Category Archives: Advice

How to Make a Ranger (or, How to Use this Website, Episode 1)

by Steve McKenzie

The Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game Core Rules were first released on this website in 2006, after much preliminary work on the Dragonsfoot forum. Since then, they’ve been edited many times. In addition, a wealth of supplementary material has grown up around the Core Rules. It’s an open source project, and the owner, Chris Gonnerman (or, ‘Solomoriah’), has encouraged many others to participate in the creation of new material for the game.

When you are planning your first Basic Fantasy campaign, there’s a range of things to bear in mind about this supplementary material. This blog post is designed to give you some ideas about how to select the appropriate supplements for the game you want to run.

The best way to get your head around the supplement system is to read the text at the beginning of the Downloads Page. That will show you how the material is categorized. For this blog post I am only looking at common Download and Showcase items, as the Workshop items are works in progress.

Many of the most frequently-downloaded supplements are adventure modules and campaign settings, such as the classic Morgansfort campaign. These are designed for use with the Core Rules and will work well with supplementary rules material too. The website also contains a variety of monster supplements, character sheets and other printable forms. Once again, these are all designed for use with the Core Rules and you can use whichever of these you like without concern.

Finally, there a wide array of rules supplements. These detail extra races, character classes, optional rules for existing classes, new magical spells, optional rules for combat, skill systems, and much more. It is only when you select these rules supplements that you need to be aware of how their use may affect the style and balance of your game.

For this blog post I’ve decided to concentrate on the ‘Ranger’ sub-class of Fighter and make some observations on how to pick the right supplementary rules for that class in your game.

Variant Versions

As this is an open source project with input from participants over many years, it is natural that there are variant versions of the same archetypes presented. For example, there are 5 main versions of a ‘Ranger’ type sub-class of Fighter on the website as I write this post:

– the Ranger in the Rangers and Paladins supplement (HD8, 2200 exp to 2nd level, fighter sub-class, stealth skills, percentile tracking, bow specialization, chosen enemy).

– the Scout by Jason Brentlinger (HD6, 1500 exp to 2nd level, thief sub-class, most thief skills, bow specialization, surprise, percentile tracking,  dual weapons, armor limitations).

– the Hunter in the Quasi-Class showcase supplement (HD as base class, exp +500 on base class, treat as base class, stealth, percentile tracking, woodcraft, chosen enemy).

– the Ranger presented by William Smith in his Fighter Subclasses supplement (HD 8, exp 2000 to 2nd level, fighter sub-class, unarmored AC bonus, stealth, percentile tracking, healing, bow specialization, extra damage vs. humanoids).

– the Hunter in Additional Fighting Subclasses (HD 8, exp 2000 to 2nd level,  fighter sub-class, some armor limitations, stealth, chosen enemy, percentile tracking, general outdoorsmanship).

All are different expressions of the basic woodsman archetype, although the expressions are very different. Most of them are ‘treated’ as sub-classes of Fighter, meaning the character fights and saves as a normal Fighter according to the Core Rules. The Scout is a sub-class of the Thief with outdoors expertise, and the Hunter ‘Quasi-Class’ is a template that can be added onto any base class (see below).

The first and most important question when designing your game, do you even want Rangers? If you are running a game set primarily underground or in a city, you might want to forgo these options, and concentrate primarily on material that will bring out the best in your particular game and the characters in it. The Assassins supplement, for example? Or the Scrapper, for all those bar-room fights that might break out?

If you decide that you do want Rangers in your game, there are a few key things to bear in mind.

Compatibility and Overlap

As there are numerous different versions of the same ideas, it is also natural that some of the material presented here will not be fully compatible with rules in other supplements. Sometimes that’s because of overlap, at other times because of a contradiction. You’ll need to change or alter any rules that don’t seem to work.

For example, the Scout supplement notes that the Scout character may wield two weapons at the same time, giving either a defensive bonus from parrying with the smaller off-hand weapon, or, an additional attack at a penalty. The supplement suggests that it is only the Scout who specializes in this mode of combat. However the Combat Options Supplement states that any character may wield with two weapons, with very similar advantages as the Scout.

You may decide to treat the rules presented in the Scout supplement as a handy duplication of the rules in the Combat Options Supplement. In my campaign, however, I have decided that it is only the Scout character who may wield two weapons. That gives the Scout a certain flavor in combat that no other character possesses.

As another example, the Hunter in the Quasi-Class Supplement and the Hunter in the Additional Fighting Classes Supplement are very similar. They’re both by the same author (Kevin Smoot). The first is just a treatment of the class as a Quasi-Class, while the second is as a proper class. You probably don’t need both in your game. Pick the supplements that are going to work best for the game you want and ignore others that duplicate the same concepts.

What’s a Quasi-Class?

The Quasi-Class concept was developed by Kevin Smoot and furthered by Martin Serena, both long-term contributors to the game. Instead of having entirely new classes for the Ranger, Paladin, and so on, the Quasi-Class system treats these as “add-ons” to the base classes, with an additional amount XP required for the character to advance in level. If you wished to turn a Fighter into a Ranger, you could simply chose the Ranger Quasi-Class option, and that would become the official version of the ‘Ranger’ in your game.

The Quasi-Class system is simple, but also very flexible, because the add-ons can be applied to any of the base classes, not just the most obvious ones. For instance, if you wished to have a Magic-User who was raised outdoors and knew many secrets of woodcraft, you would add the Ranger Quasi-Class to the Magic-User base class. That would create an unusual and memorable character.

Note that the Quasi-Classes can only be applied to the base classes, not to other specialized classes. For example, you shouldn’t have a Monk and then add on the Ranger Quasi-Class. Ideally, if you pick the Quasi-Class system, that should serve all the additional class needs for your game. If you can’t see a Quasi-Class that suits your needs, make your own.

Weapon Specialization

You’ve already seem that your Ranger will probably have some kind of weapon and attack specializations – typically with the bow, or against certain enemy types. There are 3 main supplements that deal with weapon specializations for Fighter characters:

– the Combat Options Supplement (level-based).

– the rules in Simple Weapon Mastery (level-based).

– the Fighter Options rules in the Sword and Board house-rule set (one-off bonuses).

Clearly, only one of these systems can be used in your game. The first two are general rules supplements, while the third one is part of an entire ‘house-rule’ set made by a particular DM, which will have some internal logic and consistency already. The first two supplements see the character gain extra bonuses with specific weapons as they level up, whereas the third one applies a one-off bonus at 1st level. Pick the one you like best.

Note that all of the systems all specifically for pure Fighter classes, not sub-classes or Quasi-Classes, who already have their own combat bonuses. If you allowed all the Fighter sub-classes (like your Ranger) to access weapon specialization options as well, you would end up with characters having extremely high bonuses at lower levels compared to the basic Fighter class, and this would unbalance your game.

Tracking

All of the different types of Ranger described above use a percentile system for determining if the Ranger character can track enemies or animals. It’s the same way Thief Skills work in the Core Rules. There’s also an entire supplement which extends the Thief Skill system to cover the activities of Rangers, Assassins and Bards.

Ability Rolls for ‘Woodcraft’

But there’s a lot of other things the Ranger can do besides tracking, right? Like gathering food, finding or making shelter, lighting fires in unfavorable conditions, using smoke signals, and generally ‘roughing it’? How do you handle all of that? There’s no way you could write a rule system that could cover every possible thing a player might attempt.

The ability roll system in BFRPG determines success by a roll on a d20, aiming to get higher than the target number listed in the Core Rules (page 153 in the current release 107, under Optional Rules). This system gives the character a target number on a d20 based on their level, when attempting something outside of the Core Rules or their Class Supplement. Ability modifiers apply, and as GM, it’s your job to pick which ability is relevant to what the character is attempting. Gathering food is probably based on Wisdom, but you might decide that recognizing a type of plant is based on Intelligence.

The ability roll system is based on the idea that every type of character can attempt any type of action not covered in the Core Rules. A Cleric could find food by making a ‘Wisdom’ ability roll, for example, or a Thief could make a roll to construct a shelter with the same type of roll. Generally, all the supplements agree that adventurers know how to adventure. It’s a basic game, and your players may get frustrated if you tell them that they are utterly incapable of doing these things.

But shouldn’t the Ranger be better at all of that stuff than his city-slicker allies? Certainly. The Ranger has additional skill in woodcraft, acquired through his background, that gives him a bonus on these rolls. There’s three main supplements on the website that detail these background skills.

– Background Skills by Omer Golan-Joel. This gives each character a background skill slot, which they can spend on a skill based on their profession. It suggests that characters with a background skill (in woodcraft, for example) should only need to make an ability roll under very difficult circumstances, otherwise they will automatically succeed in their attempted actions in that area. Other characters without the skill will need to roll more frequently.

– Secondary Skills by Ray Allen. This is a more complex system which still uses the ability roll mechanic but sets variable target numbers depending on whether the skill is a ‘class’ or ‘non-class’ skill. Survival is listed as a general skill which means anyone could attempt it with a standard ability roll. A +1 bonus is granted for anyone who has the survival skill.

– Finally there is Alexander Lars-Dalman’s Tiny Skill Companion. It doesn’t actually provide a list of skills, but details exactly what bonuses on ability rolls a character would receive for having skills at various levels of expertise.

All three systems note that more ‘slots’ or skill points become available at higher levels, so your Ranger can become better at outdoor activities over time. Your higher level Ranger might end up greatly superior to his companions in this area.

If you decide to have background skills, remember that these three systems are not compatible so pick the one you like best and grant your Ranger the woodcraft skill. You could either do that for free, or make the character purchase it with one of his background skill slots. (In my campaign I usually pick the first option because I do not want characters having to pay for things that should already be part of their class package.)

As a final note, there is also an Adventuring Supplement which details many aspects of outdoor adventuring not covered in the Core Rules – weather, chases outdoors, sleeping in armor, effects of terrain, and so on. This is generally pretty compatible with most of the other supplements.

What about Companion Animals?

Many fantasy role-playing games grant the Ranger an expertise with animals, and some even grant the Ranger a special companion animal which serves in almost the same way as a wizard’s familiar.

None of the existing Ranger classes have this feature so if you want it, you’ll have to add it. Bear in mind that such animals can be very useful, and their addition may make the Ranger much more powerful than some of his fellow adventurers.

The best source for rules on animal training is in the Secondary Skills system by Ray Allen. It details all the tricks a trained animal can perform. In my campaign I would not allow animals to be used for guarding, tracking or combat unless the character in question had sufficient background skills levels in animal handling.

Do I even Need a Ranger Class to have Rangers?

It’s possible to have a character that behaves like a Ranger in your game without necessarily having a Ranger class. You could take this option if you just want to stick to the Core Rules, but have a bit of extra flavor for your characters.

In this scenario, your Ranger is probably a plain Fighter. You would use weapon specialization rules listed above to give the character a specialization in bows, and also, grant them a background skill in woodcraft, meaning they were somewhat better at it than their fellow characters. Viola, a Ranger-flavored character without needing too many supplements!

Introducing Rules Progressively

Many DMs run BFRPG by introducing new rules as the game goes forward. That way, it’s not too much to handle all at once – especially for young and inexperienced players.

You might begin at 1st level by using the Core Rules and nothing else. Once again, your Ranger would be a plain Fighter. Then, at 2nd level, you could introduce the idea of background skills, to grant the character a bonus in woodcraft and / or animal handling. At 3rd level, you may wish to introduce the idea of weapon specialization, and the fighter would gain an advantage with bows. By 4th level, you might actually introduce a Ranger Quasi-Class or Class system into the game. (Bear in mind the Ranger will probably need a few more experience points to qualify for those.)

Next time…

If this post is useful to you, let me know in the comments. I’m intending to do another post on magic-users in the future.

Steve ‘Longman’ McKenzie.

 

Are Magic-Users Too Weak?

by Solomoriah

It’s a refrain I hear (or read) over and over again.  Magic-users are too weak, especially those first-level magic-users.  Imagine, just one spell a day… then all they do is stand around and be useless.

Except, that’s not how it works.  Let’s discuss as an example a party with four characters:  Darion the Fighter, Apoqulis the Cleric, Barthal the Thief, and Lucas the Magic-User.  They’re on their very first adventure together, investigating the Olde Island Fortress.

Darion has 1d8 hit points, and is armored in chain mail (as he could not afford plate mail for his first adventure).  Apoqulis is armored the same way, and has 1d6 hit points.  Assuming no special bonuses, with shields in hand they each have AC 16.  Barthal is in leather armor, and while he can’t use a shield, let’s assume he has a Dexterity bonus of +1 (he is a Thief, after all), making his AC 14.  Lucas is unarmored, AC 11, but of course he’ll be at the back of the party, out of reach of most monsters.  Being unarmored also means he has the fastest movement rate, 40′, so he can outrun the other party members.  Recall that when a bear is chasing you, you don’t have to outrun the bear, just your comrades…

So they enter the dungeon, and shortly they encounter a group of four goblins.  Now, goblins have 1-1 hit dice, so each of them has an average of 3.5 hit points.  Rather than deal with the details, let’s just say each has 3 hit points.  We’ll be nicer to the adventurers and round their hit points up, so Darion has 5, Apoqulis and Barthal 4 each, and Lucas 3.  The goblins do 1d6 damage, or 3.5 points on average, while Darion, Apoqulis, and Barthal average 4.5 points each.  Finally, note that goblins have an armor class of 14.

So they fight.  Without digging too deeply into the numbers, the adventurers have only a slight advantage over the goblins; the odds are in their favor, but it’s quite likely that the fight will be over in four or so rounds, with at least some of the survivors being injured.  Should the adventurers win, remember that Apoqulis does not yet have a healing spell available.

Most merciful GMs will allow a starting magic-user at least one offensive spell.  If Lucas has Magic Missile, he can probably kill exactly one goblin.  If he has Charm Person, he can take control of a goblin and at least remove him from the fight, if not actually turn him against his comrades.  If he has Sleep, it may be all over for the goblins in the first round.

If Lucas casts his one spell, and it’s anything other than Sleep, he probably removes one goblin from the fight.  His friends are still fairly likely to be injured; when the fight is over, one way or the other, they will probably need to withdraw from the dungeon to return another day.

And on that other day, Lucas will again have one spell available.

If Lucas has Sleep, well, it’s entirely possible the adventurers will breeze by the goblins without suffering any harm at all.  After Barthal trips lightly through the sleeping goblin’s ranks, slaying each in his turn, the adventurers can move on to the next encounter, and it is possible that Lucas will indeed stand around doing nothing while they fight.  Of course, the smart thing for Lucas to do is to carry some daggers for throwing, and use them to whittle down the back ranks of their next group of foes; his chance of hitting at first level is equal to all the other characters, after all, so why not?

At higher levels the comparison holds out.  For instance, assume the party is now 5th level.  Each of the adventurers has a magic weapon, and probably some form of magical protection (armor, ring, etc.)  If, in the course of gaining 5 levels, they have found any magic-user-only items such as wands, naturally Lucas has received them.  Meanwhile, the number of hits each of the “heavy hitters” can sustain has been multiplied by 5 times, so now they can fight much longer.  But still, by the time Lucas has exhausted his own magic (five spells, one of which might blow away a large monster or a group of smaller ones), the adventurers should be ready to call it a day.

If you find, in your game, that it doesn’t play out that way, ask yourself why.  Have you allowed the fighter and cleric to receive powerful magic weapons and armor, making them into walking tanks that deal death without suffering a scratch?  If you did that, did you also allow the magic-user to receive items of comparable power?

Before changing the rules to make the magic-user more powerful in an attempt to achieve parity with the other classes, you should consider whether the rules are really unbalanced, or whether you have (intentionally or otherwise) stacked the deck against the magic-user in the first place.

Single Creator Syndrome

by Solomoriah

Adventure writing is like any other form of writing in many ways.  For instance, every writer has a style, and with experience you can recognize it.  Style shows not only in the words the author chooses, but also in the concepts and philosophies he or she promotes.

Really, there’s nothing wrong with having a style, but it’s important to avoid letting your style make you too predictable, especially if it’s an adventure you’re writing.

I don’t know how many times, in discussions held in person or online, that a GM has said “I don’t use monster X because I don’t like it.”  Sometimes it’s a game mechanical thing, sometimes its more a factor of the monster’s imaginary ecology or role or backstory.  It really doesn’t matter why, though.

So the GM whose existence we are imagining creates a new adventure for his group of regular players.  They all know him, so they know his style.  And in the course of the adventure, an NPC hints at the presence of a vampire (for instance) and all the players think, nah, our GM doesn’t like vampires, and they don’t even take it seriously.

I call this “Single Creator Syndrome.”  It’s the opposite of the defect often called “Design by Committee,” but while perhaps a bit less lame, it’s still a defect.

I’ll digress a bit, into the world of fiction.  One of my favorite science fiction shows was Babylon 5, and anyone who is a true fan of the show knows that many of the episodes, including basically the entire last season, were written by one man, J. Michael Straczynski.  He’s one of my favorite all-around writers, and the show was a masterpiece.  But in the final episodes, wrapping up the aftermath of the Shadow War, I noticed that the main characters all seemed to hold the same beliefs.  Not just similar beliefs… they all believed exactly alike, to the point that I couldn’t have reliably told you whether any particular quote was from G’Kar or Captain Sheridan or Delenn.  The reason is simple… they all shared Straczynski’s beliefs.  Single creator syndrome.

Back on topic.  I’ve also heard many GMs say that they never use adventure modules.  That’s too bad, really, because using an adventure module written by another author is one of the easiest ways to escape from Single Creator Syndrome.  Oh, sure, you may still go through and change some things you really don’t like, but the overall adventure will still be in the author’s style instead of in yours.

Another, harder, way is to create NPCs who hold beliefs that disagree with yours, and then don’t let them be just cardboard cutouts.  Do some reading.  Read things written by people you don’t agree with, and remember that, in any reasonably large and expansive fantasy world, there should be at least a few people (or dragons, or whatever) who believe just like that.

Stretch a bit.  Use the monsters you usually don’t like, or which for some reason you’ve just omitted.  I hardly ever use giants, a weakness I’m trying to overcome.  It’s not that I dislike giants, I just never think of them when I’m choosing monsters.  So I’m strongly considering running J.D. Neal’s Saga of the Giants adventures (found on our Downloads page) as a way to overcome that weak point and surprise my players.

The point is, don’t let yourself fall into a rut.  Whether it’s a matter of running an adventure module, or changing things up in your dungeon design, don’t let Single Creator Syndrome take the fire out of your game.

Dungeon Ecology, and Other Religious Beliefs

by Solomoriah

I remember reading about the idea of having a proper “dungeon ecology” in the RPG magazines of the early 1980’s.  The fantasy RPGs of that era all included random dungeon generation tables, and many GMs would simply draw a map and then start rolling to fill in the rooms; this would lead to things like the stereotypical “dragon in a 10’x10′ room.”  So the RPG magazines of the era began publishing articles about planning your dungeons, really thinking about where you put the monsters, what they ate, even how they got air to breathe.

And yeah, this was an improvement, and a big one.  Not only was a sensible, logical dungeon design more pleasing to play, it allowed the players to actually reason about the adventure.  Having met an orc patrol, they might suspect the presence of a lair, for instance; or an encounter with a monster seemingly held prisoner behind a locked door would result in a search for its secret entrance.

Of course, this was more work, but it was worth it.  After all, everyone said it was, so it must be so, right?

Thus “dungeon ecology” became a thing that everyone was supposed to do.  All monsters had to make sense in the context of the imaginary environment, all treasures had to be reasonable, and all parts of the dungeon had to be assembled logically.

The only problem with that is, the real world doesn’t work that way.  So why should the fantasy world?

I’ve seen many old buildings where the arrangement of at least a few of the rooms makes little or no sense.  I recall an old school building where the third floor rest rooms were like handball courts, a few toilets lined up along one wall, sinks on another, and a bunch of empty space.  I think they were converted classrooms.  In another building, a staircase goes up to a blank wall where a doorway was closed off some time in the past.

I’ve seen large houses subdivided into offices, or apartments, or both, with varying degrees of strangeness left from the conversion.  I lived in such a house once, where I had a good lock on my main door keeping people out, but no lock on the attic stair door; that attic being connected directly to the other upstairs apartment.  They could have slipped in to my apartment and robbed me (though they’d have gotten little for the effort) or I could have done the same to them.  Of course, I put a lock on that door.

The point is, life is messy.  Plans get changed, items get repurposed.

Well, the true believer in dungeon ecology would say, then you need to think about that too.  When you design a dungeon, think about all the different creatures that lived there and how they would have changed or expanded the dungeon.

Gah.  That gets complicated fast, and there’s a better way.

Random tables.

Seriously.  Any adequately complex dungeon design of this sort, put together with all that deep thinking (which is hidden from the players, of course) will look pretty random in the end.  So go with the flow.  Roll up your rooms using the random design system of your choice (there’s one in the BFRPG Core Rules), and then go through the design with your map in front of you and think about what parts are pure nonsense.  Dragons in 10’x10′ rooms, for instance.  Rearrange, or change, whatever really doesn’t work, but don’t sweat the details.

Creating a dungeon shouldn’t be so much work that nobody wants to do it.  So why make it that way?

Note:  There’s another good reason to use random rolls at least part of the time for adventure design.  Stay tuned next time for “Single Creator Syndrome.”

What Are We Risking?

by Sir Bedivere

Chris has made a comment to the effect that if the player characters can’t get killed, there is no point in the game. I take this to mean that risking something makes the game meaningful, and I agree. However, these characters are inventions no more real than Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; how could it possibly matter if one dies? After all, if one is killed, we just roll up another. So, what exactly is it that we’re risking by making our characters genuinely mortal? Is there, in fact, any risk?

Some may say “No,” and those folks can stop here and go find something more interesting to read. I, on the other hand, think there are two ways to say “Yes.” But I’m only going to offer one here: What we risk is our own emotional involvement with the character and the game world: The more we are involved with the character, the more we risk.

This presents us with a dilemma: We need to be attached to a character to really be risking anything, but since Basic Fantasy is fairly lethal, it doesn’t make sense to create a character we are immediately attached to. Other games require a player to spend some time coming up with a somewhat detailed background, and that’s one way to develop player involvement in a character. The BF player shouldn’t do that; his character can die in the first encounter, and all that time will be wasted. If some attachment is necessary to care, a little detachment goes a long way to keeping the game fun.

I think the answer to the dilemma, quite naturally, goes back to something Chris said in the post, Special Snowflake Syndrome, “Player characters don’t begin as special snowflakes, all unique. They become that way by being played.”

Very existentialist for a role-playing game, and very right. We care little about our first level character because we hardly know him, but by fifth level he’s an old friend; we’ve been through a lot together.

Still, I want to care about that first level character, just a little, just enough to be risking something when he steps into that first musty, subterranean hallway. So, I answer one simple question about any new character I create: Why is he there? That usually results in a few sentences that tell me a lot about how to play the character, and which also give me a good base from which the PC can grow organically. That much, fifteen minutes maybe, is enough of an investment for me to be risking something.

What about you?

Special Snowflake Syndrome

by Solomoriah

While talking with a GM who is trying to bring his modern players into Basic Fantasy RPG, he mentioned how his players complain about the lack of class and race options in the game.  I won’t quote the player, as I don’t have his permission to do so, but in effect he said he didn’t feel his character was unique; he even indicated envy of another player who was apparently allowed to play a bugbear crusader.

This is, to me, an indication of something called “Special Snowflake Syndrome,” and sadly it happens in the real world almost as often as in games and fiction.  I visited the TV Tropes page on the subject and found this little tidbit:

Whether a character is interesting has nothing to do with how esoteric his background is and everything to do with how well he’s played.

I’ve mentioned in another post that, in the Old School, we (GMs) don’t write story.  Story is what happens when the players take up their dice and walk into our world.  Well, that sword has two edges… in the Old School, player characters don’t begin as special snowflakes, all unique.  They become that way by being played.

I am in no way saying you shouldn’t allow players to have characters of supplementary classes or races in your game.  What I’m saying is that you, as the GM, set the tone for your world.  Don’t allow a player to bring in a half-dragon shaman/acrobat just because he or she wants to be special and unique.  If you have many half-dragons in your world, and you allow shamans and acrobats (and you allow them as a combination), then yeah, you should expect your players to want to try that combo.  But don’t allow them just because the players beg and complain.

I played a character once, in a different game system, who was a human fighter.  He was the first character I played for any length of time, and to begin with, other than some decent ability rolls, he was hardly anything special.  But as time wore on, he became that way.  He did a service for the elves, and they gave him an uncommonly intelligent horse; he was fool enough to eat the heart of a strange creature that was half dragon, half basilisk, and upon surviving (one saving throw, at a penalty, and I was sweating bullets) he gained an extra measure of strength and an aura of power that awed ordinary people.  He could force a morale check by frowning, if his opponents had only a couple of hit dice or less.

He didn’t start out special.  He earned it, and by extension, I earned it.  It’s a far more interesting story than anything you can apply to a beginning character in your favorite modern game, because it actually happened (in the fictional sense, anyway).

What’s the difference, you ask?  If I had brought him in with those features already, and I tried to read the background to the GM or the other players, they’d be like, yada yada.  But the other players were there when we saved that elven village (they all got something too) and they were there when he foolishly ate the monster’s heart (and they were almost as interested as I was in the result of my saving throw).

We, that is, my group and I, all remember that classic adventure from the old days where everyone has the option to sit down and eat at the ghostly banquet.  You choose to eat each food, or drink each drink, as you see fit; each thing you eat or drink has some effect on you.  Some were good, some were bad, some were good if you made your save and bad if you didn’t, and if I remember right one was good if you failed your save, and neutral if you succeeded.  Some of the characters who went through that adventure (when I ran it for my “new” group a year or so back) are still around; one never needs to eat (but may if he wants to), while another can use ESP once per week.  Those characters, and their players, earned their dose of awesomeness in actual play.

Special snowflake syndrome is irritating enough in real life; why should we encode it in the rules of our games as well?

Storytelling

by Solomoriah

I’ve said before, in the Old School we don’t tell stories.  Story is what happens when the players pick up their dice and walk into your world.  If you, as the GM, try to plan what the players will do, and create a railroad to lead them through the story from start to finish, what do you do when they go off the rails?

But… we do tell stories.  Backstory.  How did that tower get toppled?  Who lived there before?  A wealthy and powerful warlord?  A great wizard, who might have left valuable magic laying around?  It’s through those stories you tell, through the mouths of your NPCs, that you entice your players into your world.

I’m a proponent of the “fast and loose” method of campaign world development.  The more you write down, the more you have created that the players will never see or appreciate.  Look at the classics of Sword & Sorcery fiction… they use a variety of shortcuts to make the world seem real, or at least interesting, without actually providing deep background material.

Not exactly S&S, but here’s one of my favorite examples:  “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

You just read that, and now you can see it in your mind’s eye.  I don’t know if the two men named (I’m 95% certain you imagined the gunslinger as a man) are on horseback in your imagination like they are in mine, but you can see the desert, and the man in black, and the gunslinger dressed in tan clothing rather like Marshal Dillon or Clint Eastwood.  If you don’t imagine it exactly as I do, I bet you still have a vivid image.

If you don’t recognize it, that’s the first line of the first Dark Tower book by Steven King, titled “The Gunslinger.”

Or look up the lyrics to the song “Badge” by Cream.  With just a few words, you begin to imagine the singer and the woman he is singing to.  You get their past relationship, and you are led to wonder about the things the singer is telling her.

You don’t need a deep description of the world to make it seem real (and interesting) to the players.  Don’t be afraid of stereotypes… they are the shorthand of the imagination.  You can set a scene very quickly by using stereotypical words, then as the scene unfolds, the players begin to realize those were just their first impressions.  Stereotypes are only bad, story-wise, when they trap you.  When you let each and every character be only a stereotype, with no actual depth.

The same things that work with characters work with worlds.  If an NPC swears “by the seven swords of Saviare” you know there’s a story there; it doesn’t have to be heavily detailed, but it can lead to an adventure if you play it right.  (It worked for me.)

Many are the times I read through Gary Gygax’s great tome of collected wisdom and wondered about the people and places named therein.  I wondered at the stories behind them, and the few times he told those stories, I was always entranced reading them.

The secret is not to show everything, or tell everything.  Keeping some mystery in your storytelling is important.  And if you’re going to do that, don’t bother writing down in detail 1,000 or 2,000 or 10,000 years of your campaign world’s history.  You won’t remember it all, and if you do, you’ll never have an opportunity for your players to appreciate it.  Keep it short, just notes to remind you of the main parts.

After all, people in the real world don’t really know history nearly as well as they’d like to think.  Why should it be different in the campaign world?  So you, in the guise of an NPC, tells the players about the defeat of the great clan of Senarius, and later another NPC tells a contradictory story.  Even if it is, in fact, you who have remembered wrong or otherwise screwed up, why worry about it?  Make it part of your world.