About five months ago, I took the next logical progression into my nerdiness. I began playing Dungeons and Dragons. Honestly, with as much as I enjoy all things nerdy it’s really a surprise that it took me nearly 27 years to get to this point in my life. Thank you, Matthew Mercer and Critical Role. I digress. Since picking up the hobby, I’ve done a lot of thinking about storytelling and plotting from the lense of dice rolling and random encounters. The place that I’ve been the most intrigued with is character building. Since D&D is a role-playing game you have to know the character you play inside and out much like when you write a novel. The main difference being that it is on a smaller scale. In D&D, you only really need to have a firm grasp on the character you play. So how do you do this and how can it help your writing?
Character Building with the Player’s Handbook
The first dungeon master (DM) that I played with told me I didn’t need the Player’s Handbook (PHB) to get started. I ran out about a day after my first session and bought the basic handbook because I seem to do everything “all in or not at all.” However, the nice thing about D&D is that it’s been around enough time that there are a ton of resources online. I’ll include a list of my favorite websites that I’ve used in the past at the end of my post.
If you’re using the PHB, there are four main steps to creating a character. Choosing your race, choosing your class, determining your ability scores, and picking a background. The PHB walks a newbie player through the steps and even gives helpful suggestions on how to build a character. Pretty nice if you’re a writer on a time crunch.
Step 1: Choosing a Race
Since D&D is usually a high fantasy game, many of its races are what you’d expect to see in a high fantasy novel. Dwarves, humans, elves, and halflings (also known as hobbits for the Tolkien fans out there) are a given. There are a few others in the PHB and quite a few homebrewed, or player created, races too. Each race has their own unique traits and abilities that come into play during character building. For example, dwarves are hearty individuals and have lived underground for centuries. This gives them buffs to their constitution ability score as well allowed them the ability to see in the dark. We’ll get to ability scores in a moment, so put those on the back burner for now.
If you already have a good idea of what kind of setting your story will take place in, picking a character’s race might be fairly straightforward. If you’re writing a historical murder mystery in 1920s New York then you’ll probably only have humans in your story. The other races are there if you need them though.
Step 2: Choosing a class
This is probably my favorite step. In D&D, your class determines all the cool things you can do. Rogues are super sneaky and can deal extra damage if their allies are distracting their opponents. Druids can turn into animals that essentially give them extra hit points. Barbarians hit hard and can take down several opponents quickly. One of my favorite things to do as of late is to take characters I’ve already created and fit them into a class. It doesn’t always work perfectly but that’s okay. Your 1920s private investigator might be a rough and tumble fighter who can take punch after punch without even blinking. Your dazzling leading lady could be a bard known for her ability to make people listen to even the most farfetched ideas simply because of the way she smiles.
Get your hands on some class descriptions and read through the perks. See what traits work best for your characters. Each class also comes with a handy “quick build” guide that suggests how to place your ability score stats and what background to choose. You don’t have to follow it word for word but it can definitely speed things up when working on character building.
Step 3: Ability score modifiers
The basis of all D&D characters are the core six stats. Strength, dexterity, constitution, wisdom, intelligence, and charisma. Since D&D is a game that has combat and roleplaying elements, each stat has a corresponding modifier that will be added (or in some cases subtracted) to things you can do. These modifiers also determine how likely you are to be successful in whatever you’re attempting. A smooth-talking pirate who hopes to get out of jail by persuading the guard that he’s innocent would use his charisma modifier to make that happen. If that pirate’s charisma modifier is too low, well then they might need to think of another way out of the predicament.
Usually, ability scores and modifiers are determined by rolling a 20 sided die. Since you’re mostly using the PHB as a character building tool, and not to play, you might choose to skip on rolling the die. Instead, you could make it up based preexisting ideas you might have for your character. However, if you’re starting at square one then rolling a die could be kind of fun. You always have the ability to tweak it if needed.
Should you chose to roll for ability scores, the PHB also gives some pretty helpful direction on how to use those scores to describe your character.
Take your character’s ability scores and race into account as you flesh out his or her personality. A very strong character with low intelligence might think and behave very differently than a very smart character with low strength… high strength usually corresponds with a burly or atheletic body while a low strength might be scrawny or plump.
Again, pretty nice if you need some guidance on how to describe your characters.
Step 4: Backgrounds
This is the part of character building where things get interesting. Remember how I said each class gives suggestions on backgrounds to choose? Some of them make sense. The fighter class recommends a soldier background since that allows you to optimize your character’s skills towards that class. What if you have a “chosen one” trope though and your character is a fighter class but has the folk hero background that has a focus on a having a humble origin but meant for greater things? Kind of sounds like the stereotypical farm boy pulls the magic sword of awesome out of the river set up to me!
Play around with the backgrounds and classes and see what you can come up with. Each background also has some nifty personality traits, ideals, and flaws to help flesh your characters out. However, you can, of course, use them as a jumping off point to come up with your own. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the Outlander background traits but they serve as some cool inspirations. Depending on your needs you can mix and match parts of some backgrounds to suit your needs. When I built my first D&D character, I was surprised just how quickly my backstory came together just by using the ideas in the background.
Putting it all together
This is definitely a more time-consuming process than the ones I described in my Quick Character Creation Methods post. Using the PHB is more of a labor of love that’s going to take some time. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend building all your characters this way. Maybe just focus on two or three of the most important characters and go from there.
I also want to take a moment and point out that I would NOT mix and match backgrounds or tweak ability scores if you are designing a character that you plan on playing. You can quickly throw the power balance out of whack by doing that. Also, always discuss homebrew ideas with your DM before implementing them with a character you plan to use in a game. It’s just good etiquette.
Sit down with a piece of paper, or even a D&D character sheet, and start making notes. Take into consideration your setting and plot. Exactly who do you need these characters to be? How will certain races, classes, ability scores, and backgrounds allow them to fill those needs? Free write and adjust when things don’t quite fit together. Character building is supposed to be fun. When you’re finished you should have a fairly well fleshed out character that is ready for whatever adventure you put them through.
Dungeons and Dragons Resources for Character Building
If you’re like me and not made of money, there are plenty of free resources available for use. Here’s a list of my favorite websites!
- Wizards of the Coast Abridged Players Handbook: The official rules from Wizards of the Coast. It contains the basic races and classes for players (or writers). Fairly straightforward and easy to comprehend.
- Roll20 5th Edition Compendium: A pretty nice basic overview of classes, races, backgrounds, and spells. However, I’ve discovered that some of the details are missing such as certain class abilities.
- D&D Homebrew Wiki: A community-edited and driven wikia with content that’s been created and customized for people who want something a bit different than what’s been developed by Wizards of the Coast.
- Dungeon Masters Guild: A resource where players and DMs upload adventures, character creation guides, and companion guides for download. Be sure to click on the “free” and “pay what you want” section to check out some interesting resources.
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