I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Old School Ramblings #2 - Your character isn't special

Read part I to see where I'm coming from, and some sources. Also, see this post  by James Maliszewski, and Matt Finch's Primer. In any case, keep in mind that "old school gaming" is hard to define, and a lot of it is in in the eye of the (metaphorical) beholder.

Behold! The old school beholder.
This week, I'm discussing another trait of (what I see as) old school D&D: your character isn't special. At least at the start.

Take the original D&D (1974), for example. Starting characters are very frail in OD&D. They have little HP and can be easily killed in one minute of fighting, no matter the weapons being used. Falling from a height of 10 feet can be a death sentence. In fact, even a house cat is a worthy adversary in some versions (although this is probably unintended). 1st level characters, sometimes, look more like victims or paws than heroes.

As far as abilities are concerned, characters are average people; their stats are defined by rolling 3d6 in order, which seems to be what you would expect from a random “commoner”, and they don't get any better with level. Fighters, specially, are sometimes defined as “normal men” (see this post from Delta). By switching this system by “4d6 pick highest”, for example, you make the characters inherently better than average, specially if abilities have greater bonuses than they do in OD&D.

Characters are mechanically similar to others in the same class, with differences depending on equipment and tactics more than personal characteristics. A fighter is almost identical to another fighter of the same level, all thieves share the same skill progression, and so on. Characters can be almost interchangeable, with hirelings taking the place of a slain PC. A common complaint against old school games is the lack of customization, but that is very in line with the rest of the rules.

Character's motivations are somewhat simplistic to non-existent. Everybody seems to be trying to make a buck, and alignment is simply a choice of faction, not a behavioral guide. They don't need ideals, bonds or personality traits, or, some would say, even a name at first. “Male Elf”, an anagram of your name, or some random pun will do.

It's easy to see how this characteristics play well with one another. For many people, losing a character can be very frustrating in any circumstances, but losing a character that you have spent a few hours creating is ten times worse, so is better to make character creation a quick affair.

One could even argue that by taking lots of options you're already investing too much in the character while you should be playing with it, instead, which is why random character generation might work better for such games (and sometimes char-gen is a mini-game unto itslef, with death being on the table - like in some editions of Traveller. This seem a bit extreme for me, but it would be cool for generating random stories of families, groups, etc).

By Jim Holloway, from the DCC RPG
Likewise, is hard to lose a character you played for a while. In fact, this seems to be the whole point of hit points (pardon the pun), as Dave Arneson explained:

" Combat in Chainmail is simply rolling two six-sided dice, and you either defeated the monster and killed it … or it killed you. It didn't take too long for players to get attached to their characters, and they wanted something detailed which Chainmail didn't have.
I adopted the rules I'd done earlier for a Civil War game called Ironclads that had hit points and armor class. It meant that players had a chance to live longer and do more. They didn't care that they had hit points to keep track of because they were just keeping track of little detailed records for their character and not trying to do it for an entire army. They didn't care if they could kill a monster in one blow, but they didn't want the monster to kill them in one blow."

Of course, this is quite cleverly implemented in D&D, since the more attached you get to the character the less chance she has of dying quickly or without warning.

That's why characters are harder to kill at higher levels, and resurrecting them becomes more viable. Surviving makes the characters stronger.

Background and advancement are one and the same.

Characters can BECOME special by the things they DO during the game. They certainly don't START special or have any RIGHTS to grandeur.

This is, in fact, one possible goal of the game (from the character perspective), according to Gygax:

"The ultimate aim of the game is to gain sufficient esteem as a good player to retire your character--he becomes a kind of mythical, historical figure, someone for others to look up to and admire."

A popular catchphrase among old school enthusiasts is that "character background is what happens in the first 3 levels" (I couldn't find the original source). Or as Mike Mornard puts it:

"The cool thing about your character was what you did in the game"

As you can see, this is obviously connect to the idea of "Story Later" I mentioned in the first post of this series. Starting the game with an elaborate background encourages you to see the game in terms of "stories" and "character arcs".

This kind of old school gaming where starting characters can die like flies is quite rare even in D&D. The desire to customize characters and make them though heroes from the beginning became common early on, and was fully adopted in most editions. Gygax himself allegedly used quite a few house rules that would make the game less lethal for starting characters.

Ultimately, the idea of fragile characters isn't too popular out of the "old school gaming" circles, and even in D&D it fell out of favor. WotC-era D&D characters have lots of HP, powers, details and options, from the very start.

These look like heroes...
Fourth edition, for example, has powerful characters, with lots of HP, from the very begging - they won't be dying in a single round anytime soon, and many people thought 4e combat was meant more as a balanced sport than a messy and bloody affair. Fifth edition, being somewhat of a compromise edition, takes a step back, but not really: death saving throws still make a character with 0 HP a bit more likely to wake up than to die.

Some games inspired by D&D make the distinction even more clearly. To mention just a few games I like:

13th Age: all characters start with “One Unique Thing”. They are very special from the very beginning. They also have relations with the Icons of the setting (creatures like Tiamat, Elminster or Bahamut) or attitudes towards them, and start with about 20 or more HP. Their skills are defined by customized, flavorful backgrounds, often invented by the players themselves.

Dungeon World: in this game, even character classes are special.  If you're a fighter, you're THE fighter, and there are no other fighters in the group (or the world, for that matter). As you create your character, you choose bonds and alignment (which is an unique “moral outlook”). Again, abilities are higher than average and you start with a fair amount of HP. You don't get much more powerful as the game progresses.

Dungeon Crawl Classics: DCC, unlike 13th Age and Dungeon World, goes through great lengths to maintain (or even improve) this old school style. It's right there in the blurb of the game (“You’re no hero”), but also in the rules: 3d6 in order, 1d4 HP, characters start at level 0, traits are selected by chance, etc. More famously, the game starts with a “character funnel”, in which each player controls various characters, most of whom will die early on. You're not supposed to get attached.

...these don't (art by Stefan Poag - DCC RPG).
No style is better or worse, of course, and there is subjectivity involved in the classification. Some games are in the middle of the road, and a game can conceivably do both at different stages, as every edition of D&D does to some extent.

Personally, I like both, and sometimes enjoy a middle ground. My own "new school" game, Days of the Damned, gives some "unique" stuff to every character, but keeps character generation somewhat simple, since it can be quite deadly. I played a few "old school" adventures with B/X inspired games, and had a GREAT time, but most of my current group seems to be more comfortable with more character customization and less random death.

The cool thing about old school lethality is that it sometimes feel like playing in hardcore mode, like some Nintendo game or Dark Souls - you might even have multiple lives in the form of new characters, but challenges seem more significant when the PCS lives are on the line, and great stories can be told - after the fact, remember - about their random misfortunes and demises.

The downside is that it may get a little addictive. Nowadays, I must confess that I don't enjoy playing a game as much if I see that the game master is focusing on some story rather than play, and I find non-lethal combat somewhat boring (although you can always have something else at stake).

As long as you're having fun, any style you do, but if you have never tried old school gaming, I would strongly recommend that you do. Even if you don't stick with it, it might make you see D&D (and RPGs in general) in a whole new way.


  1. I think you meant "fell out of favor" not "feel out of flavor".

    "but if have" needs a "you" in there.

    Please feel free to delete this comment.

    1. Thanks! No matter how many times I read it, I always miss some typos!