Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Devil's in the Details

In issue #1 of Fight On!, Aaron Kesher wrote a terrific little article called "The Devil's in the Details," in which he presented a series of random tables for use in creating quick backgrounds/personalities for characters in his Otherness campaign. What was terrific about the initial article (and the ones that followed it) was the way that it simultaneously made it easy for referees and players alike to quickly -- and randomly -- personalize PCs and NPCs while also imparting little details to the players about the campaign setting without the need for lengthy write-ups on the matter.

The form that Kesher employed in his articles and subsequently adopted by others consists of three tables. The first uses 1D20 and is used three times to provide very "broad" details about that particular type of character -- statements that hold true for most examples of it, such as "Many dwarves abhor spontaneous displays of emotion" or "Many elves will die swiftly if imprisoned." These details have no mechanical effect (of course!) but they do an excellent job in my opinion of fleshing out a character type and giving some roleplaying "cues" to be developed further.

The second table uses 1D16 (either that funky die or by rolling 1D8 with a high/low die) and is used only once. Unlike the first table, this one provides more specific details that, while still representative of the type of character he is, are not present in all examples of that type. For example: "Some elves are haunted by murders of crows" or "Some halflings practice pugilism as a dubious hobby." Again, the table is useful because it gives us more details from which one can spin interesting characters and that tell us something about the character type.

The final table (also using 1D16) is used rolled 1D3 times. This table offers "some common traveling gear" associated with the character type. These are bonus items in addition to whatever the player or referee chooses to equip the character with.

I'm glad that others have followed Kesher's example and created their own tables of this sort. John Laviolette, over at The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms, has even suggested that the old school renaissance would be wise to offer up more examples of tables and systems in this style in order to better demonstrate the old school approach to character generation and background. I think he's absolutely right about that and I'd like to suggest that, in the coming days, my fellow bloggers and forum-ites share their own "The Devil's in the Details" tables. Here's one of my own, detailing the elves of Dwimmermount, to get us started:

MANY ELVES (Roll 1D20 three times):
1. Have never known another of their kind.
2. Have hair of white or silver.
3. Become intoxicated if they consume too much sugar.
4. Have shadows that seem "alive."
5. Sleep standing up -- and only for an hour or two each day.
6. Claim to have visited other worlds.
7. Call all non-elves "ephemerals."
8. Periodically spend all their funds on worthless baubles that they soon tire of and give away.
9. Devote themselves to a single weapon and will never even touch, let alone wield, another.
10. Can determine if a person is a magic-user simply by sight.
11. Consider silver more valuable than gold.
12. Find the concepts of aging and death endlessly fascinating.
13. Believe politeness is a form of dishonesty.
14. Disappear on the night of a full moon.
15. Refuse to accept magical healing or any other clerical spells.
16. Engage in conversations with beings others cannot see.
17. Are superb mapmakers.
18. View dwarves with strange interest.
19. Will not allow non-elves to watch them eat.
20. Refuse to sign their name to any document.

SOME ELVES (Roll 1D16 once):
1. Fear the gods of Men.
2. Actively avoid meeting other members of their kind.
3. Possess the same height, build, and countenance as Men but otherwise possess all the qualities of elves.
4. Keep small tokens of every intelligent being they slay.
5. Are zealously Neutral (Balance) in their worldview.
6. Instinctively feel the death of anyone they have ever met, regardless of the distance.
7. Become mute on the night of a new moon.
8. Feel a special affinity with cats.
9. Will speak no language but their own.
10. Refer to the Sun as "Our ancient enemy."
11. Have hair of black or gray.
12. Commit to memory every song they ever hear, even those sung by "ephemerals."
13. Show an inordinate interest in keys of all sorts.
14. Seek out knowledge about the undead.
15. Must slay at least one living creature each day or sicken.
16. Call themselves by different names with different groups of people.

1. A collection of keys to unknown locks.
2. A chain shirt as supple as leather.
3. A bow made of a strange, silvery metal.
4. A bag of cat nip.
5. A vial filled to the brim with sugar.
6. Silver eating utensils.
7. An odd "compass" whose cardinal points correspond to no known directions.
8. A hooded cloak that changes color to match its surroundings.
9. A silver belt buckle.
10. An ornate hair clasp.
11. A collection of hand-drawn maps.
12. A guide to etiquette.
13. A handful of small stones unlike any on earth.
14. A wide-brimmed hat.
15. Some "twine" made from a flexible, silvery metal.
16. Several small but empty leather bags that they will allow no one else to touch.


  1. I do like it. Randomness, brevity, open-ended clues about the campaign suggestive of future expansion. Simple mechanics that support the campaign.

  2. What we also need is a way to organize these tables. I can't flip through multiple issues of Fight-On!, Knockspell, online blogs, and various other OSR material continuously.

    Maybe we could put these tables in a tiddly-wiki format? That might help. Any other ideas?

  3. This is truly an interesting idea. It reminds of those random rumor table from B2.

  4. I love the way the OSR generates stuff and shares it. In this case, I think the tables might work better if they were abstracted a little more.

    In other words, rather than having to think up twenty possible details for every single race in your campaign, and likely picking details that fit accepted archetypes, you could craft a table that helps you invent at the time of rolling.

    So, you roll and come up with a "enjoys" and "something unacceptable to other races" or a "perceives" "time / law / morals differently", or whatever.

  5. My NPC and Tavern Patron generators are in the downloads section at Swords and Wizardry and fit this bill to some degree.

  6. You know, just today i was thinking about making a "d36" which is basically a 6 by 6 table with all the numbers listed in order in the cells and each axis corresponding to a different colored die. When i saw "d16" i couldnt help but think of the same concept with a d4. might not be worth the trouble though.

  7. Thanks for the kind words, James!

    I was really happy with how the articles turned out, and have used them many times already in my own campaign.

    Two things: One, I need to give props to Calithena, who came up with the suggestion for the tabular scheme, and encouraged me to write the articles in the first place.

    Two, and I've mentioned this a number of times on my blog, Paul Vermeren's "Dungeon Motivations" article in FO! #5, http://fightonmagazine.com/FOMag_Issue005.html, is classic. 100 often hilarious reasons these poor adventures are driven to delve the dungeons. Check it out!

    @Telecanter: I think that's a fabulous idea! Write it up!

    If someone wants to set up a wiki with this stuff, I'd gladly include all three of my tables on there.


    Verification word: undress


  8. Hmmm...while I like some of the ideas listed, I don't really go in for random tables to determine elements of a culture or species so many PCs are a part of.

    Personally I'd rather let the players determine those things or add to already established elements set up by the GM (me).

  9. That kind of background table first appeared 2001 in Vincent "DitV" Baker's fantasy heartbreaker Cheap & Cheesy. But he explicitly gave permission to use it elsewhere.

    The game can still be found using the Waybackmachine, and it is well worth a look:

  10. In fact, that's nothing new. Vincent Baker did it almost ten years ago. Did Aaron Kesher at least quote the source of the idea?

  11. @Dirk and Antonio:

    Oh, Vincent's C&C game was definitely an inspiration. I don't think I explicitly mentioned it in the articles, but I have on forums, and I always encourage people to pick up his games, though I'm usually directing them to the ones on which he makes money. :)

    In fact, go check out In a Wicked Age, the game into which C&C evolved: http://www.lumpley.com/wicked.html

  12. I had forgotten that C&CFG used a similar descriptive approach. No randomness there though. When Vincent was doing the utterly awesome random monster generator article for FO! #2 I think I encouraged Vincent to add the random rolls to that one too (as with Kesher here).

    Dice make everything better - you can always choose to choose, but coming up with rolling mechanisms when none are provided is harder.

    I don't think either Aaron or I remembered to credit C&C - probably should have given a hat tip there in retrospect. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure Vincent is OK with it, since he contributed to FO! #2-5 and saw the articles in question. Plus he's a cool guy.

  13. Hmmm...while I like some of the ideas listed, I don't really go in for random tables to determine elements of a culture or species so many PCs are a part of.

    Well, it's not really determining the elements of the culture -- all the elements on both tables can be found among the elves -- but rather which of those elements a PC or NPC happens exhibit. That's why I say the table pulls double duty, simultaneously helping one roleplay a particular character but also giving one a broad sense of the characteristics of the character type/race as a whole.

  14. Am I the only one who finds the Dwimmermount elves obsession with sugar a little creepy? :)

  15. Am I the only one who finds the Dwimmermount elves obsession with sugar a little creepy? :)

    Heh. It's just a funny little detail that came up casually in play -- a joke about pixie sticks, I think -- and then was elaborated upon as time went on.