D&D: Uncomplicating Character Concepts

Five Life Lessons Learned From Gaming
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 review

Satine PhoenixRecently, I was watching Satine Phoenix‘s GM Tips on Alpha about playing with kids at the table.  It’s a really useful video, and it made me consider a lot of things I never would’ve otherwise. Most importantly is how to adopt any given tabletop roleplaying game to suit the needs of a group.

In the video, the kid used as an example wanted to be a pig ninja. TL Frasqueri-Molina, the guest host who GMed for the kid, found statistical and skill workarounds for the kid, and made it work. I think that’s great, but I also think that’s unnecessary for the same reason I think we tend to overthink creating new races and classes. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time. Especially in a tabletop RPG, we can borrow heavily from what already exists, and re-skin or modify it.

For my modern firearms class archetypes, I borrowed heavily from things that already existed. In fact, I did so as much as I could. Even those that I had to make up entirely still managed to find inspiration from somewhere in the books.  Go ahead and look at it again.  Marksman is nothing more than one of the functions of Sharpshooter, split into an either/or category, to ensure even better balance as a low-level skill.  The Oath of Judgement’s Interrogation Channel Divinity is just zone of truth, but ramped up a little. The Gun Fu Monk’s Gun Kata is heavily inspired by the Defensive Duelist feat.  I didn’t reinvent anything.  I took what was there and made it thematic, with a few twists here and there.  Six fully unique class archetypes built around simple and established premises.

Going back to the pig ninja, I don’t know what TL Frasqueri-Molina actually did, nor do I know what system she was using, but that doesn’t matter.  The pig ninja is just the catalyst of the issue I’m seeing, which is creating complex systems for simple problems.  In order to provide an example, I’m going to recreate the pig ninja using Dungeons & Dragons 5E.  I’m not choosing this system to be on brand, but because I really like the d20 system, and I think that 5E is great for simplicity, balance, and homebrewing.  Besides, it doesn’t really matter either way.  The principles are applicable anywhere.

Pig Ninja

Pig Ninja characterThe automatic assumption for most people would be to go straight to the Monster Manual, look at the stats for the boar on page 319, and try to extrapolate some kind of stat bonus system out of that, but that would be a mistake.  Beyond the fact that you have to decide what works best based on the boar (Strength +2, Constitution +1), which isn’t always so easy to translate, a boar isn’t the same thing as a sentient, bipedal pig.  What you should be doing is considering the established race that best suits the intent of the pig ninja.  Which race would you envision having a pig as a spirit animal?

To me, nothing screams pig more than a halfling.  So, we’re going to start with that Dexterity +2.  In some cases, it would be appropriate to swap out some of the core race skills to make it more customizable, but halflings’ skills thematically work for pigs, so there’s no need to change it. If you’re running a game for children, have some fun with the character.  Make their known languages common and pig latin.

For the sub-race, some are more complicated than others, but this is where I’d take the time to create something unique. For the pig ninja, pigs are actually very strong, hearty, and intelligent, so you’re going to have to make a choice as to what you think the pig’s second stat bonus should be.  If you’re making the pig ninja for a kid, you can just give them a Wisdom bonus, to give them a little statistical boost, but I would otherwise make it a Strength +1.  As far as the skill is concerned, it’s not always going to be easy, but the boar has the Relentless skill, so you can just give it the half-orc’s Relentless Endurance skill.

For the class, it’s actually really easy. The Way of Shadow Monk is essentially a ninja already, so you’re good to go.

Another example: The Fox

Fox SwashbucklerSometimes the character concept fits very well, but just manages to fall just short.  Almost all of the Tabaxi’s traits work perfectly for a fox character (with some flavor text changes), except the Cat’s Claws skill doesn’t work at all, so it’s going to have to be reworked.  Pulling elements from the Tabaxi’s Cat’s Claws and the Dragonborn’s Breath Weapon, you get Lashing Bite: You can make an attack with your bite as if it were an unarmed strike.  If you hit, you deal piercing damage equal to 2d6 + your Dexterity modifier.  The damage increases to 3d6 at 6th level, 4d6 at 11th level, and 5d6 at 16th level.  Personally, I think that the Swashbuckler is the perfect class for the fox, thematically speaking, although any Rogue or Monk would work well.

Creating Specific Characters

Guardians of the Galaxy
To me, the greatest thing about Dungeons & Dragons is that you can do anything.  In every other medium, you’re limited by the experiences that’ve been thrust upon you.  Why, then, are we artificially confining ourselves in the one place where you a total free reign?  If the GM allows it, then it’s fine.  If what you bring is well balanced, then the GM will likely allow it.  If that’s the case, it should be okay for us to construct entirely new heroes, the way that any other media allows you to.  So, in the spirit of the fact that this article happens to align with the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, I’m going to provide a few examples.  Bear in mind that, because these are based on established characters, the flavor text and choices should be assumed to align with the source material, even if the mechanics don’t.

Note: I’m building these characters at 13th level. They’re scrappy “Masters of the Realm” (Dungeon Master’s Guide 37) fighting against forces that are far above their level, and only surviving because of Deus Ex Machina.

Rocket Raccoon

Rocket and Groot

  • Ability Scores: STR 8, DEX 14 (+2), CON 10, INT 15, WIS 16 (+3), CHA 12
  • Additional Weapon Proficiency: Pistols and automatic rifles (not hunting rifles).
  • Template Race: Gnome
    • Darkvision: You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light.  You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
    • Raccoon Cunning: You have advantage on all Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma Saving throws.
    • Languages: Common, Gnome, and Groot.
  • Character Subrace:
    • Ability Score Bonus: Dexterity +1
    • Speak With Groot: Through sounds, gestures, and inflections, you can communicates with Groot, who can only say, “I am Groot” (or “We are Groot).
    • Tinker: Tinker trait from Rock Gnome sub-race.
  • Class: Ranger
    • Favored Enemies: Constructs (1st level), Dragons (6th level)
    • Natural Explorer: Forest (1st level), Mountain (6th level), Underdark (10th level)
    • Fighting Style: Two-Weapon Fighting
  • Ranger Archetype: Beast Master
    • Ranger’s Companion: Baby Groot (small plant)
      • Ability Score: STR 15, DEX 14, CON 12, INT 8, WIS 13, CHA 10
      • AC: 17
      • Hit Points: 52
      • Slam: 2d6+7 bludgeoning damage.
      • Grasping Vines: 2d6+7 bludgeoning damage.  If the target is a creature, it is grappled (escape DC 16).  Until this grapple ends, the target is restrained, and Groot can’t use his vines on any other target.
  • Spells:
    • [1st level] Cure WoundsEnsnaring StrikeHunter’s Mark
    • [2nd level] Locate ObjectPass without Trace
    • [3rd level] Lightning Arrow
    • [4th level] Grasping VinesLocate Creature
  • Further Homebrew rules
    • Rocket is better suited for my (as of this writing, unfinished) Tinkerer class, but this build is better for the more traditional Player’s Handbook features.

Drax, The Destroyer


  • Ability Scores: STR 16 (+3), DEX 13, CON 16, INT 10, WIS 12, CHA 8
  • Feats: Great Weapon Master, Dual Wielder
  • Template Race: Half-Orc
    • Darkvision: You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light.  You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
    • Menacing: You gain proficiency in the Intimidation skill.
    • Relentless Endurance: When you are reduced to 0 hit points but not killed outright, you can drop to 1 hit point instead.  You can’t use this feature again until you finish a long rest.
    • Savage Attacks: When you score a critical hit with a melee weapon attack, you can roll one of the weapon’s dice one additional time and add it to the extra damage of the critical hit.
    • Languages: Common and Orc.
  • Class: Barbarian
  • Barbarian Primal Path: Path of the Berserker




  • Ability Scores: STR 8, DEX 13 [+1] , CON 12, INT 10, WIS 16 [+4], CHA 15 [+2]
  • Feats: Dual Wielder, Sharpshooter
  • Template Races: Half-Aasimar (Aasimar, Human)
    • Ability Score Bonus: Charisma +1, other Ability Score of your choice +1
    • Celestial Resistance: You have resistance to necrotic damage and radiant damage.
    • Light Bearer: You know the light cantrip. Charisma is your spellcasting ability for it.
    • Feat: You gain one feat of your choice.
    • Languages: Common and Celestial.
  • Class: Fighter
    • Fighting Style: Two-Weapon Fighting
  • Martial Archetype: Commando




  • Ability Scores: STR 12, DEX 16 [+3], CON 10, INT 13, WIS 16 [+3], CHA 9
  • Feats:
  • Template Race: Elf
    • Darkvision: You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light.  You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
    • Keen Senses: You have proficiency in the Perception skill.
    • Fey Ancestry: You have advantage on saving throws against being charmed, and magic can’t put you to sleep.
    • Trance
    • Languages: Common and Elvish.
  • Character Subrace:
    • Ability Score Bonus: Wisdom +1
    • Thanos’ Weapon Training: You have proficiency with longswords, shortswords, rapiers, and automatic rifles.
    • Fleet of Foot: Your base walking speed increases to 35 feet.
    • Mask of the Wild: You can attempt to hide even when you are only lightly obscured by foliage, heavy rain, falling snow, mist, and other natural phenomena.
  • Class: Monk
  • Monastic Tradition: Way of Gun Fu

Breaking the Rules

All of that being said, there are going to be times you can’t take what already exists and tweak it to make it work the way I’ve done above. I’m in the process of working on my own Tinkerer class, which I’ve barely started on, much less finished the first draft, so it’s likely going to be very confusing. The ideas and the mechanics I have envisioned don’t have any equivalent, so I’m forced to build it from the ground up. Realistically, it’s a much larger endeavor than I’d suggest for anyone, especially since you can just make a few changes here and there to make it work very well.

Stay Nerdy!

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Follow Joshua Brickley:
Despite looking so young, I'm in my mid-30s (36, to be exact). Up until I was 21, I focused a lot of my attention on stage acting, mostly local and school theater. At some point, I felt a need to change my life's direction, so I joined the Air Force. After 10 years, where I was an Intelligence Analyst and Mission Coordinator, I was medically retired. I went back to school and got my Bachelor's in English, focusing mostly on literary theory and rhetorical criticism, at the University of the Incarnate Word. In this next chapter of my life, I'm turning my attention towards tabletop RPGs.

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