THE SIX ATTRIBUTES
Traits describe the inborn physical, mental and social faculties of a character. Most roleplaying systems try to keep traits as simple as possible. The attributes in D&D have been the same for about twenty years and have been used in other games. They are: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.
The attributes are ranked numerically to show how much of a trait a character has, or how well they perform in that area. For example: the average toad has a Strength of 1 because toads are not that strong, but the same toad will have a Dexterity of 12 because of how quickly it can move. A poor rating in a trait is accompanied by a penalty, because the character has trouble with that attribute. A rating of 1 has a -5 penalty. Our toad will have to subtract five from every Strength roll it makes.
An average rating carries no penalty and no bonus, like the toad's Constitution of 11. The toad's Dexterity of 12 is high enough, however, to give him a +1 bonus (called an ability modifier) on all rolls that involve Dexterity [more on this later]. Different races may have bonuses or penalties to certain attributes, which a player must keep in mind during character creation; the elves, for instance, are born a little more frail and a little more quick than some (-2 Constitution and +2 to Dexterity).
Strength, Dexterity and Constitution are all vital for characters that involved in a lot of hand-to-hand combat. You have to be able to dish out damage, run from those you can't kill, and be able to take enough punishment to stay alive. Intelligence is vital in 3rd edition D&D because your skill points are based on it, and the more skill points you can get, the better. Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma are attributes upon which spellcasting abilities depend. Wizards need to have a high Intelligence in order to study and use their spells. They work hard for their array of magics. Wisdom is key for druid and ranger spellcasting. They must be wise in the ways of nature to gain their powers. Charisma decides how powerful bard and sorcerer spellcasters are. Their magics are not based on study or prayers, but on their blood (sorcerer) or instinct (bard).
THE CORE RACES
There are a great many races that inhabit D&D worlds. Each world is entitled to have the basic seven races listed in the Player's Handbook (and below). Other established worlds often have different races. Most of the races in major D&D worlds are variations of the core races (the kender of Krynn are based on halflings in most respects but have some dangerous and notable differences, while the drow of Faerun are evil, underground elves with different attributes, for example).
Once upon a time in D&D, the human race was the only one that could reach full potential in all of the character classes. Elves and other races could not get to the highest levels. This discrimination ended with the inception of 3rd edition. All of the races can aspire to and reach the highest levels in any class. It is far more equitable.
The human race is not specialized the way that the other races are. All of the player races besides the human race are hardier in some traits and weak in others (see the elf example above). These races, when they breed within their own people, pass on their strengths and weaknesses down through the generations. The two notable intermixed breeds, half-elves and half-orcs, only have some of the weaknesses and strengths of their parent lines. Such inborn strengths often make races more suited for certain types of careers (halflings are natural thieves, for instance, because they are naturally small and quick).
The core races are most often discussed in terms of their stereotypes, even in the official materials. Stereotypes offer a quick way to get a feel for the various races, without having to play them all. They are also the stereotypes that the races often hold about each other's behavior ("Damned prissy elves"). You can make a character that does not fit into the typical mold of their race because, while stereotypes may hold true for some, they are by no means all-encompassing, even in the world of D&D. You will see hints of these stereotypes in my assessment below.
Humans: Humans gain no special penalties or bonuses to their statistics but they do gain extra feats, which is very nice (if you need to know what a feat is, look below). The generic D&D world is largely populated (or overpopulated) by humans, and they can vary a great deal in culture and training.
Elves: The elves of D&D are a bit smaller and thinner than humans with sharper features, giving them a more ethereal appearance. They are the longest lived of the main player races. They have the time to become powerful and thus make fine wizards. They can also make terribly efficient enemies.
Half-Elves: Wherever humans and elves live together or near each other, half-elves are bound to spring up. They are the product of love as well as rape, but most are not accepted by either parent race. They lack the long years of the elves but are hardier because of their human blood. They are very likely to go between the two extremes: trying to find a place with humans or elves, or hating those races just as vehemently.
Dwarves: The dwarves of D&D are shorter than humans and a good deal more round. They are craftsmen and builders, with a knack for working with the stones of the ground. They are quite long lived and they are generally very much in favor of home, hearth, and kin. The dwarves are traditionalists and they are willing to protect their families from anyone.
"...there is no knowing what a dwarf will not dare and do for revenge or the recovery of his own." - The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
Halflings: The halflings of D&D are based on the hobbits of Tolkien's fantasy world. They are smaller than dwarves and elves, but they usually lack the fur for which hobbits are known. They are quick, cunning, and enterprising little people. They do not tend to have cities of their own, as they prefer to mix with the races of the world. In most major human cities there will probably be a few halflings around to take advantage of crowded streets and loose purse straps.
Gnomes: The gnomes of D&D are distant genetic cousins to the dwarves and yet they very much look like halflings. They are on average a fraction bigger than halflings. They have affinities for rocks and illusions, however, and don't have the reputation for thievery that halflings do.
Half-Orcs: This race really has it particularly tough. They surely need to be bigger and stronger in order to survive. They are almost exclusively the product of rape. Those raised by the orcs are more likely to be barbaric and evil. Those raised by humans are likely to be lonely but civilized. Their main pitfall is that they are ugly and associated with their orc blood, and the orc reputation for savagery.
THE BASIC CHARACTER CLASSES
A character class is a career, a calling and a social role all rolled into one. The classes are specialized areas of expertise and govern what a character knows how to do. The types of weapons and armor a character can use is dictated by class. The skills a character can know the best are decided by class. Some classes have magic spells available while others do not. You can keep gaining levels in one class or you can have your character branch out a bit. Some classes are complementary. The fighter/mage is a common combination, taking advantage of the fighter's sturdiness and the wizard's spells.
As a character progresses, they can branch out into what are called prestige classes. They become more specialized and can obtain abilities they would not otherwise get from the normal character classes. Characters have to be more advanced, however, before they can qualify for prestige classes. Certain requirements must be met. I will not cover prestige classes here, as they are not necessary and they are hardly basic.
Non Player Character (NPC) classes work differently than Player Character ones. NPC classes are meant for the average folk, the non-adventuring people who keep the world running while kings rule and heroes slay dragons. These classes are most often centered around producing items and services; they are not as combat-ready as the PC classes. I won't be covering NPC classes here because I have covered them in their own section that you can access by clicking here.
Barbarians, Fighters, Paladins and Rangers are the most proficient with weapons and armor. The other classes know how to use only certain weapons and armor. They are simply not trained as well in such things (although through roleplaying they can learn).
The basic character classes are open to all genders, so it is just as likely to find a female barbarian as a male one. Special circumstances can apply depending on the game one is playing in, however. Clerics of certain gods might be restricted to one gender or another. It should also be noted that some prestige classes are open only to one gender or another, as well. A player should always inquire about special circumstances that can affect the choice of character class.
Barbarian: The barbarian is an unskilled, brutal fighter. One is born to a tribe of barbarians, and is then steeped in traditions of force and battle lust. Barbarians can fall into a blood rage when they battle and become veritable killing machines. Their rage sets them apart from the rest as much as their world view does. Barbarians are illiterate and unsubtle, but they have the potential to be some of the most dangerous fighters around.
Bard: This class is a melding of two classes, with special abilities thrown in and a purpose that is often overlooked. They are not just rogue or wizard stand-ins, but characters that can greatly enhance the environment of the game because they are built to interact with it. Beyond their skills and their smattering of spells lies a wealth of gaming opportunity. My version of the bard (and suggestions for playing one) is here.
Cleric: This class is for the priests of all the gods. While clerics have special domains of magic that their deities grant them, there are basic powers available to all clerics. A cleric can be a healer and confidant, as well as a holy warrior sent to battle evil. A cleric can also be a source of evil, a manipulator and defiler in the name of a dark god. Clerics of nature based gods can be maddeningly impartial, allowing nature to take its course. Clerics have a far more personal, powerful, and dangerous religious experience than the average Joe who goes to the temple every week.
Druid: Attuned to nature and wandering through it, the druids fight for the protection of wild places with tooth, claw, and magic. They are blessed by the forces of nature and spend their time within the wildernesses. They can change their shapes after a time into those of animals. They are granted magic and animal allies by the essence of nature. Druids are often more at home with animals than with the races that crowd in cities, although druids can operate outside of the forests they are most commonly associated with: there can be desert, mountain and Underdark druids.
Fighter: Your basic fighter is a tough, trained warrior. The abilities of the fighter center around combat. They get no magic, but they do get bonus feats to beef up their weapons abilities.
"People think that professional soldiers think a lot about fighting, but serious professional soldiers think a lot more about food and a warm place to sleep, because these are two things that are generally hard to get, whereas fighting tends to turn up all the time." - Small Gods, Terry Pratchett
Monk: They are trained in the ways of wisdom and war, often in monasteries away from the bustle of the world. They use their bodies to fight and only use peasant's weapons. They come to have great control over their bodies and their hands can be as deadly as weapons.
Paladin: Paladins are the warriors of the gods, above and beyond what clerics can achieve in the arts of arms. They are specially trained, divinely inspired tanks of righteous anger. Paladins can repel the undead the way that clerics can, and they have access to a few spells. They can smite evil with the concentrated power of goodness and are meant to be on the front line of any holy battle. Paladins are given the full weight of honor, but their deeds have the potential at every turn for becoming the stuff of legends.
Ranger: A ranger is a tracker, woodsman, and warrior. A ranger also gets spell abilities with time. Rangers dwell in the woods like druids but are geared more toward hunting and tracking.
Rogue: They used to be called thieves. They still steal stuff, but they are also able to gain a whole mess of skills. They watch and listen, striking from the darkness and keeping ahead of their enemies. They are taught to strike where people are vulnerable in order to kill quickly. Not all rogues are evil, however. Rogues make excellent spies and infiltrators. They can be the best scouts because they are trained in the arts of walking unseen and unheard. Rogues can be devastating killers and they can very easily end up on the assassin's road. Their reasons for learning to kill with such skill may be as simple as revenge and as complicated as loyalty to the Crown. Never assume with a rogue - they can kill assumptions too.
Sorcerer: The sorcerer is born with magical potential and stumbles across it as time goes on. Sorcerers do not have to study spellbooks to replenish or learn their spells, and though they use arcane power and can gain familiars, they draw their abilities from their force of personality (Charisma) rather than their learning (Intelligence).
Wizard: A wizard's focus in life is magic. Mages study magic a great deal in order to use it, and use magic in order to live. They summon forth minions and can even craft bodyguards of great power. They are physically weak and yet they can become forces to be reckoned with.
Experience points are supposed to represent how much a character has learned from a particular experience in the game, or how experienced a character is at handling difficult situations. During the course of a game session, characters are faced with different kinds of situations. Some encounters are mundane and don't bring about much learning - shooting the breeze with the local barkeep, for instance, probably isn't going to be enough to earn experience points. Some encounters are more complicated and dangerous, and a character has to use a their wits and abilities to get through them. When characters use their skills and survive an encounter, they are entitled to experience points because their character has become more seasoned and has probably learned something, however small, during the course of the struggle.
Generally speaking, in order to gain experience, something has to be at stake in the encounter and there has to be a penalty for failure. If a character is just idly talking to the barkeep and there's nothing at stake in talking to him, there are no grounds for earning experience points. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained. If, however, the character is trying to manipulate the barkeep into revealing where a friend has been imprisoned, then something is at stake. If the character fails, they might not be able to find their friend and mount a rescue. If the character does a good job in manipulating the barkeep, the DM might want to reward the character with some experience points.
In Dungeons and Dragons, all monsters are given a Challenge Rating, which measures how difficult they are to defeat. Challenge Ratings are then translated into experience points; if a character defeats a Challenge Rating 4 monster, they will get a certain amount of experience points for it. If the character needs the help of a few friends, then the character must share the experience points with those friends. Some traps will also gain a character experience points. Traps and monsters/NPCs are the only things that are routinely given Challenge Ratings in D&D, however; if a DM wants to reward other types of encounters, they must pick up where the Challenge Rating system leaves off. They can, of course, decide to assign a certain Challenge Rating to the encounter - perhaps a complicated puzzle is a Challenge Rating 3. DMs can also decide to give out an award that they feel is fair without worrying about any Challenge Rating.
When a character amasses enough experience points, they advance to the next level and become a little more powerful. Typically, a character only goes up one level at a time and has to go through many more encounters before achieving their next level. New levels bring about more hit points, more spells, more special abilities, and more skill points to spend. The higher in level a character is, the more things they're able to do - more damage, more attacks, more unique abilities, and so on. Characters can become immensely powerful, provided they live long enough.