hook           
Starting Gold: 3d6 x 10

9. Caveman           
Abilities: Tough (+1 HD at 1st level, but will not wear any armor), Hunting, Illiterate         
Equipment: Furs, Club or Stone Axe & Spear, Hide Sack with Meat & Fruit          
Starting Gold: None

10. Engineer          
Abilities: Eye for Construction (detect dungeon traps as a dwarf & secret doors as an elf) Equipment: Lantern, Steel Mirror, Chalk Stick, Level, Measuring Stick (6’, ruled)          
Starting Gold: 3d6 x 10

11. Flyer      
Abilities: Aerial Combat Training, Tumbling (-1 point per die falling damage)
Equipment: Potion of Flying, Leather Armor, 5 Javelins       
Starting Gold: 2d6 x 10
Note: This background is inspired by the relatively long section on Aerial Combat in OD&D, Vol 3, pgs 25-28

12. Gemcutter 
Abilities: Appraise (gems & jewelry), Cut Gems (Increase value of a gem 10%, 4 in 6)            Equipment: Magnifying Lens, Diamond Dust (50 GP value, use 10 GP to cut gem)        
Starting Gold: 2d6 x 10
Note: This background is inspired by the gems and jewelry found in the OD&D Vol 2 Treasure Tables. Jeweler-Gemcutter also appeared later as a Specialist in the 1E DMG.

13. Man-At-Arms     
Abilities: Years of Guard Duty (surprised only on 1 in 6)     
Equipment: Chain mail, Shield, Sword, Dagger, Light Crossbow, 30 Quarrels in Case          
Starting Gold: 2d6 x 10

14. Merman            
Abilities: Breath Underwater, Leathery Skin (AC7, +1 hp at lvl 1), -1 to attack rolls on land
Equipment: Trident, 20 Darts         
Starting Gold: 1d6 x 10
Note: In OD&D, it unstated whether Merman have fish tails, or are just humans that live underwater. If using the former, this character can be of half normal human and have legs.

15. Nomad (or Dervish)
Abilities: Surprise Outdoors (1-4 in 6, if wearing only leather), Archery while Riding             
Equipment: Light Horse, Lance, Horse Bow, Leather Armor   
Starting Gold: 1d6 x 10

16. Orcish   
Abilities: Brawling (+1 on attack rolls if not in full daylight, 1d6 damage without weapon)  
Equipment: Leather Armor, Shield, Hand Axe           
Starting Gold: 1d6 x 10
Note: This is basically a Half-Orc, and is inspired by the Orc men-at-arms available in Vol 3 of OD&D (pg 23) and the Orcs listed as Neutral in Vol 1 of OD&D.

17. Pilgrim  
Abilities: Traveling (Add 1 hex to daily movement)             
Equipment: Sturdy Staff, Holy Relic (Turns Undead as 3rd Level Cleric 2d6 times)        
Starting Gold: 2d6 x 10
Note: Pilgrims were added to the other types of Men in the 1E Monster Manual

18. Sage      
Abilities: Identify Magic Item (Takes 1 week and uses 100 gp of material components)       Equipment: Reference Books, Blank Vellum Book, Ink & Quill 
Starting Gold: 3d6 x 10

19. Smith (or Armorer)
Abilities: Fire-tough (-1 point per dice fire damage), Forging (Weapons/armor at 1/2 cost) 
Equipment:  Chainmail, Shield, Hammer, Tongs, 12 Iron Spikes, Crowbar 
Starting Gold: 2d6 x 10

20. Spy       
Abilities: Double Talk (+2 on reaction rolls), Disguise, Languages (Double normal number)
Equipment: 2 Daggers (1 hidden in boot)     
Starting Gold: 2d6 x 10


  1. These are really good and fun. I'm quite taken with how you've retrofitted a 5e idea into 0e.

  2. Hey, this is good stuff! Kudos.

  3. I think the archer background is too powerful for D&D though. Double attacks with the weapon you use the most?

    My suggestion: +1 to spot things outdoors and allow move-fire-move as an action.

    1. I originally had the Archer's Abilities as "Dead-eye (+1 to hit with arrows, no chance of friendly fire in combat)". But then going through Chainmail reminded me that "Archers and Longbowmen" fire twice per turn if they don't move. Because of this some folks use that as the standard Rate of Fire of arrows in OD&D for all characters, so I thought this would strike a middle ground - only trained "Archers" get this ability.

      AD&D also uses the ROF of 2 arrows for all characters, and it's the only d6 missile that gets this rate (the others with a ROF of 2 or more are daggers & darts). We use this in the game I play in, and it's never seemed overpowered.

  4. Zeno, do you intend to do some for the other races?

    1. No, I was thinking that their backgrounds are covered by their race. They already get bonuses just for being elves, etc. You could use the above backgrounds for demi-humans, particularly if they were raised among humans, but perhaps replace their racial bonuses with the human background then.

  5. I like but, you are much more giving than I.
    Beginning Alchemists can make a healing potion? I'd be more prone to give them the ability to identify potions, very handy and enabling without ramping up of power very much. Those "orcish" blokes look a bit too tough for OD&D to me.

    1. Actually, this is a very good approach. I originally thought to allow them to make reduced strength potions, but this is a better idea. In retrospect, backgrounds should not allow for anything that might be construed as a skill or feat (archers getting two shots, alchemists making healing potions, my idea for swordmasters having two attacks, etc.). Or put another way, anything that gives a significant material advantage in combat, direct or indirect.

    2. I was influenced by Holmes Basic here. In those rules a 1st level magic-user can make a 1st level scroll for 100 gp plus 1 week. Since CLW is a 1st level cleric spell, I figured that a beginning alchemist would start with a healing potion (in high demand for adventurers...). I added a note above as to where the cost comes from. Your idea for potion identification is a good one.

    3. My Orcish types were also influenced by Holmes Basic, in which an Orc (1 HD) has a +1 to hit as compared to a Normal Man. Since OD&D doesn't actually have the separate Normal Man (they attack as 1st level fighters which is the same as an Orc), it might be better just to represent the Orcish types as having a -1 to hit in daylight - which is how I had it originally.

  6. Brilliant!

    I'll definitely be using this.

    I'm not keen on the "race" ones though since that seems like a different kind of background element and the pilgrim seems too temporary and general a state to be a background. Using the same sources, I've come up with replacements for pilgrim, merman, and orcish and broader type substitutes for gemcutter (merchant) and Caveman (barbarian).

    Ability: Accurately asses value of gems, jewelry, and goods on a roll of 1-4 on a d6; also has +2 on all negotiation and reaction rolls.
    Equipment: Mule team, tent.
    Starting Gold: 4d6 x 10
    Note: Inspired by Dan Nicholson’s merchant character in early Blackmoor, and Investments section of U&WA p25. Covers gemcutters.

    Ability: On a 1-4 on a d6, a hunter can successfully find and identify sign (tracks, etc.), build and set traps, procure wilderness forage (fish, game, plants) and identify poisonous plants and mushrooms.
    Equipment: Bow and arrows, fishing line and hooks, rope, dagger, firestarting kit, waterproof cloak.
    Starting Gold: 1d6 x 10
    Note: First Fantasy Campaign specialist list and OD&D Investments section, U&WA p25.

    Ability: 4 in 6 chance of moving silently and “nimblefinger” activities (cut purses, pick pockets, shell games etc.)
    Equipment: Large sack, dark cloak, blackjack, knife.
    Starting Gold: 3d6 x 10
    Note: Thieves mentioned in the U&WA angry villager rule, p25.

    Ability: a farmer can predict weather 3 days ahead successfully on 1-4 on a d6 and has a +2 resistance to elements (cold, heat, rain etc.).
    Equipment: pitchfork or scythe, horse or mule.
    Starting Gold: 1d6 x 10
    Note: First Fantasy Campaign investments and OD&D investment list, U&WA p25.

    Ability: Magic resistance: +3 to saving throws involving paralyzation, death ray, petrification and polymorph, +2 for all other magic based saving throws; Barbarians can also blend into natural surroundings as well as Halflings and have a +2 resistance to elements (cold, heat, rain etc.).
    Disadvantages: Barbarians can not read or write.
    Equipment: none
    Starting Gold: none
    Note: Conan mentioned in the U&WA angry villager rule, p25, details here inspired by Unearthed Arcana Barbarian class. Covers caveman.

  7. This is excellent stuff! A few comments:

    1. Alchemist: should be able to do more than just healing potions - I might give them most or all of the range of potions available. However, I would expect what potions they can make would be less effective than "full up" potions made by high level wizards. For example, a simple alchemist healing potion might only restore 1d4 hit points. An invisibility potion might have half (or less) the duration. And so forth.

    2. Archer: love this, though I have a quibble - you do not "fire" an arrow unless you douse it in petrol and put a match to it. An arrow is "shot" or "loosed" but never "fired"; only a firearm (i.e. handgonne, arquebus, caliver, musquet, etc.) is ever fired, as such. Not a big deal, just a pet peeve of mine as an arms historian.

    3. Gemcutter: I would have the DEX adjustment for missiles apply to the d6 roll to increase the value (thus, low DEX has a 50/50 shot at increasing/ decreasing value, and high DEX is 5 in 6 likely to increase value

    4. Man at Arms - this is one of those weird "Gygaxian" mistakes. Technically, a man at arms is NOT a guardsman, but rather a trained cavalry soldier just a notch or two below a knight in rank. To quote Wikipedia's article on the subject, "Man-at-arms (also called armsman or coistrel) was a term used from the High Medieval to Renaissance periods to describe a soldier, almost always a professional warrior in the sense of being well-trained in the use of arms, who served as a fully armoured heavy cavalryman." I would therefore change this entry and assume a Man at Arms to be a trained cavalryman, and start him with a warhorse and lance, at a minimum. Sort of like a knight but without the social status that rank implies

    5. Spy: don't know that I like this one all that much, but I do admire that you did not just give him thief abilities.

    New Ideas:
    How about a "Swordmaster" background? Maybe allows one to attack AND parry, or do TWO attacks with sword or 2 hand sword, but at a penalty (-2 to hit, perhaps). This is in keeping with the Archer ability of two shots.

  8. Very nice Zen! I'd started something like this with Erin Smale several years ago, but I promptly dropped it due to overwhelming chaotic timetable conflicts. (Either that, or I'm just lazy...) I'd planned on making 100's of templates like this, only for 0-level NPCs. Seems like a good idea to cap this at the best 20 and aim them towards human PCs.

    I'll be using these. :)

  9. Really good stuff, making a copy for my useful random tables binder for my game. Good work!

    1. Thank you. Recently I made a one-page table of these, see this post.

  10. Farmer: Abilities: Weather Sense (can tell the weather for 24-48 hours with his throbbing bunion). Animal Husbandry: Can tell what illness has befallen common barnyard animals; calf the same. Equipment: Pole Arm (pitchfork), Lantern, 2 pints oil, dagger, sling, 20 sling stones, a good Tom cat.
    Starting Money: 2d6 x 10 GP.

    Merchant: Abilities: haggling (buy items for 80% cost; sell them for full price)
    Equipment: Drey horse and cart, 1 indentured porter (human, teen-ager, serves for 1 year, you pay for food and lodging).
    Starting Money: 5d6 x 10 GP.