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Having spent lockdown watching us play from the sidelines, and having played in one-shots of a couple of different systems, the partner of one of our players would like to join the D&D campaign I am running. As a DM, I have no issues with this; she gets the game and has been reading the rules, and the party of 4 could easily accept a 5th member.

However, I am now wondering how best to create her character with her. In the past, when a party member has joined a campaign I am running, they have not been new to role-playing - it was not their first campaign, and so they had already experienced taking a level 1 character through the ranks. Therefore, starting them at the same or a slightly lower level than the party was not an issue; they had played enough to be able to quickly pick up all the extra skills and abilities a sudden jump gives them, and the magic items I allow them to start with at that level were not something more to learn to use.

The party are all roughly level 8-10 right now, so I can’t bring her on as a level 1 character.

What is the best way to help her not feel overwhelmed by everything, while allowing her to jump in with a more powerful character than most start with?

She hasn’t yet told me her race or class. We are planning an evening together to flesh all that out soon, and I would like to go in prepared with some tips to help her get the most out of this, so we can avoid her spending the first few sessions feeling lost as she tries to remember everything her character can do.

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Simplify their choices

The breadth of choice during character creation and combat is usually the thing that overwhelms new players the most. I will give you a couple of ways I have simplified these options for new players I have played with. But first a disclaimer for your specific situation.

Does this player actually need help?

It's great that you are proactively searching for a solution to a potential problem, that's the sign of a good DM. However you have said the player has played a few ones shots, "gets the game and has been reading the rules". To me that sounds like someone who might be capable of taking on an 8-10th level character without too many issues.

If you help them through the character creation process and maybe be a little lenient on them knowing the rules for the first few sessions, you may find you are worried over nothing. It's best to check in with the player and see what level of help they feel they might need.

Simpler Character Creation

5th edition has done a good job of reducing the number of choices players need to make during character creation, it is one of the reasons the game is so popular with new players. Therefore I have found this to be much less of an issue than with a game like Pathfinder 1e.

There is a lot of good advice on helping players with character creation on this site and I won't repeat it all here. It is worth reading the following questions for ideas:

My major advice for helping new players create characters is to let them changes their minds later. Inexperienced players have no way of knowing if a certain cool sounding ability is actually good or not. So I take the pressure off by letting them changes out choices later on once they learn more about the game and their character.

For my first time party I actually let them all completely re-stat their characters after reaching level 4 as many had use point-buy poorly and weren't enjoying the way their characters worked. The players all loved this as it let them be the character they actually wanted to be rather than the one they thought they wanted to be before playing.

Simpler During Play

Many classes and characters have a huge variety of tools at their disposal during gameplay. The options can often paralyze new players as they struggle to choose what to do. I have successfully used a few tactics to help my players overcome this.

  1. List their options. If a new player is stuck in the "I don't know what to do" phase, you can help by quickly giving them a short (2-4 item) list of options their character would be capable of doing. Sometime new players simply can't think of what the options are so by laying them out like this you allow them to choose the best one for their circumstance.
  2. Spellcasting Loadouts. Usually the most likely classes to overwhelm new players are spellcasters. Choosing their spells for the day from an enormous list is complicated and confusing. The best solution for them is to help them create "spell loadouts". A preset list of spells for a certain situation. You might create 3 loadouts, one for exploring, one for combat, and one for in town/social encounters. Doing so reduces the players options from 10+ choices of spells across varying levels to just a choice between 3 loadouts for that particular day.
  3. Identify a good default action. One thing I have done with my players is try to work out a decent default action to take in combat. If they are confused or unsure they just do that and it will always be a decent action to take. For example I have a Bard who used to struggle with options in combat, I gave her a magical crossbow and now her default action is "shoot crossbow, use bardic inspiration".

Specific options and recommendations will vary based on the class they choose and the person playing it. Different players struggle in different situations and it can be good to come back and ask us for specific advice if they are encountering a particular issue.

A More Drastic Solution

The advice I have given above assumes you want to stick with the standard rules for your player, which would be my normal suggestion. However, if you have a player you think will really struggle, or a group of entirely new players I have another option.

My friend and I developed a set of homebrew/house-rules to create simplified characters that are as easy to play as first level characters but won't get squished trying to play at higher levels. We call it "signature abilities".

You give them the hitpoints, ability scores proficiency bonuses and appropriate equipment for the level you want them to be. Straight statistical bonuses are easy for new players to understand. There is no real difference between adding +3 and +8 other than you are more likely to hit, which is good.

Then, instead of giving them their full set of class abilities you choose a few that are the core features of their class. For fighter's we granted Action Surge and Extra Attack, Bards we gave Bardic Inspiration and Vicious Mockery. Clerics and Wizards we gave a short list of spells 4-5 signature spells and a number of spell slot but dropped the spell level part to simplify the mechanics.

The goal is to give the feel of the class and let them do some cool things without being bogged down by the mechanics. This system has been a storming success. We developed it to run a one shot for 20+ players for a birthday party and we have used it multiple times since to introduce new players to the game.

As your player becomes more confident you can introduce more rules and mechanics back into their character. Eventually becoming a full character once they are ready. This system can slightly upset the power dynamics but it is focused on getting new players enjoying the game as quickly as possible. Which to me is really the goal.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The signature ability sounds awesome. Both as a way to introduce a player or just as a way to easily juggle between multiple characters or try a few of them. You get my +1 for this alone and I'll steal it when I have an occasion! \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Aug 6 at 0:42
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Allow Test-Drives and Do-Overs

Basically, if a mismatch becomes evident between the character sheet as generated vs what the player actually wants fairly early in playing the character, let the player revise the character sheet.

Note that it does not really matter why this mismatch occurs-- if you help them and misunderstood what they wanted, or misjudged how to achieve it, allow the revision. If the player misunderstood the rules and did it to themself, allow the revision.

Don't lock them into bad initial choices.

But there is no need to go nuts with this, or allow constant revisions. One, maaaaybe two in this case, ought to be enough to get in the ballpark for a player making revisions in good faith.


This is an opportunity I afford to all players in almost all my games. If it's their first time playing with me as a GM, for instance, we have to adapt to each other, and that's often easiest by letting them revise a character. If my normal group is moving to a new system, they have to adapt to that and sometimes so do I. This is just an extreme case of adaptation-- your player is adapting to an entirely new hobby!

I've found it reduces some of the stress, and certainly the paralysis-by-analysis of making a new character, if the player knows they aren't locked into a bad decision.

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Goals

First, consider what you're trying to determine. Here are some suggestions:

  • Is the player comfortable with the game, DM, and other players, enough to enjoy playing?
  • Is the player comfortable with the basic rules?
  • Is the player comfortable with the character's backstory?
  • Is the player comfortable with the character's specific abilities?
  • What notable events in the character's backstory inform their Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws?
  • What is the character's place in the world?
  • What is the character's place in the plot?
  • What parts of the world don't the party usually see?

Fortunately, there's a great way to determine all of the above.

Flashback Session

I suggest running a session that focuses on two or three formative events from this character's past.

The Rules

It should be clear to everyone that nothing is being set in stone until the end of the session. What half-orc wizard? Of course her character has been a halfling barbarian the whole time. No idea who you're talking about. You can even start with blanks on her character sheet and fill them in as you go (particularly for Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws).

I wouldn't necessarily state it outright, but this is also a good way to trial run the game for her. If it turns out she doesn't like it, you can always declare the session null and void. No harm, no foul.

The Players

The people attending can (should!) be the whole party. There is no point in keeping secrets from them, though there may be a point to keeping secrets from their characters. This can also be a nice break for your normal weekly game (but get buy in from those players first!). If your player isn't comfortable with having everyone there, consider just one or two other players. I'd advise against one on one, because it can be very intimidating to new players to have the GM looking expectantly at you every few minutes while you draw a blank.

The other players, if any, can have some fun here as well. Let them try out one-off characters, whether as PCs or NPCs. This can be great fodder for bringing in new characters to your main story line. Note that their characters don't even need to be in any kind of party or relationship with the main character. A chance encounter of the same-place-at-the-same-time variety is enough. Maybe they're on the same side in a bar brawl, or got matched against each other in a tournament of some kind.

The Plan

The goal is to answer as many of the opening questions as possible. The tool to do that is to run a session. To ease the player into things, try running a combat and a non-combat encounter at each of levels one, three, and five or six. The idea is to give her the one to N leveling experience in a condensed form. This is helped by the fact that it's her flashback session, so she should get half or more of the group's focus, as opposed to the 1/5 she can expect in a normal five player session.

You can skip level one if you think the player is comfortable enough with the bare basics. Level three is recommended because that's when most classes get their iconic and differentiating archetypes. Full casting classes also get second level spells, which is a good introduction to their resource management. Level five gets martial types an extra attack and casters third level spells. If the chosen class has a cool and exciting ability at level six, just go with it. That one level shouldn't make a big difference in combat or anything, and if it helps her get a feel for the class, then why not?

After each level, ask a quick question or two on how she's feeling about everything. If a the character made a big decision, or better yet had a strong instinctive reaction, take a look at the Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. Remember, nothing in the character is set in stone yet, and it's totally fine to take a half hour or so to roll up a new character.

When you're done with the session, you can level up the character to be in line with the rest of the party. I'd suggest the lowest, but at your discretion you can put her at the average instead.

The DM

As mentioned above, this is a great way to answer a variety of questions about the character, like where that trinket or magic item came from, how they got a scar, or why they hate corn. It can also answer things like why they have a vendetta against Vile MacEvil-Visage or one of his henchmen.

Your job as DM is to have a good idea of how those encounters will work together to bring the character into an alliance with the party. Don't just have a generic goblin encounter here when the party is fighting a lich in the future.

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It might not be the most eloquent method. But for me, when newer players get new abilities, I try to give them a very short explanation of when the abilities make the most sense to use. I also offer them reminders about the abilities for at least a few sessions when it would make sense to use them (or at least be reasonable).

Usually at my tables, players will accept some guidance from the DM with less reluctance than from another player, which could feel a bit patronizing, or like one player is playing multiple characters. I also try to work in at least some options, even if there isn't a great alternative. "You can use your Shield spell as a reaction to block this attack, but you might also want to save the spell slots for later."

Of course all of this may feel different at your tables, so find out what your player is comfortable with. Some want to memorize every stat and ability. And some just want to play a character and appreciate reminders.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your first paragraph doesn't really address the problem of a newer player getting eight or ten levels worth of abilities all at once. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Aug 5 at 14:25
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Is she up for sitting in on sessions without having a character? Just to witness game mechanics and flow. Then after she has created her character and gone through some 1-on-1s, and is now perhaps level 2 -- poof one of those NPCs they just interacted with is her new character. They might not expect it if she has been a non-combatant.

From experience, if you switch to XP based leveling, a new character will quickly gain levels compared to the others if you are dividing XP. This way the new player is also allowing the personality of the character to develop with game-play. Yes, they will have to be trying to avoid getting hit, yes they will need a lot of healing potions, but it is worth it to develope the relationship with the rest of the party.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As per my question she has been sitting in listening as we played remotely due to lockdown, I have thought of doing 1 side quest to build her character up but I don’t have the time to invest in a number of 1 on 1 adventures to level her up. I already run an XP level system, Personally I prefer it a lot more as I run a very free flowing open world campaign. I did consider bringing her in at level 1 but I really feel that spending the first several sessions unable to really contribute stats or skills wise will demoralize her and the party isn’t large enough to protect her constantly. \$\endgroup\$ – Richard C Aug 5 at 17:25

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