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Character Building Sessions

by Mike on 24 September 2012

Focusing on the goals of the PCs and our players might be the most beneficial activity we can perform when building our adventure or mini-campaign. D&D veterans like Teos Abadia spend up to an hour for every four-hour game session tying adventures to the backgrounds and goals of the PCs.

All too often dungeon masters build adventures completely separated from the classes, races, themes, and backgrounds of the PCs. Our players come to the table with characters fully built, stories fully developed, only to find that the path of the adventure takes none of it into account.

Character building sessions can solve this problem.

Before you build out your campaign and before your players have fully built out their characters, consider spending the first session of your campaign as a character building session. In this session your players get a better grasp of the world in which they adventure, the players build the relationships between their PCs, and you can begin to seed your adventure based on the backgrounds and motivations your players bring to the table.

Today we're going to look at the steps involved in running a character building session.

Describe the world

Before anyone gets too far into character or adventure development, you want to describe the world in which your PCs will adventure. For smaller campaigns, this might be a single corner of the world such as a Neverwinter / Undermountain mashup mini-campaign, a Gangs of Tyr Dark Sun adventure series, or a run through Gardmore Abbey.

One great way to begin is with the campaign world's "ten things" list. The Dark Sun, Eberron, Neverwinter, and Menzoberranzan campaign sourcebooks all have these lists and there's no reason you can't make up your own list for your custom mini-campaign.

These ten campaign definitions help define the game world in a clear simple language your players can easily understand and around which they can build their PCs.

Don't spend too much time developing the story for your campaign's world. Let the story form from the choices of the PCs throughout the initial character building session.

Develop PCs

Next, let your players begin to develop their PCs. They choose races, classes, backgrounds, and themes that fit your world. If you're going to limit PC options, something I recommend given the current glut of 4e content, now is the time to discuss those limitations before they've started building their PCs. You might even build these limitations along with your players. What flavor do they want? Is it fairy-tale sort of stuff or something a bit more grim These limitations further define the game's world.

Build character relationships

Either before or after your players develop their PCs, consider using Fiasco-style relationships to build rich relationships between the PCs. As part of your preparation for the campaign, you can build a relationship list that helps define the game's world, ties them to key NPCs, or ties them to key locations in the world.

These relationships will also define how the group gets together.

Introduce NPCs

With PCs and relationships still in development, there's no reason you can't begin introducing them to the game's starting area, often a city or town. Introduce a few key locations and introduce their key NPCs.

Like the character relationship list, you'll likely want to build out some key NPCs before you begin. Introduce these NPCs to the PCs, especially if they are tied together through relationships. This will offer up some good opportunities to roleplay and further develop their PCs.


Without warning, throw the PCs into an action scene. Maybe they get mugged or some orcs attack the outer wall. Maybe some undead have clawed out of the grave yard. Maybe they ARE the undead who just crawled out of a graveyard. Maybe they begin in an arena just before getting smashed in the face with a hammer. However you introduce it, get your PCs into some action. Few players want an entire session of roleplaying so give them a quick battle, even if it's only a bunch of minions and one or two standard monsters. Let them stretch their sword arms and throw off a couple of spells to see how their PCs operate.

A foundation for adventure

Once this session is complete, you'll have a much better feel for the backgrounds and relationships of the PCs and the desires of your players. As a group you'll have a much better feeling for the direction your game might go and the foundation you need to build adventures your players will love playing in.

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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