Character creation & development. Thinking outside the box.


So we all know that in most editions of Dungeons and Dragons there are just some skills, talents, feats or abilities that seem to rise to the top. For example a fighter in 3.5 just about has to take the desired weapon focus and specializations for his weapon of choice, and feats like power attack and cleave are almost impossible to ignore. So more often than not we start too see the same old fighter, rogue and wizard rising to the surface, with only the alignment, race and the way they are role played to offer diversity. Well of course if you are going to play in a min max environment, then you are going to take whatever feats you can to make you as bad ass as possible right? Most people immediately gravitate towards making their character powerful. However in this topic I am going to challenge you to think outside the box and remember that the best part of any role playing game, is the role playing itself!

Now when you create your character you have a wealth of options available to you, but yet most people only concentrate on getting big stats, and feats or talents etc that make their character Mr awesome. I have had many epic characters (stat and ability wise) in the past three plus decades and many gimp ones. The most boring character I ever played was a Knight who was seriously over powered. At the time I fell foul to the same trap as many and continued to take him down a development path to ultimate power. The luster of slaughtering every foe wore of quick and what was left was the fun of role playing his personality. In contrast the most fun I ever had was with a one armed thief with poor stats. He was so much fun to role play, and the failures he had were down right entertaining, while his successes were more epic due to his minimal chance of victory.

When you create your character, other than selecting a race and maybe the base class, you should begin by write his or her back story. I know many people write the back story after the character has been created, but doing it first will change the outcome of your decisions. A point about race selection. If you are going to be demi-human then for the love of Gygax make sure your character feels demi-human! Do not play it like its a human with special abilities. Explore the culture of the race in your character creation process, and let that be a part of who they are. Go back to your characters childhood and decide on things that happened to him that shaped his personality and desires. Put thought into his past life before becoming an adventurer, and then take this well developed story and decide where he would have gone next. At this point you can begin building the character, but instead of picking the “go too” talents for your class, pick ones that make sense for him to have acquired. Spend skill points based on experiences and not just on what skills make you the most effective.  It can be challenging to do this, as often you will be picking situational abilities that may be great at times but not as commonly used as something like Dodge, and the desire to be a powerful combatant will need to be repressed.

In regards to stats. Just because a clerics prime stat is wisdom, should he always put his highest stat in that ability? what if his wisdom was just adequate, but he decided to be smart and use his head as much if not more than his divinity? What if a fighter decided to make dexterity his highest stat, and use light weapons and go for feats like weapon finesse instead? Would a swashbuckler or duelist emerge instead?

As your character develops and levels, try to think about the tasks he performed, and the situations he went through, and spend skill points and pick feats that reflect them. Do this instead of picking the next logical feat that improves his bad assness. Try selecting non common feats for your character. Feats like improve trip or improved sunder are often ignored, but they can bring a lot of diversity and fun to the game and make your character something different from the norm.

In our current Howreroll campaign “The Children of Drakhar” , we have a female monk with some interesting ability choices. I am very interested in seeing how this character develops, and already her choice of improved trip has proven far more useful than something like cleave.

With a non standard character design your options for role playing this character will change. When this happens you will find you are able to embrace a different personality for the character, and as such break from the cliche. The fun to be had role playing a weak or less than perfect character, or just being different is far greater than that when your warrior kills an ogre in one attack round.

Giving your character a few quirks, even if they offer some type of disadvantage (like only having one eye) can give depth and open new doors when it comes to role playing the character. Choosing to be hard of hearing may mean you take a penalty to your listen checks, but it could be fun in certain social situations.

The characters I remember most from my years of gaming are the ones that were different and stood out. Not because they had max stats and were seemingly invincible, but because they were memorable due to being different and the unique quality they brought to the gaming session. For example. The Green Flash was a ranger who acted like a super hero. Bruce Custard was a Halfling chef and barber who fought primarily with a sling. Thaal was a barbarian that used to rip enemies apart bare handed. Tom “Nubby” Denton was a one armed human thief. Lindsafel was an overly compassionate and gullible female Druid. Fritzgig the bull headed dwarf, that played chicken with a charging Rhino and liked to headbutt his enemies. All these characters stick with me due to their interesting quirks and not their effectiveness in a situation. In fact many times Nubby Denton failed as a thief, and his failings out numbered his successes by far. Thaal could have done more damage with a two handed axe, yet when he lost his temper and just waded in fist firsts, it was far more memorable. And the Green flash was so full of himself and loud in both personality and appearance that he stood out like a sore thumb in any wilderness setting.

In time the joys of playing a powerful character fade, and you look back and do not even remember the names of the characters you played, or met along the way. That being said some will stick with you for ever. For me it has always been the ones that broke the mold or challenged the norm. Seeing the joy those characters bring to a gaming session can not be quantified for me as a Dungeon Master, and I am always willing to work with any player that wants to bring something “unusual” to the table, as long as it is going to improve the story and enrich every ones experience at the gaming table.

My challenge to any player is “make me believe in your reality”. I want to know without asking why you performed a certain action. I want to understand who you are and why you do what you do. I lose interest in cliche characters that act based on what is “best” for themselves all the time.

Learning how to create a good character is more than just knowing what stats to put where and what feats or skills make you optimal. I cringe at the growing movement for optimal character builds, and the way people are encouraged in making their characters like its something from a video game. A pen and paper role playing game character needs to have many more levels to it than just its stats, skills, feats and abilities.

Try building your next character outside the box, and really “going for it” in a role playing sense. You wont be sorry…………………

Finding your Dungeon Master persona.


Every Dungeon Master has there own way of doing things. Of course there are those archetypes that some people fit into, but each one will and SHOULD still be different from the next. Just as each player has to develop a persona for his or her character, the Dungeon Master has to develop a persona for himself. Now I am not saying you should  become a short, stubby, red robbed wearing little guy with bad hair. No I am saying you have to find YOUR way of Dungeon Mastering. So lets look at some ways for the up and coming Dungeon Master to develop his style.


You are your own person. You have spent years learning to be the person you are so do not try to change who you are around the table. struggling to repress a personality is a sure way to be an awkward mess behind the Dungeon Masters screen, so let your personality live. If you are not an outgoing flamboyant type of person, then do not try to force yourself to become that when running the game. If you feel uncomfortable, you are not going to do the best job, so find a way to be yourself and still achieve your desired goal. A quiet reserved individual can run a game. They can take more of a third person approach and develop a more narrative style if they feel uncomfortable speaking AS the Non Player Characters. Your personality and how you interact with the players, will be part of what defines your game sessions.

Now while I just said to “be yourself” I will say that some personality types are not well suited to Dungeon Mastering. I find those who feel the need to “always be right” or lack compromise make poor Dungeon Masters, as do those who think being the Dungeon Master makes them some kind of god or overlord around the table. The job of a Dungeon Master directly goes against these kinds of personalities. Read this post for a better explanation.


Some people have more time on there hands than other. As such some of you may have plenty of free time to devote to writing adventures, creating encounters and world building. Other on the other hand may barely have time to run the session, let alone prep for it. Now while it goes without saying, being a Dungeon Master is work, you can lessen the work load in a number of ways. If you do not have a great deal of prep time, or you are not particularly creative then use the published adventures and material out there. You may find reading a pre written adventure and running it is a lot easier for you and less time consuming. Also if you do not have that “flair” for writing your own stories, you are probably going to have better game sessions that way. I have seen some horrible home made adventures being run recently, and the weak and lame story behind them made me cringe. Be realistic, and know that not everyone has that creativity. I am not telling you not to try your hand at creating your own material, far from it, just be honest with yourself and make sure you have the talent and the time to do it justice. If you realize writing your own material is not for you, well there is no shame in that. All editions have plenty of published material for you to use. Pathfinder (or D&D 3.75 as some call it) probably has the most frequent and regular support material that is always flowing off the press, so it may be a good system to use if you just don’t like or have time to write your own material. The bottom line is, if you do not have time to prep properly, then you are doing yourself and the players an injustice, so only play as often as you reasonably have time to prep for. Its better to run a good game every other week than a bad game twice a week.


The idea of developing a persona or style is to allow you to be consistent. If you know you do not like speaking AS the Non Player Characters then run your game in the third person as apposed to the first person, but be consistent. If you have the talent to voice act and are going to do so that is great, but be consistent. If you are going to be a stickler for following the rules as laid out in the handbook, that is fine but be consistent. Players like to know where they stand. They do not appreciate a Dungeon Master who changes up the playing field too often. They lose trust in the Dungeon Master and begin to feel lost at the table. If you are Consistent the players will feel comfortable and settled. If you realize you do need to make a deliberate change to the way the game is running, to a rule or any aspect that your players have come to know as standard then you should discuss and inform your players before hand.


Know what you can do well and what you can not. If you have an amazing memory and like to learn and read, then you can be one of those Dungeon Masters that can run his game without much need of referring to the manual. On the other hand if you may have a gift for storytelling and would rather play a rules lite version of the game. If you have a flamboyant personality, and a good vocal range you may want to voice act and role play your Non Player Characters to the fullest, but if that is not you, then you maybe you can become a great narrative Dungeon Master. The key here is to be honest with yourself and know what your strengths and weaknesses are. Do not try to run a game in a manner on which you are not comfortable or skilled at. We all like to think we have talents in certain areas but truth is often we are deluding ourselves. I was blessed with a varied octave range and little to no shame, so I have no problem acting like and impersonating a woman and even flirting with male party members. I know plenty of Dungeon Masters however that just would not and probably should not do that. On the other hand I know some Dungeon Masters that are walking encyclopedias and can quote you a rule as written and what page it is on and in which manual. I can not do that. I know my rules, but I sometimes have to refer to the manuals to clarify things. I just do not have that memory. Be honest and own your shortcomings and embrace your talents.


I can not stress this enough. Why? well because it basically means you will not find your style or persona, and will go against everything we have already said. In this world of social and multi media (as I have mentioned before), I get to watch a lot of Dungeon Masters and players in action on line, as well as in gaming stores or other venues.

I have seen some good and couple of great “mechanical” Dungeon Masters. These are Dungeon Masters who concentrate on the depth and accuracy of the game and do not bother so much with first person, Voice acting, or being particularly animated. The Good and great ones know their rules inside and out when it comes to the game, and run awesome narrative stories. The poor ones however do not know the game and tend to fumble about the place and spend half the time checking on the rules.

I have seen some good, and a few great “storytelling” Dungeon Masters. The good and great ones really know how to develop the scene, set the mood and develop tension levels appropriate to the moment. While the poor ones do not seem to have a flair for language or description and lack the skills to develop mood and atmosphere in their game.

I have seen a couple of good or great “animated” Dungeon Masters. The good and great ones use their personality and voices to full effect. They truly become the characters that they are portraying and seem to be able to attribute and remember a vast variety of voices to their Non Player Character stable. They pull faces, wave their arms around and really throw themselves into it. On the other hand most I have seen are inconsistent in their method, have limited vocals and quiet honestly look more awkward and foolish than believable.

once again I say BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF! If you are not a walking encyclopedia, then do not try to be. Use the books. If you do not have the talent or comfort level to literally become your Non Player Characters, then don’t. Instead concentrate on clear and concise delivery of your narrative and information. It is far better to be good or great at what you CAN do , than poor at what you try to do and fail. Do not try to emulate others, trust me it shows when you do and if you do not have the skill set you will fall short. I do not name people directly but as I am writing this, my mind is thinking about those that I consider great at their destined style and method, and those that I have seen that I want to slap and say…. “NO! that’s not you, you cant be that person so stop trying to be, you look like a tool and you are doing your players an injustice”.

Every person is a make up of many things. So is a Dungeon Master. My hope is to help you become the best that you can be at any given time. I have spent over thirty three years honing my craft as a Dungeon Master and as I have said prior to this, I had to learn to be honest with myself and be critical of my own performance. I have improved immensely over time and most of my improvements were made by being honest with myself and asking for feedback. Once upon a time I studied the rule books and read them cover to cover like novels. I retained a good bit but certainly not as much as I would have liked. I have been jealous in the past of a friend who could read a book once, and seemingly memories it cover to cover and when he Dungeon Mastered never needed to pick up a manual of any kind during play. He (on the other hand) was equally jealous of my storytelling skills and ability to adopt a personality for each and every Non Player Character. Both of us however knew we did not posses the skill set that the other had, so were content to run the game our way, with the confidence that we did it well with our own particular style.

I finish by saying to be a good Dungeon Master requires much more than just developing a persona or style, but it is part of what will make you a successful one. I have been fortunate to play with many people over the past three plus decades, and I can say without a doubt all the good Dungeon Masters I have played under all had their own style that was true to who they were as a person. The poor ones all tried to be something they were not, and it showed………..

About the Mechanics. Initiative.


About the Mechanics is a new series of topics where we will discus and examine a particular aspect of the game mechanics and how and when to use them. Now this may seem redundant and you may be thinking “well I already know how to use the game mechanics, what is there to discuss? Well hear me out and keep reading….

In this post we are going to look at Initiative. Initiative is what determines the order in which players and Non Player Characters act in an encounter. Depending on what edition of Dungeons and Dragons you are playing, typically you will be rolling a D20 and adding or subtracting a modifier from the roll. For example in 3.5 Edition you may have Plus two from your dexterity bonus, and the improved initiative feat, giving you total plus six to your Twenty sided dice roll. Usually you roll initiative at the start of combat, and then that order stands for its duration. The Dungeon Master will roll for the adversaries in the encounter and then the order of action for all involved will be determined. Some Dungeon Masters may choose to roll initiative for every single Non Player Character or monster in the encounter, others may roll once for them all, or once for all types. I personally roll for each type and separately for leaders or key Non Player Characters such as leaders. For example if my players face four orcs, four goblins and an Ogre, I would roll once for the orcs, once for the goblins and once for the ogre. Combat can be hectic enough to keep track of without having a ton of different initiative numbers to keep track off.

OK so why do I feel a blog post needs to be dedicated to this mechanic? well it is not the mechanic itself that I want to discuss, but WHEN to say that well known phrase “Roll for initiative!” You see when the Dungeon Master utters those words, everything changes. The players mood changes, their attitude changes and the tension level changes. The rolling of initiative typically marks the beginning of combat. No matter where your players heads were at, unless they were already hell bent on a fight, telling them to Roll for initiative is almost like ringing the bell in a boxing match and is going to start a fight. If they were thinking of trying a diplomatic solution, or evading the encounter, being told to roll initiative kind of implies the fight is on, and will most likely stop the characters from continuing with other courses of action, and just wade in to battle. On the other hand if you do not ask your players to roll for initiative your players may perceive that the encounter may not be intended for combat, or that the Non Player Characters they are facing are not hostile. This of course may be totally wrong and then, when the Bad guys suddenly jump the players they may be upset that you did not give them a chance to roll for initiative to begin with.

Rolling or requesting a roll for initiative also drastically changes the mood and mindset of the game and the players at that point. If I (as the Dungeon Master) ask them to roll for initiative during a heated discussion, it snaps the tension bar and says to the players “OK FIGHT”! This may rob them of any continued diplomatic efforts or role playing options. In my story I never want to alter the natural flow, feel or atmosphere of the game at an inappropriate time. If I am going to ask them to roll for initiative, I want it to be the epic start of the conflict and battle and not disrupt a flow of negotiation or exploration of non combat options.

I know some Dungeon Masters that like to PRE roll initiative. They get each player to roll a number of times prior to the game session and then use them in order for each encounter (applying modifiers as needed at that time). This is not a bad idea, but I feel it also offers to take away some of the epic tension moments that arise as combat is about to kick off.

My solution is to never prompt a roll for initiative without a combative or aggressive declaration first. Either I will say something like “The ogre rushes towards you, with his club raised high, intent on crushing your skull”, or a player will declare that they are engaging in some way. At that time, I will often say “EVERYONE roll for initiative to determine the order should it be needed”, or just ask the specific individual who chooses to enter combat to roll, depending on the current situation. I use descriptive language and I roll play demeanor and intent to let my players know how an encounter is going. They can tell by my voice and actions if a negotiation is going sour and a fight may be imminent.They can then choose to act first if they wish or wait and see what happens. Either way I am not going to request an initiative roll until a blow or spell or other timed action is about to take place. It can be hard enough to get the correct feel for an encounter, without ruining the immersion by bringing game mechanics to the fore front. This is why I do not mention the initiative roll, until it is one hundred percent clear that it is now required.

Initiative can also be used in non combat situations of course to determine the speed of almost simultaneous actions. I remember one time I was running an encounter where everyone tried to rush through a door first. The situation leading up to that lead everyone to the same conclusion and each player (in turn around the tabletop) declared the same action. So I had them roll initiative to see who has the faster reflexes in that situation and got their foot in the door first. If I had said prior to the declaration of intent “OK I want each of you to roll for initiative” I guarantee they would have all stopped and hesitated, as they as players would have expected a possible combat, even though there had been nothing to suggest that to their characters. Even those that try hard not to meta game, still fall foul to a change in emotion and may act differently when lead to expect something is going to happen.

In closing, treat initiative as the mechanical resolution to an in game declaration. It should not be requested before it is needed, and the Dungeon master should do his job properly and allow the scene to imply weather or not it may be imminently required. It should be the last thing to happen before a sword be swung, a fireball be cast or a dagger thrown. If you do not care about the feel and immersion of your game, then I guess it matters less to you when to request a roll. I live to tell a story, and not play a game. I believe in immersion over mechanics and Role Playing over ROLL playing. If a dice is going to be rolled it better be for a good reason, and as it is almost always going to determine the outcome of an action, I want the appropriate tension level to be present when it is rolled.

happy Gaming……