Making a character, Avengers Style

Dungeons & Dragons has enjoyed a status as one of the most quintessentially “nerdy” pastime activities for more than four decades, thanks in part to a lot of exposure in more popular mainstream media, such as shows like Stranger Things, Community, Big Bang Theory, That 70s Show (to name a few). Some also claim that, thanks to the advent of social media sites like Discord, Twitch, Reddit, and Youtube, this venerable and storied hobby is actually entering a Golden Age. As an example of the ascension of D&D from a stereotypically “nerdy” pastime to something of more general cultural interest - one popular D&D “live play” show Critical Role boasts (to date) more than 700,000 followers and almost 24 million hours of viewership on Twitch alone over the last 3 years. 

So, for the curious and uninitiated - What do players of this game actually do? -you might ask.  Well, the best short description of what D&D is is a collaborative storytelling role-play game. The players select or make up some fantasy world to serve as the “setting” for the story. One player is selected as the so-called “Dungeon Master”, a traditional and evocative title that just means they control the events behind the scenes in the story, kind of like a director deciding the scenery and villains. The other players get to make up their own characters to be one of the protagonists of the story. Then all of the characters that the players create begin interacting with one another and begin interacting with the world, until a story starts being told from the characters’ points of view. Tales of high adventure can be especially exciting because some memory research suggests that experiences in D&D (and other games experienced via avatars) tend to be remembered as if they occurred in the first person. When your character kills that dragon, you might remember it as you killing that dragon.

So, if that all sounds good, and you’ve developed a craving for some action and intrigue, then how would you get started? First, we have to get you a character.  As your ‘avatar’ in the fictional world, you can make them as richly developed as you like. You take on the persona of the hero in the movie and make decisions for them. You can decide what they look like, act like, eat and drink, and dream about. Where they come from and why they go on dangerous quests. What they’re good (and bad) at. Anything you can dream up is technically possible in the fictional world. So what is a recipe for a “Good Character”?

Marvel's Cinematic Universe is a good example of constructing a rich setting where multiple characters and story types can be told. Like in D&D, where the story told during a game is one series of events told by the perspective of a small number of characters, a single Marvel movie like Thor or Iron Man chronicles the events of one character though those characters exist in the "same world". 

1. A good character has a history. 

People willing to risk life and limb in the pursuit of treasure or glory rarely come from nowhere. They had parents, a hometown, some event that made them want to explore the world. They developed some skillset that allowed them to survive and provide for themselves. You can think of your character background as being like the first half of most Marvel superhero movies. It’s where we learn how the character went from being a random citizen to being a hero. A D&D session with several characters is like a team-up movie (e.g. Avengers) where all the heroes work together for a common cause.


2. A good character has a motivation. 

Many times, our fictional worlds are dangerous places full of monsters or magic. Why is your character out shaking down dungeons? It could be for many reasons: money, glory, revenge, curiosity, to protect others, or anything else.  Whatever drives your character to keep going adventures, you might consider tying it to their backstory. Perhaps their grandfather told them a legendary story and now they want to search the world and see if it’s true. Many heroes in the Marvel movies have both personal and group objectives. Banner/Hulk wants to resolve their individual issues or find a cure (in the earlier movie). Thor wants to fight for glory and honor. Iron Man wants to design and test better suits, and they all want to protect the world from threats. 


3. A good character has room to grow. 

As much as we all want to be a perfect character, it’s generally the case that the most interesting characters are those with some kind of flaw or shortcoming that occasionally interferes with their goals or relationships. These flaws allow a character to evolve and possibly grow past their flaws as they travel with their fellow adventurers. Maybe they are a little full of themselves, or greedy, or they have a vice like gambling, or they lack self-control sometimes. These qualities in a character provide more interesting interactions with other characters, just like how Marvel’s Tony Stark likes to needle and tease the other heroes. Hulk has trouble controlling his Anger. Starlord never takes anything seriously. But, when the chips are down, we know the character is serious when they set aside their flaw momentarily for the sake of the greater good. 


4. A good character develops relationships with other characters. 

Because D&D is a collaborative game, we often play with a few other players in the game who each have their own characters. We are all part of the same story, so it’s better for the experience overall to provide a character with a reason to work with others to achieve their goals. Maybe the two characters disagree about something or have mildly annoying character traits, but they can see the rest of the characters in the ‘party’ as useful allies in a larger personal ambition. The reason that your character relies on the others - why they might risk their lives for the other heroes or in turn be saved by them - creates depth of character when tied to your character’s backstory, or even their flaws. Tension between characters can translate to tension for the audience when it jeopardizes the accomplishment of the overarching conflict. But too much of this harms the movie experience because we want to see them triumph over the bad guys without too much interpersonal drama 

Now that we know a bit about our character, we want to “translate” that idea into the rules of D&D. Characters are represented in games by a character sheet, which can look a bit intimidating to a new player. There are many good guides online on how to fill out a character sheet (a few linked below), and we also offer character workshops to walk you through the process from brainstorming to completion. If making your own character doesn’t appeal to you, we offer some pre-made characters for you to use if you desire. 

A few basic game terms to familiarize you with how characters are represented in D&D: 

Race: D&D outlines 9 different races in the Players’ handbook. A character’s “Race” or species in D&D determines what they look like, and to a very minor extent what sort of skills, languages, and qualities they inherited from their parents and culture. Race in D&D draws from fantasy tradition in providing options like Human, Elf, Dwarf, and more. There are also more “exotic” options like Dragonborn (a race of reptilian humanoids who can breathe fire or other things) or Tiefling (a being with horns and a tail, boasting an Infernal lineage). Race can determine whether you see in the dark, or resist poisons, or have an instinctual proficiency in using bows.

Race in D&D would translate more to the character's biology and world of origin. Most characters are Human, but Loki is half-Giant, Thor is an Asgardian, and Rocket Raccoon is well, uhh..

Class: D&D has 12 classes in the basic rules of the game outlined in the Players’ Handbook. These represent the general skillset and capabilities of the character, drawing on many different fantasy character archetypes. A character’s Class determines whether they are good with different types of weapons or magic, where their magic comes from, how they fight or negotiate, and more. Examples of class include: (my favorite) the Paladin, a warrior infused with holy magic who stands up for the weak; or the Rogue, a stealthy and agile individual who might specialize in espionage and lock-picking.

Marvel heroes translate a bit better into D&D's Class system. Doctor Strange is like a Wizard who's power comes from studying spells, and Hulk is like a barbarian that flies into a rage and fights up close. Thor is like a Fighter, trained in skilled combat with weapons and hand-to-hand. And Black Widow is like a Rogue that deftly disables her foes using sudden strikes and subterfuge. 

Ability Scores: A character’s Abilities, or “stats” more colloquially, consist of their Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. These 6 attributes represent the physical and mental condition of your character. These numeric values generally range from 3 to 18 for most new characters, and can be generated in a few different ways. You can roll dice for them or sign numbers to them from an array of numbers suggested by the rules. Ability Scores all have a paired “Modifier” (generally from -5 to +5) that affect any rolls relying on that attribute. If you are an intelligent character with an Intelligence of 18(+4), then any dice roll to make that relies on your character’s Intelligence (e.g. to decode a ciphered note) benefits from an extra +4 to the result!

Ability Scores with Tomatoes:
Strength: How hard you can crush a tomato

Dexterity: How well you can dodge a thrown tomato

Constitution: How well you endure eating a bad tomato

Intelligence: Knowing that a tomato is technically a fruit

Wisdom: Knowing not to put tomato in a fruit salad

Charisma: How well you persuade others to try a tomato-based fruit salad

Thor is a very high Strength character. Black Widow is a high Dexterity character, for her stealth and martial arts. Iron Man is high Intelligence, designing his suits. Hulk is a very high Constitution character, able to withstand crazy amounts of damage. Nick Fury is a high Wisdom character, foreseeing threats and reading people. And Captain America is a high Charisma character, acting as a leader for the group. 

Skills: Fifth Edition D&D has 18 Skills, as outlined in the Player’s Handbook. These offer more specific talents or knowledge your character has. Skills may include things like Medicine (your character’s basic understanding of health and how the body works) or Stealth (How good your character is at moving undetected). When a character attempts an action where failure is a possibility, they may have to roll a die for a “Skill Check” to determine how successful they are. However, rolls for Skills that a character is “proficient” in gain a small bonus to every roll. Skill proficiencies may be granted by a character’s Background, Class, or sometimes Race.

Hawkeye might have a high Survival skill modifier, surviving in adverse conditions. And Doctor Strange is good at Medicine because of his training as a surgeon. Thor probably has a lot of experience with religion, as a literal god. And Starlord is good at Deception, bluffing his way through situations. 

Background:  There are thirteen Backgrounds to choose from in the Player’s Handbook for Fifth Edition, and many more in supplemental materials. Backgrounds roughly describe what kind of lifestyle your character had before adventuring. Backgrounds like Soldier or Acolyte determine what kind of skills you’re proficient at, and whether you get certain benefits like lodging for free at local soldier garrisons or churches. Those with the Criminal Background, for example gain proficiencies in Stealth and Deception. 

Ant Man would have a Criminal Background as a former thief. Captain America would have a Soldier background. Doctor Strange might have a Sage or Acolyte background, due to his training in the mystic arts at the monastery. 

Armor Class (AC): This determines roughly how hard it is for enemies to hurt you in combat situations. It is higher if you wear armor or are very agile, or have magical protections. 

Black Widow might have high AC because of her Dexterity, whereas Iron Man uses Armor and 
Doctor Strange uses magical wards. 

Hit points (HP): This determines how long you can stay in a fight while taking damage. It is a numeric value that represents your current physical condition, but also your stamina, morale, luck, and willpower. When you take damage, your HP goes down. When your HP goes to 0, your character has a chance of dying.

Useful Links:

Official Step-by-Step Character Creation outline:

Official D&D Character Builder:

Character Creation in D&D video (17:19) by Don’t Stop Thinking:

‘How to Make a Character’ video (12:31) by XP to Level 3:

Races and Classes video (6:51) by Dungeon Dudes: 

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