Exploring the Criminal Background

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 Criminal?

A criminal is, well just that, a criminal. The laws of a society are more like guidelines that you choose to ignore whenever you see fit, unflinchingly breaking the law whenever it suits your needs. You have spent most of your time around other criminals and to this day continue to have contacts among the criminal underground. You are comfortable in the seedy underbelly of a society filled with enough theft, violence, and murder it would make any normal person fear for their life at every turn, but to you, it’s just life.

Criminals in D&D

The criminal background is a very popular choice among rogue characters who, let’s face it, are just perfectly suited for such a thing. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make it work with any other class. Criminals can have a variety of contacts in many different fields of operation and just because you find yourself living the criminal lifestyle, that doesn’t mean you have to like it. Getting away from your criminal past is a great reason to leave town and start adventuring.

Criminals take many shapes and forms and one sign of a good criminal is not looking or acting like one. A cleric may have found themselves down on hard times when a local gang forces them into providing healing services for them under threats of harming their family or congregation. Bards might perform in a tavern to give it the appearance of a functioning venue as a front for whatever shady business takes place in the back while an artificer builds dangerous illegal weaponry and magic items to sell to thugs. Not all criminals have to be sinister edge lords, even nobles can find themselves wrapped up in criminal activity, and playing a character with this background that is trying to get away from their old life of crime can provide a lot of really fun roleplaying elements to your character and the campaign you’re in.

Criminal Specialties

Whether you are part of a thieves’ guild with a network of operatives or preferred to do your work alone, each criminal has a specialty. your specialty is the type of work you are the best at and prefer to be hired for. The types of crime you decide to participate in are what shaped you into the criminal specialist you are, and the contacts you will have as you are ready to begin adventuring.

Criminals can specialize in many different areas that can range from your typical pickpocket in the streets of the slums to cutthroat, corporate-bought politicians. Some choices for your specialty are blackmail, burglary, fencing, highway robbery, hired killing, and smuggling. As you can see, not all criminal specialties are inherently violent, but each one of them comes with its forms of risk and danger. The Player’s Handbook lists a few more options to choose from as a specialty, or you can always come up with something different to fit your character.

Criminal Feature: Criminal Contact

If you like to get creative, this background feature can be a lot of fun! It allows you to create your own trustworthy, reliable contact from your time working in the criminal underground. You know their preferred means of contact and know how to get messages to them even over great distances by knowing which local messengers, crooked caravan merchants, and unsavory sailors you can use to get word to them. So you end up getting several contacts, but you get to create one that you can truly trust.

Getting to work with your dungeon master to create a fun, exciting NPC is the best part of this feature. If you want them to, your criminal contact can end up becoming a major recurring character in your campaign and the benefits they come with can be super useful. They can come in very handy when it comes to trying to find information or the whereabouts of someone, especially if they’re a criminal, buying or fencing items, and hiring out other criminals to assist you. This background presents a lot of opportunities for some fun roleplaying and offers you an outlet for gathering information that can be quite advantageous to you and your party.

Customizing Your Criminal

If you select the criminal background for your character you are granted proficiency in the Deception and Stealth skills as well as proficiency with one type of gaming set and thieves’ tools. The skill proficiencies make perfect sense for a criminal but can be adjusted if you are trying to do something with your character that isn’t being a sneaky thief. Instead of the Stealth skill, a criminal monk may prefer to use their acrobatics skill to escape a sticky situation while a ranger may want to use their Perception skill to spy on people from a distance. Thieves’ tools are a great proficiency for a criminal to start with, though some classes may want to swap that out for other tools that better suit their specialty. If you are looking for other tools that better fit the vision for your character, you may just consider swapping out the gaming set proficiency. Gaming sets can be a little lackluster as a player unless you plan on putting it to specific use often. They can add some flavor to your backstory and possibly add some roleplaying here and there but unless you are playing in a particularly urban campaign setting the chances for those opportunities can be quite spread out. You can easily come up with a story reason for using them, but if you want something a little more useful, don’t be afraid to talk with your DM so you can work that out.

On top of the proficiencies you acquire with this background, you also receive some starting equipment. The list is very short with it only containing two items that aren’t your starting coins, but at least both of the items are useful and they aren’t just loading you up with a bunch of stuff you won’t use. The two items are a crowbar and a set of dark common clothes with a hood. The crowbar is super useful, for obvious reasons, and dark clothing is a must for any criminal using the cover of night to do their business. Not much needs to be said about these items as they are very straightforward, but you can always have a fun time coming up with a special look or style for your dark, hooded clothing. Just because you break the law, it doesn’t mean you can’t look good while doing it!

Criminal Variant: Spy

Along with this background, the PHB has provided an option for a criminal variant called the spy. The skills used by a spy are not much different from a burglar or smuggler, but instead of using them for thievery, you used them for espionage. I don’t feel like they needed to call this a variant as it doesn’t change anything about the way the background works or anything you gain from it. Making a criminal character that is a spy is great, but they could have saved some page space by just adding it to the list of criminal specialties and calling it good, especially if they are going to take the time to point out that it does nothing new for you.

Suggested Specialties by Class

Each class in D&D is different and so each class is going to participate in criminal activity differently utilizing their own specific skill sets. Below are suggestions for what criminal specialty options presented in the PHB go well with which class and my suggestions for more unique specialties as well.


Demolition expert, fence, smuggler, trap maker, weapon manufacturer


Bodyguard, enforcer, highway robber, hired killer, security


Blackmailer, distraction, fence, liaison, seduction


Combat medic, grave robber, smuggler, torture


Ambusher, highway robber, potion maker, smuggler, spy


Battle strategist, enforcer, highway robber, hired killer


Ambusher, bodyguard, burglar, hired killer, pickpocket, security, spy


Bodyguard, combat medic, enforcer, highway robber


Ambusher, highway robber, hired killer, reconnaissance, security, smuggler, sniper


Burglar, fence, hired killer, pickpocket, poisoner, smuggler, spy


Blackmailer, potion maker, scroll scribe, war mage


Blackmailer, occultist, war mage, wildcard


Accountant, fence, scroll scribe, smuggler, war mage


  • Criminals have a long history of breaking the law and feel right at home among the seedy underbelly of society.
  • Each criminal’s specialty defines what they are exceptionally good at and what kind of criminal activity they prefer to participate in.
  • The Criminal Contact feature allows you to create a criminal NPC that you can trust and rely on.
  • The Spy variant for this background could have just been listed as an option for specialties.
  • you can speak with your DM about swapping the gaming set, or other proficiencies, for ones that fit the vision for your character.
  • Criminals have a wide range of skills and any class can find their unique criminal specialty.

If you would like the full details of this background for use in your games, you can find it in the Player’s Handbook.

About The Author

Justin Dixon
Justin Dixonhttps://help-action.com/
Dix has been playing D&D for over 7 years and has been a professional dungeon master for about 3 years. He has been a featured author in multiple releases from Grim Press including Creatures of the Underdark and soon The Goblins of Beetle Hollow from Crumbling Keep. He has worked with the acclaimed pop-up tavern Orcs! Orcs! Orcs! He is the producer for the Help Action podcast and played Amelia Whiteheart on the live play podcast The Swordcast Adventures.

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