On one hand, Dungeons & Dragons is so popular and well established that it seems silly to write about so fundamental a part of the game as character class. On the other hand, the game has evolved over four decades, and many players today are too young to recall much of the game in its early years. While the history is not crucial for this article, a little context never hurt anyone.
TSR, Inc. released Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 (this version is now called by many the Original version). Just three years later, the game split into two different (but similar) game systems (confusing just about everyone). A streamlined version of the game eventually settled on the simple title of Dungeons & Dragons, while the other took the name of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (or AD&D). Though many players mixed and matched materials from the two systems without hesitation (and perhaps in ignorance), some designers at TSR insisted that the two systems were distinct and incompatible. In any case, both systems use literary archetypes, called character classes, to describe the fictional heroes that the players control.
Dungeons & Dragons featured seven basic character classes. Most were human (cleric, fighter, thief, and magic-user), but there were also three non-human classes (elf, dwarf, and halfling). AD&D took a different approach by separating a character’s class and race. Permissible races included human, dwarf, gnome, elf, halfling, half-elf, and half-orc. Permissible classes included cleric, druid, fighter, paladin, ranger, thief, assassin, magic-user, illusionist, and monk. In 1985, AD&D added three more classes (cavalier, thief-acrobat, and barbarian). In AD&D, ‘multi-class characters’ and ‘characters with two classes’ were available too, but we need not discuss them here.
In addition to all of these choices, the popular gaming magazine, Dragon, published many unofficial character classes for gamers’ consideration. In 1989, TSR released a second edition of AD&D, which made several changes to character classes. One interesting concept was that of specialist wizards (enchanters, necromancers, illusionists, etc.), though the execution of this fine idea proved to be lacking. As for the classes themselves, there was a slight shuffling and renaming, but more important was the eventual introduction of character class kits. Put simply, these kits were optional class variants, and their number quickly mushroomed to around 100! Second edition also introduced race kits, allowing players to run bugbears, gnolls, lizard men, minotaurs, and more. Whether these kits emerged because people had grown weary of the original classes and races or because people simply love variation is unclear. The point is that there seemed to be endless options.
The third edition of the game premiered in 2000, and, while the mechanics changed drastically, the game returned to only eleven core classes. Perhaps having dozens of classes or kits was no longer necessary because the game featured a wide range of skills and feats with which players could customize their characters. Also, this edition made it much easier to mix and match classes. Furthermore, while certain races remained popular, this edition also stated that players could make characters of ANY race. The trend of ever-increasing options continued.
After playing with 3rd edition for over a decade (and generally liking it), our gaming group decided to return to old-fashioned AD&D. We had both practical and stylistic reasons for doing so. First, our group had evolved a bit. A few old friends, who had not played in decades, decided to join us, and AD&D was familiar. Second, AD&D brought a lot of welcome nostalgia to some veteran players. More importantly to me, AD&D had a feel that I really liked, for it reflected the atmosphere found in my favorite fantasy literature—J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard’s various Conan stories, the various Arthurian legends, and Greek myth. In most of these tales, humans predominate. The other races and creatures (which I love) seem magical precisely because they are rare. For me, the tidal wave of character choices in more recent editions of the game (especially races) ruined this pseudo-historical flavor. In my eyes, the D&D world started to have an atmosphere that more closely resembled the Cantina in Mos Eisley Spaceport than that of Middle Earth, Hyborea, Arthurian Britain, or mythical Greece. When EVERYTHING is strange, NOTHING seems magical. I shall not attempt to make my case here, for it is irrelevant to the idea of customizing characters. Suffice to say that our change back to AD&D did present a challenge to our veteran players. Without a host of skills, feats, and races, how could a player distinguish his regular old fighter from any other? As DM, I wanted to ensure that our players had the ability to do so. I also wanted the ability to customize the dozens of NPCs that I routinely make and run. This article explores a few of the methods that we used to customize characters in our game over the last few years. Whatever edition you play, you might find the following ideas useful if you’re looking for a bit more variation in your characters. The focus is on PCs here, but, of course, you can apply these ideas to NPCs too.
Before mentioning our ideas for AD&D, I should start by giving credit to Andy Collins, Jesse Decker, David Noonan, and Rich Redman, who published several interesting ideas for customizing characters in Unearthed Arcana (2004) for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. For me at least, they opened my eyes to the possibility of variation without introducing new races, classes, or class variants. For starters, they developed thirty-five traits. These are personality descriptors, each of which brings both positive and negative results. For example, a PC with the Abrasive trait gains a +1 to Intimidate checks but suffers a -1 to Diplomacy checks and Bluff checks. By the book, a character can begin with up to two traits. The writers also developed thirteen flaws (one can use either traits or flaws, or both in conjunction). Choosing a flaw allows a player to choose an additional feat for his PC. Each flaw brings only negative results. For example, a PC with the Inattentive flaw suffers a -2 to Listen and Spot checks. These mechanics work because they rest on a tried-and-true premise in gaming: ‘rules encourage behavior’. If you give players bonuses in certain activities, they will likely do those things more often. In any case, when playing D&D 3E, traits and flaws are great ways to customize a PC. You can find the list of traits and flaws here.
Unfortunately, traits and flaws (at least as written) do not easily translate to AD&D because most of the bonuses and penalties relate to mechanics that are absent in AD&D, such as Reflex saves, Fortitude saves, Will saves, skills, and individual initiative. Fortunately, there are still many ways to customize your PCs for AD&D. Most of the ideas below have no mechanical component. Incidentally, many of them work for D&D 3E, whether or not you use flaws and/or traits. In any case, I take no credit for the ideas below, for I gleaned each from someone. If I can remember the source, I will certainly give credit. If not, I apologize.
One idea for customizing your PC came to me from a friend named Rich Martin, who blended a few existing ideas from various RPGs. He suggests that you select three or four adjectives for your PC, prioritize them, and then list them on your character sheet, clearly indicating the order from most important to least important. For example, my dwarf fighter named Bori is (1) Brave, (2) Loyal, (3) Practical, and (4) Greedy—in that order. First, the adjectives help me to play him by reminding me of his qualities. Second, the numbering helps me to prioritize my actions. For example, when given the opportunity to pocket several gems without the party noticing (he is greedy), Bori’s loyalty to his friends in the party would overpower his greed. Hence, he would not pocket the gems.
This simple technique is also very useful when you are absent from a session and a friend (or the DM) must play your character. By choosing specific and prioritized adjectives, you provide critical guidance on how to play your character. The adjectives might not apply to all situations, but they have proven surprisingly helpful.
Some might call these motivations, impulses, or drives, but the term ‘goals’ is simple enough. Select one thing that really drives the PC to adventure. If you wish, choose one long-term goal and one short-term goal. There are myriad possibilities here, but the more specific the goal the better. Gold, for example is a poor goal because it is too vague. Improve on this by thinking of what the character wishes to buy if he had enough gold. It need not be complicated or refined. For example, one could certainly run a character that seeks ‘the good life’. During the game, he might frequently talk about someday building his own mansion, having servants to carry his gear, having soldiers to fight his battles, dining on silver plates, and having more wine than he can ever drink. Such a character may have grown up on the streets without two coppers to rub together. Alternatively, the character may be from a middle-class family that yearns for the life of a noble, which seems to remain just out of reach.
Use popular TV series for inspiration when it comes to goals. One particularly good one, especially for long-term goals, is The Pillars of the Earth (2010). Set in 12th-century England, the fictional story revolves around a decades-long attempt to build a Gothic cathedral. Most of the major characters have solid, long-term goals. A humble prior wants to complete the cathedral as a tribute to God. A visionary builder wants the same goal to prove that his innovations will work. A manipulative bishop seeks to subdue the prior (by thwarting construction) to increase his own prestige and to further his rise in the Church hierarchy. A displaced lady and her brother, allies to the prior, seek to restore their noble family’s fortune and honor. All of the main characters have very real and deep reasons for their actions. PCs with such long-term goals greatly aid the DM and also bring a great deal of satisfaction to the players.
As a rough guide, I encourage my players to have at least one long-term goal—one that the PC hopes to fulfill before the campaign ends. One player in my monthly game runs a cleric of St. Cuthbert, and he hopes someday to establish his own monastery. Another PC is an assassin who vowed to bring down a rival noble family that cheated and destroyed the PC’s family. When each player has such a long-term goal, it is easy for the DM to create plot hooks that allow the PC to come closer to reaching his goal. For example, the cleric desiring to create a monastery might first need to gain the attention of his superiors. He might volunteer to undertake a special quest for them, and success would bring him good standing in their eyes. Later, his superiors might relay that they need coin to begin construction of a planned monastery. They may task the cleric with raising these funds, either through donations or through adventure. Still later, they may learn that certain resources are required for the construction, and the cleric may be asked to obtain the resources or to deal with some problem that is interfering with the delivery of those resources. Later still, the cleric might find that a monster has settled in the construction area or that a neighboring lord now claims the site for his own. You get the idea. Just one good long-term goal can keep a character motivated for years in the game. Of course, the campaign may not focus on a single PC’s goal (then again, it may!), but whatever main plot develops, the DM can weave the various PC threads together into the main one.
Of course, not all goals are life-long ambitions. Short-term goals are useful too. At our table, I define a short-term goal as one that may require an entire adventure to attain. Goals that can be achieved faster than that have limited usefulness as motivators. When thinking of an example for a short-term goal, my mind went to a fun adventure movie called Romancing the Stone. The leading male character, Jack T. Colton, seems to be a wandering fortune-seeker with no strong loyalties. His primary goal is to buy a large sailboat and to sail around the world. Nothing too deep there, but it works. You clearly know what motivates him, at least during the movie. At the end, he gets his sailboat (and the girl). Like movie audiences, players also need some gratification within a reasonable time frame. One adventure is just long enough to make players appreciate the payoff at the end. Short-term goals should be significant enough to bring gratification, but not so grand that they would prompt any normal human into retirement. A sailboat is a nice payoff (at least for one that greatly desires one), but the new owner would not be independently wealthy. There is still much that he might want or need, and the DM could arrange for many problems to befall him and his new boat.
I refrain from trying to produce a list of possible goals. It would take up too much space, would not be as comprehensive as I would like, and probably isn’t necessary anyway. Suffice to say that goals (long-term or short-term) could somehow involve wealth, fame/reputation, power, religious belief, family, or profession. Just use your imagination. If you get stuck, tap any popular TV series. In recent years, certain cable companies and streaming services have become exceptionally good at producing dramatic series. Just a few that come to mind (personal favorites) include Deadwood, Rome, Game of Thrones, Pillars of the Earth, The Borgias, Stranger Things, Cobra Kai, etc. There are probably dozens more.
This was perhaps the first customization that I’ve used in my games, and it predates my seeing Unearthed Arcana (2004). I simply asked each player to create one weakness for his or her PC. I wasn’t worried about game balance or giving a mechanical reward in exchange for such a weakness. I was more interested in good story telling, and good characters have a weakness. They’re human (usually). Even the greatest heroes—those that seem invincible, like the ancient Greek hero, Achilles—have a weakness that enters the story at some important point. It adds to the drama.
Now, I imagine that a gamer might object to adding something to his character that will only prove detrimental at the worst possible moment. I have heard such objections many times over the years. Though there is no right or wrong here, I strongly dislike the video-game mentality in gaming, in which all story falls by the wayside as players fixate on ‘winning’. I tend to see it as immature, but that’s just me. For players with that mindset, I would say that PC weaknesses simply make winning all the more gratifying, much as starting at 1st-level makes reaching ‘name level’ more gratifying. Objections to PC weaknesses also tend to come from gamers that play by the motto ‘Don’t help the DM’. For any DM dealing with those players, I suggest establishing more trust between himself and his players, for that trust will enable players to let down their guards and try new and exciting things without fear of terrible DM retribution. In turn, the atmosphere at the table will likely become less adversarial, and the stories will likely become more dramatic and entertaining.
In any case, weaknesses need not be crippling. We’re not talking Kryptonite here. I would never ask a player to create a character with a weakness that prevents “normal” gameplay (though I would not stop a player from doing so if the player had given it adequate thought). I ask my players to create weaknesses that are inconvenient and those which lend themselves to plot hooks. A PC that cannot properly digest vegetables has no substantial weakness, as eating vegetables seldom enters game play for most. However, a PC that drinks too much alcohol works well, as this can lead to disadvantages in the game (being drunk during battle or being drunk while on guard duty, for example). It also provides flavor, for the other players will get a clear idea of what the character is like. This weakness is also very easy for the player to role-play—not that he has to act drunk, but he can easily find opportunities for his character to drink too much (in the tavern, on the road, at the campfire, etc.). Though I don’t worry about offsetting penalties with bonuses when it comes to weaknesses, I do apply bonuses when they seem obvious. For example, our drunkard PC might actually get a few temporary hit points when drunk (he’s feeling no pain). He might also seem a bit more charming (at least until the third or fourth drink).
If players need some guidance as to their options, I usually describe two different types of weaknesses—fears and vices. Fears seem obvious. However, I know from experience that simply listing a fear on a character sheet can be inadequate when a situation arises during a game. I ask my players to jot down a conditional statement with regard to the fear. For example, a player whose PC has a fear of spiders might write “If I see a normal spider, I back away 5’. If I were to see a giant spider, I’d either freeze for one round or run out of the room”. It needn’t be more than that. That level of detail is usually enough to guide the player through whatever situation later arises. What you don’t want in gameplay is this:
The DM describes the giant spider that emerges from under the rotting bed. The player, whose PC has arachnophobia, is unfazed and has his PC attack the spider.
DM: “Aren’t you afraid of spiders?”
Player: “I guess. Maybe that’s why I attacked it.”
DM: “I don’t think you would attack it. You’re afraid if it.”
Player: “I’m overcoming my fear.”
DM: “I don’t think it’s supposed to be that easy.”
Player: “You can’t tell me how to run my character.”
If players resist the suggestion to take a weakness for their PCs, point them toward several movies in which the hero has a real fear that interferes with his quest. There are several good examples. One of the most popular in modern movie history is Chief Martin Brody’s fear of water in Jaws. His fear doesn’t keep him from accompanying Captain Quint in hunting the white shark. It also leads to a lot of fun complaining on the boat, which lightens the mood until the author needs to ramp up the tension again. Brody’s fear seems to grow as the hunt drags on and as things go from bad to worse. He goes from being out on the water (where he doesn’t want to be) in a small boat to being unable to return to shore or to call for help. Later, the small boat starts to sink! Like walls closing in, the fear seems ready to crush him. Yet, the need to survive prevails, forcing Brody to face his fear. Given that fear, Brody seems like a virtual superhero by the end of that movie.
For another famous example, consider Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark. “Why did it have to be snakes” is so popular that it’s in common parlance today. Yet, after spotting the snakes in the newly discovered Well of Souls, Indy doesn’t plug up the hole and go home. He grits his teeth and climbs down a rope into a room filled with poisonous asps. An average person would be terrified to enter such a room, but Indy’s fear of snakes makes him seem even more heroic for doing so.
In both cases, the character’s willingness to face his fear sends a clear signal to the audience. By getting on the boat, Brody clearly and wordlessly reveals to the audience his professionalism and his psychological need to eliminate that shark. Indy’s descent into the Well of Souls wordlessly shows the audience how badly he wants the Ark. DMs and players alike would be wise to adopt such storytelling tricks, for everyone wins when characters (PCs and NPCs) are robust and easy to picture, yet no one wants to read long character histories or to hear long character monologues. PC fears help us to develop a character—not just their weaknesses, but their values and desires as well. These become obvious by how a PC reacts to his fear under certain circumstances.
If a player does not wish to give his PC a fear, I suggest a vice instead. Again, there seem to be dozens of possibilities, but alcohol, gambling, and the opposite sex are common and easily playable. Realize that the last choice can be highbrow as well as lowbrow. A PC need not visit whorehouses in every town to demonstrate a weakness for the opposite sex. One veteran player in my group made a character that was a hopeless romantic, a swashbuckling figure that would stop in the middle of a fight to give a rose to a beautiful lady. You can keep it clean. Like fears, vices can cause problems in combat (we already mentioned a drunken character). They also make for easy plot hooks. Many books and movies feature a desperate character with outstanding gambling debts. A few years back, my players took good notes on rumors circulating around a keep and thereby learned of several NPC weaknesses, which they later used to good effect. They learned that one of the sergeants was addicted to a certain drug, and when they later needed information, they leaned on him, threatening to reveal his addiction to his lord. They also learned that the arrogant knight that served as the porter of the keep was an alcoholic with a taste for honey mead. They took to bribing him whenever they visited, and his incessant bullying suddenly ceased.
Though I seldom worry about offsetting weaknesses with bonuses, I am open to the idea of giving a few experience points to a PC when he faces his fears in a meaningful way. Thus, a character that descends into a pit filled with spiders to retrieve a fallen comrade would earn not only the thanks of his comrade but also a few extra xps. I have no particular amount in mind, but my typical award for making game-changing kills, casting game-changing spells, solving tough riddles, or disarming dangerous traps is 100 xps per level. I don’t imagine giving out such awards often, but why not reward a player that role-plays his fear and then has his character face danger in overcoming it. This is easy for fears. Vice may require a slightly different approach. I doubt that I’d assign xps per bottle of mead consumed or per drunken stupor. However, I might award xps if the player engages in battle while drunk, risking life and limb while at a disadvantage. Perhaps I’d reward a PC that has a gambling habit every time that he enters a high-stakes game, as I could connect several plot hooks to such games. The reward need not be great. It’s more a token of appreciation—recognition that the player is bringing desirable flavor to the game, usually at a distinct disadvantage to himself.
I am pretty sure that I first saw this idea in Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #621. First, look at your PC and identify one or two of his extraordinary ability scores (high ones or low ones—it doesn’t matter). I have no definition for high and low here, but perhaps a good guide is a score that brings at least a mechanical bonus or penalty. Second, for each such score, ask yourself when the PC first realized that he was superior or inferior in this regard. Third, create a conditional statement that involves this ability.
An example will illustrate this. Consider Fleetwood the fighter, who has a 17 strength and a mere 07 Charisma. The 17 is obviously high and the 07 obviously low. The player might determine that Fleetwood first realized that he was stronger than most when he won the local wrestling competition at age 14. He first realized how socially awkward he was about five minutes after his wrestling victory. When a local girl flirted with him, he stumbled horribly over his words and actually offended her. Finally, the player would create two conditional statements—one for each ability, as follows.
(1) Whenever Fleetwood sees someone boasting of physical strength, he is likely to join the activity to test his strength (if the player cannot decide, it’s a 50% chance).
(2) Whenever a pretty girl flirts with him or gives him a compliment, he responds with a flowery, memorized, over-the-top compliment. This is his attempt to avoid stumbling over his words, but he is far from smooth, and it never goes well.
This highlights the PC’s extraordinary features (good or bad). Furthermore, it gives the character at least two in-character stories to tell, either to PCs or to NPCs. Moreover, it provides the player with specific triggers that lead directly to action. The action is important because it urges the player to show the others what his PC is like instead of telling them. These triggers also help the DM to create scenarios that are likely to engage the various characters. With such triggers in place, a DM is far less likely to have players simply ignore certain encounters (wow is that frustrating!).
This idea began when I was designing pre-generated characters for a stand-alone adventure. I love giving players as much choice as possible, and though pre-generated characters were going to work best for this adventure, I felt guilty in taking away some of the players’ choice regarding character creation. Thus, I thought of two possible adjectives that might describe each character. Then I devised a simple modifier or two that seemed to make sense with each adjective. Finally, I wrote instructions on the sheet for the player to select one of the adjectives. That was my way of giving a small degree of choice back to the player that was about to run a pre-generated character. Here follow two choices as they would appear on the character sheet:
Weapon Affinity: He has a natural affinity for most weapons, meaning that his weapon proficiency penalty is reduced by 1 (i.e., a penalty of -2 becomes -1).
Keen-Eyed: He gets a bonus of +2 (or 10%) to any chance of spotting something. He also gets a bonus of +1 to attacks with his bow.
It wasn’t long before I wanted to use this idea with my two regular monthly groups. Those players all have their own PCs, but why not allow each to have a special characteristic? This led me to come up with a list of choices. As these were not pre-generated characters, I would not give each player a choice between only two characteristics. I would allow them to select off a list.
First, I compiled those characteristics that I had previously devised for pre-generated characters. Then I looked for a list of other characteristics that I might use to round out my list. Somewhere, I ran across two lists—one of ‘Knacks’ and another of ‘Quirks’. The knacks were all positive, and the quirks were all negative. I cannot recall where I found these lists, but both seemed only half finished. For example, some simply gave a mechanical modifier (for example, ‘+1 to saving throws v. poison’) while others had no modifier at all (‘allergic to bees’). I pulled what I could from this list and created my own list of special characteristics. It isn’t comprehensive, but it’s sufficiently diverse for my current group. I can always add more.
My last development with this list was to make two variations for each adjective, one slightly better than the other. Players love to roll dice, and I like the idea of there being some uncertainty when making characters (which is just one reason why I like rolling for ability scores instead of using a point-buy system). Anyway, I decided to allow my players to select a special characteristic from the list, but they would then roll to see if they receive the minor version or the major version. An example:
Quick-Fingered (minor): He gains +5% to pick pocket attempts. If not a thief, he has a 20% chance.
Quick-Fingered (major): He gains +10% to pick pocket attempts. If not a thief, he has a 30% chance.
For the record, my list is still in development. A few of my special characteristics do not yet have a major and minor variation. I’m sure I can also add more special characteristics to my list. Perhaps I’ll publish the list separately and get your feedback so we can make it better.
This last idea has absolutely nothing to do with mechanics, but I’ve found that it makes a character almost unique in the eyes of the group. Consider which famous Hollywood actor you would want to play the character in a film-version of your campaign. Note this somewhere and then see if you can find a decent picture of the actor. Try to get the picture to be as close to the desired look as possible. If the setting and genre of the cited movie has no resemblance to your campaign, then crop the picture tightly. If, however, the cited movie is from a similar genre, then use the picture as is, showing some of the actor’s clothing and such. For our monthly campaign, we have the pictures of the PCs and party NPCs hanging on the wall for easy reference.
There are probably two dozen additional ways to customize player characters. The above ideas are but a few that work for our group. If they work for you, feel free to use one or more in your own games. After all, why not? Who benefits from having cookie cutter characters?
If you have additional ideas for customizing player characters, what are they? Let us know! I would certainly like to add to this list. AD&D is a fantastic game (which is why I still play it), but any decades-old game can always use some spice to keep it fresh. This applies to other vintage RPGs as well.