Posted on December 9, 2018
One of my regular campaigns is Greg Stafford’s masterpiece, King Arthur Pendragon. For those unfamiliar with the game system, the game is notable for providing game stats for characters in the form of traits and passions. When a player wishes to determine how their knight would behave in a given situation, or when they are confronted by extreme circumstances, they roll against their character’s traits and passions to determine how their character would behave. Naturally, as ever when rolling dice in an RPG, players must abide by the results of dice rolls irrespective of how they may prefer their character to behave. This system simulates knightly behaviour in Malory and other primary sources, where, for example, Lancelot goes mad and runs off into the woods for two years in response to being caught in bed with another woman by Guenever. Although this may sound antithetical to the sensibilities of old school play, it works beautifully in practice and is key to Pendragon‘s success.
I have been toying with this thought as I have reflected on potential replacements for the traditional alignment system in OSR games:
So what if we tried to retrofit a mechanical system to simulate personality traits to OSR games?
Inspired by playing Pendragon, I propose the use of a saving throw mechanic based on the saving throws of OSR games. The basic idea is that whenever a player wishes their character to act against a personality trait for which that character is known, they roll a saving throw against that trait. If they succeed, they may act however the player would want them to act. If they fail, they are compelled to act according to their personality trait.
For example, a notably proud character’s honour is affronted while on a diplomatic mission. Given the sensitivity of the mission, the player would prefer it if their character swallowed their pride and let the matter pass for now without further comment, perhaps secretly swearing revenge in the distant future. The referee asks the player to roll a save versus their pride. The character fails, and immediately challenges the offender to a duel as a result!
These mechanics would only suit certain styles of campaign, of course, and I cannot claim extensive play testing, so I hope you will let me know your thoughts and feedback especially if you try them out at your table! In the spirit of the OSR these mechanics are intended for the referee to make rulings rather than as prescriptive rules.
Every player character picks one or more character traits for which their character is known at character generation. The referee may choose to encourage the selection of traits with some sort of in character advantages – but it is suggested that player characters do not begin play with too many. Some example personality traits:
- Bigotted (against a race or group)
The chosen traits are recorded on the character sheet as a saving throw with a target number of 15.
Save vs Trait
When the referee or the player determines that the character’s personality trait is being tested by the situation, the player rolls a save versus the trait’s target number. A roll equal to or above the number succeeds, as per the usual saving throw procedure.
On a natural roll of 20, not only is the save made, but the character finds it easier to act against the trait in the future. Reduce the save’s target number by 1 for future saves vs this trait. If a trait is reduced to 1 in this fashion, the character has overcome the trait and need not save against it anymore.
On a natural roll of 1, not only is the save failed, but the trait becomes even more pronounced. Increase the save’s target number by 1 for future saves vs this trait. A trait cannot be increased beyond 20 in this way.
Gaining Traits in Play
Player characters often develop pronounced personality traits over the course of a long-term campaign. The referee may award the character a new trait (with a default starting value of 15) if they notice the character consistently exhibit a particular response/behaviour in similar circumstances. The character may also develop a new trait in response to a life-changing event. Such trait-saves may be more specific than those selected during character creation, for example:
- Love for a brother
- Hatred against a sworn enemy
- Heartbreak over the death of a lover
Losing a Trait
Other than reducing the trait-save’s target value by rolling lots of 20s as per the above, a character may lose a trait through making a successful save vs that trait in response to a major event or extraordinary circumstance. For example, a very proud character who makes a successful save versus their pride and debases themselves in a very public setting may forever overcome their pride in so doing. A character may also lose a trait (especially a very specific one) if it no longer makes narrative sense for them to have it. For example, if a character with hatred for a sworn enemy as a trait kills that sworn enemy in single combat, the trait is eliminated. If the character finds out that their sworn enemy isn’t really their father’s murderer and the whole basis for their hatred was false all along, the trait might be eliminated – unless they have another reason to hate them that is!
Referee Advisory Warning
The referee will need to carefully consider the selection of traits and their suitability for the campaign in question. If the game uses the regular alignment system alongside trait-saves, then the referee may also wish to be careful not to allow personality traits which overlap with features of various alignments. It is better for personality traits to be selected which a player may occasionally wish to act against. This does not limit traits to “vices” as opposed to virtues, however. A virtue in one situation may be a vice in another. A notably honest character may wish to tell white lies or withhold the whole truth from time to time, for example! At the same time, it is better to avoid traits which the player will always wish to act against – this can lead to unnecessary conflict and arguments at the table as the player objects to their character being too regularly “compelled” to behave in a certain fashion by the dice.
Posted on December 7, 2018
As mentioned in my previous post, level 0 characters can be a lot of fun. Since a level 1 character starts with 0 XP, a level 0 character does not “level up” to level 1 by gaining XP, but rather by achieving a narrative milestone of some description. One such milestone could be the completion of an apprenticeship. In this post, I am going to consider apprenticeships for human characters leading to the standard four classes in Basic D&D. But first…
Levelling Up to Level 1
When your level 0 character attains level 1, the character immediately gains the full benefits of their chosen character class. This potentially includes a new hit die to replace their racial hit die. Roll the new hit die and apply Consitution modifier as normal. If the result is more than your character’s maximum hit points at level 0, then the result becomes the character’s new maximum hit points. If the result is less, then your character keeps the same hit point maximum as they had at level 0.
Humans can be clerics, fighters, magic-users, or thieves. A level 0 human character gains their first level of a character class once they complete an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships generally last several years of in-game time – thus most apprentice characters will be several years in to their apprenticeship at the time play begins. All of the apprentices given below are level 0 humans, but they have an additional ability reflecting their in-progress training as compared to other level 0 humans. All apprentices have the same weapon and armour proficiencies as level 1 characters of the same class.
Apprentice clerics assist fully-fledged clerics of their orders. Generally, they serve and learn from one high-level cleric of their order who has retired from active adventuring. The high-level cleric tends a temple or major holy place, and has pastoral duties to a congregation of worshippers. The apprentice cleric assists the high-level cleric during ceremonies of worship and other religious rituals. In some orders, apprentice clerics also perform menial tasks like cleaning the temple, or mundane but important religious tasks, like distributing alms to the poor. In addition to performing these duties, the apprentice cleric studies in the temple’s scriptorium, learning from the sacred texts. When the apprentice cleric masters the teachings of their religion (which typically takes 7 years), the high-level cleric recommends that the apprentice be ordained as a fully-fledged cleric of the order. The order may impose some sort of exam, trial, or test of faith before a hierophant of the order ordains the apprentice as a cleric.
Apprentice clerics may cast spells from clerical scrolls just like level 1 clerics. This is the only way they can cast spells.
Apprentice fighters can take many forms, and most fighter “apprenticeships” are not formalised arrangements. Knights train their squires to become knights – and this is the most formal sort of apprenticeship for a fighter. The institution of knighthood and the training a squire undergoes is really a matter for its own article (and in many OSR games, its own character class as distinct from the typical fighter). Less formalised and prolonged than squire training is the on-the-job training in soldiering a conscript receives on the march. An apprentice fighter receives training in arms and armour, but is not yet “blooded” to any significant extent. A squire typically serves a knight for seven years before being knighted themselves, completing their apprenticeships. A common soldier’s training is much shorter, and their “apprenticeship” could be considered to consist of the whole period from the start of their basic training up until their first battle.
An apprentice fighter can wield any weapon, use shields, and wear any armour, just like level 1 fighters.
Magic-Users must study the arcane arts for years, and never really finish their “training” in that they are always studying and learning throughout their careers. The point at which they cease to be defined as an apprentice is the point when they stop depending on their master to teach them new spells and techniques, and develop the ability to learn for themselves. This can take a decade or more. An apprentice serves a high-level magic-user who has retired from active adventuring, their master. The master passes on their magical lore to their apprentice in miserly drips and drabs over that time, while the apprentice assists their master in the laboratory and library, helping their master perform unspeakable experiments in sorcery. More than a few apprentice magic-users have had their apprenticeships brought to an early end through spellcraft experiment gone wrong! Apprentice magic-users also perform the mundane and menial tasks about their master’s abode which cannot (or have not) been eliminated through the use of magical cantrips for the purpose.
Apprentice magic-users can cast spells from scrolls prepared by their master. If they use this ability to cast the spell read magic from a scroll written by their master on a scroll written by another magic-user (or elf), then they can cast spells from that scroll too. Apprentice magic-users cannot create scrolls themselves.
Thieves Guilds in major cities employ large numbers of apprentice thieves, who learn their craft performing petty crimes. Apprentice thieves start young, and Guilds have up to a dozen apprentice thieves for every master thief in residence. The attrition rate is horrific, since apprentice thieves are easily apprehended while their skills are still in the formative stage. Nevertheless, there are always plenty of apprentice thieves about, since every major city has enough desperate young people without better options available to them. Thief apprenticeships vary in length considerably, since some apprentices pick up the trade faster than others, and since the apprentice themselves decides when to leave the relative safety of the Guild to seek their fortune. An apprentice thief may serve as little as eighteen months as an apprentice before striking out on their own, or up to five years or more.
Apprentice thieves select any two thief skills from the list of skills for a level 1 thief. They have those two skills at the same level as a level 1 thief. This skill selection should represent the sort of petty crime the apprentice thief specialises in (e.g. pick pocket, cat burglar, etc).
Apprentice Starting Gold
Human apprentices start with 3d6 x 5 gold pieces.
Demihuman characters may also serve apprenticeships while they are level 0, much like human characters. However, since these level 0 characters already have racial special abilities (e.g. infravision), they do not have any other apprenticeship abilities. Since demihumans are longer lived than humans, demihuman apprenticeships are generally of a longer duration. Elven apprenticeships in particular may last for decades!
Posted on December 3, 2018
Level 0 characters are generally NPCs. They have no levels of any character class (hence they are level 0 as opposed to level 1), and represent ordinary, non-adventuring people in the game world. Sometimes, it can be fun for players to (generally briefly) play level 0 characters at a start of a campaign so that they can define some of the character’s “backstory” in play. Some simple rules for doing this are presented here for Basic variants of the world’s most popular roleplaying game and its simulacra.
Level 0 Character Creation
- Roll ability scores (as usual)
- Choose character race (human, dwarf, elf, halfling). Do not pick a character class.
- Roll hit points (using racial hit die instead of class hit die).
- Choose alignment (as usual)
- Choose languages (as usual)
- Rolling starting money and buy equipment (as usual)
- Complete biographical details (as usual)
All level 0 characters must roll 20 To Hit Armour Class 0. Note the hit die and saving throws for your chosen race from the table below:
Humans can go on to be clerics, fighters, magic-users, or thieves when they reach level 1.
Dwarves require at least Constitution 9. They have the usual special abilities at level 0:
- Detect Traps & Construction Tricks on 2 in 6.
- Infravision up to 60 feet
Elves require at least Intelligence 9. They cannot cast spells at level 0, but have the other usual special abilities:
- Detect Secret Doors on 2 in 6.
- Immunity to Ghoul Paralysis
- Infravision up to 60 feet
Halflings require at least Dexterity and Constitution 9. They get no bonuses to missile attacks or initiative, but have the other usual special abilities:
- Halflings get a bonus to AC (-2) when fighting creatures greater than human-size because of their size.
- Hide in bushes when outdoors (90% chance)
- Hide in shadows in dungeons (2 in 6 chance)
Reaching Level 1
Since level 1 characters start with 0 XP, it follows that level 0 characters do not gain experience points in the conventional sense. Instead, a level 0 character has to pass a narrative milestone determined by the referee which represents the character’s transition from “normal life” to a career as an adventurer. Possibly, the character must complete some sort of apprenticeship period in order to “level up” to level 1. To become a cleric, they may have to serve for a period in the temple as an acolyte, for example.