We’ve all been there. We’ve all been a Beginner at some point in our lives, and hopefully even as we navigate adulthood we’ll never lose the joyous curiosity that comes with the Beginner’s Mind. Whether it’s Benjamin Hoff describing the childlike wonder of the Uncarved Block in The Tao of Pooh or coming to Dungeons and Dragons for the first time, being a beginner is both a wondrous and terrifying place.
In terms of D&D, oftentimes a beginner’s expectations are colored by either the common (often reductive) portrayals of TTRPGs in mainstream media or assume the game functions in a way it doesn’t based on their experiences with RPG video games. This means a Dungeon Master has a monumental responsibility in guiding new players to discover the most out of their experience. After all, as a Dungeon Master, you may be the individual that’s responsible for how someone views tabletop role-playing as a whole, and a bad experience can sour someone’s taste for years or possibly their whole life. And while that may sound a little dramatic, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. So my question is, what are they going to walk away with? Are they going to bask in the sheer creative possibility this space provides? Are they going to discover something new about themselves through the characters they portray? Are they going to go on and become a Dungeon Master in their own right, and be empowered to tell their own stories when all is said and done? How are you going to introduce them to this grand, sometimes overwhelming new world?
Now as with all responsibilities, you will make mistakes. That’s what this game is all about: how we deal with both failure and success. After all, it’s what the d20 represents. The best laid plans could fail and the most cockamamie of schemes can succeed. How you handle these mistakes and your tolerance to forgive others will set the standard for how others are expected to behave, and also set the mood for the new player you’ve invited to your table.
Before we proceed, I do have a small disclosure. If you’re a new DM, be kind to yourself. Like I said, you’re human and you’ll make mistakes. If it’s not in your rulings, it’ll be with handling the passionate personalities you’re bound to attract playing this kind of game. If you’re a new player, don’t sweat the small stuff. Most people are playing to tell a great story (which doesn’t necessarily mean structured or coherent), and forgetting how bonus actions work or forgetting that random racial feature that grants you advantage on saving throws against poison isn’t going to make or break a game. Come to this experience with respect and empathy, and you’ll create a culture of trust where everyone can have fun.
There are also a lot of soft skills I can’t teach through text like this. They come through experience and learning from the mistakes you will make along the way. The kind of actionable advice I can give has to do with creating an environment that reduces resistance to learning what D&D is all about. Through my experience, I’ve found that the easiest way to introduce a new player to D&D is what we’ve coined the Rule of Three: have a three hour one-shot session with characters built to 3rd level that touches on all three pillars of play.
Now I’ve introduced a lot of new players to D&D, and as I write this, I’m reflecting on every time I’ve DM’d a game with a new player, and whether or not their experience would have been enhanced by this simple setup. I’ve thankfully never had a game where I’ve turned off someone from TTRPGs (at least to my knowledge), but I do wonder how a new player’s experience could have been deepened if I approached it with these three conditions.
One more time, if a list is easier to visually process, here are the three parameters:
1. Plan for a three hour one-shot session
2. Have everyone build or play 3rd level characters
3. Include all three pillars of play
A Three Hour One-Shot
The bane of most regular D&D games is scheduling. The more people in the party, the more powerful the scheduling demon becomes and the more likely the game will stagnate and end. This is also why I’ve included this suggestion first. If a new player can’t commit to at least a three hour session, then the likelihood they’ll experience any meaningful play is reduced. That being said, I’ve also experienced games that go WAY too long. A six or seven hour session can be brutal to players (depending on their personality), and asking everyone to block out that amount of time can be prohibitive to some individuals based on their life schedule.
So if you’re a DM, plan for a three hour one-shot. Even if your usual group is in the middle of a long running campaign, it’s okay to take a break with a one shot to introduce a new player (especially if they’re friends with your usual play group). Three hours includes enough time to experience the three pillars of play (one pillar per hour) and for the party to have meaningful interactions with itself or the world.
As this is a one-shot, I would plan for the session to resolve itself before its conclusion. Plan a rough beginning, middle, and end, with wiggle room for if things go awry. After all, that’s what D&D is all about.
A 3rd-Level Character
Level 3 has a certain magic to it in 5e’s design (pun intended). Every character class is guaranteed to have a subclass feature by that level, every character has enough hit points to reduce the chances of a one hit KO, and spellcasters have enough spell slots to play with lower level spells and feel the power their class has to offer. Every character class also gets most of their distinctive features by 3rd level, and most have access to their full action economy. It’s a great place to learn and play without the fear of instant death on a wrong choice.
When it comes to creating a new player’s first character, I would sit down and build the character with them. This way, you know what to expect from their character’s features and how you might adjudicate them, rather than being blindsided by a rule you’ve forgotten and potentially taking time away from their first three hour session.
In terms of ability scores, I’m partial to using an ability score array (especially for a new player), and having that boundary with every player participating in the one shot. This way, the new player won’t feel over or underpowered based on sheer luck at character creation. Everyone starts with the same array, evening the playing field.
When it comes to picking race, class, and background, let the new player make the final choice, but remember that you’re there to clarify what those choices are without overwhelming them. Do they want to play an effective archer? Fighter, Ranger, or Rogue can all work. Do they want to be a nature lover that casts healing magic? Druid may be an obvious choice, but there is Nature Cleric if they want it. Do they want to be tough and sturdy? They may be leaning toward a dwarf or half orc for the race, which are different but share sturdiness as their common trait. In any of these cases, a 3rd level character will tap into the power of those choices and get a feel for the unique character they’ve made.
During this stage, I tend to offer choices found in the Player’s Handbook. While the supplementary material in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Volo’s Guide to Monsters and so on is fun and interesting, it can be overwhelming to a new player just trying to build a dude that swings an axe. That being said, oftentimes I’ll have excited players that will do their homework and come to me asking about specific material they’re interested in playing.
“I’ve always wanted to play a khajit from Skyrim, and I think a tabaxi monk would be cool!”
Sure! For cases like this, the only other boundary I have is that we’ll stick to official material for this session. No homebrew or Unearthed Arcana allowed, because they may not give a representative experience of play.
The final great point about using 3rd level characters is that each class’s definitive action economy is present. 3rd level Rogues can attack as an action, and then disengage as a Bonus Action. A 3rd level Cleric can cast healing word before using their action to cast sacred flame (but not bless). A 3rd level Barbarian needs to remember to bonus action rage BEFORE going in for their reckless attack. Although they don’t yet have the best or most efficient features a class may offer, a new player will still understand the distinction between the classes much more clearly than with 1st level characters.
Three Pillars Of Play
Dungeons and Dragons is designed to take players through three different kinds of scenarios dubbed by WoTC as the “Three Pillars of Play”. These are Social Interaction, Exploration, and Combat, and gameplay becomes more structured as we move in that order. In order to have a holistic experience with 5e, a new player should experience all three of these pillars in one way or another.
The easiest should be Social Interaction. Whether haggling with a merchant or intimidating a goblin scout, social interaction tends to be less structured than the other two pillars. Sometimes mechanics come into play, such as through Charisma checks or conditions like charmed or frightened, but often times how a social interaction resolves is up to a player’s approach. Dialogue and role-play are the heart of this game for a lot of individuals, and it’s not unusual for a new player to gravitate toward the “talk our way out of this” approach rather than the “stab it until it dies” approach.
The middle ground of structure is Exploration. Now recently I’ve become acquainted with an up-and-coming YouTube channel called Dungeon Coach (you should seriously check him out and subscribe, he’s got some quality content). He described Exploration perfectly, which is as “encounters and puzzles”. Sometimes, this means discovering a new section or quality of an environment. Sometimes this means solving a riddle or putting clues together. There are many players who are enamored with the world building of D&D, and you may find that you have a new player that wants to explore every nook and cranny of the environment you’ve put them in. This curiosity can be well rewarded with new knowledge about the world, their current predicament, or through additional options they take advantage of in combat.
Combat is by far the most structured pillar of play, and time in the game world comes to a screeching halt when the DM cries “Roll for Initiative!” Combat in D&D is handled in rounds and turns, and on each turn each participant in the combat has only a few options they can choose before the next participant’s turn. Teaching a new player what they can and can’t do on their turn can be difficult, especially if you have a veteran group that tries to generate momentum in a fight’s flow.
One suggestion I’ve seen is having a small card describing what a creature can do with its action. It’s also likely that the player will have bonus actions available, which you can give them friendly reminders on (especially if you helped them build their character). I’ve even heard of DM’s giving players check boxes to remind them of when they’ve used certain parts of their turn, like Movement, an Action, Bonus Action, and maybe even a Reaction. You’ll find each player processes the structure of combat differently. Some need visuals, description, or something tactile they can manipulate (like a mini). No matter how they process information, just remember to be patient. They’re a beginner, and how you treat them as such will define your relationship as Player and DM for many games to come.
So now the game is over! The world has been explored, NPCs have been spoken with, and combat has resolved. The 3rd level characters have completed their adventure together, and everyone is packing up to leave.
Following up is just as important to the D&D experience as the set up, and the closer you can do it to the conclusion of the session the better. I’ve always found more specific questions to be more insightful as a DM. For example, asking which part they liked the best, or what their favorite moment was (as opposed to “Was it good?”). I’ll even go so far as to ask which class feature they liked the best, especially if they were a spellcaster that used several different options.
Asking questions like this will reveal a lot about who they are as a person and a player, and it will help clarify which style of game may suit them best. Sometimes, you may not even be the best DM for the job, but if you have a trusting enough network you can recommend someone who is. There have been plenty of times I get a hardcore role-player in one of my games whose looking for a structured epic narrative and I recommend them to Adamus, as my games tend to be on the sillier side (with some notable exceptions).
Sometimes you’ll have a player give a suggestion. My recommendation here is to be the gatekeeper to your own mind. Sometimes, their advice is well meaning but irrelevant. Sometimes their advice can make everyone’s experience more efficient and enjoyable. Some advice I got that I didn’t take was to make every natural 1 more of a disaster, for comedy. I didn’t like how it made me feel being on the receiving end as a player, so I don’t implement that as a DM even if my players are looking for it. If they want it so bad, they can describe something awful when they do roll a natural 1.
If you do take anything away from this theory crafting, what I would ultimately say is to pay attention to how the environment from play impacts your group’s experience. For a new player, these are the environmental conditions I’ve found to creating a fulfilling first session.
Study Hard, Play Hard.
Help grow our YouTube Channel, DM Shower Thoughts, by stopping by every Sunday at 9am for a new video!
Although Adamus, Ian, and I are usually talking about tabletop games in DM Shower Thoughts, the RPG genre is much bigger than that. From Final Fantasy to World of Warcraft, RPGs have taken a lot of different forms and their genre-defining elements are used in a variety of spaces. Heck, even just the element of collecting quantifiable experience points is something that can be found when training for corporate jobs unrelated to gaming.
Because of how many RPGs handle these various elements, the perception of various tropes can creep into our understanding of specific systems. Sure, in many RPG videogames (like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy), having a dedicated healer to cast Life and Cure spells is fundamental to the party’s composition. The same can’t be said for Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons because the proportion of Hit Points that can be regained per action is much lower. This is a really small example that makes a huge impact on gameplay.
Let’s dive into this for just a moment before getting to the meat and potatoes of this topic. In many JRPGs, many boss monsters can one-hit KO party members, leaving them in a state of incapacitation. It’s therefore the healer’s job to cast a spell to bring them back up, sometimes even fully restoring their health as they do so. There isn’t a similar ability in 5e. Even a 1st level Cure Wounds spell only heals 1d8 + spellcasting modifier hit points, meaning on average (with optimized standard array ability scores) the possibility for hit points regained ranges from 4 to 12. Most videogame RPGs don’t offer that range of possibility, and is one of the fundamental differences between tabletop games and videogames.
As such, although there are plenty of similarities between these two mediums and their expression of the genre, there are some differences to recognize. The most glaring difference is the need to pivot roles in 5e. Just because you built a healer doesn’t mean there aren’t times to shift into a control role, and if you built your character to deal damage but the enemy is immune to all of your attacks, then you may find yourself fulfilling support. It’s just how the dice roll sometimes.
However, after all is said and done, a choice you make as a D&D player in combat really can be broadly categorized as belonging to one of four roles (and there is overlap). Those roles are DPR (Damage per Round), Tank, Support, and Control. And, although you can optimize your character to best perform in one of these roles, there will be times where the best decision is to instead fulfill another role your character isn’t designed for (which we’ll touch on later).
Know Your Role
Now, the reason there’s value in categorizing these roles is to clarify the decisions you're making as well as identify gaps in the party’s performance. Oftentimes, I find that when a party underperforms in combat, it means that somehow the flow of these four roles has been disrupted, either because a party member has been incapacitated or the best person for the role is not fulfilling it (which usually stems from someone unwilling to pivot into a role their character is not built for). That being said, the best combats I’ve participated in have had a combination of understanding with these four roles, as well as having characters built to fulfill them. To understand how to identify characters built for them, here are some characteristics:
+ Damage Per Round Maximizes the amount of damage they inflict on a single target. Also values a higher attack roll bonus and rare / changing damage types.
+ Tank Draws attention and potential damage away from other party members. Values a high Armor Class, Hit Point maximum, damage resistance, and damage reduction.
+ Support Strengthens and heals allies. Usually a spellcaster, although there are some non-casting features that fulfill this role (like a Mastermind Rogue’s Master of Tactics feature).
+ Control Weakens enemies and influences their behavior. Area of effect spells, like fireball tend to fall in this category because not only can it wipe out many smaller enemies earlier in the fight, “smart” enemies will avoid certain positional patterns to avoid falling into an area that encourages its use.
And, like I said, there will be some overlap. For example, the druid’s entangle spell creates an area of difficult terrain which can hamper an enemy’s movement (which falls under Control). However, if an enemy gets restrained by the spell, the druid's allies have Advantage on attack rolls against them (Support).
Certain classes will also fulfill these roles more obviously than others. A Barbarian’s high hit points and resistance-granting Rage ability make it a great Tank, and a Rogue’s sneak attack make it great for DPR. I've also found that players get frustrated when a character class doesn’t perform well in a role the player expects it to (like when a Cleric isn't the best Healer option).
Now let’s dive a little deeper into the roles and find character classes that fit them.
Damage Per Round
This is a short-hand term Adamus and I use with each other to describe when a player is trying to deal the most amount of damage that they can. It comes from the MMO term DPS (Damage per Second), but because 5e is played in rounds instead of real-time, you get Damage Per Round.
Now, this can also be the hardest role to categorize because it’s by far the broadest. Most characters can deal some kind of damage to an enemy, and there will be times where it’s more efficient to just attack the darn thing instead of create a cockamamie scheme that probably won’t work. However, there are some statistics to consider when optimizing a character for DPR.
First is the attack roll bonus. It doesn’t matter how much damage you can do if you can’t hit the target’s AC. Usually, this is as easy as investing in the ability score that governs your attack rolls. This same ability score will usually also help you lean into your secondary role, but we'll talk more about that later.
Second is selecting features that contribute to the amount of damage you can deal. For Fighting Styles, this is usually Dueling or Great Weapon Fighter. For Warlocks, it’s the Agonizing Blast invocation. For Rogues, it’s just investing in more rogue levels to progress your Sneak Attack.
The third factor is damage type. You either want a damage type that’s rarely resisted to or two damage types you can switch between. For example, eldritch blast is such an effective cantrip because almost nothing in 5e resists force damage (unless you homebrew something), and its damage die is also pretty high. Another example might be picking up Elemental Adept as a caster, meaning that if you love your fire spells, you can ignore resistance a creature may have to fire damage. In baseline 5e, as a weapons class, most creatures aren’t resistant to magical bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage, so if you can find a magic weapon you’re usually good for the rest of the campaign (unless your DM homebrews something to make you ineffective).
And that’s pretty much it for DPR. Like I said earlier, most classes have some kind of DPR option, but that doesn’t mean every class is optimized for DPR. It’s great that a Bard can Vicious Mockery (Psychic is one of those damage types that’s rarely resisted to). However, the 1d4 damage is pitiful, even at low levels, and pales in comparison to a Divine Smite or Sneak Attack. That doesn’t mean the Bard shouldn’t try to deal damage; it just means that they aren’t the “DPR” character of the party.
Tanks are much easier to build to. Invest in Constitution to get higher hit points, find some armor or features that grant you damage resistance, and do what you need to in order to invest in Armor Class. I’m a sucker for Unarmored Defense. It’s easy to maintain, can often be stronger than Plate Mail, and it can’t be destroyed by rust monsters.
With all that being said, viable options for tanking are much fewer than DPR. Barbarians are excellent tanks because of their Rage ability, and their Unarmored Defense keeps their AC competitive. Most of their subclasses also have ways to get more bang for your buck when you Rage, sometimes dealing damage and sometimes increasing the amount of resistances you have. Paladins are also excellent tanks because of their heavy armor proficiency, and because at 6th level their Aura of Protection grants them bonuses to their Saving Throws. Either way, both classes get great durability for relatively little action-investment.
Now, some critics of the term “tanking” in 5e compare the function of tanks to MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, where such characters have abilities that program bigger threats to target them, relieving pressure from a less durable ally. There are some abilities like this in 5e, but because enemies are controlled by a human (the DM) rather than programming, the DM can always choose to target a less survivable ally.
This doesn’t mean that building a tank doesn’t have value. In D&D, tanking refers to a character’s survivability, and I’ve seen some ridiculous stunts in my time with 5e. I’ve seen a Barbarian swim through lava, a Barbarian/Rogue multi-class shrug off 100+ points of damage because of stacking resistance with evasion, and a well built sorlock take a meteor swarm to the face and maintain concentration (that was my Sorlock). Accounting for RAW and math, these things can happen, and even if you can keep one ally up by the end of the fight, they can run around and use healing potions to keep incapacitated allies alive.
This is also why oftentimes the best support characters also invest in their survivability. A Druid’s Wild Shape is a great tanking feature, and many Clerics have a heavy armor proficiency that lets them avoid damage and heal their allies. Healing does no good if the healer is down, so many forward thinking players build their healers accordingly.
Speaking of Support, I’m of the belief that this is the most difficult role to play effectively in combat, and is why many players avoid it. It can be a thankless job, and your impact on the party isn’t always immediately felt. A well timed bless spell can be the difference between an attack hitting and missing, and that attack finishing a dangerous enemy or giving them another turn to use legendary actions and wipe the team. There are also many overlaps with Control, so we’ll work to clarify which is which.
Support is defined as “buffing” your allies and healing. A “buff” is any spell that makes them better at their job, or strengthens them in any way. For example, the bless spell allows those it targets to add a d4 to attack rolls and saving throws, making them slightly more accurate and more survivable. If we look back at the entangle example earlier, if a character can restrain an enemy, it allows attacks against that enemy to have advantage, meaning that rogues get Sneak Attack and everyone is more likely to get a critical hit.
Healing is a much more nuanced topic. Healing and damage are not created equal in 5e, and it’s always more efficient to prevent damage than to try and heal damage taken. Let’s go back to our example of cure wounds. For a 1st level spell slot, cure wounds heals between 4 and 12 hit points with an average 1st level character. With a 1st level spell slot using inflict wounds (the same resource expended), the spell deals 3d10 damage on a hit, with a yield of between 3 and 30 damage. The ceilings aren’t even comparable.
What makes healing so difficult is the required sense of timing on the player’s part. An ill-timed healing word or cure wounds could have no effect at all, especially if the enemy is a real bruiser. Say you see an ally get hit for 15 points of damage. You cast healing word as a bonus action, healing 5 points of that damage. Then the next round they get hit for another 15 points, and get knocked unconscious. That healing word you casted was wasted.
That being said, let’s look at a counterexample. You see an ally get hit with 15 points of damage and fall unconscious. They make a death saving throw, and unfortunately roll a Natural 1, meaning they have two failures. By casting your healing word at range, the failures are negated, and the ally needs to get knocked to 0 before being in danger again. You probably just saved that character’s life.
Like tanking, there are few characters that can dedicate themselves to Support, although there are plenty of smaller features that allow an ally to support as a secondary role. Bards, Clerics, and Druids have a plethora of buffing and healing spells, with the Bard’s defining class feature (Bardic Inspiration) being one of the most efficient buffs especially at low levels. However, the aforementioned Master of Tactics feature from Mastermind Rogue and Aura of Protection from Paladin also are great support features.
Control characters look at combat differently than the other three. Rather than seeing exchanges as dealing and healing damage, control players view combat as a series of choices and possible outcomes, and work to remove choices from their opponent. While Support is about strengthening allies and allowing them to be better versions of themselves, Control is about hampering the effectiveness of their enemies.
Is there a major bruiser in the enemy team that’s being a pain? Hold Monster can remove them from the fight. Is the real threat the group of goblins shooting at us from that ledge? Fireball can take them all down at once. Control is about figuring out the enemy’s strengths and using that strength against them. Like Support, what makes Control difficult is that it’s a mindset more than a set of obvious mechanics.
Some classes are easier to use control strategies than others. The Wizard’s sheer amount of spell access allows it to be an excellent controller, because it can cast the right spell for the right situation. The Druid spell list is similar, in which many of its best support spells also hamper the enemy’s effectiveness (again, just look at entangle).
However, that doesn’t mean that to be a Control character, you need area of effect abilities or spellcasting to play this role. If you’re playing a Tank, and you manage to distract an enemy from hurting your less survivable allies, you’re influencing their behavior and removed a choice, leaving their effectiveness up to the luck of the dice. That’s a Control role even though it’s outside of the game’s mechanics.
Oftentimes, when I design my set-piece encounters, I try to have my enemies not only have a mechanical weakness (like a low stat or some kind of damage vulnerability), but also some kind of personality flaw the party can take advantage of through role-playing. Sometimes that flaw is aggravated through taunting, empathy, or targeting one of their possessions. However, it’s a way to allow any player to assume the control role if they’re clever enough to figure it out.
Primary and Secondary Roles
Now, after identifying the four roles, the hidden fifth role is that of pivoting. Fifth Edition has classically rewarded characters that are built to specialization rather than versatility. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for adapting to circumstance.
Let’s say you build a powerful melee weapons character, but you end up in a combat where there’s a ravine or pool of lava separating you and your target. You may have to play a different role in that combat than you’d like to.
To prevent circumstances where you’re only viable option is “I take the Dodge action” and don’t participate, I usually advise my players to think through a Primary and a Secondary role their character can play as. This can be as simple as “I have a melee character but I keep a crossbow on me” to “I play support but I can pivot to control as the need arises”. This also doesn’t mean to devalue the specialization this edition rewards.
Let’s look at a character I built, Kurama, as an example. Kurama, a higher level Druid, was built in order to cast healing spirit and thorn whip. However, in a well constructed party like Knight Owls, healing spirit isn’t always the most appropriate. Oftentimes, healing is covered by other characters. This means that if enough other people are willing to play Support, I’m freed to pivot to Control in order to maximize our party’s effectiveness. I can’t tell you how awesome it is to hit a big bad with contagion, or pull an enemy with thorn whip so the paladin can smite it. Also, there have been times I’ve been known to deal damage. It’s laughable that I've finished multiple big bads with a 1st level ice knife just because everyone else did such a good job of covering us that I as the Druid was left to just damage deal. These things happen, and the memories made are cherished.
Hopefully you’ve found some value from this perspective of play, and if you choose a less optimized style of play, you’re doing so intentionally. That’s the whole point of this: clarify your decisions so when you make it, you do so with intention.
Study Hard, Play Hard.
Help synergize our content and check out our YouTube Channel, DM Shower Thoughts, with videos every Sunday at 9am!
So I’ll be very open that I’m not used to the whole blogging thing. This is usually Adamus’s territory, but given that I’ve lost my voice at the time of this writing (and I have SUCH opinions on things), I figured I’d try reaching out in a new way.
For this inaugural blog post, I figured I’d talk about my philosophy on building characters. See, I build characters to exact opposite of most people. A lot of players read a character class's description, decide which story they like, then build. I instead cherry pick which features and traits will satisfy the experience I want to have from a game mechanics perspective, crafting the character's story with the function of the game's rules in mind. Sometimes this can be accomplished in a single character class's leveling progression, but more often than not this method requires multi-classing. But first, let's dissect my methods, and why I believe the best Dungeons & Dragons storytelling follows the intimate understanding of game mechanics rather than preceding it.
The Marriage Of Story And Mechanics
Now most people recognize that Dungeons and Dragons is less of a game and more of a storytelling vehicle that shapes the narrative through game mechanics (the agreed upon rules of how player choices affect and change the values of the game state). Often, the characteristic that attracts people to Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop role-playing games is the limitless possibility of what can happen at the table. Through a unique alchemy of imagination, creativity, strategy, and luck, we sit down together to form memories and experiences that stick with us through our lives. As is our mission at DM Shower Thoughts, we’re playing together to discover our best selves through gaming and having tremendous fun along the way.
However, despite the storytelling possibilities, game mechanics are still constitute the foundation that keep Dungeons and Dragons anchored as a game rather than as a free form storytelling workshop. Without the structure of rules and mechanics, the louder voices outshout the shyer, and new players may not know how they can and can't contribute. Game mechanics help with these problems in two ways. First, the game often has players take turns, so everyone gets a say in the action. Second, the game has discrete options players can rely on if they feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of possible choices. D&D’s mechanics offer reliable options, while still being flexible enough to reward creativity. As for story, D&D (and other TTRPGs) grant us the space to tell the stories of ourselves we secretly want to tell. And while it may be part power fantasy, it’s also our yearning to discover who we really are when our society’s rules and norms aren’t limiting us and we’re given autonomy in an imaginary space. This is also where things can get dicey (pun intended). Unlike other board games, like Monopoly and Risk where a player’s choices are finite and objective, a Dungeon Master is the ultimate referee of the rules as well as the primary narrator. The objective is fundamentally different (telling a story versus defeating other players through strategy and luck), and the mechanics of the game can be changed to fulfill the storytelling tone that the players want.
Unfortunately, sometimes you get the opposite effect. You see, with each rules entry of the Player’s Handbook, there is also a story or lore explanation to that rule’s inclusion. For example, a Barbarian’s Rage is noted as being innate primal fury and a Cleric’s magic is said to be the product of a Deity.
However, instead of flavor text being a creative ignition of imagination and wonder, a close-minded DM or player can read story text as the only possible explanations for a rule’s inclusion. Even worse, and probably more common, a RAW (rules as written) DM limits the mechanics of a class to compromise its storytelling potential. Because of this, if a player only selects a class based on that class’s story, they may actually discount another leveling option that would tell that story better.
Example 1: The Fighter
Oftentimes, a newer player coming to Dungeons and Dragons has the perception that the game is unnecessarily complicated and the rules are overwhelming and difficult to master. To many RPG veterans that have played a variety of rules systems and editions of D&D, the opinion is often the opposite, and they believe that 5th edition is too simple. I’ve found the truth to be somewhere in the middle.
To compensate for a new player’s fear of causing some kind of detriment to a well-established play group’s flow, often a DM will suggest the Fighter class to a new player. The suggestion is usually well intentioned. Because a Fighter is a fairly survivable class with limited rules to remember, a new player can learn about different dice, weapons, and 5th edition’s action economy without having to memorize spells and situational effects. However, most fighter players resign themselves to saying “I roll to attack”, and every once in a while “I use an action surge and attack again”, rather than feeling engaged with the dynamic interactions in the game’s story.
To me, this is where the problem arises. The Fighter story in 5th edition is intentionally generic to allow the player to create the character’s story. Is your fighter a brave knight in chainmail looking to uphold justice for the weak? Are they a grizzled monster slayer that believes playing fair is a poor strategic move? Are they a bandit, a master archer, a gladiator or something else entirely? All of these examples are fighters, and although their stories are wildly different, their mechanics tend to be similar.
This problem is compounded with a lack of competitive performance from the Fighter’s features. From my experience both playing a Fighter and DMing for others playing Fighters, I’ve found that through class features alone, Fighters are usually outclassed by other characters that are built to the same role. Did you build a fighter to be a bruiser that can take some punishment? The party barbarian can deal and take more damage. Do you want a clever archer with unmatched accuracy? A well-built rogue can do more damage with the same weapon, and a well built ranger can match that accuracy while also casting healing spirit on the side. Looking to be a clever controller that uses tactics and maneuvers to outthink the enemy? Just try and compete with a dedicated Druid or Wizard.
And because clever player-DM teams can re-flavor story elements to any mechanics, the same story can be told through multiple classes, but the impact on the game state is only determined by mechanics. So without magic items to compensate, a fighter really doesn’t get their own story. If you build a fighter, you’re probably looking to tell the story of a character that’s good at fighting, and when someone else always fights better than you, you tend to ask yourself if your character matters.
Example 2: The Warlock
Let’s now look at a class with the opposite problem – the Warlock. The Warlock story is one as old as mythology, where a mortal seeking power (either maliciously or due to some need) strikes a bargain with some higher power in order to fulfill their goal. Most warlock players I’ve met have gone for the Faustian myth, where the character’s patron is operating against the interest of the player character. After all, if they had the player’s back, they might as well be a cleric.
Now the Faustian deal is an interesting angle to explore, especially for a deep dive into a character’s psychology and back story. However, like the fighter, the warlock can be a frustrating class to play because of its mechanics. Unlike other spellcasters in 5th edition, Warlocks usually only have two spell slots per fight, which severely limits their options in combat. Sure they have the most powerful cantrip in the game (eldritch blast) which can be enhanced through invocations, but the warlock isn’t given as many turn by turn options as other casters (like druid and wizard).
Now I’ve been a warlock player, and I’ve felt this conflict personally. I’ve loved playing through the dynamic relationship between Player Character and Patron, but the game’s mechanics were always lacking. So, why can’t I, say for instance, play a Druid but have the story of the warlock? For some DMs, the answer is “because the book says that Warlocks are the pact ones. It’s the warlock story.”
To which, I retort, “Why can’t my Pact manifest as druid powers?”
And as one would expect by now, I often let my players create characters like that. However, to many readers, the story of a game rule and its mechanics are married. My suggestion is to divorce them. Once you can see how mechanics resolve in play, the story description returns to being energetic ignition rather than the boundaries of what this rule HAS to be, and that’s where a lot of fun can happen.
How I Build Characters
Like I said in the introduction, I build characters by thinking through the mechanical experience I want to have with them. This includes thinking through their action economy (what my choices will look like turn by turn) as well as how I want to design their strengths and flaws into their mechanics.
As a case study, let’s look at Solomon Blackedge, the character I portray in both Cloudsinger and Adamus’s custom world of Gray Owls. The story of Solomon was inspired by that of Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher from the book and videogame series of the same name (now also on Netflix). Although I didn’t want to BE Geralt, I was interested in portraying a character like him along with some of his abilities and style. This included:
Now, no single class in 5e can encompass all of these traits. One can argue, “Go Eldritch Knight! They get access to lots of equipment and magic!”
Having tried to go that route (and see my complaints about Fighter up above), it also didn’t serve my character’s story the way it theoretically should have. First, I had proficiency in Nature and Survival (ability to track and know about monsters). Second, being a Fighter meant I should be able to fight. Third, dampened emotions make him speak his mind and make him hard to get along with. I at least got used to the third one, which was in my control as a role-player.
Again, the problem I ran into was performance. I rarely succeeded on my skills of choice (Nature and Survival) due to dice luck, meaning that my Witcher character couldn’t actually succeed at the things he was designed to. Second, he almost never hit during a fight, and even when he did, because of nonmagical damage resistant enemies, he never did damage. Third, an eldritch knight is far more committed to casting than I actually wanted, and included many magical abilities I didn’t want my character to have.
So how do I reconcile this? Well, Solomon’s current build in Gray Owls is 12 levels of Scout Rogue, 3 levels of Open Hand Monk, and 2 levels of War Wizard. How does this play? Incredibly well. Same story premise, very different mechanical performance.
Unlike the Eldritch Knight, Solomon almost always succeeds on Nature and Survival checks because of the Scout’s expertise in those skills. Not that I’m afraid of failure or having flaws, but always failing is just as boring as always succeeding. Not only that, but he has skills he’s designed to fail at, like persuasion and athletics. Combine that with the Rogue’s reliable talent, and now he truly is a seasoned expert as his chosen craft. Objective #1 complete.
How about fighting? Well, even though Solomon isn’t a criminal (he’s a monster slayer), the rogue’s features fit his fighting style well. Once you discard the rogue’s story as that of an outlaw and see it as that of a dexterous warrior, sneak attack and cunning action produce an engaging tactical experience in combat. Solomon isn’t meant to get hit and tough it out. He’s meant to hit a crucial target for maximum effectiveness and deftly reposition so he’s harder to pin down. As for Armor Class? That’s where Monk comes in. Monk or Rogue alone wouldn’t really perform as well, but together, with a little bit of a Monk’s unarmored defense and a Rogue’s sneak attack, he’s a force to be reckoned with. And now, the story of Solomon being a deadly fighter with the story of being an expert tracker is now fulfilled.
But what about the magic? Well, Eldritch Knight has way too much magic. And what’s the function of this magic anyways? For me playing as Geralt in the Witcher games and seeing how he fights in the Netflix show, it comes down to minor magic gusts and quick shield spells. That, and Arcane Deflection is one heck of a feature, especially since its “balance point” is that you can only cast a cantrip on the next turn after you use it. No problem; I’m not going to be casting many cantrips when I sneak attack like a Fireball.
So as clunky as the build looks on paper, and how it borrows from class features with classes that may not have to do with each other, together the dissonant pieces form a cohesive custom story I want to tell. It’s not to say there also aren’t clever stories I can tell with single classes, but it does mean if I want them to perform a certain way I have to be open to multi-classing.
Dungeons and Dragons as a storytelling vehicle is unique in that the rules offer excellent creative leverage to tell powerful, long lasting stories. However, the problem arises when we build our characters using suggestions and absolutes. I came to my character building method because of my disappointment that my first character didn’t perform the way he was designed. And if any of you readers take anything away from this, it’s that how mechanics resolve dictate the story, and if you want to tell a specific story, you need to know which mechanics are going to allow you to tell that story in the context of the game’s system. So every time I hear someone say that “Optimizing takes away from role playing”, all I can think of is the storytelling limitations that frame puts on the collective experience at the table.
As a Dungeon Master, it’s taught me to offer my players choices as they build, to remind them that they don’t have to build to their preconceived notions unless they want to. Want to build a support nature caster? You can do that through druid, but have you considered nature cleric or archfey warlock? Druid probably works best, but know those options are out there.
Hopefully this has had some value, if anything else than to clarify why you build characters the way you do. That way, when you do it, you’re doing so out of choice rather than habit.
Study Hard, Play Hard.
Enjoy this take from another corner? Smash that Like button and stay tuned for more every month.
Other perspectives help us grow as fellow gamers. :)
Also, if you want to help support the site in a different way, Subscribe to our YouTube Channel, DM Shower Thoughts.
See you soon, and remember to Game Responsibly.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.
Mondays: Patreon Mini
Wednesday: Other Corners
Thursday: Moonriver Bar
Friday: Podcast goes up!
Sunday: REST DAY