Getting Creative: Character building

I’m coming off a long hiatus in gaming, I have not been DMing a regular campaign for almost 2 months now. I’ve done some one shots here and there, trying out new games and exploring the hobby as a whole. Dungeons and Dragons was and is my first love though, so I couldn’t stay away for long.  I am now working on a campaign for a group of people who have never played Dungeons and Dragons in their lives (see Dungeons and Dinner Night), as well as a modern fantasy campaign based on the 4e rule set.

Character creation has always been a large part of 4th edition. With all the combinations of feats, powers, stats, gear and skills much thought and time goes into creating the perfect character. With my new group of less than experienced players I wanted to try to foster more creativity in character creation, with more focus on actual character (see personality) development than making sure all the numbers add up. We did a two part series on group party building over at 4geeks a while ago. In it I stated that I usually do large party building, well parties, and true to my word I did with the inexperienced group as well.

I got everyone together for dinner and had them all make there characters. None of them own books, have DDi accounts or have any real experience from which to draw on when it comes to character creation, so I got to steer this group a bit. In this article I am going to share some tips that I used to get a bit more creativity out of the players and some very unique characters as an end result.

1. Ask for archetypes:

Even if your players have never played Dungeons and Dragons before, or any RPG for that matter, almost everyone has had some experience with fantasy; be it modern, sci-fi, dark ages, Victorian and all points in between. Chances are good that there has been one or two characters from there fantasy experience that he/she has connected with.

Before the character creation starts email or call your players and ask each of them for a few fantasy characters they enjoyed. Is it harry potter the young apprentice wizard? Is it Wonder Woman the amazon princess who kicks ass and takes names? Conan the Barbarian with his low dialogue count and large kill count? Neo? The wall running fast punching bullet dogging pretty boy? Who ever it is getting them to think about fantasy characters, and what levels of awesome they offer, gets the creative juices going for your players.

Keep in mind that your player’s characters might look nothing like the archetypes they listed; this step is often an exercise in delving into fantasy.

2. Limits with out saying No:

Putting limits on character creating such as no using Player’s Hand Book 3 is easy with a new group of players. Most of them won’t know the book exists unless they become true fans of the game and start learning more about the hobby on their own. Bring the books that contain the classes and races you will allow in your games and let your players choose from them. It’s much easier to give players a list of what is acceptable then bringing a list of what is not.

It’s really just semantics but saying yes to a large list just feels better to players than saying no to a short list. One feels like the  DM is laying down a vast plethora of options, and the other feels like the DM is laying down the law.

If a player really has their heart set on a class don’t be dick, be open to making exceptions for the sake of awesome, that is in fact one of the best ways to rock as a DM/GM.

3. Window Shop:

Let your players peruse the game content for a while. Most of the information in the books/online will go right over their heads, what the heck is +2 con anyway? Letting them rely on the descriptions of the races and classes when making their decisions. There is so much content in the players hand books dedicated to describing the basics of each race and class give your players enough time to take it all in. Try not to rush anyone into making a selection until they feel like they have found something that fits them. If you have a player who can’t find a class/race combo that works for them see rules 5, 6 & 7.

Creativity and mechanics can work together in harmony but for brand new players that is a lot to ask. I would rather err on the side of fun and creativity than on the side of fun and mechanics. Power gamers always find their way but creativity often gets lost under piles of numbers and stats. That being said be open about answering questions questions for your players but do your best not to guide them into or away from choices you might or might not make.


4. Encourage and engage:

When creating a character in a group encourage your players to share with everyone when they find something that they are excited about. Don’t do it in a kindergarten teacher way, but as someone who is also excited about something as awesome as say being able to turn invisible when a gnome gets hit in combat.  Excitement breeds more excitement, it’s  positive feed back, which positively rocks.

Engage your players as they explore their options. If you know something about a class that the books don’t say feel free to tell him/her. If a race he/she is exploring has a relationship with another race that someone in the group has decided on, let him/her know. As players get excited about their characters they often, almost instinctively, begin to look for ways for their characters to be more connected, encourage this!

If one player likes a power that immobilizes enemies point out that some one else has a power that does more damage if the target is immobilized. It only takes the DM doing this once or twice before players begin to realize that their characters work in harmony with great ease.

Don’t be a Dick! I’m stressing this one again because DMs, I know you can be dicks. If a player likes something that you loath, detest or just plain don’t think works, don’t discourage them. If your players are excited about something, let them be, just because you are not does not mean you should ruin that for new players as well, just don’t. DMs who do well at encouraging new players help grow the hobby, DMs who discourage get punched in the neck by me.

5. Re-Skin: See Rules 6&7

6: Re-Skin: See Rules 5&7

7. Re-Fucking-Skin:

Why do I think this is so important? Because being creative often means getting rid of the pre-existing flavor text and writing your own. If you teach that to new players early on it won’t be so difficult to get them to do later. Teaching players to take ownership of their characters helps them grasp the understanding that they do have the power to alter the world around them. It is a great way to help ease new players and old alike into more creative cooperative story telling.

To me teaching new players to re-skin teaches them that it’s a part of the game that they have control over. Often teaching entrenched players to re-skin/re-flavor classes can be like pulling teeth, from a great white shark, with playschool pliers, while wearing a meat vest. Lets just say it’s hard, due to the fact that many players have been taught the: not in the book/character builder not part of the game, mind set. I’m all for breaking this line of thinking but I’m also a big fan of never teaching it to new players.

Being willing to help your players re-skin their characters really helps them end up with something that is much closer to what they want and enjoy. If your player wants to play Neo help them re-skin their monk to a more ascended dark trench coat adorned savior of human kind than a Kung-Fu the movie orange robe wearing bald punchy guy. Let them re-skin and your players will be happy and excited and in the end you as the DM win.

8. Don’t Punish!

Don’t punish your players for not having the most optimal characters. Did the players not pick races that are optimal for their classes? Did their stat bonuses not really improve their ability to hit? Don’t punish them for that. You as the DM have full control over how high a monsters defenses are, if you players are not optimized don’t be afraid to bring their defenses down just a bit. Let them enjoy their characters for a while. Once they get more experience with them game you can introduce them to the idea of optimizing, if you want.

As long as you as the DM guide new players through the character creation process their characters shouldn’t be so broken that they can’t function with the rest of their group. If your new players notice they are less effective than other members of the group then you should feel free to help them fix what they can with out losing the essence of the character they created.

9. Players Strategy Guide HELL NO!

For the love of all that is holy do not let your players look at the players strategy guide! I’m not going to get into the fact that most of the solid numbers in it have changed over time, but they have. There is no better way to destroy free roaming creativity than to give your players a chart that matches the best races to the best classes.

The information in the players strategy guide is best left for players who have played and already know how to create interesting and playable characters. When you are trying to foster creativity pure numbers detract more than they ever add.

I made the mistake of bringing mine to our character creation party. My girlfriend, of all people, found it and buried her head deep in its pages. She found the section on “How to build a character that never misses.” Creativity had gone to fuck and fast. I was resolved not to interfere with the creative process as much as possible so I didn’t put an end to this, I just sat and watched with grim determination not to let that book fall into the hands of anyone else in the group.

I have to admit that I was happy that she ended up playing an Avenger. I think she did that to make me happy, it kinda worked; O.K. it really worked.

10. Let them Explore:

Many DMs have taken on the mantle because we enjoy control, more control more fun. When trying to foster creativity DMs should try their best to not control. Let the players choose their own powers, skills and feats; offer advice when asked but don’t make decisions for them.

I once helped a player make a rogue only to discover later that it looked almost exactly the same as one I had been playing for weeks. I basically told him which powers to choose, what race was the best and on and on. I now try to take a much more hands off approach to helping players make decisions.


There are so many ways to squeeze a bit of creativity out of your players. These are only a few that have worked for me. I would love to hear about a few that have worked for you.

A post script note for his article: This post was not intended for the likes of Angry DM. I know all the great strides his players might make in the creative realm would just be swallowed up when his players all fall into an acid pit or an insurmountable army or Orcs 38 seconds into their game.


Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.

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About Thadeousc

Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.
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