An Ode To 4e Character Generation

Say what you want about Fourth Edition D&D (and no doubt several of you will), but I love 4e character generation. There. I’ve said it.

Whether you’re using good old pencil and paper with a well worn copy of the Player’s Handbook, the (now retired, and therefore better thanks to the sterling work of the community and Jeff Hamm’s CBLoader) offline Character Builder or the latest build of the online Silverlight-powered doohiky (which should be free to use for all (WoTC, you listening?)), I rate 4e chargen as the best, most flexible system D&D has ever had.

I know that’s fightin’ talk round these parts, but hear me out.

Don’t believe what you read in the funny papers; Character Generation begins with the DM. He is the one who sets the ground rules and defines the campaign power-level. It is up to the DM to say which races, classes and combinations are allowed in the game world, and how the stats are generated. All too often the DM doesn’t exercise any control at all – then we read forum posts where folks complain 4e is “broken” because every character has a primary stat to match Superman and a bizarre-yet-optimal race and class combo. It’s not 4e that’s broken. It’s the DM.

Mind you, the WoTC didn’t help matters by suggesting a standard array of 8,10,10,11,14,18 (or some such nonsense) for the Auto Pick array in the Character Builder. That’s a fine base array if you want to play Disney Action Heroes rather than D&D where your characters are Cartoon Hercules (STR 20! WIS 8!). It’s not so good when it comes to simulating a magical medieval world where the likes of Druss the Legend, Robin Hood and a teenage Arthur roam the land. The PHB suggested a more sensible default array of 10,11,12,13,14,16, but that’s still too high for many campaigns. It creates flawless heroes who are optimally the best at whatever they do. Take it from me: when you’re seen one STR 18 (or 20) Fighter or DEX 18 (or 20) Rogue, you’ve seen them all. You’re not the best at anything when everyone is the same.

The DM is the one who controls this. It’s up to him to set how the attributes are generated, and that sets the foundations for the entire game. Want to play old school gonzo where the stats are random and the action is wild? Tell ‘em to roll 3d6 in order, and pick a race and class from wherever the bones fall. I’ve done it and it works. Want a little more choice and flexibility? Roll 4d6, drop lowest and allocate. The characters will be much less cookie-cutter and much more fun to play than the regular production-line chargen fare. Want a gritty challenge where even a pack of goblins is pause for thought? Set the standard array at 8,9,10,11,12,14. The players will moan (oh yes they will) but tell them you’re testing their skills. Going for their pride works every time.

The thing is – 4e character generation delivers, but only if you use it as DM. I can control the game by controlling the choices available at character generation. Let’s say that for plot reasons you want a Human Ranger in the party for a one-shot game. Tell the players that only Elves are Rangers in this part of the world. You can guarantee that one of them will immediately want to play against the campaign restrictions, and your work is done.

Now, you could argue (and you’d be right) that you can do this in any edition of D&D (or any other game for that matter), but what 4e encourages you to do is mess with the rules. That was something which was downright frowned upon in the AD&D era (but we did it anyway) and a huge headache to do in Third Edition. Heck, in 3e if you pulled one string we found that the whole ball of wool started to unravel, so we usually left well alone. I remember trying to fix Challenge Ratings so that the math actually made sense. Never again.

Back to 4e Character Generation.

It can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. You can play a straightforward character such as a Human Knight from D&D Essentials (Sir Borys, STR18 CON14 DEX13 INT12 WIS11 CHA10. HP29 AC20 Fort17 Ref14 Will11. Athletics +7, Diplomacy +5, Endurance +5, Heal +5. Cleaving Assault, Measured Cut. Master At Arms, Heavy Blade Expertise. Plate Armour, Heavy Shield, Broadsword (+8 d10+4). Let’s play!) or one as wonderfully complex as Aelar, my 1st level Half-Elf Rogue/Ranger/Fey-Pact Warlock/Fighter (possibly my personal favouritest character ever in our games).

What’s more – those two characters could play together in the same game. Fourth Edition is a system where the player gets to choose the complexity, and the system does a pretty admirable job of keeping a lid on excessively rules-abusing players – provided the DM keeps control of those darned attributes (see above).

A great character generation system is nothing without great role-playing potential though, and it’s here where Fourth Edition truly shines. Once you have a handle on how 4e chargen works (and too many people too used to pointy-clicky interfaces don’t), it’s possible to create pretty much anything, even using just the PHB. It’s also a matter of being able to read the stats and interpret their meaning, and that seems to be a dying art. Taking Sir Borys’ stats above as an example; he is an archetypal Knight in full armour, trained in the courtly ways but failing to stand out because of his shyness (Diplomacy +5 and CHA10 – he’s had to learn how to talk to people). His only true friend in the castle is the Weapons Master, a gruff NPC who had the patience to draw Sir Borys out during his many hours training (both Master At Arms & Heavy Blade Expertise means far too much time in the Weapons Hall at the expense of aught else). If only he had the courage to put himself forward, he would gain recognition and merit in the eyes of the local Lord (INT 12, WIS 11 – Borys isn’t stupid and knows he is holding himself back), and that is why he has volunteered to join the adventuring party on their first mission.

See how this works? The role-playing is there. It’s just a matter of reading the character sheet and understanding why what’s there is there.

Let’s end this all-too-long post with another example of 4e’s excellent character generation engine at work. Imagine you want to create a character who is a world-weary mercenary warrior who has picked up just a little knowledge about magic on his travels. Perhaps he learned it from a now deceased comrade, or began his career as a Wizard’s Apprentice before fleeing to seek his fortune with a blade.

How could you create him in Fourth Edition? Here’s just a few ways. In each case, the Race is Human – pick another Race (such as Eladrin or Half-Elf) and the options widen even further and my head starts to hurt.

1. Slayer + Skill Training (Arcana)

This is the simplest route to take and play. Your Essentials-built character might be limited in flexibility during combat (perfect for the old-school “I hit him! I hit him again!” brigade) and the Skill Training in Arcana tells of his murky past. That extra knowledge can come in handy too.

2. Fighter + Background Option (Arcane Refugee)

The Background Option lets you take Arcana as one of your Trained Skills meaning you’re not burning a Feat to get it. This option gives more choices in combat and you still have all your Feats (Foots?) to customize the character further.

3. Fighter + Background Option (Arcane Refugee) + Arcane Initiate

Use the Background Option to gain +2 Arcana (he’s got the Training from the Arcane Initiate Feat already) and your INT 13 (the minimum required for the Arcane Initiate Feat) will be at Arcana +8 – and he’s learned enough magic to cast a spell once per Encounter too!  This is a good choice if you expect the character’s magical ability to improve and develop over time. Multi-class Feats are handy that way.

4. Fighter + Background Option (Arcane Refugee) + Ritual Caster

If you envisage the character as one who wields a sword but can start a campfire with just a word, this is the route to take. He can learn new Rituals over time, but lacks the training or talent to use spells in a high-pressure combat situation. This is my personal favourite choice – the Feat and Background Option provide role-playing flavour and depth to the character without limiting the options for his main Class.

5. Fighter + Learned Spellcaster

I don’t like the Learned Spellcaster Feat (source: Arcane Power)  because it’s basically the Ritual Caster Feat, only better. As well as giving Ritual Casting, it counts as a Multi-Class Feat, gives Skill Training in Arcana, Nature or Religion and grants the use of wizard implements, all at the same time. That’s far too much for my liking. I file this one under “Banned and Broken Feats”. Nope.

6. Hybrid Fighter/Wizard

If you want the character skilled in both the Fighterly and Wizardly ways then the Hybrid option offers that choice. It’s tricky getting the attributes to line up, but the effort is worth it if you want a character who treads the twins paths equally.

7. Swordmage

Now you’re just being lazy, aren’t you?

That’s seven ways, though there are many more (Tiefling Hybrid Dart Park Warlock/Warlord, anyone?). That is the true strength and joy of Fourth Edition Character Generation.

It is yours, to do with as you will.

Use it well and wisely, my friend.

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8 Responses

  1. Ron says:

    Great article! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Your array sounds like a terrible idea. Having an 18 in something isn’t cartoonishly herculean in this edition.

    I think you are stuck on the legacy of early editions where scores were on a bell curve 10 was average and the standard deviation was 1.5. Ability Scores are more abstract now and only the bonus really matters. (which is why they should have been removed IMHO.)

    • greywulf says:

      I suspect that in Fifth Edition D&D (whenever it comes out), attributes will indeed be replaced with just the bonus value. That’s how it is in Mutants & Masterminds 3e right now, and it works well.

      Back in 4e D&D though, and it’s easy to forget just what stats like STR 20 really mean. As per PHB p222, this is a character who can lift 400lds and carry it (all be it while Slowed), and push or drag 1,000lds.

      That’s on a par which the challenges set for an entrant in the World’s Strongest Man competition, and (checking my copy of AD&D 2nd Edition, black cover edition, p19) is roughly in line with a stat of 18/91-99. The meaning of the stat values haven’t changed that much over the years.

      Combine a STR of 20 with a WIS of 8 and you get exactly what I said – a cartoonish heculean stat array that wouldn’t be out of place in a Disney rpg.

      When it comes to my grim’n’gritty array, it certainly wouldn’t appeal to many modern D&D gamers who think that at least one stat of 18 (or more) is essential for survival, but if you want to run a game set in a harsh Warhammer-like plague-ridden environment, using an array like that sets the whole tone of the game.

  3. OnlineDM says:

    Fun post! I agree that 4e character generation is a lot of fun and works very well.

    I only have one nit-picky comment, and that is that Sir Borys’s choice of both Heavy Blade Expertise and Master at Arms doesn’t help him too much; once he has Master at Arms, Heavy Blade Expertise just gives him +2 to defenses against opportunity attacks while he’s wielding his sword (the +1 to attack doesn’t stack, as they’re both feat bonuses). Of course, maybe that was your point – you CAN make choices for role-playing and background reasons rather than min-maxing.

    • greywulf says:

      Good catch – I thought Master At Arms was an untyped bonus, even though the darned text was staring me in the face while I put him together. Ah well.

      As you suggest, that could mean that he is equally trained with all weapons, but better at defense when using heavy blades. A slight waste of a feat, but flavourful.

  4. Dixon Trimline says:

    Having experienced enough Gamma World to actually miss astounding low ability scores, I have fooled with the idea of either:

    1. Adopting the GW approach (high scores for what matters, 3d6 for everything else) or

    2. For crying out loud, allowing me to buy back points in certain abilities by going below 8. Even if it’s a 1-for-1 trade, I can win back 5 whole points by dumping my Charisma to 3.

    I am intrigued by the idea of the Slayer with Ritual Caster, though I feel like that would only work in a campaign versus a one-shot, which I’ve been playing a lot of lately.

  5. uhf says:

    I’ve found that limiting my players to 18’s as a maximum stat results in more more dynamic characters (especially for the optimizers) without limiting the players too much.

    If done well… you still get all that old fun you want.

    On the other hand, taking Trimline’s comment. I do miss low stats and I like the Gamma World method. 18, 16, or just one 20… and 3D6 for the rest. (NO REROLLS)

  6. dbv says:

    Good article. Personally, I feel that people focus too much on the mechanical aspects of 4e, and say that everything is the same and punishes roleplaying. Bah!

    Though I am a power-gamer to a certain extent, I’ve never let the fact that the Wizard and Fighter both roll 2d8 for encounter powers get to me.

    That aside – minor nitpick as well – Arcane Initiate isn’t as broken (imo) because it locks you in to the wizard multiclass (as you can only have a single ‘class’ for multiclass feats). It certainly fits the scenario you are talking about perfectly,but I wouldn’t say it is overpowered, simply that it’s one of the best feats you can take for that character concept, especially if you want to continue using wizard as your multiclass.

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