Between this blog and every other RPG talking head on the internet you’re tired of hearing about how important running a group character creation, session zero is to the success of your campaign.
Yes and No.
Full transparency, 100% honesty, I think I’ve run two character creation session zeros in my decade plus of running not just Dungeons & Dragons, but any tabletop RPG.
Well, as you get older it becomes more and more difficult to coordinate friends for regular gaming sessions. We can’t waste an entire session of us in the same room making grand plans for a campaign that will probably run six sessions. In my experience, session zero is more like session 0.5. I have an adventure in mind. We’re going to show up, make characters, and get into the action in one gaming session.
The downside is we tend to end up with a group of rushed characters that aren’t really tied to each other or grounded in the setting. Often the only input we get is Player One is going to make a fighter and Player Two is going to make a wizard. The characters have a lot of overlap or glaring omissions in the party composition.
The problem was we needed something in between. Something more than blindly making characters in a vacuum but less than wasting an entire game session just to make characters and campaign background.
I originally developed a framework using inspiration from the This Is Your Life section in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. I made my own characters using it and handing a page and half of backstory and family members to GMs I watched their eyes glaze over. They read the paragraph of backstory once and never looked at it again. It still helps me as a player find out who the character is, but it takes a lot of time and your six different siblings are never going to mean anything to game.
But, we did discover developing a bond just between two characters during creation helps immensely. Not every character has to be connected, but creating bonds between at least two characters at the table helps. I’m always surprised by how quickly two players can develop a rapport between characters with a bond. We’ve made characters that are friends, rivals, siblings, cousins, second cousins, and business partners.
Using that inspiration, I started to reduce and loosen the framework I developed. And it works significantly better. We can sit down at the table and knock out a group of characters in twenty minutes. The characters are appropriate for the campaign you intend to run, they are grounded in the setting, and they have strings you can pull as the GM to create drama for each character.
Here are the steps we use for group character creation.
Group Character Creation
Character Creation Step One: Give Your Players the Elevator Pitch
Ideally, you should give them the elevator pitch before game day, but a refresher always helps. A successful elevator pitch should inform players of the setting, tone, and type of play that will be prevalent. I do this by using the framework: mostly X, some Y, and a little Z.
This sets player expectations and helps them build characters suited to the campaign. Consider, a wilderness adventure plumbing deep forests and forgotten ruins filled with unflinching guardians and sinister traps. It will be mostly exploration, with some combat, and a little social interaction.
If my DM had provided me with that elevator pitch I would not have built a social-focused wizard with charm/mind-control spells that was utterly useless in a tomb-raiding campaign of constructs and undead. True story, and a really terrible experience. Very easy to avoid with a quick elevator pitch from the Gamemaster. Because of that incident I now ask DMs to clarify what the campaign is about so I can make an appropriate character.
Look, we both don’t want me to show up to your heavy RP, political intrigue game with a combat-tuned barbarian that can barely string a sentence together. I’m not going to have fun, you’re not going to have fun.
Character Creation Step Two: Choose Your Ancestry (Race)
The nice thing about this system is if a player is dead set on playing a certain class nothing in the creation steps will reject that. You want to play a hard-hitting barbarian? Go ahead and choose Goliath.
Or, choose an ancestry and discover who the character is as you move forward. This is a good time to give input and sign off on character ancestries. Inform your players if the setting doesn’t have humans or make players aware that half-orcs are treated with a lot of disdain.
If a player doesn’t know what class they want to play yet, have them hold off on choosing a heritage (sub-race). That way they can choose whatever feels most appropriate for the character later.
Character Creation Step Three: Ability Score One
Starting with the player on the left of the Gamemaster each should roll 1d6 until you reach 4d6. Like standard ability score generation, drop the lowest result and keep the others. I tend to play with three to four players. So, I also roll 1d6. If you have more than four players just keep moving around the table in subsequent rounds so everyone gets a chance to roll for the stats.
Everybody shares the same array of ability scores. This curtails that one extremely over-powered or under-powered character in the group. Plus, the players get to roll dice. They like that.
Character Creation Step Four: Home Environment
Tell the players about where the adventure is starting so they can decide whether they’re from that place or somewhere else. I like to use the terms rural, urban, outlander, and foreigner.
Rural: Anyone who grew up on a farmstead or a in small village
Urban: Anyone who grew up in a city, doesn’t matter if it was the slums or the citadel.
Outlander: Hillfolk, travelers, barbarians, nomads, anyone who lives on the fringes of civilization.
Foreigner: This person comes from somewhere else with different fashion, culture, and beliefs. Stranger in a strange land.
The meaty bits here is that for every player character that isn’t born in the starting location you should mine the player for basic information about their home. What’s the name of their home, how far away is it, etc. Make note of this so you can add it to the game later. If the character is from the starting location work with them to develop the locations and NPCs they know.
Character Creation Step Five: Ability Score Two
Same as before, go around the table collecting 4d6 and dropping the lowest result.
Character Creation Step Six: Home Caste
Choosing a character’s home caste is the last piece to help your players dial in the right background. Is the character a commoner, from a trades/mercantile family, or born to noble privilege? Knowing character castes inform both how the world sees and interacts with the character.
Character Creation Step Seven: Ability Score Three
Continue moving around the table in counterclockwise fashion, collecting 4d6 and dropping the lowest result.
Character Creation Step Eight: Background/Apprenticeship
The background/apprenticeship informs players of what the characters did during adolescence, as they learned how to become adults. Players should consider their character’s ancestry, home environment, and caste when picking a background, or creating one with the GM.
Have players walk you through their choice of background. Determine if a non-obvious choice is a regular occurrence in your setting or it’s an out-of-the-ordinary circumstance.
A player with an urban, noble, half-elf character opts for the Acolyte background. The player explains the character was born out of wedlock and while raised as a noble, can hold no claim to the parent’s title. You may decide it is common for people in this situation to join a church/temple.
Character Creation Step Nine: Ability Score Four
Ability Score Four, same as before. Collect 4d6 and drop the lowest result.
Character Creation Step Ten: Three Bonds
Players create three bonds for each character. These bonds are people important to the characters and their identities. Consider any combination of family, friends, rivals, enemies, groups, and mentors. These bonds ground the player characters in the game world. The bonds can be other player characters or Non-player characters. Mine your players for details on these NPCs to help develop your setting. Where are they from, what do they do, what aid can they offer the player characters? These bonds will help you develop adventures focused around your players.
Don’t let this step slow down character creation. Don’t let your players struggle with the specifics. We don’t need fully-realized NPCs at this point. Agree the character has a certain type of bond. You can figure out the who and why of the bond later.
Character Creation Step Eleven: Ability Score Five
The next to last round of ability score rolls around the table. At this point, your players should start deciding on classes and thinking about how they will assign the ability scores to the characters.
Character Creation Step Twelve: Class, Archetype, and Heritage (Sub-race)
Have the players read back their choices as consideration for what class to play. A city-born, noble, half-elf, acolyte lends itself to a paladin or cleric. But could very easily be a proselytizing bard, or a rogue skimming the temple coffers. Higher level characters will also need to choose an archetype for their class.
Advise your players to wait until choosing their class and archetype before choosing a heritage. This helps to make sure the ability score bump and additional traits create synergy with the character’s class.
Character Creation Step Thirteen: Ability Score Six
The final ability score round of rolls. All the players get to choose from either the rolled array or the standard array. This saves the group from a bad rolled array. It also ensures there’s a nice spread of numbers for MAD (Multiple Attribute Dependent) classes.
Character Creation Step Fourteen: Transition Questions
As the players assign their ability scores ask them questions about how the characters became adventurers.
- How did your character go from their background/apprenticeship to their class?
- Is your character running…
- …towards a goal? What is it?
- …away from their past? Why is that?
- Why is your character at the starting location?
The first question fills in a crucial omission many people overlook when making characters. How did the baker become a barbarian? Maybe the baker always had a temper, a Gordon Ramsay persona, and just went full tilt one day. From crusty loaves to crushin’ bones.
Great characters have a personal agenda outside of the group’s collective goal. The second question addresses this. Characters are always running towards something or away from something. These things don’t have to be grandiose either. A character may need 100 gold pieces to pay a loved one’s ransom. An incredible amount for a commoner, but perfectly reachable for a low-level adventurer. Or, the character stole a horse and now is on the run.
This question creates a pinch of personal drama for each character that will inevitably involve the rest of the party.
The last question helps draw the players into the initial adventure. One or more of the characters might be from the location. As a member of the community they will have a vested interest in whatever comprises the initial adventure. For the characters that have just recently arrived, or just passing through, you can work with their personal drama to lure them into the adventure.
Character Creation Step Fifteen: Fill in the Blanks
The players should finish the mechanical aspects of building their characters. They’ll need to pick skills, spells, gear, and determine their derivative scores.
As your players fill in the blanks, review the notes you jotted down about the characters. Make any necessary clarifications with the group and work on the adventure introduction for the player characters.
Once the players are finished filling in the blanks take a short break, do your character introductions, and dive straight into the adventure.
Group Character Creation Example
I have three players making characters for a new campaign: Dwayne (D), Emily (E), and Alejandro (A).
I give the players basic information about the campaign. It’s a humanoid-focused adventure in the rural borderlands between two nations as tensions between the two powers begin to flare anew. It’s mostly social, with some combat, and a little exploration.
Each player chooses an ancestry. D: Elf, E: Gnome, A: Dragonborn
Since we only have three players, as the GM I’ll roll the fourth die: 12 = 5, 1, 6, 1
This adventure is starting in a small village on the river border between the two nations. Each player chose the rural home environment.
Second ability score is 14 = 5, 3, 1, 6
Each player chooses a background caste; D: Commoner, E: Commoner, A: Trades/Mercantile
Third ability score is 9 = 5, 1, 1, 3
Each player chooses an appropriate background/apprenticeship.
Dwayne: As a rural, commoner, elf Dwayne chose the Fisher background
Emily: As a rural, commoner, gnome Emily chose the Folk Hero background
Alejandro: As a rural, trades/merchant, dragonborn Alejandro chose the Shipwright background
Fourth ability score is 11 = 3, 4, 4, 2
Each player creates three bonds for their character.
- Childhood Friend
- Hometown Fisherfolk (Group)
While discussing with Emily we agreed to shift her Folk Hero background to more of a shire reeve/constable idea. Her character is a commoner, but wields minor political/lawful power as a representative of the local noble. She’s basically the local problem solver.
- Shire/County (Group)
- Local Countess (Mentor)
- Retired pirate (Mentor)
- Failed merchant who blames the shipwright for his trading boat sinking (Enemy)
Fifth ability score is 9 = 2, 3, 1, 4
Players choose their character’s class, archetype, heritage
Dwayne: Fishing boat work requires Dexterity for balance, tying ropes, etc. As a fisher elf, Dwayne thinks the Sea Elf heritage makes sense. Given the high Dexterity, and maybe a need to supplement his income Rogue seems the best choice.
Emily: As a person responsible for solving problems and making wise decisions, Emily felt Wisdom should be her character’s highest stat. And to go hand-in-hand with her Gnome/Fey ancestry she chose to be a Forest Gnome, Druid.
Alejandro: As a tradesperson that builds and repairs ships all day Alejandro felt Strength should be his character’s primary ability score. Because of the Dragonborn bonus to Charisma and how that stat would be important to selling his services Alejandro decided on Paladin.
Sixth ability score is 13 = 3, 1, 4, 6
Rolled Ability Scores: 14, 13, 12, 11, 9, 9
Standard Array (5e): 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8
Everyone took the standard array, because it turned out better in every way than the rolled stats.
Character Detail Questions
Transition: Fishing can be a very feast or famine occupation. Given his sea elf’s natural ability to swim, his dexterity, and the wild tales of his pirate mentor, he fell naturally into thieving from moored boats and barges to pad his income.
Goal: He hasn’t been caught stealing, but has had close calls. He wants to make one big payday and leave before his luck runs out.
Why Are You Here? The character heard a rumor of high-value trade goods moving through the area. He’s staking out the village to see if something comes of the rumor. Since Dwayne’s character isn’t from here I asked him for a few details about his home village. Its name, how far away is it, etc.
Transition: Her character learned to shepherd not only the people, but the land. Take care of the land and it will take care of the people. That had her digging into the old ways and discovering Druidism to become a better warden of the people and the land.
Goal: To do right by the people and the land and strive for symbiotic balance between the shire and its people.
Why Are You Here? Emily’s character travels the shire, solving problems, and settling disputes. This could be her home village, she’ll need to make that decision. If so, I can ask her to provide some details about the village as we play. She gets to make up the local inn/tavern, local industry, and a few NPC acquaintances she knows.
Transition: As a big, strong tradesmen the character did his part in mandatory militia/fyrd training. He received more advanced training due to his Strength and Charisma to be something akin to a sergeant. Always a good, religious dragonborn he was gifted some small spark of divine connection to serve as a paragon of his belief.
Danger: It felt the right time to make a change. He has a rival shipwright conspiring with his enemy to drive him out of business. The enemy has been more brazen, suspected of sabotaging a couple ships under his contract. His character feels it was only a matter of time before somebody got hurt or killed. And it was better for the character to leave his craft than endanger the innocent. But, his enemy won’t stop until he gets revenge.
Why Are You Here? The character is road weary and resting for a few days. He’s doing some good deeds while figuring out where to go next. Since Alejandro’s character isn’t from the starting location I asked him for a few details about his home village. Its name, how far away is it etc.
The players finish creating their characters while I work out how to introduce their characters to the adventure.
Emily’s character is the easiest to involve because she’s a community servant. If a problem arises it’s her job to solve it.
Alejandro’s character is also easy to involve. As a paladin looking to do general good and lacking a specific quest at the moment he’ll chase after any hint of evil.
Dwayne’s character, like most motivated by coin, is more difficult to involve. I’ll either drop hints that the starting adventure is someway connected to the expensive trade goods he’s seeking or by subtly dropping his childhood friend’s name as a person involved. You can red herring the name, many people share first names, but only do that once.
By the time the players finish their characters I’m ready to draw them into the adventure.
Thanks for stopping by. Hopefully, you found group character generation steps for session zero useful. Now you can run through group character creation fast and get into the adventure without having to sacrifice character development.
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