(While I was finishing up writing this article on backgrounds, I fell down a wikipedia spiral that resulted in the Bacchus/Maenad Warlock Path, which ended up being the main article this week. However, I did finish up this article as I was dreaming up the path. What that means to you gentle reader, is we have a bonus article this week! So sit back and enjoy some ideas for variant backgrounds!)
One of the best things about the new D&D Starter set was how they applied backgrounds to the sample characters. It was a great example of the power that backgrounds can have in your campaign. After running the Shackled City game (Do You Want to Know More?), I personally came to the conclusion that in my next game, I’m gonna skip alignment entirely and point my players towards their background choice for role-playing inspiration. With that in mind, here are some alterations you can make to existing backgrounds to give your Roman-themed game more flavor:
Variant Acolyte: Mystes
In ancient Rome, there were a number of religious Mysteries that the people could explore, though they are more commonly known today as a Greco-Roman Mysteries. An individual citizen may have participated in no mysteries or a number of them. Typically, they involved various specific purification practices that supplemented their religious experience. Your character, however, organizes these rites and is much more deeply involved with the Mystery than most. This gives you access to a variety of other citizens both above and below your station.
Variant Feature: Sapientia est potentia
Your dress, sayings, reputation, or a myriad of other factors mark you as a Mystes. Because of this, you are notable, and people pay attention to you wherever you go. This can be a problem if you wish to remain anonymous, but you can also attract people who are looking for a religious experience which can lead to other adventures.
You can perform the religious ceremonies of your Mystery. You can also parley your knowledge of a Mystery to access people and places you might not otherwise have. For you and your companions, Senators, Sages, Citizens, or any number of people might grant you audience to hear you explain the Mysteries that you represent.
Variant Hermit: Sybil
You are one of the rare women who has the gift of prophesy from having a direct and personal connection with the gods. Occasionally, you are overcome with trances where you speak directly from the divine realm. While in a trance, your words tell of the future to those that can interpret them correctly. Often, others will twist and interpret your words for their own agenda. But because of your direct connection with the gods, people will always pay attention to whatever you say.
Variant Skill Proficiencies: Acrobatics, Religion
Variant Tool Proficiencies: Weaver’s Tools
Variant Feature: Prophecy
At times that you cannot control, you are overcome with the words of prophecy, and enter a trance like state. Sometimes your words make no sense, sometimes they almost do, and occasionally your words make all to much sense of what is to come. Once per session, your DM must give you a prophecy. How, or if, these prophecies will come to pass is up to interpretation, but DMs are encouraged make them fit the campaign. Additionally, most religions will give you shelter if you tell them that you are a Sybil, as will most nobles. However, use this with caution, as some may make it difficult for you to leave to keep your gift of Prophecy under their control.
Variant Noble: Senator
Your character is or was a Senator of Rome. You are from the noble class, but having worked in the halls of Government, your character has gained special privileges. However, with these powers also come responsibilities. Typically, Senators are not allowed to leave Italy without permission, they were not paid a public salary, they were not allowed to engage in banking or any form of public contract, and they were not allowed to own a boat that was large enough to engage in trade. Given that the Senate had great influence over trade with other nations, it would make sense that they were prohibited from personally benefitting from them.
Variant Feature: Acta non verba
You know how government functions, and you know how to apply resources to cut through red tape and make the wheels of government move. If you need a function of Government to happen immediately, your character knows how to make it happen. If a friend is in jail and the person who can release them won’t be back until after the festival, you can force an audience with that person. If your favorite watering hole has been closed for a missed tax payment, you can get it reopened immediately.