Friday, July 21, 2017

Jeff's Cool S**t

It really irritates me when I write a comment on someone's blog and the whole thing shows up on my G+ stream. I realize this is probably on ME and my lack of ability with the whole social media thing (i.e. I'm sure there's something I should be turning off to get it to stop)...but that's part of the irritation: it points out my ignorance and incompetence, in addition to sharing my one-line witticisms that were really only meant for the blogger I'm reading.

Such was the case recently when the immeasurably talented Jeff Rients posted his recent series on random advancement for B/X character classes (here's the post with the compiled documents).

His thinking behind these can be found in his first post in the series in which he writes:
A problem in old school D&D that has been intuited by nearly everyone but only occasionally spoken out loud is that sometimes you can go up a level and it's a dud. Reaching 2nd level as a fighter is pretty exciting the first time, because you have the opportunity to double your hit points. But third level is just more of the same. Sure you get better to hits (slowly) and multiple attacks (even more slowly). Meanwhile the spellcasters get more spell slots every level and new spell levels are even more exciting. Even the lowly, crappy thief gets incremental increases in percentage skills (plus things like reading languages and magic, better back stabs).  
Meanwhile, all players and many DMs agree that going up a level should be awesome. That's how we ended up going down the road of WotC D&D with its feats and whatnot...
Welp, I am one of those folks who tried articulating this a while back, though that was in the midst of designing a new FHB. The idea that I had was that, with so much "white space" between levels, you might as well cut-back on the levels in the game and simply play for the "power-ups" limited to about five times per career.

The main problem with that approach is that folks want to advance more than five levels over the course of a campaign.

The other thing Jeff appears to be attempting (which may not be articulated as well) is to make leveling up more interesting. Not just in the actual increases of effectiveness that occur, but in the way those increases are bestowed and how they show up...helping to distinguish "cookie-cutter" B/X classes from one another via random tables loaded with cool stuff.

In the past, I've tried front-loading this kind of monotony-breaking system via something I called exceptional traits (folks who own The Complete B/X Adventurer will see this is one of several systems developed "on-blog" that made it into the book). Other folks have done similar random tables that influence chargen (Alexis uses extensive random charts and a simple Excel formula to quickly generate distinct weirdness from hundreds of possible options).

I think I may have even addressed the idea of PCs getting new "exceptional traits" at higher levels (though I never actually implemented this at the gaming table)...but I never suggested a completely randomized leveling process like Jeff (and Zak) have. Part of this is due to me having a hard time thinking in truly gonzo concepts on a regular basis (much to my chagrin). But another part is simply due to a difference in philosophy: I have no objection whatsoever to random character generation, but I have strong reservations about random character development.

Part of the challenge of playing old school D&D is bucking up and working with what the dice giveth. One of my favorite characters that I never had the chance to play (well, not more than once or twice), was a 2nd level fighter with a constitution of 3. I decided to define him as an elderly warrior, only newly minted as an adventurer, describing him as looking somewhat like that geezer King Haggard in the animated Last Unicorn film. As my children are fond of saying, "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit."

[I think Diego learned that in kindergarten. It's applicable to a variety of life's arenas, however]

And considering that your player character in D&D is supposed to be an adult (presumably with some life experiences that has gone into shaping him or her), starting with a randomly created origin is perfectly acceptable...saves time so that one can get to playing. But random development? The whole point of play (well, one of the points of play) is developing your character from a rank beginner into a potent adventurer, and it is the game play that describes this development. And as I have a say in how my character plays (Do I attack the bugbears? Do I loot the gemstone?) so, too, I should have a say in how my character develops.

If I work my ass off to go up in level and then (randomly) learn how to bake cookies instead of acquiring a new spell? Well, that kind of sucks. Likewise, if I spend my time carefully negotiating with NPCs, cultivating a respectable demeanor only to discover that I morph into some sort of tattooed berserker. Or whatever.

Having said that: I still love a lot of the stuff that's found on these random tables. And in a campaign setting where the megadungeon exists as a kind of "mythic underworld" and inexplicable, random strangeness is a regular, expected occurrence, I can totally get behind a system of randomized development like the one Jeff is suggesting. And, yes, it certainly makes advancement a lot more interesting.

Check it out when you have the chance. It's definitely worth the read.
: )


  1. So much of what makes a cool OSR character is what a modern game player might call "fluff"

    Changing the level up rewards to something random changes the character of the game in a fundamental way.

    It is not BAD, but it is very different. Some people will love it and other people will just hate it.

  2. I get your point completely. I think these tables are awesome. I'm also not sure how I would feel about them in actual play.

    Zak started this idea with the Alice class in Red and Pleasant Land. It made perfect sense there. Random advancement fits to mood of the Alice stories. It would also fit other kinds of D&D games, but it would have to be the right kind.

    I think I have use for these tables though. I am prepping a new D&D campaign, and I wanted to steal an idea from DCC. In DCC, if a player wants some cool power or trait, rather than boringly leveling up and buying it as a feat, they undergo some kind of quest for it.

    It's got me thinking of sprinkling my setting with ways to get cool powers, either through enigmatic and demanding trainers, divine blessing, knowledge held by secret orders, or just crazy magical accidents. My goal is to allow character customization in an organic fashion rather than it just being shopping off a list in a book.

    These character rules make great idea lists for the kind abilities players can pick up. They'd also be great to give to NPCs to make them stand out.

  3. Advancement, development, learning, and life itself are a bit random. No guarantees when you start a project how the end result will manifest.