Interesting characters and the sliding scale

For me, character generation is one of the most fascinating aspects of this role-playing hobby. I love the idea of being able to build people from the ground up, quantifying their abilities and what makes them tick, and laying it all down on a sheet of paper. The challenge is being able to capture that essence, and translate it into something meaningful on the character sheet.

My love of generating characters is one of the reasons I much prefer the original offline Character Builder over the online version – I can build 20 characters in a single day, just to try out different concepts or see how the parts will hang together. Placing limits on the number of characters I can store is an immediate deal-breaker for me, no matter how good the rest of the Builder is. Sorry, Wizards of the Coast. Not good.

Niggles about the online Character Builder aside, this is one area where 4e D&D truly shines. Back in the days of Classic D&D, a Fighter was a Fighter was a Fighter, differentiated on paper only by his choice of weapon and armour with his INT, WIS and CHA scores acting as pointers to whether this particular dude was clever, witty and popular or thick as a brick and hated by all. That’s not to say that all PCs were the same, of course – all-important and unquantifiable role-playing skill (or lack of it) took care of that – but on paper there was next to nothing to separate Noggin Hedgelurk, 1st level Magic-User and Abrathax Greatomen, 1st level Magic-User.

Along came AD&D with it’s Non-Weapon Proficiencies (Classic D&D had optional skills too. We just called ’em Skills), race/class combos, Kits and more, and the ability to put values to your character’s traits and quirks improved greatly. Your Fighter could be a swashbuckler, knight or brigand and gain little bonuses or NWPs to suit the concept. Even so, there was little to differentiate between one swashbuckler and another, which wasn’t much fun in an all-swashbuckling campaign.

Third Edition D&D came with a fully functioning Skill System, meaning players could fine-tune their character’s talents. Want a Fighter who is clumsy as an ox? Don’t spend Skill Points in anything physical. If you want him to be the best rider in the land, focus on the Ride skill and grab as many Mounted… Feats as you can find. Cross-class skill costs made it expensive to create characters who played against type (a Wizard who loves Rock-climbing, for example). This means that most PCs in Third Edition D&D (and Pathfinder, I suspect) are played to type, and a whole swathe of fun and interesting characters are passed on by.

Which leads us, ultimately, to Fourth Edition D&D. Even using only the core Player’s Handbook it’s possible to create flexible and interesting characters, but add in other elements such and Background Options, Hybrids and Themes and this is a version of D&D that throws the door wide open to creating fun and (hopefully) memorable characters.

One thing that all of these choices brings is the idea of a sliding scale. With 4e D&D, you can choose how much of the character concept affects the build, which in turn reflects the importance the PC places on the things which shape him (or her).

Perhaps it’s best is I give an example.

Let’s build a Classic D&D Elf, using 4e D&D. This is a character which uses both a bow and magic, a balance of Arcane and Ranged Martial Prowess, all wrapped up in one neat nature-loving package. The Third Edition route is either to play a straight Elf Wizard (Elves get WP:Longbow for free) or use the gawd-awful Multiclassing rules to generate a Ranger/Wizard then hop into the Arcane Archer Prestige Class as soon as possible.

Now it’s Fourth Edition D&D’s turn. As with Third Edition, Elves get WP:Longbow for free so you could just generate an Elven Wizard and equip him with a Longbow – but where’s the fun in that? Let’s look at some of the other character options that are open to us.

Picture a line with Ranger at one end, and Wizard at the other. We could choose other base classes to start with, including the Essentials Scout and Mage, or for a completely different concept mashup something like the Rogue and Bard (Swashbucklers again!). The principles remain the same.


Ranger <—————————————————–> Wizard


If we want our character to be mostly on the left side of the line, we could generate an Elf Ranger, take a Background Option which grants Arcana as a Class Skill (such as Fey Ally) grab the Ritual Caster Feat. This is one Elf who uses a Longbow in combat, but knows the secret magics of the Elves to call Animal Messengers, leave Arcane Marks, Create Campsites, etc.

Moving along the line, you could play an Elven Ranger and take the Arcane Initiate Multiclass Feat. This gives us the Arcana class skill for free, and also gives a handy Spell to use in combat once Per Encounter (Thunderwave is a good choice) too. This is a fine choice is you’re only using the PHB (so no Background Options) and plan to take Ritual Caster at 2nd level. Going the Multiclass route opens up further options too, including heading into a Wizard’s Paragon Class should you so choose.

Bang in the centre of the line is playing a Ranger/Wizard Hybrid. This is a 50/50 mix of both classes, equally adept both with the longbow and spells. The downside is the character is not as well-rounded a Ranger as a full Ranger, or as well-rounded a Wizard as a full Wizard, but the combination of the two is a compelling choice. Playing a Hybrid does have the hidden advantage that you can also take a Multiclass feat, so if you want to play a Triple class character at 1st level, this is the way to go. Elven Wizard-Ranger/Barbarian, anyone?

Oh, and play a Half-Elf for the Dilletante class feature and you could effectively be Quadruple class at 1st level. This way lies only madness!

Moving along again, we reach the Wizard with the Warrior of the Wild Multiclass Feat. This is a good choice for the Elf due to his automatic Longbow Proficiency, and being able to use Hunter’s Quarry with your Spells is such a tempting feature. It also opens up being able use the Ranger’s Paragon Classes later – Wizard Battlefield Archer ftw!

Finally, we’re back at the baseline longbow-wielding Elven Wizard. This is an Elf who clearly favours the arcane over a good yew bow, but has not rejected all of his heritage along the way.

Add Background Options (Arcane Tracker is a good choice) or Themes such as Animal Master (an Elven Wizard with a bow and a hawk!) to further reinforce your concept, and you’re done.

Each one of these options is just the tip of the iceberg, and I’ve intentionally used a fairly standard character concept to show the range of choices available. The fun comes from mixing the unusual and unfamiliar to create those unique one-of-a-kind characters.

So next time you’re staring at the screen thinking of a new character, why not have a go at creating an Urban Barbarian, Religious Thief, Dwarven Acrobat, Exiled Halfling Sailor, Human Cleric of Magic or Pelor-worshipping Drow Bard.

You never know. It could just be your best character yet.


4 Comments on “Interesting characters and the sliding scale”

  1. Hello there! Nice to meet this website.
    I think you did a nice job getting across a point that happens to be one of the reasons I’m happy about 4e in general. The flexibility of the system is quite big really, and there are plenty of ways to build characters like the “classic hybrids”, staples of fantasy like the classic elf and such.
    Only remark, you didn’t quite take into account the problem of MAD, which afflicts these characters in 4e too, even if not as much as in 3e.
    A Wizard-Ranger would be rather suboptimal, especially defenses-wise, due to Intelligence and Dexterity being all tied to AC and Reflex, practically guaranteeing low Fort and Will. Plus, Wisdom rider in Ranger powers are going to be very low for this character.
    Maybe you could have also talked about reflavoring: taking Druid, Cleric, Invoker, or Shaman powers/multiclassing and reflavoring them as more classic spells would have maintained the Dex+Wis combo.
    Anyway, thinking better about it, in the special case of the archer ranger, I don’t see anything too bad about having a secondary-primary stat other than Wis.
    Well, enough with the CharOp-ing :)
    I’ll be lurking in the hereabouts!

    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      I’m not a fan of optimised characters as a rule. When I GM my mantra is that Optimised Characters tend to get hit by Optimised Monsters. My players have learned that one the hard way :)

      Give me an interesting character over an optimised one every time. With an Archery Ranger/Wizard you’re front-loading the INT/DEX pair with WIS secondary. I’d be inclined to aim for DEX 18 with INT 13 (for Feats and future development) and WIS around 14. Get STR 12 if you can, if only to add a little more punch to any melee attacks. Getting the stats to match the concept is a large part of the challenge of generating interesting characters, I find.

      And you’re right – reflavouring opens up a whole ‘nuther set of options. Maybe I’ll save that one for another blogpost.

      Thanks again!

  2. Well said. My problem with this is my gamer ADHD. I’ll run a character for a few sessions and want to play something different. It isn’t that I dislike the character I had… it’s that I like SO MANY different options and I want to play ALL of them.

    Luckily, I’m usually the DM, so I get to play whatever, whenever.

  3. Hi, I agree with greywulf and Josh. I DM just because I would get bored quickly playing one character for a long time (I still haven’t finished the Neverwinter Nights computer RPG after all these years because I keep starting over with a new PC). And I have maybe 15-20 pen and paper RPG’s that I buy for myself just to make characters, to never be played by anyone. Also, to greywulf, I came to your site originally for your DAZ Studio tutorials, and never thanked you for those yet, so thanks! The RPG stuff is delicious icing on the cake.

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