by Mike Shea on 27 March 2017
We here at Sly Flourish focus almost exclusively on helping dungeon masters run better D&D games. It's been my charge for eight years. Today we're going to take a slightly different approach. We're going to give one dungeon master's opinion, offered to players, on how to build great D&D characters.
Our intent with this article is to help players build characters that bring the most fun to the player, the other players at the table, and the dungeon master. This sounds obvious but we'd all probably be surprised by the number of character builds that don't seem built around this idea. They're built for other reasons including uniqueness, combat power, or to break the boundaries of the game. These things don't preclude building a fun character but sometimes these ideals steer the generation of that character away from the things that make this game enjoyable. This article doesn't describe how to build the most powerful character or the most unique character. Instead, we look at how to build one that brings out the most fun of the game.
In computer nerd speak, there is a term known as the "application programming interface" or API. This is how one computer program can speak to another or how a large system (like Twitter) can speak to the rest of the world programmatically.
Likewise, we can consider that Dungeons & Dragons itself has an API of sorts. D&D has a way we players interact with the game, a way characters interface with it. When we better understand that API, we can begin to see how certain characters will work better tha n others.
We can break down the interface of D&D into three big parts as outlined in the core rules: combat, interaction, and exploration. These are the three big components that build a D&D game. When we're thinking about our character, we want to think about how they will handle each of these three types of scenes, not just one of them. If we focus too heavily on one of these scenes, we might find ourselves bored and frustrated when the other scenes come up.
As an example, we might consider building the ultimate badass fighter. This fighter, armed with great weapon fighting and great weapon mastery, can hit like a Tarrasque when it comes to smashing stuff with a sword. Interaction? Yeah, not so much. Our Tarrasque hunter has a charisma of 8 and no training in conversational skills because who wants to boost up a -1 attribute bonus. Exploration? Also not so great, with a Wisdom of 10 and no skills there either. Sure, this fighter can lift and smash stuff but that's not always so useful when negotiating with the king's viceroy or exploring the trapped halls of the Temple of Xvim.
This character might be awesome in combat but its player may get pretty bored when scenes focusing on interaction and exploration take place.
One simple way to build a well-rounded character is to look at our skill list and ensure we have a good mix. When we think about the interface of D&D, the skill list is a big part of that interface. Here's a list of the skills broken out by the three main types of scenes:
Combat Skills: Athletics, Stealth, Intimidation, Animal Handling.
Exploration Skills: Athletics, Acrobatics, Stealth, Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature, Religion, Insight, Medicine, Perception, Survival.
Interaction Skills: Slight of Hand, Investigation, Religion, Deception, Intimidation, Performance, Persuasion.
It's likely worth being proficient in at least one or two skills for each of these categories, particularly exploration and interaction. Skills in combat aren't nearly as important since characters have a whole other pile of abilities for combat.
Thus, when we start building our character we might start by saying "what will this character do in combat, exploration, and roleplaying scenes?"
You don't need to be the best badass fighter, but it's worth knowing how you're going to handle combat. What will you do when you face a pack of gnolls, a horde of skeletons, or a young red dragon? What will you do if you're stuck with a web spell or can't reach that spell-wielding mage high up on the cliff?
It's not enough to have one big awesome move you plan to pull out all the time, like the power-attacking great-sword wielding fighter or the fireball-enhanced sorcerer. What will that character do when they're stuck trudging through a swamp getting shot at by troglodites hiding up in the trees?
Even in combat skills, we should look for well-rounded character abilities.
Some players love choosing to build characters that break the mold of D&D. The pacifist cleric build or the noble bourgeois fop might be examples. These characters seem custom built to avoid the very things D&D is about. They might hate combat, have poor social skills, and care more about keeping their nails clean than figuring out what the forty thousand year old runes on the wall of the ancient crypt mean.
These creative characters don't fit the D&D interface. Sure, we're telling an open ended story full of creativity but the core of D&D is built around going on adventures, getting into fights, and having heated interesting conversations with people. Some of us might hate the idea that the game can be broken down to such a low level, but when it comes down to it, that's it. If we try to break that mold too much, we're going to suck at everything.
Why does your character want to go off on adventures and fight monsters? If it doesn't, leave that one in the noble-district of Baldur's Gate and roll up a character who does.
As a DM, my favorite characters are the characters built to be part of a party. Even better is when they already are part of the party. Being the isolationist loner character might seem like a good idea but if you don't have a good reason to be in the group, it's going to be a pain in the ass for everyone to integrate yourself into it. Instead of choosing a background or history that makes it hard to be in a group, find a history or background that draws you into the party or connects you with the group to begin with.
There are fewer more boring storylines in D&D than those who go out of their way to get five people together into a group to finally start having adventures. Far nicer is when the whole group can hit the ground running as a single coherent team. As a player, help your DM out by figuring this out ahead of time.
When you're building a character, consider how your background ties you to your party.
Tying into the group doesn't have to start or end with a character's background either. How about, instead of picking that cool spell, feat, or power that boosts your own attacks, you pick an ability that helps your fellow characters? How about, instead of picking counterspell to make the DM's life miserable you choose haste to make your fellow companions love you?
Let's take a quick review and build a checklist for making characters awesome. The next time you're building a character, consider the following questions:
The intent of this article is to steer us away from focusing our characters on pure power or uniqueness. Instead, we can think about how to build well rounded characters that fit the themes of D&D and bring the most joy to us and the rest of the group. Let's give it a try.