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I am currently in talks with a player, who wants his character to have the Charlatan Background, while I as the DM am not sure that's what the character actually is.

The player describes his character as someone who is not a noble, but works for nobles, doing their "dirty work" and is being exploited by them. He claims he is a Charlatan, because he only became what he is through his "Charlatan skills". His goal is to break out of this job and gain more power than the ones he is currently working for.

To me, a Charlatan is someone who tricks people with one or more schemes and a goal in mind, usually to get their money. A Charlatan can only keep up his ruse for so long and has to leave when people are starting to figure out what he does. The way I understand him, he is not earning his money through any kind of tricks, but through working for the higher ups. So I asked him who exactly he is tricking, to which he replied "those who think they control me, as well as everyone around me".

The way I understood my player, his character is not a Charlatan through the things he does, but through his general demeanor. He "says what he has to, to get what he wants" and he "plays with people's expectations and waits for a chance to find a weak spot on them". He did choose an entry from the "Favorite Scheme" table, but says he intends to maybe do this at some point later, instead of having this be an activity he did regularly, which is what I thought this table was for. It makes me wonder, if he doesn't do what a Charlatan does, how did he get proficiency with the disguise and forgery kits?

This all sounds way to vague for me and I personally can't get myself to call a character a Charlatan background without them having at least one successful coup of any sorts. For me this character sounds just like someone with the Courtier background from the SCAG, who isn't loyal to his superiors.

Basically my question is: Can a player choose the Charlatan, without actually having a "trick" that they use an people? Can a Charlatan be someone who does not make his living tricking people in a certain way, but just goes through life "telling people what they want to hear" to get power? Could someone who does his work begrudgingly and with ulterior motives be called a Charlatan?

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    \$\begingroup\$ It might help to ask: what are your concerns if you make the "wrong" choice here? How would it make the game worse if you agree that the player has the Charlatan background when they "shouldn't"? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 11, 2022 at 13:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AndrzejDoyle I guess my concern is, that the player might be choosing something he doesn't fully understand and might regret later. In my example he picked something from the Favorite Scheme table, just because he thought he had to, not because it fit with his character's backstory (though it does fit with the character's personality and possible future plans). In other example I once had a player who wanted his character to be lawful evil, though he envisioned him as neither lawful nor evil. After I talked with him he realised, chaotic neutral was actually what he had in mind. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 11, 2022 at 19:15

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Read the "Customizing a Background" rule. This is not listed as an optional rule; in a sense, it is closer to the core rules of 5e than feats are (which are optional) and multiclassing.

  • You can pick any feature from any background.
  • You can pick any two skills
  • You can pick any two tool proficiencies or languages from sample backgrounds
  • You can pick any equipment package from any background, or spend coin on gear
  • Choose two personality traits, one bond and one flaw

The only bit that says work with your DM is if you want to generate a custom feature.

You are free to house-rule and restrict which backgrounds and features players can use, but be aware that the backgrounds are not really designed as tight bundles with subfeatures and personality traits balanced against each other.

They are intended to aid with character creation, not restrict it.

If the name Charlatan bothers you, scratch it out and replace it with "Operative". Keep the feature, skills and proficiencies. Replace the personality traits. All done!

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is exactly, what we will be doing. I talked with my player again, telling him that even though his character doesn't fit the definition to a tee, he could still use all of the background's feature as a sort of Charlatan Variant, that I called the "Powerfinagler". My player also told me, that the Charalatan's Background Feature doesn't really fit his character, so we are now trying to see if a feature from another background fits or if we should write a custom one ourselves. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 11, 2022 at 19:22
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Why not?

I'm not sure I see a real problem here. Your player has developed a backstory and suggested that the Charlatan fits within it. There is nothing wrong with any of that!

The problems are occurring when you attempt to foist your own views upon their character design. This isn't uncommon and you do have a vision for your world - which is great! But the background choice is really just the background and they're even using it to help create a character arc for themselves. This is great news for you and I don't understand why you feel a need to challenge this. Please consider working with your player(s) to help form this backstory into something you can use together.

Let your players develop their characters with the abilities they've got - don't worry about backstory 'reasons' or how they might not fit your world view. What you should do is listen to your players and help them develop their characters within the shared world in which you are playing.

The skills chosen as part of the backstory can be what the player is interested in using with their current character and the 'reasons' can be fluffed to make it work. If there is something that really doesn't or can't work with the world you envisioned, then talk about that particular issue with your player(s).

Overall, you should be trying to encourage players to delve into their backstory and help them develop the ideas they have and then integrate those ideas together into the shared experience.

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The background system is supposed assist character creation, not control it.

If you read through chapter 4 "Personality and Background", you should observe that the guidance given is very focused on empowering the player to make decisions about who their character is and where they came from. While the provided backgrounds themselves contain game features with certain rules, the actual process of writing your character's backstory is never presented as a rigid system of rules. The introduction to the background section describes the listed backgrounds:

The sample backgrounds in this chapter provide both concrete benefits (features, proficiencies, and languages) and roleplaying suggestions.

The details provided for each background are suggestions. They are there to help you flesh out your character's backstory. They are not rules. We then see in the section "Suggested Characteristics":

A background contains suggested personal characteristics based on your background. You can pick characteristics, roll dice to determine them randomly, or use the suggestions as inspiration for characteristics of your own creation.

Again, nothing here suggests that this system is supposed to be a rigid set of rules that needs to be followed, rather, we see the guidance here empowering the player to write their own story. The book is here to providing some guiding inspiration.

Now, if a player were trying to write a character background that didn't make sense for the universe you created as the DM, that would be the time to set some boundaries on character creation. If you're running high fantasy and a player shows up with a Wookiee kitted out for a Star Wars campaign, the player obviously misunderstood the assignment. But that does not seem to be what you are describing in your question. What I see in your question is you and your player just interpreting the expression of a background differently, where both interpretations are entirely realistic within the fiction of the universe.

The player is not stepping on the toes of your game world, so let them do what they want, since that's what the Player's Handbook encourages.

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It's A Good Enough Fit

What your player is describing seems to me more like a 'fixer' than a 'charlatan' but despite that, I'd allow it with barely a second thought. If he wants his fixer character to get by on charms, schemes and cons, and if he wants his fixer character to be doing that as a long con to acquire power for himself....

...Well, that's a little convoluted, sure. But I'd go for it. You've got a creative player, thinking a little outside the box, but it's not crazy outside the box. Embrace it.

And Even If It Wasn't...

I'd almost certainly still allow it anyway. Backgrounds are pretty light-weight, mechanically: Two skill proficiencies, a tool proficiency, a unique feature and some gear. Sometimes a language. This is not going to be mechanically unbalancing, and if you think it is, that is a better reason to disallow it than a disagreement over mental images of the word 'charlatan.'

And the PHB basically agrees with me. Page 125 doesn't just allow, but outright encourages you to tweak backgrounds to better fit the characters: Take any of the existing features and wrap them around that proficiency scheme to get a new background.

Don't sweat the small stuff-- rename the background if you have to, but let the player design his character. He's not hurting anything.

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So, I went to check the wording for the Charlatan background in the PHB:

You have always had a way with people. You know what makes them tick, you can tease out their hearts’ desires after a few minutes of conversation, and with a few leading questions you can read them like they were children’s books. It’s a useful talent, and one that you’re perfectly willing to use for your advantage.

You know what people want and you deliver, or rather, you promise to deliver. Common sense should steer people away from things that sound too good to be true, but common sense seems to be in short supply when you’re around. The bottle of pink-colored liquid will surely cure that unseemly rash, this ointment — nothing more than a bit of fat with a sprinkle of silver dust — can restore youth and vigor, and there’s a bridge in the city that just happens to be for sale. These marvels sound implausible, but you make them sound like the real deal.

dnd beyond - Charlatan Background

You're right that this seems to suggest more of a charming con-man than someone who does the dirty work, but it's entirely possible that the dirty work requires just that, a charming con-artist.

To lend some weight to what you present as your players ideas, on the Favourite Scheme table, number 3 is

I insinuate myself into people’s lives to prey on their weakness and secure their fortunes.

Which would absolutely suit someone working for nobility looking for a chance to get out in search of better things.

If however you're adamant about making your player pick a new background, or about giving a different reason for their proficiency with disguises and trickery, then you could look to a class to provide the answer.

The Rogue Archetype Mastermind can be taken at third level and provides the following:

Master of Intrigue When you choose this archetype at 3rd level, you gain proficiency with the disguise kit, the forgery kit, and one gaming set of your choice. You also learn two languages of your choice.

Additionally, you can unerringly mimic the speech patterns and accent of a creature that you hear speak for at least 1 minute, enabling you to pass yourself off as a native speaker of a particular land, provided that you know the language.

dnd beyond - Rogue Archetype Mastermind

At the end of the day however, your player has picked a background that works with their idea for a character, provided you with a backstory you can work with, and, in my experience of the game, it doesn't tend to have massive impacts on the game beyond starting kit so, why not let them? It'll probably be fun!

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