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My players are paralyzed about making their characters and as a GM what can I do to help?

The players are new to role playing games let alone D&D 5e, and are getting bogged down. They tried out their characters in the first session, but I could tell some were not really happy with the game. Three players were fine, but two didn't really seem to enjoy the characters they had made. One had mostly bad rolls as a ranger, and the other was having second thoughts about a paladin. Now they're having trouble choosing what they want to build. They're second guessing themselves, and they're discussing options based on what they think the group "needs" and not what they want.

I've found a few questions that deal with similar issues:

Investing in one Character, Spell Analysis Paralysis, and Frequent Switchers though helpful, do not really hit at the heart of this particular problem.

How can a GM help players make character creation choices without doubting themselves and play characters they want to play?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you describe the particulars of the unhappiness? The ranger was sad due to poor rolls but what about the others? \$\endgroup\$ – tex May 29 '15 at 17:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @tex I'm not entirely sure, I think part of it was the fluff surrounding paladins. I really don't know. \$\endgroup\$ – SolidusVerum May 29 '15 at 18:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not really a full answer, but we had fun with characters I didn't like once the DM or I gave them something unique. One rogue had his soul trapped in a soul gem, but could still control his body while touching it. It gave him instant motivation, depth and flavor. \$\endgroup\$ – Thane Brimhall May 30 '15 at 14:02
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There's an apparent paradox in character creation for an unfamiliar game: to effectively and confidently make a character requires knowing the game, but to know the game you have to already have made and played a character. It's not really a paradox, but it can feel like it when you have limited time to play and want to get started as soon as possible in order to get right into the fun of an ongoing campaign.

There's a simple solution that has worked well and consistently for me, but which requires trusting that patience pays off.

Play a demo session first

What has been successful for me across RPGs is to run a one-shot demo session using the new game before we make our real characters in our real campaign. This introduces the players to the moving parts of a character through hands-on playing experience, which gives them a basic understanding of what's important when making characters. This can also effectively introduce the players to the setting and playstyle that they will be making characters for later.

Whether the demo characters are pre-made or made by the players doesn't seem to matter. (If they know these are throw-away characters, they don't suffer nearly as much analysis paralysis in making their own.) What matters most is that the demo session gives them an experience that reflects the realities of play that should be informing their character creation choices.

For example, in a game where understanding the skill system is critical for character creation and evaluating character effectiveness (RuneQuest 6), I have run an "obstacle course" session where they made characters and then played through an in-setting coming-of-age trial that involved a lot of skill use (but no combat or risk of death). By the end, players had a visceral understanding of what was and wasn't a good skill rating — one player initially thought that 35% was a good skill and spread their points around to hit that number in as many skills as possible, and came out of the demo realising that she'd underestimated that by half and that choosing a few core skills to maximise first, before spreading the other points around, was key. They all also profited from the crash course in the cultural context they'd later be playing in.

In another game where the interplay of character creation choices and combat is a big deal (Savage Worlds), I had them make one-off characters and then threw them into a dungeon that I knew well enough to run on-the-fly. They had the freedom to go where they wished and test their characters in a variety of non-combat and combat situations. As a result, they got a good sense of how the game functions overall and in its combat, magic, opposed skill, and healing subsystems in a very short time, and were confident making characters for the longer-scale fantasy campaign we later kicked off. Notably, when we started that campaign we had a new player, who had a much harder time creating her character than the ones who had the demo session initiation.

In both these examples, taking the time to give the group early hands-on experience with characters and the system meant that the players were confident and quick in future character creation for the real game. The difference was like night and day: where before they were lost and stumbling through the options, afterwards they were focused and dove into the chargen process with clear goals in mind.

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What I've done for new players in the past (for GURPS fantasy, but this is really a system agnostic problem) is walk through character creation in an interview style. "What kind of character do you see yourself playing?" "What does she look like? How does she dress? What's she good at?" and then use that information to guide the character build, or build for the player. If they ask what the party needs, I often respond with something like "They need you to be comfortable with your character -- you'll be taking on jobs based on your group's abilities, not things that are already set up for you, so choose something you'll be happy with."

Of course, this last is best in a sandbox or at least homebrew campaign, but it can be fit into even module adventures with a little tweaking (of characters or encounters).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Or, if they get a bit overwhelmed because it's their first time, limit their options with questions like: "What kind of role do you want to fulfill?" "Would you like to lead the group into battle, or rather stand back, as far from the creatures as possible?" \$\endgroup\$ – Joninean May 29 '15 at 13:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ Questions I use for this approach: "What kinds of things do you want to do in the game (fight, sneak around, banter with foes, etc)?". "What kinds of things do you want to say (witty quips, serious ideas, constant chatter, occasional wisdom)?". These questions help place a player into the mindset of the character they might want. Listen to everything they say there, and help them build forward from it. \$\endgroup\$ – Jessa May 29 '15 at 18:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is another nice set of questions to use: plus1gaming.com/2011/07/… \$\endgroup\$ – Jessa May 29 '15 at 18:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for discussion. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica May 29 '15 at 20:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ I generally ask new players "Which fictional or historical character do you want to be?" And if they pick Robin Hood, I set them up as a ranger. \$\endgroup\$ – Thane Brimhall May 30 '15 at 14:05
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Generally there is only one reason people have problems making decisions: they cannot foresee the consequences of their decisions.

There are various reasons why they cannot do so. They may have only parts of the required information. They may have never done it before so they cannot really evaluate the information they have. Or maybe they have all the information and it's too much to process and come to a decision in the timeframe given.

In your case, it's probably a bit of everything. They do not know everything there is to know. Even if they have read all the info they can get, they never did it before, so for example they will not know how often they can actually use the skill or feat or ability they are trying to evaluate. And last but not least a players handbook isn't actually a thin leaflet. That's a lot of information to process and the evening is short.

So what can you do? You cannot really change any of those aspects. With time, they will learn more information, learn better ways of evaluating the information and will create their characters in their own time at home between sessions. But right now?

They are afraid that if they pick a choice, they will be stuck with it. So they try to chose carefully. Remove that fear. Make sure they can pick something and if they don't like it, they can change it.

I have not done this for 5e as I have not played it with new players, but in other systems (and I think this translates 1:1 to 5e) I had a rule for new players: as long as you did not do something outright spectacular with a skill, feat, spell or whatever, you can give it back and trade it for something else that you could have chosen instead. Once you did do something cool with it, it's yours forever.

It helps a lot if as a DM you can say "just take that feat, you can pick another one if that's not cool".

So the worst case consequence of their decision is, that they will be put into the same situation for the same decision again later.

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Do what the Adventurer's League does: nothing is permanent until the PC reaches 5th level. Until then, they can change anything and everything between sessions; switch ability scores, change race, change class, change class features. Sort of a try before you buy.

If you are worried about verisimilitude, don't. You're introducing people to the game, it's more important that they have fun than that the world is totally consistent.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like that idea a lot. I told all my players that they would be able to change their characters around until their second adventure - But having a level cutoff makes more sense, especially if you have late joiners. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Johnson Jul 20 '17 at 16:01
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I do similar to Zeiss but if the party is mostly experienced players, I suggest that the new guy play a non-magic using character, like a fighter, barbarian or rogue, maybe a ranger or a paladin if they've played some of the electronic RPGs. Why? Because getting your head wrapped around RPGs in general and D&D specifically can be daunting as it is. Nearly everybody understands the idea of smashing somebody with you war hammer or slashing with a sword looks like. I can see new folks have trouble with what spells do and ask, "If I'm a wizard, why can I only cast 2 level 1 spells between rests?"

That said, if I have a bunch of new folks (like the whole party), I'd suggest we do a D&D equivalent of the Roll For Shoes game with quickly generated (or even pre-generated) fighters to get their feet wet (no pun intended).

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I (and my players) are new to D&D too, and I am running through the same kind of problems. Here are a few ideas I tried in order to deal with it.

Removing the choice. Make it so that your players do not chose the character they will play. This can be done in a number of ways: build it for them, roll everything, or make them create characters and then switch.

Building their character for them is especially useful since your players probably know the rules very poorly. This means that even if they have an idea of the kind of character they want to make ("I want to have a big axe and ride on a big horse"), they do not always see the skills needed to achieve that.

Also, this does not necessarily means no RP: being given a role and trying to interpret it is usually quite entertaining if the player agrees to it.

Getting your players to familiarize themselves with the rules. Some of your players will probably want to optimize their builds a little bit. This is very complicated to do without having some experience in how the game actually plays.

Consider letting your players create their characters outside the sessions, so that they have all the time they need to study the rules. Or you could let your players delay some choices until later in the game: skill points or spell lists are good examples of that sort of things

Practice makes perfect. Even if your players do not like their first character, they will probably get better at it the second time, once they see what they liked/disliked in their previous attempt.

Running short adventures in the beginning enables your players to reroll characters regularly at first (though they can still keep the same character if they wish). If you are already in a big campaign, you can "kill" the character (or make him go away / disappear one way or an other) and let the player reroll a new one.

Giving a PC the control of an NPC may also be a good idea: it gives them an example of characters with a back-story a coherent build.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Isn't there a compromise between "Play this prefabricated character" and "Make a character from scratch"? It doesn't have to be so black and white. I don't know D&D 5E specifically, but most RPG core rulebooks have examples of typical character builds--the stereotypical big not-too-bright barbarian, sneaky rogue, pious priest with strong holy magic and fair fighting ability, etc. How about suggesting to newbie players that they take one of those to start and add details to make it their own? \$\endgroup\$ – dodgethesteamroller May 29 '15 at 17:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @CharlieHorse Please post an answer if you want to suggest a solution. Comments are not for answering. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 3 '15 at 19:31
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It's somewhat understandable, especially if they are first time players. It's still possible in 5e to make a very effective or a very useless character if you make the wrong choices. And understanding those choices can only come from playing the game and seeing the rules in action (and learning what mechanics are prominent in your DMing style). 5e does have the "quick build" sections for each class, which should lead to a fairly well-rounded character.

Give them pre-made characters

This is a bit of work, but does solve the issue. Prepare some characters, this can be as many as you have players, or it can be more to give them choice, or it can be less if you have players that are comfortable making characters. Let them pick one, and change whatever details they like, such as background (it helps to keep a record of what trait gives what bonuses to make the customization less confusing, eg. for a race like half-elf what abilities you chose for the +1).

The good news is that making characters in bulk has some serious scale effects that help you out. The first one always takes time, but once you've both refreshed your memory on the process, and gotten into the "character creation" mindset, all other characters are much easier to make.

Guide them through creation

I usually have a process like the following:

  1. Ask the other players what they will make, and try to figure out what their role will be (tank, damage dealer, offensive caster, healer, face, skill monkey and so on).
  2. Ask the DM what sort of campaign it will be and try to figure out what roles are needed (a party without a stealthy scout may be okay in some campaigns but not others).
  3. Pick a role for my character. Usually this comes down to thinking 2-3 things that I'd enjoy doing a lot.
  4. Pick a class. The above should have narrowed down my choices a lot already. At this point I also tend to decide roughly on specialization (such as main weapon or spell type).
  5. Roll abilities.
  6. Decide which race works best based on the above.
  7. Come up with some kind of backstory and personality for my character.
  8. Decide which skills and background works based on the above.

Even if you're not good at optimization, with this sort of approach you'll end up with a character that fills a needed niche, so it will still be unlikely to feel useless. That is, unless you misjudge what niches will be needed - but that's life. So explain this process to them, and have them apply it. If they have something specific they want, like a player who definitely wants to play an elf, they can just go through the steps as usual and pick elf when it's time to choose a race - knowing that they will definitely be an elf will probably make some choices easier.

Be available for help

Another possibility is to have them create characters, but be there to talk them through doubts they may have. Honestly, this is basically the same as the previous option except more work for you, although there is the benefit of less uncertainty about what sorts of challenges the DM plans to give them (since the DM is right there to say it). Even better if you can have them sit around a table and work together, so that they're sure the party will fit together.

Presumably, this will alleviate the doubts they have, since all those concerns have already addressed during the creation phase.

Also, you mention:

One had mostly bad rolls as a ranger,

If this is the problem, just use point buy or an array. The chance of getting truly bad rolls is actually very low, but this way it is zero (and more importantly, players can plainly see that).

Let the characters grow organically

With indecisive players, you might want to start at Level 1, and give them plenty of opportunities to grow in the direction they want. For instance, you say:

They're second guessing themselves, and they're discussing options based on what they think the group "needs" and not what they want.

Most classes make their specialization decision at level 2 or after, and you start getting feats only at 4. So actually your character is far from set in stone until about level 2-5. If they feel they have missed some crucial niche, they can simply level up accordingly.

On your end, you can help this along by giving more XP per session for faster advancement, or giving magic items that help address their shortcomings.

Tailor the campaign to the characters

It's really very hard to make a truly terrible character. You have to deliberately work at it. On the flip side it's also hard to make supremely powerful characters, but the 90% in between is usually characters who are good at some things and bad at others. It's all a question of whether the campaign you end up in has a lot of the former or the latter.

Consider a Fighter that is "badly designed" - he has low Str, low Dex, low Con because the player put his best rolls in Cha and Wis. He is bad in combat, and can't even wear heavy armor. Sounds useless, right?

But let's say in the campaign the players act as political officers or military police. The war has been won and the enemy country is occupied. Actual combat is rare, and when it happens, it's usually not "balanced" (weak old peasant tries to desperately attack the high level PCs) because the emphasis is not on the difficulty of the combat but dealing with the social consequences of it. The "poor fighter" could do very well in this scenario, both at dealing diplomatically with civilians, rooting out spies or traitors, and commanding his own NPC subordinates. Armor doesn't matter all that much if he's walking around in dress uniform all the time, in social situations where armor would not have been worn. Meanwhile a typical "good fighter" who deals a ton of damage is useless, because there's hardly anybody to fight, the few combats are already easy or can be made easy by using the right approach, and few problems can be solved by fighting.

Another example would be a wise old sage who has a bunch of Knowledge skills. If the campaign involves a lot of research (maybe the PCs often have to hit the library to track down ancient artifacts) this could be a very valuable character. But if you as the DM hardly ever ask for a Knowledge check, and when the player successfully uses the skill you don't give them interesting information, those skills were a waste. Conversely, if you see a character with a lot of Knowledge skill struggling to be useful, perhaps it's time to have more gameplay elements that call for them to utilize their strengths.

There is one case that's particularly difficult, though: When players have such a heterogeneous party that it's impossible to involve all of them. If you have a bunch of combat optimized characters, and a bunch of strictly diplomatic characters, the best you can do is have a bit of combat that the diplomats sit out, then have the fighters sit it out while the diplomats resolve a social encounter. This is best avoided, which is why you want players making characters that fit together somewhat.

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All players who are new to a system need to be able to "unroll" their early choices. So let them change a few things that you don't normally let people change once a campaign is going.

Even experienced gamers can make poor decisions. When I started playing Pathfinder, I picked the wrong spells because I really didn't understand some of the game mechanics. I made a couple of combat mistakes that were totally connected to misunderstanding initiative. This also affected my spell selection. I had been role-playing 10 years at that point.

How can a GM help players make character creation choices without doubting themselves and play characters they want to play?

I generally accept that the first couple of sessions of any campaign will lose or add some different characters and possibly a few retro-active changes (like sorcerers picking different starting spells or a player changing their first feat or picking a different archetype).

I think that's just part of making it fun for everyone. If players know that they can test out a new character idea for their own pleasure, they're less likely to be "paralyzed" by fear of having to live with a very specific set of choices.

In many ways, D&D 5e actually builds for this kind of setup. Players don't start as "Great-Weapon Fighters" they all just start as "Fighters". If your player makes it level 3 and hates GWF on the next session, then it's normally not a big deal to let them pick a different "Eldritch Knight" instead.

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