Monday, July 26, 2010

Giving life to characters, places and things

One vital point we Players of the Game should never forget is that our type of RPGs require a healthy dollop of imagination. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that you can never have too much imagination in a role playing game. I will be stating the obvious by asserting that the responsibility falls squarely upon us players and umpires to breathe life and otherwise animate the dry strings of statistics which, when read together comprise what we call the ‘character sheet’.

The dizzying variety of RPGs indicates a correspondingly dizzying variety of setting down the facts and figures which make up a player character. I recall dicing up characters in high school for Metamorphosis Alpha and writing up the stats on a torn-off sheet of notebook paper, and I’ve seen the same thing repeated recently with the Mutant Future characters of some of my players in my more recent campaign. On the other end of the spectrum, the sheer amount of data in ‘newer’ type games I’ve ran/played in would give an income tax return from our Bureau of Internal Revenue a run for its money. Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition and Gurps are two games that come to the top of my mind in this regard.

All these of course can be abbreviated, hence we have stat blocks or chopped up versions of the most important character stats in the character sheet.

In Classic Traveller (CT), what counts are the Universal Profiles. We have Universal Personality Profiles (UPPs) for player and non-player characters, Universal Ship Profiles (USPs) for starships and Universal World Profiles (UWPs) for er, worlds.

Traveller uses the hexadecimal system in encoding character attribute stats, such that values from one to nine are written normally but values from ten upwards are expressed in letters. Hence ten becomes A, eleven becomes B, twelve becomes C, and so on. A human character in CT can have an attribute score of two to fifteen. You roll two six-sided dice twice each for Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education and Social Standing, which are the attributes of every human character. This gives you an unmodified spread of two to twelve. You get a chance to raise attributes higher than twelve during the character generation process itself (then again, you can also lose points during character generation and end up with lower attributes than those you originally rolled).

The point I’m driving at here is the UPP of player and non-player characters in Traveller is, to my mind, an example of a succinct way of encoding the totality of a character’s stats to ensure that you get an idea of what she can do in one fast glance. Very much sort of like shorthand notation.

Take the example of Army Captain Sam Riley, one of the operatives running loose on Porozlo from last Saturday’s game. His UPP is Capt. Riley: ACC885. One glance tells me the Captain is stronger than average, with excellent reflexes and endurance. He’s quite smart too, with a decent education. A social standing of 5 would seems that he came from a middle-class background. All around, Captain Riley is a cut above the rest of the crowd- good stats for a smart, deadly survivor type in the service of the Imperium.

Putting this together with the incidents in Captain Riley’s career- which are played blocks of four year terms at a stretch in the basic rules- and you have what you need to flesh out a CT character. Unlike newer-type games, I don’t need advantages, disadvantages, quirks, doodads, shticks or other gimmicks to flesh out this character. Instead, I extrapolate from his UPP and my dice rolls during the character generation career cycle using a lot of imagination. This to me is another hallmark of the Old School way of gaming: letting your own imagination free in using the data in one’s character sheet and cobbling them up together to come up with something uniquely yours.

Although the UPP and the rest of Capt. Riley’s character sheet will look downright anemic by some of today’s gaming standards, I consider this a blessing, rather than a curse. This serves to free the player – remove the fetters and enable one to really stir up one’s grey matter and come up with an interpretation of the stats to flesh out the character.

The same principle works out with the UWP in CT’s Worlds and Adventure. This is where, as game master and umpire, I get a lot of gaming satisfaction. Each world’s UWP data string is shorthand detailing the basic stats of a planet. Starport type, size, atmosphere, hydrographic percentage, population, governmental type, law level and the ever-important tech level are learned by one glance at the profile. Hence, our current setting Porozlo has a UWP of A867A74-A.

At one glance this tells you our world has an Excellent Quality Starport, a Planetary Diameter of about 12,800 km (roughly comparable to Earth), a standard breathable atmosphere for Terra-humans, about 70% ocean cover, a population running to almost ten billion (crowded!), a balkanized political structure (meaning no central world government- something like what we have on Earth today), a rather liberal law level near the Starport and a technology level more advanced that what we have today (with developed non-FTL craft and primitive gravitics) but still only average by overall Imperial standards.

Not bad for one string of numbers.

Of course, this is just the jumping-off point for real world development. I took these facts and, together with some rather sparse canonical data published by GDW in Mercenary, ran with them and built up a current setting for our game.

Again, imagination is a key ingredient. Other systems can (and do have) more extensive world generation parameters, but to me, this is all I need. Perhaps it is this sparseness which lends itself to a lot of player/umpire creativity to bring the stats to life which really characterizes Old School gaming and differentiates it from the newer varieties which are in much use today.

In any case, whether you prefer the older-type rules sets or the more contemporary ones, you’ll never go wrong by investing a lot of imagination in your games.


  1. I always thought Traveller was brilliant for using hexadecimal. Back in its day, home computers and programming were starting to become more familiar and it didn't actually seem that strange to me - after all, a lot of us were as busy keying in code from computer magazines as we were studying stats in the latest issue of Dragon.

  2. So true, another blast from the past, eh? Yes, I do agree with your observation- the hexadecimal system used by Traveller was really inspired. In fact, this seems to be one of the unique things that distinguishes it from other gaming systems.

  3. I must admit that the term break down into year assignments that is a feature of Book 4: Mercenary and Book 5: High Guard (and Book 6: Scouts) is what really brought the game alive for me on the character generation front. Those one or two word assignments were just the berries for prompting the imagination as to how "our" character got to his current place, and whether he had met any of the other PCs. Mongoose has picked up on this nicely with their Allies, Enemies and Contacts.

    I still have a chuckle when I remember a friend saying sourly, "I was doing ok until I got Counter-Insurged!" That was a Character- Fail! moment :)

  4. Heeheehee. Character generation- the iron man variety- can be deadly. :) I agree with your observation- the one/two word assignments are berries (or nuggets) which turn out so useful in terms of nudging one's imagination during character generation. My players and I do like the allies/enemies/contacts spin adopted by Mongoose. :)