The players handbook is the simplest way to build a character: Race, Class, Ability Scores, Description, Equipment. It’s designed this way, so that if you don’t have time to finish your character, you can at least start playing the game. It’s also perfect for people that aren’t used to building characters, as it goes from the biggest aspect of the character, and becomes more detailed as they discover what they like.
If you love character building, you know that this isn’t always the most satisfying way to build a character. If you want your character to feel like a real, living person, there’s a different order you have to go. At the beginning you are more aggressive with your choice making, but as it continues, you’ll find that there are answers that come more naturally, as your character becomes someone real.
As many authors put it, you aren’t always creating a character, but discovering one. Like a statue that’s hiding in a slab of marble, your character is in there somewhere, it’s your job to find them.
Each choice comes with a set of questions to help you decide that, and future, choices. Also, under each set of options, there’s a note of were to look for more ideas!
Your character was born before they had a sense of identity. This is the first thing you start with normally, so this shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. So much of who you are and how you identify yourself comes from how the world sees and identifies you.
- Who were your parents?
- Where did they live?
- Is that where you were born, or were you born outside of your home?
- How were you treated in your community because of your race?
Xanathar’s Guide pg. 61: Parents, Birthplace, Siblings, Birth Order, Family
Your parents status in society determines a lot more of your worldview than you initially imagine. It affects how you save or spend your money, how you treat those of a higher or lower status, and a variety of other day-to-day factors, determining what kind of person you are.
- Did you have parents, or were you an orphan?
- As a small child, what did your parents do?
- Were they wealthy, in poverty, or somewhere in between?
- How did that affect how you saw the world.
- How did you feel about your parents?
- Did you follow in their footsteps?
- What resources were available to you, and how were you treated?
Xanathar’s Guide pg. 63: Family Lifestyle, Childhood Home, Childhood Memories, Personal Decisions. Pg. 73: Occupation
As you grow up, you start to think about what’s important to you. This is obviously influenced by your parents and the people and society around you, but at the end of the day, only you can decide for yourself what matters to you. Often times, your decisions are based on the actions you’ve seen from others, as well as yourself, and the consequences or lack thereof of those actions. This is also where a faith-based aspect of your character would show up. Do you believe in the gods, and if so, who do you worship and how?
- Do you trust systems and government? (Lawful)
- Or do you believe that those in power are corrupted by that power? (Chaotic)
- Or do you live your life neither with, nor against, the world around you? (Neutral)
- Do you believe that your actions can do more good than the actions of others, therefore placing more value on yourself? (Evil)
- Or do you believe that your actions are only as good as the actions that can happen as a result, placing more value on others? (Good)
- Or do you believe that life is more transactional than some would have you believe, and there is no good or bad, only actions and reactions? (Neutral)
Player’s Handbook pg 122: Alignment
Now you’ve become an adult, you look in the mirror, what do you see? Not many children think about self improvement to any major extent, and so tend to have skills based on their surroundings. These questions are directed towards young adult characters, but obviously if your character is older, then think about who they want to be, and what steps they’ve taken to become a better person.
- STR – Were you required to engage in physical activity, perhaps from your parents occupations?
- CON- Was “Survival” a consistent factor that your focused on, whether from attacks or just negligence/lack of resources?
- DEX – Were you an active kid, climbing trees and juggling? Or perhaps were you homeless, living on the street, learning to pick pockets to buy dinner.
- INT – Are you smarter because you had access to a proper education? Reading books, learning history, writing?
- WIS – How much time do you spend in your own head? Are you thinking about systems and processes, or your faith, or studying the world around you? Do you think about how people treat each other, or how they communicate? There is a lot that falls under Wisdom, but it essentially asks “how much time do you spend thinking?”
- CHA – This one is fairly simple. Do you have a lot of friends? Do you surround yourself with others? Are other people naturally drawn to you?
Now you have a full adult in your head. You know your history, your strengths and weaknesses, so now if you go through your Personality/Ideals/Bonds/Flaws, you’ll find that you have a much clearer answer to all of the options, as well as where there’s not one that quite fits. A tip in the Player’s Handbook is to look at your single highest and lowest stat, and decide why, specifically, those are the extremes of your personality.
Player’s Handbook pg 124: Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, Flaws
Normal people don’t decide to travel, and murder for money. What was the single event that pushed you over the edge, from regular person, to “adventurer”? Tolstoy once said “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” A similar thing can be said of heroes: “All great heroes started out one of two ways; something was given, or something was taken away.” So now you get to decide, why are you an adventurer?
- Was someone in your life killed?
- Were you saved by someone else?
- Was something of yours stolen?
- Were you hired to protect someone/thing?
- What was given to you to make you think you could handle this life?
- What was taken away from you that kept you tied to a normal life?
Xanathar’s Guide pg. 70: Life Events
Now that you know who you are and what you are good at, you also know you want to become an adventurer. The question now is, how do you decide to do that? At this point, it shouldn’t really be much of a choice. As you look back on your life, there is probably one one or two ways you would go about this. This isn’t to say you won’t grow and learn new and exciting classes as you become more experienced, but you should start out doing what you know, as your very survival is on the line. Xanathar’s Guide is a great place to go after your decide your class, because it will help you with more details from your backstory, such as teachers, tattoos, or temptations.
- Do you get physical in situations, or do you think your way out? (Martial or Arcane)
- Do you focus on stopping threats, or protecting others? (Combat or Support)
- Do you find strength in serving someone else, or do you trust only in yourself? (Service or Self)
Xanathar’s Guide pg. 66: Class Training
Schools of Magic
This is a subcategory that is really only for Wizards, as they choose between different schools, or types, of Magic. Because each school has such a specific purpose, you can make your decision based on your background, your alignment, and your inciting incident.
Besides the starting equipment granted based on your class, this is the time to decide if there was any moment in your past that you have a token from, and what this means. You can either decide this for yourself, or get one randomly generated, and decide what it means. There is a d100 chart that has several trinkets that, once you see it, you can think back to your whole life story, and decide when that piece came into your life.
Player’s Handbook pg. 160: Trinkets
There is so much more to your character than numbers on a page. Get to know who they are, and what they care about, and the decisions you make in the game will have much more weight to them.