Beginners Guide for Building a 5e Character

cthulhu-1005495_1920

The first time you look at a character sheet, it can be a little daunting. There’s a lot of information to fill out, and about half a book dedicated to figuring out what all to put on that sheet. But don’t worry! We’ll go through it step-by-step.

If you haven’t already got a character sheet in front of you, you’ll need to download the 5th Edition Character Sheet. Although it is form-fillable, I usually recommend printing it off, but it’s personal preference really. You’ll also want a copy of the Player’s Handbook and a piece of scratch paper, just in case.

Once you’ve got those things, read on!

Step 1: Fill out the Character Banner

Top banner

Hopefully you, at the very least, have a basic idea for the character you are creating. At this point, you’ll want to go ahead and fill out the Class, Level, Race, and Player Name sections at the least. If you’re not starting at level 1, check with your DM on how much experience you should be starting with and write that down. The rest of it we can come back to later.

Step 2: Roll/Assign Stats

Stats

There are multiple methods for getting statistics (also called stats or ability scores) so check with your DM and make sure you’re doing it right. Stats can be found in a bar on the left-hand side of the sheet.

Go ahead and write down your stats in the correct space. You’ll want to put the number in the small circle, NOT in the large box. The box will be for the modifiers.

Here’s a breakdown of the ability scores and what they are used for:

  • Strength – This is your physical prowess. It is used for athletic activities such as carrying heavy objects or breaking things, and, most importantly, attacks with handheld melee weapons. Strength is important for Barbarians, Fighters, and Paladins.
  • Dexterity – This is your agility, reflexes, and hand-eye coordination. It is used for acrobatics, sneaking around and also attacks with ranged weaponry. Dexterity is important for Fighters, Monks, Rangers, and Rogues.
  • Constitution – This measures your character’s endurance and hardiness. It is used for determining health and resistance to things like sickness or poison. Constitution is important for Barbarians and Fighters.
  • Intelligence – This represents your character’s book smarts, reasoning or deductive power, and memory. It is used for information-based skills as well as some spellwork. Intelligence is important for Wizards, Sorcerers, and Warlocks.
  • Wisdom – This is your character’s common sense, empathy, and general perceptiveness of the world around them. It is used for some skills like survival, perception, and insight. It is also used in place of intelligence for divine spells. Wisdom is important for Clerics, Druids, Monks, and Rangers
  • Charisma – This measures how outgoing you are and how well you handle people. It is used for social skills such as lying or persuading others. Charisma is important for Bards, Sorcerers, and Warlocks.

Step 3: Add Racial Ability Score Bonuses

Your race will give you some bonuses to some of your statistics. Add that to the relevant number. Depending on what your stat array looks like, you may want to move things around a little to make the most out of your bonuses. Some players try to have as many high numbers as they can, while others focus on a single stat–this is really a personal preference, but it’s generally a good idea to keep all stats at 10 or above.

Step 4: Fill in Stat Modifiers

Now that you have your ability scores all worked out, you’ll need to fill in your bonuses. These numbers will be added to ability checks as well as relevant skills. You should write them in the larger portion of the box. Below is a chart breaking down the modifiers for each stat range:

scores and modifiers

Note: It may be tempting to go ahead and write these bonuses in the spaces on the skills list as that’s obviously where they go… DON’T DO IT YET! If you do, you’ll end up having to erase it later. We’ll fill out the skills list on Step 7.

Step 5: Racial Information

On the last page of your racial section, you should have some abilities and other information that you’ll need to fill out. Here’s what you’ll need to note and where to put it on the sheet:

  • Age and size description information (height/weight, etc) are found at the banner at the top of the second page. Almost all player races are medium, so you don’t need to write it down anywhere unless it says you’re not considered medium.
  • Alignment is found at the top of the first page. Click here to read more about alignments.
  • Speed is on the first page, just under ‘alignment’
  • Other abilities should go in the ‘Additional Features and Traits’ box in the middle of the second page, as the first page will be for class abilities.
  • Language proficiencies goes on the front page, in the bottom left box. If you get to choose additional languages, you can find a list of available languages on pg 123 of the Player’s Handbook. Be sure to confirm with your DM on your additional languages.

Note: Half-elves gain ‘Skill Versatility’ which gives them additional skill proficiencies. You may want to wait and choose those after you mark down your other proficiencies in Step 6.

Step 6: Choose Background

Your character’s background represents what they did before they became a hero or adventurer. The list of background options starts on pg 125 of the Player’s Handbook. Each background comes with additional skill or tool proficiencies, languages, equipment, one additional feature, and suggested characteristics.

To mark skill proficiencies, fill in the dot next to the relevant skill on the list to the right of the ability scores. The rest of the information you’ll already know where to write it down (as your race should have given you at least some basic proficiencies and abilities). I recommend putting the feature on the second page near your racial abilities.

Characteristics

Characteristics can be found on the far right-hand column, near the top of the page. Your background should give you some ideas on what to use to fill this out, but you don’t have to use what is supplied. Think of the characteristics as your quick guide to how you’re going to roleplay the character.

Here’s a breakdown of how to think about the Characteristics:

  • Personality traits – List out a quirk or other important trait
  • Ideals – A truth or belief your character holds deeply
  • Bonds – Everyone has connections, be it to a person, place, or group. Explain it here
  • Flaws – No one is perfect, so pick a good flaw that will give you roleplay opportunities, then make sure to actually act upon it.

When you’re choosing your background and characteristics, start thinking about your character’s backstory. It is a great way to get a feel for who your character is and to get some starting ideas for their personality.

Don’t forget to write down your chosen background in the character banner at the top of the page!!

Note: If you can’t find a background that fits with what you want, talk to your DM and see if they can help you design a new background or modify an existing one to fit your backstory.

Step 7: Class Proficiencies and Proficiency Bonus

skills and proficiencies

Your character’s class will determine their abilities and skills. We’ll start digging into it by first marking down the class proficiencies. You’ll find a list of skills in the Class Features section on the first or second page about your class.

It’s important to note there are multiple different kinds of proficiencies that might be listed in the Class Features section. Saving Throw proficiencies and Skill Proficiencies go in the boxes to the right of the statistics boxes. Weapon, armor, and tool proficiencies can be listed in the Other Proficiencies box, where you should already have some languages and background proficiencies.

Once you have proficiencies marked, then write your Proficiency Bonus in the circle above the saving throws box. Your proficiency bonus is based on your level and can be found in the chart on your class page.

Figuring Skill and Saving Throw Bonuses

Now for the fun part: calculating bonuses! This step is actually pretty easy. If you look next to each skill, you’ll see an abbreviation which relates to a statistic. If you are NOT proficient in a skill or saving throw, simply write down the related ability modifier in the blank. If you ARE proficient, add your proficiency bonus to the indicated ability modifier.

These numbers will be added to any dice roll related to that saving throw or skill.

Passive Wisdom

This score, marked down below the skills and abilities box, represents how observant your character is when they’re not actively looking for things. It is also called Passive Perception. You can figure it by adding 10 plus your perception score (including proficiencies, if applicable). Your DM may ask you for this score to keep track of what you are likely to notice outside of active perception checks.

Step 8: Class Features & Traits

Based on your level, you likely also have some additional class features, abilities, and traits. Take a moment and write them down in the “Features and Traits” box on the bottom right-hand side of the page. You don’t need to write them down verbatim, but make sure that you have enough written down that you understand what you can do–there’s nothing worse than having to stop the game and flip through your book a billion times a session!

Note: We will look at spell slots on Step 10 so if you have spells, don’t worry about them just yet!

Step 9: Hit Points, Hit Die, and Initiative

init HP

Your hit points are determined by your level, class, and the Constitution ability score. This number represents how much damage you can take before dying. A higher number is obviously better. Check your Class Features and ask your DM if there are any house rules for calculating hit points.

Tip: If you are starting at a higher level, calculate your starting HP as if you are level 1, and then make sure you level your hit points up appropriately!

You’ll want to write the maximum and current hit points down, but be sure to write both in pencil as they will change! For right now, don’t worry about temporary hit points–those are gained in game from items, spells, or certain abilities such as druid shape–or the Death Saves box.

Hit Dice are used for recovering health during short rests. The size of your hit die is determined by your class, and the number of hit die you have is determined by your level. For now, write down the die in the big box and the number of die on the line that says ‘Total’ but be sure to write it in pencil, as it will change frequently!

Initiative is generally your dexterity modifier, unless you have some special ability or item which grants you any additional bonuses. Proficiency bonuses are not applied to initiative. This score represents your reaction times during battle and will be rolled at the beginning of each encounter.

Step 10: Spellcasting

Depending on what class and level you are, there’s a good chance you may have access to a few spells. If you do, then this is the time to read through the spells available to you and, if necessary, select which ones you want to know. The third page of the character sheet is designed for keeping track of spells, although there are also plenty of phone apps and other supplements, like spell cards, also available.

Since spells vary so wildly between the different classes, I’m not going to go too deep into them here. However, here are the things you’ll need to do in regards to your spells:

  • Calculate your Spell Save DC and Spell Attack Modifier (both formulas found under the Spellcasting Ability section of your class page) and write those down on the third page of the character sheet
  • Mark down your spell slots per level
  • Select spells from the spell list found on page 207 of the PHB

Spell descriptions can be found in the back of the Player’s Handbook, starting on page 211. Information on how spells work, including materials, types of spells, and how to cast spells, can be found on page 201.

Step 11: Weapons, Armor, and AC

The most important thing to consider when choosing armor and weapons is whether or not you’re proficient in said weaponry. You should have written down some proficiencies on the front page of your character sheet. Look through them and make sure you are using weapons/armor that you CAN use. Sticking with your proficiencies means you’ll get to add additional bonuses to attacks and damage.

Be sure to check with your DM before choosing weapons and armor to see if you are purchasing items using gold, or using the starting equipment granted by your class and background.

If you’re using starting equipment

The Equipment section of your class and backgrounds will give you options for items, weapons, and armor. Stats for the weapons and armor can be found on page 149 of the Player’s Handbook.

If you’re using gold

If your DM didn’t give you any specific rules on how much gold you have, then use your die and the chart found on page 143 to randomly calculate your starting wealth. Depending on your background, you may also start with some additional wealth or items.

Equipment is found starting on page 149 of the Player’s Handbook. It’s a good idea to start with at least one ranged and one melee weapon, and probably some kind of armor.

attacks

Once you have your items decided on, mark them down on the front page of your character sheet under Attacks & Spellcasting. It’s a good idea to write down your two most commonly-used weapons in the gray boxes. Attack bonuses are calculated as follows:

  • Melee = (Strength modifier) + (proficiency bonus)
  • Ranged = (Dexterity modifier) + (proficiency bonus)

If you are NOT proficient with the item, then you won’t get to add your proficiency bonus. Also, make sure to read through the item descriptions carefully, as versatile weapons allow you to choose if you want to use strength or dexterity for your ability score modifier!

Calculating AC

Also called Armor Class, your AC represents how hard you are to hit in battle. This score is calculated as: 10 + (dexterity modifier) + (armor bonus, if applicable). The box for AC is found next to Initiative.

Step 12: Equipment

If your DM allowed you to purchase additional equipment, then you’ll want to write that down along with any leftover gold. Equipment prices can be found on page 150 of the Player’s Handbook. Here are some items I recommend.

At this point, everything on the front page (except for Inspiration, which requires your DM’s input, Temporary Hit Points, and Death Saves boxes) should be filled out!

Step 13: Background and Description

The last step is filling out some character information found on the second page. You’ll want to figure out a backstory, basic description, and write down any information about deities, groups, or guilds your character is associated with.

While most new players tend to skip or rush through this step, it’s highly recommended that you take the time to finish fleshing out your character while it’s all fresh in your mind. Below is an overview of the last few pieces and what to think about:

Appearance

How your character looks is really up to you! Take a moment and read through the description information on the racial pages, if you haven’t already, or talk to your DM. Then fill out the description information at the top of the second page with things like height, weight, eye/hair/skin color.

You can also write a description or sketch a picture in the Character Appearance box. If you’re doing your character sheet on a computer, you can click on the box and upload an image for reference.

Allies & Organizations

This section is for information on any groups you are a part of. This could include a deity or religion, a guild, a noble family, an organization, or even a city you are particularly tied to. The small box is for a drawing or uploading a symbol that represents the group, and the rest for a brief summary of the group and your relations to them. Check with your DM for more information on how to tie that in with their world.

It might seem like a hassle, but having some sort of group that ties you to the world will make roleplay easier so take a moment and consider if you have anything that your character cares about which could go here. If you don’t, then talk to the DM and see if you can come up with something!

Character Backstory

You should have already picked both a background and a class; the backstory is simply tying it all together. How did you become part of that particular background? How did that lead you to your current class? What secrets are you hiding? What are your goals? How did you become connected to your allies or groups? Think about your character and jot down some details to share with your DM and group later.

Congratulations! You should have a fully-fleshed out character all ready to roleplay!! If you’re looking for more roleplay tips, check out the next article in our series, which is goes over ideas to make your character more playable and likable. Otherwise, head back to D&D Basics to continue reading starter articles or check out our Character Creation tag for more ideas!

Next: Tips for Creating a Memorable Character