Understanding Your Players: “Urchin” Background

Dungeons and Dragons 5e offers a variety of player backgrounds. One of the most common choices players may make is the “urchin” background, someone who grew up alone and poor. A character’s background choice can say a lot about the character they will play.

What is the urchin background? The urchin background means the character grew up alone and poor, learning street skills and developing knowledge of cities. This character survived despite the odds to become the person they are today.

With the basic definition, it is important to break into some specifics with your players about how their background fits them specifically and the events that shaped them the most.

What is an Urchin?

An urchin, specifically in Dungeons and Dragons, is someone who was abandoned early in life and forced to fend and provide for themself. Another key aspect of urchins is their place in a city, as fifth edition rewards players who choose this background with a feature allowing faster travel in cities.

Often, urchins have led a rough and tumble life, toeing and occasionally brazenly crossing the line into criminal activity. In addition, urchins often need to stay out of the way and in the shadows, resulting in skill increases to sleight of hand and stealth.

Due to growing up with few friends and even fewer things to share with them, urchins may often distrust people or stow away food and trinkets for themselves.

What Led To Being An Urchin?

A character can become an urchin at any point in their life, although often it happens in early childhood. Consult with your players about what led them to become an urchin in the first place. Some questions to consider with your player may be:

  • Did their parents abandon them, or were they tragically taken away? 
  • Does the character have any memory of their parents? 
  • How old were they when they were left on the streets?
  • How does the character view others who did not grow up poor?

There are many other questions that can and should come up as more of a player’s backstory is established. The recommended personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws in the Player’s Handbook are a great tool to use to understand more about what an urchin is.

Why are They Poor? 

An important question for all urchins to answer is what led them to poverty. Often, this could be a simple, unavoidable tragedy like their parent’s being killed at a young age. One of the few absolute tenants of the urchin background is experiencing desperate poverty. Answering that question will establish quite a bit about a player’s character.

In addition, establishing a character’s views on growing up poor will help ground their goals and beliefs around any people that may in a similar situation in the game. 

The Path To Poverty

As quickly stated, a variety of events can lead to a character growing up poor and abandoned. Especially with the city background, there is a good chance the character has met or dealt with many others who were in better situations than them. 

Creating quick answers to questions such as why the character was not previously helped, what led to being an urchin in the first place, and how they have plotted their escape from poverty will do wonders for establishing your player’s background.

Some common paths to poverty for an urchin are:

  • They were tricked at a young age and taken from their parents
  • Their parents died, leaving no one to care for them
  • They ran away from home and struggled for some time
  • They were born into an orphanage that was abandoned, having no knowledge of their parents

Of course, there are many more. Encourage your players to think about the path even before the backstory to create a more well-rounded character.

How Did Poverty Shape Them?

Due to the extreme conditions of growing up in a city that rarely if ever showed love, most characters with the urchin background are going to have strong feelings on poverty and wealth dichotomy. 

Working with players to establish their character’s views on wealth can be a great way to set goals and find driving forces for them to act in-game. Questions to consider when choosing the urchin background include:

  • Does the character want to help those around them or only themself?
  • Does the character believe all people are equal, or that the rich need to be taken down?
  • How willing is the character to share what little they may have?

Questions like this will help take the quickly establishing backstory and bring it mechanically into the game, making players feel like their choices and character story matter.

What Can an Urchin Do? 

Due to fending for themselves, urchins in Dungeons and Dragons are given a skillset that revolves heavily around getting things for themselves.

Mechanically, what an urchin can do is very plainly explained in the Player’s Handbook. They gain proficiencies in sleight of hand, stealth, a disguise kit, and thieves’ tools. They also have some equipment that is reminiscent of growing up on city streets, including a small knife, a memento, a small amount of money, and a few other things.

Urchins also have significant knowledge of cities, being able to travel faster than others in any city. This makes them a great choice in games where large cities are expected to be visited often, or where subterfuge and stealth are going to be common approaches.

The urchin backgrounds additions to sleight of hand and thieves’ tools may not be appreciated in a campaign meant to revolve around good characters, however. Stealing, especially from other players, can occasionally grate against other player’s idea of a fun time, so it is important to discuss how acceptable it will be in the game.

Players are encouraged to personalize the equipment and traits of an urchin even more so that they connect with the character. All of the gained proficiencies suggest that urchins stay to the shadows and out of people’s way, often pretending to be what they are not if they get caught. Of course, playing your urchin this was is not a requirement, but could be a great jumping point for establishing a character’s personality.

Urchins are given a great set of tools to encourage play that suggests the character lived on the streets alone, while not forcing stereotypes or closing off other options. Mechanically, they fit very well with the rogue class but that is not a requirement.

Ideas to Help Your Players Develop An Urchin Backstory

Throughout this piece, there have been small tips and tricks for dungeon masters to use to help players develop an urchin backstory. Here are a few more, as well as a small consolidation of tips:

  1. Help players develop why their character is an urchin
  2. Establish how the character feels about growing up in poverty
  3. What goals does the character have, given their urchin backstory?
  4. What are some events that happened while they were an urchin that gave them the skills they have now?

There are many more questions that can be asked of players to help create a great backstory for urchins. However, be sure to leave room in the backstory for things to change in the future. Backstories exist so that the character being played can be tied to the world and have goals for current play. Spending too much time on the details can detract from that and make a player feel like their character will not have any development.

As the DM, you should use these questions to better understand the character and how you can present challenges that play to both that character’s strengths and weaknesses.

Backgrounds are important! They are what have forged your PCs personalities. Make sure you know what your players’ backgrounds are and use them as much as possible in your game.

Until next time,

May your game have advantage, my friends!

Halfling Hannah

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