Comparative Character Generation, Part 6

The Last Roundup

Frank Mitchell

Sep 16, 2010

This, the last installment, will take a look at some other interesting systems, detail some possible campaigns, and try to make sense of all this mess.

The Story So Far

In the first installment I considered six relatively light-weight, generic, modifiable role-playing systems. In the following installments, I looked at variations of d20. In the most recent installments, I finished with d20, and looked at various others.

Some criteria for consideration include:

  1. How long it takes to translate a character concept to a valid character? How complex is character generation?

  2. What are each character's chances of success in a conflict? How long does it take to compute them? Do the results violate common sense or basic physics?

  3. How well does character generation reflect the original concept?

  4. What style of play does the system support: gritty vs. cinematic, story-oriented vs. combat-oriented?

  5. How complex are the rules? Can a new player or GM pick them up in a few minutes? Hours? Sessions?

Additional considerations for the final choice:

Addressing criterion #1, I've collected character generation times in previous installments:

GameTime (mins)
PDQ Plain5#
Terra Incognita (Fudge)30######
ASCB (Fudge)20####
FATE 2nd ed45#########
Call of Cthulhu25#####
HeroQuest 1st ed20####
GURPS Lite, 4th Edition45#########
D&D (Standard)45#########
D&D (Generic)45#########
True2020####
Labyrinth Lord15###
Warhammer 2nd ed30######
Traveller45#########
New World of Darkness: Mortal30######
New World of Darkness: Hunter50##########
New World of Darkness: Psychic40########
Savage Worlds30######
Barbarians of Lemuria15###
Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies (PDQ Sharp)10##
Wushu5#
Risus1|
Legends of ...1|

Meanwhile, A Quarter Century Ago

Over the years I've run across several other promising or inspirational systems, which I'll touch on "briefly":

Our Story Concludes

A man can generate only so many characters before he gets tired. Most other systems are variations on the systems we've seen so far, so I don't see the point in working yet more examples. To summarize the three systems mentioned last time:

My original point for this series -- and I did have one -- is to pick on a system for my next campaign. Having run a very short-lived BRP campaign, it's obvious system is only one factor, but I'd still like to find systems I'm comfortable with, and suited to the genre(s) I might try next.

Analysis

What I run depends heavily on what sort of players I can find, what setting strikes my fancy, and what sort of support the system has for my chosen genre or setting. From the previous five installments, I've narrowed the field.

d20 or not d20

For the most part, NOT d20; 3.x is a sprawling mess that I don't want to tame, and 4e just leaves me cold. If I do anything D&D-related, I'll go with retro-clones. I'd only consider d20-related derivatives that simplify d20 (e.g. True20, Mutants & Masterminds, or some flavor of Microlite), and only if they had well-developed and interesting settings attached (e.g. Call of Cthulhu d20 or "Iron Heartbreakers" for Microlite 20).

"Rules-Light"

If I'm not going to run The Worlds Most Popular Role Playing Game (TM), I want simple rules I can explain in ten minutes, character generation that takes no more than half an hour, and mechanics that play fast at the table. Most of the games I've considered meet those criteria, with Warhammer 3rd edition and many versions of D&D notable exceptions.

I'd also like to say character generation should take no more than half an hour, but that eliminates GURPS, Traveller, and anything but mortal-level New World of Darkness. GURPS I could work around with templates and restricted options, and Traveller arguably builds a history in addition to working out stats. For nWoD, though, I've got nothing; it takes as long as it takes.

Granted, players can amortize character generation over the number of sessions that character survives, but new players may not want to make that initial investment. Depending how many players I have, I'd consider building the first characters. In games with random character generation steps, I can roll up enough characters for half again the number of players, and let them choose.

Generic or Specific

An age-old question -- well, as old as HERO System, anyway -- is whether a game-specific system beats a generic system. A system applicable to multiple genres reduces the learning curve for subsequent campaigns, but a customized system can fit the game's genre more closely.

Generic systems have proven successful in some areas. Chaosium has adapted its house system to more than a dozen games, a few of them classics, and Mongoose produced a work-alike for their version of RuneQuest. HERO expanded from superheroes to nearly every other genre, even Lucha Libre. Even detractors of GURPS buy their supplements because of the wealth of game-ready information they contain. Savage Worlds has more than half a dozen settings, notably a revised Deadlands and a few set in space.

On the other hand, the d20 boom and bust, coupled with the coming of 4e, demonstrates problems with generic systems. Some makers of d20 settings that didn't go under converted existing d20-based games to their own systems. Fantasy Flight Games's Grimm developed its own Linear D6 system, Mongoose moved their Judge Dread and Babylon 5 lines to Traveller, the most recent version of Mutants & Masterminds has moved away from d20 compatibility, and on and on.

Since I'm lazy, I'll use generic or almost-generic systems if they already support the genre I'm planning to do, or when I can't find a suitable specific system. That is, if I don't like existing systems in the same genre, or I can't find any systems that do what I want, then I'll have no choice but to cook up something in a more general system.

"Old School"

In a previous installment, I said some harsh things about the "Old School Renaissance". Most of them I still stand by, but Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing_ opened my eyes. Not only does it resolve the Thief skills issue, it integrates rule improvements from d20. It looks like a game I'd actually play (or run), not a mere exercise in nostalgia like the OSR movement sometimes appears.

To some extent I agree with "Old School" sentiments: players using their brains instead of their dice, conflicts resolved simply and quickly (by GM fiat or dice) instead of hunting through a rulebook for the pre-defined answer, fragile mortal PCs over invincible heroes, and combat as a sometimes unacceptable risk instead of a guaranteed fair fight. I also agree that GMs should improvise actions from die rolls, and avoid adding up every little bonus or penalty. I do part company with them in believing that giving players some control over the narrative adds to the experience, that the old ways aren't necessarily best, and that skill systems used well can enable richer and more diverse games.

In other words, I'd like to try gaming "old school" ... as long as Old School includes not only early D&D but RuneQuest, Traveller, and The Fantasy Trip.

The Strange Case of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3e, after so many interesting hints, proved to have too many fiddly bits for me. Some individual bits I might steal, like using pawns, cards, and tokens to indicate relative positions of characters and scenery, conditions that apply to each PC, lost/remaining hit points, remaining fate/drama points, or reminders of spells and special talents. The stance meter is an interesting mechanic, as is a heterogeneous pool of dice. Throwing them all together in the same game, with recharge tokens, career cards, action cards, talent cards, recharge tokens, ally cards, and the rest, just didn't work for me.

Just like 4e, a game that requires cards and tokens just to keep track of applicable rules has too many rules. Both games also share an unfortunate "core rules on the installment plan" ethos. whether it's $30 boxed sets or a $30 Player's Handbook 2

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2e, which I spoke approvingly of earlier, has fewer fiddly bits, albeit more bookkeeping. WFRP2 is heavily wedded to the Warhammer world, not that that's bad. That does mean my dream of porting my low-magic worlds to WFRP2 would require almost as many lobotomies and grafts as a d20 port.

Great Artists Steal

Even during my unemployment, I've learned the value of using published material. I simply can't write every adventure, since I have at least a few responsibilities. So, rather than labor over some wacky idea that might or might not interest other people, I'll start with as much existing material as possible, then fill in gaps as needed.

A game system must have a lot of existing support, even if it's out-of-print but reasonably priced. No support, no chance.

Settings and Systems

So what genres will I try next? Here's an overlong list of possibilities, with what seem like sensible system choices.

Note that FATE 3.0, PDQ/PDQ Sharp, and Basic Roleplaying (BRP) are my "go-to" systems for any genre, with some customization. Mongoose RuneQuest II (MRQ2) works for most fantasy settings. GURPS is always a possibility, but new players may find character generation daunting.

Dominion of Man

In the far future, humanity is only one of a handful of sapient technological species, and only one of three who has spread across the stars. Interstellar travel, limited to the speed of light or less, proved too much for beings without natural advantages, or mankind's sheer bloody-mindedness.

The Elders have traveled between stars at sub-light speeds for hundreds of millions of years. They visited Earth twice, once during the late Cretaceous, and took samples; the raptors evolved into a species called the Hydthrik. The second time, they found Cro-Magnon man, and transplanted them onto eleven other planets. Guided by the Elders, who they revered as gods, these humans make up the bulk of the Elder Confederation.

Other sapient species have sent artificial intelligences to explore the universe in their stead. These intelligences found more commonalities between themselves then their creators, and formed what humanity calls the Artificial Sophont Collective, or ASC. AIs from Earth and its colonies joined later. Despite hints of meritocracy, patronage, oligarchy, and a pseudo-caste system based on brain complexity, neither humans nor Elders truly understand the ASC's organization and politics. That ignorance has proved dangerous; the Confederation had no warning before the Reaver Wars, when a faction of the ASC tried to rid the galaxy of organic life; only the Reavers' crimes against pro-Confederation factions galvanized the ASC's neutral majority against the Reavers and their supporters.

The discovery of the faster-than-light Jump Drive in the last few decades allowed other powers to rise:

Other worlds, used to self-sufficiency and isolation, struggle to adapt to a universe where traveling across the stars takes weeks, not centuries. Certainly the Elders, still in their huge sub-light carriers, have slowly retired from stellar society.

Potential Systems:

Erebus

Erebus is a brutal world of dark sorceries, and the remains of advanced civilizations. Iron age barbarians and decadent empires face the dark sorceries of serpent-men, daemons from other worlds, and mysterious relics left by otherwise unknown Ancients.

Erebus takes more of a kitchen sink approach than other worlds described here. Unlike Telluria (below), Erebus's history has numerous gaps, and the map consists mostly of wilderness, barbarian territories, and space-filling empires. The world of Erebus resembles Warhammer's Old World: full of ignorance and distrust, where ordinary folks can't distinguish "adventurers" from outlaws ... or monsters.

Erebus is meant to evoke "old school" games as well as swords & sorcery. Loot-bearing ruins abound. Players may find crashed spaceships, Lovecraftian horrors, mutants, contemporary or historical artifacts, gateways to other worlds, refugees from other worlds, or anything else that takes my fancy. I'll even consider using some or all Tolkien races, albeit with a different spin: Elves and Dwarves are remnants of an older culture, and primitive Halflings use traps and tunnels to discourage Big Folk from taking their land.

Magic remains rare and untrustworthy, but player characters may use one or more magic systems the game defines.

Potential Systems:

Princes of Elysium

Inspired by the upcoming Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, I had an idea for an "Amber Lite" setting using the same game rules:

A more advanced version includes Chaos and Mortal attributes, "Portal Walking" (Broken Pattern Walking, again without pattern), "Eldritch Magic" (a new magic system TBD), Personal Shadows, Constructs (from Shadow Knight), and allies in Elysium for non-Elysians.

Antagonists might include Demons from Shadow Knight (Chaos isn't courtly in my world), Eldritch Horrors, cross-world empires, parasite universes, and other multiverse-level threats.

Potential Systems:

Telluria

Telluria is a world I came up with after reading just a bit of Iron Heroes. While I passed on the system, I did like some of its underlying assumptions and themes:

Such a world pushed aside the FRPG cliches I had grown to loathe:

"Telluria" itself is a large continent (think Eurasia + Africa) with several regions:

Even if players somehow tire of the adventures in these lands, two thirds of Telluria is yet unexplored, never mind what continents may lie east across the Great Ocean and west beyond unnamed seas.

Unlike Erebus, Telluria should stand as a self-consistent, genre appropriate world. To set the right atmosphere, a Telluria campaign may restrict magic to NPCs, port Barbarians of Lemuria magic to another system, or implement a system similar to d20 Incantations, depending on player opinions.

Potential Systems:

Unnamed Hollow World

I've been obsessed with basing a campaign in a hollow world: continents across the "sky", a central sun, civilizations exploring (and warring against) places only glimpsed overhead. Different alternatives jostle for attention:

  1. Sort-of-Hard Science: The world is a cylinder within a sphere, spinning on its axis to simulate gravity. Oceans and continents line the cylinder; visible parts of the sphere present a false sky, becoming "world's end" mountains at the join. The sun rotates, exposing a dark side (with a moon and stars?) once per day. Its people believe in "magic", which in reality are conjuring tricks, ultra-technology artifacts, or hacked autonomous systems (climate control, water cycle, etc.).

  2. Pulp Science: The world looks like a spherical shell, with flora and fauna drawn to the inner surface, but how it works is a mystery. The dim sun creates a perpetual half-light. There are dinosaurs and lost civilizations; its magic may be flummery, psionics, or some sort of unfathomable super-science.

  3. Just Magic: An unknown force pulls all matter toward the sphere and/or away from the sun. Here, some form of magic works: RuneQuest magic, GURPS default magic, something from GURPS Thaumatology, or a port from another system, depending on the cultures I end up with.

Possible cultures include an expansionistic theocratic Solar Empire, a polytheistic feudal region, a looser and stagnant empire combining aspects of Persia and China, and scattered regions of madmen, barbarians, ancient ruins, wastelands, and walking dead.

Systems:

Other Worlds

Other homebrew worlds, less developed, have passed through my mind.

Genre/Name Systems (Sourcebooks) Notes
Alternate Worlds and/or Time Travel GURPS (Infinite Worlds, scads of tech and setting books) I might change the theory of time travel or parallel worlds. The end result might resemble Doctor Who, Sapphire & Steel, or Time Bandits more than Harry Turtledove, H. Beam Piper's Paratime series, or Primer.
Asian Fantasy or Wuxia HeroQuest, Wushu, GURPS (Martial Arts, China, Japan, others), BRP (Dragon Lines), Qin Needs a loose, anything-goes system and/or a martial arts system.
"The Chronicles of Perion" MRQ2, BRP, GURPS, Savage Worlds A land forged by several waves of conquerors: spirit-worshipping Dwarfs, sorcerous Eldren, weapon-master Uruk, and its dominant people, polytheistic humans ... who in turn repel invasions from beast-men and other chaotic creatures.
Eldritch Horror All Flesh Must Be Eaten, BRP (CoC), CoC d20, Hunter, Unknown Armies Existing Cthulhu Mythos creatures are no longer scary but kitschy. Players can look up Mi-Go, Shoggoths, and so on to learn exactly what they can do and what vulnerabilities they may have. Instead, like Lovecraft et al, I'd make up brand new ones as needed, with inspiration from Thomas Ligotti and Tim Powers.
"Magi of Telluria" Mage + WoD Shadows, HeroQuest Set in the legendary Second Age of Telluria (see above), where miracle-workers walked the earth. By tweaking the background, some mechanics, and the tech level, PCs could play these wonder-workers, pitted against spirits, dark gods, terrifying survivors of the First Age, and the cruel Raksha Empire.
"Twilight of the Gods" MRQ2, BRP, GURPS, Reign, Savage Worlds In the world of Kutheria, the gods' power appears to be fading. Necromancers, vampires, cultists of eldritch horrors, immortals, and alien faiths vie for control of the human kingdoms of Kutheria. Mortal man's only defenders are a secret society, the Order of the Golden Pentacle, hated by those few who know about it. ("Twilight" has multiple levels of play, from the ordinary guy caught in ancient conspiracies to lords and top agents of the Order.) "Kutheria" uses redressed maps from HârnWorld.
Weird West BRP (Aces High, Devil's Gulch), D6 (Adventure, "MiniSix"), GURPS (Old West), PDQ, possibly Aces & Eights: Showdown shotclock or Gunslingers & Gamblers (background only) My own take on the weird west: living dead, sandworms, who knows. Possible concepts include "Days of Judgement" (the dead rise, some with their minds intact but most as mindless killers), "Eldritch West" (Eldritch Horror in the Old West), or "Have Stake, Will Travel" (wandering monster hunters)
"Where No One Has Gone Before" BRP, D6 (Space, "MiniSix"), FATE, PDQ# A homage to Classic Trek, inspired by Goblinoid Games' re-release of Starships & Spacemen and ADB's Prime Directive. Each player has two characters: a member of the command crew and a member of the away team. Other revisions include a human-only (but not necessarily Earth-born) crew, technology and history extrapolated from today, and psionics as either outright hokum or an uncontrollable force. (Think River Tam.) Needs a lightweight and unobtrusive system.
"Zenith of the Gods" MRQ2, BRP, GURPS, HeroQuest, Reign Centuries before "Twilight of the Gods" (see above), "Zenith" chronicles the rise of human kingdoms and their gods. The Elder Races (TBD) fall before the human tide. Sorcery develops from cruder magics, as does necromancy, and conflict between two powerful magi creates the Death Lords and the Order of the Golden Pentacle. As above, the world of Kutheria uses redressed maps from HârnWorld.
"Zenmidar Island" MRQ2, BRP Using a map from RPGNow.com, this test of Mongoose RuneQuest II introduces refugees from a monotheistic (and sorcerous) culture to an island of polytheistic barbarian clans. Animists using spirit magic dwell in the central forests, jealously guarding their secrets. A one shot proved ... somewhat surprising.

Several published worlds have also caught my eye. I might run them as is or in altered form.

System Notes
Deadlands (Savage Worlds) Classic "weird west" setting.
Glorantha (HeroQuest or Mongoose's RuneQuest II) A vast and strange world to play in, with more than enough material.
Grimm Children trapped in a dark, warped land of fairy tales. Played it once, liked it a lot.
King Arthur Pendragon, 5th Edition A classic I'd love to try, as said above. Maybe I'll "skin" the explicitly Arthurian background with another knights and chivalry setting.
The Laundry (BRP) A recently-released adaptation of Charles Stross's mashup of spy novels, Lovecraftian horror, dark office comedy, and geek humor.
Mage (nWoD) I'd dump the Atlantis-related background and maybe the Exarchs; instead, Mages come from CENSORED CENSORED CENSORED fnord.
"The Magic of Stories", Pyramid #13 (GURPS) Interesting article on using GURPS Path/Book magic (in Thaumatology) to create "Narrative Causality" and fairy-tale magic. I'm tempted to give it a whirl.
Mythic Russia (HeroQuest 1) Close enough to European fantasy to feel familiar, but far enough to be interesting.
Tales of the Caliphate Nights (True20) Arabian Nights adventure.
Transhuman Space (GURPS) Hard SF in the solar system, with bioengineering, artificial intelligence, and the science of "memetics".
The Zantabulous Zorceror of Zo (PDQ) Another fairy tale world ... which I could darken ...

So, Which System Again?

As always, It Depends. I'm leaning towards LotFP:WFRP (Erebus) or BoL (Telluria) at the moment. Diaspora or Traveller (Dominion of Man) are possible if I get tired of fantasy, and I'm always up for anything in BRP, MRQ2, or PDQ. Really, though, it depends on what I can drum up interest in.

If I had free reign, here's what I would pick:

FATE 3.0

While these articles never really explored FATE 3 (only 2.0), this "new" version handles narrative-driven stories very well. Ordinary actions rely on a character's Skills. Aspects of the character's personality and history, and Aspects of the situation, allow "fate" as Fate Points to help or hinder him. Characters also have Stunts, special techniques they can use, but I'm less keen on those. On the Fate Wiki I saw an optional rule that "pins" an Aspect as an on-the-fly stunt for the duration of a scene.

Support for many genres has come out in the past few years: Spirit of the Century, Starblazer Adventures (a British SF anthology comic, not hacked-together anime), Legends of Angleterre (SA for heroic fantasy), Diaspora, and The Dresden Files RPG (finally!), plus some third-party PDF releases adapting the SotC SRD to Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Steampunk. An "official" FATE 3.0 generic book hasn't come out yet, but it's easy to find something close to whatever you want to do, and invent the rest.

PDQ and PDQ Sharp

PDQ and PDQ Sharp, as we saw earlier, allow players to convert character concepts to game stats almost trivially. GMs need to think on their feet (or seat), and judge the penumbra of Qualities fairly, but what do the old schoolers say about "rulings, not rules"? The "getting punched in the girlfriend" part of conflict might bother some people -- it bothered me early on -- and die-hard combat wonks might want a "harder" system. On the other hand, D6 and True20 demonstrate how that system might work.

Genre support includes Dead Inside (urban fantasy/horror), Jaws of the Seven Serpents (swords & sorcery), Questers of the Middle Realms (classic fantasy), Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies (swashbuckling fantasy), Truth & Justice (superheroes), and Vox (mystery/personal horror). Really, though, all a GM needs to do is pick a version (original, Sharp, or a hybrid like Vox or JotSS), add extra mechanics if any, and define what is and isn't possible in his world. OK, that does sound like a lot of work, but not much more than any other homebrew campaign.

Basic Role-Playing: From RuneQuest 2 to ... RuneQuest II?

Fundamentally, the Basic Roleplaying system hasn't changed in its over 30 years of existence, which says something about its flexibility. Magic systems have changed, combat has changed, individual skills have changed. Mongoose's version changed a bunch of things, notably magic (again), combat, and experience. Arguably, all that stuff defines a game. However, the basic mechanics of seven stats and percentile skills have changed little since RuneQuest in 1978; everything else is just layers on top of a stable foundation.

Apart from the Gold Book, BRP provides many resources to draw on. Nearly all Chaosium products have used some version of BRP: dozens of Call of Cthulhu adventures and supplements, more recent BRP-based offerings, out-of-print games like Elric!/Stormbringer, Hawkmoon, Corum, and Nephilim. Mongoose's RuneQuest II is close enough to allow cross-pollination, and the previous edition even more so. MRQ1, released under the OGL, produced a number of supplements and spin-offs, notably OpenQuest from D101 games.

Weird Fantasy Role Playing

In Supernatural Horror in Literature, H. P. Lovecraft writes:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain -- a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

The writer of Legends of the Flame Princess, James Edward Raggi III, starts his chapter on "Weird" roleplaying with this quote. "Weird", here, refers not to bizarre or gonzo in the vein of Gamma World, but eerie, disquieting, disturbing, creepy. Weird roleplaying according to Raggi, and weird fiction according to Lovecraft, puts characters in circumstances beyond their experience, beyond their control, beyond explanation, even beyond reason and natural law as they understand it.

LotFP:WFRP retains compatibility with Basic D&D (a.k.a. Classic D&D, BECMI, Rules Cyclopedia), and all its modules and resources from its original publication to the Old School Renaissance. Nevertheless, Raggi's changes to Classic D&D create a world where foolhardy treasure hunters leave the stifling safety of cities and towns for dangerous ruins of civilizations best forgotten. His variant rules, flavor text, and the largely system-neutral advice in his Referee's Guide encourages Referees to surprise and shake up their players with the unexpected, unexplained, and unnatural.

To a lesser extent, Barbarians of Lemuria has the same sensibilities: magic is unpredictable and dangerous, ancient ruins hide ancient evils, dark gods threaten to invade reality while kinder deities do only occasional miracles. Its supplement Barbarians of the Apocalypse provides the same treatment for post-apocalyptic games, with more randomness.

Both systems echo my own attitudes towards magic and monsters in RPGs, and I'll carry those over to games based on other systems. Even the Weird West or places Where No Man Has Gone Before could use a "certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces".

GURPS

As I stated at the beginning, I have a perhaps irrational affection for GURPS, and I'd like to run one GURPS-based session for old times' sake. SJ Games has created some notable settings, like Transhuman Space, Banestorm (their default fantasy world), Infinite Worlds, Atomic Horror, Goblins, and Reign of Steel. (Atomic Horror, Goblins and Reign of Steel have no conversions to 4th Edition, but a general conversion document exists.)

Beyond that, GURPS in its 20+ has amassed a number of well-researched supplements, most now available only as PDFs or leftover books. Since I own a bunch of those, I can use the content -- notably tech catalogues and world-books -- to fill gaps in other systems. (E.g. BRP still has little science-fiction support.)

ORPSWSS (Other Role-Playing Systems with Well-Supported Settings)

(ORPSWSS sounds something like ORP-suss; use 'w' as a Welsh vowel.)

If the above systems prove impractical for some reason, I have a few other systems I can bend to my will:

Alternatively, I could use one of their well-supported settings:

And finally, Grimm and Pendragon meld setting and system seamlessly enough that I'd use either as is without reservation.

THE END

That's it. Go home.