To create a character to play in the Nentir Vale D&D 4e campaign, you need to choose a species and class, and (optionally) a theme and background. This entry covers the available species and classes, which are drawn from the "Heroes of" books and their supporting material on D&D Insider, as well as the free Class Compendium downloads which updated five Player's Handbook classes to the new Essentials format.
The "Civilized Races"
Humans used to rule the Empire of Nerath, and by extension the whole world. They build fortified towns aboveground near sources of fresh water, but quickly outgrow their walls as new human children are born. Humans are superb at covering long distances overland, and used to field armies that stretched from horizon to horizon, each soldier marching in lockstep with the others. Humans today are taught to remember their past, and believe that their will can conquer any foe.
Dwarves were the most numerous part of Nerath, behind humans. Their mountain halls straddle the border between the surface and the Underdark, and their tough and disciplined warriors fight off horrors that few surface-dwellers have heard of, using stone weapons which will outlast their own children. Slower and smaller than humans, they are also much tougher, and it's extremely hard to put one down.
Eladrin look like elves with opaque, metallic eyes. They see the whole world of humans, dwarves, and elves the way we do the Shadowfell: A disturbing, nightmarish place, sparsely populated by nasty people who live brutish lives. Their home is the Feywild, a faerie realm of wonder and enchantment, and their cities dwarf any that survived the fall of Nerath. They use magic casually, try not to get their clothes dirty, and see the lives of more short-lived creatures as worth less than theirs.
Elves were always aloof from Nerath, and from the Feywild civilizations they left long ago. They make superb wizards, defending their forest homes with illusion magic, and it's said their archers never miss. Now that Nerath has fallen they seem more comfortable being out and about, and are more personable than their Eladrin cousins. But the world is a dangerous place for their kind, and they rarely let outsiders into their enclaves.
Halflings were a permanent "underclass," so to speak, in old Nerath, but carved out their own lives on its fringes. Today they live nomadic lives on the rivers, and their houseboats and cargo flatboats make up a good deal of the Nentir Vale's boat traffic. Some live in burrows with their doors facing away from the water, so passers-by won't even know that they're there.
Half-Elves are, if anything, friendlier than humans or elves, since they have to be in order to navigate both species' societies. Others see them as accomodating and gregarious, and don't always realize the toll that it takes on them to live up to the stereotype. Even at worst, though, it's considered good luck to have a half-elf in your party.
Anthros and Monstrous Species
Dragonborn are large, powerful anthro dragons, which have firey (or freezing, or acidic) breath weapons or know how to use Dragonfear. A handful of them are winged, but can rarely fly far off the ground. Many Dragonborn are mercenaries or treasure-hunters, searching through the ruins of their ancient empire, Arkhosia. Their racial memory is centuries long, and while they bear no grudge against the humans of Nerath (whom they see as worthy foes) they hold strong resentment for the Tieflings of old Bael Turath, because the war against them weakened both enough for Nerath to walk in and claim everything.
Drow are normally rebels and outcasts, on the surface. "Dark elves" with skin like coal and hair like snow, their presence is barely tolerated in most human and dwarven towns, and they tend to go missing if they venture too close to elf camps. The drow in their vast underground cities make slaves of each other and of other creatures, and might have conquered the Underdark long ago if they didn't spend so much time on infighting, which is said to appease their goddess: Lolth, the Spider Queen.
Ghosts are the incorporeal essence of other creatures who died. They usually appear as they did at their time of death, which can make them unsettling to others. Ghosts don't always linger long after their deaths, but some have been in the Nentir Vale for decades, especially the dwarves and orcs who died in the Siege of Hammerfast. There, they inhabit the city alongside its living residents, with varying degrees of success. Some of them venture out into the Vale, but it's easy to miss someone who is just an outline, especially in direct sunlight.
Special Rules for Ghosts
Ghosts can pass into walls, but sometimes take years to learn how to pass through them. They have very few hit points and healing surges, but can drain years of life just by touching their foes, and take sharply reduced damage from most physical attacks. If destroyed, they temporarily discorporate, and reform again an hour later.
Ghosts possess only the tools and weapons that they had in life, and while they themselves become stronger as they level up physical wealth and currency are of limited value to them. Finally, each ghost has a special ability of some kind based on the way that they died; the most common one is Poltergeist, which lets them move physical objects but not wield them as weapons or implements.
Gnolls live in the Old Hills between Fallcrest and Hammerfast. They are a matriarchal tribe of hyena anthros, which respects strength and cunning and clashes with human barbarian tribes to the north. Most of them practice ancestor worship, but some of them worship Yeenoghu, a hyena-headed demon lord. These Gnolls have given their species a bad name, raiding caravans and making slaves (or snacks) of their passengers. The most notorious Yeenoghu worshiper, Maldrick Scarmaker, was exiled from Gnoll lands, but most see it as only a matter of time before he and his ilk start causing trouble someplace else.
Half-Orcs are considered nominally civilized, by the humans of the Nentir Vale, and it helps that there are Orc communities which coexist peacefully with their neighbours. Most still watch them carefully, though, because the Bloodspear invasion defined human history in the Nentir Vale, just as the fall of Nerath did the whole world's.
Hengeyokai are shapechangers, who can take the form of a human or a small animal (or an anthro version thereof). Kitsune and Tanuki are two famous kinds, but there are a wide variety of others, including both birds and fish. They're born as unusually curious, long-lived natural animals, and it's said they learn how to take human form after a hundred years of that life. Like elves, they came here from the Feywild, but unlike elves they were chased -- by the Eladrin, who ordered a purge of their kind after a wizard's familiar turned out to be a Hengeyokai spying for the Fomori. Most feel comfortable enough to take their hybrid form in the towns of the Nentir Vale, but their presence out in the open tends to draw stares from travelers.
Minotaurs once ruled the underground city of Saruun Khel, beneath Thunderspire Peak, and it was just one of their many labyrinths. But they fell to the cult of Baphomet, which turned most of them into savages, mindlessly running through the maze of life and slaughtering all that they found. Most monstrous Minotaurs in the Nentir Vale were exterminated, but there is a town of peaceful Minotaurs in the Old Hills. The Minotaurs of Mistwatch teach that life should be approached with great care, like a labyrinth, and that one should commit fully to one's decisions.
Tieflings have hooves and blue, pink, or red skin, from their horns to the tips of their tails. They are said to be humans whose ancestors made pacts with demons, but today's Tieflings are more likely to be honest farmers and traders, living side by side with the other species in the Vale. Many still mistrust them, though, and some believe them to be scheming to rebuild their old empire, Bael Turath, behind the scenes.
Vampires are actually a class, which members of any species can take. Many Vampires are Vryloka, pale-skinned descendants of a human noble house which long ago traded their humanity (whatever it meant to them, anyway) for dark and frightening powers, which resemble those of true vampires. Some relish the chance to embrace the vampiric curse, but others pursue different paths (i.e. go into a different character class), and spend their lives atoning for their perceived monstrosity.
Werecreatures, usually bears, wolves, or rats, are members of other species which can transform into four-legged animals. Seen by most people as vermin at best and nightmarish monsters at worse, they usually hide their identities from outsiders ... especially on the nights of the full moon. Some less "civilized" folk, however, such as the human Tigerclaw Barbarians, incorporate werecreatures fully into their societies.
Special rules for werecreatures
Werecreatures aren't a separate species, or even a class like Vampires are. In game terms, you take a werecreature theme, and then pick species and class as usual. Werecreature player characters aren't bound by the moon, but they take extra damage from silver. On the plus side, when they choose powers while levelling up they're allowed to pick from werecreature powers, and at level 10 they can assume hybrid form -- a monstrous hybrid of their species and their animal nature.
Species of the Feywild
Hamadryads are fey princes, princesses, and royalty, who are said to be so beautiful they can blind others with their visage. Unlike normal dryads, they resemble humans or elves, and aren't bound to a particular tree. They can still derive all the nourishment they need from putting down roots and absorbing sunlight, though, and they can turn their skin into tree bark to protect themselves.
Pixies are small, butterfly-winged humanoids, the size of a bird or a cat. Their shrinking spells let them use the same tools and weapons as everyone else, but quickly wear off once an object leaves their possession. They tend to have playful demeanours, and know the secrets of talking to animals. The dust from their wings will let anyone fly, a fact which some of the crueler witches exploit.
Satyrs are faunlike humanoids with horns, and the lower bodies of goats. Most see them as literal party animals, and regard them as wild and untrustworthy. They have no civilization of their own, and often act as bards or storytellers for other Feywild societies, playing music with magic effects.
Species of Shadow
Kenku are anthro ravens or crows, thought to be related to Hengeyokai but unable to shapeshift. They may have come from our world, but their kind have lived on the Shadowfell since the Raven Queen came to power, and most Kenku worship her. Some of them serve as her Sorrowsworn or as psychopomps, which is why in the world beyond the Shadowfell they are seen as harbingers of death. They are said to be able to mimic others' voices.
Revenants aren't quite zombies, but aren't fully alive either. Members of other races who come back to some semblance of life after dying, they aren't a true species but they recognize each other as kin. Many of them have clawed, scaly hands and feet, like a bird's, and believe the Raven Queen to have held them back from Letherna on purpose. Their unnatural vitality makes them extremely hard to kill, and they can continue fighting despite gaping wounds or arrows through their midsections.
Shades are humans who have bound themselves to the Shadowfell, to the point where they seem to vanish in deep shadows. Some students of magic or the arts of assassination bind themselves through a ritual, but the Shadar-Kai are a long, continuous bloodline of Shades, which dates back to before the Raven Queen's ascension. They practice ritual tattooing and scarification, seeking out any sensation that reminds them they are still alive, and are often responsible for acts of vandalism and the promotion of anarchy.
Each class has a combination of one or more power sources (like Arcane or Divine) and a role:
Controllers use area-of-effect attacks, and "crowd control" powers that force or restrict enemies' movement.
Defenders are good at absorbing and mitigating damage, and drawing enemies' attention to them.
Leaders buff and heal their allies, and designate targets by giving their friends a bonus to hit certain ones.
Strikers deal lots of damage really fast, usually to a single target.
Sometimes, the same class has multiple versions which fill completely different roles. You'll also see different classes fill the same role in different ways; Hunter Rangers and Arcanist Wizards are both Controllers, but the Ranger uses trick shots and archery combat techniques to control the flow of battle while the Wizard uses magic spells.
Here's a list of classes segregated by role, with a link to more detailed descriptions! Note that the Berserker Barbarian fills more than one role. And yes, there are an awful lot of different versions of Wizards, aren't there.
Martial and Shadow striker. Assassins are lightweight and stealthy fighters, who know how to lurk in the shadows or blend into crowds in order to get close to their victims. They use poisons, and specialized weapons which are easy to conceal and can kill people without making a sound.
Assassin Guilds: League of Whispers, Red Scales, Way of the Ninja.
Martial and Primal Defender and Striker. Berserkers are hardy and tough, but with uncanny reflexes that let them defend their allies as well. They are named for their ability to "go berserk," channeling the spirits of the wild and entering an unstoppable rage.
Barbarian Homelands: Arid Desert, Frozen Land, Heartland, Temperate Land.
Arcane and Martial Leader. Skalds are mysterious storytellers, keepers of lore who are treated with respect even by their enemies. Their courage in battle inspires their allies, giving them the strength to fight on, while their minor magic tricks confound their foes.
Divine Leader. Templars are adventuring priests, who act in the name of a deity and serve as examplars of their teachings. Their powers heal and inspire their allies, but they can also call down divine wrath or empower themselves and their weapons with the fury of their gods.
Priestly Orders: Battle Order, Devoted Order.
Divine Leader. Somewhere between Wizards and Fighters, Warpriests are empowered to minister to their god's worshipers in the most inhospitable lands. In combat, they always wield melee weapons, and they embody a specific aspect of their deity's power, called a Domain.
Warpriest Domains: Death, Domination, Earth, Storm, Sun.
Primal Controller. Protector Druids belong to Circles of their kind, which are charged with defending the natural world from unnatural abominations and despoiling civilizations. Mysterious and powerful, their "spells" resemble the ones Wizards cast but are unfamiliar to civilized mages, while their ability to summon primal guardians sets them apart from others of their kind.
Druid Circles: Circle of Renewal, Circle of Shelter.
Primal Leader. More approachable than most Druids, Sentinels work closely with civilized folk and adventurers, helping guide them away from natural perils while also speaking up in defence of the land. Their magic renews people's strength with nature's life-giving aspects, while they and their animal companions fight alongside their friends.
Sentinel Paths: Druid of Spring, Druid of Summer, Druid of the Wastes.
Martial Defender. Members of knightly orders spend years training as squires, before they earn the right to wear a knight's armour. Far from being "meat shields," they have keen situational awareness, positioning themselves and using their martial know-how to draw their foes' attention and keep them away from their allies.
Martial Striker. Some Fighters eschew notions of chivalry and tactical training in favour of learning to bring on the pain. They wield the biggest weapons, and learn martial stances which help them maximize their damage output. Fortunately, they also know how to wear heavy armour.
Martial Defender. Cunning and alert, Weaponmasters learn a wide variety of martial exploits, which they use as the situation demands to keep their foes focused on them. They're rarely predictable, and they know at least one "ultimate technique" which they can use to turn the tide of a single battle.
Divine Striker. Some say Blackguards are fallen Paladins. Some say they've given in to temptation. They're just afraid, of the power that comes by shedding all restraints and giving in to your passions. Blackguards are terrifying combatants, with an eclectic selection of skills and a shadowy mystique that makes them a force to be reckoned with.
Blackguard Vices: Vice of Domination, Vice of Fury.
Divine Defender. Sworn to defend the innocent -- or at least the noncombatants on their "side" -- Cavaliers are so named because they specialize in mounted combat, which makes them surprisingly mobile for people who wear so much armour. Some learn how to call battle tigers, or even dragon mounts, from the celestial realms.
Cavalier Virtues: Virtue of Sacrifice, Virtue of Valour.
Martial and Primal Controller. Focused, patient, and knowledgable in the ways of the wild, a Hunter can send a whole formation of foes into disarray with well-aimed trick shots (and the occasional volley of arrows or bolts). They learn how to take on the aspects of wild animals, to aid them in stalking their prey.
Archery Styles: Bow Hunter, Crossbow Hunter.
Martial and Primal Striker. Lightly armoured and agile, Scouts know how to survive in the wild, covering great distances overland before springing on their foes with a weapon in each hand. They dance from foe to foe, blades swinging precisely and quickly, a whirlwind of destruction that only ends once there's no one else standing.
Scout Fighting Styles: Flashing Blade Mastery, Spinning Axe Mastery.
Martial Striker. Scoundrels come from a wide array of backgrounds, and learn a dizzying variety of skills and weapon techniques. What they all have in common is that they move fast, travel light, and try to end fights as quickly as possible, using sneak attacks and other "dirty tricks."
Rogue Tactics: Artful Dodger, Brutal Scoundrel.
Martial Striker. Acrobatic and stylish, Thieves often leave a calling card of some kind at the scene of their heists. It's the only clue most people have to their identities, because they move so quickly and dart between shadows and obstacles. Only to backflip out of the rafters, and land their throwing knives in the guards' chests.
Arcane Striker. There are those who have a spell for any situation, if they can only remember what page it's on. Then there are those who bend the raw force of the elements to their will, treating every problem like a nail but wielding a very formidable hammer. Few are willing to cross an Elementalist, for they only ask nicely once (at most).
Elemental Specialties: Air, Earth, Fire, Water.
Shadow Striker. Whether they feed on blood or raw life energy, Vampires must drain other creatures in order to survive. Fortunately for them (and unfortunately for the rest of us), they are frighteningly good at it, able to seduce out of combat or move lightning-quick once the fighting starts. They tan very easily, though ... which is to say the sun sets them on fire.
Arcane Controller. Binders tend to be full of themselves, and with good reason. Have you ever heard of Cthulhu? Baphomet? Ulban, the Dread Star? Binders know their true names, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers. And while they can't bend the full might of these monstrosities to their wills, they can extort enough power that even dragons are wary of them.
Binder Pacts: Gloom Pact, Star Pact.
Arcane Striker. Some Hexblades seek out their patrons, praying and pleading for justice or power. Others are found, by the archfey, demon lords, and other horrors that see in them a chance to enact their own wills. Either way, all Hexblades are given the power to summon a magical weapon and perform frightening special attacks, and they become stronger with each foe they slay.
Hexblade Pacts: Elemental Pact, Fey Pact (of Unending Winter), Fey Pact (of the White Well), Gloom Pact, Infernal Pact, Star Pact.
Martial Leader. To arms! Now is the time for every good soldier to come to the aid of their leader, and follow her instructions precisely. Renowned tactical geniuses, Warlords spot strategic openings before their allies do, and can reposition and inspire them in order to conquer their foes.
Warlord Command Styles: Inspiring Presence, Tactical Presence.
Arcane Controller. Modern Wizards may or may not wear a pointy hat, and only some carry staves. All of them have a spellbook, though, which contains "daily" powers and rituals which can be used outside of combat. The most formidable foes know how to defend themselves against Wizards' magic, but their frightening area attacks can demolish entire armies of minions.
Arcanist Implements: Orb of Imposition, Staff of Defence, Wand of Accuracy.
Arcane Controller. Some Wizards specialize in a particular "school" of magic, which can be as broad as "illusion spells" or as specific as pyromancy. The creepier ones specialize in shadow or death magic, but while they learn special abilities which come from their focus they can also learn the same spells as any other Wizard.
Schools of Magic: Enchantment, Evocation, Illusion, Necromancy, Nethermancy, Pyromancy.
Arcane Controller. Sha'ir Wizards do not keep a spellbook. Instead, they bind "Gen," or small elemental imps, to do their bidding, sending them into the Elemental Chaos to bargain for new spells on their behalf. They also send their Gen servants into the fray, to act as a conduit for their magic and a shield for their allies.
Gen Servant Options: Daolanin, Djinnling, Efreetkin, Maridan.
Arcane Controller. Some people in fairy tales, especially women and peasants, are visited by powerful spirits, which take the form of black cats or other small animals. These "familiars" teach them magic, one on one, and may also be the source of their prophetic visions.
Witch Covens: Full Moon Coven, New Moon Coven.