• Mark S. Cookman

Alternate Sailor Backgrounds for D&D 5e: The Merchant Sailor/Smuggler


For my own D&D 5e campaign, which is based mostly upon the high seas of various worlds, one background for a generic sailor just didn't work. On the coast, everyone sails. Because there are many different types of sailors and nautical personalities, I felt that there needed to be more variety than just one generic sailor so I created five additional nautical backgrounds to supplement the original sailor/pirate. They are the merchant sailor/smuggler, the marine, the fisherman/whaler, the jack tar, and the deep water sailor/explorer. It is my plan to release one each day of this week. Below is the first one. I hope you enjoy the merchant sailor/smuggler.

Merchant Sailor / Smuggler

You sailed on a coastal merchant ship for years. In that time you've both fought and run from pirates, lived through mast-breaking storms, and seen other ships pulled under the waves overrun by creatures from the ocean's dark depths. You love the challenge of sailing, the familiarity of a tight crew, and corrousing until the sunrise after the work is done.

You should work out some details about the ship that you sailed upon and the waters that you know with the Dungeon Master. Important elements would be the name of the ship, your position on her, and what perspective your character has on the campaign world based upon his or her past experiences. Below is a list of common cargoes that might have been hauled by your ship. Get with your DM to develop a trade route for your ship based upon 1d4 of the cargoes listed below.

  1. Lumber

  2. Mineral Ore

  3. Trade Goods

  4. Spell Components

  5. Spices

  6. Live Animals

  7. Fresh Fruit and Vegetables

  8. Sugar

  9. Tobacco

  10. Opium

  11. Hemp

  12. Wine

  13. Ale

  14. Rum

  15. Beer

  16. Slaves

  17. Textiles

  18. Whale Oil

  19. Silver Coins

  20. Raw Gemstones

Skill Proficiencies: Athletics, plus choose one from Perception or Insight

Tool Proficiencies: Vehicles (water), Block and Tackle

Equipment: a cargo hook, a 6' diameter cargo net, a lucky charm (roll for an appropriate item on pages 160-161 of the 5e PHB), a set of common clothes, and a belt pouch with 10 gp.

Alternate Feature: Contacts

During your time as a merchant sailor you developed a contact with a merchant, a dock worker, a bar keep, a sailor on another ship, a red-light lady, or perhaps a harbor master somewhere. This contact is friendly with you and can provide information and perhaps limited resources for the PC and her friends at the DM's discretion. You gain one additonal contact for each plus in your charisma bonus, but you cannot fall below 1 contact regardless of how low your charisma is. You must work with the Dungeon Master to develop the details of your contact(s).

Suggested Characteristics

Use the tables provided for the Sailor background on page 139 of the 5e PHB to fill in your Personality Trait, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw.

Variant Merchant Sailor: Smuggler

For those of you who are really unclear about the difference between a pirate and a smuggler, please read this article. Basically, a smuggler is just a merchant sailor who is carrying cargo that is deemed to be illegal by the authority which controls the area. The only true difference comes in the sorts of contacts that can be developed. Smugglers may develop contacts with the darker elements of society such as thieves guilds, pirates, or cultists.

Thanks for reading. Be back tomorrow with the Marine background.

#pirate #DnD #dnd #pirates #rpg #5e #dmadvice

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