[OSR D&D] Chargen and World-Sketching – first contacts with imagined worlds

I’ve started up a thread on Dragonsfoot to collate my dislocated thoughts about the world/setting I’m brewing up, since the weekly blog post isn’t really the right format to document the rhizome of a process that’s involved. While I could set up a side blog housing set pages I’m not sure if it’s worth the effort to do so for a process that’s been stalled for a few weeks now. I hope that presenting my thoughts in writing may purge them from the actively-processing bits of my brain and let me think about some other aspects of ‘world’. Apparently this is an autistic thing – the tendency to persist on and repeat particular behaviours or patterns of thought, like an obsessive-compulsive vulture over a particularly attractive carcass.

Another thing which puts me off hosting this stuff on the blog is that it currently exists in a very rough and ready ‘fantasy encyclopaedia’ form, not fully crystallised into gameables nor expressed indirectly within a narrative, and the declaration of opposition to the fantasy encyclopaedia has been made often enough within these halls that it should need no explanation.

In efforts to avoid this ponderous clomp of a format I’m hoping to focus all of my ideas down to the point where they can be expressed implicitly but entirely through the options available to players. It starts with expressing them as the encyclopaedia entries that emerge from my thinking but this exists under the hood and there it will remain. This has the benefit of encouraging me to think about where players can engage with the world through asking questions and making choices rather than wading through required reading, and it’s becoming obvious to me that the place to start is character creation. That is, after all, where players first begin to encounter and explore the world, the first exertion of their agency within it, and so every choice made or random factor incorporated should be significant – both in shaping the player’s character and in illustrating the broader world in which that character is embedded.

Lest it be thought that I’m talking out of my arse here, consider PrinceOfNothing’s comment on the last post:

Characterisation is (or has become, since those halcyon wh40k book reading days) important to me because it is the primary tool by which we get to see the fantasy world and a lot of it is viewed in the context of how it interacts with the characters. If we don’t care about the characters it is hard to get invested in the story and consequently I find I can admire the work for its interesting ideas, splendid prose or interesting plot without ever actually liking it. The Lovecraft effect if you will.

Stock fantasy is to me a much greater crime then going overly grimdark because stock characters don’t act like believable human beings(though I guess if you are emulating ancient mythology and your prose supports it well you can get away with that very easily like Moorcock). I like moral ambiguity but I loathe grimdarkness for the very same reason as I dislike stock characters.

With all this in mind I think it’s time to essay forth a demonstration. What – if anything – can we tell about the following world from its character options? Assume a baseline of Original D&D in which level 8 clerics and level 9 fighters may establish a domain.

    Three dice, six times, arrange to taste.
    If all stats are 9 or less, automatically Goblin.
    Otherwise, choice of Human, Elf, Half-Elf, Half-Orc.
    – Humans have the option of Fighter, Cleric or Thief and may not advance beyond level 10.
    – Elves are Fighter/Wizards. At each level they choose whether to advance as a Fighter or a Wizard and swap experience charts accordingly. They may not level beyond 6 in Fighter or 8 in Wizard (for a total of 14).
    – Half-Elves exist but effectively choose whether they want to operate as Human or Elf in mechanical terms. Their halfbreed status is dealt with through roleplay.
    – Half-Orcs default to Fighter and may not advance beyond level 6.
    – Goblins default to Thief and may not advance beyond level 4. (Goblins may receive some additional rules for funsies.)
    These exist and are earned through a combination of roleplaying and assignation of stats. A Fighter, Cleric or Thief with a 17+ score in Int, Wis or Cha may at some point dual-class into Paladin, Druid or Assassin once they’ve roleplayed for a few levels and convinced me of their merit. Players whose characters lack that 17+ may approach the Host External and form a bargain – a chart has been prepared for the side-effects of such. Either way – this class change will necessitate a shift in the priorities of play and should not be done lightly.

Incidentally, the conceiving of the above was aided and abetted by the excellent lightweight AD&D character sheets produced by Tony DiTerlizzi. Bags of character and without the abundance of detail that so often bogs these things down. His halfling almost makes me want to tolerate the malodorous runts but not nearly as much as his goblin art made me want to mock this up: GOBLIN

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

5 thoughts on “[OSR D&D] Chargen and World-Sketching – first contacts with imagined worlds”

  1. Your shit on DF looks interesting as fuck.

    1. Adventurers are uncommon but not neccesairily exemplars or above average examples of the intelligent races.
    2. Goblins are numerous but hold little power on Titan. The rest seems equally common?
    3. -Humanity is the dominant species. Other races likely dwell in isolated location. No prejudice against half-breeds. Half-elves are secretly organic machines piloted by legions of tiny clockwork spiders that arose from the scrap of the world’s engine.
    4. Assasins/paladins/druids are made, not born, and are very rare. Everyone can become one, except for goblins.

    Whatever dissabilities you may have aquired on the long road to D&D Nirvana, naming conventions ain’t one of them. The Host External is great and sounds different from the standard D&D demons, perhaps more along the lines of the Archons of the Outer Church from Morrison’s the Invisibles, which is good because demons are overused. Vel sound pretty cool so far. Keep it up.

    [Obligatory whiny request for feedback]


    1. Why thank you. All very much WIP at this stage. Your document (yes, I’m reading it!) seems verbose and a little purple but there’s some worthy concepts in there (the Laughing Knights and Sorcerers of Ion, I like, and the fragments of dead gods wandering around the place).

      1. Correct. What would you change in order to make adventurers more rare, the 1%?

      2. Correct. Goblins are getting the short story treatment at some point as I’m not sure of the shape of their past yet and I don’t want to make them too Jewish. *ahem* They should stand for the universal Other, the experience of immigration and exploitation, without being directly mappable to a given Other out here in player-world.

      3. No prejudice is interesting – I want to bring across the idea that different societies have different tolerances (the half-fiend, for instance… I think I might use ‘Orc’ in the William Blake sense, the unkempt and unbound primal spirit of rebellion, if only to keep half-orc as a recognisable name and then subvert its meaning)… anyway, the point is the Assassins and Sorcerers are very half-breed tolerant while at least one of the Churches (I think Schismatic, since they like people’s ancestors to be dead and tangible and many taboos grow out of practical necessity) are manifestly not.

      Clockwork spiders, eh?

      4. Correct. I personally prefer the born-not-made approach to these classes, but I’ve been persuaded – https://kaptainvon.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/dd-how-many-paladins-have-you-seen-today/ – that players should be able to graft their way into those classes with luck as _a_ rather than _the_ significant factor.

      Oh, and thank you for your kindness in ref. names. I wasn’t sure about ‘External’ but the more I say it the more I like it.

  2. I prefer verbosity in my notes(and maybe elsewhere?), I like to let it percolate a bit before parsing it down to its essentials. Verbosity in a product is annoying but in notes I’d rather have more then I need then too little. As for my purple prose, guilty as charged(do I still have time to hide behind my dutch heritage?). I’ll endeavor to keep it out of Eye of Argon territory for as long as can.

    1. In chargen? Mechanically or flavourwise? Mechanically I tend to prefer the 4d6 in order discard lowest, trade 2 for 1 to increase primary ability score no lowering past 8, no subtracting from con or cha alternate method in Rules Cyclopedia for generating above average heroes(you can always kill them if you feel they are getting uppity). Flavourwise it’s always a question of the degree of civilization and structure. Border-provinces, war-zones, city-states and a lack of the heavy hand of civilization imposing order and structure tends to breed adventurers(for adventurers I find it helps to substitute criminals/mercenaries/privateers/entrepeneurs to get a grip on the concept) like lice. Heavily civilized areas have a more centralized power structure and might employ a sort of specialist problem-solving band under government-control, but I find that detracts from the flavor of adventuring(see also the Pathfinder Society). You can always go for a totalitarian state but in that case your enemies are less likely to be orcs and more likely to be inquisitors or terror-squads with telepathic watchdogs or something. Avoid making all adventurers ‘Jedi-knights,’ that is, an organization of priveliged ubermenschen that set out to right the worlds wrongs.
    2. Yeah that’s a tough un. You can’t make them the Neanderthal to the other races’s Homo erectus without drawing unfortunate comparisons with native americans. Just give them a history like any other faction and you’ll be fine though. Don’t forget any race that manages to survive in an eco-system with at least 3 other smarter, stronger races has to have something going for it.
    3. A good compromise, differences in philosophy breeds diversity and whatnot. In Age of Dusk I’ve never really given the issue of racism much thought since I don’t have elves or significant nonhuman player characters but I imagine racism between nation states or tribes is all the more common unless smoothed over by frequent trade relations or a common religion, both of which are fairly rare in AoD.
    4. Good alternate take on rangers and sorcerers(Carcosa had good ideas but i think the implementation could use work). I like the concept of prestige classes(as in basic or 1st edition) but 3.5 traumatized me by going way overboard and having a million of them, some of them very vague and borderline nonsensical.

    Good names are evocative and give the gentle reader some hint as to the nature of the beastie. I think Host External does the job.

    1. 1) The only ‘Jedi Knights’ in this setting are the Knights Palatine of the Orthodox Church (i.e. Paladins) and they’re not an organisation – they’re mavericks who are best left to do their thing outside the church orthodoxy and generally follow the whisperings of the ancestors rather than any sense of moral superiority. I think there will be a totalitarian state somewhere but it’s more likely to be for vel or tucked off in that top left corner of the map.

      2) I plan on cadging some mechanics from Pathfinder’s We Be Goblins setting to address the mediocrity of the goblin. They are very much society’s punching bag, but… OK, so I have an idea for their history but it’s a bit too Jewish for my liking and I really don’t want that association on my conscience, so I’m leaving them until I have an idea I actually want to pursue. Or I’ll make a player do it.

      3) Indeed, which is going to be worth my while to remember when looking at the cities/locales that don’t have something ending in ‘acula’ after their name.

      4) I feel the Thief-Acrobat and Cavalier to be the beginning of the end as far as this sort of thing is concerned. Barbarian I’m… undecided upon… but I err on the side of ‘just consider them to be high-Constitution Fighter-Thieves and have done with it’.

  3. 1. Totalitarian quasi-medieval states are great fun and indeed work best if they exist in isolation, giving them a reason for surviving when it is clear they are ruled by psychotic lunatics. Surrounded by mountains haunted by the ghosts of old civilisations, algae-drenched oceans that eat the flesh of man, contained by a malicious guardian creature conveniently slain by the PCs persuing rumours of a city made of gold etc.
    2. Leaving shit open until you have a good idea what to make of it is good practice and i recommend it heartily.
    4. I liked the Rules Cyclopedia version of prestige class paladins and druids(you had to attain a certain level to join their ranks), and you even had a mystara based halfling spellcaster prestige class that was pretty far out. 1e cavaliers and barbarians were horribly broken but the 2e kit versions were generally okay.

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