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Headsman: A Fifth Edition Background

Headsman: A Fifth Edition Background

1601 Adam Elsheimer, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1601-03What is missing or present that allows—or drives—an individual to ascend the scaffold and stretch taught the creaking rope? Or to flourish dramatically for the crowd before sending ringing steel through bone and wood? Is it greed, tradition, civic duty, or bloodlust? At best the secret lies within, whether known or buried deep. Who can truly say what flaw or virtue destines a person to wear the black hood.

In many cultures, the calling is respected and even revered; executioners can be celebrities at country fairs, or menacing and despised representatives who overshadow a small village; looming presences in the courtyards and dungeons of urban jail houses or simply the enigmatic masters of ceremony at lurid, torchlit spectacles of back woods “justice.”

They are the dark figureheads and shrouded facilitators of the ultimate reach of the law—mysterious and anonymous, discreet and well paid.

Skill Proficiencies: Athletics, Intimidation

Languages: None

Tool Proficiencies: One set of (choose either carpenter’s or smith’s) artisan’s tools.

Equipment: Custom leather hood or mask, traveler’s clothes, certificates and documentation of “special” qualifications, experience and references, a leather belt pouch containing 15gp.

Feature: Anatomy 101

Choose any one 2-handed slashing weapon that does not have the versatile property. Whenever utilizing this weapon type, your weapon’s base damage roll is made at advantage versus Medium and Small (mammalian) humanoids.

Suggested Characteristics

Though rarely boastful or talkative about it, few executioners are ashamed of their past. Those not secretive about their work remain staunch supporters of the practice and the craft.

Most often rigid believers in law and order, these men and women, while rarely thought of as “good people,” are frequently reliable and unwavering supporters of a group or cause. Their usually impressive physiques and fearsomely emotionless demeanor complements most any negotiations or social situation a party might find itself in.

d8 Personality Trait

  1. I believe that anything worth doing is worth doing to perfection.
  2. I am utterly devoid of emotion, even in the face of impending doom.
  3. My allies (I do not have “friends”) know they can always rely on me.
  4. I am always polite and respectful.
  5. I am never polite or respectful, so I rarely speak.
  6. I am haunted to the point of instability by memories of the sights and deeds of my past.
  7. I revel in my strength and skills, and have no qualms about exhibiting them.
  8. I deal with life bluntly, simply, and head-on; direct solutions are always my preference.

d6 Ideal

  1. Silent Respect. People should always be treated with dignity and respect, even if they are about to mount the gallows. (Good)
  2. Civic-Minded. I will always strive to obey just authority, customs, and laws. (Lawful)
  3. The law is a tool—a cloak to hide behind. Adhere too closely to it and you embrace tyranny. (Chaotic)
  4. Might makes right; the weak require domination and structure. (Evil)
  5. Self-Sufficiency. I mind my own business and tend only to my own affairs. (Neutral)
  6. In the end I always remain true to my own private code and path of self-betterment. (Any)

d6 Bond

  1. I have sworn allegiance to a particular faith, order, liege lord or charity in an attempt to atone for past misdeeds.
  2. I still maintain false identities and a veil of secrecy because many of my old “patients” have still-living relatives or friends who would love to find me and do bad things to me.
  3. I will never again do harm to an unarmed person.
  4. I still secretly maintain contacts in “the Association” and will on rare occasion practice “the craft” (if the wages and conditions are right) with the utmost anonymity and discretion.
  5. I have a family somewhere and hope to come across clues to their whereabouts during my travels and adventures.
  6. I love my (executioner’s chosen) weapon and go to great lengths to care for it. I practice, perfect, and, whenever possible, discuss at great length every nuance of its nature and uses.

d6 Flaw

  1. When I set my mind to something, I follow through regardless of obstacles.
  2. Violence is my answer to most forms of resistance.
  3. Weakness is intolerable and must be eradicated from our culture.
  4. I will often follow orders even knowing full well they are wrong or corrupt.
  5. I am obsessive about concealing my true identity and rarely trust anyone.
  6. I obey the law of the land even when it is oppressive or tyrannical.

Variant Headsman: Royal Executioner, Torturer, Hangman

7 thoughts on “Headsman: A Fifth Edition Background”

  1. Impressive! I love this. I’ve just recently read a book entitled ‘The Hangman’s Daughter,’ by Oliver Pötzsch (a fun read if you haven’t already), and this would fit a character inspired by it quite nicely.

    1. Ha! I finished the fifth book of the series just yesterday :) Definitely a good read and also a nice inspiration for including headsmen into your medieval-ish RPG Society.

      In that regard, would have been cool if there had been an Option for Healing as a skill or as part of the Features – a little disappointed that Anatomy 101 is just a damage boost…

      Other than that: Nice!

  2. Disappointed with the background feature: Mechanical bonuses like that aren’t really in the spirit of a Background. I’d have gone with something along the lines of being able to get in good with local law enforcement, or convincing locals to tell you about the backstories of local criminals and crime sprees.

    1. Agreed. It means that, if I have an optimizer in my group, every single fighter that they play will be a headsman. I’d rather have variety.

      “Advantage on damage rolls” doesn’t mean anything, either. I know its intent, and it may seem pedantic, but advantage is very specific to d20 rolls.

      That said, the writing quality of this article is solid, and I could easily see myself using it in my home game after a bit of tinkering.

  3. I have to agree with people talking about the feature. It’s a great and well-written background, but from my point of view the Feature needs some teaking to better fit the 5E mechanics.

  4. The intent of these ‘experiments’ WAS to reach outside “the spirit of the background” (or rules). Which is, many will agree, an underlying current of the D&D phenomenon and usually at least semi-present in the mind of most seasoned DM’s.

    There was also a desire to tinker with B.G. features that had a direct effect on more dynamic and immediate aspects of gameplay (like the existing B.G. ‘Urchin’ does to some degree, with the ‘City Secrets’ feature or the ‘Charlatan’s’ forgery ability). As opposed to free room & board (yet again),maybe some personal contacts and various quest and role-playing tips.

    But, point(s)well taken.

    I love the “in good” with local law/criminal lore concept, kind of covetous of it actually. And as far as “optimizers” go, the thought was; how many 2-handed-weapon wielding P.C’s do you usually see in a campaign? Is it 0 or 1? (“What? No shield, no missile-weapon or potion-use, no spell-options?”)

    Seriously though, all excellent points that have already been learned from and to some degree implemented and re-tweaked, hopefully for the better(the mechanics notes & damage comments in particular.)

    So thanks for the input gang,It’s desperately needed and deeply appreciated.

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