Over on Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted addressed a concern from the video audience community regarding character build guides for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. They share a great discussion on the motivation to create character build guides and character builds in general. These days we imagine and create characters for 5E D&D but building characters is a nerdy tradition throughout all the editions of the game. I certainly created far more 2E AD&D characters than I ever played, and we played a lot. Since we outline and research video discussions together as a team, I thought it would be fun to share how we arrive at our version of character build guides for 5E D&D. So let’s get into it.
Keeping it real for a character build guide
When we first discussed turning a community request for a College of Whispers bard/paladin character build for Adventurers League play into a video series, I was skeptical. Moreso than previous editions, for me in 5E D&D I chafed at the idea of a character build. I’m creating a character, not building one darn it! But one of the first things we talked about was coming up with an overall idea for the character as a person — before any mechanical crunchy stuff.
Almost all our character build guides present multiclass characters. These came about through the character discussion after we got a feel for how the character operates in the world. Their goals and motivations become a guidepost to the sorts of abilities we imagine they develop throughout their adventures. Here’s where it begins to get mechanical, where we look through different race, class and background options for interesting synergies.
What became known as a Mind Breaker Paladin encompassed exploring what sort of person follows the path leading to this character, and then crafting the character build guide around this story. What sort of life events would steer a person to develop this way? We’ve got a good idea of the various class features we aim to incorporate, and the most direct path to get there. Like a stereotypical psychotherapy session, our character build guide development often begins in childhood. The Mind Breaker experienced a traumatic childhood, and this hardened them. Anytime we wondered what character choice to make, it came back to wondering what this person would do.
With a few character build guides under our belts, something occurred to me and became a great takeaway for me as a 5E D&D player. We imagined this long personal journey from childhood to 20th level character, but what about the actual adventures and game play that would carry them all the way to the level cap? The life choices we imagined surely could not be reflected in every player’s individual game. But they can! I’ve played several 5E D&D games with various of our character build guide creations and, while I’m particularly close to the material, it’s a huge roleplaying aid to consider how and why a character makes certain choices. I can roleplay through my character’s own personal journey in the context of the adventure because their personal goals are individual ones independent of specific NPCs, places or objects in the campaign setting.
One of my favorite experiences playing one of these character build guide creations is the Extreme Adventurer. The game was a 7th level one shot, and at this point in the guide I understood where the character was at in their personal journey. The story elements along with insights into when and why character choices are made helped jump right into a new character’s shoes and feel like I’d been playing them since 1st level. Jovan Musk the goliath extreme adventurer was really fun to play.
Protip: Whether you’re following along one of our character build guides, creating a character from scratch for a new campaign or putting something together for a one shot, take a moment to consider how the character followed their path to power, why they made the choices they did and what their (and your as a player) goal is, including mechanically. Is there a spell or class feature that really ties the character together? What’s so special about it, why does the character aim to acquire it and how will it achieve their personal goal? Answering those questions can help inform how your character reacts and thinks about the world around them and the people and creatures there.
The other side of the character build guide
There’s way more 5E D&D players out there than Dungeon Masters, and it’s very clear when we create DM-centric content there’s a much smaller audience for it so these character build guides are great for reaching a broader swatch of people. But we still love all the DMs out there keeping the funny shaped dice rolling and we wanted to include something for them too. Plus with all our exploration of these characters’ personality and motivations along with discovering the neat synergies between different features and abilities, we wanted to fold them into our own games we run.
But adapting player characters into NPC creatures is largely a lot of work for little return. I don’t know about you but I don’t think I’ve ever needed to know an NPC creature’s Intelligence (Relgion) bonus for a skill check or a thousand other fiddly bits. Instead, those interesting character class feature synergies means we can simply mash them together into a single feature for a new NPC creature. Now when we include these in our games they have all the flavor and thrill of the player character version but with wholly unique standalone abilities.
And over time we get a little crazy with these features too. One of my favorites is the Master of Undeath. The character build seeks complete control over life and death, and undeath. They’re a heavy spellcaster of course, and if I’m honest when we create new creatures and NPCs we look for any way to reduce or eliminate spellcasting. It’s much easier and more fun to give the creature an action, bonus action or reaction that just does the effect we want. The NPC Master of Undeath became the Pale Master. This creature has a variable ability to take on a Shroud of Undeath, granting them a different suite of abilities depending if their shroud is shadow, wight, wraith or vampire.
Our earliest character build guide creature versions for the DM stuck much closer to the player versions, most often humanoids with very similar features that achieved the same effects but in a streamlined way. But there’s quite a few, like the Pale Master, that share only a thematic connection. This portion of the character build guide translates into adventure hooks and ideas for incorporating the creature into a game. The Pale Master’s abilities are vastly different than the Master of Undeath, but their goals and motivations share similarities for example.
If you are interested in checking out our 5E D&D Character Build Guides, you can find there at the Dungeon Masters Guild here. They are all pay what you want, so feel free to add them all to your digital library. We include a link in each of them to the video discussion where Dave and Ted create the character step by step. This series really became a favorite of ours so we’re super thankful whenever someone throws an idea our way. It’s fun to give a shout out to the community and hopefully help players and DMs add some cool ideas to their games. We get quite a lot of feedback on these from both sides of the DM screen and people really seem to enjoy them. So we’re gonna keep on creating character build guides — and using them in our own games too. We’ve got a new one coming very soon that I think gives an earlier character we created a serious run for their money.