Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Building Character: Mechanical Makeup

Hey everybody, welcome back to Building Character: A Guide to Character Creation as told by some fat guy on the internet without credentials! This time on Building Character I’m going to take a look at turning the mechanics of your hero (the feats, powers, and weapons) into character traits. Now admittedly this isn’t my strongest area of expertise as I’ve mostly built optimized characters as sadly 4E is not a system built for flavor when it comes to the mechanics. Still, even a min/maxed character in 4E can still take a look at their mechanics and think character, so let’s start where we left off.

The first major decision I have to make excluding class/race is my main class feature, and for the Scout it’s a choice between Flashing Blade Mastery and Spinning Axe Mastery. Basically these two choices boil down to whether you want to have a light blade or an axe as your off hand weapon, and admittedly I chose light blade for mechanical reasons, but there was a character reason as well. When I think axes I tend to think of them as more savage weapons than your classical broadsword or halberd. When I think of a scout using axes I tend to think of them as a much more primitive or primal sort of scout—like the scout of a tribe of Half-Orcs or something. My initial idea for Caitlin was to have her as a soldier, so the idea of a more traditional sword user struck me as more appropriate. In addition I’ve seen light blades used by humans as a more refined way of fighting, sort of like the elegant counterpart to the more tradition broadsword and shield fighter. This is what initially led me to think Caitlin would have a more noble upbringing, but since Wyrmwick has no monarchy this idea eventually led to having some relation to the councilmen, but I’ll get more into that later.

After picking a class feature it was time to look at stats which quite honestly is where you really do need to put character aside unless you’re dead set on wanting to play a stunted character. It works for some people, but in general playing a moderately intelligent mage or a fragile fighter will get you killed in 4E, so you have to go along with the system here. Now as an elf Caitlin received a natural bonus to her Dexterity (her attack stat), and a secondary bonus to either Wisdom or Intelligence. I went Wisdom as it has the chance to affect a few powers down the line, and simply let the builder build an array from there. It ended up giving me one last point to Strength (understandable), and making Charisma my dump stat. I was a bit weary on that latter point. Charisma is a dangerous dump stat in my opinion because that naturally makes your character less diplomatic which I was already very poor at, so I swapped Charisma for Intelligence. Since my Dexterity was already 20 and I didn’t figure Caitlin would be the party’s Arcana/History checker, there was next to no point in investing in Intelligence. At that point though I made a note about having a below average Intelligence as that’s something I could always work into the story.

It’s natural to have a dump stat in a roleplaying game, so my advice would be to find a reason to justify this weak stat. For example a mage with 8 or lower Strength can explain as they spent their life studying and as such their arms have become frail. A cleric with low Dexterity could say they suffered an injury as a child and that has made them flatfooted. For Caitlin I explain her low Intelligence is due to her never being properly educated which I can then explain in her backstory as she was raised as servant and a warrior so her education was always a little handicapped.

With skills you have a good opportunity to explain why your character is trained in one area over another. For example when I built Caitlin I was allowed 5 skills, so I took Nature, Perception, Stealth, Acrobatics, and Athletics. Nature and Perception were shoe-in choices as they’re keyed off my secondary stat (Wisdom) and I receive a race bonus to them for being an elf. Stealth and Acrobatics were also givens as they were based off my primary stat (Dexterity), so they would both be solid skills. For my final skill I had a few options. I could go with Heal and get another Wisdom based skill, but ultimately I decided on Athletics. As I looked over the skills I picked prior, I took note of Stealth and Nature which for a city-based soldier (particularly one of noble relation) seemed like odd choices. I started to think why Caitlin would be skilled in something like that, and I thought about what if she was an experienced hunter? What if, as a soldier, she was trained to live off the land and as such as learned to hunt animals in the wilderness? It would be an easy way to relate all of my current skills (Perception to spot, Nature to track, Acrobatics to balance, and Stealth to sneak up), and as such taking Athletics to help trek through the difficult landscapes of the wilderness felt like the right choice. I started to figure if I built my Scout as a soldier using light blades then mobility would be key to their fighting style so having good Acrobatics and Athletics skill fit that concept quite well.

As I move onto powers I find myself a bit stuck for advice because here’s where you make or break your character in 4E. If you pick powers based on how they work for your character concept as opposed to what they actually do in battle you have a very good chance of ending up with a crippled character. For example if you choose to only take cosmic powers as a Sorcerer you might be building a very thematic character, but they might not be right for what your character needs to do. Sometimes theme and mechanics work well, but sometimes they don’t and then you may need to come up with a reason why your Tempest Thunder Mage is using a fireball spell. My recommendation is to instead ask your DM if you can reflavor the move so the attack is thunder related. Since your powers (or in some cases lack therefore of) define your class, making sure they are justified should be extremely simple. Don’t fret if you do have to take the odd power that you just can’t reflavor to work—just try to think of a way to justify it in character, or ignore it and just handwave it so no one questions why the flail wielding Knight is using a move that’s supposed to slice the opponent’s legs off.

Since Caitlin was an Essential’s Scout she didn’t have many powers to pick and thus I don’t have much from a recent personal experience to speak from, but with Juliet I remember often times struggling to find a power that was effective yet still worked for the concept. For example I remember often debating about whether it would be appropriate or not for Juliet to take a summon, and before I respeced her to become a Sentinel I had penciled in that she would take Summon Shadow Ape at level 5. When it comes to mechanics in 4E and character developing, don’t stress the small stuff. Take powers that you know will be fun over ones that perfectly represent your character because the fact is that 4E is heavily focused on combat and if you have a terrible build you won’t be able to enjoy your character for very long anyway.

However, when you get to equipment you can start to really play with what these choices mean to your character. For example, instead of debating between more accurate proficiency or a larger damage dice, ask why your character learned to fight with a battle axe instead of a broadsword, or why your character has a magic implement. In some cases your character may start with magical equipment and this is your opportunity to include a great in-character reason for it. For example, Caitlin started with a +1 Magic Rapier. I justified this in character as saying the weapon was a gift from Alpert and it holds personal meaning to her due to very personal touches on the blade. Heck, I even named that weapon (Correlon’s Thorn for those who care, though the name seems ironic now). In fact naming your weapon is actually a great way to add a personal touch to your equipment. Anyone can own a +1 Broadsword, but only King Arthur wields Excalibur.

I say that knowing full well that Arthurian nerds are going to explain how wrong that last example was.

What I’m suggesting with this article is not to look at your character sheet and see nothing but numbers. If you want nothing but numbers, then you really want an MMO. Try to find reasons that justify the numbers. Look at your 18 in Charisma and figure out how people react that—I mean an 18 in Charisma would make you a very memorable presence afterall. Try to explain why your character has a 13 in Stealth at level 5. For Caitlin I explain her choice in weaponry as being a more refined type of soldier as she’s not a standard troop in the Wyrmwick army, but rather a personal bodyguard/servant for a councilman. I explain her skills as being taught to her by elven trainers that Alpert paid for so that Caitlin would be able to learn the same skills she would have learned from her parents.

I would suggest that players new to adding this kind of depth to their characters really should avoid trying too hard. The fact is that you can create a brilliant and memorable character without ever thinking why they chose a spear or a flail as opposed to a sword. Sometimes you just like a choice and that’s all the justification you need to make it. The fact of the matter is that D&D and tabletop in general is meant to be fun, and if you’re getting frustrated coming up with a reason why your dwarf is trained in stealth then you’re not doing right. Also you made a ninja dwarf, and that is awesome.

On the next edition of Building Character we’ve finished building our initial mold, so now it’s time to detail them. I’ll look at names, gender, and all the little details that get your character ready for the big time.

Until next time, Namaste!


  1. See, this is the kind of over thinking that I love. Its character building like this that made me wish I could play this game. Sadly, nobody to play with in either real life or the internets, but its fascinating to read the logic behind character building.

    I await your next article.

  2. I actually used a lot of these ideas when making a character, a human rogue, for a friends campaign. He is basically a rogue cop so I built him around the use of hand crossbows because it's like a gun (right?). I made him strong and quick because he was trained as a soldier but very charismatic because he spent most of his time around the mean streets and knows how to get information out of people. His powers were just picked because they complimented his crossbow but I made sure they were strong. Oh and he is almost 50 which I thought would create some tension with other characters because of his age and the idea he can't keep up with them (also he keeps telling the group to get off his lawn). This did help me because I dumped a lot of his wisdom and fixed because it didn't make sense. I enjoyed reading this and I can't wait for more.