Dungeons and Dragons is primarily a game about combat. Originally, it was designed to be a matter of a group of archetypal fantasy heroes with different abilities who, typically, entered a dungeon packed with traps and monsters, overcome all the challenges, and found some treasure at the end.
However, among the many things that made D&D special was the part that these heroes were detailed, customisable, persistent (so they could be used again in the next session), and – most importantly – they developed over time by increasing in level. This made the concept ripe for anyone who wanted not just to hew down marauding trolls in dank tunnels, but also to imagine and enact full-fledged imaginary characters – or, depending on who you ask, alternative versions of themselves – as the aforementioned troll-hunting heroes.
Fast-forward some forty years, and today D&D has become a game that is as much about battles and stats as character development and shared immersion. In many groups, having the character who’s the best at killing opponents is no longer the goal. Instead, it’s considered far more fun to have a character who is memorable and enjoyable to play for their background, secrets, personality, and so on.
And there is nothing that stops you from having the best of both worlds: a technically effective character who holds their own against a horde of demons in a battle, and who at the same time has a really intriguing persona. This article will cover a number of tips for creating a D&D character whom you – and your DM and your fellow players – will remember for a long time.
Tip 1: Consider the character’s profession.
When push comes to shove in a spider-riddled castle, your character’s most important features and abilities might arise from its class and statistics, as these are what governs the majority of the rules and therefore the outcome of battles.
However, for all those moments when your character isn’t engaged in combat – for example, while they’re investigating a strange murder or haggling with a stubborn merchant – your character’s background truly comes into play, as this is likely to have shaped who they are and how they behave. Are they former soldiers, farmers, scholars or squires? All of these different origins will have played part in forming the character’s personality, which in turn will affect how they react to and deal with any given situation.
What’s more, if you combine a class with an unconventional background, such as a former outlander who has become a paladin, or an acolyte who turned into a rogue, you are likely to come up with an unusual and inspiring concept for a character.
Tip 2: Lean into those traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws
The boxes on the character sheet for these parts are deceptively small, because they are massively important. Even a few short sentences or even single words can have a great impact on your roleplaying. They give you a straightforward and concise way to anchor your character to a set of values, which in turn can make roleplaying easy.
All four characteristics are highly useful, but I would argue that ideals and flaws are the most important ones. Ideals tell you what beliefs your character stands – and possibly fights – for, and flaws determine your character’s particular weakness. Together, they serve to make a character feel much more substantial and realistic.
Tip 2b: Act against type and expectations
While technically part of Tip 2, this is such a simple yet effective way to make a character interesting that I’m splitting it off into its own section.
Here’s the idea: pick one D&D class, then choose the most expected, characteristic, even cliche behaviour of a character from a different class, and merge the two. In other words, create a barbarian with the behaviour of a rogue (Conan, anyone?), or a paladin with the mindset of a druid, or a cleric who acts like a barbarian, or…you see the point.
It may sound like a blunt approach, and it does require some thought (a barbarian who acts like a cleric should worship a fitting deity to make the credible, and so on), but it’s a perfect way forward for making a character when you’re short on time – and it can have some seriously unexpected (and hilarious) results.
Tip 2c: Get some goals
Actually, let’s just keep going with the subsections! Another facet of Tip 2 that’s worth giving some extra attention to is the importance of having goals. Yes, plural! They’re closely connected to ideals but at the same time quite different.
Simply put, your character’s goal is what they’re working towards, be it wealth, peace, anarchy, power, status – you name it. But it’s better to be a bit more specific and tie your goal into your DM’s campaign setting. For example, rather than just saying “influence”, it might be “my character wants to rule the trade in the city of Goldspire.” This is immediately more tangible, and therefore a more interesting goal.
The goal might be known to a few chosen other players (and their characters). Alternatively, it might be openly stated at every opportunity during the game, or it can be completely secret. However, it’s often more entertaining when the other characters in the group are aware of your character’s goal, at least to some extent, so that they can understand your character and their actions better. The DM can also weave a more entertaining story around your character if they are aware of their goal from the outset, so you might want to sit down with your DM and discuss it before starting a new campaign.
So what’s with the plural? If you really want to dive into the deep end of character development, your character should have two separate goals: one internal and one external. The external one can be attained through hard work – for example, to become an archmage at a famed academy of wizards – while the internal one is more personal and typically (but far from always) more rarely shared, such as a need to forgive an injustice.
Tip 3: Throw something unique and unexpected into the pot
Just as an unusual or at least unconventional background can help to make your character feel more interesting and lead to more engaging roleplaying, your character can also benefit from having a truly unique feature.
This doesn’t have to be something that affects the technical side of the game, or even adds a bonus in any way, but it should be something that is distinct. It can be a physical feature, such as a very unusual colour of your eyes or an odd-shaped birthmark, or some other visible attribute. It can also be an ability, such as being able to predict weather unexpectedly well, a heightened sense of smell, or curiously keen hearing. Any of these might indicate that there’s more to your character than meets the eye – perhaps something that only the DM is aware of – or they can simply be natural quirks.
Other options include aspects that are wholly personal, such as a deep interest in botany, profound admiration of aristocrats, or a feverish passion for fashion. Whether it’s indicative of some mystery in your character’s background or just an ordinary oddity, it might become your character’s callsign and something that amplifies their presence.
Tip 4: Think of the theme
It’s immensely helpful to tie your character and its flavour to your campaign’s general theme. Sure, it can be wildly entertaining to play a character who is diametrically opposed to the theme – a hapless jester in a hell-based campaign, or a barbarian in a series of adventures that revolve around courtly intrigue – but the novelty can wear off really fast.
I would instead recommend that you consider making a character that is aligned with your DM’s setting as well as the campaign that you’ll play. Your character will feel much more like a part of the narrative, and immersion becomes easier as well. That said, it’s often useful to have a special flair or standout characteristic, as explained above!
Tip 5: Dare to be vulnerable
Finally, I would like to encourage you to ignore all ideas of optimising your character. Depending on the campaign that you are in, this can be a huge gamble! If you’re anything like me, you want your character to stay alive and whenever possible remain unharmed. In D&D, this can be a challenge even for a supercharged character that’s been tweaked to excel at saving throws and dish out massive damage.
What’s more, your fellow players might be annoyed if your character isn’t doing their part in taking down the dragon that’s currently turning them into burnt toast. So it really depends on how your group works! If everyone is playing mainly to accomplish the goals and gain new levels, then you probably want a practical character that can keep up with the other ones.
However, if your group is anything like ours, a character that’s focused on its character rather than its statistics is highly appreciated. For example, in one of the D&D campaigns that I’m part of, my current character is a sorcerer who died, went to Shadowfell as a spirit, and was brought back to life by a necromancer.
Consequently, she is over 300 years old and has no clue whatsoever how the “modern” world works! As she’s been gaining levels, I’ve also made sure to pick up every Shadowfell-related spell and feat there is, all for the sake of her personal theme. Is it sensible to have three cold-based cantrips? Or to have her make grave mistakes in social interactions because she’s three centuries behind on what’s happened in the realm? No, absolutely not – but that’s who she is! And it keeps putting her in the most hilarious situations, which means everyone gets to have a good laugh every other minute. And that is what our campaign and roleplaying in general are all about!
Those were all the tips that I had in store! Hopefully, they’ll be useful for you when making your next character, whether you’re going for a hyper-efficient assassin or a theatrical entertainer who sets off every trap in the dungeon. Just make sure to check in with your DM, and never be afraid to come up with original ideas – the campaign will be all the better for it!