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Player’s Handbook: Step-By-Step Characters | Using the Books

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In each installment of “Using the Books”, we will be discussing the chapters subhead-by-subhead, topic-by-topic of a selected official 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons hardcover book.

This is the second installment of us looking through the Player’s Handbook. If you’d like to read the first article, where we look at the introduction to the book, check out the article below:

A Note on Tasha’s

For those in the know, this November we are getting another hardcover book in the vein of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything called Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Aside from the strange name, the book is going to be bringing a brand new way to build characters, player / DM tools, and stuff we’ve seen from previous Unearthed Arcana articles — namely, subclasses.

It’s that first thing I want to touch on; Tasha’s is going to be bringing with it, finally, a variant way to create characters that allow for separation from the standard race / subrace we’ve been working with since 2014. These rules have been previewed in an Adventurer’s League adventure that came out alongside Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden.

Since we are working from the PHB exclusively, we’re not going to be taking those rules into account — even though those rules are likely going to be the standard moving forward when Tasha’s releases.

Note: I’m going to be using both the 8th printing of the physical Player’s Handbook alongside the digital version of the PHB on DNDBeyond.

The first recommendation of Chapter 1 is to have a character concept in mind before rolling any dice. This can be helpful, as the book describes:

Before you dive into step 1 below, think about the kind of adventurer you want to play. You might be a courageous fighter, a skulking rogue, a fervent cleric, or a flamboyant wizard. Or you might be more interested in an unconventional character, such as a brawny rogue who likes hand-to-hand combat, or a sharpshooter who picks off enemies from afar. Do you like fantasy fiction featuring dwarves or elves? Try building a character of one of those races. Do you want your character to be the toughest adventurer at the table? Consider the fighter class. If you don’t know where else to begin, take a look at the illustrations in any Dungeons & Dragons book to see what catches your interest.

We then dive directly into the process, which is summarized as follows:

  1. Choose a Race
  2. Choose a Class
  3. Determine Ability Scores
  4. Describe Your Character
  5. Choose Equipment
  6. Come Together
A party of adventurers face off against orcish threats
Art by Tyler Jacobson

1. Choosing a Race

The idea of common and uncommon races is presented here, where the races of humans, halflings, elves, and dwarves are common. This stems directly from classic fantasy fiction, specifically pulp fiction and epic fantasy like Lord of the Rings.

Additionally, the book describes how certain races may contribute to certain assumptions about a character and how these assumptions can be used to make stronger character archetypes.

2. Choosing a Class

As explained in the PHB:

Every adventurer is a member of a class. Class broadly describes a character’s vocation, what special talents he or she possesses, and the tactics he or she is most likely to employ when exploring a dungeon, fighting monsters, or engaging in a tense negotiation.

The book then describes levels, hit dice, hit points, and proficiencies.

Hit Dice and Proficiences: A Primer

Two aspects of character creation that are often difficult to grasp for new players and new DMs are how hit dice and proficiencies work during play. So let’s break down how each work:

Hit dice are dice of a certain type (ranging from d6 to d12) that are an abstraction of how many hit points a given class can have. At 1st level, you have exactly one hit die and your maximum hit points are the maximum amount your hit dice can produce plus your Constitution modifier(for example, a Wizard with a d6 hit die has 6 + Con mod hit points at 1st level).

Hit dice also have rules regarding resting, which we’ll be covering later in Chapter 8: Adventuring.

Proficiencies are armor, weapons, skills, saving throws, and tools that your character is experienced in and that you can add your proficiency bonus towards. At 1st level, your proficiency bonus is +2 and you add that bonus anytime you make an attack roll, ability check, or saving throw that you’re proficient in.

Note that an important, but often overlooked rule is that you can apply your proficiency bonus to an ability check using a skill you are proficient in or to an ability check using a tool you are proficient in. For example, as someone proficient in Thieves Tools and the Sleight of Hand skill, when you go to pick a lock you are making a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check or a Dexterity (Thieves Tools) check. You are not making a Sleight of Hand check using Thieves Tools, meaning you do not add the proficiency bonus for both—only for one.

The Player’s Handbook is explicit with this:

Your proficiency bonus can’t be added to a single die roll or other number more than once … If a circumstance suggests that your proficiency bonus applies more than once to the same roll or that it should be multiplied more than once, you nevertheless add it only once, multiply it only once, and halve it only once.

3. Determine Ability Scores

Each character has six ability scores that are briefly mentioned here: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. The definitions and uses of these abilities is explained further on in the book, but for our purposes I want to highlight the three ways to generate ability scores.

The first method is roll four, drop the lowest. In this method, you roll four d6; keeping the highest of the three results. For example, rolling four d6 gets us a 4, 2, 1, 6; we then drop the 1 since its the lowest of the results and end up with a total of 12 (4+2+6). Repeat this six times (once for each ability) and record each result to your choice of ability. You do not need to roll ‘in-order’; you can select which results apply to which abilities.

The second method is standard array. In this method, you have the following numbers to assign to abilities: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8. Once a score has been assigned, you cannot assign the same score to another ability.

Finally, the third method (which is a variant rule) is point-buy, in which you have 27 points to choose from. Each ability score is worth a set amount of points and is subtracted from your total (for instance, a score of 14 is worth 7 points).

Rolling Randomly vs. Balance

Out of these, the two most ‘balanced’ options are standard array and point-buy due to their restriction that no score can be above a 15 or below an 8. This means that the worst modifier a character can have at 1st level is a -1 and the best is a +2.

Since you’re rolling in the R4DL method, your lowest score possible is a 3 (.08% chance) and your highest score possible is an 18 (1.62% chance). Jasper Flick over at AnyDice has a great article on percentage chance regarding the R4DL method which I highly recommend checking out. It’s a quick and informative read:

4. Describe Your Character

Next, the player assigns appearance, personality traits, ideals, bonds, flaws, alignment, and background.

Interestingly, there is no mention of developing a backstory in this section. In fact, the only area in the entire section where a backstory is mentioned is in the introductory paragraph.

Even more interestingly, I think this is a purposeful omission and the fact that so many players make backstories for their characters—often before even sitting down to play—is a misunderstanding of what the ‘backstory’ is supposed to do for them, the party, and the game.

In the PHB, the assumption is that by leveraging the traits, ideals, bonds, flaws, alignment, and background of a character, a backstory naturally reveals itself. Rather than coming up with an intricate (or stereotypical) story where all the coolest parts of your character so far have already happened, you are setting up the character to move forward. The personality descriptions of the character help give the player guidance on how the character moves forward—not how they should continuously bring up what happened to them in the past.

5. Choose Equipment

Here the PHB explains how to get your equipment, whether that’s through choosing starting equipment established by your class and background or if you’re starting out with a set amount of gold and purchasing all your equipment yourself.

We’ll discuss equipment in Chapter 5, as the list has quite a few items that most players either don’t use or know to use—items that are extremely helpful in certain situations.

Armor and weapons are both briefly mentioned as well, regarding the necessity for proficiency in either to use them correctly. A formula for armor class (AC) is given: 10 + Dexterity modifier, and for weapons the difference between melee and ranged weapons are described. As with the other equipment, we will go into more details on these in Chapter 5.

An illustration of an example adventuring party
Phoenix Ventures by Ernesto Irawan

6. Come Together

Characters that are not in solo games are in parties, which are explained in this section. An important section I want to highlight:

Talk to your fellow players and your DM to decide whether your characters know one another, how they met, and what sorts of quests the group might undertake.

This is often forgotten about, resulting in a pretty significant detriment for not only yourself and the other players, but the DM as well.

For new players and old alike, it can be difficult to fully integrate members of the party together based on the mishmashing of multiple different personalities and other defining characteristics.

A missed opportunity, for me, is the lack of discussion on how to properly prepare for a session zero—the meeting between the players and the DM before the game begins to discuss table rules, character introductions, and resolving any unanswered questions or concerns.

And that does it for Chapter 1—phew! Not a very long one, but one that covers a lot of ground very quickly.

Next chapter is on Races, which I’m hoping will be useful in the sense of establishing what Wizards of the Coast assumes the races are like (predominantly from a Forgotten Realms perspective).