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The group I am getting ready to DM for sat down last Wednesday to do character building together. After a little discussion, the players started building their characters. Two of the players shortly thereafter proudly announced that they were finished and were looking them over. I noticed that they hadn't selected any of the aforementioned features. They then argued they didn't need to because they knew their character. I didn't make too much of an issue at the time because I couldn't figure out if they were right or not.

Please help enlighten me as to the purpose of them and if they are important or not.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ As a matter of curiosity, do these two characters own a copy of the PHB? (Either of them or both of them?) Before I consider an answer I have gurgling around in my head, I'd like to know what books the group has. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 7 at 20:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ The group has all the 5e official books available to them at all times through me. \$\endgroup\$ – gareth the elf Sep 8 at 21:44
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As written, yes

The Player's Handbook outlines all of the details for creating characters. Nowhere does it say that personality traits, etc. are optional. D&D is meant to be a roleplaying game where you make your character act in accordance to that character's beliefs and personality.

That being said, all rules can be ignored by the DM if you so wish.

A character without personality traits will sometimes just be acting however the player would act. This can be disruptive as some players will make their characters do things that will get the party into a lot of trouble.

Or they might be fine; some players just stay quiet until combat starts.

The whole purpose of these traits is if you plan to build a story around the characters. A character whose flaw is greed might ignore the rest of the party while they are fighting for their lives in order to steal some valuable items. A character who has an insatiable thirst for knowledge might read a tome on a pedestal which is surrounded by long-dead bodies who have presumably done the same. A character who refuses to retreat when innocent lives are at risk might insist on staying and fighting an army of ogres approaching a village, even if the rest of the party want to run.

Keep in mind, though: for premade modules, this is less important unless you plan to adjust it to factor in your party members. There's no point worrying about a party member who has an alcohol addiction if they are stuck at the bottom of a dungeon with no booze.

As KorvinStarmast mentioned in the comments, the other use for character traits and roleplaying in general is for the optional rule regarding Inspiration. You might give player an inspiration to use if they do something particularly in character or for other reasons such as coming up with a clever solution to a problem.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Really good answer +1, I would argue that bonds can help the DM build the world in terms of NPC's, not just a roleplaying guide. \$\endgroup\$ – Falconer Sep 7 at 20:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ Nice addition. (If you want to point to the DMG passage on why/how inspiration gets awarded (RP based on bonds flaws etd) that gives this DM some conversational material to bring up with his players). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 7 at 21:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ "A character without personality traits will generally just be acting however the player would act" Citation needed. This whole answer rests on the assumption that just because there's nothing listed in the traits field on the character sheet this means the player will play that character without a personality. If you want to make a case for that then fine, but don't just state it as if it was a fact. \$\endgroup\$ – Cubic Sep 8 at 14:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps it should be 'however the player thinks it advantageous to act'. That type of play (often called roll-playing, since it is maximising party advantage at the expense of characterization) is not uncommon, but not all DMs are happy with it. \$\endgroup\$ – TimLymington Sep 8 at 16:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ "all rules can be ignored by the DM if you so wish" - I wonder if rule 0 can truly be ignored; for even if the DM says 'Ignore rule 0, do as you please.' then in doing so you are following rule 0... I feel like this would make a good question, not here of course but if I happen to catch some of our DnD nerds over on philosophy.se. \$\endgroup\$ – RyanfaeScotland Sep 9 at 8:01
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Even though Dungeons & Dragons is a combat-focused game, it is still a roleplaying game. The PC's personal characteristics provide guidelines for the role-playing aspect, and help shape the character's motives and values.

For new players, especially those new to roleplaying, having these guidelines can be useful. It can also help the DM maintain a coherent narrative and party cohesion.

As the DM, you could allow players to skip these character aspects. This is generally okay if your game is mostly combat and little social interaction, and you trust the players to behave themselves. But if you suspect that players may exploit the lack of defining personality or motives, such as having an unpredictable "lolrandom" character who disrupts the game, then you should ensure players have filled in these options.

However, players are not required to select personalities, ideals, bonds, and flaws from among the published options. Sifting through the many options can be tedious, particularly if none of the given options match the character concept they have in mind. The PHB (page 123) mentions the following:

Each background presented later in this chapter includes suggested characteristics that you can use the spark your imagination. You're not bound to those options, but they're a good starting point.

If players don't want to choose among the options in the book, then have them write their own. Even a one-word answer should suffice. Just ask them to write 5 things about their character:

  • 2 Personality Traits = The character's likes, dislikes, attitudes, or accomplishments.
  • 1 Ideal = The character's moral or ethical values.
  • 1 Bond = The character's connection to another character, group, location, or object.
  • 1 Flaw = The character's weakness, fear, or vice.
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Strictly Speaking, Yes... But

There is nothing in the PHB that indicates to me that any of these are optional. As always, the GM can always choose to ignore or modify certain rules as they see fit (as noted in an answer above) but it's important to understand the reason for the rules and the possible drawbacks to them.

Uses for these things:

The first use for these things is given right in the PHB: It is a tool to help the players flesh their characters out and make them coherent and consistent.

Another use, also mentioned in an answer above, is to help the GM design encounters around player characteristics: "How do I motivate these guys... aha! Bjorn is prideful and wrathful, and Sonja has it in for the merchants guild of Qithay, so if one of them insults Bjorn that should hook them!"

And a final use is to help the players coordinate amongst themselves during character creation if they so wish or if their GM nudges them on that path. I have found this extremely useful for getting PC groups that at least have some reason to be travelling together and who are not completely antagonistic to each other.

Possible drawbacks:

There are possible drawbacks, though. There are a lot of ways to categorize players, but one way is "Develop at start" and "Develop in play," which are basically what they sound like. Some players really like to front load character development like this and do it up front. If they put a younger sibling in their background, you can ignore it for 15 sessions, and then when the sibling shows up, they will remember and act accordingly. (They might even have complained, "Hey, where is my little brother in all this?")

Others are the opposite. They can go through the motions, but it takes some time before things gel, and there is just no guarantee that they will gel with what they actually wrote down. By the 15th session they may have forgotten their character has a sibling, or find that they can't summon up the right response. And so they might have trouble coming up with anything at all, or might push back against the whole exercise.

These are dramatic examples, of course, but they get at real-life behavior. I tend to be one of the former and it took a long time and multiple descriptions to really get it through my thick skull that the second type of player exists.

Now, based on your players' statements (they already knew their characters) I don't think this applies. My response would have been, "Great, I want to know your characters, too. Write it down for me, yes?" But it is useful to remember that not all players find these tools helpful.

Unfortunately, I do not have a quick, easy, or reliable way of telling what type of players I'm dealing with, except through lengthy observation.

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