I am starting a new dnd 5e group, and all the players have never played before. I did session zero, it all went well, but I think they were overwhelmed by the amount of information. I asked them for next session to choose their species, class and create a backstory.

I had an idea to help them fill their character sheets by doing a "tutorial" session, in which I bring up the most relevant elements of the game and help them fill out their character sheets when each element comes up. For example, a monster attacks and it will roll to hit against a player's armor class. Then I explain what armor class is, tell them how to calculate it and have them write down in their sheets. If the monster hits, I tell them about hit points, have them calculate it and put it down in their sheets, minus the damage.

Has anyone tried something similar before? Did it work well or did it get messy and confusing for the players? What are some pitfalls I should watch out for?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: How to make character creation quick, interactive, and fun? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 15:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JackAidley I generally agree, if there’s an opportunity to play outside of the ongoing play group. (I run intro to roleplaying workshops and give out characters for this reason.) But I find most new players want to make their own characters, and are reluctant to learn by playing with one character and then making another in the same group, since they feel the story has already started. So a compromise helps, and this kind of build as you play activity is one way that I’ve found really works. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 21:10

3 Answers 3


So yes, I have tried this, and in fact in at least a limited way I do it with most games I run. You can read my previous answer about it, to a question about making character creation simpler, here: A: How can you make character creation simpler?

It does work well, and I don’t think you’ll have any problems with the rules explanations; filling in the sheet at the time will help them remember what goes where!

But, especially with new players, there are some potential pitfalls when it comes to choices they’ll need to make, and based on your setup of only choosing species, class and backstory, there will be a lot of those. Here’s some advice on how to do this so you can avoid those problems:

  • Be flexible where you can. This is easier in a lot of games that have point buy (e.g. GURPS, Storyteller/Storytelling system games etc), and isn’t as much of an issue in games with very strict class equivalents (like most Powered by the Apocalypse games), but for D&D it means (for example) not constraining skill and other proficiency choices to the specific backgrounds, but allowing customisation of them instead. (Rules for that are in the Players Handbook.)
  • Think about about how you frame each question, and how that will influence the players’ choices. For example if you ask if a player wants their character to be proficient in Perception when they are trying to find a hidden monster, they will almost certainly say yes, since that helps them to achieve what they want their character to do in that moment. You can instead ask in a way that suggests more what proficiency means in character terms; as FerventHippo mentioned in the comments, “is your character constantly on the lookout for goblins, or is their mind occupied with something else?” could work in this instance.
  • It can also help with the above problem to let players know how many picks they have for things like skills or equipment, so they can prioritise. Most characters only start with proficiency in four or five skills, after all. So you might also ask the above question with a reminder of that, and two options for the current situation that fit in with what they’ve already said: “You’ve described your character as always ready for trouble; is that because they’re always on the lookout for danger, and they’re good at noticing it? That might mean Perception is one of the four skills they have. Or do they just have really good reflexes, and react quickly when danger arrives? That doesn't need a skill, but you might put one of your higher Ability Scores in Dexterity, which helps you act earlier in combat.” (Assuming you’re also doing Ability Score picks; if so I recommend using the standard array and having the discussion about key Ability Scores first.)
  • And I do recommend tailoring the questions to both what the players do, and what you already know of their characters. This can stem from the classic “what do you do?” moment, which is a good time to follow up by asking if they think that’s something they’re good at and do often. For example: “You want to try and talk to the goblins, that’s great! Is their language one of the couple of extra ones your character speaks, or do you just talk to them in Common, the language everyone knows?” Plus in this case asking them what they say will give a good indication of whether they might be trained in Deception, Persuasion or Intimidation - or none of those!
  • If a player needs to pick from a lot of options, say choosing what weapon their character uses when they first attack, have two or three options tailored to what you know of their character prepared for them rather than the full list of stuff from the rule book. Be prepared that they might not want things from that list; this is good! It means they have a pretty good idea of what they do want, though you might have to work with them to get to an answer quickly.
  • On a bigger scale, look for opportunities to introduce the choices and rules so that they build on one another. You might do Ability Scores first with a couple of Ability Checks that don’t use skills, then skill proficiencies, then weapon choices etc. If you’re not confident in being able to improvise that, script it for yourself as part of prepping the adventure.
  • Ask questions in a way that not only ties back to the roleplaying aspects of their character, bit also invites discussion with the other players - this gets them thinking about how their characters work together as a team. So another way to have that skill discussion could be: “Someone in the group is probably known for having the sharpest senses; who do you think it is?”
  • You can follow up with questions to clarify the why behind a choice, which will help you work out rules-wise how to make it work. But if you want to keep up the pace, I recommend making some notes and coming back to the rules choices later. (So you might note the character who has Perception proficiency said they’ve spent a lot of time tracking dangerous beasts, and later work out a background that works for that.)
  • Make it clear upfront that these choices don’t have to be permanent and you can work something out if anyone doesn’t like what they picked, but you are going to run with what they choose during the first game. This relieves player anxiety about having to make the “right” choice in the moment without knowing everything about the consequences of that choice.
  • Don’t be afraid to make suggestions. D&D (and most roleplaying games) makes heavy use of archetypes and tropes, and you can help your players lean into or subvert them while also guiding them to make choices that will give them a character that is good at the things they want to be doing in the game.
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The first point is great, and would be even better if supplied with an example of a good framing. I usually frame it as "do you think [Aragorn, strider of the North] is constantly on the lookout for goblins, or is his mind occupied with something else?" \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 17:48

This has been done officially, in previous editions

It seems like you are willing to take on more work yourself, as a DM, in order to shift some of that away from the players, so that they can have more organic growth into their characters over time. If your willingness to prepare for this includes updating rules or scenarios from previous editions, you might consider adapting some of the following, or at least mining them for inspiration:

Treasure Hunt was a first edition module whose premise was that the characters begin as 0th level and classless, and grow into their classes over the course of their adventure as they make decisions. The module is structured to provide many of these 'decision points' and seems the most promising for your purposes.

The hardback rules supplement Greyhawk Adventures was a bridge product between first and second edition. It included an appendix with several pages of detailed rules for 0th level classless characters who are in the process of becoming PC's. Under these rules, a character could attempt anything, and with a random roll might attain enough Insight to use the power of a certain class. With a good roll, for example, any character could cast a specific spell as a 12th level cleric - but that granted no knowledge of other spells or any guarantee that this could be done again. Successes at attempting certain things eventually canalize development into one of the classes.

The fourth edition Temple of the Weeping Goddess was described as a sequel and tribute to Treasure Hunt, where characters begin as 0th level and classless orphans whose decisions while exploring a ruined temple allow them to grow into a class.

A key difference between these products and Guybrush McKenzie's excellent suggestions are that these all assume the characters do not have abilities yet, and are discovering them for themselves, whereas McKensie's suggestions more directly align with your premise that the characters all already have a class and skill proficiencies, they just haven't been revealed 'on-screen' yet.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ This is a great answer. I’d add that Alas Vegas and its descendant, Relics, have an entire system built around characters who remember what they can do, so there are games beyond D&D that can be good inspiration for this as well. Closer to D&D, Dungeon Crawl Classics has zero-level starting characters, as does Shadow of the Demon Lord; the latter includes suggestions for initial character choices to shape Novice class choices as well. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 16:12

When I tried this, my players quickly became frustrated with what their characters couldn't do, because "I didn't tell them the rules, and they don't know how to play".

My most successful pattern thus far has been to have a session-0, and have them generate character ideas, but I do not give them books, or sheets to fill out. Instead, I seat them on a couch, and verbally describe the basics of how D&D works, and make sure they're aware that combat is ~half of the game, and very vaguely describe the character archetypes as either "strong fighters", "dexterous tricksters", "tough defenders", "intelligent mages", "nature mages", "holy warriors", and "charismatic bards". I also make it clear that they can mix two archetypes togeather if they choose. Then I assist them in generating a cool backstory/history/friends/etc for their character, and they'll usually tie their character into one or two of those seven archetypes.

From there, then I verbally list of the races in the game, and vaguely describe them, and the players pick a race. Then I verbally describe "the combat styles" (aka character classes) that sort of match their concept, and they pick a class. Similarly, we verbally make any subsequent choices for the race/class/equipment (note: no magic yet). Using this method, players do not have lists of options to analyze and compare, and thus do not get overwhelmed, and generally make really cool characters that they're excited to play.

Once we've picked everything except magic spells, I fill out the sheet, and show them the options that they selected, and describe the armor and resistances, and show them the attacks, and tell them I'll explain how to read the attacks when they're needed. Again, this sidesteps the intimidating empty sheet, and not understanding what to write. They are instead presented with thier character, and can see and understand ~half the sheet, and remain excited.

The very last step is to show them the spells their character can learn right away, and help them pick their starting spells. This is really the only point where the players see a huge list and get overwhelmed, but there's so many spells that I can't really do this step verbally.

In the second session, we play, and they very quickly work out how to use skills, and then once combat starts, they very quickly work out how to use attacks, spells, and defenses. I've noted that newer players do tend to still get frustrated with being surprised by status effects, and also how easy it is to get knocked unconscious. I haven't yet tested good solutions for those.

As a final note, when doing this method, its common for new players to realize they would have preferred different choices. That's fine. I generally let new players change any aspect of their character in the first ~5 sessions or so, as long as they maintain their general character archetype and backstory. One new 4e player described her character as a "backline warlord that tells other people how to fight", so we made her a 4e Warlord (similar to a Paladin), which literally matched the name she used, and has abilities to tell other characters to attack. After ~5 sessions she decided this wasn't quite what she imagined, and we remade her sheet as a Cleric, and she was more pleased with that, despite it not having abilities to tell other characters to attack. Despite what appears to be a massive change, that's still a "holy warrior", and had no impact whatsoever on the campaign or team, and one other player didn't even notice for two sessions. It's totally fine.


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