In the game of Dungeons & Dragons, a character’s background represents their upbringing and what they used to do with their life before becoming an adventurer. Every character is unique and spent their time differently before setting out to find fame and fortune slaying monsters and saving lives. This can make choosing a background difficult at times. If you are new to the game or would like to know more about how backgrounds function, you can check out my article What Is A Background & How To Use It.
What is a Charlatan?
A charlatan is a kind of swindler. With a bit of charm, a charlatan can have a conversation with someone using loaded questions to learn their desires and quickly assess how to best use that to their advantage to get what they want from them. Perhaps they ask a gambler to participate in a game of chance not knowing it is rigged against them, try to sell a magical cure-all to a hypochondriac, or even convince a gullible business person to invest in a product they don’t even own. Charlatans are experts at convincing others they have something they need and it’s a talent they see no shame in using to their advantage.
Charlatans in D&D
The charlatan background is a popular choice among characters with a shady past. Perhaps you didn’t have many others you could count on growing up, so you did what you needed to get by, or maybe you just swindled people because you were good at it and just enjoyed it. A charlatan could come from many different places and walks of life. Remember, your background is what you did before turning to a life of adventure so just because you had a shady past doesn’t mean you have to be a bummer for your party.
Using the charlatan background can be done by any class and it doesn’t have to mean that your character is a jerk or a total sleaze ball. Of course, many evil characters can easily fit into the charlatan background and so could anyone wanting to be a self-serving neutral character. Good characters can still easily be a charlatan though, even in classes like Cleric and Paladin that are usually on the good spectrum of things or easily religious. Maybe after having gotten into enough trouble in your younger years you decided you had enough of that life and moved on to better things but never forgot the tools of your trade. A righteous, honest character that knows how to get what they want from people can be just as scary or powerful as a scandalous villain.
The main thing that is unique to choosing the charlatan background for your character is that you get to pick out their favorite scheme. Every charlatan tries their hands at different things to get what they need from others, however, each one also has their go-to scam. This is the one scam that they are the best at and are confident using it trying to swindle anyone foolish enough to test them.
These scams can come in the form of a variety of different activities such as cheating at games of chance, being able to forge documents or adopt different personas, or excelling at convincing others that your worthless junk is a prize they can’t afford to pass up. The Player’s Handbook has a table of suggested scams to choose from or, as I always suggest, you can feel free to come up with a scam of your own that’s unique to your character. Those are always more memorable anyways!
Charlatan Feature: False Identity
Each background grants you a background Feature, and with the name of this one, I bet you can guess what it does. This feature allows you to decide on a second identity for your character. Through your skills as a charlatan you have created another persona that you can assume complete with documentation, established in-game acquaintances, and of course, disguises so you can have them look however you wish. This can be a pretty useful feature in several different ways. You can disguise yourself as this second persona to sneak into places, meet up with contacts you wish to keep your identity hidden from or cause distractions to help out your party members.
This feature gets even better with the second part of it. In addition to being able to assume another persona, you can also forge any form of documentation or a personal letter given that you have seen the type of document you are trying to forge or the individual’s handwriting. This is so good! This can come in extremely handy in any campaign where documentation is needed to access certain places or things and being able to forge a letter from someone can be used in so many different ways to help your group, or hinder others. This feature utilized by a smart, charismatic character can make it one of the best features offered by a background in the PHB.
Customizing Your Charlatan
When you choose the charlatan background you are granted proficiency in the Deception and Sleight of Hand skills as well as with Disguise Kits and Forgery Kits. As with any background, if the idea you have for your character doesn’t quite match the proficiencies you are granted, you can always work with your dungeon master to swap them out for something more meaningful. A rogue character may be just fine with the skill proficiencies but if you wanted them to be more of an assassin type that uses poisons to make their kills you might be interested in swapping out the Forgery Kit for a Poisoner’s Kit, while a barbarian character may want to have proficiency with the Athletics skill rather than the Sleight of Hand skill.
You are also given a few basic pieces of starting equipment like some common clothes and a disguise kit. It is important to note, though you are also proficient with a forgery kit, you do not start with the actual kit itself unless it is granted from a different part of your character, or your DM says otherwise. A fun thing that you do get to start with though, is the tools of your favorite scam. This can be a simple item, or set of items, that you use to conduct your con. Things like a set of weighted dice, a deck of marked cards, the signet ring of an imaginary duke you like to impersonate, or whatever else you may need for a scam you came up with. It’s not supposed to add value to your belongings but its there to make sure you can have the things you need to roleplay the elements of your background.
Suggested Scams by Class
You can use the charlatan background in combination with any class in the PHB, and with a little bit of creativity, you can come up with a scam for your character that is more interesting, fun, and unique than the limited generic options that are offered. Below is a list of examples for a unique scam tailored to each of the base classes now available as well as the starting equipment that would represent the tools needed to perform it.
You make small clockwork toys of animals to sell to parents with children that are made to only work for a few hours. When the toys are returned you fix them, for a price of course.
Equipment: a small bag of faulty gears and springs
You challenge others to feats of strength that use items or weapons that are rigged in your favor.
Equipment: one weapon or item that is weighted to be exceptionally heavy or exceptionally light.
You entertain crowds everywhere you go with tales of your passionate yet tragic love affair with a king or queen that was betrothed to another and your woes that followed after the affair came to an end.
Equipment: A token of a nobles love that corroborates your tale, one you did not earn but forged or found.
Growing up you used to prey on people’s pity to get what you needed from them, now you prey on their piety using your skills to guilt others into giving you what you need from them.
Equipment: A tarnished holy symbol you found when you fell upon troubled times.
You sold birds to nobles in faulty cages that the birds were trained to open so they could fly back to you, at which point you moved on to the next town.
Equipment: One small bird, or one small group of birds, and one rigged birdcage.
You convince others that you come from a long line of infamous warriors with the highest honors in a prestigious kingdom.
Equipment: A writ of pedigree from a king, queen, or another lord, a fake one that is.
Your martial prowess allowed you to perform impressive, flashy street performances as you weaved through crowds of people stealing their coins and other valuables and making off with them before they could realize what happened.
Equipment: A billowy set of monks’ robes lined with numerous hidden pockets.
You sold sparkling tinctures as bottles of holy water, antitoxin, or a whimsical cure-all, though they really had no special properties at all.
Equipment: A set of five vials filled with water and mixed with powdered crystal.
You convinced nobles and other hunters that you knew how to find a rare and dangerous prey and that you needed your tracking fee upfront only to skip out on the hunt.
Equipment: An animal trophy made to look like a trophy from a larger, deadlier beast.
You got people to participate in a game where they could throw balls at a stack of rigged cans that seemed impossible to topple unless hit in a specific place.
Equipment: A set of weighted trick cans and three wooden balls
You used a series of carved stones to orchestrate games of chance which combined with cantrips and low level spells seemed to always go in your favor.
Equipment: Set of three flat palm-sized stones engraved with symbols of your choosing on one side.
You sold fortune telling services during which you used grim talismans to act as though an otherworldly force was speaking through.
Equipment: Painted or decorated animal skull.
Skills in forgery and arcane study made you easy money selling false spell scrolls to unknowing nobles or adventurers.
Equipment: Three jars of colored ink, ten sheets of parchment, and a quill.
- Charlatans are clever swindlers that use peoples wants and desires to get what they need from them.
- Every charlatan scams for their own reasons and has their preferred method for scamming others out of what they need.
- The False Identity background feature allows you to create a secondary persona that you can assume as well as the ability to forge documentation and handwritten letters, both very useful things!
- You can talk with your DM to swap out skill or tool proficiencies for something more appropriate for the character you want.
- You can make the charlatan background work for any class or alignment and with a little work can come up with a fun unique scam for them to use.
If you would like the full details of this background for use in your games, you can find it in the Player’s Handbook.