This is the first of the out-of-character articles, as mentioned in the introduction article to this series, and I’m focusing on the process of creating Ellywick Fizzlestop, my Gnome Mage. This article has a couple of objectives; firstly, it can be used as a guide for new players who are creating their first (few) characters. Whilst mostly relevant to Magic Users, it does flesh out the generic process with a real-world example that could be helpful to new players.
Secondly, it introduces Ellywick who will be the eyes and ears of the Actual Play campaign.
Until she dies. Horribly. Probably as a result of
some screw-up on my part an overly curious nature she inherited from her Mother.
I’ll run through the process pretty much as it is presented in the Players Handbook (PHB), calling out the decisions I made and why I made them. Some of my decisions are for fiction reasons, some of them are for mechanical reasons.
Turns out, she’s the bitchy but experienced, old gin-soak at the back. Sherry in one-hand, spell component in the other offering her “advice” to everyone who never asked for it.Ellywick's Personality
What is everyone else playing?
D&D is a troupe game, where what roles (which usually translate to classes) you have in your party is important, so that was my first question to Joromo, the game’s DM. Fortunately, the other characters had already been created so he was able to answer my question without much issue: a Fighter, a Druid and a Bard.
There was a clear arcane caster hole in that party, and I have a soft spot for Magic Users. I can’t even claim I briefly considered playing a Warlock, Sorcerer or a Cleric, because frankly I didn’t. I was a bit worried that there might be overlap between the Bard and my character, but I could create a number of different caster types.
I find that choosing your character class in D&D is the most obvious departure point for a character. However, I’ve also found some success in choosing the archetype rather than class, for example ‘caster’ or ‘martial’ character and then going from there.
An alternative way to approach this is to go Proper Old Skool: roll the dice in the order of the attributes and use that to drive a character concept.
There are some swings and roundabouts in that approach for new players. Sometimes the number of character classes available creates paralysis of choice: of all of these options that I don’t have the ability to properly evaluate, which should I choose? Am I going to enjoy it later on? Will I pick the wrong one dammit!?!! (Pro tip: there aren’t any ‘wrong’ ones).
Letting the “dice decide” removes that paralysis and provides an ability to react to a response, which is usually easier than trying to proactively decide. You then choose a character class that synergises with the highest stat(s) that you rolled. High strength? Go Fighter. High Wisdom? Go Cleric.
The method with the most success, though, is to ask the new player: what characters in fiction (film, book, videogames) do you find cool? And let that drive the choice.
The second question applies to all games, but is less relevant at this stage in 5th edition’s lifecycle: what house-rules or additional supplements are allowed? The DM should tell you what changes, removals or additions they’ve made from the standard ruleset to allow you to make informed choices. In this case, it’s straight PHB all the way, baby!
Having settled on Class, roll those dice!
Rolling 4d6 and discarding the lowest dice, produced a results array like this: 14, 14, 15, 14, 17, 9.
Easy decisions first: highest stat goes into primary attribute (Intelligence for a Mage), lowest stat goes into least relevant attribute (Strength for a Mage). I then typically aim for a high Dex for a non-armour character and an acceptable Wisdom (perception can often be key) and Constitution (hit points never hurt anyone) for any character class.
The basic mechanic of this edition is roll a d20 and add / subtract a number. If the sum of the d20 roll and the number (a ‘modifier’) is high enough good stuff happens. This means that the 4d6 results get translated into a modifier in some way. However, in this edition high numbers are ALWAYS good.
There’s lots of argument to be had about how you place your stats: should you just do what I do and go for the obvious route, or should you do something counter-intuitive, and possibly hamper your character for ‘roleplaying opportunities’? In my experience, I like my attributes to line up with what I want the character to be good at mechanically. I also think that this is good for new players; having as straight a line between a fiction desire (“My character arm-wrestles like Conan!”) and the mechanic that delivers it (a high strength score) makes it much easier for players to, well, play the game.
I can always bring a degree of character-based incompetence to the character through roleplay, but when the chips are down, I want to be able to stake the vampire through the heart rather than trip over a health-and-safety hazard because my Dexterity was ‘interestingly’ low.
Your mileage may vary on this, but for new players I would recommend erring on the side of being boringly obvious in something as basic as these ability scores.
Race: Starting to put the character into player character
Notwithstanding what I said above, I tend to pick races that I want to play rather than necessarily suit my character. More often than not, being the Tolkien snob that I am, I’ll play an elf. However, in World of Warcraft I almost exclusively played Gnomes (note past-tense on ‘played’) and I loved the size difference between them and the rest of the world.
And Gnomes are synonymous with ‘Illusionist’ in my D&D heritage. I knew the other characters were Elf-based and an Aasimar, so a Gnome would have an interesting and positive dynamic (the stereotype has Elves treating Gnomes like slightly-too-curious children). A more playful race would also allow me to avoid a leadership role in the group; something I was keen to avoid as I have DM’d the Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign and want to reduce my temptation to introduce out-of-game knowledge.
A slightly whimsical, happy-go-lucky character could legitimately not get themselves entangled in questions of “…left or right?” when exploring the dungeon.
Also, Gnomes get a stat bonus to intelligence, which was never going to hurt my Mage and Forest Gnomes can talk to small creatures. Which triggered a thought in the back of my head about one of the Gnome gods; he travelled with a Raccoon and pulled pranks on the Big Folk Gods. I decided I wanted to have some of that whimsy-turned-up-to-11 myself.
So, my choice of race boiled down to two considerations: having a basis to avoid a leadership role within the fiction, and a mechanical benefit to my class. I noted my desire to have an animal companion, added all the ability bonuses to my character sheet and then calculated the ability modifiers.
Filling out the sheet and talking with the DM
At this point, I fill out the sheet as well as I can do so (hit points, initiative, class skills, saving throws, speed, proficiency bonus). I note both my class and my race abilities and features and then take a figurative pace backwards to think about what this tells me about my character.
She can cast spells (I had decided gender at some indefinite point earlier); she must’ve had some kind of training to do that (if it came spontaneously, Sorcerer would’ve been a more appropriate class). She’s whimsical and doesn’t want to take the lead. And she’s off with an animal companion trying to extract as much fun as possible from the world.
Yeah, she’s got some hit points and all that stuff, but the purpose of this reflection is to extend the fiction rather than the mechanic a bit further. Chatting with Joromo, it was clear that I had a much more encyclopaedic knowledge of the game-world than anyone else at the table. Joromo is also a very new DM (this is his first game), and we’d talked about how I could support the game through my experience.
We agreed it would be worthwhile my character having access to that world-knowledge and also possibly some visions of the future so that I could subtly inform the group of what wider-world impact the story we were telling could reasonably have. That would add depth to the game world, reduce Joromo’s preparation load. As we know each other out of game, it wouldn’t be threatening to his role as DM.
During this reflection and discussion, I decided that my character would be quite old; had trained in magic quite late in life and that had freed her from her previous role raising an extended family. I thought of her as some kind of magical Dowager Duchess; her character would be based upon Dame Maggie Smith’s role in Downton Abbey. She’d be the bitchy but experienced old dear at the back.
Having decided all that that I moved onto the background traits. I chose ‘outlander’ because she was travelling well away from her usual haunts, and then ‘roll-chose’ the personality traits, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws based upon the fiction that we’d considered. I update the sheet with those mechanical benefits and folded in her love of Gins, Sherries and the odd glass of Brandy as a bit of a flaw.
Turns out, she’s the bitchy but experienced, old gin-soak at the back. Sherry in one-hand, spell component in the other offering her “advice” to everyone who never asked for it.
Dearie, I’m not going to tell you what’s in my spellbook
And then onto the spells. The rulebook tells me the numbers of spells I have; I’ve just got to choose them. Cantrips are relatively straight-forward: they’re never going to be a major decision point, so I don’t sweat it.
Mage Hand, Friends and Light. Someone of her nature and temperament is going to want to be able to manage social interactions (Friends), have mastered a basic spell as part of her training (Light) and I’ve got a soft spot for Mage Hand.
As an aside, I am open-minded about how 5th edition manages charm spells; they universally let the charmed person know that they’ve been subjected to a spell when it ends. That feels like it’s going to end in tears in many cases, and firmly places those kinds of spells into the realm of ‘use on disposable NPCs’.
That’s not a bad thing, but it is likely to make using them a little more complicated than previous editions that were silent on that issue.
I get 6 first level spells. It’s fairly clear from my character concept so far that she’s not blasting down the doors with hellfire and asking questions later (not even over a Sloe Gin). And I like the tie into my gaming-roots with the Illusion slant, so I look for spells that play into that theme.
First, however, animal companion needs addressing: Find Familiar. Pre-cast before the campaign starts and Scampy, the Celestial Squirrel is born. It turns out that ‘squirrel’ isn’t listed as an option, but Joromo and I smooth that by giving it Rat stats and off we go.
As I learnt Friends as a cantrip, it’s big brother Charm Person would be a logical follow up and will help in digging out secrets in social situations. And given the change to the charm rules, I think a Disguise Self will mean that the poor chump doesn’t follow after me when it wears off and he knows all those Pedro Ximinez Sherries weren’t bought entirely selflessly. I think that these spells fit well with the Dowager Duchess concept wooing the masses with promises of fools’ gold.
I also want to take the load off Joromo around the rules for magic items, so I take Identify. It means that we have a quick and simple way to understand what magical loot we might have and therefore there’s no real new-DM quandary about what to do to reveal their abilities.
Now, all of those spells are great. But they don’t help us in that most typical of D&D scenarios: combat. I’m not a blaster, so control spells seem to be more appropriate. I hit the basics and take Sleep. It’s amongst the most iconic and powerful magic spells out there. I also take Grease for a bit more battlefield control. At some point I’ll broach with Joromo about being able to set it on fire (he said “no”), but in any case it is a good spell.
This split also makes it easier for me to decide on choosing spells: out on a day of adventuring? Sleep and Grease. Undertaking intriguing social investigations? Charm Person and Disguise Self.
It’s a quick and easy way to reduce the decision making in each session and provide utility in the different aspects of the game.
Weapons: I want a ranged one and go with a crossbow. Knowing that I have a good dexterity means that I am not that bothered about getting something like Magic Missile for my spell list. I have a reasonable enough chance of hitting with the crossbow at lower-levels so don’t need to use a valuable spell slot.
Finally, I need a name. I glance down the suggested Gnome ones and pull out Ellywick. I choose to pay a bit more homage to Warcraft and choose a name that would suit a gnome in that universe: Fizzlestop.
Ellywick Fizzlestop, grand old dame, journey-woman Magic User and travelling visionary (accompanied by her familiar, Scampy) is inflicted upon the world.
I’ve taken the gap in the party to inform a Mage class; plugged into something lurking in the back of my head around gnome-illusionist, joined it with my WoW-race love; plugged in a justification of whimsy to avoid meta-gaming and then let the maths of the game build the rest of the character. For spells I’ve extended the whimsical aspect and gone for a ‘combat control’ and ‘social control’ spell-list.
You can see that I’ve tried to join the mechanical – getting the best from the out-of-character rules – with the fictional – creating enough to hang a story off. We’ll see how those two elements develop and interact with each other through the rest of this series.
In the next article, Ellywick will write back home to tell them of the first adventures she has in the big-wide expanse of the Sword Coast!