RPG characters compared to characters in stories

pemerton

Legend
Just as easily as an AD&D ranger attracts a body of followers at name-level. The process described in the text is just that of him meeting the hobbits and then being joined by the rest of the Fellowship after the journey to Rivendell. This is emulated by an AD&D ranger reaching 10th level, and it doesn't require extraordinary luck other than that needed to attain the required experience. It just happens. Although it does require a fair amount of luck of a different kind for the DM to roll up a body with the same composition as the Fellowship, it is nevertheless possible!
High level AD&D rangers could almost be the poster child for my frustration with AD&D: so much colour (the followers, the palantiri, etc), but (i) so hard to bring in to play (earning 325,000 XP) and then (ii) so hard to actually put to good use within the mechanical framework and conventions of AD&D play.

I see similar things in monks, druids and even paladins.

At the moment, if someone asked me for advice on what system can somewhat reconcile the promise of flavour with some of the basic play conceits, without the heartbreak, I'd recommend Torchbearer.
 

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Clint_L

Hero
I've been thinking about posting this thread for a while. I've been prompted to do so by @The-Magic-Sword's interesting thread about neo-trad RPGing: Thinking About the Purpose of Mechanics from a Neo-Trad Perspective

Back in 1981, Lewis Pulsipher gave the following advice about designing character classes for D&D (it's from White Dwarf 25, though I know it from the Best of White Dwarf Articles v2):

Create a character class you could believe if you read about it in a good fantasy novel. . . .​
Begin by giving the class powers at the high or "name" levels, say tenth or eleventh, equal to those you see in the tradition or story on which you base the class. Find some evidence of how the character fared against creatures or dangers already defined in AD&D. Say the character fought a bear - did he have much trouble? Even if the eleventh level Eldar or whatever killed the bear in two rounds in the story, a first level wont necessarily do as well! . . .​
When you model a class after a group or character from a particular story, there are several things to keep in mind. . . .​
[R]emember that protagonists of epic fantasy are "born lucky". They roll 19s and 20s for saving throws, and stumble into good positions. The character class should be able to reproduce the greatest feats of the model only when the character gets lucky, not as a standard action.​

When I first read it, I took it as gospel - not that I designed very many classes, but I think it probably helped me build my sense of what counts as broken in AD&D build options.

But in more recent years (probably the past decade or two) I've started to change my thinking: particularly about the "19s and 20s" bit. It seems to me now that I want the ordinary play of an ordinarily-built PC to emulate (more or less) the ordinary feats of the literary or mythological inspiration. This doesn't mean auto-success - after all, those inspirational figures don't always succeed. (Even Gandalf is thwarted by cruel Caradhras.) But it means not requiring extraordinary luck to achieve, in play, feats that emulate the source material.
So, my thing is that in my stories I don't like it when it seems like the protagonist is always rolling a 19 or 20. I don't mind when they get lucky at the occasional clutch moment, but I prefer fiction that feels more grounded, even in fantasy and adventure.

Probably my favourite adventure protagonist is Ellen Ripley, in the first two films. At no point am I taken out of the film, thinking "there's no way...!" Or Indiana Jones in the first Raiders film, which is way more fun to me because he seems like, yes, a very capable, heroic figure, but far from infallible. Contrast with the Indiana Jones of Temple of Doom, who is starting to show super-heroic qualities (the absurd mine cart sequence, for example).

I like my RPG stories to have a lot of struggle and failure, so that the successes feel earned, powerful, and real. Maybe we are describing the same thing, and I am misinterpreting. But there's a reason I ban the "lucky" feat from my table: I think it is bad for the story.
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
High level AD&D rangers could almost be the poster child for my frustration with AD&D: so much colour (the followers, the palantiri, etc), but (i) so hard to bring in to play (earning 325,000 XP) and then (ii) so hard to actually put to good use within the mechanical framework and conventions of AD&D play.
I think it's interesting that whoever it was who designed the AD&D ranger seems to have followed something like Lew Pulsipher's advice with respect to delaying character emulating abilities until name-level while at the same time, at least with respect to gaining followers, completely ignoring the advice about gating those abilities behind dice rolls relying on extreme luck. I mean, it's an auto success. You get the followers without even having to declare an action. Now, I suppose the extreme luck comes in managing to keep the followers because, as the PHB states, "once lost, [they] can never be replaced," and we see this play out in the source material as well. Of the eight "followers" that set out with Aragorn from Rivendell, two are killed, two abandon the party (with good reason), and two are captured. Only Legolas and Gimli remain as constant members of Aragorn's band throughout the narrative, and I can definitely see some 19's and 20's being rolled during the pursuit of the the captured hobbits by the Three Hunters, leading to their reunion not with the hobbits, but with Gandalf, and the revelation that the hobbits were safe with the ents.

I see similar things in monks, druids and even paladins.

At the moment, if someone asked me for advice on what system can somewhat reconcile the promise of flavour with some of the basic play conceits, without the heartbreak, I'd recommend Torchbearer.
It's definitely on my list of games I'd like to play. Another approach for someone interested in playing a character that resembles Aragorn as we see him in the LR in a game of AD&D is to start at 10th level!
 

aramis erak

Legend
Just as easily as an AD&D ranger attracts a body of followers at name-level. The process described in the text is just that of him meeting the hobbits and then being joined by the rest of the Fellowship after the journey to Rivendell. This is emulated by an AD&D ranger reaching 10th level, and it doesn't require extraordinary luck other than that needed to attain the required experience. It just happens. Although it does require a fair amount of luck of a different kind for the DM to roll up a body with the same composition as the Fellowship, it is nevertheless possible!
Excepting that none of the followers of the AD&D ranger will be higher than first level; the fellowship in LOTR is not all starting characters. Only the hobbits really seem suitably inexperienced. Also, Sam is Frodo's follower, not Aragorn's. As an emulation of LOTR, the AD&D ranger is a very poor one.

Further, most of the AD&D classes attract followers at name level. So also the BX ones. But those only come if the character settles down to a location in most cases. (Some of the "NPC Classes" don't, in both AD&D editions; some of the expansion material in the PC and GAZ series don't, either.)

The attracting of followers is part of the subgenre tropes that make AD&D1/AD&D2 & BX/BECMI/Cyclopedia distinct from almost all the fantasy I've read. Le Guin, Howard, Tolkien, Moorcock, St Andre, McCaffrey, Bujold, Thos. Mallory, Weiss & Hickman. Yeah, even the second best known authorial for D&D related novels doesn't fit the game's tropes, and we KNOW (thanks to the adventures) when the party there hits name level; DragonLance the RPG Setting and DragonLance the novels aren't normally the same subgenre. (DL5A was closer, but that period of the novels is also pretty different from prior in terms of tone and subgenre.) I can't speak to Salvatore, as I've not read his novels.

As for Mr Pulsipher's Assertion of Exceptionality...
I strongly disagree with his assertion that the protagonists of fiction usually are rolling exceptionally well "in play"; none of the fiction I enjoy is such. But he is right that they are exceptional -- but it's exceptional at creation, not in play.
Jeff Swycaffer and Chuck Gannon both have protagonists who are exceptional at the outset mostly in motivation and perhaps a couple points higher than average stats (both of them are writing novels which can very easily be statted out in Traveller terms; both of them also wrote Traveller material; and 2 points on a 2d6 throw is much more significant than on a 3d throw).

McCaffrey and Bujold have seriously flawed protagonists, who rise above some initial disadvantage due to some compensatory advantage, and are exceptional for some singular ability and the willingness to use it. The Harper Hall Trilogy, focused upn two main characters, Menolly & Piemur, has both of them being exceptional, but in very different ways, and both screw up bigtime before self redemption; THe Dragonriders Trilogy has Lessa being exceptional in motivation and in telepathy (dragons only), F'Lar and F'nor are exceptional for being Dragon Riders and for believing the long interval is over; Jaxom is exceptional for other reasons, and is the one who coes across as exceptional rolling throughout. Killishandra is likewise exceptional in motivation, and in ego.
Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan is exceptional in being a nobleman from a powerful family, but is seriously physically limited due to an attack on his parents while in utero. His real gifts are that he's a very capable con-man, insanely stubborn, and rather smart, plus being a member of the aristroracy; each of his stories however, has him having srious issues to solve that his natural gifts don't. Other protagonists in the series (Cordelia Naismioth-Vorkosigan, Ellie Quin, Ethan of Athos, Simon Illyan, Sgt Taura, Elena Bothari-Jessek) all have good days and bad days. And Bujold's writing mode is built on "How far can I push them before they break?"
Herbert is the big exception in the fiction I enjoy; for him, the protagonists are clearly all a cut above, and succeed more often than they should, butthe big plot point is always someone's failed key action. Duke Leto fails to mistrust his doctor; Piter fails to predict the use of the Voice; Piter and the Baron fail to predict the rise of a messianic cult and its sociodynamic effects. (Note: I consider dune to be a space fantasy every bit as much as Star Wars, and not really as Science Fiction; both are written by authors who don't make clear distinctions between the two.) Likewise, once we get to God Emperor, the cover title suggests one protagonist, but the novel itself, and all which follow, are not about God-Emperor Leto.... but reactions to him. GE Leto is so far off the point scales of playable that he is best classed as a force of nature. (and this is foreshadowed in Dune Messiah.)

Now, some of the authors Mr. Pulsipher cites are doing characters who are pushing the bounds of Credible; later, non-Howard, Conan is a great example.... but it may be a case of his reading tastes leading to such authorial approach -- a selection bias -- and a flawed conclusion due to overgeneralization.
 

Staffan

Legend
Because the bulk of fantasy stories aren't about "solidly competent" people. Unless the story is specifically about growing into power, then the characters are generally top of the power curve for their type when we encounter them.

In a practical sense, if your D&D character is supposed to be able to emulate Aragorn, Conan, or Merlin while still at level one, only going up from there, your power level steps into being kind of ludicrous quickly, and you actually stop emulating that favorite character, because you step out of the realm of power the stories typically portray.

If the goal is emulation of fictional character types, then your game can only have a power curve as seen for those characters - which typically isn't much. Aragorn does not show major mechanical change over the course of the LotR books. Neither should a character trying to emulate that performance.
That applies as much to sci-fi or modern pulp as it does to fantasy. Look at the characters of Leverage or (most) Star Trek shows. They all start out as being solidly competent, and with very little power growth over the course of each series. There is certainly personal growth, and perhaps a broadening of competence, but I don't think Geordi LaForge is a better engineer, Julian Bashir a better doctor, or Alec Hardison a better hacker at the end of each of their series than they were at the start.

Star Trek Adventures reflects this pretty well, for Starfleet characters. Characters start out being highly competent, but actually getting better is wildly slow:
  • Most adventures would give you a normal milestone, which can be used to modify your Values, move a skill point from one skill to another, or replace a Focus (skill specialization) with another. You can also do one of those options on an NPC.
  • Normally, every 2-3 adventures award one character a Spotlight milestone (as voted on by the players, or assigned by the GM). These can be used to move a stat point to another stat, replace a Talent (special ability), do one of those for an NPC, or move a point from one of the ship's Systems or Departments (basically stats and skills for the ship) to another.
  • After getting your first two Spotlights, your third can be an Arc milestone. This number increases by one for every previous Arc milestone, so after your first Arc you need three more Spotlights followed by an Arc, and then four more Spotlights and an Arc, and so on. An Arc milestone is the only way to get a net increase in your abilities, allowing you to increase a stat or a skill, or gain an additional Focus, Value, or Talent. You can also buff the ship or an NPC in a similar way.
So assuming a group of five players and an evenly spread spotlight, it will take 30-45 adventures before they all get their first Arc milestone. Then another 40-60 for the next.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Because the bulk of fantasy stories aren't about "solidly competent" people. Unless the story is specifically about growing into power, then the characters are generally top of the power curve for their type when we encounter them.

In a practical sense, if your D&D character is supposed to be able to emulate Aragorn, Conan, or Merlin while still at level one, only going up from there, your power level steps into being kind of ludicrous quickly, and you actually stop emulating that favorite character, because you step out of the realm of power the stories typically portray.

If the goal is emulation of fictional character types, then your game can only have a power curve as seen for those characters - which typically isn't much. Aragorn does not show major mechanical change over the course of the LotR books. Neither should a character trying to emulate that performance.
Which basically means no version of D&D is really appropriate for that goal. Fine by me. I  far prefer zero to hero over any sort of genre emulation or storytelling rules.
 

aramis erak

Legend
Staffan: I disagree with your assessment of character growth in Star Trek shows. There is actually quite a lot of increase in overall competence, especially of your chosen exemplar, Geordie LaForge... initially, we see him at conn and ops. He's far from hypercompetent; many of his stories are him fighting to overcome a problem he cannot initially conquer, and him seeking the right help.
By the end of season 4, he's massively improved. By the end of season 5-6, he's added several new areas of specialization, tho' plateaued as a ship's warp engineer. In the movies, he's now, finally, to Scotty level hypercompetence... but has, at the same time, shown Scotty's was narrower than his own.
Essentially, all TNG and later have slow competence growth, but much breadth in competence is gained. Some attribute this to "they always could", others to sloppy writing, and others still (incl. me) as character growth with an exponential point cost...

Also, at least once per season, Geordie seems to invent new bits...
so, in Picard, he's able to have the 1701-D saucer (and a different secondary hull) manned by just the main cast... sans Wesley and Tasha... plus Raffi and Seven. Battle capable, even.

Most of the main cast show similar lateral growth through the series, excepting Wesley (who exhibits both vertical and lateral growth), Pulaski (written in when Dr Crusher took a season off, then written out when fans didn't like her), Argyle (written out in S1), and Tasha (Also written out).
And we do see lateral growth of Pulaski's skill, too. Her figuring out the active exocorporeal immune system of the augments results in her needing to expand her knowledge laterally.

Picard even gains an entirely new skill in a single episode... tin whistle.

TNG and DS-9 are the worst shows to make claims for no skill growth in the trek canon; they most consistently add new secondary skills.
 

Staffan

Legend
Staffan: I disagree with your assessment of character growth in Star Trek shows. There is actually quite a lot of increase in overall competence, especially of your chosen exemplar, Geordie LaForge... initially, we see him at conn and ops. He's far from hypercompetent; many of his stories are him fighting to overcome a problem he cannot initially conquer, and him seeking the right help.
By the end of season 4, he's massively improved. By the end of season 5-6, he's added several new areas of specialization, tho' plateaued as a ship's warp engineer. In the movies, he's now, finally, to Scotty level hypercompetence... but has, at the same time, shown Scotty's was narrower than his own.
Essentially, all TNG and later have slow competence growth, but much breadth in competence is gained. Some attribute this to "they always could", others to sloppy writing, and others still (incl. me) as character growth with an exponential point cost...

Also, at least once per season, Geordie seems to invent new bits...
so, in Picard, he's able to have the 1701-D saucer (and a different secondary hull) manned by just the main cast... sans Wesley and Tasha... plus Raffi and Seven. Battle capable, even.

Most of the main cast show similar lateral growth through the series, excepting Wesley (who exhibits both vertical and lateral growth), Pulaski (written in when Dr Crusher took a season off, then written out when fans didn't like her), Argyle (written out in S1), and Tasha (Also written out).
And we do see lateral growth of Pulaski's skill, too. Her figuring out the active exocorporeal immune system of the augments results in her needing to expand her knowledge laterally.

Picard even gains an entirely new skill in a single episode... tin whistle.

TNG and DS-9 are the worst shows to make claims for no skill growth in the trek canon; they most consistently add new secondary skills.
Most of these examples would be a matter of switching one Focus out for another, which you can do with a Normal milestone (any adventure where you play a reasonably big part), or potentially moving points either within Disciplines or (more rarely) Attributes. The idea in STA is that Starfleet Academy turns out personnel that are already near their maximum potential, and that if you want to improve in one area you will need to fall behind in another.

We do have one example where we see a character at two different stages due to Modiphius providing stats for the main cast of the shows, which means we both have Lieutenant Worf, Chief of Security, from TNG, and Lieutenant Commander Worf, Strategic Operations Officer, from DS9. The differences are:
  • TNG Worf has Command 3 and Conn 4, while DS9 Worf has Command 4 and Conn 3. Worf's been spending more time on leadership skills and less on piloting and navigation.
  • TNG Worf has four values, while DS9 Worf has five – you'd think Worf spent one of his arc milestones on adding one, but as we'll see later that's not the case. Both versions have "Proud and Honorable Klingon Warrior" and "Always the Outsider". DS9 Worf has changed "A Warrior's Rage" to "Jadzia Is My Second Heart" indicating that his passions now primarily concern his wife, and "Legacy of the House of Mogh" to "Glory only comes through Victory" indicating that he now believes one cannot rely on past glories but instead must achieve new victories in order to win glory. Finally, he has added "Martok, like Warriors from the Ancient Sagas" via a mechanic we'll see soon.
  • Both versions have six Focuses. Combat Tactics, Hand Phasers, Mok'Bara, and Shipboard Tactical Systems are in common. In DS9, Klingon Culture and Infiltration has been changed to Klingon-Federation Politics and Strategic Operations.
  • Both versions have four Talents. They have Brak'Tul (basically Klingon resilience) and Quick to Action in common. TNG Worf has Constantly Watching (harder to surprise) and Dauntless (harder to intimidate), while DS9 Worf has Personal Effects: mek'leth (letting him bring a blade in addition to regular equipment without adding Threat) and R'uustal showing that he has been through a ritual confirming him as a member of the house of Martok, and that the two are considered blood brothers (giving him the additional Value above as well as bonuses when assisting one another).
I think both versions are designed to have stats matching a starting character, but I haven't compared them to those. There is one other character that moved from one show to the other, but unfortunately Chief O'Brien wasn't important enough in TNG to warrant inclusion.
 

Larnievc

Hero
I've been thinking about posting this thread for a while. I've been prompted to do so by @The-Magic-Sword's interesting thread about neo-trad RPGing: Thinking About the Purpose of Mechanics from a Neo-Trad Perspective

Back in 1981, Lewis Pulsipher gave the following advice about designing character classes for D&D (it's from White Dwarf 25, though I know it from the Best of White Dwarf Articles v2):

Create a character class you could believe if you read about it in a good fantasy novel. . . .​
Begin by giving the class powers at the high or "name" levels, say tenth or eleventh, equal to those you see in the tradition or story on which you base the class. Find some evidence of how the character fared against creatures or dangers already defined in AD&D. Say the character fought a bear - did he have much trouble? Even if the eleventh level Eldar or whatever killed the bear in two rounds in the story, a first level wont necessarily do as well! . . .​
When you model a class after a group or character from a particular story, there are several things to keep in mind. . . .​
[R]emember that protagonists of epic fantasy are "born lucky". They roll 19s and 20s for saving throws, and stumble into good positions. The character class should be able to reproduce the greatest feats of the model only when the character gets lucky, not as a standard action.​

When I first read it, I took it as gospel - not that I designed very many classes, but I think it probably helped me build my sense of what counts as broken in AD&D build options.

But in more recent years (probably the past decade or two) I've started to change my thinking: particularly about the "19s and 20s" bit. It seems to me now that I want the ordinary play of an ordinarily-built PC to emulate (more or less) the ordinary feats of the literary or mythological inspiration. This doesn't mean auto-success - after all, those inspirational figures don't always succeed. (Even Gandalf is thwarted by cruel Caradhras.) But it means not requiring extraordinary luck to achieve, in play, feats that emulate the source material.

4e D&D was the first RPG that I grasped as revealing this possibility, though now I know of many more, some earlier than 4e (like Prince Valiant, Over the Edge and HeroWars), some more recent (like Agon, Marvel Heroic RP and even Torchbearer after a fashion). That's not to say that Pulsipher was wrong - his model in his article for RPG play is classic dungeon crawling, and this sets tight parameters around permissible player-side moves (eg Shadow Cat-style intangibility, or a Conan or Spider Man-level of trap avoidance, become broken in that context). But I haven't played that sort of RPG as my main thing for nearly 40 years, and so it doesn't need to frame my thinking today. In a RPG with more "open" fiction, and with non-dungeon techniques for establishing adversity and consequences, there's no reason why the play of a character can't and shouldn't reliably emulate the source material that inspires it.
I really like the idea of the character you like (let’s say Obi-Wan) is the equivalent of level 20 or so and all the levels leading up to that are the adventures you did not see.
 


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