Hey there! So you’ve gotten together with your friends. The beverages are in the fridge, the chips are in the bowl, the books are open on the table, and it’s time for character creation.
What kind of hero do you want to play? Where do you start?
There are two aspects of character that are very important to a DnD game: the mechanics, structure, or bones of the character (stats, class, proficiencies, etc.) and the fleshy bits, the stuff that comes out of your imagination (backstory, appearance, name, etc.).
So, you can approach character creation from two different angles. You can start by finding a mechanic you love (e.g. I love the tactical options presented by the Battlemaster path of the 5th-Edition Fighter) and then connect it to the fleshy bits; OR you can start with an idea of the character (I want to play a veteran warrior with a very tactical mindset) and then find the bones to support the shape you have in your head. Both are perfectly valuable approaches, BUT (and this may be, like, Duh.) they need to connect with one another to have a truly seamless character. If you have an idea in your head about what your character wants to be, but you can’t find the mechanics to support it, you may have to retrofit your concept to better suit the mechanics that you are able to find.
In a previous article, I touch on the meaning of Roleplaying: Playing a Role. You are an actor and for the purposes of the game, you are portraying the role of your character. Because your role isn’t ready-made, you are going to be crafting the role for yourself. Beyond the bones, your character is defined by the circumstances of their life, so investigating these circumstances is your job during character creation. Get pumped; get curious. Begin your investigation.
What do you know about the character so far?
Usually we know our race and our class before we know anything else about the character. Good! Start with your known, knowing that it’s only the start. It’s only the bones. There is still so much that we don’t know and in order to learn more, we must ask questions. Questions are the tools of character creation and how we carve away all that is not the character, leaving only what is. If this sounds intimidating or esoteric, this article by Jim Ryan gives us a quick-and-dirty list of questions that are a great starting point for your investigations into your character’s backstory.
However, when we break it down to it’s simplest form, there is only one question we need concern ourselves with at this point. Everything else you ask stems from this most basic question.
Who Am I?
I am the sum of my experiences, and experiences in our lives can be boiled down to three categories: People, Places, and Events.
These circumstances influence us over time. During character creation I like to focus on several periods of time to chart the growth of my character into the hero that they become. Birth, Childhood, Coming of Age, and Beginning a Life of Adventure. Sometimes Coming of Age can be synonymous with Beginning a Life of Adventure, but not necessarily. Characters that start at higher levels are further along in their adventuring careers and are going to have Past Adventures under their belts as well.
As you can see, this gives us a nice structure for defining the circumstances of your character. What happened at your Birth? Where were you? Who was there to see you come into the world? Who raised you from a baby into an adolescent? What Events defined your childhood? Where did you grow up? As a young adult, how did you come into the Skills and talents of your Class? Who taught you what you know? Where? Why did you choose the path of an adventurer? Was it because of the death or the prompting of a friend or family member? Were you sick of where you grew up your whole life or have you always been a nomad? I could go on for days, so I’ll stop. Do you start to get the picture we are painting? These questions, which delve into the unknown of who your character is, are the most important tools you have as a character creator.
If you are still having trouble, worry not. Take a look at your character sheet. I love to go through each of my class features or pieces of equipment and ask myself, “Why do I have this?” and then try to attach it to some piece of my backstory—an important person or place or moment—so that it has a distinct place in my imagination.
During character creation, I cannot overstate the importance of asking questions. All of the questions! Be insatiable. This allows you to form a highly specific mental image of your character. The more detailed, the better! What separates your first-level wizard from all the other first-level wizards out there is your individual investigations using your unique imagination. The process is simple. Once you know the bones and the broad strokes, start filling them out, going deeper and getting more specific. Just remember that you seek the answer to a single question, “Who am I?”