Early Game Character Building
This guide gives general character building advice for the early game. Early game ends when you've reached the latest Ecumenical Temple spawn level, Dungeon level 7.
Build a Basic Plan
At the very start, focus on your primary killing skills. For melee characters, this involves raising your weapon skill (and usually, only the weapon skill) until it reaches minimum delay or kills your foes at a comfortable rate. For magic based characters, this is getting the useful spells in your starting book to acceptably low (at least less than 10%) failure rates by training their respective spell schools.
The consensus on character building after that is usually to work on your defense skills until that reaches comfortable numbers as well. For robe or leather wearers, this is likely going to be Dodging (which contributes to EV), and for heavy armor wearers this is likely going to be Armour (which improves your AC proportional to your armour's base AC).
Shields provide an EV like boost to your defenses, allowing you a chance to block some incoming attacks, but early game EXP is precious and shields cause encumbrance issues. If you insist on wearing a shield early game, a buckler's penalties will be removed by 4 Shields skill, provided you are a race of normal size.
For any character, Fighting skill is also a must; the bonus to physical combat is useful, but the extra HP is precious, especially to squishier caster types.
A note on hybrids
Even if you are aiming to be a "hybrid", don't try training both your magic and your melee at the same time. You will have two ineffective killing methods, and they won't benefit you simultaneously.
Your character gets an allocatable stat point every 3 levels. Where you put these in the early game depends on your character and perhaps, your plan for their future. Stat zero is a valid concern for some starting character combinations.
It alleviates some of the penalties of wearing armour, and also improves your physical damage dealt. A valid choice for wearers of heavy armour.
Don't let the removal of the weight system make you think strength is less desirable now.
It improves your spellcasting rates and spellpower. It also lowers the hunger costs of casting spells. Spellcasters should almost always use their stat points to get more intelligence.
It improves your accuracy, and your Dodging skill scales off of it. An excellent choice for anyone wearing light equipment, and early game accuracy bonuses are a boon.
For stabbers in particular, it'll improve your chances of landing a "stab" while unseen/unnoticed.
Some backgrounds begin worshiping a god, but characters without gods should consider which god to initially worship. Read the section on Choosing a god if you need help with that.
The Abyssal Knight background begins worshipping Lugonu, and their early game can make excellent use of the Invocations skill; how much and when to start is up to the player, but don't neglect training your other skills in tandem, since banishment will not replace your main offensive options.
Skills by background
Review the Skills page if you are not sure how to turn skills on or off. Life gets much easier for characters who focus on just a few skills while getting started.
Whether ranged or hand to hand, Warriors kill by using weapons or unarmed combat
In order to deal as much damage as quickly as possible, all warriors should focus on training their primary weapon skill. Improve the weapon skill to at least twice its starting level. After that, begin to branch out into fighting, throwing, armour, or shields depending on class and character design, but always leave weapon skill turned on during the early game.
Like the warrior classes, by far the main focus is to improve weapon skill. When abyssal knights begin branching out to other skills, invocations should be turned on as well.
Transmuters should get Spider Form castable and pour the rest into Unarmed Combat. Spider Form easily suffices for a killing tool, but Blade Hands will vastly eclipse it in damage once it is castable.
Enchanters should train Hexes to increase the effectiveness of Ensorcelled Hibernation and Confuse and pour the rest into Stealth. You can ignore Short Blades until your Hexes have enough power to reliably mess up your enemies; if your stealth skill keeps up, you'll one-shot any sleeping foe for a while yet.
For almost all mages, spellcasting is not particularly important in the early game. It is much more important to get killing and/or escape spells to Very Good, so casters should turn off all skills other than the necessary magic schools. Use 'I' often to check how easily you can cast your important spells. After failure rates for your critical combat spells are less than 10%, branching out into spellcasting and other magic schools becomes appropriate.
A small exception to this are spriggan spellcasters. Spriggans can use their considerable speed to escape almost anything in the early dungeon, so mere survival is not the first objective. When playing a Spriggan, one should train spellcasting a bit higher and a bit earlier than usual, to offset any spell hunger issues that might rise from their inability to eat chunks. Spriggans have an excellent aptitude for spellcasting, so this is of little concern.
Wizards, and Venom mages should focus on getting their low level attack spells and Mephitic Cloud to <10% failure rates. These classes, particularly venom mages, may wish to branch into a weapon so they can kill confused low-level enemies more effectively. Poison as a magic school is generally looked down upon, but the early skill levels are quite cheap and, if they make the spell more castable, will be worth the boost in survival and early game offense.
Conjurers can focus almost entirely on conjurations. Searing Ray gives you good killing power in the early game and works wonders in corridors; packs of jackals, gnolls or orcs will succumb to it quickly. Dazzling Spray is a cheap multitarget spell that deals moderate damage and disorients foes, and the Hexes skill is also used for Fulminant Prism, which conjures a sphere of energy that deals great damage to nearby units after 20 auts.
Elementalists and Summoners can focus entirely on their spells or train a weapon after they have some spells that can help in melee combat like Conjure Flame, Sticky Flame, Ozocubu's Armour, Summon Ice Beast, etc.
Necromancers should focus on their spells. If the character wants to dabble in melee, branch out to a weapon skill. Polearms (for reaching attacks through a line of undead servants) or staves (preparing for an eventual staff of death) are recommended.
Artificers should focus on a weapon, as their wands will have respectable power against early dungeon monsters even without much evocations skill.
Wanderers should wing it. Take a look at your early possessions and try to make a plan.
In the early dungeon, most characters will find wielding a one-handed weapon with good accuracy to be more effective than trying to hit anything with a large, but slow weapon. Daggers and whips often have good brands on them and hunting slings with sling bullets are universally effective in the hands of any character that can find them.
Just be aware that weapons might have curses and negative enchantments on them. Unless you have a scroll of remove curse, you could be stuck with something like a -3 dagger.
Once you have started training a particular weapon skill, you should usually favour weapons of that skill unless you find something incredible that makes the switch pay off.
Mages should never wear anything other than a robe in the early game. Leather armor and bucklers may seem dandy but in the early game, the greatest defense is killing your foe very fast and very reliably.
Hybrid builds that need supplemental spells should not wear anything heavier than leather armor or bucklers in the early game, or their spells will be too unreliable for use.
AC builds are typically spell-less, and should equip the heaviest armour and shield they can wear without seriously affecting their damage output.
Similar to weapons, players should identify (or try on) all enchanted or artefact armour that might be useful to them.