So you want to play Dungeons & Dragons? The D&D Basic Game is an excellent start, but much of the game’s magic comes from creating your own unique character (and, as a Dungeon Master, creating your own adventures). In some ways, this is both a blessing and a curse. You have options, lots of options, tons of options, and maybe too many options! It can be overwhelming for a new player just picking up the core rulebooks (the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual), especially the Player’s Handbook, for the first time. What do you do with all these choices?
If you are a veteran D&D player, this column is not for you. This column is to serve as a step-by-step tutorial for players new to the game. In it, we’ll look at many aspects of the game, but we will begin at the beginning: making your character.
When writing down everything about your character, you can use anything you like, from a piece of notebook paper to a database on your laptop. For this tutorial, though, we’re going to use the sample character sheet in the back of the Player’s Handbook (or available for download here) as a guide, a way to organize how we will look at the basics of character-building.
Picking a Class: By Abilities
How you arrange your ability scores goes hand in hand with what character class you decide to play. Your class is your profession, your job, the way in which you’ve trained to use your natural gifts (your ability scores) to further your adventuring career. Depending on what class you take, different abilities become more important—a wizard won’t usually be breaking down doors, bashing monsters with a sword, or carrying heavy armor, so Strength is probably not a big deal for that kind of character, but Intelligence determines how good they are at learning and casting their magic spells.
Envisioning the kind of character you want helps you figure out what class would be best for you to play. You might look at a class and what abilities it gives you and use that as the basis for your decision. John wants to play a barbarian because that barbarian rage ability looks really cool. Hans wants his character to have great saving throws, so he chooses the monk class because they give the best saves.
You can also do it the other way around; Craig wants a character who is good at fighting with two weapons, so he looks through the Player’s Handbook to see which class lets him do that. He finds that rangers can get that ability as a bonus at 2nd level, but he also looks at fighters with all of their bonus feats and sees that he could use those feats to do the same thing.
Picking a Class: By Role
Besides specific abilities, the style of how you play your character is important. Some classes are better at certain things than others. If you want to be a sneaky scout, you’ll do a lot better as a rogue than as a cleric because you have better access to the skills you’ll need (Hide, Listen, Move Silently, Search, and Spot). If you want to be close-up brawler, a fighter’s good hit points and ability to use almost any weapon or armor will serve you a lot better than a rogue, with their weaker attack bonus, lower hit points, fewer combat feats, and limited armor and weapons. If you want to fight at range, take a class that gets bonus abilities with ranged attacks (like a fighter or ranger) or usually have a good Dexterity score (like rogue), or perhaps opt for a spellcaster with good ranged attacks (wizard or sorcerer). That’s not to say that a rogue can’t fight, a cleric can’t sneak, or a paladin can’t fire a crossbow; they’re just not as good at is as other classes would be. If that’s your main thing you want to do, then pick a class that’s good at it!
Another little secret of Dungeons & Dragons is that some classes are better at supporting other characters than they are at doing stuff on their own. This is especially true of classes that are generalists; that is, they’re good at a lot of things but maybe not great at any of them. Bards, for instance, can make every other character in the group more effective, and they have skills and abilities that often allow the party to avoid dangerous situations; however, if bards become isolated from their allies they are not strong enough in physical or magical combat to stand alone. Likewise, a cleric has good staying power with their saves, armor, and hit points plus a slew of defensive and healing magic, but like the bard much of their effectiveness in the party comes from their ability to get others ready, keep them in the fight, and fix them up in between battles; their offensive power is not usually enough to win a battle on their own.
Other classes have abilities that are contingent in their use, either based on the situation (for example, a rogue going early in initiative order to use her sneak attack ability, a druid being in natural surroundings to use trackless step and woodland stride), on the opponent (a paladin or cleric’s ability to turn undead or a ranger’s favored enemy), or on cooperation from allies (providing flanking so a rogue can, again, sneak attack, or engaging an opponent in one spot so a ranger can fire arrows or a monk use their fast movement to advantage). These abilities are all useful on their own, but they can often become less relevant if you’re not in the right situation. If your ranger is great at fighting dragons and you never meet any, that ability becomes worthless.
By no means does this mean that barbarians, fighters, and sorcerers are the most powerful classes in the game. It just means that they are the simplest and most direct. Other classes require the right situation, the right style of campaign, or just a bit more creativity on the part of the player to be every bit their equal… if not their better.
Character class is just one small line on your character sheet, but it affects everything else you do—your hit points, attack bonus, and saving throws for starters, but also which skills are easiest for you to learn, what feats you can qualify for, what kind of equipment you will want (or need) to buy, and on down the list. Sometimes what seems like a handicap, like a druid or monk’s low starting money (see Table 7-1 on pg. 111), doesn’t really mean much, since those kinds of characters really don’t need a whole lot in terms of equipment (if anything, fighters, clerics, and paladins, all with good starting money, are the most handicapped, because what they really need are those expensive weapons and armor or even a warhorse, which they won’t be able to afford at the start of the campaign). When you keep in mind the style you want to play and your idea of what your hero wants to be good at, you can find a class that will suit you.
What’s Next: Races
In building your character in detail, you have a ton of choices to make in terms of skills, feats, equipment, and all the rest, but there is one more major decision to make before you get into that: race. What do you want to be? A graceful elf, a tough and ornery dwarf, or just a plain old human (which some would say is the most powerful race of them all)? That’s the question we look at next.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.