Should DMs Be Responsible for Character Generation?

I apologize for not posting last week, some personal and family issues came up, and I had no time to play D&D, much less have anything interesting to say about it. This week, things are looking better, so I want to discuss something that’s been in the back of my mind for a while.

In my campaign, we originally started with five players and myself. Only one of the players had any experience with D&D at all, and it was largely due to the excitement he and I shared about the game that we began. He and I both got DDI accounts, and he handled character generation for himself and one other player, while I took care of two more. One other player had a DDI account for a month or so, then asked me to handle his character for him when he switched from being a Knight to a Slayer.

Early this summer, the experienced player moved away, leaving me with the responsibility of managing the four remaining players’ characters, as well as doing DM stuff like, you know, running a campaign. While this arrangement does have a few advantages, and big ones at that, I think overall it is a detriment to the D&D experience.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to this system is that I as the DM have total control over what my players bring to the game. I can allow whatever sources I want. To keep things simple, I used only Essentials classes, and that has been a big benefit. This avoids many of the problem skills and feats that other DMs have discussed at length since 4E began. We don’t have big problems with severely overpowered characters, with the possible exceptions of the Thief and Slayer, both of whom are single target damage machines.

Another benefit to handling character creation myself is that I am also very familiar with the capabilities of my players’ characters, so I can build my encounters to showcase their talents, or to give them a tough go of it, depending on what I need for the campaign. An example would be using lots of minions to keep the Mage happy, while keeping the damage dealing prowess of the strikers less important.

I hesitate to mention it, but another plus to this arrangement is that we only need one DDI account. I’m not sure how other groups handle it, or whether sharing accounts is OK with Wizards, but in our case, we are able to use the Character Builder for each character for a relatively low price. I don’t see a problem with it, since I am the one making all the characters myself, but I do realize this may not be the intended use for DDI.

These benefits are certainly substantial, and I think any DM would see the value in them. In particular, having the final say in what feats and skills are available makes a lot of sense for any campaign. I feel like all DMs have the right to veto whatever they like, but in my case, I can do so without any bad feelings from my players. Having said all that, I’m not sure that having the DM handle all aspects of character creation is an ideal solution; in fact, I think it may be killing my game, albeit very slowly.

One drawback to the arrangement is that my players seem less interested in their characters. Leveling up is not very exciting when you don’t really know what cool new stuff your character can get. Though my door is always open, and I have made it clear to my players that I would be thrilled to sit down with them and discuss options for their character, no one has taken me up on the offer. I can’t tell whether they just don’t care, or they feel like it’s too difficult to handle on their own, or what. In any event, it’s frustrating for me.

Another disadvantage is the sheer amount of time required. Leveling up a single character isn’t that bad, but multiply it by four, and you will get tired of it very quickly. Using only Essentials classes helps, but there are still tons of options to wade through. And then I have to worry about making sure I get them printed, which is just one more thing to remember before game night. Running a 4E campaign is supposed to be easy, but to me it seems like a lot of work, and the additional responsibility of dealing with characters just adds to the list of stuff to do before each session.

Another issue, and perhaps the biggest one of all, is that there simply isn’t much for the players to do. All they have to do is show up with some dice, and I take care of everything else for them. This fosters a sense of apathy from the group. I’ve noticed we are playing less and less, and for shorter amounts of time. I fear that the campaign will not last much longer. D&D night doesn’t seem to be a priority for anyone except me. I still enjoy getting together with them to play board games and even an occasional Xbox night, but it’s still disappointing.

In the final analysis, though there are some advantages to having the DM handle character generation and leveling, the drawbacks far outweigh the benefits. I’m not sure where my campaign is headed right now; it may be time for me to move on to other ways of playing D&D. I have to wonder if by doing so much for my players, I inadvertently took away one of the most fun aspects playing D&D, that of creating a character. My advice to other DMs out there is to be very careful in order to avoid making the same mistake I did.

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10 Responses to Should DMs Be Responsible for Character Generation?

  1. I’m really surprised to hear this. I could see a players asking for help with a character after having issues, or even a player really short on time, but to not want to create your own character. . . it’s one of the joys of being a player. Without knowing all the details of your game my first instinct was that people don’t have a proper interest in the game. Your comments about apathy and inconsistent scheduling seem to back that up. Maybe it’s time to talk with your players about how much they really enjoy playing the game.

    If players are just overwhelmed with options, time to limit the options. All you need is one player book to have players make valid character with pencil and paper. Give them a book and a character sheet!

  2. froth says:

    Oh I’d never make the mistake of making them play essentials only

  3. Steve says:

    I’ve been a DM for about a year now, a bit over. When my group first started there were 5 players and me, and I was the only one who had the books, the rules etc. I got a DDI account so we could use all the options available, but I was the only one who knew how to play really. What I’ve done is given my players the sign in details for my account so they can go and update their characters whenever we level up. I don’t encourage them to buy items because I will give them magic items as they go along. Of course, I do have the same problem that most of the group isn’t as interested in their characters, but I think that would be true either way somehow, because they’re already less ‘into’ the game in general than I am. They do enjoy playing though and tell me that they really enjoy every session we have.

  4. Grumpy says:

    i hear you on the players not caring, and the feeling of having to do everything. i do that now, but i will caution you on the flip side before i had the character builder. when all of the players had to keep up with their own characters, one thing always happened….they waited till the day of the game before they even looked over their character. or worse, they would bring their character sheet to the game and ask questions on how to fill it out.

    i think the sad realization is that we (the DM’s) are the only true hardcore d&d players in our respective groups. i’m not sure thats not always the case, but it seems like every blog i read concerning d&d, it’s usually from the DM perspective, and how we are supposed to get our players more interested. all of our players show up and expect to be entertained and really have no input or sense of devotion like we do. we buy the books, read the articles, paint the miniatures, buy the miniatures, make the maps, flesh out campaigns, and try to involve the players in all of this. what happens is that we do all of the above, and the players pitch in at the very last second.

    i’ve only been dm’ing for a few years, but to me, this is the state of d&d. until i find a group of guys that are all “man i think about d&d and my character a lot, i can’t wait until we play next, but in the meantime i’m going to read up and strategize on how to max our my characters abilities”….i’m stuck with my buddies that like d&d, but won’t be heart broken if we stop playing. it is what it is 🙂

  5. Simon says:

    My player’s characters are all managed by me, printed by me before the session, and stored by me, but, crucially, I think, when they level, we update them together.

  6. IronWolf says:

    I have been gaming with my group for several years now. We always let the players do their own character creation and choose their options. Some will have their character leveled immediately after the DM says everyone leveled, some wait until the last minute, and some fall somewhere in between. Either the DM or other players will always happily assist other players with leveling if they want. This could be providing a few possible feat options or the player describing in flavor words what they see their character doing and the more crunch familiar player guiding them to feats to help facilitate that. It works well for our group.

    I can’t imagine handling character creation and leveling for every character along the way. I would think there would be a disconnect between the player and their character. Certainly depends on the group though.

  7. Patchface says:

    I’m enjoying reading your experience as a DM. I also just started DMing a 4e group of 5, and we share a DDI account. (Like you said, it’s cheap, and it’s effective) However, I’ve given each player my log-in and encouraged them to build their own character. I only give out XP at the end of a session, so if leveling up happens, it will happen between sessions. That has given the players time to go over their options. All feats need to be approved by me, obviously, but I feel strongly that their attachment to the game is entirely through their character, and I see a lot of excitement when their characters are about to level. While I definitely feel that thief is overpowered in the damage department, you can get around it, or use it. They don’t do damage to areas, so lots of minions negate a lot of their punishing damage due to their tactical tricks. So that’s what I do. I will alter an encounter to make less about damage, and more about group tactics. Or throw in a magical trap or what have you so that direct damage isn’t the only way out. And then occasionally I just let the thief go crazy on a solo level creature, and it’s fun to see how that plays out too. I never shy away from altering written adventures to make it a group experience, or to challenge their teamwork.

    I love the blog! Thanks for sharing your experience!

  8. TJ says:

    It is good to read about these different experiences. I’m a brand new DM and new to D&D. Our group consists of 4 adventurers and we had a character creation session last week. In the weeks leading up to our first session (finding people to join was a campaign unto itself) I made it clear that I wanted to use the Essentials line, since all of us are new. However, when the night came to make characters, three of the adventuring group had bought the hardcover PHB. One bought it because he waited until the last minute to buy his book, and our FLGS was out of the Essentials ones.

    I don’t want to have to tweak the adventures too much, because I’m brand new to this and I’m afraid I won’t know what the heck to do. Oh well, our first campaign session is this Saturday, I guess we’ll just have to see how it goes.

    • TJ says:

      Oh, I did make them come up with some light background at the creation session about how the group came together. Then encouraged them each to come up with a backstory for their characters.

      They decided that they had escaped from a village that had been razed by an army made up of the followers of one of the evil gods, I don’t remember. They had essentially been a part of the local militia as mercenaries – kind of like the French Foreign Legion. I hope that this will help them invest in their characters.

      • Learning DM says:

        It’s a shame the Essentials were sold out. Especially as a new DM, you’d be far better off with characters from those sources. Sounds like you have a good handle on things as far as character creation and background go. I wouldn’t worry about tweaking too much just yet; that’s a skill you will develop naturally as you run more and more adventures.

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