Updated: Jan 29, 2021
Trying out Dungeons and Dragons for the first time, or for the first time in a while? Filling out the character sheet can take forever, and it's waaay worse when you have to search the Internet or the books for what each part of the sheet means. There's a lotta parts. That's a lotta searching.
Well, have I got you covered.
First things first: if you need a character sheet, this one is my personal favorite. It's a PDF with 3 pages, but you'll only need the first page today.
Pro tip: Do this shit in pencil. You can thank me later.
Now, roll for initiative. You already know what that is, right? (Just kidding. We'll explain Initiative later.)
Here's what we're discussing today:
Armor Class (AC)
Critical roll/nat 20/critical fail
First, the Dice
D&D uses a lot of different dice: 4 sides, 6 sides (the one you're used to seeing), 8 sides, 10 sides, 12 sides, and 20 sides.
How we refer to them: d[number of sides]. So d4, d10, d20. It's shorter than saying, "Perchance couldst thou pass me ye olde ~*twelve-sided die*~?"
It's okay if you don't have a set of your own dice. There's online random die rollers (like this one) for exactly this purpose. Alternatively, another player might let you use their dice.
Side note: Always ask before touching someone else's dice. Some people are superstitious about it.
Where to Start on Your Character Sheet
Before we get into any technicalities, you need to know your Race (species) and your Class (job). This is at the top of the page.
What it is: More like species than ethnicity. Each race has established characteristics that you'll include on your character sheet (Speed, etc.)
Your options: Elf, half-elf, human, gnome, dwarf, half-orc, and halfling are the most common race choices. Less commonly you'll see tiefling or dragonborn.
Check out this overview of D&D races, and click on the race(s) you're interested in to see the details.
What to do on your character sheet: Write down the race you want your character to be. Include the subtype. (Example: halfling is a race, and lightfoot halfling is a subtype. You'd write "lightfoot halfling" at the top.)
What it is: Basically your job. It outlines your skill sets, the types of spells you can learn, etc.
Your options: Some common class choices are ranger, druid, cleric, bard, rogue, and barbarian. You'll also see fighter, monk, paladin...and yes, wizard, sorcerer, and warlock are all different things.
Check out this overview of D&D classes, and click on the class(es) you're interested in to see the details.
What to do on your character sheet: Write down the class you want your character to be.
What it is: A generic overview of your character's backstory. It gives you some extra skills, your starting money, and other details.
Your options: Acolyte, Criminal, Entertainer, Outlander, Noble, Soldier, Urchin, and more. Usually you'll pick an option similar to your class. A bard might go for "Entertainer," a rogue might do "Criminal," etc.
What to do on your character sheet: Write down the background you want your character to have.
What it is: #1: Do you want to be good (looking out for others/the greater good over yourself), neutral (unlikely to sacrifice yourself but also unlikely to harm innocents), or evil (looking out for yourself at any cost)?
What it is: Now #2: break each section up into lawful (by the book), neutral (no strong feelings one way or the other), and chaotic (no one knows wtf is happening).
Your options: Lawful good, neutral good, chaotic good // Lawful neutral, true neutral, or chaotic neutral // Lawful evil, neutral evil, chaotic evil
What to do on your character sheet: Write down [lawful, neutral, or chaotic] + [good, neutral, or evil]
What it is: The DM will tell you how much experience you earned in each roleplay session. Typically it's measured in points. After a certain number of points, you level up and get new abilities, spells, etc.
What to do on your character sheet: For now, just put zero (0). Easy!
What to Put on Your Character Sheet
This is alphabetized.
What it is: You'll use the root ability or trait of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma for any given action.
Examples: Beating someone up is related to Strength. Avoiding bullets like Keanu Reeves is Dexterity. Being able to take a bruising is Constitution. Intuition and awareness are Wisdom-based. Remembering things is Intelligence. Charming someone's pants off (literally or figuratively) is Charisma.
You'll have different levels for each of these, some higher and some lower (and having a low number can be fun!).
Try to match your skills to what your Class usually does. For example, a Bard needs Dexterity and Charisma more than Strength, because they focus on charm, entertainment, and sleight-of-hand. (But a fighter with low Strength and low Constitution would be HILARIOUS.)
The easy way to do ability scores: Use the numbers 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, and 8.
What to do on your character sheet: Write one of these numbers in each of the SMALL bubbles. In the BIG bubble, write the corresponding modifier/bonus, which you can find in this Ability Scores and Modifiers table.
Armor Class (AC)
What it is: "You have to be this tall to ride," only instead of a fun roller coaster, it's the roller coaster where mean things hit you. Someone attacking you has to roll a number equal to or higher than your Armor Class for their attack to strike you.
How to know what yours is: Your Background will tell you what kind of armor you have. The armor table will tell you what AC that armor gives you (as well as any disadvantages). For instance, leather armor gives you an AC of 11 plus your Dexterity modifier.
What to do on your character sheet: Check your armor stats. Write whatever number your armor provides.
What it is: At the beginning of a battle, everyone rolls a d20 for "Initiative" to determine the fighting order. The spot on your sheet isn't your INITIATIVE; it's the points you add/subtract to that roll (the modifier) when the time comes.
How to know what your Initiative bonus is: The Initiative modifier is just your Dexterity modifier.
What to do on your character sheet: Write your Dexterity modifier in this box as your modifier for Initiative.
What it is: Extra points or dice rolls that a DM or Bard character might give you. You can add these to a single dice roll during the game if you want to bump up your number.
What to do on your character sheet: Nothing right now. Leave it blank. Later, if you get Inspired, the DM will tell you what number of points or die to roll, and you'll write that there.
Passive Wisdom (Perception)
What it is: How likely you are to notice something without looking for it. If your DM asks for this during a game, there's probably a trap or enemy nearby. Don't say I didn't warn you.
What to do on your character sheet: 10 + your Wisdom modifier.
What it is: A modifier based on level (+2 for level 1) for things you're explicitly Proficient in. Weapons, skills, saving throws, and more.
Let me repeat: These aren't just things you're good at. Proficiency™ is A Thing. (Your Class and Background will tell you what things you are Proficient in.)
How you'll use it: Add the Proficiency Bonus to the modifier in the Saving Throws you're Proficient in. Add it to the modifier in the Skills box for the skills you're Proficient in. Add to the attack bonus for a weapon if you're Proficient in that type of weapon.
Note: A Skill proficiency and a Saving Throw proficiency are DIFFERENT things. Example: You may be Proficient in Dexterity, but you're not automatically Proficient in all Dexterity-based skills.
What to do on your character sheet: Write +2 if you're level 1.
What they are: A d20 roll to avoid something bad that's happening TO you. The Saving Throws box tells you what the modifier is -- the ability modifier, plus your Proficiency Bonus if you're officially proficient in that saving throw. (Your Class will tell you what Saving Throws you're "proficient" in.)
What the little circle means: Fill in this circle if you're explicitly Proficient in a Saving Throw. Now you get to add the Proficiency Bonus to its modifier! Yay!
Example: DM says, "A giant boulder rolls toward you. Roll a Dexterity saving throw." You roll a d20, add your Dexterity ability modifier, and add your Proficiency Bonus if you're officially proficient in Dexterity.
What to do on your character sheet: Color in the circle beside any Saving Throws you're proficient in. Next to each ability, write your base ability modifier. If your Class makes you Proficient in the trait, add your Proficiency Bonus to it.
What it is: A skill is a specific ability. Each one is based on one of the 6 major abilities, which you should've already assigned numbers by now. The modifier is the same as its root ability's modifier UNLESS you're Proficient in that skill.
What the little circle means: Fill in this circle if you're explicitly Proficient in a skill. Now you get to add the Proficiency Bonus to its modifier! Yay!
Example A: Persuasion is a specific skill based on the Charisma ability. If my Charisma ability is 16 (a +3 modifier), then my Persuasion skill modifier is also +3 if I'm NOT proficient in it.
Example B: However, if I AM proficient and my proficiency bonus is +2, then my Persuasion skill modifier goes from +3 to +5. Ew, math. Yay, higher bonus.
What to do on your character sheet: Write down the modifier from the base ability (whatever's in the li'l parentheses next to the Skill name). Add the Proficiency Bonus as relevant.
What it is: How many feet you can move during a turn. (On most tabletop boards, one space is 5 feet.)
Example: A halfling has a speed of 25 ft.
It's usually based on race, although you might get a spell or accessory that changes your speed.
What to do on your character sheet: Write whatever number your race provides.
Bonus: Things You Might Hear That AREN'T on the Character Sheet
What they are: A d20 roll for a specific ability for something you're trying to do. Example: If you want to evade a laser grid, the DM might ask you to roll for Dexterity. Your Class will tell you what abilities you're "proficient" in.
What to do during the game: Roll a d20 and add your modifier for that ability.
What it is: For advantage, you get to roll twice and use the higher number. For disadvantage, you have to roll twice and use the lower number. Sucks to suck, sucker.
How to know if you have advantage or disadvantage: Your DM will tell you.
What to do during the game: When instructed, roll twice and pick the appropriate number.
Nat 20/critical roll/critical fail
What it is: When you roll a d20, getting a "natural" 20 or 1 (before adding any modifiers) is likely to elicit shrieks of some sort from your fellow players. It's called a "critical roll" because shit's about to get real.
Rolling a 20: Rolling a 20 means you ruled at whatever you were rolling for. If it was an attack roll, you get to do double damage.
Rolling a 1: However, rolling a 1 means you failed utterly. In some cases, you might even hurt yourself or another party member. Yikes.
What to do during the game: Feel free to whoop or groan as appropriate. Your DM will describe the ramifications of your 20 or 1.
What we'll discuss next time
Your sheet still isn't finished. I know. I'm sorry. There's a lot, and I don't want this blog article to be obscenely long.
In the next D&D Character Sheet article, we'll go through Death Saves, Hit Points, Hit Dice, the Weapons section, Spells, Attack rolls, and more.