It took me a long time to formulate this exact idea, but it was true since I first had a rulebook – each roleplaying game is really two games: the more obvious one is the game that actually gets played around a table; but the second is creating characters. I spent many hours building characters that I would never play, in all kinds of systems.

There can be a remarkable amount of complexity in creating a character. This is part of the fun of the game, but it can also be a drag – the more options to weigh, and the more complex interactions between them, the more that analysis paralysis can make me unhappy with the minigame. I like having a few, meaningfully distinct choices. I like not having traps waiting to punish low system mastery. I like not having the specifics over-prescribed (reskinning is a wonderful technique, but merits a discussion all on its own).

As an exercise, let’s walk through character creation in a few systems.

Swords and Wizardry

A “0E” retro-clone of the original D&D. I’ve got an oooold PDF (the 2009 edition), but I can’t imagine that too much has changed just because eight years have passed.

To make the most classic of characters, you first roll 3d6 in order, then look up the various modifiers that result in a table. For amusement’s sake, let’s do so now:

Strength 9 (no modifiers)
Dexterity 11 (no modifiers)
Constitution 12 (no modifiers)
Intelligence 11 (2 additional languages, maximum 6th spell level)
Wisdom 12 (no modifiers)
Charisma 10 (max 4 hirelings)

Here is a character who is remarkable in absolutely no regard whatsoever, but we had to roll and sum up several dice to discover this.

Now we have to choose a class: Cleric, Fighting Man, or Magic-User. Fun fact: There was not originally a rogue/thief class, and everyone was responsible for not dying to the kinds of hazards that the thief would later specialize for.

Our stats don’t recommend any one class over another, but if we were looking for a long-term campaign, our middling intelligence means that most of the M-U’s endgame is beyond our reach. Let’s ignore that, and build one anyway.

Now that we’ve picked a magic user, we make note that we get no XP bonus from stats, then roll hp: 1d6-1 gives 4 hp. We also note that we get +2 to saving throws against spells (our first circumstantial benefit!). We can prepare a single spell per day, and will carry a spellbook with any known spells (though the text doesn’t tell us here how many we have to start).

We have the option to choose a character race and be something other than human, but the character races are actually classes of their own. Dwarves are like fighting men, elves build two character sheets, a fighting man and a magic user, and decide which one they’re playing each day, and halflings can be fighting men only up to fourth level, if they’re even allowed at all.

Next we choose an alignment, with the caveat that the alignments available to choose from will be defined by the GM. Let’s assume that our wizard will be closest to Neutral Good that the hypothetical GM’s system will permit, and move on.

At last we reach the most ancient tradition of D&D: SHOPPING! We begin our adventuring life with 3d6x10 (150 gp – where was this roll for stats?) and must now provision ourselves with armor (can’t wear any), weaponry (can barely use any), and adventuring goods in general – tents, torches, ropes, backpacks, rations, and the like.

Now we calculate armor class (9), figure out how much stuff we’re carrying for encumbrance, and because we’re a wizard we need to pick out that starting spell (Sleep, because of course it is).

D&D 4th Edition

I greatly enjoy 4E, but I wouldn’t ever play it without the old Character Builder on hand. There are an embarrassment of options, math patch feats, classes, races, on and on and on… PLUS thanks to the focused tactical system, you don’t want to make your character in a total vacuum, but instead need to make sure that the various roles are filled appropriately in the party (if you’ve already got two defenders and a striker, then guess what – you get to be the leader!).

For the heck of it, let’s just build one straight from the core book.

Step 1: Choose a race. We’re sent off to Chapter 3, and get to choose from eight different races, each of which grants modifiers to stats we haven’t even chosen yet, plus other special abilities. We can be a dragon person, three different kinds of elves, dwarf, human, halfling, or a super-emo demon person. We’re going to be a Tiefling, and our Tiefling’s name, chosen from the suggested list, is Sorrow. Because. Since we’re a Tiefling, we now start building our laundry list:

  • +2 to Intelligence and Charisma
  • +2 to Bluff and Stealth
  • +1 to attack against bloodied foes (circumstances!)
  • Resist fire 5 + 1/2 Level
  • A special encounter power that benefits from Charisma

Step 2: Choose a class, see Chapter 4. We’ve got eight more options here, so between race and class we’ve jumped from 0E’s 3 to 6 total options to a whopping 64! We also start seeing the optimization aspect of the character creation minigame. Tieflings have naturally higher Int and Cha; it makes sense to look at classes that benefit from those stats – Cleric, Paladin, and Rogue have Cha as one of their support stats, Warlock is Int primary with a Cha support, Warlord has both Int and Cha as support stats, and Wizard has Int primary. Since the skill bonuses give nice synergy, Sorrow is going to be a Rogue. We add to our laundry list:

  • 12 + Con score HP (but we don’t know our Con yet!)
  • 6 + Con mod healing surges (but we don’t know our Con yet! And we have both a score and a mod!)
  • A list of skills and exploits that we aren’t choosing from yet, even though they’re in this chapter
  • Several class features: First Strike, Tactics (the Artful Dodger, of course), Weapon Talent to make daggers and shurikens attractive weapons, and Sneak Attack of +2d6 damage. All of these class features are conditionally applied based on in-play circumstances.

Step 3: We finally look to our ability scores, back in Chapter 2. Method 1 applies a standard array of scores, meaning we make 5 distinct choices (yes, 5 – that’s what degrees of freedom do for us) instead of Method 2’s point buy system, which involves lots of calculating, which was also conveniently pre-done for us in a large table of alternate arrays of scores. Method 3 rolls 4d6 drop lowest, but I have never seen nor heard of anyone actually doing this in 4E. We’ll assign our scores as follows:

Strength 10
Dexterity 16 (+3)
Constitution 13 (+1)
Intelligence 12 + 2 = 14 (+2)
Wisdom 11
Charisma 14 + 2 = 16 (+3)

Step 4: We choose skills, bouncing back to chapter 4 for the class list, and chapter 5 for the skill definitions. All rogues know Stealth and Thievery, and pick four more. We will choose Bluff, Intimidate, Streetwise, and Acrobatics.

Steps yadda yadda yadda: Jump to chapter 6 to choose feats – pick 1 from an initial list of over 80, each of which may have prerequisites based on race, class, stats, class features, or skill trainings. Then jump back to chapter 4 and pick from 2 of 4 at-will powers, 1 of 4 encounter powers and one daily power from the three provided, some of which are designed to use one or the other of the support stats for the character. Then you go to chapter 7 for SHOPPING, and back to chapter 2 to finally figure out all the calculated scores.

I love this game, but seriously: computer program.

D&D 5th Edition Basic Rules

Let’s see what we do in 5th edition. I’m working from the Basic Rules available online.

First, we pick our race from Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human. All but Human will also make us choose from a subrace. Let’s make a Dwarf, and start our laundry list:

  • +2 Con
  • Darkvision, bonuses against poison, weapon and tool proficiencies, Stonecunning, and languages

Subrace: we’ll choose Hill Dwarf and add:

  • +1 Wis
  • +1 HP, and +1 HP gained per level

Now we choose a class: Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. Each of these has preferred stats, but I don’t care because we can be Dwarf Wizards in this modern age and no one will take that away from me.

  • 6 + Con mod HP (but again, we haven’t done stats yet)
  • Weapon proficiencies, favored saving throws
  • Only two skills: Let’s pick History and Investigation
  • SHOPP- wait, no, we have a handful of “pick (a) or (b) options” like you get in Dungeon World
  • Spells – we pick 3 cantrips and 6 (!) first level spells
  • The arcane recovery class feature

Now we figure ability scores: the official method is 4d6 drop lowest, and the standard array is presented as an alternative. Since we follow the rules, let’s roll: 15, 12, 10, 13, 11, 11

Strength 10
Dexterity 11
Constitution 12 + 2 = 14
Intelligence 15
Wisdom 13 + 1 = 14
Charisma 11

False alarm, everybody, it’s time for SHOPPING after all! Then we figure out final HP, armor, and all the rest.

I seriously need a name for this system

Full disclosure: 4E and 5E explicitly have steps about things like who your character is, what he or she wants, and all the other roleplaying details that make the tabletop experience come to life. They’re just somewhere between last and next-to-last in the process the rules give you. Conversely, steps 1 and 2 in my game ask: Where did your character come from? Where is your character trying to go?

With step 3, we finally start seeing some mechanics. We’re going to pick our Trait: this is my representation of the Big 6. Instead of somehow assigning numeric values to Str/Dex/Con/Int/Wis/Cha, we’re going to pick one and say “this is the thing where my character is exceptional.” Let’s be Wise:

  • Reflex 11, Fortitude 11, Will 12.
  • Gift of Wisdom: we can spend a boon to try something, roll the dice, and decide that a different course of action would have been wiser if we don’t like the outcome, and do that thing instead.

Next, we’ll pick our background: tough, skilled, or magical. This is the mechanical backing for that first question – where do we come from? Did we have to scrap and fight, rely upon training and talent, or study or inherit by birthright some magical power? We’re going to go with a rough and tumble upbringing, and be Tough:

  • 15 HP
  • +1 Fortitude (now it’s 12)
  • 1 Combat Art (which we’ll fill in later)

Last on the list, we’ll pick our archetype: warrior, talent, or magician. Warriors excel in combat, talents have special tricks they can pull off with their skills, and magicians can work ritual magic for larger effects. Let’s be a magician and get our Dwarf Wizard back.

Aside: What’s that, you say? How is this a Dwarf Wizard? Answer: because I said so. “Race” is not a mechanical item in this game – if I want to be a dwarf, I declare that my character is a dwarf. I can point to the Tough background and the Wise trait here and say “See? Stereotypical Dwarf.” I could also take the Agile trait and the Magical background and say “Not your stereotypical Dwarf!”

The magician archetype adds this to our laundry list:

  • +3 HP, +1 MP
  • Proficiency in light armor, light weapons, and implements (which grant “basic spells”, your standard magic-zap-weapon attack on par with a basic weapon attack)
  • The ability to work lesser rituals, which have limited scope, based upon known magic Arts
  • 1 Magic Art
  • +1 proficiency bonus to those defenses above

And that’s it! All we have to do is pick the combat and magic arts, each from a list of ~20 options, and call it a character.

We’ll pick our Arts now:

  • Combat: Implement – +1 mp, and we’ll choose to increase the damage die for our basic spell
  • Magic: Enchantment – +1 mp, the spell Charm costing 1 mp per use, the ability to have our basic spell target Will instead of Reflex, cantrips (minor improvised effects within theme, for 1 mp), and rituals (free-form-ish magic effects within theme, requiring 10 minutes to cast)

All told, we’ve got a wise but tough enchanter, who has 18 hp and 3 mp, can bewitch the weak-willed and unsuspecting, or zap them with his wand for 1d10 damage. The final defenses are Reflex 12, Fortitude 13, Will 13.

Wait, you ask. Where’s the SHOPPING? Well, there isn’t any. Proficient in light armor? Great, you’ve got some. Tell me what it looks like. Implements? Tell me what it looks like. Gear? You’re a competent adventurer, you’ve got the basics. Merchant prince? Down and out watchman? Princess ready to rescue self from dragon? The rules just don’t care – discuss with the GM what you want, and reach an agreement.


3 thoughts on “The Character Creation Minigame

  1. The character creation minigame is a big source of fun, but also a source of some of the genre’s deepest pitfalls. A friend of mine here is unshakably convinced that CharOp is The Right Way to play D&D of any stripe. If you’re not optimizing, you’re losing the game.


    1. CharOp is one way to play CharGen, sure. It means wildly different things based on what system you’re playing, and more importantly, if you’re exporting the final product of the CharGen game into the “Tabletop Roleplaying Game” end of the business with people who didn’t CharGen the same way. In 4E, I expect it’s noticeable but not disastrous. In other systems… well, I ran a multi-year high school disaster with one of these, and it’s a reason I don’t go back to 3.X any more.


      1. In 4e, the CharOp problem becomes more pronounced the longer the campaign goes–pretty typical of a scheme where options multiply as you level up. Heroic tier it doesn’t matter much; at Paragon it becomes noticeable and a potential for strain; at Epic it’s broken every campaign I’ve played that made it that far.


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