Last Updated: April 8, 2022
Character optimization is, at its absolute simplest, is the simple act of choosing the better of two or more options when you’re building a character.
Character optimization is a lot of what I do on this site. I enjoy it quite a bit, and I love sharing what I know. This page will go into some basic guidance on how to optimize characters, but for specific guidance I encourage you to visit the Character Optimization section of this site.
If you’re new to DnD, or if you just haven’t had the time and patience to really dig into the game’s mechanics, the idea of optimizing a character can feel intimidating. There are lots of little fiddly bits in building and advancing your character where the decisions can feel confusing, and the benefits of one option over another may be hard to discern.
If you’re new to the site, welcome. I’m RPGBOT, and among other cool TTRPG stuff, I talk and write a lot about character optimization. It’s a process that I love and enjoy, and I love sharing that joy with wonderful players like you.
This article is a brief guide to optimizing a character for dungeons and dragons. Whether this your first character or your 1000th, I hope that this article will serve as a useful roadmap through the process of building and optimizing your characters.
This article will assume that you understand the basics of how to create a character. If you need help, check out our How to Play section on Character Creation or listen to our RPGBOT.Podcats episode on building characters in DnD 5e.
Table of Contents
- Basic Concepts
- Before You Build
- Races and Class
- Ability Scores
- Smaller Decision Points
- Advanced Topics
- Refining Decisions
- Character Advancement
- Is Character Optimization Bad?
Forethought goes a very long way in character optimization. If you know where you want to go, it’s much easier to plan a route to get there.
If you don’t at least have a general plan, you may find that gaining a level means a scramble to decide which options your want to take, and you may eventually find that your character isn’t as strong as you want them to be.
How far ahead to plan is up to you. Some people plan their characters all the way to 20th level, but thats typically overkill. Most characters don’t last that long, either because a campaign ends or because the character dies.
I recommend planning to the point that your character has all of the options which you consider essential to your build. If you’re not sure, plan until level 5 and see how you feel about it.
Optimize to The Party
Dungeons and Dragons is a game about a party of adventurers with diverse backgrounds and capabilities coming together to overcome challenges. Sometimes there are dungeons. Sometimes there are dragons. But there is always the party.
In an actual game, the most effective character is one that meets the needs of the party. This is a team game. Be a team player.
The classic dnd party is cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard. There’s some nuance beyond that, but if you’re new to character optimization it’s helpful to figure out which of those four roles you’re going to fill.
Specialization vs. Generalization
No one character can be good at everything. DnD is a game that usually rewards specialization and punishes generalization. Every member of the party is expected to cover a handful of capabilities, and together the party can overcome the challenges you ca expect in a game of DnD.
Very few characters can successfully be generalists. Bards are perhaps the best generalist in the game, but they’re rarely a perfect replacement for a party of diverse specialists.
Play Something You Like
No matter how well you have built your character, if you build something that you don’t enjoy playing you’re not going have fun. Building an optimized character you don’t intend to play is fun on its own, but if you’re actually going to play the character, be sure that you’re picking options that are actually fun for you.
Before You Build
It’s generally considered to polite to talk to your group (or at least your DM) about the game before you build your character. Ask if there are any options you should avoid (races which don’t exist in their setting, banned character options, etc.); if they’re using any variants, house rules, or optional rules; and if they want you to build your character in any specific way.
How much will you optimize?
I try to reiterate this point every time I discuss character optimization: not every character needs to be flawlessly optimized.
It’s important that your character is not optimized so well that you feel like a clear outlier in the party, but you also shouldn’t optimize so poorly that your character is a liability for the party. Again: be a team player.
Players who have a little experience with character optimization can usually do this “by feel” once you get an idea of what everyone else in the party wants to play.
If everyone in the party is optimizing, discuss it with the group and agree on roughly how powerful your party wants characters to be.
Races and Class
Your race and class are the two largest decision points in your build, which is why people typically state those things first when describing a character. Just as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is very different from a ham and cheese sandwich, a halfling rogue is very different from a dwarf fighter.
Just as those two decision points are the most important descriptors of your character, they are also your most defining decisions mechanically. Picking a race/class combination which works well together is crucial.
While you can make almost any race/class combination work thanks to the Custom Origin rules and updated race mechanics, races other traits still make for better or worse combinations. Peanut butter and ham is a sandwhich, but not a very good one.
You can pick your race and class in either order. If you want to start with a race you like, start from one of our race handbooks and pick a class that works well for your race of choice. If you want to start from your class, start from one of our class handbooks and check the races section for recommendations.
If you cant decide which to pick first, flip a coin. Either option is great. I’ve built legions of characters both ways and they all come out equally great.
Some races have a “subrace”, which is a smler designation within that race. If your race offers subraces, you must pick one. You receive the traits of both the core race and the subrace. For example: high elf is a subrace of elf.
Races with subraces are no better or worse than races without subraces, just different.
Every class has a subcategory which people refer to as a ”subclass”. This is your bardic college, your roguish archetype, your wizard school, etc. They have a different name on every class. Some subclasses will do a lot to define how your character plays, so picking a subclass when you create your character is a good idea even though many classes don’t get their subclass at level 1. Remember: plan ahead.
Once you’ve picked your race and class, your ability scores are the next logical step. Each class depends on one or more ability scores to function, and having high scores in those ability scores is crucial to your character’s success. Generally character optimizers use the “Point Buy” method when generating ability scores because there’s no randomness involved and you can tailor your ability scores to your needs.
5th edition assumes that you will start with a 16 or better in your class’s most important ability score (I did the math), and it’s difficult to over-emphasize how important it is that you do that. Starting below 16 will put you behind the math for at least 6 levels, but more likely 8 levels. That’s a long time to suffer for a mistake that’s easy to avoid during character creation. If you’re not sure which ability score is most important for your class, check the Ability Scores section of our class handbook for your class.
If you can’t get your most important ability score to at least 16, you may have chosen a poor race/class combination. This is less of a problem if you’re using the custom origin rules (see Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything) or races published after the release of Tasha’s which no longer give you a fixed set of ability score increases.
Regardless of your class, don’t skimp on Constitution. Everyone needs hit points. I generally consider 14 Constitution adequate for anyone except front-line martial characters like barbarians and fighters.
Some classes like monks and paladins need high scores in multiple ability scores. It’s often difficult to start with 16 or better in more than one or two ability scores, so I recommend putting a 16 into whatever you’ll be using to attack.
Every character gets a background, and the background rules are intentionally very permissive. While you’re free to use a background as-written (and most people do, including character optimizers) you’re technically allowed to mix and match parts of backgrounds. Every background will give you two skill proficiencies and two proficiencies in tools or languages. Pick whichever options support your role in your party.
Smaller Decision Points
Many classes will offer smaller decision points as you take levels in the class. This can include spells and features like the Warlock’s Invocations.
These smaller decision points are a great way to customize and optimize your character. Take a look at our classes section for breakdowns of spells, invocations, and other stuff for each class.
It is perfectly fine to build a character without any of these options, but as you dig deeper into charter optimization these options will offer more options to improve your character.
Feats are technically an optional rule, but i’ve never seen a group play without them. Feats offer additional options to customize and optimize your character beyond what your race and class offer.
While feats are powerful, they’re not free. You take feats instead of an Ability Score Increase, and in most cases you’ll do that before your most important ability score hits 20. This puts you 5% behind the game’s math, so you need to be sure that your feat is good enough to offset that cost.
Another optional rule that basically everyone uses, multiclassing allows you to take levels in multiple classes. You need to meet some ability score requirements to multiclass into and out if an individual class, so it’s essential to plan multiclassing right from level one.
It’s rare for players to take an even number of levels in multiple classes. Instead, players typically take a ”dip” into other classes, often taking only one or two levels before going back to their primary class.
Magic items are technically an optional rule, but every official published campaign uses them and in my experience everyone likes them.
Unfortunately, you typically can’t decide which magic items your character will find in play. Building a character who needs some specific item to function is risk unless you can start your campaign with that item. You may be able to ask your DM to give you the item as loot or to let you buy one, but be sure to discuss that with your DM when you establish expectations.
At this point you have picked your race, your class, your ability scores, your background, and any minor decision points like spells or a fighting style, and you should have a general idea of how you will advance your character in the future.
Before you start playing, give your character one more look and be certain that you’re happy with all of your choices. Moving resources around to support decisions that you made later in the process can do a lot to improve your build.
If you planned ahead, you should generally know what you’re going to do whenever your character gains a level. But it’s also helpful to reevaluate your plan whenever you gain a level. Just because you wrote down “take 3 levels of wizard” when you built the character doesn’t mean that you’re locked into that plan days, weeks, or months later. Sometimes your needs and goals change. Sometimes you’ve learned more about the character and want to go a different direction. Sometimes you get a shiny new source book.
The process for advancing your character is much the same as building your character at first level, and all of our various character optimization articles will be just as useful at level 20 as they are at level 1. Even better: now that you have a general plan in place, you’ll likely need less time to decide what you want to do.
Is Character Optimization Bad?
No. Basic character optimization is not only normal, it’s actually expected by the game rules. 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons assumes that you’re going to start with at least 16 in your primary ability score. The game expects that your Constitution is going to be higher than 10. The game expects that you’re going to design your character to complement the rest of your party. These are all core parts of the game’s design, and choosing not to take those basic steps is either a deliberate choice to make the game harder for yourself or a lack of understanding of the game’s mechanics.
People who optimize characters go by many names: Min-maxers, munchkins, power gamers, try-hards, etc. These titles are occasionally meant in a derogatory fashion, but those prejudices illustrate a philosophical difference between members of the community. Even people who turn up their nose at character optimization still do it, whether they acknowledge it or not. Even the least mechanically-inclined players won’t walk into a game with a wizard with 8 intelligence except as a joke to be shared among friends.
You now know everything that you need to know to optimize a character. Armed with that knowledge, our other character optimization articles will help you pick options that will work for you.