Sunday, March 1, 2015

Getting Started with the Starter Set, Part 0.5: Creating Characters

Hello, and welcome to Pact of the Tome. This article is the second in a series written for new Dungeon Masters who have picked up the Dungeons & Dragons 5E Starter Set and are planning to run a game with it for the first time. The first two articles cover the process of bringing a gaming group together and building characters, and each article after that will cover one "part" of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure. I will not assume any prior knowledge about Dungeons & Dragons aside from information in the Starter Set rulebook.

In this article, I'll discuss the process of building D&D characters with the rest of your group. As the Dungeon Master, you don't need to create a character, but you'll want to make sure your players have them!

Part 0: Gathering a Group
Part 0.5: Creating Characters
Part 1: Goblin Arrows
Part 2: Phandalin
Part 3: The Spider's Web
Part 4: Wave Echo Cave

Using the Premade Characters

The Starter Set already comes with five characters which match the adventure perfectly. The box includes character sheets for each of these on high quality paper, but you can also print out copies from the Wizards of the Coast website (see the Starter Set Characters link).

  • Human Noble Fighter: The consummate Game of Thrones-style aristocrat, this warrior seeks to regain the family legacy by civilizing the town of Phandalin. This character fights with a huge axe and heavy armor and is perfectly suited to take the front line in combat - or in the midst of a delicate negotiation.
  • Halfling Criminal Rogue: Seeking revenge on the Redbrand gang, this scoundrel aims to track down their leader, the mysterious wizard Glasstaff. This character is stealthy, an expert burglar, and can make devastating sneak attacks in combat with a sword or a bow.
  • Dwarf Soldier Cleric: A former mercenary, this dwarven priest is intolerant of bullies and is traveling to Phandalin to teach the Redbrand gang a lesson. This character can cast powerful healing spells, wade into battle with a warhammer and shield, and channel divine power to turn away undead creatures.
  • Elf Acolyte Wizard: A temple acolyte in service to the god of knowlege, this arcane savant seeks to find and restore a desecrated temple in the deep wilderness. This character casts a wide variety of spells which can blast waves of fire, conjure magical barriers, or turn allies invisible.
  • Human Folk Hero Fighter: Coming from a humble background, this humble dockworker has vowed to drive off the dragon which haunts the town of Thundertree and fulfill a heroic destiny. A lightly armored archer with impressive accuracy, this character also has skills geared toward wilderness survival.
Why use the premade characters? A few reasons:
  • It saves time. Creating characters with a new group of players can take up to an hour, while the premade characters allow everyone to jump into the game immediately.
  • It's easier. If you're just beginning with D&D, having a character with pre-calculated statistics and all the abilities written out is easier than referencing a book or PDF document to check on special abilities.
  • They're already woven into the story. Each of the premade characters has a personal goal that ties directly into the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure. In addition, some of the characters have other connections - for example, the Rogue has family in the town of Phandalin, and the Cleric's cousin serves as the party's patron.
  • You can make them your own. Each character has a built-in personality and backstory, but there is plenty of room to put your personal touch on them. The first time I ran the Starter Set, my players decided that the Folk Hero was the illegitimate, unknown son of the Noble. Both characters' gradual realization of their family connection made for some great scenes in the game.
  • You can always change things up later. If everyone has fun on the first adventure, but would prefer to change their characters later, there's plenty of room to do so. All of the premade characters can be rebuilt with just the free Basic Rules, changing any aspect you'd like - ability scores, skills, class, and race. It's also easy to retire one character and introduce another.
Remember that some players can use the premade characters while others create their own! This option is particularly appropriate if your group includes a mix of new and experienced D&D players.
Nevertheless, building characters can be one of the most fun parts of D&D. Read on to find out how you can create your own.

Using the Basic Rules
Creating a character for the first time can be
daunting, but it's absolutely worth it. Ask any
long-time D&D player about their favorite character
- they'll inevitably have a great story to tell.
Although the Starter Set itself doesn't include rules for building characters, you don't have to spring for the Player's Handbook - with a market price of $35-$50 - to create your own. Instead, head on over to the Wizards of the Coast website and download the free Player's Basic Rules. It's a ~100 page PDF document that covers the entire process of building a character (also available as a website), as well as all of the game rules.

The Basic Rules are long and there's a lot you don't need as a first-time player. However, if you're planning to use them to make characters, you'll want to be prepared. Either have a few of your players bring laptops to your character creation session or print off a copy or two of the rules - at minimum you will want access to chapters 1-4, which contain most of the character building information. You can use the Starter Set Rulebook for a list of equipment (weapons, armor, etc.) and spells, but you may want chapter 5 and 10-11 from the Basic Rules for a larger selection of both.

You'll also want to have a character sheet for each player. The Wizards website also has several available for download - choose your favorite design and print out a few copies.

The step-by-step instructions in Chapter 1 of the Basic Rules are detailed and should guide you effectively through the process of building a character. However, if you want a more conceptual overview of the process, I've made a list below.
  1. Choose defining characteristics like class and race. Each D&D character has a class, race, and background that paint their capabilities in broad strokes. An "Elf Wizard" has pointy ears and casts spells, a "Dwarf Fighter" is short, stout, and good in combat.
  2. Write down statistics and special abilities that describe your character. Ability scores like Strength and Intelligence define your character's natural aptitudes. Most classes and races have special abilities, like the Dwarf's resistance to poison or the Wizard's ability to cast spells, as well as proficiency in various skills, weapons, and armor. You'll also have a list of equipment - weapons, armor, and other gear - and if your character can cast spells, you'll have a list of spells you know.
  3. Choose your character's background, ethics, and personality. Characters in D&D aren't just a collection of statistics - each of them has their own unique story which manifests itself in play. Your character's background, like "Folk Hero" or "Soldier," describes what your character did before going on the adventure. You'll choose an alignment - like "Lawful Good" or "Chaotic Neutral" - that describes your character's moral views, as well as several traits which help you define your character's personality. Remember that you don't have to get too detailed - most of your character's story will take place in the game.

Using the Player's Handbook
While the Basic Rules are an amazing free resource, they don't represent everything the game has to offer. For that, you'll want the Player's Handbook. It's pretty expensive to acquire - about $50 at your local game store or $35 on However, if your group is really excited about playing D&D, the Player's Handbook is a great investment.

The Monk is one of the more unique classes in the
Player's Handbook. Ever wanted to fight a dragon with
your bare hands? You can even play a Monk with
elemental powers like in Avatar: The Last Airbender
and The Legend of Korra.
Essentially, the Player's Handbook provides everything the Basic Rules does, but with additional options for character creation and advancement. For example, Wizards in the basic rules automatically specialize in Evocation - spells that conjure energy like fire and lightning to deal damage. In the Player's Handbook, there are eight Wizard specializations to choose from (divination, illusion, necromancy...), or you can choose to be a Sorcerer with the blood of dragons or a Warlock who's made a pact with demons for power.

Using the Player's Handbook to build characters follows the same steps as the Basic Rules, but some of the new classes and races have new and different abilities. For example, the Variant Human can choose a Feat from chapter 6 starting at first level and the Monk's Martial Arts changes the rules for unarmed attacks. Fundamentally, though, it's the same process, just with a lot more options.

Building Characters as a Group
Building characters is a complicated process. It's always
nice to have some help from a friend!
While it's possible to have each player create their character separately, there are benefits to doing it as a group. You'll be more likely to end up with a party of cohesive characters that complement each other, rather than a team of loaners with heavily overlapping skill sets and crippling ideological differences. If everyone is new to the game, or at least Fifth Edition, it also lets everyone get on the same page about the rules.

D&D plays best when every character has something unique to contribute to the party. Especially if you're using the Basic Rules, it can be easy for two players to create characters with very similar abilities. Encourage them to differentiate - perhaps one Fighter specializes in archery while the other carries a greataxe into battle.

In addition, keep in mind that the "classic" D&D party includes a Fighter (to protect the rest of the group), Rogue (to solve skill-based challenges), Cleric (to support and heal the party members), and Wizard (to provide versatility and firepower). If your group doesn't resemble this one, that's fine, and there's no need to force someone to play a role they don't want to play. However, consider ways for party members to help fill roles that the group lacks. For example, if you don't have a Cleric, your Rogue could train in the Medicine skill and make sure to carry a healer's kit; if you don't have a Fighter, the Cleric could wear heavy armor and make sure to carry a melee weapon.

D&D is a cooperative game. Though characters
in a group might have their differences, they must
 be willing to put them aside in order to succeed.
While the statistics and powers of characters are important, don't neglect the "story" portion of the character sheet. Personality traits, ideals, bonds, flaws, and alignment make each character distinct from any other with the same game statistics. Feel free to get creative and encourage creativity in your players. You can create some really unusual and amazing characters through creative application of backgrounds - a Folk Hero could be an escaped slave who started a rebellion, or a Sage a dragon forced into human form to gain some humility.

One thing that's very important to start out with is giving the characters some reason to work together and pursue the same goals. If one player builds a character obsessed with following the law and another a character obsessed with breaking it, your game could devolve into those two characters trying to block each other from achieving anything. Encourage your players to come up with a reason why their characters know and trust each other.

Gandalf is a great character in The Lord of the Rings, but as a
character controlled by the DM, he'd be obnoxious. He keeps
stealing the spotlight away from the other characters!
Some Dungeon Masters prefer not to allow their players to create particularly Evil or Chaotic characters. Personally, I feel those kinds of characters can make the game more interesting so long as they're willing to cooperate with the party's goals - a selfish character is fine, a sociopath might not be.

Here's one last thing to keep in mind. As a Dungeon Master, it can be tempting to create your own character to adventure along with the others. This is a bad idea. It takes your attention away from running the other aspects of the game, and you already know exactly what's going to happen. Instead, focus on creating an amazing adventure for your players. You get to play every other character in the game world, fearful commoners and dastardly villains alike! Don't settle for just one.

Tying Characters to the Story
The Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure is the most fun when the characters have a hook to the adventure and its setting. The premade characters already have connections written in, but if you're creating your own you may want to give the players some suggestions. Have a look at the options below, or read over the adventure and think of some suggestions of your own.

Also, look for opportunities to fit the characters' already established details into the adventure, modifying them if necessary. If one of your players created a banished princess, perhaps she knows the knight Sidar Hallwinter and seeks to gain his loyalty. Don't worry about fitting everything in immediately - in D&D, you can work things in as you play.
  • A character is related to the Rockseeker brothers. These three dwarven brothers - Gundren, Tharden, and Nundro - play a prominent role in the adventure, seeking the eponymous mine. Perhaps a character has a business relationship with Gundren, or a dwarven character could be a cousin.
  • A character has a history with the Redbrands. This gang in Phandalin shows up as antagonists in Part 2. Their leader is a mysterious wizard named Glassstaff. Maybe the character was a former member of the Redbrands (and wants revenge), or a gang member hurt someone they loved.
  • A character is connected to Thundertree. The ruined town of Thundertree was destroyed by a volcanic eruption 30 years ago. It's a prominent adventure sites in Lost Mine of Phandelver, featuring a dragon, ash zombies, cultists, and a reclusive druid. Perhaps a character has business with the dragon haunting the town's ruins or was once mentored by the druid Reidoth.
  • A character wants to accomplish some goal in the town of Phandalin. Most of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure takes place in or around the frontier town of Phandalin. Maybe a character wants to bring civilization and prosperity to the place, or they're a merchant who wants to set up a trade alliance with businesses in the town. You can skim over Part 2 of the adventure to get more ideas.
  • A character seeks something hidden within the Lost Mine of Phandelver. The adventure's ultimate goal is to find the Lost Mine, which holds a powerful magical forge and many long-lost magical artifacts. You could flip through Chapter 4 to see what's in the mine or work with the player to create a unique item - perhaps a lost family legacy?
  • A character has connections in Phandalin. The town of Phandalin features several prominent non-player characters who present opportunities for adventure. For example, a character could be related to the farmers Daran Edermath or Qelline Alderleaf, or could owe a favor to the conniving guildmaster Halia Thornton. Have a look at Part 2 of the adventure for more ideas.
  • A character is connected to some other part of the Forgotten Realms. Players that love fantasy lore might already know the Forgotten Realms through the many games (Pool of Radiance, Baldur's Gate) and novels released for the setting. Even for those that don't, you could encourage them to read up on the setting - particularly the Sword Coast and Neverwinter, the backdrop of Lost Mine of Phandelver. Characters could have a connection with iconic parts of the setting such as the dread Red Wizards or the infamous dungeon of Undermountain.

Whew! There's a lot to consider when creating characters, but the results can be well worth it. Next week, I'll talk about running the adventure itself, starting with Part 1- Goblin Arrows. I'll see you then on Pact of the Tome!

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