Humans as Anchor Race

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There is a long history in D&D (and other games with multiple races/species) of treating humans as the vanilla race, into which new flavors could be mixed to produce other races.

In the early days, humans literally got nothing: other races got bonuses and hopefully flaws that cancelled them out (realistically, this meant that there was probably at least one race that was better than humans for any build; the build could use that race’s bonus but mostly ignore the flaw).

These days, it’s common to try to give them some kind of versatility advantage (e.g., a choice of trait bonus, feat/edge, etc.). That’s mechanically better (there are now often builds for which human is only slightly weaker than the best choice race), but it’s still treating humans as vanilla: there’s nothing much about their racial traits that says anything about them. Every other race is more or less a pre-specialized human, so anything that applied to humans would apply to other races by thematic inheritance.

I’ve noticed some interesting memes over the course of the last couple of years that aim to fix that: what if human capabilities are not universal? Rather than being a chassis onto which other race options add, humans have special abilities that are implicitly removed from other races. If humans are the toughest race in space, what does it mean that every other race is less durable than humans? If they’re the most loyal, what does that say about other races’ social dynamics?

This is a neat way to go, and immediately more interesting than vanilla humans, but it can result in some weirdness. If you give humans a couple of things that they’re paragons at, you can limit your race design conceptually. In particular, while the “humans as space orcs” meme is very neat, it means you can’t make actual space orcs; all your proud warrior race guys wind up squishier than humans (admittedly, Farscape did interesting things with this with the Luxans’ difficulty clotting and Sebaceans’ difficulty regulating body temperature).

And, at its core, the whole thing goes back to roleplaying hooks: turning pieces of the human experience into special abilities is a mechanical way to make players portraying non-humans think of their characters as not humans in funny prosthetics. It’s a piece of your lived experience that you can’t just take for granted for your character.

It also has a neat effect on the overall thematic space of the campaign/setting: by designating a human trait as significant enough to qualify as a racial advantage, you’re saying that trait or its absence is meaningful world context. If humans are extremely loyal, and other races are not, that’s an immediate crux around which to pivot your politics and societies.

I think it’s possible to split the difference between vanilla and paragon and still get a good result.

The trick is to call out 3-5 racial advantages for humans. Near-human races swap out one or two of those advantages for something else. Strange races swap out nearly all of them (but likely keep one just for the ability to run mirror-darkly stories around the one similarity highlighting the differences).

For example, in a D&D 5e game based on the same strengths in the linked memes, I might do something like this (I don’t know if these racial benefits are remotely balanced for 5e; they’re mostly set as illustrations of the concept):

Human Traits

Humans bond deeply to companions, including animals and even inanimate objects, and are happy to risk their own lives to protect these others. But this risk is less than that of many other races: they shake off injuries that would permanently cripple others, and recover quickly (even if the scar tissue isn’t always pretty). The coupling of their short lifespans and bonding results in multiple very different cultures, and mixed parentage that means any human might be born with a natural talent for any given pursuit.

  • Recklessly Loyal: As a bonus action, designate a named target (including inanimate objects) that you have spent enough time with to feel loyal to (GM’s discretion as to how much time this takes). You gain Advantage on attack rolls against subjects that are directly threatening your target and on ability checks made to directly rescue the target from harm (again, GM’s discretion on what “directly” means). You may use the Protection fighting style to benefit your target, even if you are not wielding a shield. While active, you are overly focused on protecting your target and thus have Disadvantage on Dexterity saving throws and all attacks against you are made with Advantage. You can deactivate this or switch targets as another bonus action, and it ends automatically when you are rendered unconscious. You may only maintain one target at a time.
  • Bent but Not Broken: Any time you would be Charmed, Frightened, or Stunned, you may take a level of Exhaustion instead (this requires your reaction). You gain advantage on saving throws against any effect that would apply Poisoned. You gain Advantage on all saving throws if your current hit points are less than half your maximum hit points.
  • Life is Too Short: Any time you would recover hit points, recover +1 HP per die of healing rolled. You recover an additional level of Exhaustion per long rest. If you are suffering from any other detrimental effect that persists through a long rest, you recover from it at twice the normal rate.
  • Endless Variety: You gain two languages of your choices in addition to Common. Increase any ability score by +1, or choose an extra skill proficiency. Increase any ability score (except one you chose to raise by +1) by +2, or choose an extra Feat. (The options in this feat may be pre-selected by particular subrace/culture options.)

Dwarf Traits

Due to their long lives, dwarves do not share the rapid recovery of humans nor the cultural variety: they are more set in their ways, prone to long consideration, and find it hard to adapt their politics to new ideas. However, they do have a similar ability to bond to others (but are more likely to use it on close family than on friends) and an even more significant case of stubborn refusal to submit to injury.

  • Recklessly Loyal: As the Human trait; Dwarves are most likely to use this on family/clan members and on inanimate objects that they consider sacred.
  • Bent but Not Broken: As the Human trait; Dwarves are, if anything, more stubborn than Humans.
  • Deep Dweller: Accustomed to living underground, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions; within sixty feet of you, treat the lighting condition as one step brighter (but, when treating darkness as dim light, you can only see in black and white). Additionally, whenever you make an Intelligence (History) check related to the origin of stonework, you are considered proficient in the History skill and add double your proficiency bonus to the check (instead of your normal proficiency bonus).
  • Children of the Smith: Increase your Constitution score by 2 and your Strength or Wisdom score by 1. You have proficiency in all axe and hammer weapons and with one set of artisan’s tools of your choice.

Elf Traits

Elves live extremely long lives, and value their own very highly. They do not share the strong bonds of humans; it takes a long time to gain the full love and trust of an elf, and even then it is hard for her to risk her own life to save yours. Neither do they share the resilience and recovery of the shorter-lived; elves make it a point to use grace, wit, and craft to avoid being injured at all, for wounds may stick with them for uncomfortably long periods. Strangely, they do share in the variety of humanity, seeming to possess a natural tendency to adapt to the environments.

  • Endless Variety: As the Human trait; Elves are particularly likely to have these choices pre-selected by a subrace.
  • Superior Training: Due to your long life, you’ve picked up several tricks. You have proficiency in the Perception skill and with four martial weapons. Additionally, gain a cantrip or some other special lore (such as increased speed and hiding ability in the wilderness). These choices are likely to be pre-selected by a subrace.
  • Blood of the Ancients: Accustomed to twilit forests and the night sky, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions; within sixty feet of you, treat the lighting condition as one step brighter (but, when treating darkness as dim light, you can only see in black and white). Additionally, you have advantages on saving throws against being charmed. Magic cannot put you to sleep, and instead of sleeping you enter a meditative trance for four hours a day (gaining the same benefits that a Human does from eight hours of sleep).
  • Subrace: You have a tightly knit family that favors you above outsiders; gain advantage on all Charisma (Persuasion) and Wisdom (Insight) checks when dealing with other members of your subrace. Your particular subrace provides suggested choices for your Endless Variety and Superior Training traits.

Halfling Traits

Halflings are, in many ways, humans writ small. They share many things in common with their bigger cousins, except for their particular indomitable ruggedness in the face of injury. Instead, they possess their own form of courage and luck.

  • Recklessly Loyal: As the Human trait; Halflings are less likely to protect inanimate objects, and more likely to protect dear friends.
  • Life is Too Short: As the Human trait; though they are slightly longer-lived than Humans, Halflings still recover from injury much more quickly than the elder races.
  • Endless Variety: As the Human trait; Halflings tend to favor Dexterity more highly than Humans, but otherwise have nearly as much variety.
  • Small Body, Giant Heart: You are Small, and your base walking speed is 25 feet, but you may move through the space of any creature that is of a size larger than yours. The courage and luck of larger folk are concentrated within you: you have advantage on saving throws against being frightened, and can reroll any attack roll, ability check, or saving throw when you roll a 1.

Monster Hunter Hack

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I finally burned through enough of my TV backlog to start watching Supernatural from the beginning. One of the interesting things about the show setup is that most monsters seem more than a match for even the most elite of humans (at least in season 1; I’ve heard there may be a bit of power creep later). Even the guy with the best combat training in the world is screwed going up against any monster, if he doesn’t have tools to exploit their weaknesses. The monster hunters that scare the things that go bump in the night don’t do so because they’re inherently badass, and able to win a straight fight. Instead, competence is defined by knowledge of monster weaknesses, skill at exploiting them, access to materials and rituals, and ability to track them while remaining off the grid.

This is not typical for RPGs.

Normal character advancement, particularly in level-based games but even in skill-based ones, allows an ongoing ramping of combat capability. Something that is a tough fight when you start out becomes a speedbump later on, just based on sheer defense and offense.

This rules hack looks to move the cheese a bit: combat capability becomes directly tied to knowledge of creature weaknesses and ability to exploit them. Importantly, even a highly trained hunter isn’t able to mow through a squad of cops or soldiers, and is also vulnerable to unexpected or unknown monstrous threats. Your power is highly invested in your ability to cheat against the supernatural, not in becoming superhuman yourself.

The system is phrased generically, for a skill-based game with a fairly linear progression of trait ratings to power level. It probably works directly with something like Storyteller or Unisystem, but needs some additional hacking for other systems with different ways of expressing competence. It’s also deliberately simple, so it’s easy to make threats on the fly. If you prize more simulationist outputs, it makes sense to move the benefits into specific things like damage and damage resistance.

Core System Elements

  • Supernatural creatures generally have combat dice pools beyond the maximum available to even highly-trained mortals. In a stand-up fight, even the weakest creature has an advantage against a mortal with maxed-out combat traits. The most powerful creatures have somewhere around double the trait total available to mortals (e.g., in Storyteller, creatures generally have combat pools from 11-20).
  • Characters can buy Lore skills for different creature types. These are fairly granular by type: knowing how to fight vampires doesn’t help against witches or ghosts, and may not even help against ghouls. The GM should create these skills based on similarities of in-setting combat capabilities and weaknesses. For things that are similar, but not totally similar, you might allow the player to apply the similar lore at a penalty, or just roll things up into hierarchical groups (e.g., having good ratings in Vampire, Ghoul, and Zombie lore also buys up a Corporeal Undead catchall that applies to a newly encountered undead monster).
  • Characters can also buy gear access traits, which represent having reliable, fast, cheap sources for custom weaponry, ritual components, and other monster-hunting tools. These are broken up by rough classification as makes sense to the GM (e.g., Custom Metal Weapons, Herbs and Oils, Unusual Ammunition, Ritual Tools, etc.; basically anything you might be like, “I know somebody that can probably get us…”). Improving these specific gear access traits should also gradually improve a Standard Loadout trait that represents common monster-hunting tools easy to hand; high ratings represent having highly-customized weapons good against a wide range of threats, and other gear that’s been extremely efficiently arranged to be quick and easy to hand. You might make these a shared expenditure for the whole party.
  • Experience pricing should make it cheap enough to have an extensive assortment of Lores and Gear traits by the end of the campaign, along with a moderate improvement in non-hunting traits.

Fighting Monsters

  • If you are blindsided by a monster and you can barely figure out what you’re dealing with, your combat total is your appropriate Lore plus Standard Loadout if that’s smaller than your normal combat total. For example, if you’re jumped by a vampire, your normal Dex + Melee 7 is superseded by your Vampire Lore + Standard Loadout 4. Monsters go through highly trained combatants with no monster lore just as easily as total bystanders, because they’re all basically limited to trait 0s due to their lack of lore and gear.
  • If you’re going on the offensive with a solid idea of what the target is weak to (or at least have time to set up an intentional defensible position) you can instead add your appropriate Lore plus Standard Loadout to your total. In the original example, Dex + Melee + Vampire Lore + Standard Loadout 11 is used to attack vampires on purpose.
  • If you have a lot of time to prepare, you can replace everyone you equip’s Standard Loadout with a higher total based on acquiring customized exploits (the rolls and costs involved left as an exercise for the GM, based on the world simulation and how a monster’s specific weaknesses work; you may need to combine weapons, ammo, herbs, etc. to get the right mix of exploits).
  • Even neophyte hunters/interested bystanders/potential victims with Lore 0 can be included in the second and third point with a briefing by a character with the right Lore. A non-superstitious combat badass might go down as easily to a vampire as anyone else when blindsided, but becomes a big asset when told, “Those were vampires. Here are the things you need in order to kill them…” (Lore remains relevant, as it covers knowing a lot of very specific tricks and maneuvers beyond just a general weakness overview.)

Other Considerations

For the full Supernatural feel, it’s also worth emphasizing investigative traits and things that let you escape from danger and remain hidden from organized foes until you’re ready to strike. Even a totally clued-in master hunter would prefer to attack from surprise rather than being ambushed.

Legacy Superheroes

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Season 2 of Young Justice finally showed up on Netflix, and got me thinking about one of the things that DC has always done extremely well: worldbuilding through character inheritance.

The DC universe has such a robust mythology of archetypal characters, it’s easy to introduce a new character that can rely on other characters for the heavy lifting of powers and such, and provide a foil to differentiate the character. For example, you don’t have to come up with a whole new explanation for how a new speedster works; that character is tapped into the Speed Force, which provides some interesting constraints and possibilities for development. Young Justice is basically all about this: nearly all of the characters are legacy heroes based on a Justice League member. The DC Universe MMO does something similar, providing character building blocks from established characters to mix and match.

There are a couple of interesting ways to profit from this in your own supers games: top down and bottom up.

Top Down

The first method is to use an existing setting or make your own with a lot of nailed down origin concepts. The players then pick from these origin types to control what powers they can access, and what baked in story tropes they’ll be part of. Obviously, stated that broadly, it’s something that lots of supers games do: are you a magic hero, a mutant, a scientific accident, and alien, a highly trained human, etc.?

What I’m advocating drills down from those broad classifications to actually latch onto the key setting elements of the universe. Using Young Justice as an example, players might pick:

  • Alien (Kryptonian): You can take some or all of the Kryptonian powers (invulnerability, super strength, flight, x-ray vision, freeze breath, etc.). You are vulnerable to kryptonite, and draw your powers from the yellow sun of Earth. You are likely related in some way to the House of El, and inherit its enemies.
  • Alien (Martian): You can take some or all of the Martian powers (telepathy, telekinesis, shapeshifting, phasing, etc.). You are vulnerable to fire. You are among the last of your kind, and hunted by ancient enemies from your home.
  • Atlantean: You can take powers related to living undersea (water breathing, swimming, strength and durability, marine animal control, hydrokinesis, etc.). You are part of the Atlantean feudal system, and beholden to its politics.
  • Clone (Copy): You are an exact copy of an existing character, and may take that character’s powers (possibly reduced or enhanced based on that character’s backstory and limitations). You may or may not have that character’s full memories, and may have been created as a sinister replacement. You will struggle to find your own place in the world.
  • Clone (Hybrid): You are a combination of two or more characters (and can mix and match other origin types), and can take powers related to either or both. You were likely created as an experiment in improving on the original stock, and may have in-built conditioning that you must overcome. You will struggle to find your own place in the world.
  • Human (Trained): You have advanced martial training from Batman, Green Arrow, the League of Assassins, or some other skilled teacher, and should particularly focus on the martial arts favored by that group. You likely have a conflicted relationship with your mentor, and often inherit his problems and enemies, but can also rely on your adoptive family for help in a pinch.
  • Human (Magic): You were trained in magic, likely in an idiosyncratic style common to a parent or other mentor such as Zatara. You are part of the small and eclectic community of mystics, and may operate under requirements and allegiances that are extremely arcane to your team.
  • Human (Tech-Enhanced): Your powers come from cybernetics, power armor, or other high-tech devices, and you should choose which company invented them. You will be beholden to that originator for replacements and improvements to your tech, which may create trouble for you.
  • Meta (Speedster): You gained your powers from a meta event or inheritance/transfusion from another speedster. Unlike typical metas, your powers are specifically informed by the Speed Force (though you may also feel an obligation to deal with any other metas created by the same event that gave you your powers), which earns you specific enemies and allies in other speedsters.

Essentially, you can’t take powers without in some way tying the character in to the larger narrative of the setting, immediately attaching allies, enemies, and potential problems before the start of play.

Bottom Up

The opposite method is good for getting a lot of player buy-in (and getting them to help the GM worldbuild): instead of picking from a pre-defined list, each player explains how his or her powers are actually in line with a setting archetype.

For example, a player rolls up a speedster, and then works with the GM to invent the idea that speedsters are somehow apart from other characters empowered by some meta event, and actually have more in common with other speedsters. The GM and player negotiate out the idea of a Speed Force, a sense of responsibility for other meta villains created at the same time, and invent various Flash characters from history that are well-known holders of the same powers.

The key difference in any other game where you pick powers and then try to justify them is the sense of the legacy. In the example, you’re not making The Flash, a character that, as far as he knows, is the first speedster in the setting and will gradually uncover thematic ties as the GM has ideas. Instead, you’re making a character with precedents that you’re going to negotiate with the GM up front: you get a say in elements of the setting that your character will be the focus of, and you help the GM by providing a whole bunch of setting ideas that you’ll be interested in. The GM doesn’t have to throw a bunch of ideas at you to see which ones you bite on, because you’ve already indicated that you’re into the meta events, Speed Force, strange relationship to other speedsters, etc.

Obviously, this method works better for players comfortable with taking that kind of ownership of inventing setting details so they can then happily interact with them in play.

Iconic Character Sketches

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I’ve had some recent discussions with a friend that centered around why I wasn’t as thrilled with his PC regularly using Polymorph effects as he was. I realized that, after a youth spent on comic books, I have a hard time identifying with a character if I can’t easily visualize it. Frequent shapechanging meant not having the iconographic cues that are otherwise so common to fantasy characters. I suspect a lot of others are like me, and would have an easier time playing in general, and caring about particular PCs in specific, if it was easier to insert them into the little mental movie that’s accompanying the tabletop game. So today’s post is a short exercise that players can do for their PCs to make them more iconic: easier to visualize, and with these visual elements tied to important character personality and background the player wants to get across.

Decide on the following elements for your PC:

Feature

Visual

Meaning

Significant Feature: What is the first thing about your personal features that someone would notice? Do you have an interesting hairstyle, uniquely colored eyes, a prominent scar or tattoo, some kind of deformity, etc.? If it’s genetic, what does it mean about your family? If it’s a scar, how did you get it? If it’s hair or tattoo, what personal meaning drove you to choose something so distinctive?
Unique Apparel: What item of clothing, jewelry, etc. do you always have and is rare and unusual, easily remembered? Is it a heavily-customized jacket, a necklace, a hat, a medal, a weapon, etc.? Where did you get the item, and what personal significance does it hold for you? Is it a gift from a lost loved one you’re trying to honor or live up to? A symbol of your accomplishment or birth? A trophy you took from a victory? Or just something that means something personal and speaks to your style?
Sigil/Heraldry/Totem: What specific symbol or class of iconography does your character wear and respond to? Do you wear a rendering of a particular animal or beast, favor a particular abstract symbol/glyph of some kind of group, or write in and adorn yourself with a particular type of runes? What does this mean for your personality? Do you identify with the animal or think it protects you? Does the glyph belong to your culture/order, or a group you aspire to join? If it’s a type of rune, why did you choose those over other writing systems, and why incorporate them into your iconography beyond simply writing with them?
Colors: What one or two colors does your character wear and favor in general use? When picking an outfit, all other considerations aside, what color clothing would you pick? What do the colors say about your life and beliefs? Are they just utilitarian colors to hide and blend in, or do even choices of brown and black say something specific about you? If it’s a brighter color, what emotions and feelings do you associate with the color?

These should be relatively simple questions to answer and immediately give your GM (and the other players) a much easier time figuring out what’s interesting about your character. They should also be a quick way to generate plot hooks, from a simple knowledge of what kinds of iconography and colors your character would gravitate to in order to find Macguffins, to useful insights about your character background.

(Also see this post for ideas on how to quickly give your GM ideas for cool things about your character.)

Pathfinder: Card Draft Chargen

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Harbinger had a really cool idea about drafting from custom cards to make a character for an RPG. Go read it for the explanations, as I’m just going to riff on it here for Pathfinder.

Under this version:

  • For each player, pull 11 cards plus one per player (so if you have four players, pull 15 per player or 60 total). Keep the extra to the side in a blind-draw pile for players that get stuck with only cards they can’t choose (certain cards prohibit keeping further cards of the same type). 11 cards results in 21-point-buy characters, so increase or decrease the number of cards (at 3 points per card) if you want stronger or weaker PCs.
  • Shuffle them thoroughly and then distribute to the players to draft per Harbinger’s guidelines. There are two options
    • Give them all the cards at once, evenly distributed. This gives the players maximum control over their characters but they’re going to see the same cards over and over.
    • Separate them into smaller pods of as few as one more than the number of players (so every set of cards goes around once and leaves one discard). This makes character creation far more random, but makes it far more likely that you’re going to feel like the hand of cards you get at the start is full of possibilities for you.
  • Every player should ultimately keep 11 cards, which should leave a discard pile of unchosen cards.
    • The player gains the listed KEEP effect of every card in his or her hand. If the player kept a DISCARD card, only the listed ability score matters.
    • The GM should look at the remaining cards not held by any players. Any DISCARD effect on those cards now applies to the campaign. The ability score and any KEEP effects on the cards are ignored.
  • Every player should total up the number of cards of each ability score, and raise the ability score from 8 using those points (e.g., if you have three cards in Strength, you have a Strength 15, because it takes 9 points to go from 8 to 15 using point buy).
    • Once all scores are assigned, take the remainder points and distribute them freely (e.g., if you have two cards in Dexterity, you have 13 with one point left over, because it would take seven points to get to 14; you can move that extra point to push something else up to the next level, or find another point somewhere else to raise Dex to 14). Scores cannot go above 18 (which would require at least seven cards of the same ability).
    • If you want more integration of PCs, you can have each card be worth 2 points to the player that kept it and 1 point to the player to his or her right. This will likely result in PCs with scores closer to the average.
  • If a player did not keep any cards that assign a race, he or she may choose Human, Half-Elf, or Half-Orc. If a player did not keep any cards that allow access to a class, he or she may choose Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, or Wizard (and must justify later multiclasses into a class not among those four with in-game training with a member of the class).
  • Players should now know their race, scores, class options, relationships, quests, and secrets. They will also know if their discards created ramifications for them in the campaign world. They should start discussing character backgrounds to fulfill all these details and the other stated goals of the campaign.

I’ve made printable cards for the examples listed below. You can download the PDF here or the editable DOC here.

Example cards:

STRENGTH

  • CLASS – KEEP: Barbarian; You may start play as a Barbarian, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Druid; You may start play as a Druid, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Monk; You may start play as a Monk, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Paladin; You may start play as a Paladin, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Cavalier; You may start play as a Cavalier, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • SECRET – KEEP: Blackmail; You have blackmail material on the local captain of the city/town guard
  • SECRET – KEEP: Blackmail; You have blackmail material on the local leader’s personal bodyguard
  • QUEST – KEEP: Heirloom Weapon; One of the weapons you purchased at creation is your family weapon; it is automatically masterwork and has hidden magic potential unlocked via quests
  • QUEST – KEEP: The Dragon; You know the exact location of a dragon’s hoard… now you just have to take care of the dragon
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Sporting Rival; You have a healthy rivalry with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale bonus on any Str- or Dex-based skill check to accomplish something your rival just did successfully; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Sibling/True Friend; You are the sibling (or lifelong friend if different race/also lovers) of the PC* with the matching card; Aid Another to help sibling/friend is +3 instead of +2; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Built like a Bull; You are massively built and able to exert surprising strength; you gain +4 to all Strength-based rolls to open, break, or move inanimate objects, but you’re automatically as tall and heavy as possible for your race and gender (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Halflings; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Halflings start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Gnomes; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Gnomes start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • CLASS – DISCARD: Arcane Fear; Recent unexplained phenomena cause fear of Arcane spellcasters; all characters revealed to have this ability start at one disposition step lower with most locals

DEXTERITY

  • RACE – KEEP: Elf; You are an Elf (pass all further RACE cards)
  • RACE – KEEP: Halfling; You are a Halfling (pass all further RACE cards)
  • CLASS – KEEP: Ranger; You may start play as a Ranger, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Sorcerer; You may start play as a Sorcerer, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Gunslinger; You may start play as a Gunslinger, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • SECRET – KEEP: Blackmail; You have blackmail material on the leader of the local Thieves’ Guild
  • SECRET – KEEP: Secret Passage; You know a secret route past the nearest city wall and a secret route into the nearest fortress/castle
  • QUEST – KEEP: Heirloom Weapon; One of the weapons you purchased at creation is your family weapon; it is automatically masterwork and has hidden magic potential unlocked via quests
  • QUEST – KEEP: Pirate Treasure; You have a treasure map to a lost island and a pirate’s long buried treasure… but the island is now infested with monsters
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Sporting Rival; You have a healthy rivalry with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale bonus on any Str- or Dex-based skill check to accomplish something your rival just did successfully; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Classmate; You went to school with the PC* with the matching card; When you both roll a skill you have ranks in for the same challenge, you both get to use the higher d20 result (plus your own skill bonus); *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Flexible as a Cat; You are little, double jointed, and extremely flexible; you can squeeze through any opening big enough for your head, but you’re automatically as short and light as possible for your race and gender (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Eyes on the City; Due to better trained and positioned guards and a strong neighborhood watch, +2 DC all Bluff, Disguise, and Stealth checks in local cities and towns
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Crime Wave; Due to an ongoing crime wave, there is a 20% chance of a pickpocket attempt on the PCs during every scene set in the streets of local cities and towns
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Rats!; An infestation of plague rats means that any time the PCs visit the local slums or sewers, there is a 10% chance each visit of encountering a Rat Swarm at some point

CONSTITUTION

  • RACE – KEEP: Dwarf; You are a Dwarf (pass all further RACE cards)
  • RACE – KEEP: Gnome; You are a Gnome (pass all further RACE cards)
  • CLASS – KEEP: Barbarian; You may start play as a Barbarian, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • SECRET – KEEP: Blackmail; You have blackmail material on the General of the nearest army
  • SECRET – KEEP: Parentage; You know the identity of one of the local leader’s bastards and have proof of parentage
  • SECRET – KEEP: Immunity; The first time you fail a save vs. Poison, you’d secretly been building up an immunity to that toxin, and get to reroll the save (and subsequently get to keep the best of two saves whenever you’re affected by that toxin again)
  • QUEST – KEEP: Heirloom Armor; The armor you purchased at creation is your family armor it is automatically masterwork and has hidden magic potential unlocked via quests
  • QUEST – KEEP: Key in the Blood; Your family has passed on a blood-based immunity to the deadly magical defenses of an ancient fortress, which might be a powerful retreat or hold wondrous riches, if only you could get through the surrounding guardians
  • QUEST – KEEP: Unpetrified; For some reason you’re immune to the petrifying gaze of a Medusa; how you found that out is a story for another time, but there are rumors of just such a creature terrorizing the wilderness a few weeks’ ride from here
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Lover; You are in love with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale to Attack and Damage against any enemy that attacked your lover on its last action; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Classmate; You went to school with the PC* with the matching card; When you both roll a skill you have ranks in for the same challenge, you both get to use the higher d20 result (plus your own skill bonus); *An NPC if there is no match(pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Healthy as a Bear; Your natural healing of hit points and nonlethal damage is doubled, you need to make half as many saves to end a disease or poison effect, and alchemical effects with a duration (even beneficial ones) only last half as long for you (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Elves; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Elves start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Half-Elves; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Half-Elves start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • CLASS – DISCARD: War Weariness; A recent, damaging war causes a pacifistic dislike of soldiers; all characters revealed to be Fighters, Barbarians, Cavaliers, or Gunslingers start at one disposition step lower with most locals

INTELLIGENCE

  • RACE – KEEP: Elf; You are an Elf (pass all further RACE cards)
  • CLASS – KEEP: Bard; You may start play as a Bard, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Alchemist; You may start play as an Alchemist, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Magus; You may start play as a Magus, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Witch; You may start play as a Witch, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • SECRET – KEEP: Cipher; You know the cipher for the local leadership’s favorite secret code
  • SECRET – KEEP: Convergence; You found a place of powerful magical convergence, and sleeping on it gives you an additional spell slot of your highest arcane spell level the next day; trouble is, the spot is on grounds owned by a local noble
  • QUEST – KEEP: Break the Curse; The ruler of these lands has promised a great reward to whoever can destroy a cursed artifact, and you just happen to know a legend about where and how that might be accomplished
  • QUEST – KEEP: Riddling Rhyme; Your parents used to put you to sleep with an elaborate rhyming song, that you’ve never heard anyone else repeat, and you recently a rumor that’s right out of the song… maybe it was secret instructions or prophecy?
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Intellectual Rival; You have a healthy rivalry with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale bonus on any Int- or Wis-based skill check to accomplish something your rival just did successfully; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Business Partner; You work well with the PC* with the matching card; Double downtime income when you and your partner both use the same Craft or Profession skill to earn money; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Memory like a Fox; You have an eidetic memory, and recall the details of anything you have witnessed (+4 on any relevant rolls), but you cannot easily forget your fears: take one point of Charisma damage any time you fail a Will save vs. a Fear-based effect (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • CLASS – DISCARD: Sectarian Violence; A recent religious conflict causes intolerance among the various religions; displaying religious symbols or divine casting abilities causes the PCs to start at one disposition step lower with all locals not of the same religion
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: No Funding; Due to lack of public scholarly funding, there are steep fees to use the local libraries and PCs pay double to make use of scholarly NPCs like Sages or to borrow spellbooks to copy spells
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Poor Item Trade; The limited local magic item trade means that there is half the expected chance of any given item being for sale in the local shops

WISDOM

  • RACE – KEEP: Dwarf; You are a Dwarf (pass all further RACE cards)
  • CLASS – KEEP: Druid; You may start play as a Druid, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Monk; You may start play as a Monk, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Ranger; You may start play as a Ranger, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Inquisitor; You may start play as an Inquisitor, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • SECRET – KEEP: Infiltrating Aide; You appear to be the only one who’s noticed that one of the local leader’s top aides is constantly wearing a disguise
  • SECRET – KEEP: Illness Charm; The first time you fail a save vs. Disease, you’d secretly been taught a charm for that illness, and get to reroll the save (and subsequently get to keep the best of two saves whenever you’re affected by that toxin again); gain +4 to Heal checks to treat others for it
  • QUEST – KEEP: The Secret Master; Your village was insidiously taken over by a powerful mind-controlling creature; you barely resisted its domination and fled, hoping to become skilled enough to return some day soon and save the town
  • QUEST – KEEP: Illusory Hillside; A hillside you frequently travel past always struck you as strange; recently, you managed to disbelieve the illusory wall and see that it protects a dungeon full of elaborate illusions and traps
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Intellectual Rival; You have a healthy rivalry with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale bonus on any Int- or Wis-based skill check to accomplish something your rival just did successfully; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Business Partner; You work well with the PC* with the matching card; Double downtime income when you and your partner both use the same Craft or Profession skill to earn money; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Empathy of the Owl; Lies make you physically ill; gain +4 to Sense Motive to detect lies, take one point of damage whenever someone lies in direct answer to a question you asked, and take 1d6 points of damage whenever YOU knowingly tell a lie (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • CLASS – DISCARD: Crime Wave; A recent crime wave causes distrust of anyone with criminal sympathies; all characters revealed to be Rogues or Bards start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: The Big Store; A grifting syndicate has come to town; in each scenario, there is a 50% chance of adding a “helpful NPC” that is actually a con artist looking to scam PCs
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Alignment Static; Recent planar events have caused alignment static in the local area; Protection from Alignment spells do not prevent mind control and all Detect Alignment spells treat targets as 5 HD lower for determining aura strength

CHARISMA

  • RACE – KEEP: Halfling; You are a Halfling (pass all further RACE cards)
  • RACE – KEEP: Gnome; You are a Gnome (pass all further RACE cards)
  • CLASS – KEEP: Bard; You may start play as a Bard, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Paladin; You may start play as a Paladin, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Sorcerer; You may start play as a Sorcerer, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Oracle; You may start play as an Oracle, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Summoner; You may start play as a Summoner, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Performing Partners; You are part of an entertaining group with the PC* with the matching card; +2 to all Perform checks when your partner is performing with you; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Performing Partners; You are part of an entertaining group with the PC* with the matching card;
  • +2 to all Perform checks when your partner is performing with you; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Lover; You are in love with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale to Attack and Damage against any enemy that attacked your lover on its last action; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Sibling/True Friend; You are the sibling (or lifelong friend if different race/also lovers) of the PC* with the matching card; Aid Another to help sibling/friend is +3 instead of +2; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Grandeur of an Eagle; You are strikingly attractive, probably outshining all locals in your good looks, but this makes you unforgettable and instantly recognizable to those that have seen you before without a disguise (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Dwarves; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Dwarves start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Half-Orcs; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Half-Orcs start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Class Warfare; The social status levels in the local area are highly stratified; start at one disposition step lower with most locals unless you are dressed in the same style and properly introduced (and even then, take the penalty if they “know” you aren’t their status level)

Group Random D&D Chargen

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A bit of a simple idea this week as I recover from GenCon and gear up for PAX.

As a GM, I tend to favor point buy over randomly rolled D&D/Pathfinder character creation primarily because it leads to imbalance among the PCs. Inevitably, someone’s going to roll a character with stats much lower than someone else’s (and even lower than he could have gotten in point buy) and resent either his character or the player with the best rolls. Since I don’t run games with much lethality, getting stuck with a subpar character has enduring ramifications over the course of a whole campaign.

This system is designed to allow players the thrill of random rolls, but to distribute those rolls among the party so everyone comes out at a similar point buy total. However, rather than rolling them and distributing them totally equitably, there’s an element of strategy involved that may result in players putting higher or lower scores in different abilities than they would have if they got all six rolls up front…

The process is:

  1. Have each of your players roll two sets of 4d6 (drop lowest) and put the results in the middle of the table (either just leave the dice there, or write down the result if you don’t have enough sets of d6s). If you have four players, there should be eight ability scores on the table.
  2. Randomly decide an order among the players for the first turn.
  3. The players each pick one number from the table in their sorted order (which will leave a number of sets on the table equal to the number of players once they’ve all taken one).
  4. Each player goes ahead and assigns the chosen number to an ability score (this is where the strategy comes in; if you grabbed a 16, do you go ahead and assign it to your prime requisite, or do you put it somewhere else and hope that a 17 or 18 comes around for you on a later turn?).
  5. Once everyone has picked and assigned a score, have each player roll another 4d6 (drop lowest) and place it in the middle of the table (returning the number of sets back to where it started).
  6. Have each player total up what their current set of ability scores would be worth in point buy (e.g., someone that currently has an 18 and a 13 has 20 points).
  7. Change the player sort order from lowest point buy total to highest (this is another point of strategy; a player might deliberately take a low number rather than the highest one available hoping to get first pick on a later round with better rolls).
    1. Break ties based on who has the smallest big number (e.g., an 18 + 13 goes after a 16 + 16, even though they both have 20 points).
    2. If that’s still tied, break based on who has the smallest low number (e.g., 13 + 15 + 16 goes after 10 + 16 + 16).
    3. If they’re still tied, just go in the original sort order for the first round.
  8. Repeat steps 3-7 until everyone has five scores and there is only one set per player left on the table.
  9. For the last round, simply repeat steps 3 and 4 (i.e., don’t roll another set; on the last round, the players have to fill in their last score from the leavings of the whole process).
  10. Continue with the normal process of making a character.

For example:

Turn Pool Amy Brad Cora Dan
1 8, 9, 12, 12,
12, 13, 13, 16
STR –
DEX –
CON –
INT –
WIS –
CHA 16
(Point Buy 10)
STR –
DEX –
CON 13
INT –
WIS –
CHA –
(Point Buy 3)
STR –
DEX –
CON –
INT –
WIS 9
CHA –
(Point Buy -1)
STR –
DEX –
CON –
INT 13
WIS –
CHA –
(Point Buy 3)
2 8, 9, 10, 12,
12, 12, 15, 17
STR –
DEX 15
CON –
INT –
WIS –
CHA 16
(Point Buy 17)
STR –
DEX 10
CON 13
INT –
WIS –
CHA –
(Point Buy 3)
STR –
DEX 17
CON –
INT –
WIS 9
CHA –
(Point Buy 12)
STR –
DEX –
CON –
INT 13
WIS –
CHA 9
(Point Buy 2)
3 6, 8, 11, 12,
12, 12, 14, 14
STR –
DEX 15
CON 12
INT –
WIS –
CHA 16
(Point Buy 19)
STR –
DEX 10
CON 13
INT –
WIS –
CHA 14
(Point Buy 8)
STR –
DEX 17
CON –
INT –
WIS 9
CHA 12
(Point Buy 14)
STR 14
DEX –
CON –
INT 13
WIS –
CHA 9
(Point Buy 7)
4 6, 7, 8, 10,
11, 12, 12, 15
STR –
DEX 15
CON 12
INT 11
WIS –
CHA 16
(Point Buy 20)
STR 12
DEX 10
CON 13
INT –
WIS –
CHA 14
(Point Buy 10)
STR –
DEX 17
CON –
INT 12
WIS 9
CHA 12
(Point Buy 16)
STR 14
DEX –
CON 15
INT 13
WIS –
CHA 9
(Point Buy 14)
5 6, 7, 8, 9,
10, 12, 14, 15
STR –
DEX 15
CON 12
INT 11
WIS 10
CHA 16
(Point Buy 20)
STR 12
DEX 10
CON 13
INT –
WIS 15
CHA 14
(Point Buy 17)
STR 12
DEX 17
CON –
INT 12
WIS 9
CHA 12
(Point Buy 18)
STR 14
DEX 14
CON 15
INT 13
WIS –
CHA 9
(Point Buy 19)
6 6, 7, 8, 9 STR 6
DEX 15
CON 12
INT 11
WIS 10
CHA 16
(Point Buy 14)
STR 12
DEX 10
CON 13
INT 9
WIS 15
CHA 14
(Point Buy 16)
STR 12
DEX 17
CON 8
INT 12
WIS 9
CHA 12
(Point Buy 16)
STR 14
DEX 14
CON 15
INT 13
WIS 7
CHA 9
(Point Buy 15)

Amy wants to play a Sorcerer, Brad wants a Cleric, Cora wants a Rogue, and Dan wants a Fighter. For the example, their initial sorting winds up in alphabetical order.

In turn:

  1. Amy goes ahead and assumes 16 is good enough to put in her Charisma. Brad grabs a 13 and puts it in Constitution, hoping for higher scores later. Cora doesn’t like what’s left, so goes ahead and puts a 9 into Wisdom, assuming that will give her first choice once some better options show up. Dan goes ahead and grabs the last 13 and puts it into Intelligence, knowing that at least he’s covered for the Combat Expertise feats.
  2. Cora’s choice last round immediately pays off, and she puts the new 17 into Dexterity. Dan and Brad are tied, so Brad goes first according to the initial order and takes Cora’s strategy; he grabs the 10 and dumps it into Dex, hoping for better rolls later where he gets first pick. Not to be outdone, Dan grabs the 9; now he gets to go first next turn. Amy shrugs at the guys leaving her a nice 15 and puts it into Dex.
  3. Halfway through, suddenly it’s starting to look like it might be dangerous to count on some more 17s and 18s showing up, and nobody wants to be the one stuck with that 6. Dan goes ahead and grudgingly puts a 14 into Strength, starting to plan for being a generalist Fighter rather than a big pile of Strength. Brad goes ahead and grabs the 14 for his Cha, but is still holding out hope for something better to put into Wisdom. Cora grabs the 12 to put into Cha. Amy puts another 12 into Con.
  4. This is starting to be a pretty bad set of rolls; the whole group starts to wonder whether they should have insisted on point buy as a 7 comes up to add to the 6 and the 8. Dan goes ahead and grabs the 15 for his Con. Brad grabs the 12 for his Str. Cora takes the other 12 for her Int. Finally, Amy’s left with an 11 and also throws it into Int.
  5. The last round of rolls comes up and the best results are a 14 and 15; at least the lowest was only a 9 this time. Brad very grudgingly puts the 15 into his Wisdom. Dan puts the 14 into Dex and starts thinking seriously about a two weapon fighting Rogue multiclass or Whirlwind build. Cora drops the 12 into Strength. Amy agonizes about Strength vs. Wisdom, and finally decides to be weak rather than blind, putting the 10 into Wis.
  6. With only the sub-10 stats left, the table completely agrees that next time they need to totally roll better, but at least they’re in this mess together. Brad gets the 9 for his Int. Cora gets the 8 for her Con. Dan gets the 7 for his Wis. And Amy is, indeed, stuck with the 6 for her Str.

Overall, the whole group wound up within 2 point buy points of one another. Given that the same set of rolls reserved to individual players could have had one player with a character worth well over 20 while another was worth zero or less, at least everyone’s in the sub-standard boat together. And the uncertain placement of scores resulted in some interesting choices that the players might not have made if they’d known in advance exactly what their numbers were.

Gamable PC Questions

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Over the years, I’ve had a lot of trouble getting players to write backgrounds for their characters. Out of any four gamers, usually one will write something substantial, one will write something short, one will intend to but never get around to it, and one will be intimidated by the entire idea. And, even if everyone writes a background, there’s no guarantee that these will be consistently useful when running the game: a well written 20-page backstory could be an intimate summation of why the character is dead inside, has no ties to the world, and has no real reason to go on adventures. Thus, I’m wondering if a list of questions like those listed in the old White Wolf prelude suggestions would be helpful. However, those seemed largely designed to help the player get a grip on the character, where I’m more interested in having the player think up ways it’d be easy to tie the character into the game. Thus:

High Concept

  • What is the coolest thing about your character?
  • What is distinctive/memorable about your character’s appearance?
  • What is your character’s greatest triumph thus far?
  • What is something your character still feels guilty about doing?
  • What drives your character to adventure rather than taking up a safer career?

Goals

  • If your character died today, what would he or she regret not doing?
  • What does your character hope to earn quickly from this lifestyle?
  • Does your character have a core quest that must be accomplished? If so, what?
  • How does your character envision his or her life after retiring from adventure?
  • What is important enough for your character to be tempted to betray friends and morality to attain?

Connections

  • Who is the most important person in your character’s life other than the other PCs?
  • How does your character’s family feel about his or her adventurous lifestyle?
  • Is there anyone dead or missing that your character longs to see again? Who?
  • Who does your character hate the most? Why?
  • Is there anyone upon whom your character models his or her behavior (a personal hero)? Who and why?