Creating Story-Driven Characters for Dungeons and Dragons

While different groups have different focuses, I run a story-heavy game. Central to the game is not combat, but the arc of the campaign and the arcs of each character. Here are the steps I walk my players through when creating characters for my campaign and the same steps I go through when I create a character:

1. Create a General Concept

Start super general, maybe with a key decision or two. I had players this last session zero decide what race or class or general story they wanted. For the next character I want to play, I knew I wanted to be a bard who just wanted to get enough money to create an empire of taverns.

2. Choose a Race and Name

While this may or may not be the first decision you make as a player, a character is would be born and given a name, just like people are. This gives you a basis for rolling up a name and getting the flavor for whatever character you’re creating.

I highly recommend getting Xanithar’s Guide to Everything for the names tables at the back. For more races, pick up the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, Mythic Odysseys of Theros, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and Eberron: Rising from the Last War.

Knowing that my campaign is going to be interdimensional, I decided to become a dragonmarked halfling from Eberron (hospitality) so that I could benefit from the bonuses to making friends wherever I go.

3. Choose a Homeland

This step is another part of creating a character’s backstory. Where did your character grow up? Were they part of the majority of the population, or were they a minority? What are the major insights someone from that culture would have about life?

Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount has some great ideas about nationality and how it works in Exandria; I run a similar system when I’m running my homebrew campaign of Mondiir or Eberron. Start with a Homeland, then you can figure out any social status relationships (with either the table given in EGW or a self-created table). From there, you can figure out your home settlement, rooting your character firmly in the world. Are you local or an outsider to the community you’re working for on the current quest? Does that matter?

I’ve been working on an Eberron version of a chronicle similar to this; you can find some of that work here.

4. Choose a Background

Before your character was an adventurer, they likely had some kind of background profession or event which defined them. Choose the personality traits, ideal, bond, and flaw which defines your character. Want something a little more complicated? Look at some other backgrounds and add in a trait, ideal, bond, or flaw from one that suits. While you’ll only get one background’s features and such, mixing in another for flavor makes a lot of sense— you might take the Folk Hero background overall, but take a trait and a flaw from the Soldier background because the war is where you became a folk hero.

You can, of course, come up with your own— but I would say it’s a good idea that you work with your DM to create a unique bond in particular because it’s usually such an important part of connecting your character to the world.

While the PHB has most of the available backgrounds, I’ve found that adapting the backgrounds from the EGW, Tal’Dorei sourcebook, and Ghosts of Saltmarsh for a campaign can create some opportunities.

This is one of the many times I’ll tell you to go to your Xanithar’s Guide because the tables in there can help come up with a reason your character became your background.

5. Form the Party

While you can have a bunch of random characters link up to take on a large challenge in a campaign; it’s great to see if you can form any bonds between characters from the beginning to see if there is a way to smooth the transition from a bunch of individuals to a united party.

Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything has some great insights on how to form a party— especially by bringing Patrons into the wider game, adapting the concept from Eberron. (Either works for the use of a patron in your game!)

6. Choose a Class

Finally, even though there’s a good chance you’ve had this in mind all along, choose your class. Try to make sure your party has some important bases covered: frontline, magic, and healing. Use the guidelines of the Patron as needed/helpful to have distinct “jobs” within the group.

Again, our old buddy, Xanithar has some tables to help you come up with a reason your character became your class.

7. Roll Statistics

What so many focus on when creating a character, here’s where you finally roll up some dice.

8. Get Equipment

While there’s a part of me that likes to do the first method of rolling gold amounts and buying equipment— but it takes a lot more time than selecting the basics.

9. Roll or Create Relationships

While you don’t need to have every relationship for your character all worked out, it’s good to have some ideas.

The EGW has some Social Status Relationships, giving you amounts of allies and rivals. There are tables for giving these relationships some extra backstory.

However, I prefer to use a slightly different system for Close Bonds (see here). And I start with Xanithar:

Roll on the Parents tables, Number of Siblings table (advantage if you’re in a rural area), Birth Order, and Family tables. (All on Xan 62-64). For each family member who comes up, consider rolling on the EGW 194 Family Relationships table.

You get a number of allies equal to twice your charisma modifier (minimum 0). Half of that ought to be past allies, the other half for allies made during the game, but that can be fluid. For allies you knew ahead of time, roll on the EGW 194 table for allies.

Thinking back to the Social Status table, if there are any rivals your character ought to have, roll on the EGW Rival table.

10. Life Events

Start with rolling on the Life Events by Age (Xan 69). If there’s only one major event, roll on the Life Events table or move to the EGW for Fateful Moments or a Mysterious Secret. These can also be created with the help of the DM. (I personally create some secrets, add secrets from Eberron Confidential, and let the players pick from the pile or come up with their own.)

If your character has two major events, consider having both a Mysterious Secret and a Fateful Moment (EGW).

For every Life Event 3 or more, you should roll on the Life Events table. This table will lead you to the other tables, which will give you a lot of background for your character. Take what you like, leave what you want, and remember that all these are meant to be ideas for characters. The biggest reason for all of this is:

11. Character Goals

Called the Prophecy in EGW’s Chronicle system, each character should have about 3 goals (depending on the length of the campaign). These goals should all have two parts: the goal your character wants to achieve, and a sense of the complication which might ensue after.

The first prophecy can be created within the first session or so and should be an immediate goal. It can even be something along the lines of something which will be explained technically by achieving the subclass at level 3. For instance, my Ranger wants to be a beastmaster, so their prophecy is, “I will earn the trust of a bear companion, but he will be unwelcome in the civilized world.”

The second prophecy goal should be a longer term goal; the third should be a final goal which finishes your character’s arc. It’s normal to not come up with a 2nd goal until you’ve achieved the 1st; you probably shouldn’t come up with the 3rd until you’ve completed the 2nd or at least have a really good handle on the campaign and the world it is set in.

These are best used with a DM who will reward you for achieving your goals. While the EGW awards some mechanical rewards already listed, these are meant to be inspiration. I could see my wizard’s goals and give them the ability to up-cast a spell 1d6 times for free when completing a prophecy goal, or simply giving them XP for completing an RP moment, according to my XP system. (Probably giving them 1d10 days of unused inspiration on the 1st goal, 2nd Best RP amount for their level on the 2nd goal, and Best RP amount for their leve on the 3rd goal.)

12. Rumors

As a bonus aspect of character creation, hand out 3-5 index cards to each player. This part is how much characters may or may not know about each other and is a way to work in backstory elements. Each player writes the valid character’s name at the top of the cards before writing:

  • One true thing their character likely regrets or people think they should regret.
  • One true thing their character is proud of or people think they should be proud of.
  • One completely or mostly false rumor about your own character you think would be very believable.
  • One thing their character thinks they’ve heard about the character played by the player seated to their right. (Obviously, write that character’s name, not your own.)
  • One thing their character thinks they’ve heard about the character played by the player seated to their left. (Again, writing that character’s name, not the other two.)

A character might include their secret as a rumor if they think others might have heard it or noticed it over the time they’ve traveled together. Not all rumors need to be created, but it’s always interesting to have something thrown out there. Players should make sure not to give away if a rumor or true or false in any way. (Other than, obviously, handwriting.)

Put all the index cards in a hat and have everyone pull two or more rumors. Make sure that no one pulls rumors about their own character— those go back in the hat. Players write down the rumors and can work those into role play as they see fit; you might also include a mechanic for downtime in which characters search for more rumors— finding out something random about their allies or enemies, or something specific, or even searching for the source of a false rumor to stop the spread!

Thank you for reading!

I hope this was helpful to you; as we come out of this pandemic, I wish you many happy returns to the gaming table. If you want to support me, check out my stuff on the DM’s Guild or support my Patreon.

And, as always, hope you get to enjoy a good story!

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