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Dungeons & Dragons 5E character creation explained: How to work out ability scores, hit points, AC rating, feats and skills

Calculating the numbers you need to get roleplaying

You’ll need to get your head around certain aspects of Dungeons & Dragons 5E character creation, regardless of what race and class you decide to play as. So, we figured it would be easier if we covered these elements in their own guide, separate to our other D&D articles, to give you the basics you’ll need before you start tackling anything else.

D&D 5E character creation explained

There’s some complicated stuff in this guide, which we’ve endeavoured to break down and translate in a way that doesn’t turn your brain into a bowl of soggy Eton Mess.

How to calculate ability scores, hit points and armour class rating (AC)

You’ll be generating these three core aspects of your character in much the same way as everyone else.

Ability scores are your D&D character’s primary statistics and pretty much determine how good they are at doing anything. These stats consist of strength, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, charisma and dexterity, and can be generated into two very distinct ways.

If you like to live life on the edge, then for each stat score you can roll four six-sided dice and add up the three highest scores; do this six times and you have your ability scores. Otherwise, you could assign the scores 15, 14, 13, 12, 10 and 8 to the abilities of your choice (for example; STR: 12, INT: 8, CHA: 15, WIS: 13, DEX: 13, CON: 10), which ensures that you start with a well-rounded character that leans just enough into the abilities you want them to specialise in.

Your ability scores will determine your modifiers, or, how much you’ll be able to add to your rolls when performing ability checks. There is a nice boring table on page 13 of the Player’s Handbook, which you can refer to when you’re filling in the ability modifier section of your character sheet (no, we’re not going to include it here).

Dungeons & Dragons 5E Roleplaying Game Artwork
Calculating ability scores in D&D 5E is a key part of creating your character. Image: Wizards of the Coast

Working out your D&D character’s hit points

Hit points represent how much of a beating your character can take before they kick the bucket, hypothetically speaking. In Dungeons & Dragons, the great mysterious and magnitude of life and death is distilled into a system of unconsciousness and saving throws.

See, when you take damage, you take it out of your current pool of hit points. When that pool hits zero, your character falls unconscious, which is bad. You then have a chance to stabilise or permanently perish, depending on whether you make three successful death saving throws (or if one of your beloved party members heals you in time).

At first level, you calculate your hit points by adding your constitution modifier to the highest possible total of your class’s assigned hit die. (E.g. if you’re a level one cleric with a constitution modifier of +3, then your hit point maximum with be 11.) However, a word of warning: all level one D&D characters start off being really puny, so don’t be alarmed by how few hit points you have to start with, you will gain more as you level-up and the challenges you face should scale to this.

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Armour class is used to withstand enemy attacks in D&D 5E. Image: Wizards of the Coast

Calculating your armour class (AC) rating

Your armour class is what enemies will have to roll to successfully hit you, and is generated by adding the AC rating of your armour and your dexterity modifier (in other words, the thickness of your outer shell and how light you are on your feet).

Certain races and classes will enable you to wear certain types of armour, with the heaviness of the armour contributing to its AC rating, alongside any specific aspects that armour might have.

Wearing lighter armour means exchanging greater protection for more speed, with heavier armour having the exact opposite consequences.

Your approach to armour class really just depends on what kind of character you want to create, as there are factors to consider beyond just speed verses protection (for example, wearing heavier armour can hamper your ability to cast spells).

How do feats work in D&D 5E?

Think of feats (or features) as being unique abilities that your character can perform, thanks to either experience or innate talents.

Unlike skills and spells, they cover a very broad range of abilities (from running faster to being able to cast certain spells). Feats are not traits, which are abilities exclusive to certain races, and they’ll mostly come into play when creating or levelling-up your class. You’ll gain certain feats from simply choosing a certain class, such as the bardic inspiration feat, whilst others will come from choosing between certain subclass options, such as choosing between different druid circles.

Choosing between class options can be entirely driven by which feats you’d prefer to take, and, as with pretty much any element D&D character creation, it all ties in with everything else. So, when you’re thinking about which feats to take with your class (and this applies to levelling up as well), refer back once again to how you envision your character and what choices you’ve already made (e.g. race, spells, weaponry, etc…).

If you’re confused as to the specifics of a feat, we recommend that you have a search on D&D cataloguing sites like Roll20, as they tend to tie related feats and other character aspects with one another, thereby giving you some guidance on what might work. Now I’m not doing that here, because one, that would take up the space of an entire website, and two, we’ve got entire guides on how to create specific classes, so go have a look there.

Dungeons & Dragons 5E Roleplaying Game Artwork
In D&D 5E, the skills you pick can mak for very different characters - even of the same class. Image: Wizards of the Coast

Picking the right skills for your D&D character

Skills are the talents your D&D character is proficient in, meaning that when you’re asked to roll ability checks you will be able to add a bonus modifier to your result (thereby increasing the likelihood that you’ll pass the check). The skills you’re proficient in will likely depend upon which ability scores your character favours, as each set of skills are attached to a certain core ability (for example, acrobatics is a dexterity based skill).

When creating your character, depending on which race and class you choose, you’ll automatically gain proficiency in certain associated skills; for example, taking the warlock class grants a character proficiency in deception, history, intimidation, investigation, nature and religion.

Some classes will grant characters more opportunities to gain greater proficiency in more skills. For example, when you reach level three in the bard class, you get to improve your proficiency score on skills you aren’t already proficient in (this is called the Jack of All Trades feature). So it might be good to bear this in mind when choosing your character, if you’re into the idea of gathering a juicy selection of skills.

How do you work out your proficiency modifier in D&D 5E?

If your character is proficient in a skill, they automatically gain +2 to that skill, as well as the ability modifier associated with that skill (which will be listed next to it). For example, if you were proficient in investigation and your intelligence modifier is +2, then your proficiency modifier is +4.

If you aren’t proficient in a skill, then you don’t circle or fill it in – simply write your ability modifier score next to it and use that whenever you’re asked to roll for it. You can eventually become more proficient in a skill, which will grant an additional +2 to your already existing bonus. As you level up, your proficiency bonus will increase alongside your various other attributes.

At first, skills may seem less impressive when compared to feats or spells. However, they do make for a more well-rounded character, particularly outside of combat. When it comes to forming a balanced team of adventurers, you might when to consider creating a character that can darn socks, as well as dismember an entire pack of aggressive yetis.

So have a chat with your fellow D&D players, alongside your all-knowing DM, to ensure that your party has a good mixture of combat and utilitarian ability.

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