After getting the basics out of the way during the Session Zero, it’s time to move to character generation. If you have time, I would suggest doing character generation during the Session Zero. Everyone is there, thinking about the type of game that is about to be played. I can’t think of a reason to not do it then, unless you’re pushing up against a previously agreed to stopping time.
The main reason for doing character generation as a group is to make sure that the party has some sort of balance to it. I’m not saying a party of 3 or 4 fighters wouldn’t be cool, but there would be a lot of overlap of roles and a lack of certain things like healing spells and general magical attacks. An important thing as a DM to keep in mind is it is up to the players to pick their races and classes. As the DM, you have the control on what is available to be played. Make sure if someone brings in something from a third party publisher or even the Unearthed Arcana columns from Wizards of the Coast, that you review it to make sure it fits in your campaign and isn’t either over powered or under powered in comparison to the other players’ characters.
Following what’s in the Player’s Handbook, the first thing each player should pick is their race. In D&D the players have a wide range of options from the fantastical dragonborn to the noble elf to the standard human. Each race comes with specific bonuses to ability scores, proficiency in skills, and maybe some special abilities.
After you select your race, then comes the character’s class. Fighters, wizards, clerics, and bards are just a few of the possibilities that the players can select from. Players should look at not just what they start with, but at the subclasses that follow as the characters progress. Each class has access to certain special abilities, skills, and proficiencies. Some classes are spell casters and the character gains access to certain spells based upon level.
Once again, let the players pick what they want to play. Nothing says you can’t have a party full of wizards. Yes, they’re not good at hand to hand combat, but the players will have to come up with strategies to keep out of those situations. Part of picking the class also sets up what equipment the character is going to have. I would also suggest after their class is picked, that they pick their background.
Backgrounds add a bit more color to the character. They grant more skills, proficiencies, and equipment. This also gives them personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. One benefit of the players having these for their characters is when they play up any of these, you as the DM can reward them with Inspiration. This is totally a way to reward role-playing at the table, which will only encourage more of it. Each background has a special ability that the characters have based upon who they were before being an adventurer. If a player comes to you with a background idea that doesn’t fit into what’s available in published sources, work with them on developing one. There’s guidelines for it in the book.
One of the big hurdles you will face during character generation is how to do ability score generation. There are a couple different options, from a standard array of 6 numbers to randomly rolling for it and all the way to a point buy system. Get player consensus and make sure that everyone follows that model. Each system of generation has benefits and drawbacks.
The standard array makes sure that the characters are not too weak or too powerful. It sets them up as somewhat better than the average village dweller. The standard array is 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, and 8. Almost all of the scores are above average with only one being average and one being below average.
Randomly rolling is how most old school players came up using when making new characters. The prescribed method is to roll 4d6 for each ability score, dropping the lowest die. So if you were to roll a 5, 3, 3, 2, you would have an 11. Some folks have house rules like re-roll all 1s. The positive is that there’s a chance that the players end up with some very high stats. The downside is that there’s a chance the players will end up with one or more very low stats. A good rule of thumb is that if the bonuses and penalties for all of the stats equals out to 0 or more, the character is viable though maybe just that. If the number is negative, that character could be in for some real problems. As a DM you might want to consider letting the player re-roll those stats.
The last method is a point buy. Each tier of ability scores has a cost starting with an 8 being a 0 point buy. The players have 27 points to spend for the 6 ability scores. This system gives the players a bit more control in customizing their character.
All of the above information is covered in more depth in the Players Handbook.
Here’s a snippet of a few too many games I’ve played in:
DM: You are all in the Raging Dragon Tavern as evening sets in. Please describe what you look like and what you are doing.
Justin: My character has his cloak drawn around him with his hood covering his face. He sits with his back to a corner, keeping an eye on the room as he sips his ale.
Pete: My character also is shrouded in robes with a traveling cloak on, the hood covering his face. He also sits with his back to the corner watching the room warily as he sips his wine.
Jenna: My character is loudly challenging anyone in the tavern to arm wrestle her for ale. She’s loud, but doesn’t trust anyone.
Dan: My character slips among the patrons trying to pick as many pockets as they can before they find a spot that gives them a good view of the room.
DM: A robe clad figure enters the tavern and calls for any willing adventurer to step forward to accept a quest of grave importance.
Players: We all stare with hesitation…
I am not saying that playing out the first meeting of the party shouldn’t be done, but all of the players need to agree that their characters are going to be part of an adventuring group. Can they often secretly work cross purposes of each other? Of course. Just look to the Dragonlance series of novels to see how this can happen as Raistlin not only quests with the companions to help fight for Krynn, but also works at building his personal power so he can ascend to be the greatest archmage of the land. What doesn’t work though is the party openly working against each other. Stealing from each other or even openly fighting really can disrupt the fun of others.
To avoid this, have the players answer the question, why are your characters adventuring together? Maybe borrow from Dungeon World and come up with bonds between individual characters, like character x saved me years ago, so I owe them a debt or I like character y, but their understanding of the gods is warped, I will straighten them out.
At this point the characters are done and things now turn back to you as the DM for prepping the game to come.