>D&D: No Masters Degree Required. Pt 1: The Basics, Creating a Character

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Not to say that you can’t play if you HAVE a Masters degree . . . but you don’t need one.
Okay, let me break this down as much as I possiibly can. I’ve had complaints from one of my readers that I”m not breaking down the concepts involved in playing D&D enough to earn my, “For Dummies,” title: that I’m assuming a certain degree of competance in my writing, and that my original target audience will not necessarily have this degree of competance. I have, in short, failed to meet a portion of my core mission.
I did a Google search for “confused.” This is what came out.
I think this is the part where I say something like:
“This is the last person who didn’t understand this game.”
But my heart just isn’t in it.
So. Let me break this down.
There is no substitute for actually reading the rule-book and playing the game, preferably with someone who knows what they’re doing. That’s the ideal circumstance. Purchase or borrow a book, ideally one of the new Essentials books, because that’s the best possible starting point for the game (in my humble opinion). “D&D 4th Edition For Dummies” is actually pretty good, too. But referring you to other sources for information is not part of my core mission statement.
This game is marketed to ages 9 and up. (Fact check necessary). At least, some products are. I would happily argue that it’s suitable for younger ages, but only in the hands of a competant DM. A lot of my articles have focused on what it means to be a competant DM; not enough have focused on the actual hows of playing the game, because – true confessions – I do write partly for myself, and learning to be a competant DM is my current priority. It is also important for players to know, because not every DM is good; but any DM shows a certain strength of character just for being willing to run the game.
Onward.
Players: here’s what you need to know about:
1: The very basics.
  • a) There are two kinds of players: Players, and the DM, or Dungeon Master. Pretty much all role-playing games have this part in common, though DM can be replaced by Judge, Game Master, or Story Teller. You cooperate to create a story through the medium of the game.
    It’s fun! Seriously, who doesn’t love telling stories?
  • b1) The dice. The most important die in D&D is the d20 – that’s the one with 20 sides. There are several other kinds, too – the d8, d4, d6 (that’s the one from Monopoly), the d10, and the d12. There is also the d2 (that’s called flipping a coin), but it isn’t used very often.
    This is part of the specifics of D&D; not every game uses ALL of these dice, but all of them will use some combination of at least one of them. You can find dice at your Friendly Local Game Shop, OR in book stores, or on the Internet. Or someone who already plays D&D will probably be willing to loan you a set. Dice are relatively inexpensive these days, and they’re fun to play with. Your particular character may not even use all of them; you’ll know for sure later on.
  • b1a) D&D is the progenitor of the “d20 System,” which has the following core mechanic:
    1. Roll a d20. You want to roll high.
    2. Add any and all numbers that apply to what you’re doing
    3. Compare to the number that’s assigned to the difficulty of the task. If it’s equal or higher, you succeed.
    That’s it. That’s seriously the most important thing to know. It’s addition! It’s actually really simple; people who over-complicate it are overcomplicated. The other dice mostly come in if you hurt something or get hurt, and they tell you how much damage you do. Everything else is a d20; it’s the die you’ll be using most often for this game.
  • b2) Why do we use dice, anyway? To avoid getting into arguements about who hit the bad guy, or whether or not the sneaky character managed to avoid getting noticed because he’s “too stealthy for that,” or any number of other things that any kid who’s ever played pretend with other kids has argued about. It gets tedious, arguing about stuff like that, and that’s why games have rules.
    There are a few more little specifics, but this covers the most important rules of the game. Everything else builds on this.
  • c) Your character sheet.
    This is a sheet of paper where all of the rules specific to your character are kept, so you can easily refer to them. This is where the numbers that you add to die roles go. This is also where you can note things about your character’s history and personality to make it easier for you to portray the character you created. It’s an abstraction of a literary construct. Useful, but it’s not the character itself. Don’t let this trap you.
    This is also how we know that a) Superman is stronger than Batman, and b) exactly how much stronger. Characters shouldn’t all be carbon copies of each other – look at any book ever that involves a team of people. Look at “Oceans 11.” Watch “The A-Team.” Each person specializes, and the character sheet is where the rules for that are kept.
    Just remember: the numbers are just that. Numbers. How you read them; that’s the magic. Let’s talk about making a character for a minute.
2: Creating a character.
There are a few big choices to make, each of which impacts the next. In fact, one of the few major respects in which D&D character creation is better than, say, Mutants and Masterminds, is that for new players, creating a character follows a specific, logical process. This process has been outlined best in a small PDF called “Greywulf’s Guide to 4E Character Generation by Hand“; follow the link, download it, and read through it with a copy of the book, a sheet of paper, and a pencil handy. That’s pretty much all you need.
For those of you who don’t have the patience to be referred to someone else who’s already explained this much better than I can, I’ll offer my summary of the steps involved. 
  • 1) Initial Spark: This is where you come up with an idea that gets you thinking. TVTropes is a good place to look for rough ideas, but basically this is where you decide, “Hmm, I’d like to play a wilderness protector,” or “young and headstrong mage,” or “Cursed Gambler with a Sword.” It’s one part background for role-playing, and one part inspiration for every single number you pick after that.
  • 1. Determine Ability Scores.
    There are several different ways to get these numbers; I recommend the default, a choice of a preassembled array of numbers that all balance out. There are 3 in the book, “Heroes of the Fallen Lands” or in its counterpart, “Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms” – pick one that you like. The advantages and disadvantages of each are outlined there, but basically it comes down to whether you want to play a generalist with few weaknesses, or a specialist type. You can’t really go wrong with either.
    The ability scores are: Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma.
  • 2. Select Race & Class
    This is where you decide that you’d like to make that cursed gambler an Elven Thief. Or maybe something completely different. Each of these two choices will help make the next ones easier. Races will also give you bonuses to some of your ability scores.
    • 1. Choose Skills
      Your class will tell you which skills you can be trained in, and your race may offer bonuses to some of them. Think about them in terms of your characters background – what did they do before all this adventuring to learn those skills? A character with Acrobatics skill has probably lead a very different life from a character with three different Knowledges.
    • 2. Choose Feat(s)
      There may be some suggestions for your first level feat (one for most races, two if you’re a human) in the section of the book describing your class. Otherwise, pick something you’re qualified for and that fits your background idea. Ask yourself what your choice says about the character you’re creating. 
    • 3. Choose Powers
      Some people find this part the most fun. Powers basically are your character’s fancy moves when they get into a fight – don’t worry too much about these, and just pick things that sound cool. Your class will tell you how many of what you pick at any given level. Most powers will tell you how they work just from looking at them; otherwise, there’s a chapter in the book titled “Understanding Powers” that breaks every single element of the powers down for you.
      Most of the time, though, you won’t need to know all that. I’ll break down how powers work (the much much shorter version) in the next couple of entries.
       
  • 3. Choose Equipment
    This is basically just shopping. 😀
  • 4. Check your math!
I’ll talk about actions, combat, and powers in the next chapter, but if you followed all of this (or Greywulf’s much more detailed version) you should have a character in front of you by now that you can refer to. Enjoy!
It really doesn’t take a scientist.
… No, really it doesn’t.
P.S. In closing, I’d just like to say that I feel that D&D is around the middle of the pack in terms of complexity. On the one hand, it’s not exactly Risus (where character creation takes around 20 seconds; Elven (2) Knight (4) Heavy Drinker (3) who Dreams of becoming a Hairdresser (1) – There. I just did one. Just now. That’s a whole character), but on the other hand, it follows a logical process and noone defends the system by telling you that, “we did this because statistical analysis indicated that it closely approximates a bell curve, and we believe that a higher degree of difficulty will weed out players that we wouldn’t enjoy gaming with,” like SOME game systems I could name . . . but won’t. 
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2 responses to “>D&D: No Masters Degree Required. Pt 1: The Basics, Creating a Character

  • Jillian Spencer

    >THANK YOU!!!!!!!! This should have been way back before you went into all the nooks and crannies of what system was more awesome than all others, etc., because that stuff confuses the heck out of us humble, curious people who are just trying to understand a complex subculture.

  • Jonathan

    >Hey, I'm glad it's helpful – that's really why I started this blog in the first place. Though I write for a broad audience, my real goal is to make gaming comprehensible for the non-gamer. Well, that, and appreciate good game design… I figured it's best to start with D&D because 1) as I mentioned above, it's about midlevel in terms of complexity, despite 2) being marketed to ages 5 and up (yeah, I thought it was nine, but it turns out that Gamma World, the post-apocalyptic game based on the 4th Edition D&D rules, it for ages five and up. Go figure), and most importantly, 3) it's still the grandfather of all roleplaying games. If you can learn D&D, you can learn pretty much any decent RPG on the market with way less effort than learning anything else cold.To use a linguistic analogy: it's a lot easier to transition from, say, Spanish Spanish to Mexican Spanish than it is to move to either of them from English. Also, in theory, since Spanish is a Romantic language, and therefore derived (at least loosely) from Latin, it has certain things in common with other Romantic languages, right? Well, in terms of practical applications to the role-playing world, learning a version of D&D is like learning Latin, but in a world where people actually still speak Latin. You know a whole language, and can use it, and you also have the tools to build on for more easily grasping other languages that were derived from the first. Make sense? ;)Next time I'll get to combat and the other kinds of encounters that D&D offers rules for, which (unsurprisingly) derive from the Core Mechanic above.

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