Backgrounds represent a variety of training, experiences and jobs that your character participated in before becoming an adventurer – and which your character might continue with while not busy slaying goblins and looting tombs!
Your background gives you a +2 modifier to any non-combat check where that background may apply. For example, your background as a woodsman gives you +2 to sense checks while in the woods, +2 to sneak rolls while in a natural setting, +2 to INT checks to identify an unknown plant, and +2 to WIS checks to calm a wild animal. You will never apply this in a combat situation; you cannot take a +2 bonus to your attack roll or saving throw because you are fighting a natural animal!
Rather than listing every possible application of the background, a general description is provided. Be aware that backgrounds often overlap, and the skills layered within the background are not mutually exclusive: a farmer and a woodsman have many common skills, but each also has some unique skills.
You are also free to generate your own backgrounds. The GM is encouraged to be as flexible as possible in considering the scope of the background; as a farmer, you would have experience with not only planting and the soil, but with weather, the behaviors of common pests like mice, spiders and ants (and their monstrous varieties), with haggling in the marketplace, and with maintaining tools and equipment. Whenever one of these situations arises (identifying the type of bite from a monstrous insect, distinguishing a quality item from an inferior one, guessing how the weather is going to be tomorrow morning), your background as a farmer should grant you a situational bonus.
You are allowed to take two backgrounds for your character. You can either select these or roll for them. As a human, you can select any two backgrounds you desire. As a demi-human (dwarf, elf, stoutling), one of your two backgrounds is pre-set.
Instead of taking two backgrounds, you may elect to double up on the same background; instead of +2, you take +4 in this background.
Acolyte. You have experience in religious practices, history, rituals and rites.
Aristocrat. You have experience in the upper echelons of society, gathering deep knowledge of proper decorum and etiquette, heraldry, history, family lineages, important items. You can distinguish items of true value from imitations, and can parlay with those of high status.
Farmer. You have worked the land and know how to maximize its yield. You have knowledge of the weather, pests, tools and equipment, bartering and trade. You can appraise animals and recognize signs of sickness or disease before most others.
Host. You have experience with hospitality, including the vagaries of dining and parties. You know how to set a table, how to engage in conversation with a wide range of peoples, how to pick the right wine, how to prepare a meal for any occasion, and how to politely navigate through all manner of uncomfortable topics with aplomb.
Hunter. You have highly specialized knowledge of one creature type. You have studied the habits, tendencies, life cycles, diets and weakness of this creature type so as to find and destroy it. Examples include dragons, lycanthropes, or undead.
Knight. You have experience with the rigors of knighthood. This will include expectations of social behavior, decorum, the chivalric code, heraldry and etiquette as well as horsemanship, armor and weapons, and fundamentals of warfare.
Merchant. You know how to appraise anything, and you have a knack for salesmanship, including getting others to do what you want them to do. You know where to go to get what you need, and how to quickly plug into the existing marketplace anywhere you go.
Miner. You have spent your life underground, and can distinguish the sights, sounds and smells of the deep better than most. You can appraise gemstones and jewels easily, can intuit direction underground readily, and can find your way up, down or out with considerable prowess.
Performer. You have experience on stage entertaining audiences with music, acting or other performing arts.
Scholar. You have studied history, science, geography and mathematics. You have a wide range of book knowledge on a great many subjects.
Soldier. You have experience in warfare, tactics and strategy.
Storyteller. You are adept at weaving stories, able to entertain, enlighten and inform through your tales. You have a wealth of knowledge both factual and fantastic that you have picked up in your travels. You can write well, and manipulate words with ease.
Street Rat. You know the workings of the urban jungle, able to fence goods, avoid authority, find a free meal, appraise valuables, plug into the black market, and navigate the sewers.
Woodsman. You have experience in the wilderness, able to hunt, forage, track, identify plants and animals and intuit direction. You can predict the weather, distinguish footprints of various creatures, and move quietly in the wild.