A very important step when making a character is to know what kind of game this is. Therefore:

What is the playstyle of this game?

There are two general playstyles in D&D and tabletop RPG's in general. The first is called Hack n Slash, or Kick-in-the-door (H&S). A H&S style campaign will involve a lot of combat, with the general purpose of the game being defeating enemies, taking their stuff, and becoming more powerful so that you can defeat stronger enemies, taking their stuff, etc.

In a H&S style campaign the most important aspect to a character is his ability in combat. When nearly all of the challenges that a party may face will involve combat to some degree or another, it is important for your characters to be good at combat in order to surpass those challenges.

If you are going to be playing in a H&S style campaign you should try to optimize your character for combat as much as possible. Some advice here, assuming Core only rules, for a H&S style campaign:

Race:
  1. Half-elves are generally considered to be the worst race. They receive no attribute bonuses, and therefore don't give you anyway to maximize the stat that will be most beneficial for you.
  2. Dwarves are generally considered to be a good choice. They receive a +2 Constitution, which is helpful for everyone, and a -2 Chaisma, which is pointless unless you are a Sorceror or to a lesser degree, Paladin or Cleric. They also get a handful of minor bonuses that are nice too.
  3. Humans are a good pick if you are unsure. They receive an extra feat and 4 extra skill points at level 1. That extra feat can be very helpful.


Class:
  1. If you're playing high levels, Wizards, Clerics, and Druids are all excellent classes to play. With their full spellcasting and additional abilities, they are all equipped to end encounters quickly when need be, and have a slew of other options with their spells.
  2. If you're playing high levels, anyone without full casting is automatically down a notch from the full casters. Spells are incredibly powerful, and if you don't have the best ones, you won't be as good as the people who do. That being said, Fighters and Monks are especially weak at high levels. The Fighter doesn't have any special abilities, only a multitude of feats, which don't keep pace with spells for efficency. Monks suffer from mediocre hit points (d8), mediocre Base Attack (3/4), and are unable to use magic weapons or armor while fully benefitting from their class features.
  3. If you're playing low levels, nearly any class can be viable. Fighters can actually shine here, while the full spellcasters (Wizard, Cleric, Druid) are still plenty useful.


Skills:
  1. Only take skills with combat benefits, as they will be the ones that come up the most. Use Magic Device is one of the best skills as it gives anyone a chance to use wands, scrolls, and more. Tumble is also a very useful skill that gives a direct in-combat benefit. Other skills that are helpful are Spot and Listen (to prevent would-be ambushers), Search (to find secret passage and for rogues to find traps), Concentration (for Spellcasters), and sometimes the Knowledge checks when they give a bonus to your other important skills (good example is Knowledge (Religion) for Clerics for the +2 on Turning checks.)
  2. Avoid Profession, Craft, and all Knowledge skills that don't give synergy bonuses. Avoid Perform unless you're a Bard, and Speak Language. Remember to look for synergy bonuses from skills, but only take the required amount of ranks to get the bonus (usually 5 ranks in that skill).


The second style of play is known as Story Driven, heavy Role Playing, or any of a multitude of other names, but this guide will use Heavy Role Playing (HRP) as its designation.

In a HRP style game, the story takes precedence over all. Each of the players in the game try to add to the story through their characters actions, mannerisms, dialogue, etc. Combat will for surely appear in a HRP style game, but it will more often than not serve the purpose of forwarding the story.

If you are playing in a HRP you should try to flesh your character out as much as possible. Be sure you know your character's first and last name, hair color, eye color, height, weight, all of these are important for being able to describe your character and help the other players and the DM visualize your character.

When envisioning your character, remember the senses; sight, sound, smell, touch, and (used very rarely) taste. What does your character look like? Do they have any annoying habits like grinding their teeth or whistling? Do they bathe often, use perfume, or have some kind of natural odor about them? Is their skin soft and gentle, or rough and callous?

Create both a history and a set of goals for your character. The character's history should explain how he or she got to the point that they are at today. Perhaps your character was a farmer, or the son of a merchant, or the daughter of a miner. Try to make your history mesh with the campaign world (talk to your DM for this so that your idea for your character and the setting conicide).

Goals for a character should be a list of things that they are trying to accomplish. Maybe your character wants to have a church built in their town, and thus they are seeking money to hire some people. Or perhaps your character wants to see other towns, other lands, other continents. During gameplay, try to think of what your character would do with these goals in mind.

Don't be afraid to give your character some quirks or habits, as these will make your character more memorable and enjoyable for the others players at the table and yourself. Perhaps your character is afraid of spiders, or maybe they have incredibly bad luck with furniture which seems to break when they sit in it. Maybe your character dyes all of her clothes pink, as it is her favorite color. The more creative and imaginative, the better.

Some advice here for making a character in a HRP style game:

Race:
  1. Pick a race that you will be comfortable playing, and that you understand. Your don't have to be a slave to the stereotype (effeminite elves, drunk dwarves, thieving halflings, etc), but you also don't want to go completely against the grain, as that is just as annoying and immersion breaking. Check with your DM and see if the races in his campaign world are the same as the standard races or if they are different. It will help you to craft a character that fits into the campaign world.


Class:
  1. Check with your DM on how he handles classes. Are they just a set of skills, or are they ways of life? If they are a set of skills, then try to mutliclass (if desired) in order to give your character the abilities that would make sense for him. If you want your character to be rogue who has dabbled in magic, you could start off as a Rogue and then add a level of Wizard later on. If your DM treats classes as ways of life, and you still intend to multiclass, explain that upfront to the DM. If it requires 1 year or more of studying in-game to become a 1st level wizard, the DM is unlikely to simply let you take a level of Wizard when you level up. But if you discuss your plans with him, he may allow you to have started that training earlier in your character's background.
  2. Pick a class that you are going to enjoy playing, but also one that you understand. Read up on your class, specifically the text before the tables/explanations of abilities. This will help you understand what picking that class represents for your character. Also, check with your DM incase the classes in his campaign world are different from the standard.


Skills:
  1. Skills are very helpful in adding depth to your character. In a HRP game, each player tries to make a beliveable or realistic character that could exist in the campaign world. Very few people dedicate their lives to combat from the time they are young, and thus those other activities that they engaged in should be reflected in their backstory as well as their skill selection. Was your character a sailor? Give him a few ranks in Profession (Sailor). Was he a wandering entertainer, moving from town to town performing in the bars and inns? Give him some ranks in Perform (Story telling) or other subskill. Keep in mind that these skills should help you bring your character to life during gameplay.



If anyone wants to comment on this guide or offer something that they think would be a good idea to add to it, let me know.