A Step-by-Step Guide to D&D 5e Character Creation

One topic that always comes up at some point in a players career is character creation. Some individuals absolutely love character creation, others dread the work that is involved in it. As a new player, this task can be daunting without any knowledge of what is required.

At first mention I had passed off the idea of creating this guide. It’s not that I believe that this knowledge isn’t important, just that there is a step-by-step guide in the Player’s Handbook (PHB pg. 11). For many this information is sufficient, this is the way that I got into creating characters. I however am not everyone, and some individuals still struggle with character creation.

Assumptions in Writing This Guide

I need to start this entire article off right. I am not your Dungeon Master. None of the steps I present are a replacement for the way your DM does their character creation. My suggestion is to talk with your DM when going over this guide. Use this as a starting point for that conversation. Let’s make some characters.

To keep this article from doubling in length I am going to assume that you, the reader, understand the game and character sheets enough to write down what features you gain from your choices. If there is a demand for it I can go more in depth about aspects of the standard character sheets.

I am not going to cover multiclassing. If you are using this guide to create your first character I do not recommend you get into multiclassing as it increases in complexity and makes character creation just that more complicated.

Step 1: Character Concept

If there is one thing that is not covered in the PHB step-by-step guide its discussing the core concept of a character. Now if you are not concerned with making an interesting character or you already have a character you want to play feel free to skip this step.

Whenever I start out making a character that I want to invest any extended period of time in, I always try to come up with the elevator pitch of a character idea. The elevator pitch for a recent character I made called “Blade-Shield” was “a robot taken over by nature and tasked with protecting it”. It’s simple, to the point, and gives you a place to start creating the rest of the character. I will be using Blade-Shield as a example for several of the ways to make choices based off of this elevator pitch. This elevator pitch is what you should present to your DM for approval, since you are possibly playing in their setting and they are the ones possibly planning the story.

If you are struggling with creating this elevator pitch I recommend learning more about the setting you will be playing in. It can be difficult coming up with something new if you have zero constraints, so figuring out all the creative constraints of the setting can help reduce the possibilities. Brainstorming with other players is another way to help come up with this. Social media is a great place to get character ideas as well. Trying to drill down to where character ideas come from is like trying to explain colors to a blind person, you know it exists but its difficult to explain.

Step 2: Pick a Race

This is a fairly simple step, when looking at your elevator pitch it’s possible that you can determine what race you pick from it. For Blade-Shield I picked an Unearthed Arcana race called Warforged, which is basically D&D robots. If your elevator pitch does not immediately give away what race you should pick then start to read through the races that are available to you in the campaign setting. Once this choice has been made make note of the traits on your sheet, keeping in mind the ability score changes because these will be important later.

Side note, I realize that it is not the best idea to have included a character with a race that is not standard to the game for this section of the article. I did this for other characteristics of the character later in this guide. I have an extensive knowledge of non-standard content for D&D 5e. I recommend for your first character is to stick to the Player’s Handbook. As you get some experience in the hobby there are several resources for finding non-standard playable races.

Step 3: Pick a Background

I was actually shocked when I found this was not found in the PHB guide. This is important because every background actually includes proficiencies and equipment. This is often the most missed aspect of a character during character creation. On occasion I have even forgotten about its existence. Each background includes a description of what it is along with the proficiencies and equipment.

At this point you may run into gaining a skill proficiency that you already have. This can happen if you chose a race that gets a skill proficiency that your background also grants. If this happens then nothing special happens, you don’t get to choose another proficiency, you don’t gain expertise, you do not collect $200, or pass Go.

EDIT: It was pointed out to me that on page 125 of the Player’s Handbook under the section labeled “Proficiencies” that the following rule exists:

If a character would gain the same proficiency from two different sources, he or she can choose a different proficiency of the same kind (skill or tool) instead.

If you do run into a duplicate proficiency pick a different one to gain of the same type. For example, if the background you picked is Sailor and you chose the race Elf, you could gain two of the same proficiency, Perception. However because of this rule you then would get to pick a different skill but not a tool proficiency.

This is the point that it is usually recommended to fill out the boxes labeled Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. The background you picked does have some tables that you can look at for suggestions but that is all they are, suggestions. You can take the time to flesh out your character more at this point or you can wait until you determine more functionality of your character. Sometimes it is useful to roll stats or pick your class before filling these out as you still might not have a full idea of the character. Filling these out however can also lead to a better idea of what class you want or what ability scores you should focus on.

With Blade-Shield I chose the Soldier background, as I saw them as a war machine of the distant past. Their Personality Traits were that they were logical, which also later becomes bit of a flaw. Their ideals are to protect nature, at the cost of even of themselves. Their bond is that their memory is corrupted and outdated, with the need to fill in all the gaps. Their flaws are a bit more complicated.

Character Flaws

It is easy for us to want to create perfect characters, the ones that can do no wrong and always make the right decision, especially when we first start creating characters. From experience I have found these characters are not fun. There is no drama when a character always does everything perfectly, it's just not great storytelling. I encourage that everyone come up with some flaw that you will have fun playing with. For Blade-Shield his major flaw is that they cannot distinguish the difference between someone telling the truth and lying, and they remember most everything that characters tell him. This has led to some of the best roleplay experiences I have had in recent memory. This flaw does not have to be major. It could be as simple as hoarding spoons to having the desire to steal anything not nailed down. Whatever makes the most sense for your character, the mightiest of heroes are often more flawed than stories make them out to be.

Step 3.5: Alignment

I include this in a separate step because it can be a heated topic. Recently I have asked players to not put down an alignment, but that is just how we play. Your DM may ask you to put down an alignment. Discussions of the different alignments is too long of a topic for this article, so I will recommend you read this page (PHB pg 122, Basic Rules pg 34).

Step 4: Pick a Class

This step is probably the most important one you will make when it comes to determining your play experience in D&D. This is because a majority of your features you get, and will get, come from your class. Your class even determines when you get ability score improvements. Choosing your class will also determine what ability scores you will want your main focus to be when the time comes to generate ability scores. Overall this isn’t a step to breeze over.

Once you have picked your class this will determine your saving throw proficiencies, skill proficiencies, health, and equipment (I cover this later). Following your elevator pitch (and the personality traits if you have them) to help you choose these. Having picked out your race and background before your class will make sure you don’t have to come back to your skill proficiencies because you accidentally chose one that one of those two already gave you.

With Blade-Shield I had a few options. The main was Druid, but I didn’t feel it fit because of their soldier background and more war-like nature. I decided on a Paladin of the Oath of the Ancients. This is where having a broader knowledge of what is available comes in handy. I knew that his focus would be on strength. I was going to focus less on spell casting as a past player of mine drew me to the idea of the spell-less paladin. Their spell slots were all used for smiting. Blade-Shield’s holy symbol was going to be a flower that had rooted itself on their head, possibly the reason for his malfunctioning. Maybe the flower is controlling them, who knows.

Step 5: Generate Ability Scores

Before you can start making skill checks and saving throws you need your ability scores. Generating these are about the widest range of ways that a player and DM can choose to do. Each DM has their own preferences and you absolutely need to talk to them before going into this. I will cover the variety of ways that one can go about this. Once you have generated your ability scores, make sure to add those racial modifiers you get from the race you picked in Step 2.

Roll for Them

This is the most common approach I have seen, and the one I personally use. The core of this is that you use the dice to determine what your ability scores are. The most common way is to roll four d6’s and keep the highest three, six times. You then take those numbers and choose what ability scores you put them in.

Even this is varied. Personally I let players roll two different sets of numbers using the 4d6 drop the lowest six times. I then let the players choose which of the two sets they want to use for their ability scores. I do this to account for edge case rolls, like rolling all ability scores below 10 or all of the scores are completely average. I have also seen the order of rolling for stats determine what ability score they are associated to, leaving the choice out of the players hands.

Standard Array

There exists a magic list of numbers that D&D calls the Standard Array. This is a list of numbers that you can use for the ability scores of a character. This array is:

15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8

Take each of the numbers and assign them to the ability scores of your choice. This is my technique of choice when creating pregenerated characters as it keeps everyone at about the same skill level, and its quicker. You will notice that the difference between this technique and rolling is that the maximum you can get for an ability score is 15 vs the 18 of rolling. This technique is more stable versus the risk that comes with rolling.

Point Buy

A system that I often see used by individuals who love turning character creation into a game of maximizing some abilities is the ability to pick your ability scores using a pool of points. You start with 27 points, and each ability score is worth a different amount of points detailed here:

  • 15 - 9 pts

  • 14 - 7 pts

  • 13 - 5 pts

  • 12 - 4 pts

  • 11 - 3 pts

  • 10 - 2 pts

  • 9 - 1 pts

  • 8 - 0 pts

From here you can generate an entire array of ability scores by “purchasing” each ability score. I personally do not like this system as much, not because of the math involved, but because of the mentality that this type of ability score generation can create. I understand the desire for min-maxing your scores and that it is a variation of fun, it just isn’t what I enjoy having at my table.

Embrace Low Scores

From my experience playing I get upset when I don’t roll a score below 10. Yeah, I love a low score. This goes back to having character flaws, but this is built right into the system. Do you want to be running the big, brute Barbarian? Give him a low Dexterity and laugh when he fails an acrobatics check, or dread when you need to use that acrobatics to save a teammate. Low ability scores create tension and drama. It will give you a sense of joy if you overcome the odds of having a low score. Embrace failure. Embrace the low ability scores.

Determining Modifiers

Remembering modifiers can be difficult if you have not dealt with character generation much. There are a few ways you can look at it. First is with a simple equation: (ability score - 10) ÷ 2 (round down). Second is to remember that every even number above 10 adds one to the modifier, and every odd number below 10 decrease the modifier by one, remembering that the modifier of 10 is +0 (e.g. 12 and 13 are +1, 14 and 15 are +2, 8 and 9 are -1 and 6 and 7 are -2). The last way is memorization of the table in the PHB pg 13 (Basic Rules pg 7).

Step 5.5: Higher Level Characters

If you are making a character above 1st level you will need to go through the process of leveling up for each level. This may change your starting equipment, talk with your DM to determine what else you get at this level. For new DM’s there is a table in the DMG on pg 38 to help you determine the starting equipment. This will change many of your bonuses for the ability score improvements (if you start at 4th level or above).

Step 6: Equipment

There might be some confusion as to why I waited for equipment until after ability score generation. I choose to do it this way since some of your ability scores will help determine what equipment you choose to take. While each class has a list of equipment that they can choose from, you can alternatively instead roll for starting gold and purchase everything you choose to start with (another reason picking a background first is helpful). All information on the equipment and starting gold starts on PHB pg 143.

For example, if you are a Fighter but have decided that your main score is Dexterity then you may want to pick up a finesse weapon. If you don’t like the starting equipment a class starts with then you taking the purchasing route lets gives you more variety, but you need to keep in mind your class’s proficiencies.

Step 7: Health and Hit Dice

Each class has a listed hit die value. This is the core of how much health you have. At first level your health is equal to the max number on the hit dice ( 6 for a d6, 8 for a d8, etc) plus your Constitution modifier. This hit die value is also your hit die, which you have a total equal to your class level (e.g. if you are a level 3 Barbarian, you have 3 d12 hit dice).

Each time you level, assuming you are creating a character above first level, then you have a choice for how much health you get each level. You can either take the average of your hit die (4 for a d6, 5 for a d8, 6 for a d10, and 7 for a d12) or you can roll that die and take the result. You then add your Constitution modifier to the number you get for that level and increase you maximum health by that much. Repeat this for each level.

Step 8: Filling in Bonuses

For this section there is a general rule to keep in mind: if your class/race augments any of the covered bonuses, the class/race takes precedence over what is listed here. Most of the time these augments are an addition to existing mechanics of the game so keeping note of them is important. Make sure to review all of your racial and class features when going through this section.

Once you have picked up what equipment you want it's time to start filling out them on the sheet. The weapon’s section lets you write down the weapons you have access to, your attack bonus is equal to the ability score associated with the weapon (Dexterity if it is ranged/finesse, Strength for everything else including thrown) plus your proficiency bonus IF you are proficient with the weapon. The damage is the damage die of the weapon plus the ability score associate with the weapon. Your armor determines your armor class (AC) depending on the type of armor that you got. The AC calculation is found on the armor table (PHB pg 145).

Initiative is simple. It is your Dexterity modifier.

For spellcasters you have two numbers to keep in mind: your spellcasting ability modifier and spell save DC. These are listed in your class, but now you have the numbers to fill these in. Several classes also determine the number of spells they can prepare based on an ability score modifier, make sure to keep track of this number if you are one of these classes (you will know from reading the spellcasting section of your class features).

Lastly make sure that any features or abilities that mention an ability score modifier, make sure to fill those in with the modifier (e.g. Dragonborn’s Breath Weapon, Paladin’s Lay on Hands) . This includes skills, which if you are proficient in you also get to add your proficiency bonus to as well. Treat saving throws the same as skills when generating bonuses. One number associated to your skills you may see on your character sheet is the Passive Perception. This number is simply 10 plus the Perception bonus you have.


That should be everything! It seems like a lot, but hopefully this guide will help you learn the process of creating a character, not just filling out the form.

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