Narrative Character Creation in 5th edition

Story is modern roleplay gaming. But, character creation per the Player’s Handbook is mechanical. It doesn’t have to be. It can follow a narrative; this is how.

The character creation order changes a little bit with this method. Now it’s almost as if your character is going through childhood and adolescence while you and the DM (ideally together) go through this process. Kind of like filming a documentary, together you discover the journey from birth to hero. Take notes and get the feeling of the story that created the personality that will exist at the table later. If the player talks about history or backstory that doesn’t yet exist in your world, they are there creating it with you. This empowers the player to help with worldbuilding and creates bonds between the character and the past.

I’ve done this with two players so far. The following has the steps of process and a practical example.

Tell me about your parents

This is the first lead. The DM is trying to figure out a bit about the homeland and race of the parents. They don’t need to be known (orphans are common in our base literature), but at the least get a few words describing origin country and race. Write those down. Get their given name now. Maybe their adventuring name is different, but when they are born, they are named.

My first player said his parents were a merchant family from Southern Kirtin. They’d lost their lands when Daoud took over. They are halflings that abhor Azsel.

Race: Halfling

Are you strong, intelligent, wise, a leader, nimble, healthy?

As the DM I generated a random point buy array and asked for the player to describe their character traits that they exhibited as a youth. Were they the type that led groups or shy? Did they throw rocks, or work in the mill? Maybe they were sick, or never got sick when others were? Some people read a lot, or read people. Distribute the six scores based on the answers given.

This player said that they were a bit of a leader playing with the kids, generally healthy, tended to know and understand people. They were a bit weak (halflings in Everflow have minuses to strength).

STR: 7 | DEX: 16 | CON: 14 | INT: 11 | WIS: 14 | CHA: 14

Your parents did what? Did you follow in footsteps?

The answers to these questions determine Background, and help guide you towards Class. They aren’t the answer to class, but do influence it. A lot of personality gets built out here. The Personality Trait, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw should be apparent from this conversation. If it isn’t offered, the DM can probe a bit more.

In our example the character was raised by a merchant family that wanted to do everything right, that as a family wanted to regain their lost market in Kirtin-on-the-Lake and as the youngest of the trade family he’d been swindled once or twice, so he’s a bit suspicious of that.

Background: Merchant with skills in Appraiser’s Tools because he doesn’t trust and Vehicle’s (Land) because he was the youngest son.

What makes you special?

Ask about the time that the character discovered that they aren’t common, but instead began to know that they are a hero. Have them describe it. Did they fight with arms, pick up a bow? Maybe they stole something? There should be indications towards class here. The experience may be a bit like a tree where the branches are melee or magic. After that the split might be sneaky (Rogue), hefty (Fighter, Barbarian), ranged (Fighter, Rogue, Ranger) or divine (Cleric, Druid), arcane (Wizard), discovered (Sorcerer), pledged (Warlock, Paladin). Are they principled (Monks, Paladins, Clerics)? This is likely the longest conversation you have during narrative character creation. Throw them some experience for wonderful ideas that surprise and entertain you.

But during this section you’ll come away with their Class, their options like Fighting Styles, or Faith, or Wizard school, etc.

Our example character was someone who had a caravan raided. He wasn’t a fighter, and didn’t know magic, instead he helped. He distracted the opponents, or warned his guards. Throughout the fight he was helpful. After the fight he repaired the cart, and returned the goods.

Class: Uncommoner (this is a homebrew that may be public soon)

Altogether it isn’t a major shift. Maybe some tables already do similar. For me it created a process shift from “this is what I am” to “this is how I came to be.” That adds some depth.

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7 thoughts on “Narrative Character Creation in 5th edition

  1. I like this and any approach which puts the emphasis on building a character, not just a set of high stats. I did something similar at my blog recently.

    Having said that, I’ve rarely given my character’s parents much thought. One inherited an artefact his grandfather stole, that’s about it. I’d be interested to see what I could come up with following guidelines like this.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I appreciate your take on the process as it is much more organic and engaging. I have a group of four with no table top experience and I went in as a newbie as well. Knowing this would have helped me really flesh things out in the beginning instead of still (at level 8) fleshing some of their back stories out. I will most definitely be using this method once we wrap up our current campaign. Additionally, I’ve required my players to provide me with a written backstory going forward. It has genuinely helped them not only buy into the world, but also helped alleviate some of the burden of creating a bazillion NPCs. The look of shock on a players face when an old friend betrayed them was priceless.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I wouldn’t go overboard with fleshing out backstory. Maybe a notecard, a couple paragraphs or a brief outline. I built three more characters as pre-gens for a one-shot and fit them all on a single piece of paper. It’s still important to let play at the table determine the stories we tell together.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I personally *love* backstory… But in 40+ years of playing and DMing, extensive backstories are mostly just for the individual writing them. For me as a player, understanding my character’s backstory in great detail helps me get into character – like an actor. However, being married to a minutely-detailed backstory can also limit/inhibit play at the table, constraining a player’s role playing.

      Over the years, I have found that creating characters collaboratively with new players in similar fashion to what Dave describes is infinitely helpful. It immerses the player in their character from the start, giving them plenty of context and background to understand and play their character, but still allowing the character to grow organically.

      I have never been a fan of the order of steps as presented in the free rules or the PHB… But I never liked the way we created characters in AD&D (as in 1.0) either: rolling scores in order, no mercy! There are numerous flow charts out there for new characters which get at Dave’s melee v magic, etc, in order to walk a new player to their preferred class. Personally, I usually start at class, then jump to a brief backstory concept (which includes the background, personal traits, ideals, bonds, & flaws).

      I love how the process Dave describes here evolves as an interview or conversation… Questions to get the player thinking about their character. I think this could go a long way to ensure that the characters mesh well with the DM’s campaign concepts. I also think, as mentioned earlier, that this type of process is indispensable for new players.

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