Monday, 29 July 2019

OSR Idea: Random Backgrounds as Consolation Prizes

TL;DR: Have several tables of backgrounds; characters with low ability scores roll on better tables.

Rolling for stats

Sometimes it can feel like the OSR has a love-hate relationship with the 3d6 down-the-line method of generating ability scores. Lamentations of the Flame Princess allows swapping one pair of scores, which I think is great - sometimes you just want to play a fighter. It also lets you reroll everything if the sum of ability modifiers is negative. 41% of B/X characters have a negative total modifier. In other words, in LotFP, after you've rolled up scores, marked the modifiers, and added them all up, 4 out of 10 times you have to do it all again. (Well, you don't have to - it's entirely optional - but why wouldn't you?)

Stars Without Number, in lieu of swapping scores, allows you to replace one score with 14 (+2). That seems more reasonable - it ensures that whatever kind of character you want to play, there will be at least one thing you're not entirely terrible at. It's also self-limiting - if you already rolled kickass scores across the board, bumping one to 14 isn't going to make as much difference. (SWN also shrinks the modifier range from ±3 to ±2, which seems like a good idea.) There's also the option of taking an array (14, 12, 11, 10, 9, 7) instead of rolling.

But somehow, these methods - particularly the "total do-over 41% of the time" one - seem a bit like admitting defeat. Why do we roll scores again?

Because we like the variation in characters - that jolt to the imagination that something completely human-planned cannot deliver. Also, because it's much faster than having everyone minmax which number to place where. This is a game about interacting with a world, not about deckbuilding. Roll roll roll, pick a class, go. Discover who your character is during play - don't agonize over it in the pre-game.

Maybe there's something we can hack up to keep the straightforwardness of rolling scores (no do-overs) while softening the blow of crappy ones?

Random backgrounds

Backgrounds can help give flavour to characters that can otherwise feel a bit like blank pawns, and act as a seed for roleplay. A background can be tied to a (pre-adventuring) profession, and have minor mechanical bonuses: some extra starting items, a skill increase, or perhaps a "mini-feat".

The problem with entirely random backgrounds is that the more backgrounds you write, the more difficult they are to make roughly equivalent in power. Vice versa, if you follow a restrictive formula such as "all backgrounds get +1 to one skill", you're both going to run out of suitable ideas, and will be unable to fit many setting-appropriate backgrounds to this mould.

And if you don't make them strictly equal? What if one background gets +1 to CON modifier while another can... tell when it's about to rain? It isn't game-breaking in itself, but can feel a bit unfair - even more so if the characters that rolled awesome scores also happen to land on the best backgrounds. Meanwhile, the poor sod with a -5 total modifier gets to be Background: Dirt Farmer. (Or a mudlark, which is a child that scavenges among the mud and gets pelted with coins and laughed at as they dive into the mud to catch them.)

Consolation Prizes

Here's an idea for a solution: tie background table rolls to ability scores, but give them an inverse relationship - the worse your scores, the better backgrounds you can roll, as way of a consolation prize. Now the designer no longer needs to balance backgrounds by making them all equally good - they're freed to deliberately design a power continuum, and it will be offset by ability scores. Now even players who rolled terribly can look forward to playing their new character.

(As a guideline to designing these backgrounds, they should never affect ability scores or ability modifiers. Those have already been rolled for, so a "Background: Strongman - +2 to Strength score" does not make sense; it's redundant. However, a mini-feat that affects a secondary stat is totally fine: for example, shepherds can get a +1 to attacks with slings.)


To divide generated characters into tiers, we need a mathematical benchmark to estimate their intrinsic value. One possible (albeit naive) benchmark is to simply sum up all the character' ability modifiers. When six stats are generated by 3d6 each, their ability modifiers per B/X summed up have a normal distribution with the average at +0 total modifier:

The possible results can be divided into an arbitrary number of bins of manageable probability, such as:

Total Modifier %
-4 or lower 5.8 Tier 5
-3 to -2 19.1 Tier 4
-1 to +0 34.1 Tier 3
+1 to +2 28.1 Tier 2
+3 or higher 12.9 Tier 1

We can give each bin a tier. The higher the ability score total, the "better" the character inherently is. (In actuality, not all abilities are of equal worth, and their worth does not scale identically with modifier or score. For example, in my game, each point of Strength score gives you an item slot and each point of Constitution score makes you less likely to lose consciousness, whereas with Intelligence only the modifier matters. The benchmark I'm using here ignores such considerations. You could also look at highest scores, lowest scores, or whatever. If your game is one of those weird roll-under-stat ones with no modifiers, maybe use sum-of-all-scores as the benchmark.)

So 5.8% of randomly generated characters will have very bad scores, putting them into Tier 5, and so on. Now, we can write a different table of backgrounds for each tier of character, with intrinsically "worse" characters rolling on cooler, weirder, and more powerful background tables.

Tier 1:

These characters have great scores - they don't need an impactful background. They are the unskilled professions as well as those skilled professions whose craft has little to no impact on the game: porters, farmers (dirt or otherwise), bakers, coopers, chandlers, calculators, mudlarks... even for their bonus starting items, the best these people can hope for is a single tool (with no immediately obvious use in the dungeon) and a bag of turnips.

Tier 2:

The professions that have a small game impact, mostly during downtime. For example, blacksmiths could make their own armour for half price. These are unlikely to come up very often, but are not utterly useless, either. They could be skills that any character can learn in your game, given enough investment. You could also put backgrounds that have no skills but very good starting items into this tier. Some may have dungeon-applicable tools.

  • Noble: No skills or mini-feats. Starts with 200 gp and a bottle of fine wine.
  • Blacksmith: During downtime, can craft armour, melee weapons, and other metal items. Material cost is half of the item's listed price. Work takes one week per 10 gp of listed price. Starts with a hammer and a bar of iron. Anvil sold separately.
  • Bowyer: As Blacksmith, but can craft bows, crossbows and ammunition.
  • Miner: Count as two people for excavations (three if you're a Dwarf). Starts with a pickaxe and a lodestone.
  • Masons: +1 Architecture. Starts with a sledgehammer.
  • Scribe: +1 Languages. Starts with  parchments, quills, and ink.

Tier 3:

These are professions whose skills have a clear impact on the game - for example, anything that boosts lockpicking/Tinker, Bushcraft or Search. Situationally useful (not just during downtime) mini-feats may also be placed into this tier. Often, these are combined with useful tools.

  • Actor: +1 to reaction rolls with humanoids. Starts with a mask and makeup.
  • Officer: +1 to follower morale. Starts with ceremonial rapier.
  • Falconer: Has a trained falcon that follows commands. Starts with a falcon and a mail glove.
  • Barber-surgeon: +1 Medicine. Starts with razor and leather strap.
  • Brawler: Improvised weapons count as regular weapons.
  • Bounty hunter: +1 Bushcraft. Starts with a hound and rope.
  • Bear-leader: +1 to reaction rolls with beasts. Starts with rope and animal feed.

Tier 4:

Backgrounds with mini-feats that give a boost to combat capability or survivability. Rare and expensive tools may be given as starting items. For example:

  • Shepherd: +1 to hit with slings. Starts with a cane and a bag of wool.
  • Poisonmaker: +1 to saves vs. Poison. Starts with 4 vials of poison.
  • Diviner: Can cast detect magic once per day. Starts with crystal ball and deck of cards.
  • Occultist: Can cast summon once per day (as Caster Level 0). Starts with curved dagger and black candles.
  • Lumberjack: +1 to hit with axes. Guess what starting equipment.
  • Acrobat: Fall damage is reduced by 20'.

Tier 5:

Go wild here. These characters have crap scores, so give them something surprising. Something that makes a big impact on the way the character plays. Got a class that's a bit more gonzo than the others (like the Skeleton Adventurer or Half-Troll) that you're not sure is entirely balanced and don't want players to be able to pick freely? Stick it here. "You're a skeleton in a hooded cloak, that's your background."

You can populate this tier with backgrounds that are plot hooks in themselves, or unique things that can only be rolled once.. Hell, put some superpowers here. "Dragonsoul: once per day, you can use a breath weapon that deals [Lvl]d6 damage." The stuff that a WotC game would let anyone pick willy-nilly, spoiling the mystique: those descended from the lines of elementals or gods! The insect-folk from two towns over! Soulless people who are invisible to the undead! Werewolves! Wielders of a runesword that grows stronger with every soul it eats! Weird mutants! Their low stats will mean they might not survive that long anyway. And hey, awesomely powerful individuals being physically weak is very swords & sorcery.


Spwack said...

No no, keep going, I am a huge fan of the Tier 5 backgrounds especially :D

Dehumanizer said...

That's cool. I have been thinking in doing something like that. My idea was to split the background tables into social classes. Very strong characters from very poor origins would be more likely to become adventurers, so would very lame characters from very rich social status. Either struggling to win, or rejected from their social tier.