D20 Mechanic: Background Skills

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Background Skills

The master weapon smith. The prestigious planar sage. The renowned concert pianist. The most amazing chef. These are things that we want in the world in which we adventure, and possible even things that we wish for our characters to be or aspire to. In the SRD, these aspects of a character were handled by skills, but since we've done away with skills, they need a system of their own.

In many cases, these abilities just serve to round out a character’s history or personality, and either can’t be used outside of downtime between adventures or only provide fluff to round out the story and deepen immersion. And even when they do open new paths or provide direction during an adventure, they are not the combat or fantastic utility options that are more closely associated with character class and level. Because of these factors, there's no compelling reason to make people pay for these background skills with character class and level-based advancement resources.

These background skills could just be hand-waved away or left for the players and DM to discuss at the table when they come up, and are in many games, but this is a pretty unsatisfying solution for a lot of players. So instead, we break them away from the level and class system to provide them for those games that want them without asking players to sacrifice their level-based benefits in exchange. The rules below will help you determine what sort of background things you can practice, how good you are at them, and how you can acquire new ones.


Each background ability is grouped into a type with similar abilities. Each of the studies represents a collection of book knowledge, for example, while each artisan background ability represents training in tools and the ability to create. Though they are grouped into types for conceptual and mechanical reasons, each background ability must be acquired separately. The individual background skills follow the general rules presented here as well as any special rules associated with their type.

Each individual background ability possessed by a character has a grade associated with it that indicates how well the character can perform at it. This grade determines whether or not you need to make a check to complete a particular task, what your bonus on the check is, and how much more or less you can expect to earn should you work in the field during your downtime. The grade is generally advanced through the investment of downtime and an attribute check, though exceptions for higher-leveled characters exist.

While there are many reasons to restrict the previous skill abilities to characters of at least a certain level, there are basically no reasons to restrict non-magical non-combat abilities in a similar way. There are in fact several reasons not to do so. These background skills do not scale up in “fantastic” in the same way as other skills do without problems. Perform could be made to scale nicely, but steps all over the bard class in doing so. Knowledge is just a check to see if you read up on something during downtime previously and not functionally different from visiting a library in many respects. To scale it up would make it a divination-based “learn secrets” skill that is outside of our focus here. Craft might scale acceptably well if you could make magical items, but access to that system is currently controlled by feats and class features, and reworking it to not need those or make them redundant is outside of the scope of this work. Profession just doesn’t scale up at all, as there aren’t any fantastic uses of being a barkeep or sailor (no, weathering a magical storm doesn't count).

So direct conversion to scaling skills is unpalatable for one reason or another, but leaving them in the skill system as non-scaling (and thus low-level) abilities causes other problems. While you can just let people spend skill points on them in low-level games and not worry about the lack of scaling, it fails in higher-level games because the character winds up giving up high-end abilities in exchange for these very low-end ones. It is a poor trade in the long run, and not one that makes sense to write into the system in such a way unless you want to allow characters to intentionally hobble themselves.

Even if the value or conversion problems were solved, these background skills also have the potential for tremendous bloat in skill format. Craft, Knowledge, Perform, and Profession are not just one skill each, but a collection of individual skills that are each invested in separately. Craft and Knowledge might be similar in many cases, but are likely to have a number of exceptions and alternate cases based on the specific specialty. Perform is extremely problematic, because we could write a single skill for wind instruments and stringed instruments, but it would be a great disservice to the differences between instrument types in the folklore and source material. And that’s before we get to the open-ended nature of the profession skill. There are just too many permutations of these skills to write up and not enough worth in doing so.

But a more compelling reason than the mechanical concerns is the story one. If these background skills are tied to level in the same way as the other skills are, then they are also tied to combat ability (the alternative, where levels are not a measure of combat ability but of some other thing, is not considered here, because so much of the rest of the game assumes combat is the function of level or CR). Tying them to level means that sages with incredibly specialized knowledge never need protection or bodyguards, master crafters cannot be kidnapped and held against their will, and every exquisitely trained butler also knows kung fu because they all must possess sufficient levels to qualify for their level of skill in a background ability. It is a straightforward reduction in the amount of stories that can be told, and we don’t get any new stories in exchange. By breaking these background skills away from character level or CR, you can have both helpless sage and powerful sage stories as you need them for your games.


Grade Descriptions


Any field in which you have no experience or training is one in which you are considered uninitiated. Most creatures in the world are uninitiated in a given profession, and do not possess a grade. They have no training and very little experience with a profession, and pretty much fail at any serious attempt. They may make checks for the background ability on a case by case basis as approved by the DM. These checks often come with a −5 penalty and take twice as long.

Grade I

Grade I often goes by other names, including "apprentice" and "hobbyist", and represents an extremely minor level of training and ability in the field. This level of skill is not particularly impressive and can be acquired by most people with enough time on their hands, but it is actual familiarity in the background ability. Creatures with this level of ability have some formal training or a fair amount of experience, but aren't consistent or skilled enough to be considered a full practitioner in their field.

They may make checks against for the background ability with a +0 bonus, and occasionally succeed at common tasks.

Grade II

Grade II is also referred to as "journeyman" or “professional” grade, and represents a completed training and generally competent level of ability in the field. Most of the creatures in the world who work in a background day in and day out have this level of skill. Their work is consistently acceptable, as would be expected of someone who possesses both experience and a full course of training.

They may make checks for the background ability with a +10 bonus, and almost never fail at common tasks.

Grade III

Grade III is the master grade. These are those individuals with exceptional skill, and are often those who have dedicated themselves single-mindedly to their field. Their work is consistently exceptional or masterwork quality.

They may make checks for the background ability with a +20 bonus, and almost never fail at difficult tasks.

Grade IV

A character with Grade IV in a background ability is a grand master and at the pinnacle of the ability. Individuals who achieve this grade are extremely rare. Their work is near flawless, often being a work of art in addition to masterwork.

They receive a +30 bonus to checks made for the background ability, and almost never fail at any task within their field.

Advancing Grades With Time

Advancing a background ability to the next grade requires two things: time and a successful attribute check at the end of that time investment. The time required is a multiple of the base training time of the background ability, with higher grades taking a substantially longer time to reach than lower grades. The attribute check also becomes more difficult as the grade increases and the field becomes more demanding. The attribute required varies by background ability, but in general, crafts and proficiencies have an associated physical attribute, while languages, studies, and occupations have an associated mental attribute. Because the lists vary by game, these associations should be determined through discussion with your DM.

If an attribute check is failed, it may be retried one time after putting in additional training time. If this retry is also failed, you may not advance the background skill to the next grade. You have reached the peak of your ability with the background ability, and the simple investment of even more time will not cause you to noticeably improve.

The following table indicates the base training multipliers for grade training and retry investments as well as the attribute check DCs.


Background Skills: Grade Advancement
Attempted Grade Training Time Multiplier Retry Time Multiplier Attribute Check DC
I 10
II 16
III 19
IV 10× 22


These rules are designed to provide a hit and miss nature to background skills. There are some things that some people just don't get, and as a result, they don't get to be great at them. And while it is random and somewhat unfair to simply deny people some background skills in this way, it's not a particularly large problem because the game is not about these things. You being a poor cook even though you gave it your all doesn't get in the way of you being an adventurer, so the parts where this isn't as fair don't make a large impact in a game.


Background checks are made when attempting to complete a task associated with your background ability. The basic mechanic of the check is to roll 1d20 + your Grade bonus + your key attribute bonus, and compare that value to the task DC. Task DCs are determined by your DM, and are expected to follow the guidelines below.


Background Skills: Task DCs
Task Difficulty Examples DC
Standard General knowledge in the field, standard item creation, task a practitioner in training might be able to complete 10-15
Challenging Specialized knowledge in the field, masterwork item creation, task a competent practitioner in training might be able to complete 20-25
Exacting Rare or obscure knowledge in the field, flawless item creation, task a master practitioner in training might be able to complete 30


When two practitioners of a background ability have a competition, the checks are simply opposed. While generally the higher check wins, if a third party is judging the affair, other biases and bribes may need to be taken into account.


There are four types of background skills: crafts, languages, occupations, and studies.


Crafts represent acquired skill and knowledge aimed at the creation of a set of objects or creation from a set of materials. As there are many different materials and types of things to make, there are many different crafts in the world, and some may be more common in certain cultures.

A character that possesses a craft makes checks when attempting to create an item within their specialty. Generally, a roll is only required when attempting to create items of a higher quality, as the bonuses are structured to allow the creation of grade-appropriate items by taking 10.

If a character fails a background check with a craft by less than 10 points, they have instead crafted an object of a lower grade. Grade II artisans attempting to create masterwork items don’t simply create junk when they fail the check; they simply create a standard version of the item. They lose no materials other than fuel (if appropriate) and time; they may re-attempt the item by spending half as much as the normal creation time reworking it. Failing a background check by more than 10 indicates that the item is unusable and that half of the material used in its construction is damaged beyond salvage.

List of Crafts

The following list provides a number of example crafts as well as their time to improve, but it is by no means complete. The actual options available in-game will depend on the campaign setting and culture.


Background Skills: Training Time
Artisanal Ability Base Training Time
Alchemist 5 years
Armorsmith 2 years
Baker 6 months
Blacksmith 1 year
Bookbinder 2 years
Bonewright 1 year
Bowyer 1 year
Carpenter 2 years
Chef 1 year
Clothier / Tailor 1 year
Glassblower 2 years
Jeweler 3 years
Potter 6 months
Stonewright 1 year
Tanner 6 months
Weaponsmith 2 years
Weaver 6 months
Woodwright 1 year



Languages represent acquired skill and vocabulary in a language. As there are a wide variety of creatures and cultures in the world, so too are there many languages to study and learn. Knowledge of the spoken words does not grant any ability to read or write the language, however, and neither does literacy grant any ability to speak the language conversationally and understandably.

A creature that possesses the minimum grade in the spoken or written form of a language is minimally proficient in it. They fail to understand almost all idioms and have a limited, if very functional, vocabulary. A creature that possesses a grade above the minimum is fluent in the language. While they may still miss the meaning of some idioms, they otherwise converse or read and write in the language freely and have a large vocabulary. A creature that has attained the maximum grade in a spoken language is effectively a native speaker of that language. Their accent is basically undetectable, they understand all but the most obscure or out-of-date idioms, and their vocabulary covers most of the topics in the language (though it may exclude technical jargon or obscure words that native speakers would need assistance with anyway).

There are some planar languages that do not have a maximum spoken grade, however. Only planar races with the appropriate subtype speak these languages natively, though others can become fluent in them. The conceptual framework and speaking apparatuses are simply too different for non-native speakers to attain that level of mastery over the language. Likewise, a number of languages are purely telepathic in nature, and thus only naturally telepathic creatures can become "fluent" in these languages.

Ancient languages are those that are no longer in significant use, but enough scholars and interested individuals exist that knowledge of how to speak the language - to at least some degree - still exists, but requires dedication on the part of the student to acquire. Common languages are those that see significant usage in the modern era, but are still functional languages in their own right despite being spoken by a wide variety of individuals. Secret languages are exactly that - secret - and to learn them, one must be inducted into some group or society that is willing and able to teach it to you, often with the express requirement that you not share knowledge of it outside of that group.

List of Languages

The following lists the languages of Trinity as well as the base training time to learn a language based on immersion.

Unlike the acquisition of other background skills, spoken and written language acquisition may occur at the same time as another background ability is being acquired, so long as the language is primarily used in the culture where you are acquiring the other background ability. You may learn spoken and written runic while learning weaponsmithing without penalty or additional time investment, for example, so long as you were working in a place where runic was the primary language.


Background Skills: Languages
Language Spoken Written
Min Grade Max Grade Type Min Grade Max Grade
Ancelari (Telepathic) IV
Arcanic II IV Arkeyan Alphabet I III
Arkeyan (Ancient) III IV* Arkeyan Alphabet I III
Assembly II IV Arkeyan Alphabet I III
Basic I II* Tipan Alphabet I IV
Bhalinese (Common [Adnez]) I III Arkeyan Alphabet I III
Burmecian I III Jovian Syllabary I III
Dokorri (Common [Adnez]) I III Kiltian Logograph I III
Draconic I IV Draconic Syllabary III IV
Draenic II IV Draenic Alphabet I III
Druidic (Secret) II IV Kiltian Logograph I III
Elatois (Common [Adnez]) I III Jovian Syllabary I III
Gaelic (Common [Adnez]) I III Kiltian Logograph I III
Gaoian I III Gaoian Logograph I II
Goron I III Darunian Logograph I II
Jovian (Ancient) III IV* Jovian Syllabary I III
Kiltian (Ancient) III IV* Kiltian Logograph I III
Lucavic III Lucavic Logograph III IV
Lyketian (Common [Ganymede]) I III Jovian Syllabary I III
Lynaen I IV Kiltian Logograph I III
Nevhoni (Common [Adnez]) I III Nevhoni Logograph I II
Phytic II IV Phytic Syllabary I II
Quenya I IV Tengwar Alphabet I IV
Ronkan (Common [Adnez]) I III Arkeyan Alphabet I III
Runic I III Runic Alphabet I IV
Sakambar (Common [Ganymede]) I III Tipan Alphabet I IV
Saigue III Saint's Alphabet III IV
Thrannish (Telepathic) IV
Tipan I III Tipan Alphabet I IV
Tsavashi (Common [Adnez]) I III Jovian Syllabary I III
Twili II IV Twili Syllabary II IV
Usali (Common [Ganymede]) I III Draenic Alphabet I III
Vesuvan II IV Vesuvan Syllabary II IV
Xianese (Common [Adnez]) I III Xianese Syllabary I III
Zandali I III
Zoran I III Jovian Syllabary I III
* There are no 'native' speakers of these languages and the maximum grade only indicates fluency.


Background Skills: Language Acquisition
Immersion Level Base Training Time
Language not primary spoken / written language, learned through written / spoken course (i.e. night school) 2 years
Language is primary spoken language, not used in public or private when possible 1 year
Language is primary spoken language, attempted in public but not in private 6 months
Language is primary spoken language, attempted in public and private 3 months
Language is primary written language, not used in public or private when possible 2 years*
Language is primary written language, attempted in public but not in private 1 year*
Language is primary written language, attempted in public and private 6 months*
* Reduce this time by half if you possess a higher grade in a written language that uses the same writing system.



Occupations represent a combination of knowledge and practical ability in fields that do not fit in one of the other types. It is a catch-all category that contains actors, clerks, farmers, torturers, valets, and many other skill sets that simply don’t fit well into the other groupings and don’t need or benefit from special rules.

Note that unlike the craft or studies background ability types, some of the occupations have maximum grades less than IV. There are no Grade IV innkeepers, for example, as the skill set simply doesn’t support that level of refinement. The maximum grade of any particular occupational background ability is listed in its entry.

List of Occupations

The following list provides a number of example occupations as well as their time to improve, but it is by no means complete. The actual options available in-game will depend on the campaign setting and culture.


Background Skills: Occupations
Profession Base Training Time Maximum Grade
Actor**† 6 months IV
Bartender/Innkeeper 3 months III
Barrister** 1 year IV
Butler 6 months IV
Carpenter 1 year IV
Clerk** 6 months III
Cook** 6 months IV
Courtesan 3 months IV
Farmer 1 year III
Fisherman† 6 months IV
Groom 1 month III
Laborer II
Lumberman 6 months III
Janitor/Maid 1 month III
Miner 1 year III
Musician*† 6 months IV
Navigator 3 months IV
Painter* 1 year IV
Porter 1 month II
Rancher 1 year III
Sailor 1 month IV
Scribe 6 months IV
Sculptor* 1 year IV
Servant 1 month III
Shepherd 1 year III
Torturer 1 year IV
Valet 6 months IV
Wagon Master 3 months III
* Requires a specialization, like a particular location, instrument, or style.

** Requires a specialization in order to reach Grade III, like a particular culture or style. Multiple specializations may be mastered separately.
†May be pursued part-time, often after a day's work at a standard occupation, though this quadruples the base training time.



In some games, it will be acceptable for a player with a study to embellish answers to questions within their field if the DM doesn’t have anything more concrete prepared. For example, the player may invent new NPCs who have more information on the subject or make up the mating habits of a tendriculous. Unless the player states a different intent in these situations, these answers are treated as the actual truth — so far as the character knows, anyway. The character could be wrong, of course, as sometimes the things in books can be wrong, but this should be rare in games that allow this. Engaging players in helping to flesh out the game is a great thing, but letting them do it only to later make them wrong on a regular basis just encourages them to stop trying and ask the DM for what they know.

Studies are background skills that represent a collection of facts, procedures, or other knowledge gained in a particular topic from scrolls, books, or tutoring. This pool of knowledge may be used to draw up plans for physical objects like homes or catapults, to successfully navigate a bureaucracy or legal system, to amuse or delight guests at a dinner party, or perform similar exploits within the field of study.

Each study that a character takes must be specialized within the field; examples of these specializations are listed with the various fields of study. Planar studies, for example, may be specialized in the elemental plane of earth or the abyss. Characters are treated as if they possess a background ability grade 2 less than their specialty in closely related specialties. For example, if a character had a Grade III study in the geography of the elemental plane of earth (a broad study), they would be considered to have a Grade I study in the geography of all other elemental planes (a very broad study), and be untrained in the other outer and transitive planes (a non-specialized study).

When a character has studied a particular topic, they gain a lot of information about the subject and related subjects that the player may not possess directly. This is represented mechanically by the ability to roll a background ability check to determine if they previously learned about the topic and can recall it at the time. A character with a study in a topic does not need to make checks to recall information about a topic within their specialization unless the information is more advanced their current Grade in the field. A character with Grade II studies in architecture, for example, does not need to make a check to draw up the plans for a cottage or a castle made with traditional local materials, but they would need to make a check if the plans called for solid gold walls. Similarly, a character with Grade III studies in the astral plane does not need to make a check to remember the existence and function of color pools, though they would need to make checks to recall anything about the social habits of an astral dreadnaught.

A character who fails a check either never studied the particular topic or fails to recall information about it. If the check was made for a topic one Grade above that possessed by the character, however, the character knows where they can go to find the information, whether it is in a library or a visit to a particular person.

List of Studies

The following list provides a number of example studies, including specializations, but it is by no means complete. The actual options available in-game will depend on the campaign setting and culture.


Background Skills: Studies
Study Example Specializations
Arcane By wizardly tradition
Architecture Buildings, fortifications, bridges, aqueducts
Customs and Traditions By culture, or country
Engineering Land vehicles, sea vehicles, siege equipment
Folklore By region, culture, country
Geology Caverns, flatlands, mineralogy, mountains
Geography By continent, region, or plane
History By continent, region, or plane
Law By culture and/or country
Nature By climate and region
Nobility and royalty By culture, country, or family
Religion By pantheon, deity, festival, or observance
Size of Specialization Base Training Time
Non-specialized 5 years
Very Broad 2 years
Broad 1 year
Standard 4 months
Focused 1½+ months*
Very Focused 2+ weeks*
*A focused study on the history of a new hamlet will require less time than a very focused study on the history of a storied metropolis. Exact times are thus determined by the subject of the focus, and determined by the DM. The full time investment will be known after half the listed time investment.


Acquiring or upgrading a study requires access to material sufficient to learn the knowledge included in the new grade. This is required even if the accepted knowledge is filled with folklore (as in a medieval bestiary) or intentionally wrong (as in revisionist history). These are often books or similar writings, but could just as easily be teachers, witnesses, lore keepers, or even field research. It shouldn't take more than 1 week to determine whether sufficient sources are present in an area to increase a study's grade.

Starting Characters

Initial Background Skills

A character may begin play with one Grade II artisanal, studies, or professional background ability of their choice. They may advance this background ability additional grades based on the time available between their starting age and the start of the campaign, at the DM’s discretion. The character must still pass all appropriate checks to advance the background ability as normal.

Bonus Languages

For each bonus language that a character is entitled to, they may select a language from the list and gain Grade II competency in that language. They must select spoken and written languages separately, however. If they desire, they may sacrifice a Grade II language to gain 2 languages at Grade I, or to promote an existing Grade II language to Grade III.