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Background: I am about to start running a virtual D&D5e game over Zoom (I don't have a choice of platform) through the local library. I have invited four of my friends to join, and only one has ever played before (he plays a lvl 5 paladin in my other group and wants to do a paladin or fighter this time). None of them have the 5e books or even know the basics of generating characters.

Usually, when I help new people for their first character, we meet in person and talk, bounce things off each other, banter, interrupt each other, and only then do we even work on the mechanics. However, COVID-19 has made it so we cannot safely do that anymore.

I have access to Roll20, but nobody else does and we cannot use it in game. The library is pretty strict on that. Most communication is done by text, with a little email as well. I effectively have a week to generate 4 characters for 4 mostly-new players before the first session, plus now one for the librarian. We are starting at lvl 7 (that is where the other group is and most will be using the same characters).

How do we generate ideas and then match those with mechanics without being in person?

Update: I emailed the librarian earlier to see if the other players would be willing to make new characters or regress their characters to a lower level, probably lvl 3. I will edit when I get a response. I figure I can point her to all the “start them at lower level” responses here and that should help my case.

Another update: The librarian emailed me back. We’re starting at “a level appropriate for the number of players. Players joining your group from [other GMs]’s groups will regress their characters or create new ones at that level”. I am going to suggest starting at lvl 1, and I have already reached out to the players to update them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "None of them have the 5e books" — do they have online access to the Basic Rules? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jun 12 at 15:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Probably? I included a link to them in the campaign document, but one wants to play a paladin, one wants to be a magic-user and thinks bard would be fun, and the other two haven’t been around since Tuesday. \$\endgroup\$ – Bardic Wizard Jun 12 at 15:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Would an answer that details running a one-shot with the two players that are responsive a viable option for you? \$\endgroup\$ – GcL Jun 12 at 15:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you have to start at level 7? That is quite a challenge for new players \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jun 12 at 16:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm a bit surprised by the comments regarding roll20. It's free to use (our group has been using it for years), so what does it mean if people don't have access to it? (And why does your library care?) \$\endgroup\$ – Abigail Jun 14 at 14:35
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I would honestly handle this the same way I always handle new players in class-based RPG's. Namely, I politely explain that there are a huge number of choices involved in creating a character, many of which may have either no practical effect or have effects which are not immediately obvious, and then I offer to help them build a character where they make the big choices and I take care of all the little details that help make the character easy to play and good for the campaign/module we're running.

In most cases, the new player in question takes me up on this offer, at which point I use the following approach to working with them to generate their character:

  1. Have them come up with a generic concept based around someone from pop culture, literature, mythology, or history. I tend to be pretty strict about not doing 'hybrid' concepts here (IOW, pick one existing figure, and go solely based on that), but it's often not an issue. Maybe they want to be someone like Robin Hood or Batman (yes, I've actually made multiple Batman characters that worked in various systems), perhaps they want to emulate Gandalf the Grey, possibly they want to play a character based on a historical figure such as Ōishi Yoshio, Ecsedi Báthory Erszébet, Mahatma Gandhi, or Winston Churchill (yes, I've had all four before). The idea here is to get a baseline to narrow down possible class+subclass combinations.
  2. Give them a short list of class+subclass combinations based on their selected concept, and explain both how each works in basic terms, and why it may work for their concept. Ideally you want this to be between three and five options, much more tends to overwhelm people, much less and they often feel very limited.
  3. Once you decide on a class, show them the standard list of races, and explain how each one will help or hurt their class choice and impact their character concept in as simple terms as possible. This is when I usually cover the meanings of the different ability scores as well.
  4. Have them select which of the key ability scores for their class they want to be the high one, or for a SAD class have them pick a second score to be their high score other than the one they need from their class. Explain to them how this decision will impact how their character plays. Afterwards, have them pick a single score that they're willing to be bad at.
  5. If they're playing a spellcasting class, determine what they want to focus on in terms of spell selection. My usual approach here is to have them select from single-target damage, AoE damage, buffs, debuffs, tactical support (focused on manipulating the battlefield instead of directly buffing or debuffing), healing, and utility (limiting the list of course based on what's actually available to their class).
  6. Go over the list of backgrounds and traits with them to select ones that fit how they want their character to work. Explain that these have little impact on how the game ends up played, but may provide for story hooks. Also, this is the time to explain inspiration.
  7. At this point, you have everything you need from them for the time being. Using the above input, do the rest of the character creation as for a level one character, creating one character sheet for each way you could optimize them at level one.
  8. Present each of the characters you created to them, explain the differences, and have them pick one.
  9. If starting above level one, simply walk through the level up decisions with them.

In your case, I would go through items 1-6 remotely ASAP, cover 7 on your time, and then deal with 8 and 9 during session zero (and given that you have so many new players, you absolutely need to do a session zero).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Library rules make the session 0 required, thankfully. This is a very detailed answer. It’s three completely new players, the librarian and another player (who have played before but don’t like character creation), plus a couple people playing in the other group who have characters already. I think I will definitely use something close to your advice for getting input on character choices! \$\endgroup\$ – Bardic Wizard Jun 13 at 1:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ For any future people with similar issues: I ended up going with something very close to this answer while incorporating details from HellSaint’s answer such as trying to start at a lower level. Thank you for giving such a detailed and helpful answer! \$\endgroup\$ – Bardic Wizard Jun 15 at 4:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ I’m going to accept this answer, as it is the one I ended up using. We’ve got a paladin of conquest (again), a lore bard, a fighter, a cleric, and the librarian is playing a rogue. \$\endgroup\$ – Bardic Wizard Jun 16 at 21:24
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Let them know where the free resources are

This answer has all the link information you need for the basic rules, SRD, etc.

Provide pre-generated characters;

Let them choose from a pool of characters larger than the number of players who will be playing.
WoTC has pre-generated characters for each class - they are available from levels 1-10 - for free on their web site. Download some of those pdfs and make them available to your players: they do fit as email attachments.

As CWallach suggested: ask them what character concept appeals to them

Steer them toward a pregen that fits that concept.

After a few sessions, ask the players if they'd like to roll up replacement characters or keep the ones they have begun to play with. Have the new PC enter at whatever level/XP progress their current PC has. (Like AL does for levels 1-4). Since you are starting them at level 7, this may not be needed but with new players getting a PC that 'feels' right may take a couple of tries.

What I have suggested above is very similar to how one starts playing when using the starter set to play a first game. The Starter Set is how a lot of people got into this edition of the game.

Consider using the Starter Set or the recent Essentials Set

If you have the Starter Set, or Essentials, then simply have them pick from the pregenerated characters in there and have at it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I have the starter set and asked them about the pregens. The one who’s played before said he didn’t like those pregens (he’s so far played a conquest paladin and a monk), and I can ask the others. I’d need to level the pregens as they are starting at 7th level per the other library games. \$\endgroup\$ – Bardic Wizard Jun 12 at 15:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BardicWizard Is the player who has played before going to roll their own PC? That would be worth putting into the original question, and for sure indicate that you are starting at level 7. The WoTC pregens go up to level 7, IIRC. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 12 at 15:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually, the starter set only goes up to lvl 5. I can level the characters in the first session, though. \$\endgroup\$ – Bardic Wizard Jun 12 at 16:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ The player who has played before will not be making his own PC (he’s not really a fan of character generation). \$\endgroup\$ – Bardic Wizard Jun 12 at 16:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BardicWizard Korvin is not referring to the pregenerated characters from the starter set, he is referring to the ones in the WotC website. I would double check them before playing, though, as some of them have typos or miscalculations IIRC. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 13 at 3:13
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Reduce the decision making for the new players. Ask them in general terms how they would prefer to handle combat - melee vs ranged, weapons or magic, and so on. Then create the detailed characters for them. This removes the need for a lot of system knowledge and allows them to start actual play sooner.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That’s a great answer! I think that’d work for the three who’ve never played, maybe to tailor pregens. \$\endgroup\$ – Bardic Wizard Jun 12 at 16:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've done this in a shadowrun group. We were all more or less new to the system, so I let everyone pick a start character (given in the quick-start rules) and we played a one-shot adventure, so everyone could get a feel what the world feels like, what the different characters can do and what the possibilities are, before starting a new adventure and giving them the opportunity to build for themselves. \$\endgroup\$ – infinitezero Jun 15 at 3:18
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Pregenerated characters might be useful.

When someone has never played before, the amount of options available is very overwhelming and it is hard to know what they want to play. For the first try, pregenerated characters might be a good idea. You can then play a short introductory game (one or two sessions) to teach the basics as you go and have everyone see multiple different character variants. Side note: The word pregenerated below refers to characters made by the GM, not necessarily ones from a starter set or the internet, altgough this can also be an option, depending on the player expectations and the amount of work you can dedicate to this.

I used this technique successfully before. I had six very different characters (like barbarian, sorcerer, rogue, druid... to show off pure spellcasters and pure fighters and some intermediate options). I then let the players choose at the table without much ado and ran a very simple one session game. After that, the players had an idea what playstyle they liked and character generation for an actual campaign was a lot easier.

Pregenerated, by the way, does not mean, you cannot take input from the players. If one of your players think they want to paly a bard or a paladin, just give them an appropriate character so they can see if they actually do.

The first time you will not have to discuss much with this method since you just take some ideas from the players and do the characters for them. The second time, the discussion will be a lot more focused since the players have a better idea what they want to play and they know some terminology.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for the pregen suggestion! I have enough time to dedicate to this that I probably could generate their characters. \$\endgroup\$ – Bardic Wizard Jun 12 at 16:11
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Start at level 1

Characters get progressively more complex as they level up. There is a lot you should be considering when leveling up - how you play, how your DM plays, and how your group plays. For a group of experienced players who know each other and the DM well, it still requires coordination to create a party of level 7 characters.

You will have a vastly simpler time if you start at level 1. There is no reason why people can't regress characters to level 1, or generate new ones. I have played one of my characters in about a dozen games at varying levels, there is no problem with this.

Use the character creator

D&D Beyond has a powerful character builder. For newbies it even has a quick build which generates new characters in seconds. You can't get much easier than that. Even the regular builder will make a new character in a few minutes. As an added bonus, D&D Beyond hosts the entire basic rules for free in an easily accessible and searchable form.

Even if you absolutely cannot start at level 1 (I cannot stress enough how important it is to start at level 1), you can use the character builder to quickly make a level 7 character.

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You can create the characters yourself

So, some players are not exactly fond of character creation. I have had players that would love to play a campaign, but I would have to give them a ready character, because they simply don't like the character generation thing, especially the mechanics part. So, what I usually do is:

  • Ask them what kind of character they want to play. From the comments, it seems they have some idea about that: one wants a paladin, one wants a spellcaster, leaning towards a bard.

  • Get more details from them about their characters. What kind of paladin? A vengeful one, a naturalistic one? Try to give them a high level idea about their choices, and then build the character accordingly.

  • For things that are not mechanics (like personality, background...), just ask them to have a well defined portrayal of their characters.

Note that this only works if the campaign is not particularly challenging, as the concept of the character that they want to play may lead to a subpar character. Some subclasses are simply weak, although their concept is nice. They surely can still be fun to play, but if the campaign is challenging, then they most likely will not be fun (it's not fun to feel useless or a burden).

Also, for some other players, it might be important to actually feel like they created their own characters, so, in that case...

Help them as much as you can in narrowing their choices

This will be similar to Austin's answer. I follow a systematic way of choosing a class for new players, which is the following:

  • First, I narrow it to Spellcasters, Martial fighters or a mix of both. By the way, I consider Warlock a mix of both.

  • If they choose spellcasters, I explain the distinguishable features of Bards, Wizards, Sorcerers, Clerics and Druids. If they go for martial, I ask them whether they prefer melee or ranged combat, and then proceed to explain the idea behind Rogues, Fighters, Barbarians and Monks. If they choose the mix, I explain Paladin, Ranger and Warlock, as well as Eldritch Knight and Arcane Trickster.

  • Once they have chosen their class, I usually explain what each attribute does and how it is important to their class. So, if they chose to play a ranged Fighter, I will explain that Dexterity is what is going to be used for their attacks, as well as defining their armor, Con will provide them health and the overall utility of the other attributes.

  • Then, once they understand the importance of each attribute to their class, they are ready to choose their race. By then, it should be clear that choosing the Half-elf for the Barbarian is not the best idea - but if they want to do that, sure.

  • "Finally", they can distribute the attributes. This should be easy. I found out that using the Default system is not a huge problem for most campaigns and is quite helpful for new players, although I personally prefer to let them point-buy it.

So, with this, as for mechanics, it is just a matter of choosing equipment, but being fair there isn't much choice here, and, for spellcasters, spell selection. Spell selection is very tricky and usually requires guides for new players. Read my section below on my thoughts on it, but anyway, this would require you providing a somewhat more careful and close help to them, either by a zoom call or something else. If you really can't arrange that, then I would ask if choosing the spells is really important to them - if it is not, go back to the previous section, if it is, refer them to decent guides. Honestly, if they don't have time to read a guide, playing a spellcaster will be harsh.

For subclass choice, it should be simple by now, as it is already narrowed to a class (and depending on their choices, even to a subclass already). Again, you can explain the subclasses available, their major distinguishable characteristics and let them choose.

Then, finally, for their stories, personality and everything else that constitutes the role-playing itself, I never found it to be a problem even for new players. They usually struggle in the mechanics, not in the "character creation" from a storytelling point-of-view.

Now, something that I consider that should be said here...

You might be overshooting

So, from what I understood, there are many limitations for the campaign. For whatever reason, the resources for your party are quite limited (they don't have access to roll20, you can't choose the platform, they don't have access to the books) and the players are busy people that, from what it seems, can't spend too much time reading, studying and understanding the system by themselves. Even for simple communication between you, it may take a few days.

Then, with all of these limitations, you are starting a 7th level campaign. I will be straight forward here: this looks like a bad idea. The new players will be overwhelmed. Usually, it would take weeks playing regularly for characters to get to 7th level. Players would have accumulated dozens of hours of experience playing the system. From my experience, throwing so many mechanics, spells and features all at once has a very high chance of making them not wanting to play any more, simply because it is not fun to play when you don't understand what is happening. In particular, I strongly recommend against high level full casters for new players. There are way too many spell choices and, even if the spells are given, too many spells to remember effects and understand in what situation which one should be used, unless they can actually spend some free time reading the spells and some guides.

Either way, I understand that these are limitations imposed on you by the library, but I would certainly at least a few sessions with the new players at low levels (at most 3) before throwing them at the 7th level campaign. You said they "knew it was going to be this way when they signed up" - but did they really? They don't know how to make a character sheet (as per this question), so how can they understand how complex it is to start a campaign at 7th level? So, please, consider running a low level adventure with the new players so they can get used to the basics of the system (attack rolls, saving throws, AC, HP, ability checks, (dis)advantage, etc) before they have to play with a character designed for someone with more than 30 hours playing the system already.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I get your concerns. My abilities to change a lot are minimal, but the paladin lover is part of my (5th level) other group and the others I can probably invite to a short additional session if it seems necessary. It’s not a busy time here, but at least two of the new players have work so I’m much freer than they are. \$\endgroup\$ – Bardic Wizard Jun 13 at 4:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ I didn’t realize this until I missed the edit window, but that additional session or two would be at a lower level. \$\endgroup\$ – Bardic Wizard Jun 13 at 5:12

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