Monday, July 21, 2014

Basic Dungeons and Dragons 5e v0.1, Part 3 (pgs. 6 - 9): Building a Character the Easy Way.

Now that we have a general idea of what a role-playing game is (see Part 1: Learning About Role-Playing Games for more), how to get started playing, and why we would go adventuring in the first place (see Part 2: Worlds of Adventure for more) it's time to start talking about Player Characters (PC) and how to create them.

The PC is your representative in the game world but it isn't a token to be moved about without a life of its own characterized by no more than the game statistics written down on your character sheet (where you record all of your PC's vital information). If done correctly the PC will have a sense of verisimilitude that makes Ugg the Barbarian someone you and your fellow players care about a great deal. This doesn't mean that your PC must have the same political, religious, or moral views that you hold in life. It doesn't have to be the same sex, sexual orientation, body type, or even come close to approaching your own physical and mental abilities (which it will probably greatly exceed in game terms).

What it does mean is that when you craft your PC it will develop a personality that will be expressed in your game world throughout the time you play it. It may be aggressive when you are afraid of your own shadow. Or it may be one of the great intellects of the age when you can barely add 56 + 47 without the aid of a calculator. Regardless of how the PC's personality develops you need to remember two things: (1) this is just a game and the PC isn't real; (2) if this one dies you can make another one in less than 20 minutes.

Not Black Leaf from Jack Chick's Dark Dungeons comic.
I've belabored these points because of what our hobby has been through in the past. We've been accused of teaching children witchcraft, encouraging them to worship Satan, join the Communist Party, and kill themselves - all of which is complete foolishness. Or as Gary Gygax (co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons and arguably its greatest module author) put it in his book, Role-Playing Mastery:
. . . Recently, role-playing games have come in for some of the same sort of complaints. However, the critics seem to overlook or disregard the supportable contention that engaging in vicarious aggressive behavior is an outlet for such tendencies in humankind. This is especially the case when one becomes more than a passive observer of such activities.

Even the most outspoken of the critics must admit that long before we had print and film media to “spread the word,” mankind was engaged in all forms of cruel and despicable behavior. To attribute war, killing, and violence to film, TV, and role-playing games is to fly in the face of thousands of years of recorded history. In Little Wars, H. G. Wells pointed out that tin soldiers leave no  orphans or widows and ventured the thought that if more people were busy “fighting” such “little wars,” they would have no time for big (real) ones. While definitive studies of the topic are not yet available, the initial evidence points toward the likelihood of less aggressive and violent behavior among RPG participants. Two reports mentioned to me indicate that in the group of RPG hobbyists, the incidence of such behavior is fifty to two hundred times smaller than is typical of the populace at large.

Certainly, those who are or aspire to be role-playing masters do not have violent or aggressive personalities because of their participation in role-playing games. They understand that the conflict and violence in such games are only simulations, not meant to be translated into real-life experiences or used as an excuse for such behavior. A master player or game master does not allow - in fact, never gives a conscious thought to allowing-actions taken in the context of the game to dictate or affect his or her activities in the real-world environment. A master knows the difference between role-playing, role assumption, and real life and never mixes one of these with another. This is the best, and indeed the only, way to get the utmost benefit out of each activity . . . (Gygax, pg. 23)
While it seems strange today to look back at such a serious rebuttal as Gary wrote above, or the bizarre attack from a Jack Chick comic strip, these sort of outlandish attacks exist in the history of this game - even though there is no factual evidence that playing Dungeon and Dragons will make you any more likely to do any of the things I mentioned than say drinking a Coke would. Today you're far more likely to find such attacks levied at violent video games than at Dungeons and Dragons.

The process for creating a PC in the Basic Game is different than it was in any of the previous editions. In all the old versions of Dungeons and Dragons your first step was to roll your ability scores. For some editions this would determine which classes and races you could play while for others it affected how far your character could fully advance within certain classes. After rolling ability scores you would then choose what your PC would be. If you were playing certain editions this meant that your Race / Class choice was one in the same while other, more recent versions of the game, broke that process into race then class. After that step came Naming your character and describing him for those who were very sure they would survive the first few sessions and for the rest of us that time was filled with purchasing equipment and getting ready for the game. 

What do you mean my character already died!

Today the process throws me for a loop because instead of rolling your Ability Scores first you pick your race, then your class, and then you roll. For me it's an alien process to pick in that order after I've spent the last decade doing the opposite; but it's such a minor tweak to the process that it doesn't really matter if you roll your ability scores first or third. In the end there is no real discernible difference.

There is another difference in how you approach making characters with this edition that wasn't really a concern in older ones. Today the authors encourage you to come to the game with a character you're excited about before you even start building it. If you can do this I encourage you to do so; however, it has been my experience that you start with a character to play, and through your play of the character, you develop an attachment and excitement that makes you look forward to coming back to the table to play Thorin Foehammer III.

Picking a Race

We'll talk more about picking a race in Part 5: How to Pick a Race, but for now it's enough to know why we use race. In the Dungeons and Dragons game a race not only represents your biological ancestry and cultural heritage but it also determines your physical capabilities and natural talents. This isn't some sort of racial superiority play at work; it's just a simple way to make each race have something special about them from the get go without making character creation into a quagmire that no one ever makes it through. 

Picking a Class

Dave Trampier Rogues

Picking a class can be an intimidating process if you've never played Dungeons and Dragons before. The names of the classes are familiar but as you look at them there's a lot of things that have an impact on how you play them and that will determine what happens to you later in the game as you advance. So allow me to explain them in a simple way:

Fighters kill things
Rogues steal things
Clerics heal things
Wizards bring the pain. 

There is a lot more to each class, and we'll deal with all of that in Part 7: Classes, but for now this should give you an easy way to sort these into which ones you'd like to play at this early stage. Before moving on to Ability Scores there are some terms that you're going to have to become familiar with in order to play the game.
Class Features: this term refers to any ability, including spell casting, that sets your class apart from the others. An example of this would be the Fighter's Second Wind feature (pg. 25).

Level: A denotation to mark how advanced in experience and powers your player character has become. You advance in level by gaining experience points (more on that in Part 4: Experience Points).

Hit Points: A numerical value that defines how tough your character is; how much damage they can sustain before succumbing to the damage and falling unconscious or dying.

Hit Die: The type of die you use to determine your maximum hit points at first level, and then use to determine how much that maximum increases at each level. Your class will tell you which die to use. Additionally, this dice helps determine how much you're able to heal while resting (more on that in Part 16: Resting)

Proficiency Bonus: This bonus is applied to a variety of tasks and is bound to your level.
When we discuss classes in more depth I'll demonstrate how this is applied but for now it's enough to know that proficiency bonus will be used on: attack rolls with certain weapons; certain spells; some ability checks; some saving throws; and in determining a spell's Difficulty Class (DC).

Ability Score Generation

There are nearly as many different ways to roll ability scores as there are groups out there and you can read about a lot of them in the comments section from the post How Do You Roll. I was very fortunate to have a lot of long time readers, and new ones too, discuss their favorite methods for rolling ability scores (and if you have one but haven't joined the discussion I would love for you to tell us about it). I encourage you to not only attempt the methods mentioned in the Basic Game but to experiment with some the alternatives as well. 

One thing that needs to be mentioned here is how to determine an ability score's modifier. It's not hard, but it's easy to miss. To find the modifier subtract 10 from the score and divide by two, round down.  

Example: Strength 18          Intelligence 6   
                 -10                     -10
                 ----                    ----
                   8                      -4

                 8 / 2 = +4          -4 / 2 = -2

If you ever come up with a fraction, like 1 1/2, then the answer rounds down (in this case to 1). 

Describing Yourself

Most of the things that you're supposed to do in this section will be dealt with later when we come to a more detailed examination of them. For right now though I would like to say something about describing your appearance and naming conventions. When you describe yourself pick something you're comfortable with that reflects your choice of race. If you want to have an eye patch and lots of tattoos then expect those things to be commented on throughout the game.

As for names, I encourage you to pick a name that everyone at the table can say with ease. If you pick something that's long and hard to say it will get shortened into a single syllable word. Pick something your Dungeon Master can't say and their libel to change it into something they can say - even if it's nothing close to what you've named your character.


When it comes to picking your equipment you have two options: taking the starting equipment set or picking it all yourself. If you're pressed for time the starting set is a good way to go, but I'll tell you I've never done that. For me it's always so much more satisfying to pick out the armor I'll be wearing and all the individual ephemera that I'll be rolling with since I can do far more damage being clever than I ever could just following a set pattern (see the completed series Nobody Makes it Out Alive for more).

We'll talk more about the specifics of armor and weapons during the larger discussion of classes and equipment later.

Works Cited
Gygax, Gary. Role-Playing Mastery. New York: Perigee Books, 1987: pg. 23 PRINT


  1. "Today the process throws me for a loop because instead of rolling your Ability Scores first you pick your race, then your class, and then you roll. For me it's an alien process to pick in that order after I've spent the last decade doing the opposite; but it's such a minor tweak to the process that it doesn't really matter if your roll your ability scores first or third. In the end there is no real discernible difference. "

    I'm sorry, is this for comical effect, or are you being serious.

    I think I've done it this way, the other way, and two or three other ways over the years since 1982 or something.

    Did this really throw you off? How come? I am being sincere. I am curious.

    1. "Did this really throw you off?"

      Strangely it really did.

      "How come?"

      I'm not really sure. I think that it has something to do with the fact that I've been required to follow set processes so often over the last decade that I tend to internalize those processes and follow them without thinking about it. My brother calls it a side effect of working in so many high pressure areas and foreign trade zones.


      I suppose it's because I've been a process guy for so long that when things get switched up it really does through me even if there is no real difference.

    2. Throw, not through. Fucking phones.

  2. I think it's interesting that most people might find the idea of rolling ability scores third foreign. The process you describe mirrors how I have almost always played. I have only ever rolled first, without having at least some idea of who/what I will be playing, when I am coming into the game cold, without an idea beforehand, and consciously decide to let the dice dictate those choices for me. To me, knowing who/what my character is before I even start is more natural.

    1. Do think most will find rolling third foreign? I just assumed it was a me thing.

    2. It's hard to say. I probably just misread your point on that. But you are correct in that that's the method that has always been presented. And not just in D&D, but other "random roll" games as well. So, it would make sense for someone to react as you did.

      Read: No, Chuck. You're not crazy at all... o.O

    3. In the old days, you had to roll first because 3d6 in order meant you may not get the right pre-requisites for a class. You had to be what the dice dictate. With 4d6 rearrange and point buy, you can be what you want instead. That was a critical paradigm shift between 1e and 2e with all the "methods" that we're added to the DMG.

    4. Hell, Marty, even Gary discourages 3d6 in order in the 1st ed DMG (pg. 11) and his first method that he offers the player is 4d6, rearrange as you like.


      I've been reading that book too much. Time to get outside some more ;P

    5. To throw an analogy of sorts out there, look at it like this; you're auditioning for a certain role in a play or movie. You really want that specific role, and not really any other, but you'll play it anyway because the show must go on. You audition, and even though you nail it, the phone call you get a couple days later says that, even though you had a great audition, you weren't exactly what they wanted for the part, but they do have a part for you, which you accept happily and are glad to just have the gig.

      The whole straight 3d6 down the line is a prime example of the above analogy. You need what ability scores to play a paladin, or a ranger, or an assassin? But you really want to play one of those, but they are rare and you just didn't have what it takes bub. Kind of sucks that.

      Doing 4d6 and arranging to taste, or point buys let the player play what they want, not what they are stuck with. Want to be Hamlet? Then you get to be Hamlet. Want to be Aragorn? Then dammit, be Aragorn! Pick your race and class, then roll some dice or spend some points. I think this is so much better than, "Oh, well, I have a bunch of average or below average scores, except for my wisdom. Cleric is the only thing I qualify for, so I guess I'll play a cleric." Screw that noise.

    6. Winning the internet today, I see Mr. Haltom.

  3. Dark Dungeon is one of the most absurd and unjust things that could happen to Americans players of RPGs. Fortunately, here in Italy there has never been such a thing. The absurd thing is that the RPG, or psychodrama, is used in therapeutic field since 1921!

    I also always encourage my players to think well to the character they would like to play, before making any specific choice or roll the dice, maybe inspired by books, films, telefilm, cartoon, comics, etc.. and then starting from that premise begin to fill the sheet.

    In addition I say: try to feel the character inside you, nice to play from your point of view, without trying to force things too complex or abstruse, but merely that involves you and that you will feel.

    Ahahahahahahah! "Wizards bring the pain." Wonderful, straight and clear definition. I like it a lot. ;)

    OMG! In more than 30 years of RPGs I never noticed this rule: "To find the modifier subtract 10 from the score and divide by two, round down." There is no end to my stupidity...

    Totally agree to the short name and the personal choice of equipment that is also a way to further customize your character.

    Charles, the more we get, the more I love to read your articles on D&D Basic. They are pleasant, light and clear... if one day you decide to make your own RPG let me know that I'll take for sure! ;)

    1. "if one day you decide to make your own RPG let me know that I'll take for sure! ;)"

      That is the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me. Thank you Giuseppe!


GM Toolbox: Things to Do from January 24, 2005

Shortly before I was going to run my first game back in the early months of 2005 I was sitting in the Den working on a list of things that...