Character creation is the first and (I think) most important step in any roleplaying game. As DM, I can craft the most elaborate story arc filled with exciting encounters, interesting NPCs, and challenging puzzles, but if the player’s characters are complete duds, the adventure will fall flat. The choice of race, abilities, class, and so forth allow the player to create exactly the sort of character they wish to play.
But that’s really how life really works, is it? We don’t get to choose our abilities. Instead, our talents are largely determined by a combination of genetics (‘nature’) and upbringing (‘nurture’). Some people are intelligent or strong or charismatic or quick. Starting out, no one is good at everything, but that’s okay, because everyone is good at something.
People can improve themselves –– they can work out, or study hard, or practice public speaking. These activities are like Ability Score Improvements as we level up. But in the beginning, we all have things that we are good at, and things that we are bad at, and part of the challenge of life is figuring out which is which so that we can make the most of our inherent talents.
For my most recently begun campaign, my players and I decided to do something bold. We would try to make characters organically, like in real life, by randomly determining races and then randomly rolling for abilities in order, so that the players had no control over what their characters would excel in. The goal was to simulate what it would be like to be a character born with certain gods-given traits, and they would have to do the best they could with what they’ve got. All decisions after this (class, skills, etc.) would then be up to the players to choose, since these decisions are similar to choices we can make in real life. I was hoping that this would encourage interesting character and role-playing choices.
Here are the steps in the process that my players went through to make their organic characters.
Step 1: Races
I had the characters roll a d100 and matched the results to a random race table. One thing you can use is the race table from the reincarnate spell to determine their character’s race. Now, since the publication of the 5e Player’s Handbook in 2014, there have been many new races introduced –– in the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion, in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, and most recently in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, not including unofficial races published in the “Unearthed Arcana” article series or on the Dungeon Master’s Guild.
As DM, feel free to make your own table of random races. For my campaign, I supplemented the races in the official sources with some from the “Unearthed Arcana” series that reflected what races could be found in my own campaign setting. You may decide that you also want to build a new table for the reincarnate spell, to reflect the racial makeup of your campaign setting (but advice on how to do this will have to wait for a future blog post). If you don’t want to go through the trouble, the race table in the Reincarnate spell is a good place to start.
Step 2: Abilities
This is a variation on the standard method for rolling abilities as presented in the Player’s Handbook or Basic Rules Set and familiar to anyone who has rolled for ability scores in previous editions. The player rolls 4d6 and adds together the three highest values; however, they then have to place the results into their abilities in the order that they are rolled. The first roll has to go into Strength, the second into Dexterity, the third into Constitution, and so on down the line. If you are feeling generous, as I was, allow the player to make one extra roll, and let them replace any one roll that they choose with the bonus roll (since rolling ability scores often produces potentially lethal ability scores). Then, add the appropriate racial modifiers, and you have the character’s organically generated ability scores.
Variant: Balanced Abilities
Rolling ability scores instead of using the standard array always opens the possibility that one player has a character with significantly better scores than another player. This might not matter to your group, but I have had some players over the years that would be upset by a character lagging behind their fellow party members in power level. Since Dungeons & Dragons is a game and should be fun for everyone, consider the following variant.
Still have the player roll and assign ability scores in order. But then calculate the point value of the resulting abilities as if you were using the point-buy variant offered in the Player’s Handbook. If a character’s ability point values add up to less than 27 points, then the player can increase, but not decrease, any abilities they choose, until they get the equivalent of 27 points. Likewise, if a character’s ability point values add up to more than 27 points, they have to decease, but can’t increase, any of their abilities until they get down to a 27 point value. If they rolled above a 16 or above for any ability, they must reduce this ability to 15, since this is the highest value allowed in the point buy system.
This variant then allows for a party of characters of roughly equal power, but still provides the challenge and uniqueness of organically made characters.
One thing that I like about this process is that it might create some interesting character possibilities. Not many players might make a dwarven bard, but if they find themselves with a hill dwarf with 17 Charisma, suddenly that’s a pretty good option. Also, if you have players that consistently play the same type of character, this is a way to get them to get outside their comfort zone and maybe find some new classes or races they like.
Of course, making your characters randomly like this can also have disastrous results. A character might have 18 Strength, but with 8 Constitution, they will not last long in melee combat. You should view this as a challenge for the character and the player: can they adapt? Flawed characters are often the most interesting characters.
These character creation rules also have the potential to result in a lack of party diversity. You might have a party where everyone has Strength as their highest ability. In my campaign, no player got above-average Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma scores, so we are woefully without spellcasters of any kind. This doesn’t make the campaign any less fun, although I have needed to drop more potions of healing into treasures than I would have if there had been a party cleric. As the DM, you can adjust your adventure to fit the party.
Because of these challenges, you should definitely talk to your group before implementing these rules. Some players might not be happy about relinquishing a lot of their control over character creation. But this method can be a fun way to add a little bit of excitement and chaos into the game, and it has a unique potential for your game if you tend to focus on character development, flaws, and growth as