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.
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Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.