This post is meant for those unfamiliar with tabletop role playing games who are looking to get started and aren’t quite sure where to begin.
Assuming that you’re playing as a pair, one of you, at least for a while, will need to be the one directing the narrative as the DM (Dungeon Master), and the other will be the primary player.
A lot of the advice online for first-time players suggests not trying to make yourself into a character, or not making the character exactly like you. I think this advice is good, though I would tweak it a bit, especially for duets, and tell you to play a character who is like an aspect of yourself.
If you had an alter ego that you would be interested in embodying for a week, just to see what it would be like, or a part of yourself that lies dormant beneath the surface, but oh if people could just hear inside your head…These make great starting points for determining your primary character’s personality.
A quick note on terminology
D&D has two basic categories for characters: player characters (PCs) and non-player characters (NPCs). In a traditional game, the Dungeon Master would play the NPCs, and each character would play their own PC. This shifts slightly in duets.
In this post, we use the term primary character to further designate the main character of your game, your central protagonist.
I go into more detail below, but basically, you’ll need one character whose life and story drive the plot of your narrative. This is a bit different than games with larger numbers of players whose PCs work together, as a party, to collectively tell a story. In a duet, it’s all about the primary character!
Creating Your Primary Character [PC]
We suggest, if you’re new to role-playing games (RPGs), that you base your character on an aspect of yourself so that you have relatively quick access to their emotions and personality. But more importantly, it makes for a really fun way to play.
I would be quick to reject an interpretation of RPGs as escapism, but playing a character who is like you but different allows you to approach problems and situations in a space outside of yourself that’s still very much connected to your “real world” being. For me, this helps create a more immersive experience while playing, and it also gives me some space outside of myself to work through big questions, values, ethics, etc.
Another great part of playing is not only to differently imagine an emotional and mental way of approaching the world, but a different physicality.
I went for a personal ideal with my character, so she’s a bit shorter than me, thin and curvy, with long, wavy, dark red hair. She’s confident, though a bit socially awkward, and it’s fun and freeing to imagine those types of shifts.
She’s also a dancer, which is something I’ve always wanted to try, but have been too nervous to actually do. But with my character, I can think about and study dancing, or imagine feeling more natural expressing myself through movement rather than words, in a way that I can’t in my own person and daily life.
Role-playing games create a really neat opportunity to free yourself from so many of the binding social pressures and limitations faced on a daily basis. They also carve out a space where you can work through possibilities that would otherwise be difficult to achieve at best.
Choosing a Class
Once you have your character’s personality relatively figured out, as you’re working on their story, you’ll also need to choose a class—the different types of adventurers and character options in D&D.
For this process, I would really encourage you to read the descriptions in the Player’s Handbook to help you decide.* The ways that classes approach the world, or how character get their magic, are so interesting.
Bards, for example, speak the changes they want to see; their words and creativity are the source of their magical abilities. Sorcerers, on the other hand, are born with the magic of the universe, called the weave, flowing through their bloodstream. Druids access magic through their connection with the natural world, while clerics’ devotion to their deity has granted them magical abilities.
Not all characters are magical, but what I want to emphasize is that the lore behind each class is meaningful and interesting, and it can help you pick or at least narrow down. You can always multiclass as well, and dabble a bit in a few different classes, either for fun or versatility.
Basic PC Types
One important thing to consider when you’re choosing a class depends on what you think will be fun while you’re playing.
Do you want to totally annihilate something with a greataxe, or would you prefer to wrap it in thorny vines before suavely taking care of it? Do you see yourself helping others and supporting them when they’re in a pinch or being the one to lead the charge? Or, are you so subtle and sneaky that they’ll never even know you were there at all till it’s too late?
In general, the character classes range from high magic users, “casters” who are “squishy” (don’t have very many health points and are relatively easy to hit), to low or non-magic classes that deal a lot of weapon damage, with another group in the middle between these two poles. It’s going to be better for some character types to be farther away from the central conflict, whereas others are going to happily be right in the middle of the fray.
Our first adventure, “First Blush,” is available for download on DMs Guild.* (It’s pay what you want to be easily accessible to everyone, though if you’d like to support our blog, please consider paying for your copy.) The adventure comes with three different characters and their backstories—a bard, a cleric, and a druid. If you’re interested in starting a duet or aren’t sure where to begin with building a character, we hope those examples will be helpful and that they’ll make it easy to try out different classes and character types.
Taking Role Playing (RP) into Account
I don’t want it to seem like character type or choice is all about attacks though. Depending on what you and your partner decide and prefer, you may end up with a very RP-heavy campaign, which has certainly been the case for us.
Our characters spend far more time interacting with one another and those outside their adventuring group than attacking things or being attacked themselves. So be sure to consider the classes’ approaches to the world as you also think about what sounds the most fun to you while playing. We’re working on a few one-session-long games for Duets so you can try out different classes without having to really commit. I talk further about play style and classes in this post if you’d like to read further *coming soon*.
Returning to the Backstory
Once you have your central character’s class picked out, you’ll want to think through why that particular class makes sense for them as you develop their backstory. Those elements will continue to take shape as your character advances in class and as you become more comfortable.
Many people, in duet campaigns, will make the primary character a bit more powerful than they would otherwise be in a multi-player campaign. We have some ideas for how you might want to approach that as your game progresses.
But while you work on those backstory bits, your partner, who is DMing, can get going with the central NPCs who will help your character along their journey. We recommend classes that compliment the primary character’s class to help keep encounters (fights or social interactions) balanced. As much as possible, follow the personality aspect advice above, as you’ll be playing this character and interacting with their core companions quite often.
An example from our campaign
For my character, I wanted to play a ranger-druid (which has been awesome!). So, as a ranger, she has decent fighting capabilities, and, as a druid, significant magical capabilities. But in either case, she’s still not going to be doing as much damage as some of the more combat-oriented classes.
Bring on our first NPC/PC—a paladin. He’s a great fighter and does a lot of damage but also has healing capabilities, which they’ve both needed at various times.
I use PC/NPC here to emphasize the importance of a select few NPCs in a duet so your primary character isn’t running around by themselves. We discuss creating a central adventuring party, specific to duets, further in this post.
One of the paladin’s first missions, after he and my character met, was going to find a friend, who is our third NPC/PC—a rogue. Neither of our first two characters, by build or personality, are very sneaky or subtle, but we have that taken care of now. Having a party of three also makes creating encounters easier since the challenge rating system is geared for parties of four.
After a few months, when I’d really started to get the hang of things, I would roll for the three of them during combat, but Jonathan would still do their RP. This allowed him to more fully embody the various villains and monsters we ran into, and our characters could strategize or fight together a bit more naturally. Since it is all happening in my head, some of the things that they’d be able to read in one another’s body language or that they’d know due to familiarity could go unsaid.
We’ve both shared playing this rogue PC/NPC that we picked up, collaborating a bit more on what he would think, say, or do, and I occasionally even play him as a character.
After you have your primary character figured out, you’ll want to balance them out with the central party’s character classes as well as their personalities. You might also consider employing customized magical items or tinkering with class abilities for your main character and their adventuring party.
Further Developing Your Primary Character
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