When I run shot “1-shot” games (games that are short — only 3 hours,) my players use pre-generated characters. There is always a little disappointment because they do not get to create their own characters. We use pre-generated characters to save time so we can get right to playing rather than spent 15–20 minutes or more having everyone create their own characters during the short game.
During longer multi-day games, it is important to spend the time having players create their own characters. I have two rules. The first rule — we do not allow evil characters. There are six other alignment options so there are other choices. The other rule — we ask our players to choose from the standard options. Sounds restrictive right!? It is not that restrictive … We have this last rule for two main reasons. We want all our players to have equal options. If someone brings in a character from their imagination that can fly or breathe underwater, then they are too overpowered compared to the other players and that becomes unfair. The other reason is that we want all the math formulas to work perfectly during the online game. Custom creations mess with the math. I quickly tell my players that they have a ton of cool options to choose from and that has “almost” always worked to cool off any dissatisfaction at not being allowed to invent their own character. How many options are “a ton of options?”
When our players create their characters, they get to draw on not just the Players Handbook, but also anything from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Every source book provides more and more “official” options. New classes and races are constantly being invented but only a small few make it into official source books.
Basic Choices at 1st level?
At the most basic calculation we see that there are 130 different character creation combination options (10 races x 13 classes). This is too simplistic a calculation.
· D&D Races: Dragonborn, Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orc, Halfling, Human, Tasha’s Custom Lineage and Tiefling
· D&D Classes: Artificer, Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Warlock and Wizard
130 different character creation options is too simplistic because within each class and race there are options to consider. A Fighter chooses from 11 different fighting styles, a Bard chooses from 7 different Bard Colleges, a Cleric chooses from 12 different Divine Domains … The calculations get out of hand quickly if you include every possibility. During character creation you need to decide on: Alignment, Tool Proficiencies, Backgrounds, Subraces, Ability Score Increases, Skill Proficiency options, Feats, Variable Traits, Divine Divinations, Fighting Styles, Favorite Enemy, Sorcerer Origin, Otherworldly Patrons, Languages, Weapons & Armor and more. I saw a Reddit post a while ago where a person calculated how many character creation options there were by the time a character reached level 20. Their answer was a bit over 7 trillion (7,020,285,872,418)!! I have trouble imaging that quantity. 1 trillion is 1,000 billions. I read that since they started minting pennies in 1787, estimates are that only 300 billion have been made so trying to imagine trillions in pennies is tough. My favorite example of trying to imagine the scale of a trillion: It would take a military jet flying at the speed of sound, reeling out a roll of dollar bills behind it, 14 years before it reeled out one trillion dollar bills. Reality check, 1 trillion is huge! (Note: This 7 trillion Reddit calculation could be thought of as too small. The calculation does not include all the new official subclass options you get with Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything as well as all the other options would have if you include cantrip, spell and weapon choices.)
What is more interesting to me than THE LARGEST number …. is a number that is more tangible. With this in mind, let’s calculate how many realistic basic options there are for D&D character builds up to Level 3, which is when the classes get their cool defining characteristics. Let’s save some important factors for more complex calculations and just stick with basic multiplication. Spell choices, weapon choices, how you distribute your character trait scores, backgrounds will not be considered, even though these factors help define your character.
Basic Choices at 3rd Level?
It is tough to know where to draw the line thinking about a basic number that answers the question, how many character options are “a ton of options?” My basic answer though is 2,730-character options. 😊
26 distinct types of races (including the different major divisions within each race)
(X) 105 distinct types of classes = (Including the major differentiators only)
(=) 2,730 3rd Level character creation options
Races Options Differentiator
Dragonborn 10 Draconic Ancestry
Dwarf 2 Subraces
Elf 3 Subraces
Gnome 2 Subraces
Half Elf 2 Ability Score Increases
Half orc 1 Subrace
Halfling 2 Subraces
Human 2 Subraces
Tasha’s Custom 1 (There is > 1)
Tiefling 1 Subrace
Classes Options Differentiator
Artificer 4 Artificer Specialist
Barbarian 7 Primal Path
Bard 7 Bard College
Cleric 12 Divine Domain
Druid 7 Druid Circle
Fighter 11 Fighting Style
Monk 8 Monastic Tradition
Paladin 7 Sacred Oath
Ranger 8 Ranger Archetype
Rogue 9 Roguish Archetype
Sorcerer 7 Sorcerous Origin
Warlock 7 Otherworldly Patron
Wizard 11 Arcane Tradition
But even the number 2,730 is too basic and small. Why? Alignment. There are currently 9 choices (Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Good, Lawful Neutral, Neutral, Chaotic Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Evil) If we include Alignment as a factor then our number will increase (2,730 x 9) to 24,570. But even this number is woefully too small. To see this, let’s look at the Artificer class build in more detail. Apart from choosing 1 of the 4 major Artificer Specialties which I included in the basic calculation above, the other decisions are important enough to shape your character creation and should really be considered to be complete. When you start at level 1, are asked to choose 2 cantrips from a list of 23 cantrip options (plug that in your combination formula: 23c2 = 253 combinations) and 2 spells from a list of 18 spell options (plug that in your combination formula: 18c2 = 153 combinations. At Level 2 you then get to infuse with magic 4 items from a list of 9 items (plug that in your combination formula: 9c4 = 126 combinations. If we include cantrips, spells and infusion options then the options to build an Artificer looks like: (24,570) x ( 253 cantrip options) x (153 spell options) x ( 126 infusion options) = a bit over 119 billion options. Additionally, there are major background and weapon choices that will distinguish your Artificer and add to the options. Sure, you can argue that deciding the spells, cantrips and infusions do not lead to 4.8 million different types of Artificers (253 x 153 x 126), but there certainly are differences. Plus there are 12 other classes and each class has as many factors that set itself apart which is why at Level 20, 7 trillion options seems reasonable, if not a bit on the light side.
Paul Lazrow is the founder and one of the Storytellers at Adventuring Portal, an online service that focuses on running live-guided fun, safe D&D games for kids. Find out more at AdventuringPortal.com.