Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Retrospective: 1001 Characters

The question of what constitutes a "good" gaming supplement has always been a contentious one. Back when I first entered the hobby, I knew guys who thought adventure modules were a "rip-off," because they felt it was absurd to pay $6 for a dungeon when they could make up their own for free. They felt the same about setting material like the Judges Guild Wilderlands stuff and, later, The World of Greyhawk. For them, making up your own stuff was one of the joys of this hobby and they weren't about to pay anyone else to do it for them. At the same time, I knew other guys who'd gladly plunk down good money for maps and other materials designed by others, mostly to save themselves time they'd rather spend on other aspects of gaming.

I've gone both ways myself at various times, depending on the RPG and the time of my life. In my younger days, I didn't put much stock in gaming "utilities," since I'd just as soon make up everything myself. Nowadays, I appreciate those kinds of supplements a great deal more, since I don't have nearly the free time I did when I was twelve. Even so, there's still a part of me that will always rankle at the idea of supplements that do "too much" of the heavy lifting for referees and players -- "too much" being defined flexibly, of course.

Which brings me to the first supplement produced for GDW's Traveller. Published in 1978, 1001 Characters has no listed author, probably because it was "written" by a computer program. The 44-page booklet contains 136 examples of each of the game's six default career types: Navy, Marines, Army, Scouts, Merchants, and the nebulous Other. In addition, there are 176 "chance encounters," like troopers, policemen, and thugs. Each character is described using two lines of text, as only Traveller can do. The character's rank (if any) is followed by his stats, age, number of career terms, available cash, and skills.

It's all very simple and straightforward, so much so that one wonders why the supplement was published at all. That's how I felt about it back in the day; I refused to buy it as a result. Now, to be fair, Traveller character generation takes time. Though quicker than most contemporary RPGs with their plethora of choices, it wasn't a simple matter to make up a merchant captain in Traveller, especially if you wanted to "do it right" rather than just eyeballing it, as I usually did. In play, I don't think my players ever questioned how plausible the stats were on any of the NPCs I made up on the fly or the likelihood that a merchant captain was only 38 years old. These kinds of details were unimportant to us and thus a book like 1001 Characters seemed, at best, superfluous and, at worst, a waste of money, just as those old grognards I knew had said.

The more mathematically inclined may have noticed that 136 times six plus 176 does not equal 1001. The missing nine characters in the book are examples drawn from science fiction literature. In many ways, they're the most interesting part of 1001 Characters, since they provide some insight into the literary influences on the game. The nine characters are: John Carter, Kimball Kinnison, Jason dinAlt, Earl Dumarest, Beowulf Shaeffer, Anthony Villiers, Dominic Flandry, Kirth Girsen, and Gully Foyle. Not a one of them is a character from a movie or TV show, which I think is significant, though hardly surprising to anyone who read Traveller closely.

(As an aside, it's worth noting that GDW printed more than 40,000 copies of 1001 Characters. How many of those sold, I don't know, but there aren't many RPG products today printed in that volume.)


  1. James, I must disagree with your assertion that Traveller character generation takes time. There's no point juggling math involved as with GURPS and the like. With pencil, paper and two dice, Traveller character generation take mere minutes. Roll & assign stats, and once you choose a career, there are just a few further rolls needed. Fifteen rolls at the most will cover stats and the first term including skills. Even with mustering out rolls, five minutes should be plenty to generate a 3-5 term character.

  2. Ever see the Runequest supplement that is just randomly generated broo and such? Now that thing would never fly as a modern product!

  3. I have to admit that 1001 Characters holds a special place in my heart as it was the first RPG product I bought with my own money.

    It was useful when you need a quick group of thugs, or a ship crew.

  4. I figure this is as useful, or as useless, as the Rogue's Gallery or Monsters & Treasures were. Either you need a bunch of stats on the fly and want to just grab them out of a book, or you don't. 1001 characters caters to that crowd that wants a bunch of stats and doesn't want to have to make them up.

    It's funny to me how often these kind of supplements are regarded as useless or, worse, rip-offs. But really, for people who want a pick-list of characters, or monsters, or whatever, it's pure gold. It's really just a matter of what you find fun to prepare or wing, like you said.

  5. Horses for courses...

    You talk about guys who wouldn't buy a module because they could make something similar for free and guys who buy the same module because they wanted to spend their time dealing with other aspects of the game. Different people have different needs and that's why GDW was able to print and sell 40K copies of S:1.

    I used it and used it in several different ways. It provided NPCs I needed quickly during a session, it provided NPCs I could tailor in advance of a session, and it provided NPCs whose "odd" nature got me thinking about what their lives were like. I actually came up adventures just mulling over some of the entries in S:1 and the examples of the literary characters was invaluable too.

    Like LBB:1, the utility of S:1 was hurt by the introduction of expanded chargen in LBB:4 "Mercenaries" and the rest, but the supplement was well worth it's purchase price to me. To others, it was a waste but that's "horses for courses" again.

    Also, seeing as the supplement came out in '78, I'd be surprised if GDW used a computer program to produce all the characters in the booklet. Loren Wiseman has written about how they were still doing physical paste ups for "JTAS" and other products in the early 80s.

    1. Well, they printed 40,000.
      whoever says they sold them?
      May be sitting in cases in a lost attic somewhere.

  6. James, thank you so much for reviewing this! How would a typical entry look? Were the entries in the book consistent with the rules of the game, or did they have weird things like your own 38 year old merchant captain?

  7. My very first APL program was a Traveller character generation program which produced the same thing as 1001 Characters. Before I got my copy of the supplement too.

    But yes, it was trying to work out all nine of the special characters that was the most fun.

    [I actually got in questioned when the operators at the computing centre noticed that I'd been submitting the same job without changes, but by then I had more than enough character stats to cope with my game. (This was an IBM 11/360 where we had to submit optical recognition cards. It was well before the PC existed)]

  8. Creatures of Chaos. There were the companion volume Trolls and Trollkin and Militia and Mercenaries. There is no need for it now, but back then most people didn't have access to a computer at all or the skills needed to produce random characters. Produced quickly and cheaply with dot-matrix printing and electronically typewritten inserts describing each section.

    The thing is rolling up combat stats for Runequest can be time consuming, especially allocating the hit points appropriately. Having a set of disposable mooks (and this is what these are) was convenient. They were designed so that it was easy to mark off hit points. (which is the major use of 1001 Characters too, since the Traveller combat system focused on the UDP stats).

    The final incarnation of this was Foes which was a massive Tome of properly typeset individual random creatures. It's one of my favourite Runequest books too, simply because of the illustrations (along with Runelords). But it also came from the time before Greg made his Elder Races substantially alien, so these are heretical now.

  9. "
    Not a one of them is a character from a movie or TV show, which I think is significant, though hardly surprising to anyone who read Traveller closely."

    Some of the entries from the original 1001 Characters are missing in the more recent reprints. The original presented stats for Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, the Stainless Steel Rat and, I believe, Harry Mudd.

  10. Those are Citizens of the Imperium, which was published the following year.

  11. I still think this supplement is totally useless, and a rip-off.

  12. The Demon Princes being one of my fav sci-fi works, I pulled this off the shelf to see what Kirth Girsen looked like. Come on, no Brawling skill?? The guy (like a lot of Vance's heroes) was unbeatable in hand-to-hand combat.