Smoke rises in the distance, eldritch screams haunt the night and perils untold claw at the veil. Unwilling to submit to tyranny and fear, you have mustered a band of warriors to stand against the darkness. A campaign looms, waiting to test your resolve.
The stage is set and all that’s needed is your character. It’s character that transforms Dungeons and Dragons from a dice-rolling hack fest to a full story with depth and intrigue. I’ll cover some tips to get the most out of your character and level up your RPG then give an example of my latest character, Theren Stormcursed, storm sorcerer of the Dessarin Valley.
You Are More Than Your Class
Your character is a person. They have needs and fears born of everything they’ve seen, done and heard. No two humans are the same, nor are every two soldiers or accountants or gardeners. It’s the same for halfling rogues or dragonborn clerics.
What’s in a Name?
Chances are, you’re starting at level one, a newbie character, someone who’s not long picked up a sword or can just about control the fire blasting from their hands. So Theren Godslayer probably isn’t an appropriate name. My sorcerer’s powers have only ever caused him grief and pain. They’ve been a curse, turning his family into outcasts, shunned and run out of anywhere they’ve lived. As a storm sorcerer, his powers have manifested mostly during storms. Hence, Theren Stormcursed.
It’s entirely possible for names to evolve over time. Alexander the Great wasn’t born with that name, not was Vlad the Impaler. That would have been some impressive foresight on the part of their parents. Those names were earned. As Theren Stormcursed develops, gains renown and comes to understand his powers as something beyond a curse (or perhaps they keep causing him trouble), his name may evolve to something more fitting. Perhaps Theren Zephyros, or Theren the Gaseous, or Theren Firestorm, depending on his actions and what happens to him in the campaign. That way he takes his history with him.
The backgrounds in the Player’s Handbook are a great place to start. With Theren, two options stood out: outcast and hermit. After thinking about his early life, moving from hamlet to village to town and being run out of all of them, I decided Theren and his mother decided to live away from people. The longest they’d spent in any one place was the last 5 years in a cave, away from people where Theren’s cursed powers couldn’t hurt anyone.
The background links nicely with place – where does the character live. It’s handy to work with your dungeon master on this one. I knew we’d be playing the Princes of the Apocalypse campaign so chose the Dessarin Valley as Theren’s home. Since he left there in early life, but stayed nearby, he may be curious about his beginnings. His quest to understand his powers will undoubtedly lead him back to where it all began, that lightning lit night in the Dessarin Valley.
Stats Are For More Than Dice Rolls
Your stats (strength, dexterity, etc.) inform your character’s appearance and personality. A character with low strength is unlikely to be all bulging muscles. As a sorcerer, Theren’s highest stat went into his charisma but since he’s been an outcast and a hermit all his life, he’s probably not so great with people. There are different types of charisma so instead of making Theren suave and silver-tongued, he’s intense. His persuasiveness comes from force of will rather than clever words.
Character and Spells/Abilities
This one is a bit of a balancing act. A storm sorcerer is more likely to take lightning bolt than fireball, just as a fighter who’s sworn to defend is more likely to take the protection option rather than being a great weapon fighter. Character ought to inform spell and ability choices as you progress. The balance comes in where your character actually needs to be useful in the mechanics of D&D. Gust of Wind is great for character but you want to make sure you can actually do some damage during encounters.
Work With Your DM
The dungeon master is not the enemy. No, really, it’s true. They’re the narrator. Sharing your character’s history, goals and needs will affect the narrative of the campaign and your DM will enrich the experience by giving your character time in the limelight to achieve their goals or uncover that secret in their past. Before my campaign started, we all shared our characters with the DM so we could get things moving and work them into the story.
Keep a Document
Writing down your character’s background and story will help generate more ideas and remind you what they’re all about. Here’s the story of Theren Stormcursed that went to the DM before my campaign. It’s also shared with the other players so our characters can know one another better and inform their relationships.
Theren Stormcursed, Storm Sorcerer of the Dessarin Valley
Born to a human mother and elven father in a hamlet in the Dessarin Valley during a fierce electrical storm. Their house was struck by lightning and caught fire. Theren’s father got him and his mother to safety but died in the fire, struck by a falling beam. Theren was named to honour his father.
Their home destroyed, they were forced to move, eventually leaving the Dessarin Valley. Being newcomers and given Theren’s half-elven heritage, wherever they went they were quickly blamed by superstitious locals for the extreme weather conditions that followed them, and were always forced to move on. They became used to moving and scraping a living from the land or from selling paintings and wooden ornaments crafted by Theren’s mother.
In his mid-teens, Theren and his mother fled yet another village but one of the pursuing mob killed his mother with a pitchfork thrown into her back. Something came over Theren then. Winds howled around him, raising him into the air. He doesn’t remember what happened next, just waking to see a charred corpse. The mob had fled.
From that day, he began to question whether the locals had been right all this time, that he caused the freak weather. That his birth caused the lightning strike that killed his father. Magic came upon him erratically in violent outbursts and so he lived in seclusion; wondering, questioning and mourning.
One night, he emerged from the cave he called home far east of the Dessarin Valley. He often found himself looking that way, towards home. A storm was moving in, quickly as they often did in the mountains. He huddled as far into his cave as he could, away from the driving rain and thunder. Lightning like he’d never seen cracked the sky like fiery spider webs and exploded in bolts all around the mountain. Staring at the elemental power, a surge of emotion took him and he tossed his blanket aside before walking out into the storm. He felt the rain hammer him, closed his eyes and listened to the boom of thunder.
And he thought: what if he didn’t have to be afraid? What if he could control the storm?
From that day, he stopped fleeing his powers, instead letting them out when he felt the surge of magic within, shaping and controlling the energy. He soon found himself looking towards home again. He wanted answers. He wanted to know who and what he was, whether he was responsible for his parents’ deaths, and why magic chose to work through him. Lacking other options, he decided to start at the beginning, the Dessarin Valley.
Along the road, he met a cleric who listened to his tale. She was heading to the Dessarin Valley on an errand from the Harpers; an organisation, she said, who may offer him a path to the answers he seeks.
Personality and Present Day
Theren has a conflicted relationship with both his powers and his place of birth. The Dessarin Valley is home even though he remembers little of it beyond that it shunned him. He approaches them both with guilt, fear and wonder, but is resolved to his course. He will not lose another loved one because of his powers. This gives him an intensity, particularly when angered or focused, often causing winds to rush around him in these moments of heightened emotion, and more so when releasing his magic.
He welcomes outsiders, the way he and his mother never were, and has a kind, encouraging word for anyone who needs them. Nobody should have to endure what they did.
He wants to find the root of his powers and prove that he is not the calamity that villagers named him, or if he is, that he can overcome it and atone for what he caused. His greatest fear is that his powers make him a monster or mutant, just as his half-elven heritage makes him an outsider wherever he goes. Something tells him that all the answers are here.