Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Level-Up Lifepath

Dungeons & Dragons and Old School Renaissance retro-clone games in particular often rely on the “zero to hero” idea that characters begin at first level and rise through the ranks by going on adventures, killing monsters, and taking their stuff...or die trying (emphasis on the latter). Of course nothing stops players from rolling up higher-level heroes simply by adding level adjustments to first-level characters. It’s an exercise in bookkeeping, adding levels and experience points, adjusting to-hit modifiers, adding spells and special abilities depending on the character race and class. This all seems shallow to me and doesn’t offer the roleplaying opportunities to enhance a character actual play provides. I started thinking how to change that, looked back at some classic, well-loved roleplaying games for inspiration (and one recent acquisition), and discovered the sometimes-used “lifepath” method could provide some enhancements when creating higher-level characters.

My initial inspiration hearkened back to the earliest days of roleplaying games, when Marc Miller’s Traveller offered a science fiction alternative to the horde of medieval fantasy roleplaying games capitalizing on D&D’s popularity. Traveller’s infamous character creation mechanics used a basic form of a lifepath. A player, after determining the basic stats for a character, sent her through four-year tours of duty in a chosen (or assigned) military service branch, gaining skills and equipment along the way, and occasionally suffering injuries or, sometimes, even a terribly disappointing death. My own experiences making Traveller characters resulted in a band of decently experienced yet upper middle-aged military veterans mustering out of their service and adventuring around the subsector. Cyberpunk 2020 also used a fully developed lifepath in character creation, enabling players to randomly roll a significant event for each year in their lives, resulting in a host of game modifiers, distinctive physical modifications, equipment options, and non-player character contacts enhancing both game mechanics and roleplaying. More recently I’ve found – among other enjoyable bits – the “Big Table of Life-Altering Moments” in S. John Ross’ opus Uresia: Grave of Heaven (pp. 98-101). Roll 1D1000 for admittedly vague results players can use to help add depth to a character’s background. Pose a few defining questions about a character and roll on the table a few times: “The ‘answer’ the table provides will be no answer at all, really, just a breadcrumb that may lead to one,” Ross writes. “A creative exercise in drawing lines between here and there.”

So what might a simple level-up lifepath look like for Basic/Expert D&D (the flavor of D&D/OSR I enjoy most and the one I’m most likely to play in the fantasy genre)? Having lost a fair number of Traveller characters during creation thanks to failed die rolls, I’m not keen on including a “survival” roll each time I add a level to a non-beginner character. Instead I’d consider a die roll to determine whether something particularly good or bad happens to a character during the course of adventures required to level up. Each time a player adds a level, she rolls 1d20; I’d allow characters to use the ability modifier for their prime requisite to adjust this die roll. A result of 1-5 indicates something bad happened during this time...a “bane.” A result of 16-20 indicates their adventures grant them a “boon.” A result of 6-15 simply means they rise in level without anything particularly good or bad occurring, though I might encourage a roll or two on the Uresia “Big Table of Life-Altering Moments” to add some colorful narrative to describe events while accruing experience points for the current level. Characters receiving a bane or boon roll 1d6, add their new level, and consult the appropriate table for results; this skews higher results, allowing for more dire banes and more powerful boons the higher one’s level. Banes and boons could vary from basic in-game modifiers to story elements that might hinder or help in future adventures. Here are two sample tables, one for banes and one for boons:

Bane Table: roll 1d6 and add character’s new level to result
1-6       Valuable weapon, armor, or magic item destroyed by special attack.
7-8       Make a sole enemy who attacks you on sight.*
9          Suffer -1 penalty to randomly determined saving throw, attack roll, or damage rolls.**
10-11  Anger an entire type of monster that attacks the character on sight.*
12       Lose 1 point from a randomly determined ability score.**
13       Lose 1 level as described by wight attack (page B44).
14       Polymorphed; roll on the appropriate Wandering Monster table for current level.**
15       Lose 2 levels as described by spectre attack (page X39).
16       Infected with lycanthropy (page B38).

* Roll on Subtable: Humanoid, “Woods” (page X57) to determine type of specific enemy.
** May be removed using an appropriate spell.

Boon Table: roll 1d6 and add character’s new level to result
1-6       Roll once on a randomly determined magic items table (pages X44-X45).
7-8       Roll once on a magic items table of your choice (pages X44-X45).
9-10     Befriend a single person who can prove an extremely useful contact.*
11-12   Gain a +1 bonus to randomly determined saving throw, attack roll, or damage rolls.
13        Roll twice on randomly determined magic items tables (pages X44-X45).
14        Roll twice on magic items tables of your choice (pages X44-X45).
15        Become allies with an influential group.*
16        Increase one randomly determined ability score 1 point.

* Roll on randomly determined Subtable: Men (page X57) to determine specific ally.

Notes: Although these offer general game effects players should devise their own explanations for how they came about in the course of their adventures. I’ve intended these for characters advancing to the maximum of level 10, though one might expand them (or broaden the range of results in each table) to accommodate higher level advancements. Page numbers reference the Moldvay edition Basic/Expert D&D rulebooks.

As I perused B/X D&D to compile lists of ideas how characters might suffer somewhat permanent setbacks I realized the rules don’t offer too many options. Many conditions aren’t permanent; many often have means of removing or healing them. Some conditions inevitably result in death if untreated. Boons in the game primarily come from rolls on the magic item tables. The rules rarely mention roleplaying banes and boons, such as making contacts or enemies within the game setting.

My experience with the game and inspiration gleaned from paging through the B/X D&D rulebooks remains limited. Every gamer brings something different to the table, so I encourage gamers to modify these basic concepts, devise their own extensive tables for banes and boons, and investigate their own methods for enhancing the basic level-up process when creating experienced characters for D&D and other OSR fare.

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