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I'm new to D&D and I'm trying to create my first character. One thing I don't understand is the character's background. There are some background described in the player's handbook.

Do I have to choose one of those (cause background is mentioned in character sheet)? What happens if my character doesn't fit to one of them?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you asked your DM yet? What have they had to say about the matter? Also, do you have a specific set of background traits in mind for your character? \$\endgroup\$ – Shalvenay Aug 7 '15 at 22:28
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If none of the backgrounds in the Player's Handbook (p. 124-141), or the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide (p. 145-154) seem to fit you, discuss with your Dungeon Master(DM) a custom background. Once you determine why none of them fit, your DM may be able to show you how one does fit, or help you create a custom background as explained on page 289 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. There is also the "mix and match" approach (p. 125 PHB) where one swaps features between backgrounds already presented to get a custom background fit for your character. Work with your DM (it's a collaborative approach) to get the fit "just right" for your character and the campaign.

Each background comes as a package. It typically includes:

  1. A background name
  2. A description
  3. Two added skill proficiencies (on top of any you chose from your class)
  4. Tool and/or language proficiencies1
  5. A starting equipment list
  6. A feature.

Read through a few of the already created backgrounds to get an idea how these fit together.

I'd suggest comparing the Sailor, the Criminal, the Folk Hero, the Guild Artisan, the Sage, and the Outlander to see how different packages are assembled. When you and your DM mix the elements together for your background, that will keep it consistent with the Background feature at your table for those who picked one from the pre-built backgrounds.

The Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds,and Flaws you can pick and choose from all of the various brief descriptions already in the Players Handbook, or try your hand at making a few in your own words. Whatever you do, work with your DM so that it all fits into the campaign world you are going to play in.

The point of this, of establishing a background, is that you enter your adventuring career as someone with a past, a past that for one reason or another led you to the adventuring life. This step in character creation helps you flesh out your role and gives you some touch points for role playing. Role playing evolves into the story of your character. As the story grows your character becomes some kind of hero in the context of the game world.

I have found that writing a brief story of "how I got here" helps me get a grip on who the character is. The background is a great starting point for beginning that "how I got here" story.


1 Tools and languages (pick a total of two) are part of the mix and match approach. Using the examples of Acolyte, Criminal, and Noble...
Acolyte: Skill Proficiencies: Insight, Religion
Languages: Two of your choice
Criminal: Skill Proficiencies: Deception, Stealth
Tool Proficiencies: One type of gaming set, thieves’ tools
Noble: Skill Proficiencies: History, Persuasion
Tool Proficiencies: One type of gaming set
Languages: One of your choice
(Source: PHB, Ch 4).

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Choosing a pre-written background is not obligatory

You definitely can create a custom background as it described in PHB page 125:

Customizing a Background

You might want to tweak some of the features of a background so it better fits your character or the campaign setting. To customize a background, you can replace one feature with any other one, choose any two skills, and choose a total of two tool proficiencies or languages from the sample backgrounds. You can either use the equipment package from your background or spend coin on gear as described in chapter 5.

You actually need active DM participation only if you want to create a custom feature:

Finally, choose two personality traits, one ideal, one bond, and one flaw. If you can't find a feature that matches your desired background, work with your DM to create one.

Moreover, all background personal characteristics (traits, ideals, bonds and flaws) aren't supposed to be chosen from the one and only static list. You can create your own, as PHB page 125 says:

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.

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This is up to your DM, and the way your particular group operates. Talk to your DM

Some DMs may be happy to create a custom background to fit your ideas, following the guidelines in the DMG (p. 289) as suggested in KorvinStarmast's answer; some will insist that you pick from those options available in the PHB and construct your character concept to fit; others may allow you to pick from a broader range of pre-existing backgrounds, possibly including third party sources, but not allow you to construct a custom background.

All these are legitimate choices and give a different shape to the game. 5e D&D is not a game that gives players huge choice over their character's abilities but rather operates most on a pick one from list A, one from list B, and and one from list C basis with limited room for customisation within those picks. Limiting your background options is not inherently more limiting that limiting your class or race options and so different DMs will apply different philosophies to background choice just as they do to Class and Race choice.

It is therefore a bad idea to become wedded to a particular character concept before you have discussed it with your DM. In fact, quite apart from these limits, it's a bad idea to do so until you've talked with your DM and group to make sure the character works with the party and campaign.

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