Thursday, September 16, 2010

Anti-d20 #2: Character traits

I decided to split character generation up into two parts in order to keep either blog post from being overwhelmingly large. Although character generation should, like everything else in Anti-d20, be pretty quick, easy, simplified, and utilize scaling dice to to differentiate odds of success for any given task, at the same time, it needs to be robust enough to actually define the character with some detail. My experience is that many players (myself included) frequently don't have a highly detailed, fleshed-out idea of the character in their heads when they start playing, so they use character generation (chargen) and things that happen in play to gradually develop the characters over time. A system that gives you enough mechanics to "sink your teeth into" can give you a headstart on defining the character in your mind before you have to actually start playing him.

In a move borrowed more or less wholesale from The Window (although Savage Worlds is also essentially the same here too), I've split character generation into Traits and Skills. Given the nickname of my system as Anti-d20, ironically, you'll see that the six traits I've used are very similar to the ability scores of the d20 system (although for that matter, very few roleplaying systems of any stripe venture too far from these basic traits too.) The Window originally came with five of these that I'm using unchanged. I added a sixth, Charisma, because I think it's important to recognize that mechanically instead of just saying, "roleplay it out" in order to account for differences in the player and the characters inate abilities there.

In addition to the six basic traits, there are also two additional optional traits. These could be very important for certain games… or they could be completely irrelevant. Because of their ties to specific genres or modes of play instead of the universality of the basic six traits, they've been relegated to the optional status, but I recommend them both.


This score tells you how strong your character is. This comes up when a character attempts to do something that is primarily driven solely by strength, and not skill (the relevant skill check should be made if applicable… this is for checks which are specifically strength related, or which seem to not have a skill against which there is an obvious correllation.) Actions like picking up heavy weights, breaking down doors, holding someone so they can't move, etc. are examples of things that should call for a Strength check.


This score tells you how coordinated your character is. Many items that require agility also have specific skills that should be used instead (throw, or shoot, for example) but there are also many actions that one could undertake that do not. Attempting to keep your balance on the tilting deck of a ship in a storm, feats of hand/eye coordination, picking a pocket, or other feats of general athleticism may all require Agility checks. In d20 terms, this replaces some skills (because my skill list here isn't as long) as well as the Reflex save, if that helps put some context behind when this should be used.


A character's basic constitution, heartiness, and healthiness. This will be used frequently in many physically dangerous situations; health checks are used whenever your character is injured, poisoned, encounters a disease, or even fatigue. In many ways, Health is a combination of hit points and the Fortitude save. Or, if you're familiar with True20, it's both the Fortitude and the Damage save rolled into one. Kinda. Albeit subject to a lot more GM interpretation, so as to avoid save or die effects except when you want them.

The effects of a failed Health roll are highly situational dependant, and require GM interpretation. If an opponent shoots you in the head with a 9mm at point blank range, not only with the target you need to roll be incredibly high, but even the effects of a successful roll aren't going to be good (maybe the character is in a coma for three months and then wakes up with amnesia, for example… a failed one is obviously instant death.) On the other hand, if an enemy spy is trying to get you drunk and you're playing along, the target number will be more modest, and a failed roll just means that you take a penalty on your Perception, Charisma and skill checks for a few hours.


Used any time the player wants to determine if the character would know something that is in question. This can be formal education, hard knocks experience, ability to draw disparate clues that the character may have heard somewhere years ago together, or anything else. Basically it's "Make a check to get a clue when the player seems stumped" combined with some in-game roleplaying where it's unclear if a character would know something more esoteric or not.


The ability to notice stuff. This one can save your life, of course. What you can see, what you can smell, what you can hear… very important in most settings.


Neither Savage Worlds nor The Window use a Charisma score (although d20 does.) Although it's often good (and fun) to roleplay out social situations, that can lead to the situation in which players who are charismatic end up always having charismatic characters and those who are not, can't. This attempts to bridge that gap somewhat. It's also a shorthand for when you don't want to roleplay out an interaction, because you'd rather speed the pace up and move on to something else. Anything from negotiating passage with a caravan, attempting to bluff a beat cop, to crusing the bar scene to pick up one night stands all fall under the aegis of the Charisma check.


This is the first of the alternate traits. This is basically the "get out of jail free card." You're unlikely to ever roll this on your own initiative (unless the GM decides to do more with this, see below), but a GM might call for a luck roll if you just blew a major, important roll and he wants to give you chance to mitigate the failure. Note that this doesn't undo the failure… it just mitigates the effects of it somewhat. This is more of a GM safety net than anything, but including a luck trait certainly goes a long way towards making the game less punishing if you're in an environment where checks are being made frequently. If that's the case, odds are you'll eventually fail some, and if they're really important ones (i.e, a health check to avoid drowning, an agility check to avoid being swept off the hull of the spaceship into the void, etc.) then having a second chance with the Luck trait can make a major difference in PC survivability.

An alternative way to use the Luck trait is to make a Luck check after a failed check of another type and add the Luck roll total to the other failed check. Personally, I'm indifferent to re-rolling versus rolling Luck as if it were an "Action Point", but check with your GM on how he wants to handle. In any case, you can't abuse the Luck trait and use it to add (or reroll) any failed check on a whim. Luck checks should only be used when your GM tells you to make a luck check (or if he agrees to allow you to if you ask him) if you are using your luck too often the GM can (and should) permanently reduce the value of your luck trait after a while to represent you using up your luck.

As an even further last ditch maneuver, GMs might allow you to even mitigate a failed Luck roll in life or death situations by permantly reducing your Luck score one dice band (i.e., from a d8 to a d6, for instance) to convert the failed Luck roll into an instant success. This is optional however, and it cannot be assumed that a GM is using this rule even if he is using the already optional Luck rules. Be sure and check with your GM and find out how he's running it!)


Made famous by the popular Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, some kind of sanity-type mechanic has been a staple of any horror themed game that's come out ever since, and they've even been integrated into other genres that have some horror influence, including darker sword & sorcery settings like Freeport. This optional trait is therefore going to be highly genre dependant… although as it turns out, for most games I'd run, it'll definitely work.

As with health rolls, sanity rolls are highly situation dependant, and require GM adjudication. Seeing a mangled carcass at a crime scene is disturbing, but probably won't be a major risk (at least not for a player character), while seeing your wife die traumatically while a demon claws its way out of her innards on its way to try and steal your soul will almost certainly require a much higher target and have much more punishing consequences for a failed roll.

While I was tempted to include a quick and dirty chart of sanity effects, I'll defer for the time being (although in actual play, I'll probably borrow one from my Cthulhu books, or my Freeport books, or some other such book that already has some in print… here's a link to one such system that's online, although I'll probably want one that's more streamlined). Anything from catatonia to fleeing in uncontrollable panic, to having your score permanently reduced (as from a d10 to a d8, for example) are appropriate.

Assigning values to traits

Now that you know what the six basic and two optional traits are, how do you assign values to them? In The Window, it's assumed that characters are "so mature" that they can assign whatever they want to those values to flesh out their characters and that will work out well. While that approach does seem to coincide with my own stated "authorial paradigm", in practice, I prefer (both as a player and as a GM) to have a little more direction than that, just so I can feel confident that we're all on the same page.

Given that, I've devised three "tiers" of trait assignment. The first tier is "realistic" and it features characters that are not particularly extraordinary. "Heroic" features characters that are larger than life, and more competent than everyday, regular Joes. This is probably where most roleplaying games fall in terms of character competency, roughly speaking. The third tier is "pulpish" and features out and out superheroes. John Carter of Mars, Tarzan, Conan, Doc Savage, James Bond… these characters are beyond even mere heroes, they're legends.

As an aside, my games will be assuming the heroic tier almost exclusively.

For "realistic" games, you have the following six stats to assign to your six basic traits: d10, 3d8s, and 2d6s. If you use one of the optional traits, add an additional d6 to the mix, and if you use both optional traits, add an exta d8 as well.

For "heroic" games, you will use d12, d10, 3d8 and d6. Again, use an extra d6 for an optional trait and also an extra d8 if you use both optional traits.

For "pulpish" games, you will use 2d12, 2d10, and 2d8 with an extra d8 and d10 respectively if you use the optional traits.

Keep in mind that these are starting numbers only. Assuming your character survives multiple sessions of play, you will start having opportunities to improve your traits as the game goes on.

Next up -- Skills!

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