Fantasy Adventure #5: Character Creation & Advancement

I might as well write about the char-gen principles of my D&D-rewrite, considering that those hew so closely to the Ability and Class definitions I discussed earlier. All this is to some degree useless without solid rules for adventure management and conflict resolution, but I’ll get to those at some point, too. For now, some specific ideas for how to create and advance characters:

A bog-normal character

As I discussed earlier in the series, all characters get their statistics from a random roll of 3d6, with no player influence to it. The “average human”, which is such an useful gauge for GMs, has all statistics at ten points. One of the pertinent benefits of this set-up is that I don’t actually have any great pressure to have the specific set of abilities exactly defined before the latter end of getting a game together, if even then; I’m seriously considering leaving the door open for dynamic ability definition in the middle of adventure as well when necessary. We’ll see.

Anyway, to create a character we simply roll some ability scores and then pick a suitable number of character levels in different classes. A standard starting character (what would be 1st level in D&D; there’s lots of confusion in D&D about whether a 1st level character is an apprentice or already experienced in his craft, but let’s just say that we don’t care about that as much as finding the level where a player wants to start a character who starts “at the beginning” of the game) starts at level 3, I’d say, but for character generation purposes I might allow other solutions as well. That depends on campaign structure, for which I have plenty of options and no clear preference.

The current D&D is very formalistic in how it maps experience levels to the fiction of the game, which is something I want to tone down a bit. I’d rather have the character classes represent real, in-setting careers (unlike the abstract base classes of current D&D), while character levels give some indication of how experienced the character is, how much he’s seen the world and picked things up on the way. As I understand it, a major reason for the current emphasis on abstraction in D&D class design is a quest for comprehensive setting modeling: if I want a character who is a Koranian mercenary, say, I’d either have to have a Koranian mercenary character class or I’d have to declare that all of these variants are just Fighters with different feats. As I’m not personally interested in setting modelling that much this isn’t a priority for me at all, and I can therefore go as narrow as I want with my character classes.

As for character levels, D&D has always suffered from its emphasis on combat and dungeon delving when it’s been used to model settings. I remember vividly how odd I found the whole 0 level NPC business in AD&D when I came to it from BRP and other games with better-rounded characters; D&D simply never could have any meaningful dimension for non-dungeoneering character advancement, as the character classes, multiclassing restrictions and the very combat-focused rules system make non-combat careers a waste of game focus. All well and good for D&D, but I want a bit more balance, and I want to have those 10th level craftsmen or whatever, preferably as characters who have some slight reason to be played, even.

Anyway, my point here is that character levels in my game have specific in-fiction implications. They’re not set in stone, but something along these lines is implied, and any characters not following these guidelines should have some interesting in-fiction reasons for it.

Level: Meaning as character level: Meaning as class level:
1 Prepubescent children would be around this level. An initiate, conscript or apprentice.
2 Children around age 10-15, perhaps. Journeyman level.
3 Teenagers, starting adventurers in bumpkin fantasy. Independent, fully competent at their career.
4-5 Young adults Remarkably skilled, best in the area.
6-7 Active adults, full members of community. Lauded and respected masters.
8-10 Old, experienced folks. “Perfect”, as far as most careers are concerned. Adventure fiction usually has protagonists at this competence level in one or more careers.
10+ Exceptional masters of their craft or ancient people who’ve seen a lot. Either a remarkably slow and deep career, or advanced specialization via “prestige classes”.

As can be seen, my rough benchmark for these numbers is to have NPCs and other non-exceptional characters advance a level per five years of life experience or so. Meanwhile, I’m assuming that most practical professions have competence ceilings at 10 levels (some might be at 5, even), with only magical or otherwise exceptional characters progressing farther. A completely normal veteran fighter, superbly experienced, would thus just be a 10th level fighter, with perhaps some other character classes on the side. I have no hang-ups about specifics in these issues, but it’s nice to have some real sense of what it means if my character is a 4th level thief and a 2nd level warrior, or whatever.

Choosing classes

Generally speaking, I’ll be giving all character classes entrance requirements. I’m thinking that instead of the classical hard ability score requirements I’ll instead have ability checks, so that characters with lower abilities have an opportunity at unlikely classes as well. It all would depend on the individual class, certainly, and in cases where just about anybody would get into a class that would be the case. Following the fiction in these matters makes for good roleplaying, I find.

To classify character classes available to starting characters a bit, I’d probably simplify the initial character creation and just say that all characters get their first two levels – which represent their life as children – for free, but they have to be in racial or cultural classes. The third level could then be rolled for… actually, it’s perhaps wrong to say that 3rd level would be the starting point for beginning characters. I’ll probably decide that the assumed starting point is “20 years of age” and work backwards from there, so that any given starting character can range in level from 2-4 depending on whether they happen to get into interesting character classes and such.

Well, anyway: the typical starting character would get a racial level as his first level, defining some natural aptitudes (think Tarzan; that first level represents all experience that Tarzan has in common with other humans). The second level would be a cultural level (“monkey-culture” in case of Tarzan, I guess) the character presumably absorbed as a child in Cimmeria or wherever. Useful stuff like language and cultural skills here. The third level would be in a profession of some kind, which probably wouldn’t be an adventuring profession if we’re going all the way with a growth story (a very common adventure game background; I never understood why D&D mixes with abandon sword & sorcery and growth story, when the two have nothing in common); if we want a straight sword & sorcery -style adventure, we’re very well skipping ahead to 10th level characters and worrying quite a bit less about the realism of having “murderer” as a first career.

Because that third level is in a class where presumably the character would actually have to show some aptitude to secure an apprentice position, we’re probably going to have to roll that entrance check for the character. A prestigious specialized craft profession like smithing or scribing, say, would require something like DC 25 (remember that this is ability + skill + d20, so that teenager trying to find a craft is, on average, working with +10 at this point), while becoming a common farmhand or such would require just DC 10. Adventuring professions would fill the range, depending on the culture of the setting: for a militaristic mercenary culture like the Swiss of old it might be remarcably easy to become a soldier at young age, for example.

It is entirely conceivable that I’ll dress up that character class entrance check into an initiation scene, like Dogs in the Vineyard has.

A word about feats

(I’m going to find a better name for feats one of these days, my feats are not very feat-y…)

The character classes will not give any integrated features for the character except the skill package I’ve described earlier. Instead, each class will have a list of feats wherein the class gives an additional bonus equal to level for obtaining them. So each class has a list of “recommended” feats, effectively, which the player can use to make a quick and reasonably efficient character, but from which he can also deviate at will. I might even decide that characters may obtain the recommended feat automatically, without an ability check, so as to make it even easier to follow the predetermined track… we’ll see.

For basic character creation purposes it’s probably simplest to just assume that the character gains the recommended feats for his class levels, and that’s that. Nothing would prevent going into character optimization at this point either, of course.

Advanced chargen

An interesting implication of my rules, above, is that it’s easy to create child characters and a complexified life path character generation, which hasn’t been traditionally very feasible in D&D. Here’s how it goes, roughly:

  1. Determine character birth from available campaign options. No idea yet what I want here, really, apart from having a sense of where the character grew up.
  2. Roll 1d6 for each Ability. This is how well your character had shaped come his 5th birthday. Most characters will have around 3-4 points in each Ability, not very high.
  3. Choose first class level. A child will get a +2 at this point for trying to get a career class (as opposed to a racial or cultural class, as most would go for), which might allow him as high a bonus as +8. The bonus here is solely to make a child prodigy character (“raised by monks” or whatever) a bit more possible, but it can be justified by assuming that it comes from a friendly mentor who likes raising protagonists. In any case a careerist character at 5 years of age isn’t going to happen without a 5 or 6 in an appropriate Ability.
  4. Whatever the result of the above level choice, roll another d6 to each Ability. This is the character on his 10 birthday or so, with an average of 7 points in each Ability.
  5. Choose another class the character enters around his 10th year. Now the bonus to entrance checks is just +1, as the Abilities are higher.
  6. Roll the final d6 for each Ability, but don’t put it in the ability just yet. The character will gain these final points one a time during step 7; we’re just rolling now to see where the character development is going.
  7. The next ten years represent the character’s teen years. Choose one of the following options for each year:
    • The character tries to gain a feat.
    • The character tries to gain a level in some class.
    • The character gains an ability improvement check.

    I’ll probably include a slight narration requirement here as well, to flesh the character a bit. And I’ll definitely want to have a “die at chargen” option like Traveller has, it’s just too much fun to resist. The system also needs a less severe result, which ends this step abruptly and goes to the next step.

  8. If the character didn’t get to a class during step 7, he’ll start the game at level 2. If he got to two classes, he starts at level 4. The character is 15-20 years old at this point, depending on how many times he did step 7.

Hmm… something like that, anyway. I’m sure I can streamline that process and give it more flexibility and balance, removing unnecessary steps and perhaps adding something. The basic system seems solid anyway, and I’d imagine that I would personally be excited if I rolled really well and managed to create that staple of wuxia, a character who’s been trained in the martial arts since the childhood. Or something like that, lots of possibilities.

Party composition

Finally, it should be noted that I don’t particularly care if the character generation produces characters balanced towards each other. I don’t mind if the players want to create characters at different experience levels, either. It’s up to the campaign structure and adventure tools to provide a meaningful game experience for all participants, and I don’t know how something that doesn’t allow a talented holy child character next to a grizzled ranger type could call itself an adventure game anyway. Something like that should be a matter of course, I’d say.

I’ll write later about potential campaign structures, at this point it’s enough to note that a traditional adventuring party cooperating for the sake of cooperation and with little character-based motivation is not very much to my taste; I like it much more when characters are free to choose their own challenges and a party is only formed when and if good in-fiction reason for it appears.


6 Responses to “Fantasy Adventure #5: Character Creation & Advancement”

  1. Johannes Kellomäki Says:

    Hmm. You’ve taken the chargen to direction opposite to mine. I’m going for a tremendous mass of almost ready to play character types (something almost but not quite different from WHFRP) that are connected to the setting. You are providing a toolkit for creating the guys from birth to adulthood.

    Are you sure you need such detail on mechanical simulation of childhood and juvenile experience? Don’t get me wrong but isn’t the game more about playing the grown up characters? I think your system is cool but does it slow the chargen down too much if you just want to get into the adventure?

    Anyway, you’ve done nice work with the system so far. I enjoy reading these entries. Thay provide nice contrast to my own project (still quite scetchy , and much less methodical than yours).

  2. Eero Laine Says:

    I was thinking if the game could be played from the beginning to end: characters would start as 5-year olds and the campaign (or the multi-part softcover epic) would end when the last original character dies, in session 10 or something. The downtime could last extensive periods, even several years. Y’know, a bunch of kids who play together and 40 years later are legendary heroes, except the sickly kid who was apt in magic and became insane. At least that’s how the cheesy bulk novels play it.

    Just a random idea, maybe it’s a bit too heavy and Pendragon-y for casual play.

  3. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    The game is certainly about playing grown-ups, but it also has a significant dash of… I’ll call it simulation for now. Not simulation in the sense of the creative agenda of simulationism, but rather in the sense of having a tense and impactful fictional environment where the system and setting have lots of interrelation. There is a psychological enjoyment involved in figuring out how a traditional 3d6-D&D character grows up one die at a time – even if I don’t particularly need rules for adolescents most of the time and if practical application doesn’t really need such a complex character generation, it’s nice to be able to offer it, because it informs the way we interpret the results of the simpler character generation.

    There also might be surprising further applications for the mechanical philosophy outlined for character growth here, even if it’s not used directly to control player characters. Knowing how many levels and in which classes are appropriate for different kinds of characters is useful in itself when I want the rules and the setting to inform each other, instead of one dominating the other.

  4. siamois71 Says:

    Eero, I just found your blog and this is fascinating stuff.

    Are you going to write a 6th entry soon?

    I myself am rebuilding D&D from the ground up and it is interesting to note where we put similar emphasis and where we go in opposite directions. The most useful feature for me is to notice how someone else might perceive the same problem as me but come up with an entirely different solution.

    This is top notch stuff. Good luck with this project. I’ll check for progress once in a while.

    Take care,

    Consonant Dude

  5. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Thanks, CD. I have a couple of entries floating around somewhere, just haven’t had time to polish them into intelligible shape. If you have any particular area of interest concerning D&D rules, I might just write about that next. Left to my own devices I’m probably going to either write up a sample character class to demonstrate some mechanical approaches or describe campaign structures and how I deal with downtime in this kind of game.

  6. Consonant Dude Says:

    I’m hitting a roadblock in my design. They’re all inter-related questions as you will see:

    -How many classes should my D&D have?
    -How flexible should they be, what will they cover?
    -Should I allow multi-classing?

    So selfishly, I’d be hoping you address those questions at large. I’ve noticed that you seem able to go in details without sacrificing playability, while I usually cut the fat whenever it gets too complicated.

    Right now, I’m leaning toward no multi-classing, which means probably having a more important number of base classes and some flexibility.

    I’m looking forward to reading more! BTW, Tommi over at Cogito, ergo ludo made me realize you’ve done work on TSoY. I am sorry I had not made the connection sooner but I’ve enjoyed some posts of yours at Clinton’s forum, I believe.

    (sorry for the name change. My profile had just been created and I am still getting used to wordpress)

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