Battle hordes of monsters. Explore forgotten ruins, vast wilderness, bustling cities and even the multiverse of planes. Learn secrets of eldritch magic and call upon the power of the Gods themselves. Adventure for wealth, glory and destiny.
It's the game of the Temple of Elemental Evil, Barrier Peaks, the Abyss, the Tomb of Horrors, the Keep on the Borderlands. It's the worlds of Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Ravenloft, Planescape and countless others. It's the game of rust monsters, beholders, kobolds, the tarrasque and flumphs.
This is the game that started it all. It's about exploring a living, breathing fantasy world. It's about the story of a group of wanderers plying their trade with sword, skill and spell. It's about killing things and taking their stuff. It's Dungeons and Dragons.
If you know what a roleplaying game is, then you know what Dungeons and Dragons is. Played by millions worldwide for almost 40 years, it was the brainchild of a pair of miniatures gamers, the late Gary Gygax and David Arenson. They combined minis gaming, sword and sorcery fantasy and in the words of one of their players 'some shit we thought would be fun' and in doing so founded this wonderful hobby. Without it, this hobby would not exist, nor would any of the games I have covered. It's the standard in fantasy RPGs, yet undeniably its own thing. D&D is quite often inspired by D&D, which kind of makes it difficult to explain adequately in this section. Fortunately, being the world's most popular RPG it's not like finding out more about it is hard.
Dungeons and Dragons has gone through many revisions and edition changes in its almost 40 years of existence, the most current being Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, released in 2008. Despite its name it is not the fourth iteration of the game and I'm not even going to try and list all the versions. My experience has mainly been with both that edition and the one I'm covering in this post, 3rd edition (OK, technically 3.5), although I have played a few sessions of Advanced Dungeons &Dragons. Third edition was the first developed by the IP's current owner, Wizards of the Coast. It introduced a bunch of new concepts to the game, including the D20 system and the idea that any Race could be any Class. It's also known for the OGL, a licensing agreement that allowed other companies to use material from the game's System Reference Document in their own games. While the vast majority of material published using this was of...dubious quality, it did lead to some real gems in the gaming world including the superhero system Mutants and Masterminds and Pathfinder, a revision of 3.5 that has sky-rocketed in popularity to become the number two dog in the gaming world.
While every edition of D&D has a few similarities, 3rd edition was the first to use the D20 system, standardising the rules around a core 20-sided die mechanic. Roll your d20, add modifiers, beat a target number, simple as that.
Allow me to go on a bit of a tangential rant for a second. Wizards of the Coast have recently announced a new edition of the game is in development stages, creating waves of speculation and discussion all over the internet. It's also seen a resurgence in edition warring, where gamers with far too much time on their hands condemn others for the rules iteration they use to play elven make-believe. Yes, that sounded condescending, but the entire enterprise is more than a tad ridiculous. I've enjoyed every version of the game I've played. They all have their quirks, their problems and their glowing gems. If the new edition appeals to me, awesome, I'll play it. If it doesn't, then I have several versions I do enjoy, not to mention the scores of other games at my disposal. Your favourite version of D&D isn't going to go away. The world would be a better place if we spent less time arguing about games and more time playing them.
Step 1) Check With Your Dungeon Master
D&D is going to be different with every Dungeon Master you play it with. Each campaign will have its own rules variants and party dynamics. This is the step where you check with them, both to make sure you conform with the rules and also to have a look at what other players are making to ensure you aren't treading on anyone's toes. For obvious reasons, I don't really have to worry about this step.
Step 2) Roll Ability Scores
These are the original six Ability Scores and thus every game with an equivalent stat will resemble these six in some way, covering similar areas even if the names differ. There's Strength (physical power), Dexterity (agility, reflexes and hand-eye co-ordination), Constitution (toughness), Intelligence (knowledge, memory and reasoning skills), Wisdom (sensory perception and empathy) and Charisma (social skills).
A 10 or 11 is average, with anything higher giving you a bonus and anything lower giving you a penalty. 18 is considered to be the human maximum, Charles Atlas strength and Einstein levels of intelligence. The shorthand way of working this out is to subtract 10 from the score if it's even, 11 if it's odd and divide by two for the modifier. So a 12 or 13 will give you a +1 bonus, a 16 or 17 +3, an 8 or 9 -1.
There are a few different methods by which you can generate your ability scores. The traditional method is Random Rolling of some description, usually either 3d6 added together or 4d6 with the lowest score dropped. There are also set Arrays of stats (so you could assign, for example, a 15,14,13,12,10 and 8 among your scores) or Point Buy, which gives you a certain amount of points to purchase abilities with higher scores costing more points.
I'm going to go with random rolling, the latter of the two methods I listed. I'm also going to roll them in order, rather than just rolling the numbers and assigning them to stats afterwards. This is because I'd like to develop a concept as I go along.
So, after rolling, my scores are thus: Strength 13, Dexterity 11, Constitution 11, Intelligence 16, Wisdom 7, Charisma 13. That's not too terrible. Mostly above average, a quite nice Intelligence score and only one penalty in the form of Wisdom (albeit a -2 penalty). So, our character is physically fit, incredibly smart and personable, but a bit absent minded and rash.
Step 3) Choose Your Class and Race
These are the two central building block of your character. Your Class is your character's profession, with all the fantasy staples like Fighters (skilled warriors), Wizards (practitioners of arcane magic), Rogues (thieves and dungeoneering experts and Clerics (servants of divine forces) as well as some more offbeat stuff like Monks (martial arts experts), Paladins (holy warriors) and Bards (performers and jacks-of-all-trades). Your Race is your fantasy species, all of whom should be recognisable to anyone even passingly familiar with generic fantasy, including Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, Halflings, Half-Elves and Half-Orcs.
I'm a little bit pigeonholed when it comes to my class choices, due to my ability score rolls. While having a good score in a Class' primary ability is not 100% essential to a good character, it certainly helps. Fighters want a decent strength score, rogues need to be dexterous and sorcerers charismatic. While Intelligence is helpful for everyone, because it gives you extra Skill Points, the Wizard is the only class that primarily relies on it. So y'know what, I think I'm going to go with that.
Now for Race. Each Race modifies your ability scores somewhat and come with a bunch of small bonuses and features. None of them have a bonus to intelligence, although Half-Orcs get a penalty so I think I'll avoid them. I'm going to go for a somewhat non-standard choice and make a Dwarf Wizard. Dwarves tend to be a bit distrustful of arcane magic, so my character will be something of an oddity. But what adventurer isn't odd?
Step 4) Assign and Adjust Ability Scores
If I hadn't already assigned my ability scores, this is where I would do that. I will now factor in the ability score adjustments I get from my race. Dwarves are hardy and stout but also gruff and standoffish, so they get a +2 to Constitution and a -2 to Charisma. This changes my scores of 13 and 11 respectively, a good trade-off considering wizards are a bit fragile and don't necessarily need to be all that personable.
Step 5) Review the Starting Package
One thing 3.5 does to help new players is list a series of Starting Packages, pre-made selections of character types for people who don't want to mess about with character creation. For obvious reasons this step doesn't apply to me, but good to know it's there!
Step 6) Record Racial and Class Features
Like I said, each race and class has its own features, known as Racial Features and Class Features respectively. Racial Features tend to be smaller bonuses like a +2 on saves against Fear Effects or Low-light Vision, while class features are abilities and maneuvers that the entire concept can hinge around like a Barbarian Rage or the Druid's ability to Wildshape.
Dwarves get a seriously massive number of Racial Features, it's a bit ridiculous. Starting with the standard stuff everyone gets, Dwarves are Medium Size, which doesn't give them any bonuses or penalties. They move at a Speed of 20ft per round, which is slower than most medium creatures, but they are on the short and stocky side. On the other hand, unlike other races that speed isn't reduced when they're wearing Heavy Armour or carrying lots of stuff. They get Darkvision, a nice little ability that lets them see in the dark up to 60ft. Stonecunning is another nifty bonus, giving me +2 to pretty much every check to do with stone, because dwarves are awesome at stone like that, as well as a free check to spot any unusual stone feature like a secret door. This is on top of their +2 to Appraise and Craft checks involving stone or metal. They get a +1 to attack Orcs and Goblinoids, as well as a +4 bonus to avoid getting hit by creatures with the Giant type, because yay racism! They get a +2 on saves against poisons, diseases and spells because they're tough as rocks. Finally, because of their stockiness they get a +4 against attempts to trip them or send them flying.
I also have to pick what Languages my character knows here. You get a couple of defaults, plus an extra bonus language for every +1 you have to intelligence, in my case three. I start off automatically knowing the Common tongue and Dwarven. I'm also going to grab Giant, Gnome and finally Undercommon, the language spoken by intelligent creatures that live underground.
Right, now onto Class Features. First we have Weapon Proficiencies, which dictates which weapons a class can use without a penalty to attack rolls right off the bat. Wizards aren't exactly meant to be slugging it out in hand-to hand, so their list is short, consisting of the Club, Dagger, Dart, Quarterstaff, Sling and all members of the Crossbow family except the Hand Crossbow. Wizards aren't much for armour either, not only am I not proficient in any (meaning if I wore any the Armour Penalties would be doubled) but I also suffer a chance of Spell Failure if I wear it, a straight chance for any spell I cast to just fizzle out.
Now for the stuff unique to being a Wizard. The big, obvious one here is Spells. Wizards are one of the classes that get them. The spell system is based roughly on a system called Vancian Magic (based off the magic in the books of Jack Vance), where you 'memorise' spells at the beginning of the day and once you cast it you are temporarily unable to use it again until your next preparation period. Every class capable of casting spells has their own rules governing them, from how many they know and can cast per day to the spell lists they get to choose from. As a wizard, pretty much all mechanical effects, from how hard they are to resist (you need to beat 10+ the spell's level+ relevant ability bonus) to how many bonus spells I know hinge off intelligence. I get a Spell book, which contains all the spells I know and from these I can prepare spells each day. I can cast three 0-level spells and one 1st-level spell, plus an extra one from my high intelligence.
Hmmm, time to do a bit of character background developing. My dwarf wizard is part of a special corps in his home clan's military. This group of warriors sneaks in behind enemy lines underground and then wrecks the enemy's stuff (particularly equipment) before running away. Let's see if I can't hinge my spell list around that. I begin play with my spell book containing all 0-level spells and three 1st-level spells plus an extra spell per point of intelligence bonus for a total of three. Looking at the list, I'm going to pick Magic Missile (a D&D mainstay, a bolt of energy unerringly strikes your target), Obscuring Mist (creates a fog that surrounds you and obscures vision), Enlarge Person (makes one person Large Size, with a corresponding increase in strength), Sleep (puts creatures to sleep), Hold Portal (holds doors shut against all force) and Feather Fall (reduces rate of falling so no damage is taken). Most of these spells would help my wizard's unit get into and out of places, with enlarge person and magic missile being ways to assist in the rare event of a drawn-out fight.
Apart from spells I get a couple of other bits and pieces. I get the Scribe Scroll Feat for free, letting me craft Scrolls, which are kind of one-use versions of my spells that anyone who can read and understand arcane magic can use. I also may obtain the services of a Familiar, a mundane animal imbued with magic and basic intelligence that serves as a companion, assistant and guardian. I'm actually going to decline that for now, my character would probably see a small animal as more of a liability on the battlefield.
Step 7) Select Skills
In 3.5, all classes will receive a certain number of Skill Points that they will use to purchase ranks in Skills. How much these ranks cost depends on whether that skill is a Class Skill or not, with the former costing 1 point per rank and the latter 2 points per rank. You can have as many ranks in a class skill equal to your level+3 (in my case 4) or half that for cross-class skills. Each rank gives you a +1 bonus to rolls with the skill and you also get to add the skill's relevant ability.
As a wizard, I get a number of points equal to 2+my intelligence bonus, and these are quadrupled at first level, so I have 24 points to spend all up. I'm going to start by putting 4 points each into Hide and Move Silently, which are both going to be important if my character was a guerilla warrior. Likewise, it seems that Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering) would come in handy, so 4 points for 4 ranks of that. Spellcraft, which lets me identify spell effects, Concentration, which lets me cast spells in distracting circumstances and Knowledge (Arcana) are all standard parts of a wizard's arsenal, so I'll put 4 points into each of those as well.
Step 8) Select a Feat
Feats are minor little boons that your character can get, giving them bonuses to skills, the ability to craft certain items and so on. Every character gets one of these at first level, an additional one at level three and one every third level thereafter. I've already obtained Scribe Scroll due to being a wizard. I'm also going to grab the feat Stealthy, which gives me a +2 to hide and move silently checks.
Step 9) Review Description Chapter
This is the bit where we take a step back and consider the character's fluff and background details. Most of these have no in-game effect except for Alignment, which affects play in several ways. Your alignment is a broad way of classification your character's moral and ethical outlook. It operates on two scales, the Ethical one which divides characters into :Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic and the moral one which divides them into Good, Neutral and Evil. These combine to allow you to fit into one of the nine alignments, which can render you vulnerable to certain spells, prevent you from gaining levels in certain classes (all Monks have to be lawful, for example) and can change during play depending on your actions. Alignment is, to say the least, controversial and there are countless debates about when a character's alignment should change, whether it defines a character or their actions define it, what alignment various fictional entities belong to and so on. I like to play fast and loose with it, because limiting someone's moral and ethical outlook to one of nine different slots doesn't seem terribly constructive. I'm going to make my character Lawful Good, which generally means they care about others, obey the law when it's right and strive for justice and equality. Your standard goody-two-shoes stuff.
Rolling randomly for gender, my dwarf war wizard is going to be Male. Heck, while we're figuring out these kinds of details I'll roll randomly for height and weight, which results in him being 4'1'' and 149lbs. A bit on the short and stocky side, even for a dwarf. I'll also roll on the age table, with my character being 75, on the more mature side for an adventuring dwarf.
I think I'll settle on a Name here as well. Taking a look at the typical dwarven names, I'm going to take Ulfgar Rumenheim and heck, I'll add the title Corporal. He was in the army, after all.
On a final note I'm going to pick which deity my character worships from the list. The game's default gods are based on the campaign world of Greyhawk, one of the most popular and long-lived campaign settings in D&D. I'm briefly tempted to take Boccob, god of magic as my patron, but I figure as an army man he's a bit of a patriot so I'll take Moradin, god of dwarves.
Step 10) Select Equipment
Before I can start buying stuff I need to see how much Starting Gold I get. Rolling under wizard on the Starting Gold Table, turns out I have 70gp to play with. Considering your avergae commoner earns a single Silver Piece (10sp= 1gp) daily, that's not a bad sum. Plus, it's not like I have to buy a bunch of weapons and armour. Having said that I will certainly grab a Dagger for 2gp and because I don't want to be naked, a Traveller's Outfit for 1gp. I also want to have a nice amount of self-sufficient adventuring gear, so I'm going to pick up a Backpack, Waterskin, 3 day's trail rations, Bedroll, Flint and Tinder. I'll also need my Spellbook, a Spell Component Pouch for carrying my eye of newt and whatnot and some Ink and an Inkpen. Totalling the cost of all that I'm left with 49 gp and 4 sp, which could come in handy later.
Step 11) Record Combat Numbers
Now it's time to work out all those derived statistics that come up in combat.
Your Hit Points (how much damage you can take) are largely derived from your class, plus you get to add your constitution modifier each level. Each class has a different sized Hit Die, which is the die type they roll to determine how many hit points they get each level, for example Fighters get to roll a d10. As a wizard I'm fairly fragile, only getting a d40. Fortunately that's maximized at first level, so all up I'll have 7hp.
Your Armour Class is the number enemies have to roll to hit you. Normally your AC is equal to 10+ your Dexterity bonus+armour bonuses+any other misc bonuses you may have. Not having much of any armour, my AC is a flimsy 10.
Initiative is the bonus you add to a d20 roll to determine combat order, usually your Dexterity bonus. Once again, a boring +0 for me.
Attack Bonuses are what you get to add to your D20 rolls to hit. This usually includes your Base Attack Bonus, which differs from class to class and is in my case +0 (generally it's warrior types who have a bonus at this level). I also get to add my Strength bonus and Dexterity bonus to melee and ranged attacks respectively, for a total of +1 and +0 respectively.
Finally, Saving Throws are what you roll to avoid the nasty effects of things like spells, poison, dragon breath and so on. Each class gets varying bonuses to these as well as an applicable ability score modifier. Fortitude Save, which is used to resist physical effects like poison, disease or a medusa's stone gaze gets a base of +0 for being a wizard and +1 from my Constitution bonus. Reflex Saves, used for getting out of the way of things like dragon breath, spear traps or a wizard's fireball, gets again a +0 and +0 from my Dexterity Modifier. At first you'd think things would pick up as wizards get a +2 to Will Saves, the save for resisting mental attacks, but it's keyed off my Wisdom modifier, which at -2 brings it back down to 0. Good thing I get all those save bonuses from being a dwarf!
Step 12) Details, Details, Details
Right, all the mechanical stuff is done! Now I just need to flesh Ulfgar out. I have his description pretty much down pat and I've identified a few key elements of his background. So, why has he decided to become an adventurer? I think I'll make it a fact-finding mission. See, the region of the world that Ulfgar comes from is home to several dwarven clans who periodically war against each other. These conflicts are fairly small scale border skirmishes and raids with few casualties that help determine that local pecking order among the chiefs, deep kings and thanes. The Rumenheim clan periodically (read: these are dwarves, so every century or so) send out one of their mages out to learn new spells to ensure they maintain an edge on the competition. Ulfgar, who is reasonably personable for a dwarf as well as being a skilled and intelligent caster, has been sent into foreign lands to accumulate knowledge for the glory of his clan.
The Finished Product
Corporal Ulfgar Rumenheim
Level 1 Dwarven Wizard; Lawful Good
Strength 13 Dexterity 11 Constitution 13 Intelligence 16 Wisdom 7 Charisma 11
HP:7 BAB: +0 Init: +0
Fort:+1 Ref:+1 Will:+0
Skills: Concentration+5, Hide+4, Move Silently+4, Knowledge (Arcana)+7, Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering)+9, Spellcraft+7
Feats: Scribe Scroll (B), Stealthy
Spells per day:3/2
Spells Known: 0-Level All; 1st Level Enlarge Person, Feather Fall, Hold Portal, Magic Missile, Obscuring Mist, Sleep
Equipment: Backpack, Bedroll, Dagger, Ink Pen, Ink (vial), Spell Book, Spell Component Pouch, Trail Rationsx3, Traveller's Outfit; 49gp, 4sp
Languages: Common, Dwarven, Giant,Gnome, Undercommon
How I'd Run It
I have run a few different campaigns of 3.5 over the years, the main two being a game set in the world of Eberron where the PCs made it into the high teen levels and World's Largest Dungeon, a 3rd party supplement adventure taking characters from 1st level to 20th and featuring (almost) ever monster in the Monster Manual. Sadly, both of these petered out due to real life getting in the way before we could reach a satisfying conclusion.
I do kind of want to go back to WLD, but I want to mix things up a little. There's an absolutely phenomenal setting produced by Goodman Games called Xcrawl: Adventures in the eXtreme Dungeon Crawl League, set in an alternate Earth with magic, monsters and fantasy races where dungeons crawling is one part extreme sport, one part professional wrestling. I want to run a campaign of the World's Largest Dungeon set in that, WXD or World's eXtremest Dungeon. Furthermore, I want to take the 3rd party wackiness of 3rd ed and turn that dial to 11. let players use material from basically any supplement they want, go all out. It would not be the most balanced game, but it could be great balls off the wall fun.