Monday, June 2, 2014
Special Abilities Tables
One of the things that we can look at historically from this period is the idea of a special ability table: a chart where dice are rolled to give each PC some distinctive characteristic. It's not exactly revolutionary, but it was one of the earliest common house rules.
The Arduin Grimoire features such a table in its early pages, or rather, one for "warrior" types, one for "magical" types, a third for "religious" sorts and a fourth for "secret" types. Each has a percentile dice roll, and options that follow from it. Many are bonus/penalty combinations, such as a warrior's "+1 with norningstars, whips, bolos and slings, -2 with all swords." Others are pure negative, like a magical type's "-1 on all character abilities, -3 versus all spells or magic." (Hargrave always underlined the word "all".) Some are all positive, like "Taught by a true weaponsmaster, get +2 with all western weapons." And some are just odd, like the magical sort's "Flesh tastes so bad to monsters they spit you out 95% of the time."
Arduin's chart is just plain odd, but it's a good illustration of something that was popular at the time. Most of Hargrave's abilities are just pluses or minuses, with some minor bit of rhyme or reason behind them, but others are backgrounds. These are sometimes imbalanced (a religious type can get "Mountain man. plus 2 to strength, agility and dexterity. Climb as a thief.") but nevertheless add a bit of appeal to the characters.
The AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide has a "Secondary Skills Table" that is used to determine background skills for player characters; the difference is that it doesn't really add much to the characters other than to say that they have an unspecified skill. It does seem to be in a similar vein to the California tables, though nowhere near as wild and wooly as they were. 18% of results give no skill at all.
What I like about the idea, if not the execution, of the old tables was the idea of leaving characters up to chance. Much like 3d6 rolled in order, a bonus ability that isn't known in advance is a good method of generating characters who will make you think a little outside the box to define who they are.
The potential I see for them is that, if you generate a really high quality list of minor modifiers (say, for instance, bonuses and penalties within the D&D system – saving throws, all those checks rolled on 1d6, etc – you can create an interesting incentive to be a human: just declare that only humans get a roll on this chart. Demihumans have the special abilities allotted by the system in the first place.
Just a little something that's been percolating. I think it has potential, and I think it could be disastrous, or gonzo fun – all depending on the execution.