Sunday, July 1, 2012

Three Things I Love about DCC

The first thing I fell in love with about Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (DCC) was the new take on the fighter - thanks to the wonderful 'Mighty Deeds of Arms' mechanic.

It works like this: Among other perks, the 'Warrior' class gets a damage bonus (starting at +d3 and progressing to +d4, +d5 etc.). This bonus die also determines success or failure for any special maneuver you'd like to make up during the game (disarming an enemy, swinging from a chandelier etc.).

The mechanic is granular enough to be intuitive ("You wanna push him over the cliff? You'll need to roll a 4+ on your deed die.") and doubles as a reasonable damage (and attack) bonus. I'd personally prefer a trade-off (e.g. bonus damage or special maneuever) but that's easily house-ruled.

The mechanic constitutes a sub-system of its own and demonstrates that - far from needlessly complicating a set of rules - this approach can provide tailor-made solutions. Using the standard d20 resolution mechanic ("Pushing over a cliff is a DC 15 check.") would have required an extra roll or similar contortions.


The next thing I adore is that magic is inherently dangerous. Spell castings can go awry and displease the character's deity (clerics) or cause corruption (wizards).

This captues the feel of Appendix N fiction very nicely and solves the problem of magic being a reliable everyday resource. I don't want to think about settled wizards casting their daily allotment of spells and thereby competing with craftsmen etc. and requiring me to rethink the whole quasi-medieval world.

To this end (i.e. dangerous magic), the DCC rules provide many magnificent tables. Every spell has its own table with information on effects, side-effects, failure and so on.

These tables make up the bulk of the massive book (480+ pages) and make it a steal at $40. It's easy to lift ideas like Mighty Deeds for your own game, but lovingly detailed, well-made tables are invaluable. 


There are numerous other things I applaud (the character funnel, the Luck stat, the supporting line of adventure modules, the attitude) but if I had to choose just one more thing to single out for praise, it would be Doug Kovacs' outstanding dungeon maps (check out some samples here).

I find them very useful at the table. The artistic detail makes it easy to (a) remember what a room was all about -- which means less flipping through the adventure -- and (b) to envision the atmosphere and improvise evocative descriptions on the spot. This is vastly superior to reading out boxed flavor text (also provided by the adventures, if that's your thing) or hunting down the description of room 9b or whatever.

Perhaps more importantly, they look so damn cool that they make me want to run the corresponding adventure (or something of my own devising for that map). It's all well and good to have classic blue-and-white maps but to me, nothing screams "Run this adventure!" more loudly than Doug Kovacs' maps.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Three Things I Love About Rolemaster

The first one is obvious: The critical hit tables.

The critical hit system does not mesh well with the hit point system and the tables are far too erratic for my taste, but the descriptions provide such delightful detail that I perpetually come back to them, try to cook up a way to integrate them into whatever I'm playing at the moment, and give up in disgust.

The second thing I love about Rolemaster are the Angus McBride covers (for the second edition, later reused for the Rolemaster Standard System).

The ruined city on display on the cover of the three main books is my personal Skull Mountain, i.e. it fires my imagination like no other illustration of a fantastic location. If I ever design a megadungeon of my own this is it.

Finally, the rules - and I mean all the rules, e.g. the many Rolemaster Companions - form a huge, baroque encyclopaedia of fantasy roleplaying (of a particular kind, I admit).

It's impossible to use all the options, not only because many are mutually exclusive but mostly because an already complex game would collapse under their combined weight. Also, many options aren't even particularly well thought out or useful at the table -- I suspect many were never tested.

Just how useful is a table that tells you how much your character's Weather Watching skill improves for every 1000 years of age? This sort of thing is a prime example of silver age obsessions. It's not useful at the table but reading this stuff or - God forbid! - cooking up similarly byzantine subsystems can be immensely inspiring. These days, I'd rather get down to actually playing but I'll always have a soft spot for the treasure trove of ideas that is Rolemaster Second Edition.

My longest running and smallest campaign (five years and two players, respectively) used Rolemaster Second Edition and conjures up nothing but fond memories. Great times!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Rant: Illusionism is Lies, Lies, Lies

Allow me to describe two roleplaying incidents that happened decades ago:

The party ambushed a particularly large and ugly ogre. One of the PCs initiated combat by firing his bow. He hit the ogre. The DM provided a delectable description of how the arrow hit the ogre squarely in the ass and how the surprised ogre involuntarily grunted and let loose a huge fart. It dawned on the players just how tough the ogre was.

Pretty cool, huh? A DM with a knack for funny and informative descriptions!

The problem? The PC had scored a critical hit doing a ton of damage. Rather than describe the actual hit ("You shoot him through the neck and he starts to drown in his own blood." etc.) the DM (a) stuck to his pre-canned description and (b) upped the ogre's hp to match (he should have been nearly dead).

The party chased an evil wizard to the top of his tower. Smirking triumphantly, the wizard stepped off the tower, promised bloody vengeance, and activated his ring of flight. He had to make a trivial Magic test to activate the ring ... and fumbled! He plunged to his death.

Pretty cool, huh? A DM who doesn't protect pet NPCs and lets the dice fall where they may!

The problem? The whole thing was scripted. Everything was 100% fake: the wizard's natural 1 ('rolled' behind the screen, of course), the surprise on the DM's face and his lamentations over the death of the NPC.

(I should know. I was the DM.)

I've had it up to here with illusionism, both as a player and as a DM.

It's a common style of DMing and, to varying degrees, consciously embraced by many DMs and players. I suppose that makes it a valid style of play (at least if everyone at the table knows that the DM is fudging rolls, changing numbers on the fly etc.) and I admit that I used to game that way for years.

Today, I can't stand this anymore.

I want anticlimaxes.
I want failures.
I want death.

I'm out for blood.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Review: Doom of the Savage Kings

I plan on running Doom of the Savage Kings for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG next week. I've already run the low-level introductory adventure of the main book to great success. Here are my partially ambivalent impressions from preparing to run the module:

Doom of the Savage Kings is a 16-page module provided with the DCC main rules as a pre-order bonus. The suggested retail price for an isolated purchase is $9.99.

The module was written by Harley Stroh and sports a nice pulp cover and gorgeous cartography by Doug Kovacs. You can check out some of his stuff, including this module's map of the Tomb of the Ulfheonar here.

The backstory is reminiscent of Beowulf as a terrible hound preys on the population of the village of Hirot night after night. It cannot be slain (at least not permanently) by normal means which makes it a fantastical monster in the truest sense. Well done!

The PCs are expected to engage the problem out of the goodness of their hearts or, perhaps, a general thirst for adventure. I found this surprising as it is in direct contradiction to DCC's tagline "You’re no hero.You’re an adventurer: a reaver, a cutpurse, a heathen-slayer, a tight-lipped warlock guarding long-dead secrets."

The village and its inhabitants are well realized, providing plenty of hooks and potential for conflict and roleplay. Doug Kovacs' beautiful map seems inspired by King Theoden's seat in Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and I mean that as a compliment.

The module discusses a number of ways to slay the immortal hound and advises the DM to be open to alternative methods devised by the PCs. I like this approach very much: A few examples to get across the nature of the hound and a statement in favour of creativity.

One possible solution is retrieving an artifact from an old burial mound and as one might expect, there's a classic dungeon to be found here. Doug Kovacs' map is drop-dead gorgeous and - just like the one for the introductory adventure - immediately made me want to run this.

(Should the players pursue another way to slay the hound, you can just use this dungeon at a later point.)

The dungeon is very well-designed, with a nice mix of traps, monsters, recent dungeon history (i.e. dead tomb robbers) and plenty of flavor (to differentiate the different catacombs). It's a tad small for my tastes but that seems to be DCC's style. Treasure is plentiful and the various magic items seem well-designed.

The dungeon is no cakewalk - which is fine by me - but some of the difficulty numbers (DCs) for saves and skill checks seem awfully high to me. The walls of a pit, for instance, require a DC 23 climb check which is practically impossible (unless a character burns Luck or is a thief). I wonder if the module was originally written for 3e.

Addendum: The author has kindly cleared up this point over at Goodman Games' forums.
I wouldn't argue that the skill DCs are fair. In fact, mine are often deliberately unfair. If a non-thief PC reaches the point where he has to make a skill check, he's likely already down the wrong road, having missed the chance to solve the challenge via roleplaying. 
The high DCs are not a fluke and Harley Stroh sticks to his guns. I like that.

There is one serious misstep, though: There is a scripted scene which I consider a prime example of railroading at its very worst. Not only does the the scripted scene shaft the party, moreover the DM is explicitly advised to override any precautions the PCs might have taken.

Highlight the following quote from the module, if you want (SPOILER):

"If the PCs left hirelings with their mounts [...], XXX has already slaughtered the rearguard before the PCs emerge. (At the judge's discretion, beloved henchmen are merely bound and unconscious in a nearby clearing, though the PCs won't discover this until after the encounter.)"

Note how a big dose of arbitrary DM whim is added for good measure, too.

My advice is to cut this scene altogether. If you feel you must have it, at least drop plenty of clues because it's potentially very deadly. Most importantly, though, PC choices and precautions should matter. Other than that, the writing and the DM advice are good, so this is no deal-breaker.

All in all, I can recommend Doom of the Savage Kings. It's not quite as good as the excellent introductory adventure but the heart of the adventure, the dungeon, is very well-done, ready-to-run and beautifully illustrated for the DM. That makes it a winner and I'll happily reward 3 out of 4 stars.

Addendum: I ran Doom of the Savage Kings yesterday and we had a blast. Five players ran four 0-level characters each. Time was short, so I started them off right in front of the dungeon.* They lost 18 out of 20 characters and slew the hound. Great times!

*I'll use the village as a base for a planned mini-campaign dealing with the highly acclaimed Barrowmaze.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Becoming a Killer DM: Enough Rope to Hang 'Em

 "H is for Hallways" by Jeff Easley, featured in Michael Curtis' The Dungeon Alphabet

The worthy GM never purposely kills players' PCs. He presents opportunities for the rash and unthinking players to do that all on their own.
Gary Gygax

Running a very deadly game practically requires a lot of player choice, e.g. a sandbox approach.

If you are railroading a party through a series of meticulously planned encounters they had damn well better be balanced.

(Aside: Today, 'balanced' is usually implemented - if not honestly interpreted - as "The PCs will succeed unless the players make fantastically bad choices or rolls". I was brought up differently: When my first AD&D character, a fighter, used a wish to "fight a worthy opponent over a fat purse" (so as to recover his honour with a duel and get some gold), the DM sent a guy actually slightly stronger than my fighter. My fighter died. Ever since, I've interpreted "worthy" as "stronger" and "balanced" as "has a 50% chance of killing you". If I forced my party into a series of really 'balanced encounters' - and without a chance to tip things in their favour through clever play - they'd be dead by the end of the session.)

If you are letting a party run loose in a sandbox, 'balanced encounters' are not much of a concern. As Gygax points out, the idea is to give the players enough rope to hang their characters with.

To wit:
Corridor A opens into a room marked with goblin graffiti and contains a large chest.
Corridor B opens into a room reeking of undeath and features a priceless* gem on a pedestal.

*Okay, not 'priceless'. Let's say 'worth one level each', by the calculations of the thief.

If the players choose corridor B you can run whatever deadly trap or encounter you have prepared. Flood the room with negative energy, teleport a dozen wights into the midst of the party etc. - knock yourself out!

And if the players figure out a way to get their grubby little hands on that gem - and there should be a way, not to mention clues! -, by all means: let them have it and level up. Great risks should yield great rewards.

If you are starting out as a Killer DM, take care to let the players choose which challenges to take on and which to back away from. You'll have far less compunctions about killing off PCs if they chose their own doom.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Death, Dying and TPKs

Poring over the excellent Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG I came upon rules for saving ostensibly dead characters:

Bleeding Out: There is a chance of saving a dead character by healing him very quickly (such as with a cleric’s ability to lay on hands). […]

I’m sure you are all familiar with similar rules. As the Swords & Wizardry White Box notes

[...] many referees allow characters to be ‘unconscious at 0 hp and not actually die until they reach some pre-determined negative number.

Whether one uses the ‘death at 0 hp’ approach or ‘dying’ rules has serious ramifications.

Most notably, ‘dying’ rules decrease individual risk but actually increase the chance of a TPK.

If the party’s fighter goes down after a brutal crit the best strategy might very well be retreat, i.e. cutting one’s losses and running. But if Bob’s character can still be saved the other players may want to continue fighting in the face of unfavorable odds.

In the latter case, the decision to fight or run is a tough one. I like confronting the players with tough choices but it bears pointing out that in this case, social pressure (whether overt or not) may well be involved.

The upside is that if the other players try to save their fallen comrade the players will almost certainly bond (or deepen their bonds) - regardless of whether they succeed or end up losing their characters as well.

The downside is that the atmosphere at the table might be seriously impacted if the player of a PC left behind harbours hard feelings.

The DM has to make some tough calls, too. Realistically, many monsters will concentrate their attacks on a fallen PC. A pack of ravenous wolves, for instance, will likely try to drag off the body of a not-quite-dead PC or tear him apart on the spot (i.e. start feeding).

But Bob’s already having a hard time and if the DM decides the monsters go after his poor PC he might feel picked on.

I think the best practice is to decide on – and communicate! – such behavior beforehand and/or to let the dice decide.

I'm not condemning 'dying' rules at all, but for DCC, I’ve cooked up the following house rule:

Damage and Death p. 93
PCs die at 0 hp. Period. 

More precisely, PCs are fatally wounded at 0 hp.

A PC who is not yet at -10 hp may continue fighting for a number of rounds equal to his level. He is considered to be fatally wounded. Neither medical attention nor mortal magic can save him. When his time is up, he dies.

For more of my DCC house rules, click here

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Becoming a Killer DM: Shock Therapy

The Executioner
A hidden blade slides down the doorway, mincing the two fighters and the cleric. The thief gets nine crossbow bolts in his back, and the magic user is hit by an intense beam of light, burning a hole through his head.
(“The 28 Types of Game Master”, by Scott Butler and J.D. Frazer)
A good first step on the road to becoming a Killer DM is to run a one-shot with a system and/or adventure that’s explicitly designed to kill off plenty of PCs (and I mean plenty, i.e. at least a dozen).

I can heartily recommend the 'character funnel' from DungeonCrawl Classics RPG where every player runs 2-4 characters (you can find my write-up of the funnel by way of the introductory adventure here) and good ol' Paranoia, where each PC has five clones waiting in the wings.

With such a one-shot, it should be easy to show your players that character death can be great fun. More importantly, running such an adventure can help you to overcome your inhibitions and (re)discover your killer instinct.

Have fun!

Friday, April 27, 2012

My Trinity of Old School Gaming (Part 4)

After explaining the relationship between a game’s mortality rate and its method of character creation, how the former leads to simple and exciting combat, and why all of this makes it easy to form or find a gaming group, I finally get to analyze how it all relates to challenging and creative roleplay.  
Random character generation results in quirky characters (an intelligent warrior, a nimble wizard etc.) and, perhaps more importantly, in characters one might not have chosen to play otherwise.

A high mortality rate leads to a much, much more intense roleplaying experience. Consider the following scenario:

Peasants ask the adventurers to help them against a terrible monster. It’s a sandbox campaign, so the monster might indeed outmatch the characters and it’s up to the players to decide whether to tackle it or not.

If the players know that the DM will let them escape in case things go wrong, or will adapt the monster to the party’s strength, or fudge, then the choice to play the heroes is an easy one.

(And that’s exactly what the players will do: play the heroes.)

If the players know - from actual experience - that PC death is a very real possibility and a TPK is not out of the question, then the choice to play the heroes is a tough one.

(And if the players go through with it, they are the heroes, at least to the extent it’s possible to vicariously experience such a thing through fiction.)

In the former case, you’re emulating a genre and creating a story (with high drama and heroic deeds).

In the latter case, you’re putting yourself in a character's shoes to make challenging choices and suffer the consequences, for good or ill.

Of course, similarly negative consequences for the players also work to some extent. If the risk is real, the play is intense. Choosing to enter a tomb when you know it’s full of level-draining wights takes guts on the part of the player. Choosing to save an NPC’s life instead of escaping with gold worth 3000 XP requires that the player is really invested in the in-game fiction or his vision of the character.

(Risking a -1 penalty for the next three encounters or getting those 3000 XP or whatever from the ‘story award’ for saving the NPC – well, that’s just not the same.)

Oh, and then there’s simple combat. A simple combat system frees up mental space for creative solutions or evocative descriptions. In complicated games, players are so busy tracking multiple variables and weighing (preconfigured) options that there is hardly any time to appreciate the fiction or think outside the box. It was a running gag in one of my Rolemaster campaigns that, after a long fight, the players and DM would enumerate all the mechanical advantages and bonuses they had forgotten about.
That's it for now with My Trinity of Old School Gaming. Next, I'll start a series on Becoming a Killer DM, but I plan to throw in some rants and reviews as well.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

My Trinity of Old School Gaming (Part 3)

Now that I’ve explained the relationship between a game’s mortality rate and its method of character creation and how the former leads to simple and exciting combat, I’ll focus on how quick character creation, a high mortality rate and simple, exciting combat make it easy to form or find a gaming group.

Quick character generation is the most obvious aspect here, as it lowers the entry bar. A newbie who has never roleplayed before can hop right in. Similarly, guest players, tryouts, spouses or kids can effortlessly join in, even for just a session or two.

Poster Brendan directed me towards another point with his comment on participating in a character's evolution through actual play: To wit, quick character creation can easily be done at the table and as a group (rather than at home alone with a dozen source books and spreadsheets). Ideally, everyone is somewhat invested in everyone else's character which makes newbies feel more welcome.

('New school' games such as those coming out of the Forge movement often emphasize joint character creation for this reason, among others.)

Quick character generation is my N° 1 requirement for the one-shot games I occasionally spring on my group - and what better way to get my players interested in a new (or very old) game than to provide an evening of fun?

Simple, exciting combat is another factor in forming or finding a group. First of all, it’s uncomplicated fun and thus a great attraction. It makes people actually want to play. More subtly, though, simple combat is usually quite fast, which allows one to have larger and more robust groups. In D&D 4e, a typical fight is anything but simple and in my experience takes about 30 min per player character involved. So a group of four players will need 2 hours for a regular fight – add another two players (and a bunch of monsters on the DM’s side) and you’re probably looking at a single fight per session.

Contrast this to a game where a fight takes about 5 min per player involved. Even a fight with 10 PCs will be over in under an hour (and most likely keep everyone’s attention, too). On top of all that, handling the characters of absentee players is no problem with a simple system. In D&D 4e, a high-level character has 20+ cards detailing powers, magic items and such – good luck trying to run two or three of those on short notice.

What about a high mortality rate though? Simply put, it can be a bit intimidating to join a group who has played the same characters for years. Moreover, well-designed RPGs with a high mortality rate not only provide a method for quick character generation but also ways to catch up in a reasonable amount of time.

All in all, I think that the above factors make it much easier to assemble, find and maintain a robust gaming group.

Next up: How randomness, simple combat and death make for some excellent roleplaying!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Actual Play Review: Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC)

I’m interrupting the series of articles about my trinity of old school gaming for a review of Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (or DCC RPG), more specifically for my first impressions and observations after running the introductory adventure for “15-20 0-level characters” (Hint: Not all of them survived.). I hope I'll get around to writing an in-depth review at some point.
I pre-ordered the game back in March and apparently it’s off to the printers now, as Goodman Games has sent out its delightful pre-order bonus: the PDF of the complete book. I would have been willing to pay extra for the PDF so this bonus makes me very happy indeed.

It’s inevitably going to be pirated but I think it’s a good strategy nonetheless. On the one hand, I suspect that old school gamers have considerable disposable income and are willing to spend it on good product. On the other hand, I’d wager that Goodman aims to make money mostly by selling modules.

In fact, the massive support from Goodman Games is one reason I picked this up. I’m usually strapped for time these days and look forward to plenty of ready-to-play modules.

Anyway, on to the review:

I haven’t got the physical book yet, but the PDF looks great. It’s chock-full of old school art, ranging from full-page illustrations to little cartoons at the bottom of a page. All of it evokes adventure modules and fanzines of decades past and if you’re into old school art even a little bit, the book is worth getting on that count alone.

The layout is a bit cluttered as a result, though, and the spells, which take up a good portion of the massive 488-page file, unfortunately share pages in some instances. I don’t mind the occasional spell taking up more than one page, but I’d have preferred some white space or another illustration. The way it is, printing out individual spell books is less than perfect.

Joseph Goodman’s comments on running DCC and the OSR in general are very interesting and well-worth reading. I especially like his advice on “making monsters mysterious” (by avoiding easy labels such as “goblin” or “orc”, among other things) and his call for new game designs with Appendix N (rather than D&D) as a starting point.

I’m not going to comment on character classes and spells, as I haven’t run a game with these yet. The first introductory adventure at the back of the book is for 0-level characters which have access to none of these. I printed out about a dozen pages of the massive book and that’s all we needed.

The adventure, called “The Portal under the Stars”, is a classic dungeon crawl and sports a compact and beautiful dungeon map that immediately made me want to run it. My gaming group was at half strength on account of the Easter holidays so we put our Warhammer campaign on the backburner for a week for this DCC one-shot.

Each of my four players rolled up four characters, for a total of 16 PCs. Character creation was a breeze and did not just provide stats, but also occupations and some equipment (such as a pushcart that became an invaluable makeshift siege engine).

The dungeon turned out to be excellent: It’s got a pulpy backstory and evocative monsters and contraptions; more importantly, those traps are dangerous and logical and can be avoided (or their effects mitigated) by smart play. My players were shocked when the first casualty occurred after about five minutes of play and after a few more deaths, they really pulled together and started to think.

They largely neutralized the next couple of threats, got cocky, and lost a few more characters. In the end, 5 of 16 made it to the secret treasure chamber where intra-party conflict took another two lives. Everyone agreed we’d had a blast, though some were doubtful about the viability of a long-term campaign.

Some further observations:
  1. The adventure fit perfectly into about three-and-a-half hours of gaming.
  2. The traps have limited ammunition and fuel. A nice touch and a shimmer of hope for delvers.
  3. The dungeon is designed to be partially demolished and dismantled. This was great fun.
  4. The Luck stat proved invaluable to handle the large group of characters. I only bothered with precise positioning once all night. The rest of the time clues from general chit-chat, Luck scores and the dice determined who got attacked by a monster first.
  5. The character funnel (i.e. the idea of starting with a huge party and whittling them down to a few survivors) worked brilliantly. The names of the dead were mostly forgotten by the end of the night, but the survivors’ stars shone the more brightly for it.
In a nutshell, the introductory adventure is excellent and the DCC rules make it easy to dive right in.

I’m itching to run DCC again so that’s a preliminary 4 out of 4 stars from me.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

My Trinity of Old School Gaming (Part 2)

Last week, I examined the relationship between a game’s mortality rate and its method of character creation. Let me expand my diagram to look at some ramifications of my trinity of old school gaming. This week I’d like to focus on one of the main effects of a high mortality rate among player characters: Simple, yet exciting combat.

One of the foundations of old school gaming is killing things and taking their stuff, so a satisfying combat system is of paramount importance.

A high mortality rate allows for just that. If those dice clattering onto the table just now might spell your character’s death, you’ll be fully invested in the action regardless of the complexity of the rules. When I roll monster damage in WFRP, for instance, all my players’ eyes are glued to the dice, even if they concern another player’s character.

If, on the other hand, you take away the risk of death, you will either end up with boring combat (DSA3, I’m looking at you!) or you will have to compensate for the thrill of danger by offering tactical depth (the D&D 4e approach), evocative tables (the Rolemaster approach) or whatever—at which point combat will no longer be a simple affair.

(Admittedly, things other than your character’s life might be at stake. Maybe an NPC could die, your character could be traumatized etc. I maintain that the threat of character death is the key, though. In-the-moment, the inevitably occuring deaths often suck but that’s the price you have to pay – and a topic for another day.)

I'll explain more of those arrows next week.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Trinity of Old School Gaming (Part 1)

Hello and welcome to my blog on Dungeons & Dragons, old school gaming and becoming a Killer DM!

I’ll kick off my blog with some thoughts on the relationship between a game’s mortality rate and its method of character generation. Here’s a diagram of my trinity of old school gaming:
In short, random character generation enables us to achieve quick character generation which in turn enables us to have a high mortality rate. And – coming full circle – a brutal culling of player characters is needed to make random character generation fair, as I’ll explain below.

For starters, random character generation is one of the best ways to quickly make characters, at least if you want some depth and variety. The moment you start using building points, for instance, you will usually sacrifice complexity (i.e. offer few options) or speed (i.e. make players spend a lot of time weighing and choosing options).

(A counter example is James V. West’s excellent game The Pool. Character creation is quick but offers surprising depth and has long legs. But then, The Pool is a very different type of RPG than D&D.)

Quick character generation then allows us to kill off characters with abandon. If character creation takes hours, a player who has lost his character may end up sitting out the rest of the session. Even if he doesn’t (because the sessions ends or the player gets to control an NPC etc.) that’s an awful lot of time down the drain. Al from Beyond the Black Gate touches upon this topic in his post Character death = Fun!

(Just imagine telling a Magic: the Gathering player that he has to scrap his meticulously assembled new deck if he loses a single match with it (i.e. ‘dies’).)

I also believe that a high mortality rate is a prerequisite for random character creation. Else, the latter is simply unfair. When you roll up characters for a game expected to take characters from 1st to 20th level without anyone ever (permanently) dying, bad luck during character generation might doom a player to playing a weak character for years. To me, that’s unacceptable.

Contrast this to, say, a deadly OD&D campaign: Rolling up a character with excellent stats is no guarantee he’ll make to 2nd level or beyond. Player skill (and yet more luck) will be the deciding factor. And once a character has run the gauntlet, he will have grown on you and weak stats might actually be endearing. James Maliszewski has more to say on this in his excellent post character death in old school gaming over at Grognardia.

More on the various implications of my trinity next week!