Exploring the Sailor Background

In the game 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 Sailor?

Sailors are folks that prefer life at sea. Whether rain or shine a sailor yearns for the waters of the open sea and feels far more at home there than on land. Sailors are hardened seafarers that know the ins and outs of operating a sailing vessel. They can have many different duties on a ship but they all want to keep the ship afloat and make it to their next destination alive. This comes with long days filled with lots of hard work. An open sea is dangerous for many reasons, making the life of a sailor one that isn’t for the faint of heart.


Sailors in D&D

Like in the real world, sailors are hardy folks who have worked their way through many seafaring voyages. In their time on the open seas, they’ve braved mighty storms, escaped from monsters of the fathomless depths, and faced down foes who wanted to sink their vessels below the waves. Many things could have called them to the seas but they learned to love it as their home. They used to think that sailing towards the line of the distant horizon was the best feeling in the world, but due to whatever circumstances the time has come to try their hand at something new.

This background is a no-brainer for any character who has had experience on sailing ships before they became an adventurer, even though sailing and piracy are both adventures in their own right. A tabaxi swashbuckler, dwarf wizard captain, and a halfling rogue first mate are all good examples of characters that would use the sailor background. Maybe your character is from a land across the ocean or even a merchant who prefers the trade routes via water rather than by land. Were you a marine for a militia of some kind or just a pirate brigand making a name for yourself by taking what belongs to others as your own? What was the name of the ship you served on and what was your job? These are all things to consider when making a character with this background.


Sailor Feature: Ship’s Passage

This background’s feature is pretty simple but it can come in very handy when you need it to. It allows you to secure free passage upon a sailing vessel for yourself and your party, but you have to earn your keep. You and your companions are expected to help out the crew with their duties while you’re onboard. You can secure a ride on a vessel you’ve worked on before or another vessel if you’re in an unfamiliar port, but because you’re calling in a favor, you must work on their schedule and it’s not guaranteed you’ll be able to take the exact route that you want. All of those details will be determined by your dungeon master. With this feature, you can make sure that your party will always be able to find their way onto a ship whenever they need to, like when you’ve made some powerful enemies. This can also be a way for the DM to keep some fun NPCs popping in and out of the campaign. Overall, it’s a pretty decent feature.


Customizing Your Sailor

Every character needs the right skills to get their job done. Sailors get their jobs done with proficiencies in the Athletics and Perception skills. Sailors also need some tools to get their jobs done so they are proficient with navigator’s tools and water vehicles. As a true sailor character, you probably wouldn’t need to swap any of these proficiencies around. Being a sailor is physically demanding and requires you to be aware of your surroundings and a sailor that can’t use navigator’s tools or help operate a ship isn’t much of a sailor. However, if you feel the need for your character to be good at something else instead you can always work with your DM to make it fit. Perhaps you’re the ship’s dedicated mage so you are proficient in Arcana instead of Athletics, or a ship’s cook could be proficient with cook’s utensils instead of navigator’s tools. If you have an idea for something, your DM can help you figure it out!

Equipment is also important for a sailor to get their jobs done, and just like with every other background they also get a short list of equipment to start their game with. This list includes things like a belaying pin (which acts like a club), 50 feet of silk rope, a lucky charm such as a rabbit foot or another random trinket, a set of common clothes, and a pouch containing 10 GP. The silk rope is a great item to start with as it’s only half the weight that hempen rope is, and you can never have too much rope. The belaying pin is also great because it functions as an actual weapon. Just like with your proficiencies though, if you feel like your character may forgo one of these starting items for something else, don’t be afraid to bring that up with your dungeon master. Also, be sure to get creative with your sailor’s lucky charm. Maybe it was a token from an old friend, crewmate, or lost love, or perhaps it’s a special stone you found after surviving a shipwreck. If you’re having trouble ask your DM to help you come up with something fun.

Sailor Background Variant: Pirate

With this variant background, your sailor’s life at sea was under the watchful eye of a fierce pirate captain that taught you what it takes to survive in a world filled with savages and sea creatures. You’ve committed larceny and sent many to a deep, wet grave. You’re no stranger to fear and bloodshed and you’ve garnered a bit of an unsavory reputation in several port towns. This variant is great for characters with a little bit of a rougher side to them, or even just someone with a shady past. If you decide to go this route with your character you can also choose to use a variant background feature as well.

Variant Background Feature: Bad Reputation

The Bad Reputation variant feature can be a lot of fun to roleplay with. As a pirate, your bad reputation makes most people wherever you go afraid of you. Due to the fear, you inspire you’re able to get away with minor crimes while you’re in a civilized settlement because people won’t report you to any authorities. This allows you to get away with small things like not paying your bar tab or breaking down a door or a window. Have fun with it, but make sure you watch your back. Just because no one will report you doesn’t mean you won’t make any enemies.


Suggested Sailor Duties

Every sailor must perform while they’re at sea and are usually suited to what you’re good at. The Player’s Handbook doesn’t have any options for what your duties could have been, so I’m going to provide some for you! Here I’ll provide a couple of possible options for the duties of each available class.


Bosun, gunner, powder monkey, repairs,  shipwright


Marine, officer, quartermaster


Musician, officer, ordinary seaman, keeper of tales


Bosun, cook, doctor, officer, priest, quartermaster


Cook, navigator, officer, ordinary seaman


Bosun, gunner, marine, officer, quartermaster


Bosun, marine, officer, ordinary seaman


Cook, marine, officer, priest, quartermaster


Cook, helmsman, navigator, officer, ordinary seaman


Assassin, marine, officer, ordinary seaman


Mage, officer, quartermaster, ordinary seaman, purser


Fortune teller, officer, ordinary seaman, witch doctor


Cook, mage, officer, purser


  • Sailors are individuals that have spent many years living on and operating a seafaring vessel.
  • When creating a sailor character, be sure to think about the ship you worked on and what kind of job you had on it.
  • The background feature Ship’s Passage can help you and your party secure free passage on a sailing vessel in exchange for helping out the crew during your journey.
  • The proficiencies granted by this background are solid choices, but if you need to feel free to work with your DM to swap them around for options that make sense to you.
  • The variant background turns you from a veteran sailor into a pirate that has been hardened by a life of crime on the high seas.
  • The Bad Reputation variant background feature allows you to get away with minor crimes in civilized settlements because everyone is afraid of you and your reputation as a pirate.
  • Use the list of duties I’ve provided for each class as inspiration for what job your character performed during their time at sea.

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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