Character Development, Part 1

Improving your D&D game by improving your D&D character

Lance Arthur
12 min readNov 30, 2020

The first time one plays Dungeons & Dragons is likely to be an overwhelming experience. Needless to say, this is not a game designed to be enjoyed by everyone. The rules span hundreds of pages, the mechanics of combat are intricate and time-consuming, and why on Earth are there so many kinds of dice? This is for those of you moving past those first hours of confusion and frustration; those who have fallen in love with the game and want to dive deeper into developing a character you look forward to playing.

How do you create a new character you want to play? One who will live in the world created by your Dungeon Master (DM) and breathe and grow and become someone you’re going to love spending hundreds of hours with? It’s a whole new world, so who do you want to be in it?

A dragon on top of a domed building breathing fire across a village
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Working Well With Others

The first thing you want to do, before even starting down this road, is get some advice from your Dungeon Master. They’re the one running this campaign and they’re the one providing the world in which your character will be wandering.

Ask about the regions of the map. Who lives there now? What are the politics and religions? You may decide that politics and religions play no part in your character’s background, but they will color how your character considers those things nonetheless. Living under a cruel regime where your dreams were crushed underfoot and you never had a chance of getting anywhere will create a different character than one living in a castle with servants waiting on you hand and foot. Your powers are going to grow immense. What will you do with them to influence the world where you live?

Work with your DM and as you develop your back story, don’t spring big surprises on them. Ask them about their world and find things that intrigue or interest you, and then start setting down the roots of your character within that space.

You’re also playing with a group of others, so a little prep work between players will aid your campaign. The times I’ve started a new campaign without having a chat with the other players beforehand and which resulted in our motley band setting out into the world without a single healer are too many to number.

There are two common methods I’ve experienced in which a new campaign begins, the most common being that your character meets the other characters out of the blue at some place on the map (hello, dingy tavern in a questionable town!) and you’re all strangers set on some task arranged by the DM. You’re low-level wannabe adventurers and that’s basically all you have in common. Forging relationships occurs during the course of the campaign.

The other is that you find yourself in the middle of a situation that’s already underway (hello, horrible monster attack against seemingly innocent village!) and have some existing relationship with the others. It could be as simple as being inhabitants of that village. You band together out of necessity to rectify the problem or escape the dilemma and, having done that, decide you work well together, enjoy killing things, and may as well keep going.

No matter how your campaign begins, coordinate with the DM to assemble a team that can survive what you’re about to face. Part of the fun of starting a campaign is not knowing exactly who the other players are until the first time you get together. You know you’re a Ranger because the team needed someone specializing in ranged attacks, but you don’t know who the other characters really are. Rather than speaking with the other players directly beforehand, using the DM as the conduit for building a balanced team of adventurers helps with the surprises.

Hopefully, it’s unlikely you’ll be asked to play something you won’t enjoy. For example, if you love being a tank and hitting things with a big club, playing a wizard who stands far back with their tiny HP throwing complicated spells isn’t likely to keep you a happy player. If the DM knows the other character classes, they can steer you towards talents that will benefit the whole crew. A Dungeon Master has huge leeway about their own campaign and one of their goals is keeping it fun for everyone.

Secrets and Lies

Secrets are an important part of your character’s background, because they can alter the trajectory of not just that character, but the whole campaign. You should always, always share your character’s secrets with the DM. They can fold your plot into their world and introduce non-player characters (NPCs) that relate personally to your character and introduce threads you may choose to follow. What your character chooses to tell the others in your band of merry travellers — how much your character trusts the others — is entirely up to you.

Do you have to have a dark and terrible backstory in which you killed your father and older brother to inherit the throne only to find out that you were betrayed by the seneschal and held captive in secret as a figurehead in exile while they assumed control and held you prisoner using their network of lackeys until you escaped captivity and made your way incognito across the wide, dark seas separating this land from the next and changed your name to escape those hunting you down?

No. You do not. But if you do, tell the DM.

Secrets can be large or small. They can be things your character is ashamed of and trying to hide or forget, or great things your character did and simply chooses not to share. Maybe you’re a god who chose to give up her godhood and roam among the people, except no god can completely abandon their responsibilities, can they?

If you decide to have a secret, big or small, be prepared to face the consequences. Because one way or another, there’s no way a good DM is going to ignore so much juicy plot for the story you’re telling together.

A male knight with long curly red hair holds his sword forwards toward the camera
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Be The Best (Other) You

Before even beginning the process of building a new character, keep in mind that you’re potentially going to be living with — and inside — this person for a very long time, so it’s important that you like them. Or, at least, that you understand them. But liking them makes them more pleasant to play.

The starting point for understanding your character is understanding what motivates them. Why do they do the things they do? What are they hoping to achieve from their actions?

For the moment, set aside concepts of good or evil. Someone who is good or evil is judged so by others, we typically consider ourselves good. We make choices because it benefits us, or benefits those we love, or benefits the world in general. But in this general world, those choices are likely to involve taking a weapon, magical or otherwise, and plunging it into someone else’s chest (assuming that’s where their heart is, of course).

A fairly general conceit of playing D&D is that you’re going to end up doing a lot of killing. Like, a lot. It’s nearly unavoidable.

As a result, your character will need to rationalize all that death and mayhem as a means to an end. In this fantasy world, not everything is going to be black and white. You’re going to meet other characters with secrets of their own, and with agendas and rationalizations for their acts of violence, cruelty, and stupidity. When your character is sitting in a tavern at the end of the day, their boots coated in mud and gore, their eyes steely with death, their hands shaking at the terror they have seen, how will you justify what you have done?

Establishing Your Background

Many people start off a character build by deciding immediately what the character looks like, or sounds like. Those decisions may help you visualize your character more clearly, but they probably won’t help you understand what motivates them.

Motivation is the key here. It is the thing from which all else springs. What motivates you to leave everything and everyone you know and join this motley crew of ne’er-do-wells you just met in a seedy tavern in the soggy harbor town of Lessor Bogson?

A small harbor village set against cliffs showing small boats and buildings next to an inlet
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The easiest or simplest way to play your character isn’t figuring out their accent or what they look like or even what their class or race is. Not everyone can do different voices and many people are embarrassed to try, even with what we’ll assume are some of your best friends sitting at the table with you. But we’ll get to some vocal options later, don’t fret.

A background is important because it will inform how your character will handle situations, because we all handle life’s little problems or joys based on experience. What scares you, for example, and why? When you’re scared, how do you react? Do you fight or flee?

Here’s a few questions to ask yourself about your new character that may help inform how the character will react to your gaming adventures.

  1. How we grow up is hugely influential to how we cope with life’s challenges. Do you come from a large family? A small one? Do you even know who your family is? Did you have lots of siblings or none? Were you the eldest or the youngest? Did both parents survive to today? Was it a home filled with love and acceptance or one of divisiveness and cruelty?
  2. How old are you? Are you just starting out and likely to make mistakes — a lot of mistakes? Or are you old and wise and ready to hand out advice based on your years of trials and tribulations? Have those years taught you to be brave and fearless, or cautious and furtive?
  3. Were you raised in wealth, poverty, or somewhere in-between? Did you sleep in silk sheets or in the gutter? Do you expect to clear the table yourself or should someone else be clearing it for you? Have you ever bought something for yourself that wasn’t a necessity like food or clothing? Do you have a job now, and if you do what is it? Are you good at it? Is it a trade that takes years of service or did you inherit a shop from your parent?
  4. How were you treated? How do you treat others? Do you think that people “get what they deserve” or that what people deserve most is love?
  5. Finally — and perhaps most importantly — why have you decided to become an adventurer? Is it a family trade? Were you handed a challenge in life? Perhaps you have some religious fervor or your family expects much from you before you inherit. You’re going to give up everything you know and become part of this small band of…let’s call them idiots, because who else charges headlong into a dark cave and expects to come back out alive? Why, in short, are you here?

Borrow Liberally From Others

Don’t be afraid or ashamed of taking on characteristics of established characters or people and applying them to your own character.

For one thing, using someone already familiar to you often means that you’ll be better prepared to react to any situations the DM throws at you.

Here’s an example from one of my own characters. My monk Shay was based on Bill and/or Ted from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. He’s young, laid back, a bit dim but big-hearted, ready to jump in to any situation without thinking too hard about it, scrupulously and too often embarassingly honest, and mostly oblivious to how anyone else considers him. He implicitly trusts others, has a live-and-let-live mentality, and always hopes for the best from any situation, no matter how dire. He would even warn someone he was about to engage that they probably wouldn’t survive, so maybe they could just go off and enjoy a nice bottle of wine together instead.

Use established characters you like as jumping off points. Consider combining traits from two characters you like into one you’ll play. You don’t want to mimic them — I was playing Shay, I wasn’t playing William “Bill” S. Preston, Esq. Instead, refer to that character model when you’re in a situation and you’re unsure what to do. They already have a background of experiences for you to draw from, and you’re familiar with the way they speak, move, and react. They will give you a steady baseline for your motivations without having to invent them all yourself, and you’ll develop your own unique characteristics during the course of the campaign.

You don’t necessarily need to decide this before creating your character, but I guarantee you that once you start to consider characters from literature, film, TV, theatre or anywhere else you spend some time, you’ll start being inspired and will see prospective D&D character types everywhere.

Pick characters you feel you know well and that you enjoy watching or reading about. The more quirks they have the better time you’re likely to have playing them.

A woman of color in a lacy beige gown with a jeweled crown seated in a wooded glade
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Looking the Part

Now that we’ve established your character’s motivations, passions, and presentation, it’s time to make those other character selections that will otherwise determine how they wander this new world.

D&D used to be very concise in its portrayal of races and sexes, but that’s no longer the case. The most recent addition to the pantheon of official rules, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, partially solves those old-fashioned roles by allowing players to reject or redefine how a character’s race or sexual identity necessarily defines them.

I would argue that any DM worth their salt already allowed players this leeway, but it’s nice that those who are sticklers for rules (you know who you are) can now be shown that just because you choose to play a masculine-presenting orc cleric named Patricia who wears lavender silk gowns, patent leather high-heeled boots, and carries a rainbow-hued budgie on their shoulder you’re not “obeying the rules.”

Anyway, regardless of how we finally ended up here — allowing fantasy characters in a fantasy world to live out their player’s actual fantasies — you’re now free to describe your character’s physical presentation however you want to regardless of the race, class, or sexual identity you select for them.

There are no wrong answers here, but I suggest that any decisions you make regarding your character’s physical attributes are grounded in your character’s background, and that you’re not making arbitrary decisions simply because they seem acutely creative.

Racial traits in D&D may also add or subtract value from your character’s ability scores, those being STRength, DEXterity, CONstitution, INTelligence, WISdom, and CHArisma. These rules are still active, but you may now shift them around to, for example, use elf traits (+2 DEX) or dwarven traits (+2 CON) on your gnome (+2 INT) rogue with one consideration; Why does your gnome have elven dexterity? What is the in-game reason for this seeming uncharacteristic ability?

This is not a limitation, it is an opportunity to further accentuate your character’s uniqueness. Perhaps you received special training at an elven academy. Perhaps you were adopted by elves as a baby and raised among them and simply learned to keep up. Perhaps you stole these traits using a magical item (which of course your DM approved beforehand) which you keep on your person and if you lose it, you lose those abilities altogether.

The point is that you’re not limited by your choice of race and its inherent traits to determine your character class, because class requirements have not changed.

You shouldn’t, for example, be a clumsy rogue. The game still requires a minimum dexterity score of 13 for that class. Your character wouldn’t realistically survive for very long when they’re expected to clamber along the edges of rooftops and they keep falling off. Even if you were to somehow survive those misadventures, the likelihood of others welcoming you into their little adventurer’s clique are slim because they would find it difficult to rely on your very funny but continually unreliable rogue. Your character still needs to hold their own and add their talents to the group’s so you all succeed together.

Now that we’ve established who your character is, let’s explore actively playing your super-cool character during the game in Part 2, “How you can start to RP in an RPG like a pro.”