Thursday, June 19, 2008


When it comes to a player choosing the nature of his or her character, here is what I allow: they can arrange their abilities, pick their race, their class, what weapons they choose to buy, and everything they do from the point where they enter the campaign (barring being put into slavery, of course). Up until that point, however, I determine what happens to them. And by that, I mean the die does.

To me, a great deal of the game IS randomness; just as a great deal of the world is. I’m a believer in chaos theory. But a player can mitigate the circumstances of his own background by how he chooses to place his ability scores at the outset.

Intelligence, like charisma, is another dumping ground for unwanted stats. Most players assume, very reasonably, that they’re going to play their characters pretty much the same way no matter what their stats are. They may condescend to play it a little dumb if their intelligence is 8; but they probably can’t play an intelligence above what they actually have…which I don’t mind. How does a 120 I.Q. person play 170 I.Q? Dice roll.

What I want is for players to understand what they’re doing when they’re sorting out those first six numbers into their abilities. I want them to pause really, really hard before they write that little “9” next to the “I”…I want them to consider the consequences of their actions.

Let’s face it: when we are talking about personality development, in real people and in fictional characters, it is not that important what we’re able to do or how others treat us. What defines us…really DEFINES us…is the fucked up things we do to ourselves.

Allowing players too much latitude in choosing what makes up their characters loses a lot of the potential flavor normally accorded to characters in fiction. No D&D player is going to say at the outset, “My character was really stupid and gambled all his money away, so now he’s destitute and can’t afford weapons or armor at first level.” Or, “My character was kicked by a mule at age 5 after taunting the mule incessantly…they couldn’t save the leg below the knee so my character has a peg leg.” Or even, “My character had to go to prison to satisfy his father’s debts…so please increase my age by eleven years to compensate for that.”

Yet this shit happens. No one wants it to happen, but it does, and any background system should include the possibility…even if the players HATE it.

Which they don’t, in my experience. In fact, they love it. They love being able to make fun of someone else’s misfortune, or even their own—once they have to accept that the misfortune is unchangeable. Just like real people do when they think back on THEIR past mistakes. Make fun of it and move on.

Here is the Intelligence table. It works like yesterday’s charisma table, and includes positive as well as negative things. But the negative is, I admit, worse than the positive. Which is as it should be…life sucks and blows, it doesn’t usually steam like a dream.

Gah. I sicken myself sometimes.

"Proficiency" means another weapon. I admit I've been somewhat casual in the creation of these tables. I know what the words mean; I will expand in answer to any questions.

The DM must be prepared to give ready explanations for some of these things: how did the person lose a leg, why was the person put in jail, what cleverness ended in the writ of passage…its not that hard. Take the player’s suggestion, if you like, but realize that all players try to hedge the odds in their favor. I wouldn’t trust any of them, if I were you…you might find yourself approving some story that will come back later to bite you in the ass. Nope, you really ought to shoot your own dog when it comes to this. Make the player figure out a way to make it a good thing. Mistakes build character, remember.

The worst result I’ve yet had in my world is the female cleric (now sixth level) is missing a hand. It is a bitch. She can get herself a hook, but being a cleric she can’t use it as a weapon. Most heavy going clerical weapons require two hands (morning star, military pick, quarterstaff, flail)…so that even though she has weapon proficiencies, she can’t fill them.

Total actual complaints that I’ve received from the player, encouraging me to give her hand back? None. And that’s taking into account that the character had been playing and had advanced to fourth level before I brought this system in. Which means reality blinked and hey, she was missing a hand.

I don’t let things like that worry me. I’m bringing in rule changes all the time, sometimes they test poorly and we drop them. But I’m not going to let a little thing like the player already having used a morning star to gain 9,000 X.P. stand in the way of my campaign.

Besides…it encouraged me to invent a mechanical hand (7-9 thousand g.p.), along with “faerie oil” (400 g.p. cost per month)…if she wants a second hand that bad. She hasn’t decided yet if she wants to outlay the expense. After a couple more levels, I don’t think expense will be a problem. An annoyance, maybe…


Anonymous said...

One of the most common questions I get from new players is, "What's the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom".

I don't suppose you have an economical answer for that?


Alexis said...

I do. Intelligence is how well you can think. Wisdom is how much you've learned.

Think of it as the difference between the processor and the storage.

noisms said...

I rather liked the explanation given in, I think, the Basic D&D box: Wisdom tells you it's likely to start raining soon; Intelligence tells you to put on a coat.

Or maybe it was the other way around...

Alexis said...

Wang Chi: "A brave man likes the feel of nature on his face, Jack."

Egg Shen: "Yeah, and a wise man has enough sense to get out of the rain."

Spazalicious Chaos said...

I always ruled that Wisdom is your ability to gather data (using your senses, reading people, etc.) whereas Intelligence is how well you can evaluate that data. Thus, high Wis low Int is observant, but not the best person to plan anything, while high Int low Wis is often blind sighted but can prepare like the bastard child of Batman and the A Team.

Also, loved your bit on sucky backgrounds, and agree with the bit on players often loving shitty background elements. I had a player who could wait to play her bard precisely because she died of mad cow disease in prison, only to be resurrected by an imprisoned cleric so that the guards wouldn't "quarantine" the area (ie burn everything, including prisoners.)

Thriftomancer said...

I'm very late to the party here, but curious: For a new character applying that chart as the dice decreed makes total sense. The player just has to make it work. But for an extant character who has already built up a persona and history through play, enforcing a random background that may or may not fit with the in-game events that have already occurred seems like it would rip away a huge chunk of the player's agency.

As a DM, is there a reason you implemented it that way instead of waiting for a new campaign to start or only applying it to new PCs as they swapped in?

"... the character had been playing and had advanced to fourth level before I brought this system in. Which means reality blinked and hey, she was missing a hand."

Especially, why did you implement it like that, with a retconning reality blink? Why not say "All right, the dice say you're going to lose that hand. Let's make it dramatic." then handle it though play in an upcoming session?

It feels off to interfere with player agency like that, so I'm wondering if there was a specific reason for it.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The situation described in the example happened because I did not invent this rule until after the character had reached fourth level. When the character had been starting out, the rule didn't exist. Having created it, I then asked all the players if they wanted the backgrounds to be added to their characters and they agreed, yes.

With that one-time exception, I never apply this system to characters except at the point of introducing new characters into the campaign.

Thriftomancer said...

Your players sound like a fun bunch of mavericks to take that risk, then run with the results.

Did the cleric ever end up getting that magic prosthetic? (I like the idea of a having recurring cost in order to use a body part.)

Alexis Smolensk said...

She did eventually get the prosthetic. Not long after, however, she moved away and did not stay with the game.

I was careful to warn the players before introducing the dynamic, and gave them an individual choice whether or not to opt in. The players were so interested in the concept, they were anxious to accept the consequences.

You should know that the post above was written in 2008. There have been many advances since then. I would be sure to look at my wiki page for the Character Background Generator, which you can download and which automates the process, adding many more results than the post above offers, for all the player's stats. Other players have added to the concept since, and will be happy to share with you their versions. See this post to communicate with them.