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Meta context

I was originally answering this question: How do I create a D&D character correctly as a total newbie? I decided to answer it, since I have been through helping the new players alot, but then I'd noticed my answer was from a completely different point-of-view (POV). In particular, I love the first section of the most upvoted answer - ask for help. This question is the dual for that, i.e., the POV from the experienced person that is going to help.

I recommend reading that question so you can fully understand the context of this one, although I'm stating it again in my own question.

Question

I had written it in a general context before, but it was seen as possibly too broad, so I will specify it for a player that I'm currently playing with and fits the general description I'd talked about before.

She has access to the necessary books, specially the PHB, but she doesn't have time to read it thoroughly. She has never played any RPG before, but she's highly interested in playing them - she just couldn't do it before because she hadn't a group to play with. She is not a PC gamer, so even concepts from RPGs that you would usually expect a player to know are new to her, as basics as getting experience and leveling up = learning new skills. She's mostly interested in creating her own character and roleplaying them.

I want to help her to create her own character and, additionally, keep her interested in playing. So, how can I help her getting started without just making the character for her, since she wants to do her own character creation?

Additional details on the problem:

A similar question is made here. The problem here, though, is not about having too many rules, but rather having too many options and too little time. She would need to read every class and race section (that's 2 chapters, and 2 long ones) before even choosing what she wants to play.

The main reason I'm concerned on her losing interest is from past experiences. I've had players that were highly interested just dropping out because they couldn't find time to read everything they needed to start. Similarly, giving them premade characters usually leads to them playing characters they don't like that much. For this particular scenario, being able to tailor a character exactly as she wants (or as near as the rules allow) is one of her main motivations to RPG, so creating it for her in any way is a no-no.

  • Any answer involving use of a pre-generated character will not help solve this particular problem.

Answers can be either as a more experienced player or as a DM. I'm currently in the DM position, though.


As always, talk from experience - most of us have played with new players and probably helped them somehow, so it shouldn't be hard.

The answers can be judged on how well the helped players actually understood the character they created (i.e., how much was that actually "give them the fish" and how much they actually learned how to fish?) and their interest on keep playing D&D - which are the main goals for the question. It would help a lot if you can give the results of the method in the answer, i.e., did the player change the character after 2 sessions? Did he love it?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The answers below are really good, but I think you might want to consider starting with a game with rules that are a bit easier to grasp for newcomers, so that they can focus on "roleplaying" and not understanding otherworldly concepts. Barbarians of Lemuria could be a pick (character creation and rules explanations need 20mn max). \$\endgroup\$ – Boulash May 29 '18 at 15:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint I have edited your question to clarify your absolute opposition to any pre-gen solutions for this particular question; you had it buried in the prose 2/3 of the way down, and I nearly missed it again. To put it mildly, it was not crystal clear. Please take a look at the edit. I think you want to prevent answers starting with pre-gen since that approach will not solve this particular problem. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 29 '18 at 17:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast No problem with the edit. As I mentioned in the comment, I wouldn't say it's an absolute stance though - but if you want to provide this as an answer, it would need clarifying how this indeed solves the problem. I don't think it does, but I might be wrong. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 29 '18 at 17:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ OK, based on the response you gave to D_M, I think that you improve the scope of your answer by making that clear. (And it prevents the question from being too broad at the same time, which is a good thing). Based on this edition, I am not in a position to answer. One of the things I picked up initially in the SE format, here, is to bound a question. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 29 '18 at 17:48
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I really love to introduce D&D to new players, so I've been through this situation alot. I have played way more games with inexperienced players than with experienced ones. This is how I handle it, usually as the DM.

This is also exactly how I handled it with the specific player I've mentioned in the question - and it worked great. She's the most interested player in my current table and asks every week if we're going to play this week. She loves her Forest Gnome Druid (yeap, I know) and even added a hometown to the Forgotten Realms setting we're playing (LMoP - it was easier to ask her to create a hometown than read every possible place from the FR and decide one where she is born).

Make a group session for creating characters

I usually do this when I have more than one new player. This saves time as I can explain the same things for everyone at the same time, they can learn together, other (more experienced) players can help them as well and personal contact (rather than internet) seems to work better when explaining things. If the campaign needs a somewhat decent party setting, this also brings them together to talk about who is going to do what.

Explain the basics of each class

First thing I do is to explain, very briefly, the classes. I try to focus on how the books describe them, but it obviously is a little biased by how I see each class. Explain them what the classes are better doing (i.e. what they are mostly designed to do. Yes you can build a Tank Wizard, but I wouldn't personally say the class is designed for that) and if possible link them to culture characters. Don't use Gandalf for Wizard. Seriously. Don't. Harry Potter describes better.

After that, ask them for which class(es) they liked more. This step reduces alot of the time needed, as they won't need to read the entire Chapter 3 now.

Note: I prefer to start with the class over the race (contrary to the PHB guidelines on p. 11) because I feel deciding what you do is more important than what race you are, and if you want to make some optimization you will be choosing the race based on your class (or vice-versa).

Quick note on Spellcasters

Note that spellcasting adds a lot of extra details to the class. Prepared spellcasting is even more details. Let them know that spellcasters will require some considerable extra reading. I wouldn't straight-forward say they shouldn't be playing these classes (I've seen people telling new players that they should be playing Rogue/Barbarian/Fighter or w/e) but let them know that they have a harder learning curve. It's their characters and their choices. Don't take it away from them. If the character turns out to be "bad", they actually learned from it.

For challenging campaigns, it might actually be better to suggest a martial class instead, though. More details later.

Explain the basics of each race

How do they look like? What are their main features (Halflings are stealthy and lucky, dwarves are strong and resilient, Tieflings are the sons and daughters of satan, etc)? How are they seen by other races in your world? Try to not talk about mechanical details (this race gets a bonus in these attributes and can reroll 1s) but rather flavor and role-playing features.

If your campaign needs some optimization, recommend them what races fit best with their chosen class. I've highlighted the condition because otherwise let them try out playing that Wizard Dwarf. It could even fit in a campaign that needs some optimization, but usually that will need some experience from the player using that uncommon character, which is the exact opposite of the scenario in the question.

Even if you are not in an optimization scenario, synergy between attributes is part of the flavor. I might not have been clear about this earlier, so, clarifying: you should be explaining them that gnomes and high elves make better wizards than dwarves, which make better fighters and barbarians. You should let them play their Wizard Dwarf if they want to, but make sure they understand their choice and their consequences, make sure they actually know they are making a suboptimal choice, but do not discourage them to do so unless needed by the campaign. As I'll repeat later: This is their characters and these are their choices, the important thing is that you made clear what are the consequences of these choices so they won't be feeling bad later in the game and blaming you for their "bad character", or, as mentioned in a comment, they won't feel "cheated".

After that, ask them which race(s) they liked more. Again, this reduces the amount of reading from Chapter 2 alot.

Attribute Distribution

Now that you have your race and class, it's time to distribute the points in scores. For new players, I usually either roll for scores or use the default array. Explain them briefly what each attribute score influences and which are more important for their classes (according to the PHB). Try to not say "your highest score should be Int for your Wizard" (the PHB does it, and I hate it) but rather on the lines of "Int is the score you will be using for every spell you cast, so it's important". If they still want the highest score to be Dex or Con so their Wizard is more resilient, let them. Repeating: This is their characters and these are their choices, the important thing is that you made clear what are the consequences of these choices so they won't be feeling bad later in the game and blaming you for their "bad character". Obviously, again, this changes if you are running a campaign that needs optimization. Then you should guide them towards the optimal path.

About point buy

Again, that depends on you and your campaign, but unless you are running a challenging campaign that needs some optimization, I think point-buy is time consuming and worries players too much about min-maxing. This is not an experience I want to give them in their first time. Obviously there are players that love min-maxing and optimizing, and in this case they will probably be playing with a DM that likes it as well in a campaign that requires this optimization, which is the reason I'm always stating these scenarios exist and how to handle them.

Background

Yes, I prefer to let them choose/write their background before start filling the numbers. Usually, I ask my players to describe their backgrounds themselves and only point the existing ones if they are having a creative block.

Ask them what they learned to do before adventuring (the 2 skill proficiencies will come up here), what places and races they visited and what they worked with (languages/tool proficiencies). Finally, ask about the character personality itself, explaining the concepts of Traits, Flaws, Bonds and Ideals.

Quickly explain the background features and how they are used to give them Player Agency over the story. By now, with their stories, race and class defined, there should be a few that actually make sense, again reducing the reading they are needed to do.

If this is an optimization campaign, this is where being in a group session helps alot. The players can talk with each other and check which skills each one will fill for the party. If you are open about the challenges they are facing, tell them which skills will be most useful in the campaign. People are usually sad when they get Animal Handling and discover they are in a world where every animal has died - it also doesn't make much sense, since he wouldn't have many ways to actually learn that skill to begin with.

Spellcasting

First thing: I hate how PHB is organized for spellcasting. It's pretty annoying to go from the list your class know to the list of spells where they are actually explained. I use donjon's spellbook instead.

Second, I like to give them a free pass out of jail, as they will probably be choosing spells that seem nice but actually suck.

If you are not the DM or you don't want to do this, let them know which spells are "traps" and which spells won't be useful specifically in your campaign.

This is where things get really tricky for campaigns that need optimization. You will probably have to point a decent optimization guide here. Not only they will need to learn the best choices for their characters, they will need to learn how to use these spells in their best ways. For example, the best use (IMO) of Polymorph is kinda counter-intuitive for most people (hint: it's a buff spell).

Time to fill the numbers

Honestly, I feel like the hard part is gone. Usually the hardest thing for new players is actually choosing from the huge amount of possibilities they have, and that's the part I usually have to help them more.

Now you can redirect them to very specific sections of the PHB - one for their race, one for their class, one for their background feature. That can be done as homework. But if you still have time in the group session, let's keep it going:

First, let's fill the quick things. Proficiency bonus is always the same number (point the table on their classes for that), HP is straight forward for level 1 characters, speed is given by their race. I wouldn't recommend starting from higher levels for new players, but if you really want to, explain how to get their max HP.

From their class, they also get their Saving Throw proficiencies already, so explain them how proficiencies work and how they mark it in the sheet. Since there is no choosing here, you can already explain how to calculate Bonus. If you haven't already done it when explaining the attribute scores, tell them how to translate the Score into a Modifier. The floor((x - 10)/2) formula works fine for me since I play with math people, but you can always point out the table for them.

After that, let's get the equips. Again, show them where they are listed in their Class and in their background. I have the pages for the Armor and Weapons pinned in my PHB, as they are probably the most frequent tables I use. When they have their armor and weapons, they can fill the AC and the Attacks. Now it's a nice time to explain how attack rolls, AC and damage work.

Finally, let them choose from the skill proficiencies of the class. Explain them what each skill (they can choose from, not every skill in the game) helps them to do.

Homework

We have greatly reduced the amount of reading and time they will consume. From my experience, a 2-3hr session is enough for doing all of this and the players leave actually knowing what their characters are. Again, from my experience, they spend a lot more time if they have to learn it alone, reading every class and race and background and frequently don't understand exactly what they are doing.

Now, they have to:

  • Read their race section in Chapter 2 and learn their special features. Write them down in the sheet.
  • Read their class section in Chapter 3 and check if they have anything else to choose (Fighting style for fighter, for example). Usually I would tell them to read everything up to third level for now, so they can start thinking on their path (as usually you choose your subclass until there). Write down class features you already have (Second Wind for the fighter example).
  • Read their Background Feature in Chapter 4 and understand how they can use it in the story to exercise player agency. Write it down in the sheet.

For next sessions (actually playing):

  • Read Chapter 7 (Ability Scores/Skills) from p. 175 onwards, so they know better what they can do and what will the DM usually ask for (which roll, I mean). Usually adv/disadv is better explained during the game, imo. The DC part is also a good reading but honestly you can just tell them that or show the table.
  • Read Chapter 9 (Combat). D&D is a combat-based game. This is probably the most important chapter in the book and the only I ask my players to read entirely. They will probably not understand many things, but this is fine, they will get used while playing. The important thing here is that they understand the big picture of how combat works (i.e., initiative, rounds and turns) and what actions you are usually allowed to do. Reading this chapter is specially useful so they don't say too many "I attack" phrases.
  • Chapter 8 (Adventuring) has a lot of rules that are usually ignored from my experience. If the DM is going to use them, read it, otherwise I would ignore it.
  • Appendix A is also very relevant for combat.

And with that, your new players should be able to start playing. This seems alot, but as I mentioned, it's actually a few hours session that saves much time for the people learning and usually gets them more interested in the game than just telling them to read an entire book and come back with a sheet.

Outcome

Just to repeat myself, from the many tables I've played, the outcome of this "explain the basics and let them choose based on their feelings" method, rather than focusing on mechanical explanations, is enough for getting them started and interested. While I've got players that end up disliking their characters, either because after reading the class/race they actually interpretated it in other way than I explained, or just because they thought the character would be different, most of my new players enjoyed their characters and overall playing D&D. Obviously the system itself is great, RPGs are great, but I do think this early interaction to make things easier for them helped alot in that outcome.

Similar to spell selection, if they are too dissatisfied with their characters, I have no problem letting them choose/create another and retcon it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I really liked how you focused on the fact that it was their characters and their choice in how to play them. That alone was good enough to warrant a +1. However, I would also include some stuff on Backstory, especially if the group is going to be very RP-oriented. (It can be good for a RP-light group as well; I managed to convince an AL DM to let me Vary the Criminal background to one of an Investigator, switching from Deception to Insight proficiency, without using a +1 with a backstory concept.) It can also get boring to read, "Left home, wanted to adventure," or "Merc, wants coin." \$\endgroup\$ – SeraphsWrath May 28 '18 at 22:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeraphsWrath To be fair I didn't understand your suggestion :P - I usually let them write their own background as they want, as well as choose whatever skill proficiencies they want, as long as it makes sense with the story they are telling me. As I mentioned, I don't even show them the backgrounds from the book unless they have no idea on how to create something on their own. Then I let them (encourage, actually) to change it somehow. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 28 '18 at 22:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I've actually mentioned it in the question instead. I'm totally fine with frame challenging and your experience showing me I'm wrong though - but what I usually get is that premade characters get a lot less "love" from the players than their own created character. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 28 '18 at 22:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PixelMaster whoops and thanks. Edited - "what races fit best with their chosen class". \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 29 '18 at 7:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri I emphasize more than once exactly what you said: the thing is that you let them know the consequences of their choices. I also explicitly say that if the campaign needs optimization (which you call "crunch") you should be straightly recommending them which races actually fit that class. I'll add something in these lines in the race section as well, as it seems it's not clear there. But I'd recommend reading the "Attribute Distribution" section so you can see we are talking the same thing. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 29 '18 at 12:56
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First I ask them what they want and I break it down a few ways. Often I start with this question "What type of weapon do you want your character to use primarily?" The answer, be it staff, arrows, giant sword, axe, or magic will lead us directly into character classes. Arrows, talk about fighters or rangers, big meaty weapons generally mean some type of diesel fighter type and so on

I then simplify the classes into broad categories and ask them if they would like to play---

Healer/Support

  • Cleric*

Smashy Fighter types

  • Fighter
  • Barbarian*

  • Monk*

  • Paladin*

Close to nature types

  • Ranger*
  • Druid**

Sneaky Thief Types

  • Rogues

Magic Users

  • Sorcerer**

  • Warlock**

  • Wizard**

    You'll notice that some of these are starred. That's because for first-timers it can be a bit complex. The double starred ones I don't generally steer first-timers towards if I sense that they don't want to put in the time to learn about stuff beforehand. Single stared ones CAN be a little complicated, so I try to steer them towards an easy build. With Cleric I get them to focus on healing rather than anything fancy; with Barbarian I make sure that I remind them of special abilities and I know what's up with those, same with Paladin.

Bards are left off, mainly because I feel as though that class is one of the more customizable of the classes. You can do a number of things with it. And while you can say that about all the classes, this introduction is all about simplification. I mention bards, and if they want to play a bard, oh boy do they let you know....

Next I ask them what they see their character being good at. This helps choose race and the ability build, and while I'm at it, I explain the basics of the races in general.

Backgrounds

This really depends on the group. Is this going to be an RP heavy sort of experience or not? A new player who hasn't read up will just be dazzled by all the options, so I do a fill-in-the-blanks questionnaire.

Your family is _________________
You were raised ____________________
Your biggest joy is _________________
Your biggest tragedy is __________________
You adventure because ___________________

Just 5 questions. But those 5 questions can get them thinking, and the background can be as rich or as simple as the player would like. To kick start creativity if they get stuck (because people are shy and it doesn't always happen) I can give them starters -- Your family is a) dead b) large c) important d) full of demon worshippers e) the mafia f) full of artists g) rife with clowns h) poor...You were raised by a) wolves b) the current monarch c) in the church d) in farming community f) to be a lumberjack...Your biggest joy is a) drinking b) cleaning c) birds d) doing hair...Your biggest tragedy is a) frizzy hair b) the death of your family which you must avenge c) disappointing your family...and SO ON... basically if I throw a bunch out there and keep talking, they generally latch on to something with enthusiasm. The silly stuff keeps the pressure low.

Then, after the player fills in the blanks, I see what backgrounds fit. If they are roleplay heavy, I start with this one instead of the weapon question and work from there because, the background can often inform the rest of it.

I do let them know what a high vs a low attribute score looks like but I don't explain a lot as far as gameplay is concerned. They'll learn by doing. Homework is good, but many people learn by actually playing, and you can fill them in on rules as you go.

Everything should be molded to the playstyle you are willing to do, and what the players are willing to do. My version is the down-and-dirty quick type, throwing the players in. I don't ask for much in the way of homework for that first session, I just kind of throw them in and guide them.

How has it worked?

Introductions are tricky, and most of the newbie players I've encountered respond better to getting thrown in. A lot of first-time players I have met are hesitant about making decisions, doing it wrong or investing a lot of time into homework. So, I just simplify the options as much as possible to help them chose. This is generally enough to hook them in.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ While I disagree with the specific splitting you've made with the classes (as well as the ones tagged as hard/harder), I liked the idea of splitting them into subsets according to their main roles. I'll try it next times and see how it goes, it should help with better explaining the classes and I can focus more on the differences between a Barbarian and a Fighter or a Wizard and a Sorcerer instead of explaining everything. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 29 '18 at 7:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ how is a barbarian or monk (both without spells) more complex than a ranger, who does get spells? \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster May 29 '18 at 7:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Where does Bard fit into your class breakdown? Support or Arcane caster? (Or with sneaky rogues?) While my opinion is "support" this isn't my answer. :) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 29 '18 at 12:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Erin, I did a little formatting upgrade. Please review the edit and make sure that it fits with your answer. (Also like your immersion approach, I found over the years a similar degree of success in the 'learn by doing' mode ...) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 29 '18 at 12:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PixelMaster It isn't! I meant to star it. \$\endgroup\$ – Erin Thursby May 29 '18 at 16:52
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I'd advocate the use of pre-gen characters for newbies if the statistics and range of choice is overwhelming to them. It gives them a chance to try out a class to get a "feel" for it and will help them decide on what sort of long-term character they'd want.

Pre-gen characters do not have to be used in game. They can also be used as example characters to explain how different classes perform, how stats can affects things etc.

One-shots will help them get used to the combat and not worry too much about the character. A friend of mine has run several olympics-style one shots that allowed us to try builds or home brew classes that we were unsure about.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.se. When you have time, please take our tour. I appreciate sharing the experience, but unfortunately the question is specific on why pre-gen characters are bad in this situation. If you can elaborate on how I can make a pre-gen character that still fits in the asked description (give the player the feeling that it's her character, customized by her and tailored as she wants) your answer would be greatly improved. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 29 '18 at 17:13

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