Rory’s Pocket Guide to D&D 4e: Part 1 – Character Creation

This is part of an exciting multipart series where I detail the steps I take when I play and run D&D 4E. It may not work for everyone. However, I have a lot of experience playing D&D, and I feel I have a good insight for what makes the game fun and engaging to play.

How to Make a Character

Note: Some of these tips may seem like they min/max or focus too much on mechanics, but I believe they allow you to create an effective and enjoyable character, one that is mechanically sound while sacrificing virtually nothing with regards to roleplaying or general fun.

Making a character is an exciting part of any D&D game! It has consequences for how enjoyable and engaging the game will be for you, your fellow players, and the DM. There are several factors to keep in mind when making a character:

  • What kind of character do you want to roleplay? My character’s personality will have a lot to do with the class and race I choose to play.
  • What kind of character will you enjoy playing mechanically? A class or race’s perception in the game world or in popular fiction may differ dramatically from how the class plays in combat.
  • What kind of character works best with your group dynamic? Having a good balance of the four roles is pretty important since it tends to make the group tougher as a whole, it makes for more interesting encounters (the all ranger group might turn out to be pretty potent but I bet it’s not super fun), and it tends to create more chances for each player to shine (if I do awesome heals and give super bonuses and you do awesome damage, then we BOTH shine if I setup an awesome attack for you).
  • What haven’t you played in a while? I like to mix things up when I play, rather than focusing on always playing a leader or striker or what have you.

Steps to making a character

  1. Pick a Class: Using the above factors, go ahead and pick a class that seems like a good fit. Much more so than race, the class you pick is going to make a big difference in how you play your character both in and out of combat. It should be noted that some classes are a little better than others. Sad but true! For example, you have to do some extra work to make a powerful seeker or warlock, but a Cleric or Barbarian is likely to be effective without much effort.
  2. Pick a Race: 90% of the time, you’re going to want to pick a race that has bonuses to ability scores for your primary and secondary stats. Human is an obvious exception, as it only has one ability score bonus, but with the extra feat and defense bonuses, sometimes has just enough to push it over the edge. Plus, it’s nice to have humans in a group so we remember that they are apparently rather prevalent in the world!
  3. Pick your Ability Scores: 90% of the time, I go for either 18, 14, 11, 10, 8 or 16, 16, 12, 12, 10, 8. The reason is that you’re going to be using the same 1 or 2 ability scores for virtually all the rolls you do, so it makes sense for them to be as high as possible. In fact, I almost always sink an 18 into my primary skill, which then gets bumped up to 20 with a +2 from my race. I only really go for two 16s if one of my secondary stats is either intelligence or dexterity and I use light armor. The extra bonus to AC and Reflex (along with all the other perks of a high Int or Dex) is enough to justify not maxing out your primary skill, I think. Occasionally I might deviate slightly from these ability score structures if I want to qualify for a couple feats and need a 13 in something.
  4. Pick some Nice At-Wills: These are a good start since you’ll be using them a lot, especially at low levels. If possible, select at-wills that cover more than one defense. Being able to switch between Reflex and Will, for example, is essential when dealing with certain monsters, as some creatures can have over 5 points of different between defenses! Also, if you play a class that doesn’t have strength as its primary, getting an at-will that gives you a basic melee attack if possible is great, as it will come in handy with Opportunity Attacks and charges.
  5. For encounters, pick those that you can see actually using. For example, if an encounter power is arguably not even much better than an at-will, then why bother picking it up? Either go for encounter powers that are REALLY powerful or powers that expand your options considerably in combat, preferably both! For example, if you’re character doesn’t have any burst/blast at-wills, then an encounter that effects a burst or blast is going to be really handy and almost certainly used every combat. It’s also worth getting a sense of what other people in your group have in their toolbox. At higher levels, being able to make saving throws becomes really important, so you’re going to want to have several abilities floating around for giving bonuses/extra saving throws. Triggering healing surges is also essential. Stuff like that!
  6. For dailies, your goal should be ENCOUNTER LONG effects. The best kinds of these are effects the require no upkeep, followed by sustain minor types of things, followed by save ends abilities (with the exception of builds that can really trash someone’s STs). The only thing that trumps those are effects that are so awesome/cool you can’t really justify not taking them, such as powers that allow several attacks in a row. Even the nerfed versions of these powers are awesome enough to justify taking them in most cases.
  7. For utilities, it is often a good idea to look at the daily utility powers first, as these can give encounter long effects that can really give a big bonus during an encounter. Bonuses to damage, defenses, and hit rolls can make a big difference in a combat. Similarly, ways to give extra saving throws or trigger healing surges are also life savers.
  8. Pick Feats: There are a few must haves for feats. Expertise for your weapon/implement is almost always going to be your first pick, as +1 to hit is too good to pass up (never mind that it scales with level). At paragon level, paragon defenses is also usually a high priority for its efficient defense bonuses unless you have SO MANY other good feats you can’t justify taking it. I’m also a fan of Weapon Focus, if you can use it, since every little bit of damage you can cobble together helps for almost every build. Feats that give extra bonuses to hit or damage most of the time for your class are usually must haves, as are feats that gives bonuses to defenses most or all of the time.
  9. Pick Items: If starting at a higher level, try to maximize your hit chance, followed by your AC, followed by your other defenses. Once you’ve done that, pick up something that gives you an item bonus to damage for your most common attacks if your weapon/implement doesn’t do so already. Good/arguably overpowered choices for weapons and implements include those that give very high crit dice (vicious + bloodiron) if you’ve got 19-20 crit, give improved crit chance (jagged), give item bonuses to damage (staff or ruin), and give other bonuses to damage (some of these are still around post errata!).
  10. Refine character concept: Now that you’ve basically built your character, go ahead and refine your character concept. How do you see roleplaying this character, what’s their history, etc? I think you should be keeping your basic character concept in mind during all of character creation, but dwelling too hard on it early on can cause you to make suboptimal choices that will hurt your enjoyment during the game. If you’re more flexible about what kind of character you want to play, you can build a mechanically powerful character that may even surprise you when it comes to roleplaying decisions!
  11. Pick skills + backgrounds: I listed skills last because they’re one of the things that most influences how you roleplay your character and they tend not to impact combat too much, though it is worth keeping in mind some powers require proficiency in certain skills to take. Generally with skills I take all the skills that use my primary stat, if possible, but there’s some flexibility. Also, it pays to check what other people are taking, since you’ll want to cover all the skills as a group, if possible. For backgrounds, I like to choose a background that gives a +2 bonus to a skill that I already have my primary skill in and that ideally I also have a racial bonus in. Thus, you can get a super amazing skill modifier that you can impress your friends with. Now, if you’re playing in forgotten realms, you’ll have access to a bunch of wacky backgrounds. If you have wisdom or intelligence as a primary or secondary and haven’t put points into con, the background that uses those as a base for your Max HP is very nice!
  12. Tweaks: Once you’ve basically finished your character, go back and tweak stuff! For example, if you picked an awesome feat that gives bonuses to psychic powers, you might fiddle around with your power selection to fit in more psychic powers. If you’ve got a really good idea of a character concept now, you might swap powers and skills to achieve that concept. That sort of thing! This is also a good time to see if you can squeeze some more power out of your character with a few basic changes, such as picking up a crucial item or feat.
  13. Reality Check: Take an honest look at your character. Will you enjoy playing them? Will they be effective in combat? Will they be TOO effective in combat? In D&D 4E, it is often possible for a player who is starting to get the hang of good builds to stumble into an overpowered or broken combination that really hurts the game by overshadowing other players and making many combats trivial. So be careful and run any questionable combo by your DM and the other players!

If you follow these steps you should find that you have a mechanically powerful character that sacrifices little to nothing when it comes to roleplaying and general enjoyment!

7 Responses to “Rory’s Pocket Guide to D&D 4e: Part 1 – Character Creation”

  1. Laura says:

    Rory, I like the basic idea here: vague character idea -> mechanical choices -> refined character idea -> tweaks. It’s a good way to keep the balance of roleplay vs gameplay.

    It’s no fun to start with the mechanics; my favorite part of character creation is stumbling onto that power or item that is serendipitously perfect for the concept. But I do think I tend to err on the side of coming up with a complicated character idea too early, and then I make mechanical choices which make him not as fun to play as if I’d kept some flexibility earlier on. Often the mechanics can help you come up with new ideas for the character if you let them. As a DM, I think I was able to balance this more because I was less invested in my NPC’s backstory, etc.

    I have often found that after 1-2 sessions of gameplay I have a better handle on my character–it’s hard for me to see how he’ll really play out until I give it a shot–and as a player I appreciate when DM’s allow me to tweak my character at that point. For the same reason, I often play the same character in multiple campaigns, because I feel like I can get him right the second or third time in a way I couldn’t the first time.

    I also like your point about paying attention to the in-game, rather than pop-culture meaning of keywords; for example, a hypothetical person may realize that she is playing her lawful good rogue like a fighter and might as well have just made him one, but the WORD rogue is so cool.

  2. paul paul says:

    Agreed: I thought “A class or race’s perception in the game world or in popular fiction may differ dramatically from how the class plays in combat” was one of the things that jumped out at me.

    I might decide to play an eladrin because I’m interested in playing a fey noble, touched by the hand of Mystery Herself, who all will love and despair, and then it turns out that I’m just a dude who teleports into a flank.

  3. Rory Rory says:


    I had a DM who had a policy that you could make basically any changes you want to a character after the first session. As a DM, I’ve extended that a little further to let any player make tweaks as needed to their character any session, though changing something like race would probably warrant a discussion to see if there are any serious continuity issues.

    The mechanics definitely help with character ideas, I’ve found! For example, I made a bard and was poking around items that add to bluff, since I could train in it and had a high charisma. When I noticed some cool armor and a hat of disguise that could help me with disguises, I changed my concept dramatically to have my character be a traveling minstrel whose other persona is a king of a struggling kingdom!

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