Monday, June 2, 2014

Special Abilities Tables

California in 1975-79 is an interesting place in the early history of the roleplaying game. It brought us Alarums & Excursions, Warlock, Arduin and Runequest – and as a result, the biggest and best documented locus of non-Gygaxo-Arnesonian gaming from our hobby's dawn. It was a place where pre-RPG entertainments had laid fertile soil for gaming, as documented in Playing at the World; Coventry and SCA and different life experience all added up to a scene which was totally different from that in the upper Midwest.

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.

1 comment:

  1. The Complete Warlock (1978) also has an optional table like this ('Special Characteristics'), with one column for each of the four classes (multi-class characters roll twice), each with 33 entries - most of which are penalties. The text says "Please note that these are almost all minor deficits, unless you roll that something becomes +1 or +2 instead of the normal minus. These are basically minor handicaps to be overcome, or occasionally a minor bonus".


Comments on posts older than two days will not appear until approved.