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Can a character take on additional backgrounds, or at least their benefits?

For example, there is a sorcerer character that has the Charlatan background. This sorcerer happens to be Drow and in an adventure he comes across the Bregan D'aerthe and they recruit him. This would essentially make him a faction agent. So would the character then benefit from the Charlatan background as well as any features the Faction Agent background offers, but without the Faction Agent backstory?

I am asking as the DM.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Aug 8 '19 at 2:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Can a character take on additional backgrounds" — do you mean PC or NPC? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Aug 8 '19 at 18:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Its not really a background if they pick it up during an adventure, it sounds more like allies or boons. \$\endgroup\$ – John Aug 8 '19 at 21:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ As a note, backgrounds are typically meant to represent the character's adventure(s), or lack thereof, before the game begins. The feature granted by your background is usually more of an RP/story hook than an actual mechanical advantage, though, so that part should be easy enough to adapt for events that occur during the game itself. \$\endgroup\$ – Justin Time - Reinstate Monica Aug 9 '19 at 0:33
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Not according to the rules.

Chapters 1 and 4 of the Player's Handbook always refer to "your character's background" in the singular. It also says that it's something determined during character creation, not afterwards.

You could anyways, but...

As a DM, you're welcome to change the rules to fit your game, but there's a reason why the rules are the way they are. A Background gives a character 2 skills, 2 languages or tool proficiencies, and a feature. By adding that on to a character a second time, you run the risk of making skill proficiencies lose their meaning as something that differentiates characters. To paraphrase The Incredibles, when everyone is super, then no one will be.

Also, backgrounds are described as something that the character did or was for years and years prior to the adventure. Granting all the benefits of one for an hour's worth of talking cheapens the mechanic thematically.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Adding onto the point: while joining Bregan D'aerthe/the Harpers might make you a literal "faction agent", this does not necessarily need to be reflected mechanically in your background feature any more than having a short temper makes you a barbarian or being a singer makes you a bard. It has story implications, not mechanical ones. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Aug 8 '19 at 2:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ backgrounds are described as something that the character did or was for years and years prior to the adventure If we hit the fast forward button, would there ever be a point after which things a character has been doing (after creation, during "years" of play) would effectively be considered background? I get the benefit of fixing certain character aspects but it seems a bit arbitrary. \$\endgroup\$ – dwizum Aug 8 '19 at 17:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @dwizum That's actually a pretty interesting question, and I'm now curious about that, too! I wonder if it's a rpg.SE-worthy post. I think the answer might be tied to the fact that the idea of level 1 itself has a (equally arguably arbitrary) fixed character aspect—namely the beginning of the "local hero" tier—and so a background represents everything before that point. \$\endgroup\$ – convoliution Aug 8 '19 at 19:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @dwizum, yes. It's called class features. :) If you wish for non-class specific traits, you can look at Xanathar's Guide for downtime activities. It would allow you to learn skills, languages, and other traits. \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott Aug 8 '19 at 22:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks to everyone who added an answer and commented. This has given me lots to think about. Guess the it makes most sense to work in a combination of the suggestions here for maximum playability and storytelling: Charlatan character joins faction, gets feature (like safe haven) and equipment/emblem from faction and can then use downtime activities to work on skills/proficiencies/languages (perhaps recommended by faction higher ups). Thanks again! \$\endgroup\$ – juliolopez78 Aug 9 '19 at 13:45
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Mechanically: No

I know of nothing that explicitly forbids multiple backgrounds but the relevant sections of the Player's Handbook are written referring to a character's background, singular:

Every story has a beginning. You character's background reveals where you came from, how you became an adventurer, and your place in the world. Your fighter might have been a courageous knight or a grizzled soldier. Your wizard could have been a sage or an artisan. Your rogue might have gotten by as a guild thief or commanded audiences as a court jester.

Choosing a background provides you with important story cues about your character's identity. The most important thing to ask about your background is what changed? ....What sets you apart from ordinary people who share your background?

-- PHB p. 125 (Bold emphases mine)

Bear in mind also that backgrounds carry distinct mechanical advantages, and that these are balanced in a fairly straightforward way: A feature, two skills, and two language or tool proficiencies. (Also two personality traits, a bond, a flaw, and an ideal, but those are less important.)

-- Also PHB p. 125.

Giving someone a second background in the mechanical sense will be unbalancing.

Storytelling: With GM approval

If this is not a mechanical question but a storytelling/narrative question then, sure. The idea is that each character only has one background-- the character's own background. But there are two staples of serialized fiction that I have seen migrate into RPGs that run counter to that:

  • The retcon (or, more gently, the expanding background.) Writers, or players/GMs sometimes get cool ideas that lend themselves to an expanded view of a character's background. It happens.

  • The long, multi-faceted history, which really only makes sense by saying, "My character was and then he spent ten years doing and then kobolds ate his baby and now he's an adventurer!"

In my experience GMs often reserve the right to approve or disapprove that sort of thing, to keep players from going nuts. But if it has no mechanical advantage, then why not?

In Your Specific Case: No

Your specific case looks like one which is mechanical ("Would the character benefit...?") and is not truly a case of discovering a background, but just adding detail to his present situation.

So the answer is a resounding, "No." There is no mechanical advantage here, and there's no "background" here to speak of.

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No and Yes

No, a character cannot replace their backstory. It's already happened, so it wouldn't really make sense for them to lose the benefit.

Yes, there are non-background ways to get most of these things. Here's what Faction Agent gets you, per SCAG 147-8:

  • Skill Proficiencies (two of your choice)
  • Languages (two of your choice)
  • Equipment: Badge or emblem of your faction, a copy of a seminal faction text (or a code-book for a covert faction), a set of common clothes, and a pouch containing 15gp.
  • Feature: Safe Haven: you have access to a secret network of supporters and operatives, etc, etc.
  • Traits and Motivations: per Acolyte background, with swapping 'faith' for 'faction'.

The first two aren't very distinctive. The Equipment section could literally be Bregan handing your charlatan a backpack full of stuff. The Safe Haven is him promising some underground support. Traits and Motivations are mostly up to the player and out of your hands.

So, basically, this could all come for free. However, as the DM, you would not want to show favoritism, and may wish to provide rules support.

PHB 187, in the section Downtime Activities, is a subsection Training. With an instructor, 250 days, and 250gp, you can learn a new language (or set of tools).

DMG 227 starts a section called Other Rewards. Near the end on page 231 is a section called Training, which offers proficiency in skills as one option.

For a Faction Emblem, flip back one page and consider the Mark of Prestige option of a Medal. This should cover the Equipment special item.

Finally, for the Safe Haven, see the Special Favors section. This could provide particularly good role play as faction agents start to come to you for favors due, or seeking new ones.

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The original question was "can you add a background or at least it's benefits", and didn't specify whether or not RAW was a concern, so most of the answers try to cover both.

Technically, as long as RAW is not a concern, then it's entirely up to the GM. As a GM, I'd say, if the roleplay was there, go for it, but make it available to all characters that meet the same threshold.

Even if RAW was a concern, the most restrictive answer would be "partially" rather than "No". As pointed out above, languages and tools proficiencies can be learned even in RAW, and training of skill proficiencies is listed in RAW as optional. So the real answer to the question, IMO, is "in all but name".

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