A barbarian demands champagne at the tavern. Whaaat? All about character identity.
Updated: Nov 29, 2020
One of the great things about D&D is that it lets you step inside the shoes of an elf, dwarf, or other race, adopt a different sex if you so wish, embrace a code of conduct that reflects or clashes with your real-world behavior, grab a longsword, evoke a fireball, or do some other violent act beyond the ken of most of us, and confront trolls, dragons, and other creatures. D&D invites you to have fun roleplaying your character and creating and embracing its identity.
What goes into character identity? The 5e source books tell us: race, sex, class, alignment, background, and personal characteristics. What I do here is bring these things together, reiterate some of the rules about them but also extend the discussion, all with the goal of making it easier for players to think about these various factors when formulating character identity. Of course, your character's identity is more than the sum of these parts. Your character is unique and makes choices. But individuality never manifests itself in bland abstraction. The six factors discussed below are the wonderful, sometimes difficult, often complicated ingredients and stuff of life. And about the barbarian's taste in drinks? We'll get to that later.
Race, so fundamental, provides your character, first and foremost, with immutable physical qualities. It is the first thing that others react to, even before you speak. Race can also, depending on how a campaign or world setting is handled, reflect certain temperamental and cultural qualities. For example, dwarves are often described as short but strong and stout, stubborn, quick-tempered, traditional, and clan-oriented, with long memories, and as miners extraordinaire, lovers of precious metals and gems, valuing skill in battle, in masonry, and at the forge. Elves, on the other hand, are sometimes described as tall (à la Tolkien, not D&D), fine-featured, and graceful, extremely long-lived with an ancient history and a bemusement of shorter-lived races, as lovers of all things beautiful, be it nature, magic, art, poetry, or finely crafted item. Of course, these are general and stereotypical descriptions, and may or may not be helpful when you try to formulate your character's identity. But it is a starting point and gets across the idea that immutable physical traits as well as cultural and social values may shape your character. A note on humans. Humans are described in 5e as the most physically and ethnically diverse of races. The presence of other races should not diminish the need to address issues or conflicts due to such ethnic diversity.
Also, you should remember two things: The temperamental and cultural qualities associated with a race may differ to a greater or lesser degree in one kingdom, city-state, or tribe, compared to another, and may change over time. Also, these are group qualities. Individuals within a racial group vary significantly. And your character may choose, as best he or she can, to reject or modify some of the values and tendencies associated with the group. Ultimately your character makes choices. For more details on race, see the Player's Handbook 17-43 and Xanathar's Guide to Everything 62, 73-75.
Sex (male, female, etc.), along with race, is another fundamental part of your character. You are not constrained by traditional notions of sex and gender. PHB 121 says it best:
"You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances. Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior. For example, a male drow cleric defies the traditional gender divisions of drow society, which could be a reason for your character to leave that society and come to the surface.
"You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide."
A further point, not expressly addressed in the rules, should be mentioned. The above rule on sex and gender should apply not only to individual player characters but also to NPCs and other creatures, and indeed, should be considered, one way or another, in the political and social ordering of the various kingdoms, states, cities, towns, and communities found in the game world. A character's need to deal with the issue of sex may or may not be part of that character's identity.
A character dedicates most of his or her waking hours -- focusing emotional, intellectual, and physical resources -- to a particular calling or profession. Class does not only tell us what a character can do. It colors the lens through which a character views the world. How can a . . .
barbarian’s physicality and disdain of civilization . . .
bard’s extraordinary attunement to the music of creation . . .
cleric’s self-placement as the champion of a divine power . . .
druid’s deep reverence for nature and nature’s ancient, transcendent power . . .
fighter’s prowess and practiced reliance on arms and armor to resolve conflict . . .
monk’s continual rigorous inner focus on physical and spiritual perfection . . .
paladin’s sacred oath to uphold justice and righteousness . . .
ranger’s familiarity with the wilderness and relentless hunting of the perils within it . . .
rogue’s shrewd reliance on cunning, stealth, and skill to prevail . . .
sorcerer’s embrace of the magical power seething in his or her very own veins . . .
warlock’s insatiable thirst for knowledge and power, and willingness to bind himself or herself to an other-worldly patron to obtain it . . .
wizard’s faith in the power of his or her intellect to research and unlock the mysteries of the ancients, the multiverse, the very structure of reality . . .
not shape how he or she thinks about and interacts with the world and all those within it? For more details on this topic, see PHB 45-119 and XGtE 7-60, 66-69.
Ah, alignment. This is a whopper of an identity ingredient. But it is often undervalued in my opinion. Creatures capable of rational thought have an alignment. Alignment broadly describes moral and personal attitudes. It is a combination of two factors: morality, described as good, evil, or neutral, and attitude toward society and order, described as lawful, chaotic, or neutral. Thus, nine distinct alignments define the possible combinations:
lawful good lawful neutral lawful evil
neutral good true neutral neutral evil
chaotic good chaotic neutral chaotic evil
As the PHB says, a creature's alignment provides a clue to its disposition and how it behaves in a roleplaying or combat situation. A chaotic evil monster might be difficult to reason with and might attack characters on sight, whereas a neutral monster might be willing to negotiate. That is a nice summary of the influence of alignment.
But as I mentioned above, alignment is often undervalued. The is because, I believe, its rules are not (and have never been) entirely coherent and workable. I think alignment can benefit from some clarification, which I discuss in more detail elsewhere, but let me touch upon the main points here.
First, what it means to have a good or evil alignment could use some fine-tuning. I propose the following:
Individuals of any good alignment (lawful, neutral, and chaotic) exhibit a moderate if not greater concern for the well-being of others. Although more attention is usually paid to family, friends, tribe, or polity, the empathy of good-aligned individuals extends, to some degree, beyond this circle. I say "moderate" on purpose. You do not have to be Mother Teresa to be of good alignment.
Individuals of any evil alignment (lawful, neutral, and chaotic) are not concerned about the well-being of others in general, and are willing to cause serious harm or death to others when there is no proper justification to do so. Some are capable of non-evil acts that serve the individual's interest or the interest of a more powerful authority, and some are capable of exhibiting genuine concern for family or friends.
Second, the lawful-chaotic axis, especially as it relates to the morality axis, has been a source of confusion since very beginning. I take a stab at clarification. Although the definition of this axis has fluctuated somewhat over the years, two related but distinct strains have stood out:
One relates to temperament: is one deliberative or impulsive? Thoughtful or rash?
The other relates to how much one feels obligated to follow social mores, the chain of command, contracts, and the law.
Third, the lawful-chaotic axis should be kept distinct from the morality axis. The lawful nature of a lawful good character does not elevate whatsoever the character's goodness above the goodness of a chaotic good character. Temperament and rule-following influence how one's goodness is acted out, not the level of one's goodness. Sometimes good is just as effectively served by the reckless hero as the paladin. The good-evil axis is primary over the lawful-chaotic axis.
PHB 125-141 sets forth a nice variety of backgrounds from which your character may choose. Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide 145-154 also provides additional, interesting backgrounds. There are others. As stated in the PHB, the background you choose reveals where you came from, how you became an adventurer, and your place in the world. For example, your fighter might have been a courageous knight or a grizzled soldier. Choosing a background provides you with important story cues about your character’s identity.
XGtE 61-73 enables you to generate additional information on your character's background, including your birth, the size of your family, your relationships with relatives, life events, and the greatest influences on you during your formative years (for better or worse).
This is not the first time these topics have been addressed, but D&D 5e has done, I believe, the best best job to date in providing players with well-laid out rules for enhancing a character's background, with a level of detail that is interesting and meaningful in over-the-table play.
Finally, your character has personal characteristics based on his or her background. Each background contains options for each of the following personal characteristics:
personality trait ideal bond flaw
PHB 123, 127-141 describes these personal characteristics options for each background in detail. There are many options. The great thing about these personal characteristics is that they are presented in such detail and pertain to such fundamental behavior that they easily translate to over-the-table play. For example, one personality trait among many is: "I am tolerant (or intolerant) of other faiths and respect (or condemn) the worship of other gods." That is certainly going to get a player character in trouble at some point in a game.
Use the ingredients that D&D 5e lays out for you in formulating and sharpening your character's identity. It makes roleplaying that much more fun. And what about the barbarian demanding champagne at the tavern? Well, when she was young and one of eight children, all living in a modest thatched hut in the far north, she left her home-town in order to see the world . . . and let the world see her. This she accomplished by traveling far south and spending many years in the service of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos as a member of the Varangian Guard. The Emperor valued her ferocity and handiness with an ax. She earned a good living. She also, in the ultra-civilized palace halls of Constantinople, acquired a taste for some of the finer things in life. And although her service in the imperial guard is far behind her, she has not forgotten her experiences. You sometimes never know what makes a character tick.