Criminals are one of the most widely played D&D 5e backgrounds, and for good reason. This background is versatile and characters from all walks of life can utilize it. Every class can use the features; it can add some unique aspects to the more law-abiding classes and make them feel well-rounded.
Criminal Background 5e Overview
Criminal is one of the thirteen backgrounds offered in the Player’s Handbook and arguably the most popular. After nobles and sages, criminals are some of the most common backgrounds from the basic list.
Broadly, this means you have a criminal background. Whether you were a highwayman or a pickpocket, you have always had a talent for illegal activities. You have found yourself on the wrong side of the law many a time and are no stranger to getting what you want.
Feature: Criminal Contact
All backgrounds in 5e come with special features and criminals get the feat Criminal Contact.
This is how the Player’s Handbook explains 5e Criminal Contact:
You have a reliable and trustworthy contact who acts as your liaison to a network of other criminals. You know how to get messages to and from your contact, even over great distances; specifically, you know the local messengers, corrupt caravan masters, and seedy sailors who can deliver messages for you.
This ally is an incredibly powerful tool. If your party is in a tough spot or needs a tip-off about specific actions, you can call in favors or simply reach out. This contact can take all kinds of forms and can even change over time.
How Do I Play a Criminal?
There are two different ways to approach this question: either from a roleplaying perspective or a mechanical one. We’ll go through both of them here.
Roleplaying a Criminal
When building a character who has a Criminal background, it’s important to look at their rationale. People turn to underground activities for many different reasons: personal, social, and survival.
Here is a list of questions that will help you build your criminal character’s personality:
- Why did they first become a criminal?
- Was it from a sense of necessity or perhaps revenge?
- Are they hoping to reach a goal or take a specific object, like something that was stolen from their family many years ago?
- What type of criminal are they?
- What crimes do they commit? Is this character a drug dealer, petty thief, or tax evader?
- Are they wanted by the authorities for their crimes, or hiding behind the scenes?
- Is there someone they are trying to help with their earnings, or is this all for personal gain?
- Do they work with a gang, a couple of colleagues, or completely alone?
- Do they have any regrets?
- Are there any calling cards they leave as a connection to their crimes?
All of these will help you unpack your character’s psyche and help you walk in their shoes. Many characteristics listed in the Player’s Handbook answer the questions above, but if you do not want to roll for randomized traits, this list is a good place to start.
Mechanical Handling of a Criminal
Mechanically handling a criminal is a whole other beast. Criminals have two skill proficiencies:
This might give you double proficiency if you are already a more criminally minded class, like a Rogue, but they can give you a unique advantage if you play another type of class. These bonuses may not be accessible outside of other classes as you level up.
For example, Paladins do not get proficiency in deception or stealth. With a criminal background, you could gain some boosts that might offset certain skill losses.
One big example would be the stealth disadvantage with heavy armor. Having proficiency might offset any negative results while rolling both dice there.
You also receive proficiency in thieves’ tools and one type of gaming set, along with the following equipment:
- A crowbar.
- A set of dark, common clothes with a hood.
- A pouch containing 15 gold pieces.
Mechanically speaking, there’s not much else that the D&D criminal background offers. This is a great utility background and offers a lot of exciting story points for players to jump off of.
Variant Criminal – Spy
Spies function a bit differently from your typical criminal, but that is in the roleplaying arena. There are no mechanical differences between a regular criminal, only in backstory development. This means you should work with your GM to fill in the gaps and develop your features and other background details.
Spies typically function in networks. These can be small spy rings working for larger criminal organizations or even corporations, or they can be massive, government-funded spy communities like something out of the James Bond stories.
Something important to consider is who exactly you work for. Are you working for the king with access to high-end gear, or has your spy ring been gutted by the annual budget from a large business? What type of people does your ring usually let in? Do you have a mentor who has nurtured you, and may have sponsored your entry to their circle?
The options are virtually endless and are a great way to flavor your background feature!
DMing for a Criminal
As a DM, it can be hard to know how to loop criminal characters into their stories. Most D&D adventuring parties are good-aligned or will become good-aligned, which means that a criminal can feel like a fish out of water.
That being said, there are some simple tricks you can stock up your sleeve to keep a criminal engaged and occupied. Here they are:
- Develop your story arc with criminal intent.
- Offer your players the opportunity to do crimes.
- Reward players for using their backgrounds.
All of these tips will help get you where you need to be with your players.
Develop Your Story Arcs With Criminal Intent
The first trick is to make a story where the group is investigating something the criminal character may have personal experience with. You can include people they might know, such as fellow criminals and allies, or even old mentors and law enforcement officials.
Offer Opportunities to do Crimes
This tip is most applicable if you have a rogue or character that is willing to do crimes. Your players can get a chance to steal, blackmail, and cheat their way to a plot solution. There should always be underhanded options to get to the end of the arc you have planned, especially if you have criminally minded characters.
As a DM, these ideas could be simple. You could leave an important piece of intelligence out where a sticky-fingered player character could snag it.
However, it is important to remember to not punish your players for going into the plot that you want them to. They will learn from these encounters and see if turning to crime is the best path, or if it is a path where they come out worse than before.
This is why the next tip is so important: rewarding your players for their actions.
Reward Your Players for Utilizing Backgrounds
One of the most important tips on this list, the third suggestion is to reward your players for using their backgrounds.
The name of this tip is a bit deceptive. You shouldn’t just give your players rewards all the time for simply existing, but there are ways you can reward their actions and thus, encourage their innovations. These rewards take many forms, not all tangible or monetary.
For example, even if you had intended for your players to go in through the front door, if a player decides to call in a favor and use their Criminal Contact feature, you could give this ally unique dialogue and congratulate them for getting inside so easily. This may build respect between the party and this contact, not just their base ally.
Rewarding your players is crucial to keep them engaged and make sure every part of their character sheet is used.
Players of all stripes can find ways to utilize the perks and backstory insights that come with the criminal background. Even if you are playing good-aligned characters, you have the opportunity to make a nuanced and fascinating individual while using the Criminal 5e background. DMs and players alike can have a great time while building a story that involves criminal exploits.
Frequently Asked Questions
The criminal background is one of thirteen backgrounds available in the Player’s Handbook. It gives the feature Criminal Contact and makes your character a current or former lawbreaker.
No, they are not the same background. Both criminals and charlatans have different background features and handle differently in roleplaying. Charlatans are more charismatic and closer to con men, while criminals are based more on stealth and outright robbery or blackmail.
Yes, a monk and any other class can be a criminal. The only limitations on backgrounds are table rules and personal choices.