Thursday, March 8, 2012

What Background Charts Say About Your World

One of my favorite quirks in that lovable mess of a book adorned with a scarlet butt-ugly hollering efreeti on its cover is the sudden, inexplicable lurching into polemic.

Take this section on Social Class in the DMG:
“There is no random table for determination of a character's social status to be found here. That is because the inclusion of such a factor will either tell you little or nothing of useful nature, or it will abridge your freedom with respect to development of your campaign milieu. That is, if such a table tells you only a little so as not to force a social structure upon your campaign, the table can contain nothing of use...There are dozens of possible government forms, each of which will have varying social classes, ranks, or castes. Which sort you choose for your milieu is strictly your own prerogative. While this game is loosely based on Feudal European technology, history and myth, it also contains elements from the Ancient Period, parts of more modern myth, and the mythos of many authors as well. Within its boundaries all sorts of societies and cultures can exist, and there is nothing to dictate that their needs be Feudal European.”
On the surface that's a totally bizarre way to begin a passage in a rulebook, “let me tell you all the things that aren't in here and why in detail.” Gygax was obviously responding to the trend of second-generation fantasy game competitors to tout background charts as providing a deeper social context.

Leaving aside the obvious self-interest, I love this passage as it reveals two things: 1. a profound insight into the imaginative big-tent reach of classic D&D and it's latitude for personalizing worlds (“why do any more imagining for you”); and 2. it's a concession in a way to the fact that such tables are a powerful way to subtly hardwire setting logic into character generation.

A quick paging through a few of the contenders of that era seems to validate this. Chivalry and Sorcery's starting background chart is a laser-focused on a long list of professions and classes--from serfs up to the lesser nobility--that clearly reflect a very narrow implied campaign world based in Northwestern Europe around the end of the 12th century. It's random distributions while slightly weighted “unrealistically” toward not playing the bottom part of the pyramid. (Harnmaster would go full hog later giving you a 65 percent chance of playing a wide range of dirt-rooting peasants).

On a radically different note, let's take Stormbringer first edition, a game whose more flatly-distributed and divergent class background table typically generates a weird, wonderful, unbalanced grab bag of a party. It's not unusual to have a strange chaotic blend of PC backgrounds. A Melnibonean sorcerer-warrior-assassin tooling around with a pygmy hunter from Oin and a leprous beggar from Nadaskor. It's a set-up for campaigns even weirder than the books really.

Point is that each of these tables alone said as much and more about the setting and how the players fit in as the many pages of text yakking on about medieval society or the twisted words of Michael Moorcock. It's an elegant way to get around info-dump.

Winding up for my second point. What I take away from that DMG rant is not so much that such tables will break your D&D campaign, but that you have a choice as a DM to either run a “background is wholly what happens in the first three levels” approach (banking on bottom-up development) or custom fit a background table or subsystem to fit the contours of your own world.

Either works well I can attest from years running and playing—players in the HC are free to choose either road--but long-time readers will know that I have loved me some campaign-specific background generators over the years.

The background subsystem in the Hill Cantons Compendium says a good deal about the implied HC campaign world. There is both the obvious flavor elements—the landsknechts, dwarven indentured servants, mountebanks—and the somewhat deeper bits in the campaign logic itself.

The Weird touching the borderlands amplifies the chaos of human society. To be in that rootless group of crazies willingly exploring it something must have broken in your head. So the system tends to generate a background that is really tumultuous and zig-zaggy, a childhood and adolescence spent running from a crime to pushing a pike to having a mystic experience and the like.

I'm throwing a wall of text at you—and forgive me if it all sounds like a big stinking pile of pretentious poo—but it's a topic that I come back to a lot in my homebrewing. And I notice more than a few of my friends out there in the ether custom fitting their own tables and it makes me just want to play in their own worlds all the more.

And you? Have you made—or want to make—your own custom fits? Did it work?

28 comments:

  1. I'm currently toying with the ACKS Template system, which is part of the yet-unreleased Player's Companion. Instead of rolling 3d6 for gold, you roll and get your starting equipment + proficiencies. It conveys little bits of the ACKS default Auran Empire setting, but reworking that + throwing in some ideas from Fast Company in Fight On (#8 or #10?) lets me provide a lot more of my setting's flavor; making it optional means players can learn what's expected but choose to customize their characters if they'd rather.

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    1. Sounds interesting, in what ways do you see changing the charts to reflect the quirks of your own campaign?

      I have worked up several random equipment generators too (http://hillcantons.blogspot.com/2010/10/random-starting-equipment-charts.html) since equipment selection is usually the longest part of old school D&D chargen they can speed up play immensely.

      And totally agree that it works best as an option. I have had many a player in HC start completely as a blank slate and have a good deal of fun just letting the character develop in play. But yes it does provide a good pointer for what new players should expect.

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    2. Oh, in my overzealous dreaming I'd like to completely replace the list of templates. For example, the Auran Empire mage templates are:
      Hedge Wizard, Soothsayer, Necromancer, Elementalist, Magical Scholar, Eunuch Sorcerer, Warmage, Court Magist. My list currently looks like: Shadow Sorceror, Dark One, University Student, Astrologer, Alchemist, Geomancer, Oneiromancer.

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    3. Oh, yes - equipment selection is the big obstacle to rolling up a bare bones D&D characters and getting stuck into playing, made worse by random starting money.

      WFRP, of course, combined starting equipment with background tables. You could choose to be a 'warrior', but whether you started play as a lower class thug, a professional soldier, or a knight depended on the whim of the dice. And, despite being a largely skill-based system, a starting player didn't get to make any choices there, either! A few dice rolls fills in the whole character sheet and builds a picture of the world.

      "Within its boundaries all sorts of societies and cultures can exist, and there is nothing to dictate that their needs be Feudal European." I think that the real problem is that the game world implied by the D&D rules makes a Feudal European society highly unlikely, despite the fact that most of us use something like that as the backdrop. A D&D world that fits the eccentricities of the class/level/magic/monsters of the system would be, well, fantastic.

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    4. It's funny that given all the similarities between the HC and WFRP that I have still managed to never play it. I keep saying if I ever switch rules again I am going to shift to Small But Vicious Dog.

      "I think that the real problem is that the game world implied by the D&D rules makes a Feudal European society highly unlikely, despite the fact that most of us use something like that as the backdrop."

      Absolutely agree, all of it conspires along with other implicit assumptions--like the dominance of currency and mobility of characters--to be a world where feudalism seems like a system on the way out (if it ever existed as a parallel to our own history).

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  2. Very timely. We've been working on social status and background charts/tables/etc. for Wermspittle.

    The passage from the DMG that you quote above always struck me as a license, even an order, to go forth and create your own stuff that was unique to your setting. In fact the DMG remains a tremendously useful tool-kit and inspirational resource for building stuff for yourself. I prefer tool-kits.

    Never really looked at Stormbringer--should have, I know--but never bothered. Never got into the BRP rules. You are making me want to to take another look at Stormbringer...but where to start?

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    1. That I look forward to.

      It can up in that discussion I had a while back here about what period of real world history is D&D supposed to be (the one inspired about your own post about chocolate as a commodity), but one of the enduring things about D&D is it's great flexibility.

      With a little kitbashing, its assumptions work just as well (or just as poorly depending on your point of view) whether you are basing your campaign on a strictly faux medieval Euro model or on something highly unique.

      Definitely go for first edition (you can get a legal PDF on RPGnow). For one it's written by Ken St. Andre and drips with his writer's voice. The quirky background charts are dropped in the later editions too (a big mistake). I also think it's the best iteration of the fantasy BRP games, it's streamlining of combat is much more my cup of tea.

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    2. I'll take a look at that. What you are describing sounds very interesting. Glad to hear that something I wrote turned out to be useful somehow. that's always fun to hear. Of course there isn't much in the way of chocolate in Wermspittle these days...

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  3. I've always liked the mechanism found in Rune Quest,
    this could be because it takes place right after the fall of Rome (one of my all time favorite time periods)
    That said I enjoyed the simplicity of the system, and any game that can give you gladiatorial Ducks has got to
    be admired!

    The Chivalry and Sorcery's source books are very useful,
    I have several and use them often for names and background material, they are very well researched.

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    1. I was going to write up Runequest's charts too, but thought I was belaboring the point. They are actually in a sweet spot, enough flavor to give you a sense of the implied setting (and some related variation in your character) but pretty simple and straightforward.

      And heck yes on gladiator ducks!

      I find myself digging out C&S a lot actually when I need some background info on medieval euro related stuff.

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    3. The shame is that Runequest never had the following it deserved.

      Speaking of digging out C&S I had to re-read
      "Drop The Rock" a classic!

      I may put that up in it's entirety on
      our blog.

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  4. Oh man, I was a compulsive generator-maker in my first blush with D&D. I was about 12; I had no one in the community I lived in to play with; and I had just gotten my own room. I spent hundreds of hours making up tables that defined everything in the world, every possible set of actions for NPCs. What I would have to check out the ideas of my 14-year-old self, I can't tell you.

    As a married guy, working, kids, all that - I've veered hard in the direction of emergence. I've had campaigns where I didn't make anything up the players didn't ask about, and all of that I'd make up on the spot. Note-taking: Suddenly crucial. Added bonus: You get to map your subconscious by forcing it to constantly produce impulsively.

    Sorry, I think I've lost the point. Heh.

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    1. I should say that I don't mean to imply that one tack is less mature (or whatever) than another; just that I'm usually so distracted and time-whacked that I don't get the work done for the former approach.

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    2. There was a tendency to do that--build comprehensive tables--in the very old games that I respect. En Garde in particular covered just about everything they assumed you could do as a 17 Century courtier in France. Of course you really don't need at the end of the day, but it does at least give you inspiration points.

      As to how you run things today, a big related point that came out more in the Google Plus discussion of this pots: the Hill Cantons started and ran for the first year in exactly that same way for much of the same reason. The original campaign map shows only an area about 60 miles long.

      All these layers only developed after a lot of player co-creation and frequent ad-libbing at the table.

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  5. I won't argue that HM's tables to suggest the milieu quite well...but HM's point is to create immersion because of a believable milieu. That said, as with all things non-core-mechanic related, they can (and ought to) be tweaked on the fly. As below is delineated...

    The Harnnmaster tables tell you what 'freebies' you're getting from your background--If you play the pregame (as we do) or roll 3x apprenticeships/choose one (the other method) you get a wider palette of choices. More often than not, when a PC dices up 'wealthy villien,' for newer HM players I'll treat it as yeoman, giving them some suggestion of avenue. I have a PC that rolled Cottar, but with a dead father; in the pregame we decided that his father was a freelancer for the salt route.

    Typically, the I give the barbarian PCs an outlet in their pregame to come into the civilized universe.

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    1. The HM tables came up in discussion at our last game session. I was laughing about how hardcore "simulationist" they were (I mean beyond the 65 percent chance of being a serf you have a further 20 percent chance of being a poor freeman).

      But I will freely concede that the pregame actually sounds quite fun as a departure from D&D tropes.

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    2. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for HM for that reason - it seemed the perfect counterpoint for my natural mode of Baroque Gonzo. Alas, I'm not the person to run that kinda game, and I don't have that person in my circle.

      Is it time to play HM on G+? (HM)mmmmm...

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  6. Hmm, pregame? Must be a newer version of HM than the one I have from, oh, probably early 90s?

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  7. I love this kind of random background-generation stuff. There's nothing pretentious about it -- charts like this are a great way to say "here's what my setting is like and who you'll find there." They're also a great way for cautious or carefree players to make a neat character.

    What I find, on a tangent, is that my players don't wait long enough for background charts. I usually start a fantasy game by saying "Here's the regional map. This area is like..." and before I'm done, everyone's already clamoring to be a Whatever Swordsman From Overthereistan. Does anyone else run into that?

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    1. Uncle Matt, I think its natural for the players to focus on the first thing you show them. I'd take the map out after the characters are all rolled up if you're using background tables.

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    2. I wish there was a way to merge the G+ discussion with this as we hit a bunch of these notes over there.

      I should state for the record that I actually balance between both positions when starting PCs. I like having both "just off the boat" tabula rasa PCs and ones who have been "bred" into the setting by way of the tables. It's 100 percent the player's choice and the blend seems to work just fine in actual play.

      Btw the very first session of the campaign worked exactly the way you state: I just put a map in front of them and said "where do you want to go?"

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  8. You're singing to the choir, Chris. I love background tables but want to make an even broader case for any campaign-specific tables.

    Region-specific random encounter charts... what's on the menu in the local inns of this region vs. that one... variable availability of gear or services based on location and size of community... more, more, more. All of this takes some time to craft and test, but it's all worth it.

    When done well these provide the campaign context beyond the primary action and are great tools for achieving immersion. I always struck out relaying dry history or explaining some strange feature of the world or region that was not directly germane to the campaign activity. But once I understood to weave that information into tables that impacted the campaign activity, I saw my players begin to grasp things better.

    Don't tell your players the region is iron poor, but build the cost and scarcity of chain mail into a table to check and see what gear is available.

    Don't necessarily tell the players the road between here and there is haunted by mongrelmen if they don't ask, but load up the random encounter table with mongrelmen.

    Don't tell the players the folk of this region mistrust mixed-races, load that into a reaction chart.

    The further you go into it, the more your game becomes a unique and deeper experience.

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    1. James this is spot on, perhaps you could spin it into a post?

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    2. Putting me to work Chris? It must be the editor in you.

      ;)

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    3. I dig it, James. Hell, I'm gonna bang out some charts tonight because of this series of posts.

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