Thursday, October 11, 2012

Extended Random Character Generation

One of the oversimplified differences between playing Old School or New School style D&D as I've seen the issue laid out is that Old School character generation is quick and random because Old School gaming revels in the disposability of characters and the beautiful surprises of the dice while New School character generation is lengthy and almost completely controlled by the player because New School gaming revels in details and preparing the character to fit the game.

These are generalizations of course, but actually pretty helpful ones, so long as we remember the limits of generalizations and don't fall into the trap of a false dichotomy. Most OSR referees, so far as I can tell, emphasize very quick, random character generation, with a few recent posts about using algorithms to determine class and random rolling to determine equipment, and I don't think anyone argues that creating a 3.5 character is a short, choice-less process.

The thing I'd like to point out with this post, though, is that random character generation doesn't have to be a quick affair. One could, instead, significantly lengthen character generation with the use of numerous random tables that can be found in gaming products from the 70's and early 80's.

For example, let's say I'm rolling up a Human Magic-User. Using tables from multiple books, I could determine...

[AD&D DMG (there may be more charts I haven't read yet)]

...that my character is 36 years old (Age Category: Mature) and will live to be 137 years old if allowed to die a natural death.

...that my character is "competent" at Sleep and Charm spells, but vulnerable to dragon's fire, is six feet tall, weighs 172 pounds, has roan-colored hair, hazel-colored eyes, a birthmark that looks like a bird, Caucasian skin pigmentation, is double-jointed, and is obese (-1 to Con and Dex).

...that my character has three siblings and grew up in a rural, inland setting, where he was apprenticed to a Hosler (fine horseman, +3 with all riding beasts) and to a Riverman (excellent swimmer, +1 to Strength, +1 to Constitution).

...and that my character carries four yarpick thorn javelins among his possessions (though he probably can't use them).

Like many in the OSR, I enjoy tables to roll on, like these, and I've incorporated many of these into my game. One wrinkle with so many tables to roll on, though, is that character generation is not as trivial and quick as it is in your favorite flavor of D&D, as written, with perhaps some modifications to make it go even more quickly.

I think that actually fits my gaming style, though. I don't run a game where PCs drop like flies in a DCC character funnel (though I've certainly enjoyed playing in such games), so it's OK if players invest a little more into their characters, even if that investment is simply rolling the dice ten more times. On the other hand, PCs absolutely do die in my games, so it's good that each PC isn't the product of a week's worth of free time.

What about you? Would you be interested in using these charts in your games, or do they take too much time and create too much background details for your taste, or even perhaps take too much control over the characters from the players?


  1. I personally enjoy rolling (or having my players roll) on these tables; however, I believe that the amount of information/fact/mechanical value determined randomly should be no more than what is created/established/chosen intentionally. Furthermore, the choices should have more impact overall than the random rolls.

    For instance, no die roll should determine one's class or level - but ability scores, equipment, specialities, age, looks, etc. are fine to be determined randomly (unless, of course, quite meaningful mechanics are dependent on them, compared to class, for example).

    Ehh, I shouldn't be rambling about these things right after I get up in the morning until coffee hasn't kicked in...

  2. Although I do not claim to be a part of the OSR, my gaming style - especially when wearing my GM hat - has more than a couple of common traits. When it comes to Random NPCs, and seriously, who has time to generate all the people a party of adventurers *might* meet, I do my best to get it sorted as quickly as possible, Not with random rolls though, as comparing to tables can break the flow of the game a bit. Instead I have a little short-cut planned in my head from the beginning.

  3. I lean towards minimalism for D&D. That which is not nailed down can be arbitrarily defined later in such a way as to develop the game as it is actually being played. (This is similar to why you develop your mega-dungeon in the course of play rather than building it all up-front.)

    Playing Hackmaster briefly... I could see that the multitude of wonky tables was intentionally farcical, but it seemed to me to be way to much detail for what we were going to do. Doing that routinely would be like rolling up the expanded system generation sequence for Traveller worlds before the players even visit there....

  4. Man, I love those kinds of tables. I remember as a teen agonizing over a height and weight table that felt more realistic than the one in the AD&D DMG (Most of our party was near 7' tall). And I really am intrigued with the idea of a Traveller style career chart, especially for mages. I think I like these for the same reason I like more random results in play-- to see what interesting stuff emerges. But I know from experience it can suck to determine all that and then have your character just die. Maybe I can incorporate more into play at each level a player survives-- learn about your mentors, more about your family, receive an inheritance, etc. Hmm, that might work.