This may be the most daunting part, especially for someone new to role-playing games. However, this is where the ability for us to do anything because we’re not confined to the rules of a video game shines. We can choose whatever Race, Class, and Background that we like because there will always be a way to play it. The only thing we need to do is know what our Character’s strengths and weaknesses are, and that will be easy because we will have made our Character to have the strengths (and accompanying weaknesses) that we want.
For starters, the available Races are Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human, Dragonborn, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orc, and Tiefling. Be sure to read the descriptions for each Race properly as different people of different Races around the world will treat other people of different Races differently. In return, the way that someone is treated because of their Race will affect how that someone views people of other Races in the world and what they think of the world in general. Although, there is always the relatively easy (yet far from boring) option of picking a Human.
Next, the available Classes are Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard. This decision is a major one and will determine our Character is good at, what equipment they start with, etc. As our Character levels up, there will be some choices to make on how we will specialise within our Class as well by choosing an archetype. Like with Race, start by reading the description for each Class in the D&D 5e Player’s Handbook and/or my post on D&D 5e Classes (which I will add soon).
Spells and Spellcasting
Some Races and Classes grant Spells so to make a decision on whether we’d be interested in a Spellcasting Class or not, let’s have a really quick look at what Spells are and how they work.
For starters, a Spell is a magical effect that can deal damage or undo it, impose or remove Conditions (such as Paralysed or Poisoned), drain life energy away, and restore life to the dead. Every spell has a level from 0 to 9 as a general indicator of how powerful it is, when we can learn it, and how often we can use it.
Some Classes, including Bards and Sorcerers, have a limited list of Spells they simply just know. Other Spellcasters, such as Clerics and Wizards, undergo a process of preparing spells. However, all Spellcasters can only cast a limited number of Spells before Resting. Each Spellcasting Class’s description in the D&D 5e Player’s Handbook (except that of the Warlock) includes a table like the one shown below depicting how many Spell Slots of each Spell level a Character can use at each Character level.
The table here shows that a 1st-level Wizard has two 1st-level Spell Slots. When a character casts a spell, they expend a Spell Slot of that Spell’s level or higher, but finishing a long Rest restores any expended Spell Slots. The exception here are Cantrips, 0-level Spells which can be cast at will, without using a Spell Slot and without being prepared in advance.
However, some Characters and monsters have special abilities that let them cast Spells without using Spell Slots at all. For example, a Monk who follows the Way of the Four Elements, a Warlock who chooses certain eldritch invocations, and a pit fiend from the Nine Hells can all cast Spells in such a way.
Class details explained
Some of the terms used in the Class descriptions we have seen in the D&D 5e Player’s Handbook need a little explanation before we continue.
Hit Dice and Hit Points
Under each Class description, we should see something like the following:
Hit Dice: ld12 per Barbarian level
Hit Points at 1st Level: 12 + your Constitution modifier
Hit Points at Higher LeveIs: ld12 (or 7) + your Constitution modifier per Barbarian level after 1st
Hit Points work like in most other games that have a Health system – they represent how much damage our Character can take before they die. We find out how many Hit Points we have by using our Hit Dice. At 1st level, our character has 1 Hit Dice, and the type of dice is determined by our Class. We start with a number of Hit Points equal to the highest roll of that die plus our Constitution modifier (which we’ll determine soon with all of our other Ability Scores). So, if we look at the example above, we see that Barbarians with no Constitution modifier start with 12 Hit Points because their Hit Dice is a 1d12.
Proficiencies and Proficiency Bonuses
Similar to the above, we will have seen something like the following show up:
Armour: Light armour, medium armour, shields
Weapons: All simple weapons
Saving Throws: Wisdom, Charisma
Skills: Choose two from History, Insight, Medicine, Persuasion, and Religion
There should also be a table nearby (similar to the clipping of one shown below) that shows what our Proficiency Bonus at each level is. In our case, since we will be 1st-level Characters, our Proficiency Bonus is +2. This Proficiency Bonus is a Modifier which we add to our rolls and it doesn’t stack – we only add it once to each relevant roll (as shown by the Proficiencies and Proficiency Bonuses section) even if circumstances result in us gaining a Proficiency Bonus from two sources. This also means that if our Proficiency Bonus could be multiplied or halved, we only multiply or halve it once.
A Saving Throw represents an attempt to resist something such as a spell, trap, poison, disease, or similar threat. We don’t normally decide to make a Saving Throw since we are forced to make one when our Character is at risk of harm. To make a Saving Throw, we roll a d20 and add the appropriate Ability Modifier. For example, we use our Dexterity modifier for a Dexterity Saving Throw. These Saving Throws can then be modified by a situational bonus or penalty and can be affected by Advantage and Disadvantage, as determined by the DM.
Each class gives Proficiency in at least two Saving Throws, meaning that a character can add their Proficiency bonus to those Proficient Saving Throws. The wizard, for example, is Proficient in Intelligence saves and thus gains a Proficiency Bonus on those Saving Throws.
Furthermore, the Difficulty Class for a Saving Throw is determined by the effect that causes it. For example, the DC for a Saving Throw allowed by a spell is determined by the caster’s Spellcasting ability and Proficiency Bonus. The result of a successful or failed Saving Throw is also detailed in the effect that allows the save. Usually, a successful save means that we suffer no harm, or reduced harm, from an effect.
If in doubt, use a Quick Build
Each Class in the D&D 5e Player’s Handbook has a little section called ‘Quick Build’. For example, the Warlock one says the following:
You can make a warlock quickly by following these suggestions. First, Charisma should be your highest Ability Score, followed by Constitution. Second, choose the charlatan background. Third, choose the eldritch blast and chill touch cantrips (0-level Spells), along with the 1st-level Spells ray of sickness and witch bolt.
These are really useful for anyone not yet comfortable with creating a character as they give us a basic idea of what we could start with. We don’t necessarily have to follow these exactly the first time we play, but it’s good to at least note which Ability Scores are recommended.
The D&D 5e Player’s Handbook has a neat little selection of Backgrounds which can further customise our Character and make it a lot easier to make them a bit more interesting. These Backgrounds usually give our Character some items, maybe a bonus to an Ability, and provide some advantageous and disadvantageous traits to give our Character more.. character.
However, it is worth noting that DMs are encouraged to reward Players who use their Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws when they become relevant in play. This means that it’s probably best not to pick a Flaw with the intention of never using it.
Through Class and Background selection, our Character will already have some items and a bit of money that they can spend. Anything else that they may require, or simply desire, can be bought. It’s not a necessary step, however, as we can always just save our money for other, in-game purposes.
Historical weapons and armour
Over the decades, games have helped perpetuate a lot of misconceptions about historical weapons. For example, we expect knife-sized daggers, small one-handed longswords, and overpowered katanas. But I hadn’t looked into these things that much until I started actually playing role-playing games with Ogi. That’s when we started studying history a bit more to see how much was drawn directly from it, and that lead into historical combat, weapons, and armour.
Eventually, Ogi stumbled upon Schola Gladiatoria on YouTube , a channel which focus mainly on combat and weapons use. It’s a really good channel and brings up a lot of interesting topics that are great starting points for delving into more detailed topics. So I would definitely recommend this channel to anyone interested in learning about practical historical combat, mainly Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA).
Now this should probably go without saying, but in recommending this channel, I’m not saying we should learn Matt Easton’s words off by heart, however. Like with everything, including the content found on this website (shianra.com), the advice and information presented anywhere shouldn’t just be memorised and taken simply as it is without reason. Question everything, and if something just makes logical sense, go with it until a better idea comes up. Be flexible enough to consider new options seriously and adapt them if they turn out to be better. Everything is more interesting that way, no?
What about realism in D&D 5e?
As we may have guessed by now, D&D 5e (or any other edition for that matter) is not going to provide us with any kind of realism in equipment or combat. There are other, better systems for that purpose out there and hopefully I will get the chance to talk about some of them soon.
Now before we continue, we need the obligatory “what our Statistics/Attributes/Characteristics do” section. In D&D 5e, there are six of these things and they are known as Ability Scores. As usual, each one represents how capable a Character is with certain tasks. The six of them are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. The following descriptions are adapted from the D&D 5e Player’s Handbook and will give us an in-depth idea of what each of them can be used for.
This measures bodily power, Athletics training, and the extent to which one can exert raw physical force. Some common uses of Strength checks are when attempting to force open a stuck, locked, or barred door, break free of bonds, push through a tunnel that is too small, hang on to a wagon while being dragged behind it, tip over a statue, keep a boulder from rolling, or to otherwise apply brute force to a situation. It is also used when determining whether an Attack with most melee weapons (except those with the ‘finesse’ property such as daggers and rapiers) hit and how much Damage they do. Furthermore, one’s Strength score × 15 determines the weight in pounds that they can carry, whilst one’s Strength score × 30 determines how much weight in pounds that they can push, drag, or lift.
Climbing, jumping, and swimming are determined by one’s Athletics Skill which is based off of their Strength.
This measures agility, reflexes, and balance. Some common uses of Dexterity checks are when attempting to control a heavily laden cart on a steep descent, steer a chariot around a tight turn, pick a lock, disable a trap, securely tie up a prisoner, wriggle free of bonds, play a stringed instrument, craft a small or detailed object, etc. It is also used when determining whether an Attack with most ranged weapons (and melee weapons with the ‘finesse’ property such as daggers and rapiers) hit and how much Damage they do. Furthermore, our Dexterity modifier may be added to our AC if we’re not wearing really heavy armour. Our Dexterity is used when determining the order in which Characters take their turn during combat by way of Initiative.
What is AC (Armour Class)?
Armour Class (AC) represents how well our Character generally avoids taking hits. Our AC is
10 + Dexterity_Modifier, but may be modified by our
Character’s armour and shield (if any). Our Character’s Dexterity Modifier is also modified by armour: in Light Armour, we use their whole Dexterity
Modifier; in Medium Armour, the highest Dexterity Modifier we can use is +2; and in Heavy Armour, we do not add their Dexterity Modifier to their AC at all
(even if it is negative, like a -2).
Speaking of armour and shields, it is important to note that our Character needs to be Proficient with them in order to wear/use them effectively and without any penalties.
What is Initiative?
Since most role-playing games use a turn-based combat system, Initiative is the name of the roll which determines the order of turns during combat. This Initiative roll is just a simple Dexterity check where the Character with the highest roll gets to go first in combat, followed by the second highest, and so on. When it comes to NPCs, the DM usually makes one roll for an entire group of identical creatures to simplify the combat set-up. If a tie occurs between Players and/or NPCs, the DM can decide the order themselves, or they can have the tied characters and/or monsters roll d20s where the one who gets the highest roll wins and goes first.
The Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth Skills are based off of Dexterity. Acrobatics usually determines one’s ability to stay on their feet in a tricky situation, and perform acrobatic stunts including dives, rolls, somersaults, and flips. Sleight of Hand concerns acts such as planting something on someone else, concealing an object on one’s person, or lifting something off another person. Stealth involves being able to conceal oneself from others without being seen or heard.
Constitution measures health, stamina, and vital force. Some common uses of Constitution checks are when attempting to hold one’s breath, march or labour for hours without rest, go without sleep, survive without food or water, or quaff an entire stein of ale in one go. Also, our Character’s Constitution Modifier will modify their Hit Points when they level up, and any changes to their Constitution Modifier can be applied retroactively to their Hit Points.
Intelligence measures mental acuity, accuracy of recall, and the ability to reason. Some common uses of Intelligence checks are when attempting to communicate with a creature without using words, estimate the value of a precious item, pull together a disguise to pass as a city guard, forge a document, recall lore about a craft or trade, or win a game of skill. Furthermore, Wizards use Intelligence as their Spellcasting ability which helps determine how difficult their Spells are to resist.
The Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature, and Religion Skills are based off of Intelligence. Arcana usually determines one’s ability to recall lore about Spells, magic items, eldritch symbols, magical traditions, the planes of existence, and the inhabitants of those planes. History concerns one’s ability to recall lore about historical events, legendary people, ancient kingdoms, past disputes, recent wars, and lost civilisations. Investigation involves deducing the location of a hidden object, discerning from the appearance of a wound what kind of weapon dealt it, determining the weakest point in a tunnel that could cause it to collapse, or finding a hidden fragment of knowledge in ancient scrolls. Nature measures one’s ability to recall lore about terrain, plants and animals, the weather, and natural cycles. Lastly, Religion determines one’s ability to recall lore about deities, rites and prayers, religious hierarchies, holy symbols, and the practices of secret cults.
Wisdom reflects attunement to the world and represents perceptiveness and intuition. Some common uses of Wisdom checks are when attempting to get a gut feeling about what course of action to follow, or discern whether a seemingly dead or living creature is undead. Furthermore, Clerics, Druids, and Rangers use Wisdom as their Spells are to resist.
The Animal Handling, Insight, Medicine, Perception, and Survival Skills are based off of Wisdom. Animal Handling usually determines one’s ability to calm down a domesticated animal, keep a mount from getting spooked, or intuit an animal’s intentions. Insight concerns whether one can determine the true intentions of a creature, such as when searching out a lie or predicting someone’s next move. Medicine allows one to try to stabilise a dying companion or diagnose an illness. Perception involves spotting, hearing, or otherwise detecting the presence of something, and measures one’s general awareness of their surroundings and the keenness of their senses. Survival allows one to follow tracks, hunt wild game, guide a group through frozen wastelands, identify signs that owlbears live nearby, predict the weather, or avoid quicksand and other natural hazards.
Charisma measures one’s ability to interact effectively with others, including such factors as confidence and eloquence. Some common uses of Charisma checks are when attempting to find the best person to talk to for news, rumours, and gossip, blend into a crowd to get the sense of key topics of conversation, etc. Furthermore, Bards, Paladins, Sorcerers, and Warlocks use Charisma as their Spellcasting ability which helps determine how difficult their Spells are to resist.
The Deception, Intimidation, Performance, and Persuasion Skills are based off of Charisma. Deception determines whether one can convincingly hide the truth, either verbally or through actions. Intimidation usually determines one’s ability to influence someone through overt threats, hostile actions, and physical violence. Performance concerns one’s ability to delight an audience with music, dance, acting, storytelling, or some other form of entertainment. Persuasion includes attempts to influence someone or a group of people with tact, social graces, or good nature.
Determining Ability Scores
So now that we have gone over what the Ability Scores are for, we have to decide what values should be assigned to each. One option is to use the set of basic Ability Scores from the D&D 5e Player’s Handbook: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, and 8. The description for each Class will have noted what the most important Abilities are for that Class under Quick Build, so the easiest method is to assign the 15 to the most important and 14 to the next most important. The 8 can then be used on the Ability that least suits the Character or their Class.
However, if we want to determine what our Character’s Ability Scores are all by ourselves, we can use the table to the right. Each different Score costs a different amount and we have a total of 27 points to spend. This means that we can end up using an array of Scores like this [15, 15, 15, 8, 8, 8] or like this [13, 13, 13, 12, 12, 12], but no individual Score can go above 15 or below 8. There are tools available which make doing this a lot easier, however, such as the D&D 5e Point-Buy Calculator I posted recently.
We’ve mentioned Skills quite a few times by now, but we haven’t gotten into how we use them. First, here’s a list of all the Skills in D&D 5e:
- Animal Handling
- Sleight of Hand
Skills are used when, for example, the DM says something like, “Make an Investigation check to see if you can find any clues in this room.” As Players, we can also ask the DM if a Skill might be viable at any given time or just use them ourselves. For example, “I try to lift the key off the turnkey’s belt using my Sleight of Hand Skill”.
Proficiency in a Skill means we can add our Character’s Proficiency Bonus to Skill checks that involve that Skill. Without Proficiency in the Skill, we make a normal Skill check. For example an exchange between a new Player and a GM might go like this:
Player #1: Uh… Velociraptors. Help!
Player #2: I’m going to get in between Player #1 and the Velociraptors. I’ll try to calm them down a bit.
GM: Alright. Make an Animal Handling check by rolling a d20.
[Player rolls a d20. Result: 17.]
Player #2: My Animal Handling Skill is +3: +1 is from my Wisdom Modifier, and +2 is from my Proficiency Bonus with Animal Handling. So.. that’s a 20.
GM: You approach the Velociraptors with your arms outstretched. They snap at the air and hiss, but they don’t jump on you at least.
Player #1: I’m getting out of here! My Character runs away.
Before we move on, I want to briefly cover the optional Character customisation rule, Feats. Each Feat represents a talent or an area of expertise that gives a Character special abilities. At certain levels, our Character’s Class will give the Ability Score Improvement feature which allows us to either increase two Ability Score by 2. Using the optional Feats rule, we can forgo taking that feature to take a Feat of our choice instead. We can take each Feat only once, unless the Feat’s description says otherwise, and we must meet any prerequisite specified in a Feat to take that Feat. For example, see the following Feat:
Always on the lookout for danger, you gain the following benefits:
- You gain a +5 bonus to Initiative.
- You can’t be Surprised while you are conscious.
- Other creatures don’t gain Advantage on Attack rolls against you as a result of being hidden from you.
The +5 bonus to Initiative rolls, immunity to Surprise whilst conscious means that they will never be left standing around at the start of combat (see Surprise below), and not letting hidden attackers get Advantage rolls because they’re hidden makes combat a lot safer. That’s a pretty cool Feat, right? I’m not saying to ignore the Ability Score Improvement feature (because Ability Score improvements are good), but give Feats a chance.
Being Surprised in combat
At the start of combat, the DM determines if anyone might be Surprised. If neither the attackers nor those being attacked were trying to be stealthy, both parties automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the DM compares the Stealth Skill of anyone hiding with the Passive Perception of each potential opponent. Any individual Character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is Surprised at the start of the encounter (even if their friends aren’t Surprised). When Surprised, a Character or monster can’t move or take an action on their first turn of combat, or take a reaction until that turn ends.
Passive Skill checks
A Passive Skill check doesn’t involve dice rolls and can represent the average result for a task done repeatedly, such as searching for secret doors over and
over again. A Passive Skill check can also be used when the DM wants to secretly determine whether the Characters succeed at something without rolling dice,
such as noticing a hidden monster that’s about to attack. To determine a Character’s total for a Passive Skill check, we use
10 + Modifiers.
For example, if a 1st-level Character has 15 Wisdom (+2) and Proficiency in Perception (+2), their Passive Perception score
is 14 (10 + 2 + 2). Finally, if the Character has Advantage on the check, we add 5, or if they have Disadvantage, we subtract 5.
Playing the game
The D&D Starter Set is a decent starting adventure, so I recommend starting there. There’s a lot of potential to add to it, making it much deeper and more interesting than the stock adventure. However, it can be played the way it is and still be fun, especially when comparing it to some other unmodified “Beginner Sets”. For example, the Pathfinder Beginner Box is a really simple dungeon crawl which some might not enjoy, and the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Set seems to spoon-feed the rules a bit too slowly which might be annoying for some.
For learning how to be a DM, pre-made adventures are really useful. They give a good idea of the difficulty expected from standard campaigns, they provide hints on how to make an adventure more dangerous as it goes along, the kind and amount of rewards that will keep a party going, give ideas for challenging encounters, and provide inspiration for designing cities, caves, castles, and other explorable areas, etc.
Whether or not a pre-made adventure is used, the DM could have a lot to do in preparation for a session. This really is dependant on how comfortable they are with improvising. Since I am one of those who are not at all confident in my ability to randomly pull awesome ideas out of a hat, I tend to prepare NPC templates and have some details on what random events could happen every time I am a DM (and these days, that’s most of the time). It takes a lot of work (which I find to be quite fun anyway), but I think it’s worth it.