Humour in D&D

This post was difficult to write, for a number of reasons.

  1. It’s ironic, but writing about comedy can be distinctly unfunny. Is there anything more humourless than picking apart a joke to explain how it works?
  2. Comedy is a matter of personal taste. Take my comedy touchstones, for example: films like Monty Python, Airplane!, Anchorman, Four Lions, and In Bruges. Great films: but universally loved? No.
  3. Roleplaying games are collaborative and unpredictable: in D&D, comedy just happens. You don’t need to force it. So write about it?
  4. I have really bad RSI thanks to working from home, and I want to be able to sleep tonight without clutching my arm in pain. (If you think that was a contrived attempt at a joke, it wasn’t.)

So, with all this considered, why write about humour in D&D? Because it’s a fundamental part of the game. Having written a few posts recently that are rather academic or serious (eg, this one), I want to take a break and embrace something fun.

This post is meant to spark inspiration and give a few tips about using humour in your games. If I’ve missed something, comment at the end!

Serious fun: why humour matters

To the uninitiated, the D&D rulebooks can seem pretty heavy going or even intimidating. You’ve got acronyms and appendices, tables and diagrams, columns of 9.5-point text, and all that before you get to the polyhedral dice (‘what the heck is a d100?’). The content itself can get pretty dark, too. There’s violence (lots of it), death, evil, horror: often all four. ‘All this for a game?’

Drama teachers often refer to drama as serious fun, and I think this is a useful term for roleplaying games as well. D&D is serious, but it is also fun. The seriousness enables the fun, and the fun offsets the seriousness. In fact, the more serious the game becomes, the more you need humour to dial things back.

Wizards of the Coast have clearly embraced this in 5th edition. Look at this table, for example, from page 104 of the Player’s Handbook:

Wild Magic Table in 2021 | Dungeon master's guide, Magic table, Dungeons  and dragons homebrew

This is hilarious!

Look at the monsters, too: 5th edition has brought back classics like the flumph, the modron, the flail snail, the almiraj, and the froghemoth, and featured them prominently in published adventures.

Speaking of which, the published adventures are stuffed with comedy. In fact, generally speaking, the darker the theme, the more humour you will find. Thus, Curse of Strahd has Blinksy toys and the crypts of Castle Ravenloft, Tomb of Annihilation has Yellyark and mad monkey fruit, and Descent into Avernus has Lulu the hollyphant and abyssal chickens. Sometimes, D&D needs comedy.

Going too far

And the man in the back said everyone attack… | Dragon Heist

As I said in starting, comedy is a matter of personal taste. Few things in life are universally funny, and many things are almost universally unfunny. So, as any successful comedian will tell you: know your audience, and read the room.

It’s important to have a few safety tools in place for when a joke goes south and someone gets hurt. Again: D&D is serious fun. Monte Cook’s Consent in Gaming is an excellent (and free) PDF, and the Pathfinder baseline is a great starting point for mature content, too.

There’s another way in which humour can go ‘too far’. What if the comedy starts to derail the campaign? What if playing D&D becomes secondary to piss-takes and wisecracks?

For some people, piss-takes and wisecracks what D&D is all about! A session is an opportunity to hang out and make jokes. But if you feel it’s going too far, then talk to your players. If they want something light-hearted, then perhaps you’re fighting a losing battle by trying to make the campaign more serious. But at the same time, you are meant to be having fun as a DM, too, and your wishes matter just as much as anyone else’s. So if you feel that the game is becoming irrevocably silly, see if there’s a compromise to be had. Ultimately, though, if the rest of the group wants something very different to you, then maybe it’s better to step back for a while. No D&D is better than bad D&D.

Funny business

For the most part, D&D will be funny without you even trying. Players come up with madcap schemes all the time, and every failed dice roll is an opportunity for bathos. If you feel things are getting a bit serious, though, here are some suggestions for ways to inject a little levity in your game.

Absurd/surreal comedy. This is already a big part of D&D, as, thanks to dice rolls, much of the humour is so unpredictable. Subvert your players’ expectations now and then with something bizarre or incongruous. Descent into Avernus, for example, features a subplot where a night hag asks the players to watch her den while she goes off to visit a spa.

Anachronism. Deliberate historical inconsistency can be great fun. The Monkey Island series does this brilliantly, with vending machines, T-shirts, and fast-talking, arm-waving used car ship salesmen. Anachronism can also be hilarious in D&D. After all, it’s not like it’s particularly medieval to start with.

Jany on Twitter: "Just finished Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge as well.  As an adult, I gotta say, I can now truly appreciate Stan's epic  salesmanship 😄 Time to dive into the

Callbacks. If your campaign has been running for a while, throw in an allusion to something that happened ages ago. It’s a nice reminder of how far the players have come.

Caricature. Characters in D&D don’t need to be three-dimensional and psychologically real. NPCs are often little more than cartoons. Embrace this.

Catchphrases. Curse of Strahd has ‘Is No Fun, Is No Blinksy’. I enjoyed throwing this in at unexpected moments.

Gadof Blinsky | Curse of Strahd | Obsidian Portal

Lean into failure. By default, D&D only offers three outcomes: success, failure, and critical hits. Many players use ‘fumbles’ (critical misses) to add a bit of humour to combat.

Music. If you have background music in your games, this can be a great source of comedy. For example, ‘Yackety Sax’ (better known as the Benny Hill theme) is fanastic for chase sequences.

Parody and pastiche. Not quite the same thing: parody is generally mocking, whereas pastiche is more celebratory. Both are fun. Try imitating the style of a film, TV series, or video game, and see if the players notice, or model an NPC on a real-life celebrity or historical figure, subtly or more obviously.

D&D 5E - Check Out WizKids' Infernal War Machine Mini | EN World | Dungeons  & Dragons | Tabletop Roleplaying Games

Definitely not a Mad Max reference

Randomness. There are lots of funny random tables in 5th edition D&D, like the sorcerer’s wild magic table and the deck of many things. Randomness is great!

Ribaldry. Also known as blue comedy, this includes anything that’s off-colour, risqué, or bawdy, like innuendo. Another one that needs to be used in moderation. Use safety tools to check whether this is something your group is (occasionally) OK with.

Roasting. Insults are funny! Perhaps best between NPCs: insults between players can become personal unintentionally (or, I suppose, intentionally).

Toilet humour. Really? Weeing, pooping, farting? Well, if they’re good enough for Chaucer and Shakespeare, they’re good enough for you. Once again, though, use this sparingly, and know your audience.

Trick monsters and cursed items. Part of D&D from the very beginning, you don’t want to overuse these, but, deployed sparingly, they’re great. Mimics can be particularly fun.

Art] Modern day mimic. : DnD

Look! Trap monsters AND anachronism! Credit: u/not_that_guy_at_work

Voice acting. What are the funniest voices you can do? You don’t have to be Matt Mercer for this, and it’s a great way of making a memorable NPC. A nice trick is to have a voice that is somewhat unexpected. For example, your death knight could speaks with a high-pitched squeak, and your ancient red dragon could have a tickly cough.

Wordplay. In the catacombs beneath Castle Ravenloft, there is a crypt for Sir Klutz Tripalotsky, who ‘fell on his own sword.’ Puns are great. So are spoonerisms, malapropisms, alliteration, and so on.

Why so serious?  

I thought I would end with six rules of good comedy (or at least, comedy where D&D is concerned).

  1. Safety first. Yes, comedy can be cruel, but this is meant to be a fun game. Never lose sight of that.
  2. Know your audience. Comedy is subjective, and not everyone has the same tastes as you. If in doubt, imagine the game is rated PG.
  3. Timing is everything. Whether you’re a player or the DM, think about the ‘beats’ of the game and read the room. Don’t ruin a powerful moment with a bad joke, and try not to smother a potentially funny situation with unnecessary seriousness.
  4. Keep it natural. The motto of the Cambridge Footlights is ars est celare artem: ‘the art is to conceal the art’. Comedy shouldn’t be forced, and some of the best comedy is grounded and natural.
  5. Start with character. This comes from Brent Forrester, the head writer for The Office (US version). It’s good advice.
  6. Be warm. Before he wrote the hit sitcom Gavin & Stacey with Ruth Jones, James Corden turned to the great British playwright Alan Bennett for advice. His one tip: ‘be warm’.

Life is short and full of meanness. Cynicism is cheap. Joy is hard. Be warm. Bring a bit of humour to your game.

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How to be a good D&D player

‘At the end of the day, D&D is a game,’ a friend of mine said recently, ‘and some people just play it better than others.’

I’ve been giving this some thought of late. D&D is, of course, a game. It has rules. If you’re playing with a grid and minis, it also has a ‘board’ of sorts. But it’s also (a) extremely social, and (b) a creative outlet: an artform, even. Some players come along for the power-gaming, some want to roleplay, some just want to hang out. ‘Playing the game well’, then, is perhaps more complex than it sounds.

With that in mind, I’ve broken up this article into three sections: how to make the most of the rules; how to not be a dick (for want of a better phrase – aka ‘Wheaton’s Law’); and how to be a good storyteller and roleplayer. To me, the best D&D players are a mix of all three, but, at the same time, it’s OK to not be good at all of it. Everybody brings something different to the table, and that’s not a bad thing, either.

Mastering the rules

Don’t get me wrong: mastering the rules isn’t the be-all and the end-all of being a good D&D player. But it helps.

Knowing the rules will help you enjoy the game, even if the rules are not that important to you. It will free you up to focus on what’s actually happening at the table. Knowing the rules also helps to take away some of the conflict that might arise between the players and the DM. The rules are a neutral arbiter: if you all agree to follow them, there are fewer arguments about what you can and cannot do, and in a game that fundamentally revolves around making stuff up in your imagination, that matters. D&D is also a co-op game, of course, so if you know the rules well yourself, you’re also going to help your teammates: help them survive, help them kick butt, help them progress and feel badass.

As a player, then, what are the most important rules to know?

I’m going to skip over the stuff that’s truly basic: the names of the dice, the six ability scores, advantage and disadvantage, that kind of thing. All of that is a given. What all players need to be confident in is the options they use most frequently. Core class features like a rogue’s sneak attack or a paladin’s divine smite; racial traits like lucky for halflings and relentless endurance for halflings; feats like Great Weapon Master and War Caster. If it’s an ability you can expect to use at least once a session, you should be confident with how it works.

Why? For several reasons. Stopping to look up these rules is an unnecessary interruption to the flow of the game. It’s irritating for other players and the DM. It can lead to the party wasting its resources needlessly, or even, in the worst case scenario, character death. Now, if it’s a new character for you, or you’re new to the game, this is all, of course, forgivable. But if you’ve been playing for a few sessions and you simply haven’t bothered to find out what your character can do – ‘how does flurry of blows work, guys?’ – you’re going to rub your teammates up the wrong way.

D&D - Unearthed Arcana - Monks - Bell of Lost Souls

Wizards of the Coast

What about spells? Should a spellcaster know how every spell in the game works? No, of course not. I’ve been playing D&D for nearly 20 years, and I’m still coming across spells that are new to me, particularly at higher levels. But if they’re your bread and butter, you should know how they work, and, to be honest, if you’ve chosen to prepare them, then it would be to have at least a vague sense of how they work.

If you are playing a character with a lot going on – a multiclass character, for instance, or one of the more complex core classes like a paladin or a spellcaster – then you may want to make yourself a combat cheat sheet. What’s your default action in most rounds? Are there any ‘combos’ you can do (like Great Weapon Master and Reckless Attack for barbarians). When do you pull out the big guns? And what’s your escape route?

Rules mastery is not just about playing your character effectively but building your character effectively. This is what some players refer to as ‘optimizing’ – somewhat disparagingly, perhaps, along with terms like ‘min-maxing’ and ‘munchkinnery’. Building your character to try and break the game is mean-spirited and self-defeating. Building your character to be effective and fun to play, however: that’s fine! If you’re meant to be the party sneak, for example, and you’re wearing heav armour and boosting your Strength instead of your Dex, that’s not helping anyone.

Does all of this mean that you have to do a bit of prep to be a good D&D player? Frankly: yes. Not a lot – and there are plenty of great resources out there to help you, like rpgbot.net – but a bit of forward planning will make your character easier to play, faster to play, and better to play. You will probably have more fun, and so will your teammates. As prep goes, it will be nothing compared to what your DM is doing week in, week out.

The social side (or ‘don’t be a dick’)

It always makes me laugh when I hear that Critical Role is scripted | Sage  Advice D&D

Be friends, like these guys.

There are horror stories on the Internet of truly toxic behaviour at D&D games. (Indeed, there’s an entire subreddit devoted to such things.) Fortunately, I’ve never had to deal with such people, but that’s probably because I’ve only ever played D&D with friends, not strangers.

D&D has an unwritten social contract. We’re all there to have fun: to tell stories, roll dice, make jokes, and escape the ratrace of everyday life. That’s why it’s great. But, just with any social activity, there are behaviours that are going to grate over time, and as players, it’s worth reflecting now and then whether we might be guilty of any of them ourselves.

As with rules mastery, I’m going to skip over the most basic stuff here. Racism, misogyny, rape: that stuff stinks and has no place at any table. And just to be clear: that list is only the start, and not exhaustive. (Incidentally, the latest edition of Pathfinder has a useful section called ‘the Pathfinder Baseline’ which is worth reading in its entirety. It is transferrable to any tabletop roleplaying game, not just D&D.)

You Can Be The Best D&D Player Ever. Here's How. | Geek and Sundry

Wizards of the Coast

Putting aside rules mastery and creative input, then, here are a few suggestions for being a good player:

  • Thank your DM. I put this top of the list for a reason. Most DMs work far harder than the players do in order to make the game enjoyable. Appreciate them! With Christmas coming up, maybe buy them something as a token of your gratitude.
  • Be on time. A simple thing, but, y’know, it matters. If you know you’re not going to make a session, or you’re going to be late, try to give the group as much warning as possible. ‘Life stuff’ happens, but where possible, be courteous.
  • Listen. We all zone out from time to time, but try to follow what’s going on, especially when the DM is describing something important. This can be especially difficult with online games, so close those tabs and put your webcam on to keep yourself engaged.
  • Include others. When I think about the best players I have played with, this is one of the things that keeps coming up. Ask what other characters are doing; engage in dialogue; interract with something the DM has described. It’s a cooperative game: it’s not all about you.
  • Be ready on your turn. D&D is a complex game, and it’s not always possible to know how your character is going to act, but it’s good to try and plan your move before your turn comes round in the initiative order. (This is partially linked to rules mastery, above.)
  • Respect the DM’s decisions. Again, D&D is a complex game, and DMs don’t always get it right, especially if they’re inexperienced. But arguing with the DM in front of the group is a dick move. Save it for after the session. (For more on this, see my post here.)
  • Welcome new players. Note that this verb is active: being welcoming is more than just an absence of hostility. Smile. Ask them how they are. Make them feel included. Joining a new group is daunting: don’t make it harder than it already is.

I’ve probably missed something here. If in doubt, though, just don’t be a dick.

Storytelling and roleplaying

So far, I’ve focused on the mechanics (rules mastery) and the social side of how to be a better player. There’s one more category: how to contribute a fantastic D&D story.

Dungeons and Dragons movie release date, cast and plot

Wizards of the Coast

This post is already getting a little long, though, so I will revert to bullet points again here.

  • Invest in your character. Yes, they might die, but even so, develop your character and think about what makes them tick. How are they different from other characters you’ve made? What are their long-term hopes and dreams? What is their internal conflict? Do they have a backstory? As a DM, I take a leaf out of Mike Shea’s book and write down ten secrets and clues before every session. What would your character’s ten secrets be?
  • Collaborate. This one word covers a multitude of different things. Build a character that fits the party theme. Ask questions to ‘bring in’ other roleplayers, especially if they’re shy. Read the room: if the group is taking something seriously, hold off on the cheesy puns. Know when to redirect the spotlight, not hog it.
  • Get the voice right. This is a big one for me. Unlike actors and animators, most players don’t get to portray a character visually or physically: all they have is description and a voice. What is your character’s voice like? Alec Guinness once said that he never ‘got’ a character unless he had mastered exactly how they walked. For us D&D players, your voice is your most powerful roleplaying tool. Try to stay in character if you can: roleplaying in the first person is so much more evocative and memorable than third-person description.
  • Take notes. No one’s asking you to write a publishable diary here, but jot a few things down during the session. It’s not just the DM’s job!
  • Try your hand at DMing. I firmly believe that DMing makes you a better player, just as being a player makes you a better DM.
  • Be proactive and reactive. Paradoxical, perhaps, but not contradictory. Make things happen! Contribute! Do the thing! But at the same time: when unexpected stuff happens, roll with it. One of the most sacred principles of good improv is ‘yes, and’. In a game that revolves around random dice rolls and constant collaboration, being reactive is not just preferable: it’s essential. Embrace the weirdness and have fun.

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Rolling Stats

Wizards of the Coast

In 5th edition, there are three main ways of determining your ability scores.

One method is point buy, listed as a ‘variant’ in the Player’s Handbook. Another method – the simplest – is to take the array: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8. But for many players, the default method, rolling, is going to be the most fun.

On average, rolling your ability scores will give you slightly better stats than you would get from point buy or the array. A party of four can hope for at least a couple of 18s between them, and they would be unlucky to roll anything lower than a five between them. Most players rolling their ability scores will get at least three good stats.

Sometimes, you roll well, and you have a golden opportunity to explore a character concept that might not have been possible with point buy. Sometimes, though, you roll badly, and you have to plan your character a little more carefully. This article looks at different ability contours and what you can do with them.

Preamble

4d6 drop lowest, free 18 - YouTube

In some ways, ability scores don’t matter as much in 5th edition as they did in previous editions.

In 3rd edition, for instance, ability scores were often a prerequisite for feats. A fighter need a Dexterity of 13 for Dodge or an Intelligence of 13 for Expertise. And there was no cap on ability scores, so you had to pump them higher and higher as you gained levels. This was even more of an issue in 4th edition.

5th edition doesn’t really have ability requirements except for multiclassing, which is itself an optional rule. 5th edition also has an ability score cap of 20, so, if you get a +2 bonus from your race selection, it is possible to start the game with one of your ability scores already ‘maxed out’. Bonded accuracy means that target numbers (enemy ACs, save DCs, skill check DCs) progress more slowly than they did in previous editions, so there’s less pressure to keep pushing stats higher and higher, and if you want to take some feats instead, the game won’t punish you for it (much).

That said, if your ability scores are in the wrong place, you will feel it, and if your most used ability score is on the low side, your character won’t be as fun to play. A rogue needs a good Dexterity. A cleric’s effectiveness rests on Wisdom. And a paladin ideally needs Strength, Constitution, and Charisma.

Before we begin, then, it’s worth considering what we mean by a ‘good’ stat and whether there is a point where poor ability scores are essentially unplayable.

  • For the purposes of this article, I interpret a ‘good’ stat to be 14. To some extent, this is an arbitrary decision on my part, and you might feel that a 13 is viable if you’re playing a race with a +2 bonus in the right place. But anything lower than that just feels a bit ‘average’.
  • As for ‘unplayable’ scores, this, too, is arbitrary. 3rd edition had the following advice, which my group continues to stick to: ‘Your scores are considered too low if the sum of your modifiers (before adjustments because of race) is 0 or lower, or if your highest score is 13 or lower.’ However, 5th edition has no such proviso, and some groups might takae a dim view of rerolling low stats. Discuss this before you roll.

OK, then: you’ve rolled your stats, and you want to see if your character is viable. Let’s start from the bottom and go up from there.

No good stats

Blue Bear Barbarian and Cave Bear | Artist: Lake Hurwitz | Fantasy art,  Art, Dungeons and dragons

Wizards of the Coast

So, you rolled really, really badly, and your DM isn’t giving you a chance to reroll. What can you play? (Firstly, your DM is mean. Secondly, you are really unlucky. Only 7.2 percent of characters will roll no higher than a 13.)

The best option here is, as far as possible, to avoid playing a character who uses their ability scores for attack rolls and spell DCs. Of these, the stand-out choice for me is the Circle of the Moon druid. Once you hit 2nd level, you will be spending most of your time running around as a bear or what have you, and your low stats won’t matter. A wizard is also possible: you can choose spells which don’t require attack rolls or saves like colour spray, magic missile, and sleep. A wizard is probably better than a sorcerer here since a sorcerer’s spell selection is considerably more limited: a wizard can afford to pick some of the more utilitarian options available without feeling bound to them.

One good stat

This isn’t as rare as you might expect. In fact, if you roll your ability scores using 4d6 drop lowest, nearly 31 percent of characters will only roll one stat of 14 or higher. So there’s probably going to be someone at your table who ends up in this position.

If you only roll one good score, make it Dexterity. Why? Because Dexterity is the only ability score that can be used for offence and defence, not to mention skills and Initiative. There’s a reason some players online refer to it as the ‘god stat’.

If you have a good Dexterity and nothing else, the obvious route forward is a rogue. Cunning Action lets you jump in and out of combat without provoking opportunity attacks, and if that’s a bit risky, you can also use Sneak Attack from a distance. An archer-style ranger or fighter could also work well.

If you only have one good stat, other classes are going to be tricky. This is because most classes need not only a key ability score but a defensive ability score: Dexterity or Constituion. Dexterity helps you avoid getting hit: Constitution helps you survive getting hit. If both are low, you are going to have a hard time. A rogue is great in this regard because they use Dexterity for pretty much everything. A spellcaster can survive with one good stat if they play carefully, but, ideally, they want a good Constitution or Dexterity to survive combat.

Dungeons & Dragons 5E rogue class explained | Dicebreaker

Wizrads of the Coast

Two good stats

Most classes are perfectly feasible at this point. After all, this is what the default array will give you: two good stats. And if you’re rolling, most characters (69 percent of them, in fact) will get at least two 14s. Rather than going through every feasible class option, then, it’s perhaps more worthwhile to think about the classes that aren’t quite optimal yet, largely because they are MAD (multiple ability dependent).

Again, previous editions were arguably worse for this. Nonetheless, 5th edition still has a few MAD classes. The top two offenders are monks and paladins. Monks can get by with a good Dexterity and Wisdom, but with only a 1d8 hit die, they would benefit from Constitution, too. Paladins really need Strength and Constitution and Charisma to make the most of their potential.

Some might add barbarians and rangers to this list. Barbarians ideally want to have good scores in Strength, Constitution, and Dexterity, as they generally eschew armour. But the Dexterity is not essential. Similarly, rangers might want to have good scores in Dexterity, Wisdom, and Constitution, especially if they are wandering into melee fairly often, but there are builds that don’t require this.

There is, of course, one other route which can be multi-ability dependent, and that’s multiclassing. As I’ve written about here, some multiclass combinations are better than others, and MAD is a key factor in this. If you have two good stats, you are going to want classes that rely on the same ability scores, like Charisma-based spellcasters or Dex-based fighters.

Three good stats

Dungeons & Dragons: Best Monk Builds | Game Rant

Wizards of the Coast

As explained above, you are now in a place to play characters who are MAD. Yay! 36.29 percent of characters roll three or more scores of 14 or higher, which is 36.29 percent more than those playing with the default array. You took a risk with rolling, and it paid off. So, if you want to play a paladin, a monk, a barbarian, or a ranger, you should find your stats are in good shape.

So: what can a player with four good stats do?

Four or more good stats

Only 12.29 percent of characters roll four stats of 14 or higher. If you’re lucky enough to be in that situation, you can start to play some really MAD multiclass builds. Barbarian/warlock! Monk/wizard! Cleric/sorcerer! Or, take a single-class character and build them in a more unconventional way. A ranger with heavy weapons. A sorcerer who wanders into melee. A monk with all the social skills.

Many of your favourite characters in film will have four or more high stats. James Bond is at the peak of his physical fitness, for example, but also perceptive, charming, and highly intelligent. Likewise Batman. Likewise Indiana Jones. Even Gandalf wades into the fray swinging Glamdring through the orcs. If you are lucky enough to get four or more good stats, make the most of it. You probably have the best stats in the party: if ever there were a time to do something a bit special, this is it.

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The Perfect D&D Party

Wizards of the Coast

D&D has always worked on the assumption that adventurers work together as a group. Which group, then, works best? With at least twelve character classes to choose from, and a gamut of subclasses, it’s not a straightforward question. This article aims to approach the question from two angles: one narrativist, one gamist.

Before that, though, a full disclaimer: there is, of course, no such thing as a perfect D&D party. It’s perfectly possible to play in a party that isn’t particularly ‘optimized’ and still enjoy it. Similarly, a perfectly balanced party is a rather Pyrrhic victory if everyone is miserable with the character they’ve ended up with.

Fortunately, 5th edition is fairly forgiving when it comes to party composition: if your group is lacking in one area, it will probably make up for it somewhere else, especially if the number of players is reasonably large. There are stories online about parties composed entirely of bards, and that sounds hilarious. So, rock out. If in doubt, play what you want to play.

The gamist approach

Wizards of the Coast

From a gameplay perspective, party composition is about ensuring versatility and power. In other words, a balanced party can respond effectively to a range of different situations. They have all bases covered: they can take hits, dish ’em out, avoid threats through stealth and subterfuge, gather intel, charm NPCs . . . the list goes on. An optimized party can take on ever greater challenges, which in turn can feel more fulfilling (‘woah, did we just kill a red dragon at 4th level?’). Conversely, a suboptimal party can find themselves coming up against the same difficulties over and over again, and this can start to get frustrating in the long run (‘why do we all keep failing our Dex saves?’).

If you’re striving for versatility and power, two things really matter: one is working together as a group, and the other is knowing your role. This might seem obvious, but every group is different, and some players are naturally better at this than others.

For a group to be at its most effective, players need to talk to each other. Are you proficient in a range of skills, tools, and languages? Do you have access to spells like detect magic and cure wounds? If you do have gaps, do you have a way around them? A group can survive without thieves’ tools if it has access to spells like knock and shield or levitate, say. But it can be a risky strategy.

As for roles, this is where things can get a bit more contentious. In 4th edition, every class was designed to fit one of four functions: striker, controller, leader, and defender (roughly analogous to rogue, wizard, cleric, and fighter, respectively). D&D faced criticism at the time for trying too much to be like a video game. (These roles map over quite neatly onto familiar online gaming terms like ‘tank’, ‘DPS’, ‘buffer’, and so on.) 5th edition is less straitjacketed. Thus, a bard can be a supporter (like a traditional cleric) or a spellslinger (like a wizard). A ranger can be melee skirmisher or a ranged marksman. A Circle of the Moon druid can fight on the front line like a paladin. But some classes are less flexible than others.

At this point, I must recommend Keith Ammann’s book, Live to Tell the Tale (not to mention his fantastic blog, themonstersknow.com). Ammann breaks down each class based on its ‘ability score contour’ and unpicks why certain classes lend themselves to particular combat roles as a result. Buy his book. I’m not going to plagiarize it. What I will say, though, is this: you will probably want at least one ranged attacker and at least two front-line fighters (and that doesn’t necessarily mean the fighter class). Beyond that, there’s room for flexibility, but I will let Mr Ammann go into more detail on this.

So far, this has looked at party composition exclusively from a gameplay perspective approach. What about the story?

The narrativist approach

New Line Cinema

It’s all well and good having a balanced group of carefully optimized characters, but what is their reason for adventuring together, and how do they fit in with the story?

Here again, knowing your role helps. How is your character linked to the rest of the group, and what sets them apart? Think about your favourite ensembles from film and TV, whether it’s The A-Team, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, or the original heroes of Star Wars. These groups work because the characters are distinct yet still complement each other.

Party composition isn’t just about power and versatility: it’s about making your own individual character more enjoyable to play. From a gamist perspective, you will feel more powerful and more useful if you have a key role in the team: no one to compete with, no one to overshadow you at what you do. From a narrativist perspective, the same is true. By thinking about how your character is distinct yet part of a team, you help to carve out a place for yourself in the story. A character who is not distinctive can end up blending into the background, getting forgotten. Conversely, a character with nothing to link them to the rest of the group can end up seeming incongrous or eccentric, and they may potentially be less plausible or even less likeable as a consequence.

TV Tropes has an excellent page that compiles some of the common ways that writers in various media have chosen to manage character ensembles. For example, with a group of four players, you could agree to loosely base your characters on the four elements, the four humours, or just four different philosophies (cynic, optimist, realist, conflicted/apathetic). For a party of three, you could have a Freudian trio of id, ego, and super-ego, or a knight, knave, and squire combination. For five, you could adapt the five-man band. Adapt is the key word here. Tropes are tools, and if you don’t like them, they can be subverted or simply averted.

To further enrich your story, it can be fun to think of a group concept. Why are you travelling together? What is your history? What are your goals? You can, of course, allow this to emerge over play, but it can also be fun to give this some thought as part of your session zero. The 5th-edition Eberron sourcebook, Rising from the Last War, introduces the concept of group patrons, many of which would work perfectly well in other worlds. In my friend’s Dragon Heist campaign, for example, we created our group in the image of a criminal gang, with a burglar, a talker, a safecracker, and so on, and it has meant that we have all had a part to play from the outset. On the other hand, many players prefer to stick to the cliché of ‘we all met in a tavern’, and you know what? This has its place. You do you.

A perfect party?

Wizards of the Coast

There is, again, no such thing as a perfect party. But, as a thought exercise, what would well from both a gamist and a narrativist perspective?

For what it’s worth, this is my suggestion:

This is a fairly typical five-man band (not that any of the characters have to be male, of course). The paladin-sorcerer is the hero or leader, and the thief acts as the hero’s foil (or ‘lancer’). The cleric, being a healer, is the ‘heart’ of the group, and the totem warrior and illusionist fill out the final spots as ‘big guy’ and ‘smart guy’ respectively.

Naturally, there’s plenty of room for variation here. A bard could replace the illusionist or the cleric. The big guy could be a heavily armoured fighter, and the lancer could be a rugged ranger. For a sixth character, you could maybe add a drow or tiefling warlock. For a four-person group, you could maybe drop the illusionist and turn the half-elf into a single-class sorcerer.

It bears repeating, though: 5th edition is flexible, and many combinations are fun. Talk as a group, know your role, and have fun.

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Creating Awesome Characters

Wizards of the Coast

How do you go about creating a character in D&D?

Most of us follow the step-by-step approach in Chapter 1 of the Player’s Handbook. We roll stats, we choose a class, a race, and a background, and we pick out equipment and spells. We might shake up the order a bit, but I imagine this is where most of us start.

What if someone told you that none of this really mattered that much?

In praise of human fighters

In fantasy fiction, there is no character more common than a human fighter.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, Jaime Lannister is a human fighter. So is the Hound. So is Oberyn Martell. Boromir is a human fighter in The Lord of the Rings. So is Aragorn. So is Éowyn. They are all fantastic characters, but in D&D terms, they are the same class and race. Not only that, but they are probably the most ‘vanilla’ race and class in the game. Being a human fighter doesn’t have to be boring.

via Twitter (@DMEducational)

In the same vein, unusual race-class combinations don’t make your character interesting. Or rather, they don’t necessarily make your character interesting. Plenty of great fantasy characters would have had an unusual race or class if they had existed in D&D. Smaug, Treebeard, and Gollum are definitely not human fighters, and they’re great: but it’s not being a dragon, ent treant, or a skinny, grey fish-chomper that makes them memorable or special. If the only interesting thing about your barbarian is the fact that he or she is a gnome . . . well, that’s probably not going to be interesting forever.

(It’s the same reason why I’m sceptical about the ever expanding list of playable races in 5e D&D. As of writing, we now have elephant-people, lion-people, cat-people, hyena-people, snake-people, fish-people, two kinds of birdpeople, and seven kinds of elf: yeesh. Your world isn’t more interesting just because it looks like a Mos Eisley cantina. In fact, I would go even further: the less human your character is, the less real they seem, the less we empathize with them, and, ultimately, the less we care about what happens them.)

From a mechanical standpoint, race, class, equipment, spells etc can all make a character interesting to play. But from a roleplaying perspective, you need something more.

It’s the difference between character and characterization.

Choices under pressure

What’s the most important part of your character sheet? Your ability scores? Skill proficiencies? Inventory? Spell list? Hit points?

I would argue that it’s this bit, here:

It’s a section many of us don’t think about too much, tucked away in a corner of the character sheet somewhere. It’s often an afterthought: we pick a few ideas from the background tables in the Player’s Handbook or roll it randomly, but it’s not very important to us. Some players don’t even fill it in at all, and never plan to.

In D&D, I think of race, class, equipment and so on as characterization: attributes. And that’s just for starters. You could also add stuff like backstory, appearance, height and weight, age, family, friends. Don’t get me wrong: this stuff matters enormously. When you introduce someone for the first time, this is the stuff you tend to lead with in your description of them. But it’s still not character.

Robert McKee is an author and lecturer. His students include Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo), Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby), and Peter Jackson (yes, that one). He calls character this: the choices we make under pressure. Fiction is driven by conflict, and it’s when we push our characters into difficult situations that we really start to know who they are. What motivates them? What are their values? What are their dreams? What are they most afraid of? What will they kill for? Who will they die for? Without these internal conflicts, our characters are a detailed description, but flat, hollow. It is not until we reveal their deepest internal conflicts that we start to breathe life into our characters.

This is something that Fate Core really appreciates. In Fate, when you make a character, you define their ‘high concept’ first and their ‘trouble’ second, and your trouble should be something that complicates your character’s existence in a significant, meaningful way: a dark impulse, a problematic relationship, a temptation, a personal struggle. To some extent, the ‘trouble’ in D&D is externalized (‘whatever the DM throws at us’) or randomized (‘my low Dexterity makes me clumsy and slow’), but is that enough on its own? If you want your character to be engaging, convincing, developed, and unique, start with the internal conflict.

This article is already getting a bit long, so I will keep the next bit short.

Tips and tricks

  • Work with your DM. Tie your character’s story to the game world.
  • Move away from the random tables in the Player’s Handbook, brilliant though they are. See what you can come up with yourself.
  • Your flaw should be an actual problem. This isnt like the platitudes we spout in job interviews (‘I work too hard! I’m just too kind!’). Every character has a darkness in their soul, so what’s yours?
  • Turn off the gamist part of your brain for a moment and think about your character as a living, breathing human being (yes, even if they are kenku sorcerer or what have you). Whether they’re aliens, robots, dragons, or talking animals, we interpret all characters through a human lens.
  • If you’re stuck, start with alignment and ask this: ‘if this is my character 90 percent of the time, what would tempt them away from it?’ Is your Lawful Good paladin tempted by ambition (Macbeth)? Will your Neutral Evil queen do anything to protect her children (Cersei Lannister)?
  • There is no shame in stealing ideas from film, TV, books, and video games. I particularly like Game of Thrones for this, as it has a huge cast of rich, complex characters.
  • None of this means anything if you see it as a finished product. A good character will grow and change: a bad character will stay the same.
  • Despite everything above: maybe you don’t care that much about the story of the game. That’s OK. But if so, think about your role in the team. If you see D&D as a game first and a story second, maybe you should play a character who is tactically interesting but won’t hog the spotlight as the leader or party face.

What really matters

At the start of this article, I suggested that race, class, background and so forth don’t really matter that much. It was meant provocatively, of course. D&D is a fantasy roleplaying game, and from a gamist perspective, these decisions matter a great deal. However: if you’re interested not just in playing a great game but in telling great stories, then characters matter, and great characters are more than a cool race-class combination.