Reach Out and Touch a Dragon: Character Creation for Dungeons & Dragons, Part 1: Core Attributes
Welcome to the second installment of our series on how to play D&D. In the first part, we looked at the basic outline of the game. In this article, I want to address how to interact with a world filled with dangerous monsters and how to overcome the challenges therein. The main way you (and the party that travels with you) will control your destiny in D&D is through dice rolls, adding an element of chance to the proceedings. A 20-sided die, often referred to as a D20, will be your weapon of choice for most of it, but 4, 6, 12 etc. sided die are also part of the needed tools. These rolls will be augmented by bonuses and penalties, depending on your character’s abilities. In order figure out your abilities, you will need a character sheet. This piece of paper holds all the information describing your character, his/her/it’s strengths, weaknesses and character traits. It is the backbone of 99% of role-playing games out there, and especially D&D.
First things first, go grab a free copy here. The next thing to do is imagine what kind of character you want to play. Is the character a burly, sword swinging barbarian, in the Conan mold? A sneaky thief with a silver tongue? A grand old wizard, slinging spells and dispensing wisdom in equal measure? Those are the tropes, and are well catered for, but almost any character you can think of is represented. If you want to play a priest that takes care of zombie outbreaks while healing the sick, a half-orc trying to make her way in a world that hates her kind, or an Airbender monk twisting water and fire into weapons (yes, like the show…) the basic Players Handbook has you covered.
Come up with a clear idea what you want the character to be, and the numbers will make that possible. Since this is a lot to take in, and I do not want to write a novel, we will split character creation into a couple of installments. In this first installment, we will talk about your physical and mental abilities. In future installments, we will talk about skills, armor, race, class powers and weapons. It will take a while, but rest assured that I’ll be here with you every step of the way.
The Core Attributes
Every time you roll a die, it represents your character interacting with the world. On the left hand column of the character sheet you will see a series of boxes with “Strength,” “Intelligence,” and others written at the top. These will be your core attributes, how good your character is at different actions in the game.
Strength obviously describes your muscle power, the amount of brute force you can apply. It is important for characters who like to make their large weapons do the talking. Dexterity represents how quick, nimble and acrobatic your character can be. More than just movement, it determines how quickly you can dodge incoming attacks, and how well you can handle a finesse weapon (think a rapier as opposed to a large axe). Next up is your Constitution. This represents how well your body is trained to sustain activities, take a beating and keep going, or resist disease. The higher the number, the longer you will stay alive. That takes care of the physical attributes, but the mental may be just as, if not more important.
Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma can cause a bit of confusion in newer players. What is the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom? It is the difference between knowing what kind of poison a snake produces, and realizing that petting it would be a bad idea. A charismatic character can talk someone else into petting it, bypassing the problem altogether. A highly intelligent character has read widely and studied many subjects, but may not have a lot of social skills, and have no idea how to interact with the “real” world. A wise character may not have had a great education, but has the mental skills to survive in a harsh world (street smarts, if you will). Charisma means that you can talk your way out of (or into) any situation.
To illustrate, a barbarian will usually have a high Strength score, due to years of training his body, but lack of education has left him with a low intelligence. His Wisdom, on the other hand, may be high, due to his survival skills. A wizard would have a higher Intelligence, but because she spent her years studying ancient eldritch tomes, she neglected her body. Thus her Strength and Dexterity are low. She is charismatic, but has very little practical wisdom, as she has not interacted with anyone outside of a library in a long time. This is how the characters differ from each other, and helps you imagine how they would react to situations they find themselves in.
The numbers you assign to each attribute will determine your bonuses, which are added to a 20-sided die roll to determine the outcome of a chosen action. Picture this: your character is trapped in a jail cell. She has low Strength, but high Dexterity. A smart player will work out how to escape using their stronger attributes. Trying to bend the bars of the cell is futile, and best left for a stronger character. She spots an opening near the top of the cell, and uses her Dexterity to run up the wall, grab the ledge and scurry through, jumping on the guard on the other side and stealing his keys. Or alternatively, the character could just sweet-talk the guard using her Charisma, handling the situation without spilling a drop of blood. Any character can attempt any action, but your core attributes will determine your chance of success.
Where do the numbers you assign come from? Well, there are many opinions about this. Some people like to take a predetermined range (usually 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8) and distribute them between the attributes as suits the character. Others like to roll three 6-sided die, which will result in ability scores between 3 and 18. That gives you the chance to get higher scores, but also makes it likely to get something very low. 20 is the highest your attributes can naturally go (of course, magic can enhance anything), and 0 is the lowest. A character with an 18 Intelligence would be a genius in the real world, and in gameplay terms would get a +4 bonus to their rolls. A character with an 8 Strength is a relative weakling, and would take a -1 penalty to their rolls. Don’t panic if this sounds complicated. The referee (or Dungeon Master) will guide you through all this, and describe the options available to you.
The table above illustrates the bonuses. While it may go higher than 20, usually you would never reach those numbers. The reason they are there is for magic items that enhance your skills, or for supernatural monsters. As you progress through the game, you will gain experience and training, allowing you to add to your base scores and make them even higher.
While the natural instinct for anyone would be to crave the best scores in all the attributes, doing so actually takes away from the Role Play aspect of the game. Some of my most memorable characters over the years have had great flaws. A substandard Charisma makes for a character who says the wrong thing every time, which is very entertaining to play with and opens up avenues to explore that a perfect superhero just wouldn’t. And keep in mind that D&D is a team game, so your flaws would be augmented by the strengths of others.
In the next article, we are going to look at Skills, an offshoot of the attributes that shows how specific training has helped your character become a master of their craft. The first character sheet will take a long time to fill in, as there are a lot of things to keep in mind, but rest assured, it becomes second nature after a few tries. As always, if you have questions, suggestions or feedback, let me know in the comments.