5th edition

Unusual Builds Tell A Story All Their Own

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5th editionYears ago, in my great grandfather’s time, the emperor sent out citizens to colonize the wild lands and expand the Empire.

This is how we came to live north of the wall. There we found and settled lands that were more fertile than any the empire had ever seen. The game was plentiful, the water clean, and the soil rich.

We flourished, growing from a settlement to a village growing to a bustling town with every family having its own land.

And then the Greenskins came.

They came, not one by one, but like a tide that had returned to claim the scavengers that picked its life filled pools clean. We sent word to the emperor, pleading for aid to defend the lands that had sent so much bounty to him. We expected a regiment of knights led by a shining paladin. We were sent a caravan with scarce supplies with demands to return it with more crops and orders to defend the emperor’s lands.

Enraged by this, the men who were our hunters took up arms. Using the same tactics we used to bring down the great elks of the north, we fell upon the Green Tide in the very night they thought was their ally. First arrows, not like an army to blot out the moon, but like predatory birds to pluck out the eyes of our foes. Then our hunters leaped upon the charging Greens from the trees, spearing them like the boar the emperor was so fond of. Finally, at the verge of losing everything, our long axes, once used to fell the trees that built our homes, now crashed upon the armor of those sickly green troops like the fury of a charging bear.

Nord Games Revenge of the Horde
“Tell a tale enough times and the details are sure to change. Somewhere in the thousands of years of telling children not to wander past sundown, or play with fire, or suck their thumbs, folk took to threatening them with bugaboos, or boogiemen, and forgot altogether that the original terror of the night was the, sadly very real, bugbear.”
-Ansel Greer, linguist [Art and text from Ultimate Bestiary: Revenge of the Horde from Nord Games Kickstarter]
Now, you may notice I mention animals more than once. There is a reason for that my friend. For the Green Tide had not been kind to nature nor man and seeing man striking back, nature brought fang, talon, tusk and claw to bear against them. Animals joined us, fighting with ferocity born of fear and hunger. Powerful black bears of the Twin Rivers, swift blood falcons of the Roaring Ridge, and the ferocious boars of the Whitecap Forest joined the slaughter.

The Green Tide had no choice but to turn and flee from the forces before them. But that proved their undoing, for that is when the most dangerous foe joined us like brothers-in-arms, or rather a pack. The crimson wolves of the north had come to nip the heels of the invaders til exhaustion forced them to fight or drop. When they turned to strike a wolf, they would be met with axe. If they turned to a hunter, they would have their throat torn by a wolf. Man and beast became one, and together they turned the tide. But like the tide, the Green Skins would always return. And this time they would be the hunted, for every generation would teach the next to honor the pacts made that fateful night. Each child, when they came of age, would go out and bond with their partner. The other half of their soul, and from that moment on they would be inseparable, moving as one to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

That is how Red and I became one. He is my brother, my inheritance. As much as my armor and axe came from my father, so did the traditions. His father taught him, as I was taught by mine. That cunning of man tempered by the fury of nature will be able to win more battles through hunting through the night than an army of knights would win any day on the battlefield. It is up to Red and I to train the next generation, for the Tide always returns…

-Hayden, Wolf Ranger of the North

Unusual builds

In my time as a gamer, both as the one running the game as well as the player, I have found that many go for the optimal builds, and some even go for the least optimal builds. The builds that I enjoy most are the ones that are kind of odd, and more than anything built through their backstory. It’s for this reason I love the background type of options in games such as Pathfinder, Starfinder, and fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. These games encourage this through not only various mechanics but also through the flavor and inspiration that comes from such.

To this end, I wanted to talk about why builds that are a tad odd can oft be the funnest. Come with me as I describe a few experiences I have had in such, and please tell me of your experiences with off-the-wall builds.

Why are unusual builds good?

The reason unusual builds are a good thing is more than just mechanical things. It is the ability to be anything and anyone you can dream of. It is the ability to make a role into something you want. It can make the boring fun, the DM rock back onto his heels, and keep things organic.

Eurasian wolf at Polar Zoo in Bardu, Norway. [Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]
For me, this came into play through my previous statement, it can make the boring fun. See, my group needed a tank of some sort to protect our extremely squishy D&D group. It was a role we desperately needed, and one I hated to play as I just cannot get my brain behind most of the traditional tanks of D&D. So after discussing things with one of the players in our group on why I couldn’t get behind any traditional tank, he suggested I write his backstory before I touch any mechanics. Through this I wrote this article’s intro, and the unusual build flourished from there. Not a build of a shining armored paladin, as our group already had three people with high Charisma, but one that was a tank through tradition and tactics.

Hayden is a ranger, not the traditional tank in the slightest. He does not wear heavy armor, or a shield. Sure he can heal a bit but truly what makes him a tank is how he controls the battlefield through constant punishment of the foes. Through a reflavored (with DM approval) Tunnel Fighter fighting style, the revised ranger, favored enemy of humanoids, and the feats of Sentinel and Polearm Master I have crafted a fighting style that involves his history in every aspect of his build. Not just in combat, but he has roleplay opportunities and his own lexicon already established. The group immediately, upon his introduction, knew that this character was a practical man of strong conviction. A man who would lay down his life to protect those in his care, and would be of aid to them in the rising problems of orcs in the area.

See, I made a character that fits the role of tank but does so through unconventional means. Not the highest AC (he has 17, and his wolf has a 16), hit points are decent, and he isn’t even the hardest hitting (wielding a halberd with 16 Strength). But he hits often, making everyone think twice before they strike at his allies. If anyone has the courage to face him, Red would tear them down with snarling fangs. The campaign is set at 5th level currently, but between Red and his own HP they are over a hundred HP.  An unusual build by a long shot but he has time and time again shown himself to be the stalwart defender. I’m sure you can agree, that it’s much more fun to be the hunter of evil and ranger of the north, rather than some ham-bicepped brute that just smashes, and waits for the next fight. I know I enjoy this unusual build in and out of combat more than hit-roar-hit-repeat as necessary. To me, that is important, to have fun at all times of gaming.

How to make an unusual build

rangerHow to make an unusual build is not as easy as 1-2-3 in every situation. I can lead you through things that got me to my current character. See below for a quick and dirty steps to guide you.

  1. Think of what you need to accomplish.
  2. Think of how this would normally be achieved.
  3. Think of a story that entails someone achieving exactly what you need to accomplish through a way that doesn’t follow the paths laid out in step 2.
  4. Take that story and look through it for build parts. The way Hayden’s people defend their beast allies explains his Sentinel feat, class, conclave, companion, and fighting style.
  5. Look for bits you can fit into the story that can further define your character and add them to the story. When I pictured my character, I pictured him of Scandinavian-themed origin. That led me to think of the multi-functional way the vikings used most of their equipment. To this end, I pictured him using what is commonly referred to as a Danish axe. A form of pole-axe that is somewhat between a greataxe and a pole axe, with a spike or weight on one end and a thin weighted blade on the other end of its one- to two-meter shaft. The closest correlation, in my opinion, was the halberd. Though that butte-spike begged for use, and as such I was led to the Polearm Master feat.
  6. Fill in the blanks, with a mind to always enhance the story and not the power.
  7. Finalize personality, mannerisms, and roleplay. Put breath and life to your character.

Not exactly rocket science but it did work for me. In fact, it is fairly similar to my friend’s process that led to Rittel the Spirit Shaman that I have spoken of in previous articles. I hope you can find your process, and let me know if you needed to change things and what worked please.

What is bad about unusual builds?

Well of course there are some downsides to everything. Some more than others, but every unusual build will have its downside. Here are a few quick thoughts I had on the downsides of unusual builds.

  1. You will often end up not being the most optimized build. Though you might find you are a diverse one, if not an unusual one.
  2. You might have to change your tactics of your role. Such as how I have to position Hayden and micro-manage my action economy to make Red and I able to hold off the advances of our foes.
  3. You may grow frustrated when something overtakes what a standard optimized build could have handled. Yeah I felt this after I had to hold off three CR 5 big nasties last night. My hit points (and Red’s) held up a good long while but the constant beatings would have been handled better by a highly armored paladin or a raging barbarian. That much was for sure, but it was fun doing it exactly the way I did it. Plus, I was cracking up with how badly my character was being outclassed on damage by his pet.
  4. You may end up somewhere you never expected with your build as it levels and evolves. Though, to be honest, this is as good as it is bad.
  5. It is a lot of work. If you wanted a quick build, it is not happening here.

Well that is the story of Hayden and Red, how they led to rekindling my love of unusual builds, and how I adore everything to do with a story-based character. I would love to hear of your characters that did not fit the common mold. Tell me of your unusual builds, and the fun you had with them. I’m sure you know of a few builds and characters you have always wanted to make, let’s hear them and let your fellow Nerdarchists figure out the mechanics.

Play on PS4 or PS3? Did you know Nerdarchy has a community that plays together often? Go ahead and search in the community section for Nerdarchy and for the player Nubz_The_Zombie!

Did I miss something? Have any Questions or Comments? Feel free to message me at www.facebook.com/NubzTheZombie or at nubz.the.zombie@gmail.com

Stay Nerdy,


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Follow Nigel “Nubz” Sanford:
Nubz hails from the American Pacific Northwest where he has spent the last 24 years living the gamer life and running campaigns of all kinds. Through this he has managed to sate his acting bug and entertain many. Now a father, he wishes to pursue writing to leave a legacy in Nerd culture for his offspring to enjoy.

  1. Whereisbaodur
    | Reply

    [Posted on behalf and with permission of a fan who contacted me directly. ]

    Oh, hi. A friend of mine has asked me to check the nerdarchy site for a feedback, and I was drawn to your article https://nerdarchy.com/2017/09/unusual-builds-tell-a-story-all-their-own/
    Since I’m not familiar with the site and I’m in the middle of doing something else, I can’t bother to replay in site, but I liked your article so much I decided to give you a quick answer.

    I’ve mostly played D&D 3.5, the character I’ve played the longest is a dwarf barbarian. Roleplaying-wise he was not the stereotype illiterate brute, rather something akin to a slayer from warhammer, but, you know, a bit less tacky. I knew I wanted to roleplay my barbarian rage as a will to fight regardless of the consequences, so more reckless than angry, and I opted out of the berserker prestige class. What’s peculiar it’s that my AC was laughable all the way through. It actually got worse the more I levelled up. (20 at level 20, which could become as low as a 6). This forced me to find a way to stay alive, which, aside from a good cleric, required me to kill my enemies faster than they could kill me. I managed it in a few ways, the funniest of which was the use of the Robilar’s gambit feat. Enemies had bonuses to hit and damage me, but in turn I got attacks of opportunity for their every swing.

    An other character was a dwarf cleric/mage/mystic theurge/runesmith. His background that of a fighter, he spent some 80 years imprisoned by giants in a cave, and he escaped thanks, also, to newfond clerical powers. So, middle aged, spent something like other 40 years trying to learn magic. Thanks to the runesmith class feature I was able to let him walk in full plate armor and tower shield and let him play the role of a tank that was needed in the group. We didn’t play much, alas, but I would have had base AC 50 at level twenty. I would have played it like a melee fighter with the ability to cast a spell per round like a swift action.

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