Storytelling, Tabletop and Pop Culture
We are back with another entry in our 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons new player series! We’ve covered all sorts of topics but now we’re going to get into one of folks’ favorite topics, Character Creation!
One of the things that sets D&D apart from so many other games is that you have an incredible freedom in how you build your character. And you’re not just building a set of abilities and stats to go “beat” the game with but trying to create an interesting personality to tell a story with. Two Wizards with identical stats on a page could be so incredibly different in personality. And with the customization options in D&D, chances are good that your character won’t be anything close to identical to anyone else’s at your table.
So how do we actually make a character? For the actual step by step rules process I’ll once again refer you all to the official Basic Rules. What I want us to focus on instead is this: where do we start building a character?
When you go to make your character, you have two options. You can build off of a mechanical basis or crunch, usually a race/class/subclass (like a High Elf/Wizard/Enchanter) or you can build off of a personality or character concept also called fluff (like a sneaky street urchin with a heart of gold or a cooky old hermit who has a pet rabbit). Neither is the 100% right or wrong approach.
Sometimes you want to do a certain kind of thing with your character. Maybe you’re really wanting to try out a new Wizard subclass that lets you manipulate gravity. Maybe you’re brand new and you want something simple like the Champion Fighter. Maybe your friends all had really clear ideas and you just want to help round out the party. Maybe you just don’t enjoy having to be the active speaker in the group or trying to be sneaky. You certainly don’t want to have a cool idea and build your character around it only to realize that you hate the way it plays. There are lots of reasons to start with mechanics.
If you’re starting with the crunch, the important thing is that you don’t leave it there. Yes, you start off with a few mechanical choices on a page, but that isn’t the whole story. Where did your Wizard learn magic? Where are they from? What was their family like? Are they calm or excitable or irritable? These sorts of choices will fuel the roleplaying decisions that you make.
Often the stats on the page can be their own sort of inspiration for a character. If your character has low Intelligence and Charisma but high Wisdom they might just be less educated and socialized. Maybe they grew up without a lot of people around, in a wilderness environment like a forest. Maybe your character has high Dexterity and Charisma but low Strength, maybe they grew up poor in an urban environment and had to learn to be sly and sneaky to get themselves out of trouble.
Adding in your background and the suggested ideals, flaws, bonds and traits can go a long way as well. Every character has a background that can be totally unrelated to your class/race and each one has a whole chart of suggested characteristics. These can be a great jumping off point if you’re not sure where to go.
But the most important thing is that if you only figure out the crunch you’re leaving a massive part of the game behind. It doesn’t matter if your character is super optimized if they’re just going to be a personality-less cardboard cutout the rest of the time.
The other place to start in character building is to begin with the story, personality or character concept and then pick out the mechanics that support that. This can be as simple as a one line summary (like those generated here) or you could even start with an established character in fiction you want to model your character off of. Your favorite TV, movie or literary figure could make for a great starting point.
Once you have your concept, then it’s just a matter of finding the mechanics that make it work. Remember that other than the actual numbers on the page, the descriptions and explanations of how your character works can be very very different. We often call this process of re-describing reskinning.
For example, a traditional Forgotten Realms Wizard usually casts spells by memorizing them from a book and then reciting them from memory. But as long as it doesn’t actually affect the balance of the game it could be anything. Her spellbook could be a bag that holds a magical menagerie full of mystical monsters that come out and use their abilities to generate her spells, like a little fiery dragon that breathes out a fireball. Or he could be an origami Wizard who folds spells out of mystical paper that come to life, casting magic missile as a swarm of little shimmering paper birds. Mechanically it’s all the same thing. Your Warlock could actually be Western inspired and fire Eldritch Blast out of a pistol that they summon from thin air. Your paladin could be a holy warrior or they could be a jedi or an anime character with explosive smites powered by friendship or hard work. (A caveat here, if you’re doing something truly wild in terms of reskinning check with your DM and work it out together!).
No matter which side you come at it from, creating a fun and interesting character is one of the best parts of D&D. Whether it’s a great story or an amazing combination of abilities (or preferably both!) it’s amazing when you get to drop it in a game and bring it to life.
Next week we’ll be back to talk about what happens when you actually get into the game. But we're not done yet! Do you have a character concept your excited to try? What inspired you? For our veteran players, what inspired your favorite character? Let us know in the comments!
Hi! I'm Colby. DM, Nerd, IRL Cleric and Writer.