Session Zero Part 3: The Character Basics

Now that the world and campaign have been presented to your players, and any custom house rules agreed upon, it is time to build characters.  In this case, Level 3 characters.

I provide a character questionnaire to each player that we complete together as a group.  I know it might sound awful, but I have yet to have a player say the process was bothersome, tedious, or boring.  The goal is to have players work together to build focused characters with rich backgrounds, build the character’s mechanics, starting equipment, coin, and how and why the characters are together. The later being of utmost importance.

Adriaen Brouwer - Peasants Quarrelling in an Interior (1630) mini

Some DM’s and veteran players might argue that building character backstories together takes away from organic discovery of the game.  Some think of it as a form of railroading.  I disagree. I have had players who document a character’s incredibly detailed backstory into a multi-page narrative (largest was 11 pages).  I have had players come to the table with only some ideas of min-maxing that they had read online, and wanted nothing to do with character backstory or motivations.  Yes, hyperbolic examples.  What has worked best for me, is players all on the same page collectively.  Asking the players what they want, building characters to support that, and diving into the campaign without the pretense of “You all meet for the first time in a tavern.”  Blech.  I do not have time for shaky character and group concepts, and players looking for simple motivations to have their characters stay with the group (i.e. the story).

I have found that if a DM leads all the players through a process to build character’s mechanics and backstory together, as well as, how and why the characters are bonded, it takes a certain unwritten concept off-the-table:  “Why should my character stay with the party.”  It turns any player’s notion that it is the DM’s responsibility to make sure the characters stay together, into the player’s decide what their bonds are that keep them together.

Keeping the same ethos as world-building, I find it better to make an amalgam of published ideas plus some of your own to make something unique.  Beyond the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, I leaned heavily on one of my favorite books, Toolbox by AEG (Published 2002), as well as various creative writing character development surveys (I enjoy this one by Heather Grove, 2005).


I will break down each section of my questionnaire with pertinent reasons of what I am looking for to build a character background.  Some things are obvious such as Name, Race, and Class, but more detailed questions will pull needed information from the players.  Also, the questionnaire generally gathers only decision information such as “choose your skills”, “what languages do you choose”, not everything about the character.  That is what the Character Sheets are for.  In fact, the information gleaned from the Questionnaire, is transferred to the Character Sheets.

I encourage the players to work together and openly dialogue about their new characters that are unfolding in Session Zero.  To aid in that effort, I stage many questions as “Gold Rolls”, where players can answer a question directly or defer to the other players to answer for them.  If they choose “gold rolls”, they can roll for gold (usually 1d10 worth).  At the end of the session, we tally up the total gold they “earned” during character creation.  This is their starting gold amount.  Of course, if it is a non-gold roll question, open dialogue is welcome.  When other players contribute directly to another player’s character, it builds trust.  I also look for additional traits, bonds, ideals, and flaws to add for each player, as well as, any specific skill, tool, and language bonuses I can add.

  • Note:  The potential amount of gold exceeds the average starting gold as found in the Player’s Handbook (pg. 143), but I am fine with that.  The players are usually disappointed that after buying a healing potion and a bit of gear, only to have a gold coin or two leftover is not desirable.  You could set specific amounts, or lower/raise the gold roll die size.  Ultimately, player’s love rolling dice and they feel like they could really help out their characters.

Along with the Character Questionnaire, I also supply Character Sheets, Player Handbook’s (or copies of the free Player’s Rules PDF), Official Errata, plus any extra campaign-specific or homebrewed options they might choose from.  Once the characters are built, the session is over and I collect all the materials.  When Session 1 begins, I hand each player a new binder with all of their character information in character sheets in control.

Section 1: Name and Race

To start off, I like to explain the racial makeup of where the characters begin the story.  It could be a world, country, region, or city.  It might even be an organization.  The point is to give something the players to grab hold of.  For this world, I am running a modified Forgotten Realms, and in particular the Sword Coast region.  The players know they will be starting in the cosmopolitan city of Neverwinter.  They know the common and uncommon races are the conventional choices, but they can choose from a few restricted “rare” races.  They know if they choose the rare race, there can only be 1 per party, and for story reasons, have unconventional attributes.  For instance, Gold High Elves must maintain “aristocratic” lifestyles or Half-Orcs are outcasts and generally kept as slaves (expect extreme racism to prevail).

1 - Name and Race

Section 2: Ability Scores

While my players almost always choose to roll for ability scores, I do offer them a rolled array option (Special thanks to user: Overpromises, in the WotC D&D Player Help forum). I prefer a character without extreme high or low attributes, and to entice my players, here is the first chance at free gold: 20gp.

  • I do not allow players to have any score below 8.  They must subtract points from their highest stat and add it to their lowest stat until it equals 8.  For example, INT below 8, I would consider potentially debilitated.  Role playing a character that is potentially debilitated is not something I want to have.

2 - Ability Scores

Section 3: Trinkets

This is most straight-forward section.  I have them roll on my chart twice.  Once from their racial column, then from a generic column.  These two items have follow up questions later on.  I just have them roll for items, then move on.  This table is a conglomeration of various other charts I have, have found online, or made up.3 - Trinkets

Trinket table is here:
3 - Trinkets - Page 13 - Trinkets - Page 2

Section 4: Backgrounds

I provide a list of potential backgrounds for the campaign, made up of WotC published ones, online ones, and homebrewed ones.  This is the most time-consuming portion of my Session Zeros due to the quantity of options.  I also welcome players to mix & match or make up their own.

4 - Backgrounds

List of Backgrounds Example:4 - Backgrounds - TOC

Section 5: Religion and Deities

This section supports the Pantheon discussion in the Campaign Overview.  For this campaign, I am restricting players to choosing either Good and Neutral aligned deities. I also let my players know that any religious classes they may be thinking about selecting, need to select a deity.

5 - Religions and Deities

Next time we’ll begin picking Classes and working on Physical Characteristics.

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