Building a Great D&D Character

by Mike Shea on 2 November 2020

Here at Sly Flourish I focus on advice for D&D dungeon masters. Today I'm breaking away and offer some advice for players. This is, however, advice for player from the perspective of a dungeon master. You're not going to find optimal feats for any given build. Instead, I offer thoughts that might make the game more fun for you, for your DM, and for the rest of the group.

Here's a quick summary and checklist to consider when building your character:

Build Around the Theme of the Campaign

Everyone's going to have more fun if you understand the theme of the campaign before you build your character. Just as DMs can review the characters first while preparing their D&D games, the players can digest the theme of the adventure and campaign before building their characters; both in story and in mechanics.

Many players dive right into character creation without considering the story or the theme of the campaign. They get excited about a particular class or a race and class combination and run with it. They plan out a bunch of levels ahead of time and never consider whether the themes of that character fit well with the themes of the campaign. This leads to ham-fisted attempts to draw the character into the story and into the adventuring group.

If your DM hasn't told you about the adventure or campaign yet, ask them. Ask them what themes will come up. Ask them what skills will be most relevant. Suggest they run a session zero if they're not already planning one and don't build your character fully until you're in that session zero.

Once you have a handle on the theme of the campaign, spread that information around. Talk to the other players. Ask them how they plan to build their characters around the theme of the campaign as well. Help the DM steer the other players towards building characters that fit well with the story.

Build For the Group

Once you have a good idea what the themes of the campaign are and start to build your character around it, consider how you can build a character that fits in well with the group from both a story and mechanics standpoint. Ask yourself this key question to help integrate your character into the group:

Why does my character want to travel with others while going on these adventures?

Often players come up with backstories that seem antithetical to the story of the campaign and traveling with a group. Nobility that would rather spend time alone with a good book in a royal palace often doesn't enjoy traveling through dungeons with a group of smelly adventurers. This doesn't mean you can't have a character where adventure is foreign or even undesired but they must still have the motivation to adventure with others. The character doesn't have to like adventuring with others but they should be motivated to do so anyway.

The same is true for the mechanics you choose. DM David wrote a wonderful article about choosing character abilities that work well with other characters. It's an eye-opening idea. Choose classes and abilities that support the other characters and you'll build a much stronger bond with the characters and players when you use them. When you have a choice for new spells or abilities, ask yourself which abilities help other characters and choose those as often as you dare. Building huge high-damage characters is fun but so is helping other characters do their thing best. Consider how your character's mechanics can directly benefit the group.

Build a Digestible Backstory

Our characters are the heroes of the story in our eyes. As players, our own character is the hero of our journey and we don't often put other players' characters in the same spotlight. We are, most of the time, one fifth of the group but our own character feels more important than that.

When developing the backstory for your character, keep that one-fifth spotlight in mind. Keep your backstory brief. Describe it in one to five sentences instead of one to five pages.

You don't need to build out your character's backstories all at once. As a player, I don't start filling out my backstory until I've played at least one adventure and reached 2nd level. Then I'll spend the time to start filling in the details.

Until we start seeing our character going on adventures with the rest of the group, we don't really know that character. Our idea for their background may change. Like the DM who lets the story of the campaign evolve from session to session, we can let our character's backstory evolve as we begin to know who they are. Think of it like carving a statue. It starts as an undefined block and slowly, as we play them at the game, they begin to take better definition.

Xanathar's Guide to Everything has an awesome way to generate your character's background in the section called "This Is Your Life". You might have two older sisters and a younger brother. You might have an old childhood friend who you hurt through a mistake and still regret it. Lots of interesting backgrounds come from these tables, backgrounds we're unlikely to have thought of ourself. When you have one, share your background with your DM and the other players, keeping in mind to keep it brief.

Be Nice to Your DM

Our character is at the center of that story but players can remember that the DM is invested in this tale too. Don't build characters intended to circumvent every challenge or "easy mode" their way through the adventure. We all want our characters to be effective but there's such a thing as too effective. Avoid focusing on just one aspect of the character, like focusing on a crazy high armor class, huge damage output, or paralyzing single powerful creatures. Remember that your DM wants to have fun too and it's just as lame for their boss monster to be stuck in a force cage for a whole battle as it would be for your character.

If your DM lets you choose multi-classing and feats, choose options that fit the story of your character rather than chasing a particular combination of powerful mechanical benefits. D&D is a complicated game and there are ways to break it. Instead of zeroing in on those spiky bits, consider the story of your character and act as they would act in a great action movie.

Be wary of abilities that "break" the game or take the fun away from the DM just as you would hope they do not take the fun away from you.

Building For the Group and the Story

Building a great character isn't about optimizing mechanics or building a unique story that no one has ever heard about. Building a great character means bringing in a character that fits with the group and with the adventure. Do your whole table a service and think about how your character can best serve the other characters and the story overall. Build the character that brings the most fun to the story and the group.

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