Posts Tagged ‘character creation’

So things have been quiet here at the Toolbox; a part of that is because I’m doing a lot of prep work for a thorough investigation of Pathfinder feats, but an even bigger part is boring “personal life” stuff, like a big move for work that I’m in the middle of.  Anyways, hopefully I’ll have interesting things to talk about here soon, but my “hobby time” has been pretty scarce lately.

But that’s for another time.  Today is Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day!

So, Swords & Wizardry is one of many game systems that are indicative of the “Old School Renaissance  movement in tabletop RPG gaming. The idea is that RPGs these days aren’t like they were “back in the old days,” and that we’ve lost something in modern games that we had back then.  I generally agree with the notion, with the caveat that I don’t think modern games are bad, just different, and there’s value in reviving this older style of play.  S&W itself claims to be a “restated” version of the “Original Game” written by Gygax and Arneson in 1974.

In a lot of ways, I feel like Swords & Wizardry matches up a lot better with my assumptions about characters and the world than modern interpretations of Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons – not because those games don’t match my expectations, but because they are more-general systems that allow for a wider range of experiences, and Sword & Wizardry intentionally restricts itself to the grittier core of fantasy RPGing.

So, let’s look at some of what S&W does and how it does it, and I’ll throw my thoughts in as well.


So I’ve been scouting around the Internet for dice stats since LS posted his “race-weighted attributes” post because work blocks me from but lets me wander around all sorts of message forums (and with two sick daughters at home, work is the most likely time I can do this sort of research). I found a link to an old (circa ’93) newsgroup post that lists probabilities and expected values for 3d6-drop-zero to 9d6-drop-six (they’re arranged by “drop lowest” but you can reverse the tables to get “drop highest”). That’s useful information for a number-crunching nerd likle me.

But in a couple places in the thread I found a meme that seems all-too-common in certain parts of the hobby, and I wanted to address that.  Specifically, it’s the notion that 3d6-roll-in-order or other systems that approach it are better because you’ll get low scores, and low scores “provide much color to a good ROLE-playing experience.” I submit to the reader that this is crap.

I’m not saying that all characters should have 12+ in every stat to be “worth” playing. I’m not saying that playing a character with some (or many) low stats can’t be fun. I’m not saying that stretching your horizons and playing out of type isn’t a good thing. But I am saying that the notion that playing a statistically-average or mathematically-likely character, especially one that is wholly or substantially generated randomly, is a better roleplaying experience is disingenuous at best.

At it’s core, role-playing has nothing to do with statistics. Role-playing is about taking on a persona and acting through scenarios, making decisions as though you were your character. We make a game out of it and attach mechanics so that you can understand and predict the likely outcomes of your decisions in a consistant way, but those are structures we build up around the core of role-playing.

The statistics are simply a way of describing our persona in a common language so that players and GM all understand the character and how he interacts with the environment. To say that a mathematically-likely character is better than any less-mathematically-likely character, we are first asserting that one persona is better than another for role-playing, and are then further asserting that it is better because of the randomness of it’s generation. Or, perhapse, it is better because it “forces” the player to “deal with” a flawed character. But why is that better, for role-playing? Can you not have just as-satisfying an experience role-playing as Superman as you can role-playing as Jimmy Olson?

Even if your character is stronger, faster, smarter, and better-looking thabn everyone else, there can still be interesting motivations, internal struggles, and decisions to be made, and that is what makes for good role-playing. Statistics say that my character is weak or clumbsy or stupid, and that’s one class of flaws, but it doesn’t say if he’s an alcoholic, a misogynist, bound by his word, or an extreme pacifist.  That’s another class of flaws. You can have an interesting, flawed character who’s stats are all 15+.

And here’s the crux of it: you can have an interesting time with a character who’s statistically perfect, but that wouldn’t be a terribly interesting character to me. I wouldn’t choose to play that character, much the same I wouldn’t choose to play a character who was randomly handicapped. I might choose to play a character with low INT or WIS or DEX, but the love-affair that gamers have with random generation has rarely made much sense to me. I have a couple theories:

It’s a game, and since it’s a game the notion of “fairness” comes in to play.  People want to know that they’re on even footing with their opponents, that no one is starting out with undue favor. But the problem here is two-fold – firstly your fellow players are not your ‘opponents’ (nor is your DM, if you’re “doing it right”), and secondly, how is random generation “fair,” exactly? It’s like the card game “We Didn’t Playtest This At All” where the rules not that star cards are simply better than other cards, and for game balance every player has an equal chance of drawing a star card. Rolling 3d6 is only “fair” in the sense that everyone has an even chance of rolling a superstar (or a dead-weight).

I suspect that another factor is that “that’s the way it was done” in the old days, and that’s the way it continued to be done out of tradition (and probably the above notion of fairness), and so people who played back then (or have adopted that mentality) had to live with bad rolls.  And occationally, having to live with sub-optimal results causes some people to rationalize and justify and find some reason to believe trhat sub-optimal is better, or at least not so bad. And from what I can tell, in old school rules attributes meant a lot less than the do in more-modern games. In Swords and Wizardry (ostensibly based off the 1974 rules), most stats are either +1, +0, or -1, so the swing between a “good” score and a “bad” score was minor. In 3.X, though, the swing is from +6 to -6 which is +/- 30% (a swing of 60%) on a d20! That is significant. Modern stats try to cover a larger range of variation, from vegitative 3s and retarted 6s to genius 14s and Ozimandian 18s. I suspect that all of old D&D’s 3-18 range covers just 7-14 in modern stats, because old D&D had a narrower focus.

My point is this: yeah, random-rolling characters makes things quick and ‘fair’ and can give you the ‘opportunity’ to play a character you might not have chosen for yourself. That’s fine and good and if it’s what you like, have at! But it isn’t going to fit everyone’s tastes, and please don’t act like it’s objectively better in any way. The core of role-playing doesn’t care about stats, except in that it’s how we describe our personas to the game. Hand-picking stats is just as valid, so long as everyone in the game agrees on what an accepitble character looks like.

So while I’m working on a couple of longer-term projects (discussing Pathfinder feats at-length; comparing D&D3.5 and Swords and Wizardry, demonstrating that the systems focus on different scopes; discussing healing in D&D, particularly in D&D 5) I wanted to point you over to a really cool idea from LS at Papers & Pencils.

He noted (as I did this weekend, breaking in my new Swords and Wizardry books) that the fist experience new players have of D&D is “”roll these dice, record the resulting sum. Repeat this task five more times, then assign one score to each of these six abilities, the functions of which you probably don’t fully understand yet,” and that’s a kind of sucky introduction to a Fantasy setting.  Instead he suggests describing the Races (dwarves are strong but clumbsy, elves are graceful but frail, gnomes are weak but charismatic) and then weighting attribute rolls by Race, with take-highest and take-lowest rolls replacing flat bonuses and penalties. I haven’t chewed on the numbers yet, but LS claims that 5-take-lowest averages a 7 and 5-take-highest averages a 14 (and 4-take-highst/lowest is probably about 8 and 12 respectively), so you get the benefit of the flat bonus but eliminate scores above 18 at level 1. And if nothing else, I think I really like that result.

So check out his post and then leave me your thoughts in the comments; I’ll probably make another post on this topic once I’ve had some time to look at the implications.

Sarah Darkmagic has an interesting post up about why random rolling for gender is a good thing for the hobby.  She makes some interesting points which (I hope I don’t butcher this) basically boil down to: most gamers are men, most gamers aren’t into gender-bending, random-rolling for gender would produce more female characters and force us, as a community, to consider female-oriented stories as much as male-oriented stories.

She’s commenting on a tweet from @PelgranePress that said “RPG idea: define your character. Last thing – roll for character’s gender.”  For my part, I think Pelgrade’s idea is kind of great, but Sarah’s strikes me as more than a little abrasive.  Let me explain:

Pelgrade’s idea is essentially to build an entire character and then determine randomly whether your character is male or female.  I think that this is a pretty great idea because I regularly hear gamers saying, “I don’t know how to play a female character” (or, less commonly, the opposite).  And my thought is that, for the most part, if you’re trying to think of “what would a girl do in this situation” rather than “what would a person do in this situation,” you’re already coming at it from the wrong angle.  Yes, there are practical considerations to take in terms of the upbringing and personality that men and women might have in the setting of your game.  And it’s probably that women are going to feel threatened in situations where a man might not, and so on.  But in general, I think that once the personality and upbringing of your character is determined, whether they’re male of female has a rather small impact in playing them.  Pelgrade’s idea, from my perspective, ensures that you build your character as a full person rather than focusing on one (obvious) piece of the whole.

Sarah’s point though strikes me as abrasive for (I imagine) the exact reason that she thinks it’s a good idea: it would force people to play as women.  This bothers me for the same reason I don’t want a random roll to determine my character’s race, class, or attributes: maybe I don’t want to play a dunce wizard.  Maybe I don’t want to play a brawny dwarf.  And maybe I don’t want to play as a woman.  Not because there’s anything wrong with any of those, and it doesn’t mean I’ll never play one, but simply because I want to choose the I want to portray.  I don’t want to pick a role out of a hat.  One of Sarah’s basic premises is that most gamers are men and most aren’t comfortable with gender-bending — so the solution is to force them to gender-bend?  That sounds like a wonderful way to turn off a large segment of the community.

I have no problem with women gamers, and I have no problem with female characters.  I regularly gender-bend, and some of my favorite characters etc., etc.  But it’s because I chose to play a female character because there was something compelling that I latched on to.  It may be one thing to encourage game designers and module authors to consider female-oriented stories when they put pen to paper, but forcing players into roles they don’t want or aren’t comfortable with sounds like a bad idea.  Sarah’s comments are a great thing for The Industry to take note of and improve the overall availability of and support for female-oriented play, but it shouldn’t be forced on any given gaming group.

Quick NPCs

Posted: 16 July 2012 in Toolbox
Tags: ,

NPCs are the bread and butter of a DM’s toolkit; unless you’re running an adventure deep in the wilderness, your characters are going to run in to other people.  And if they have access to a settlement of any decent size, they may easily meet lots of people.  It’s possible to hand-wave this so they interact with nameless merchants and get rumors from faceless street urchins, but in a lot of cases that could lessen the game.  So lots of DMs put work into coming up with ways to make quick NPCs, and  thought I might add such a method to my Toolbox here.

Given my assumptions, almost everyone my characters meet with be Level 1 Commoners with average stats.  The few craftsmen may be Experts, men-at-arms will be Warriors, and the rare witch or holy man will be an Adept. Rulers and high society will be made up of mostly the same, with the top few actually being classed as Aristocrats (just because you’re high-born doesn’t mean you necessarily take that path).  In short, most random NPCs are probably going to be Commoners or Warriors.

When I’m actually statting an NPC, I like to use the Basic Array (13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8), but it’s probably best to assume that most people will have 10s across the board (it’s Average for a reason).  Conveniently, Commoners and Warriors both get 2+Int Skills, and have essentially the same class skills: Climb, Craft, Handle Animal, Profession, Ride, and Swim — Warriors add Intimidate and Commoners add Perception.  Pick two skills to get a +4 on and everything else is a +0 and you’re done.

Warriors are proficient with all weapons and armors, 5hp, and have a +1 BAB and +2 Fort.  Commoners are proficient with a single weapon and no armor, 3hp, and get no other bonuses.  You can usually ignore things like Feats and Traits for random NPCs (if they become important enough to care, you may just fully stat them between sessions).

If necessary, add a +1 bonus to the appropriate stats if you’re creating a non-human NPC (so elves get +1 in DEx and Dex-based skills, and +1 in Int an extra Skill).

What’s In A Name?

The biggest consideration (since stats are fairly straight-forward) is the character’s name; if you’re doing it off-the-cuff you’re likely to end up with something silly-sounding or “Bob.”  The best thing to do is generate a couple dozen names for Males, Females, and Surnames, and just mix-and-match as necessary (I could easily see a random table for putting together names, and you could vary the frequency of certain names if you think “Tomen” is a common name for halflings in your world).  I generally choose a style for each of my main races: dwarves have Norse-based names, halflings have Gaelic-based ones, and so on.

On Assumptions

An interesting consequence to these “average NPCs” is the fact that most people will easily die to a single sword thrust (the expected result of a Short Sword is 3 damage, 4 for a Long Sword; a Greatsword will fell even trained men-at-arms in one swing), and a creature that has a +2 to damage is essentially guaranteed to kill them if it hits.  This makes Orcs (with a +2 average STR mod) much more frightening to regular folks.


So before the hex crawl that I did this weekend, I started working on a few of projects that should become posts when they’re done.  Turns out that there’s a bit more effort involved than I expected, especially since I didn’t touch any of it over the long weekend.

The first bit I’m working on is trying to address the issue of feats.  So far I’ve gone through the Pathfinder SRD and binned the feats into Tiers based on how many feat prerequisites they have — this roughly translates to “what is the earliest level this feat could be taken,” but not entirely (I haven’t accounted for Base Attack Bonus or Level requirements, for example).  even at that, easily half of the feats are simply unavailable to a 1st level character, and a good chunk are unavailable before 4th level.

The second bit is a review of the 5th Edition playtest materials that got released.  Other people are already going over their first impressions — The Alexandrian made a couple of comments that hadn’t occurred to me, such as “how much of an improvement on 3rd Edition can we expect” and the possibility of an infestation of disassociated mechanics.  I’ve only gone over the “How to Play” packet and skimmed the others; my initial thoughts are positive, but there are a few things I’m unsure about.  I may get my players to try to run through the playtest adventure with me this weekend and maybe that’ll help inform my opinion.

Finally, I’ve been toying with the idea of reducing character creation to a high-density blurb. It’s not a final solution and doesn’t produce a completed character but I think it should distill the necessary choices a player needs to make, and that will hopefully speed up character creation.  I think as it is it might only work for 1st level characters, and even at that some of my players have pointed out that I may have blind spots where my own expertise with the system makes things more intuitive for me than they are for others.

I just read an interesting post over at Pencils and Papers about Character Generation versus Character Building.  P&P seems to take, or have taken in the past, a lot of time comparing modern games to the ideals of OSR gamers.  OSR is the Old School Renaissance that’s budded up in the community recently with a, some say overly-nostalgic, preference for the games and systems of the 1970s.  I would have to say that I am at least on the fringe of that group (notionally, at least), but my interest is mostly in taking mechanics from the past that have been discarded and re-integrating them into modern games.  I don’t want to play D&D 2E, I want to play Pathfinder with hexmaps and random encounter tables.

But I digress.  The post I referenced talks about old school “character generation” where you roll a few dice, pick a class, and you’re done.  P&P says there’s a de-emphasis or discouragement for players to get too deep into the rules, ostensibly so they don’t limit what they believe are valid options in play.  This is contrasted with Character Building, where the player is presented a cascade of rules and options to play with and customize their character.  P&P talks about how he loves Character Building, how he fiddles with his character and plans out his next level ahead of time and writes up character sheets for the NPCs in his background.  This is exactly what I do, and I have the same level of glee.  But P&P concludes that Character Building is harmful to the hobby.  It can be daunting to new players and it can really bog down the excitement of starting a new campaign (never mind just getting a group together at random for an afternoon of gaming).  When I had my players build characters for my Expectations game I feel that I set out fairly rigid guidelines in order to help limit the overwhelming options they had to deal with — they had a Standard array of stats instead of rolling or point-buy and I had soft and hard requirements their characters had to satisfy (generally, be an exemplar of your Race and Class in some meaningful way).  it still took them roughly a month to finally get me characters, and even then their sheets were incomplete in places.  Granted, I don’t expect they were actually working on their characters for any significant portion of time, but that it took that long is ridiculous no matter how you excuse it.

There is a problem with Character Building, and like P&P no one I know (with maybe a few exceptions) enjoys the character creation process.  That being said, I for one dislike the notion of character generation, even if it has the benefit of drastically cutting down the time necessary to create characters.

P&P talks about an imaginary system that makes equally balanced characters either through Generation or Building, to allow people like he and I to gleefully twiddle our characters while at the same time letting less-enthusiastic players generate a character 10 minutes before play.  It’s not clear that such a system is possible, and P&P claims to be working on a stop-gap to use with Pathfinder.  I haven’t checked to see if he’s gotten anywhere with that, but I like the idea of it.

I’ll take a note here and say that this is one of the things that I really like about some of the non-d20 games I’ve played.  CAPES has a really quick, easy, and fun method of character generation, and it DOES work (in a sense) whether you generate a character with their templates or free-form (I’ve done both).  Burning Empires uses a lifepath-style form of character creation, and while it doesn’t necessarily make it quicker or easier to generate a character, background details naturally flow out of it (something which isn’t true of most other systems).

For my purposes, I think I’ll start putting together “generation guidelines” for my players to help streamline choices.  I think I’ll use his “X+INT skills at Level+3+attribute” idea (though, what happens if X+INT is bigger than the list of class skills?) and work on paring down Feat option.  From my post on Massaging Feats I already plan on doing some pruning there.  After that, you have issues like Stats, Class Features, Spell Lists, and Equipment that needs to be accounted for.  I may take a page out of another RPG I played once (can’t remember which) and just bundle up packages, like “Necromancer Spell List” or “Tomb Raider Equipment.”

If anyone has thoughts on this or ideas on ways to help make Character Generation possible in modern D&D, let me know.