OSE Behind The Screen, Part 2

Read Part 1

If the players are to engage with the World of the game without reference to the rules, then the first challenge is to decide how they will go about creating their characters.

In the classic game, and specifically in Old-School Essentials, the default expectation of the rules-as-written is that the players will refer to the book to make choices, roll the dice themselves, and have access to the rules throughout play. Our intent, in deciding to focus players on their roles within the World, is to break this tradition.

Given our previously established sketch of a small, isolated Dark Age village near to some forbidden place of imagined evil, I prefer to begin by inviting the players to describe, in plain language, who their adolescent characters might be. The conversation will generate questions about the World and suggestions from the players at the table.

My first question: Who do you want to play?

Without reference to the rules of the game, using plain language and the idea of Dark Age villagers as your inspiration, who would you play? What does this person want with breaking taboos? Why are they willing to risk all to travel into forbidden dark places?

While I work on the recruitment of players to a group, let’s discuss my options for approaching the creation of characters for an Old-School Essentials game. In other words, allow me to bring you behind the screen and think through how I might approach character creation without exposing the players to the rulebook.

If you’re going to play at my table and want to avoid spoilers, this is the point to look away and stop reading.

Ability Scores

The traditional approach to character creation is to follow the basic steps described in the OSE Core Rules, pages 12-13: we would ‘Roll Ability Scores’ and ‘Choose a Class’.

This is immediately problematic given our change in methodology. If rules, character sheets, and dice rolls come behind the Referee’s Screen, so that the players can focus exclusively on being in-role as their character, then I’ve got some decisions to make about how to organise character creation.

Interestingly, in regard to rolling Ability Scores, there is precedent from the very earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons to suggest that the Referee rolling those dice is the most natural answer.

Prior to the character selection by players it is necessary for the referee to roll three six-sided dice in order to rate each as to various abilities to aid him in selecting a role.

OD&D, Book I, p.10

I could roll 3d6 for the scores, perhaps in straight order as listed in the rules – Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma – and then describe the outcomes to the player.

Imagine this dialogue with the player:

“Who do you want to play?”
“I would like to be the blacksmith’s son. I’m bored with the heat of the forge and want to join my friends in exploring the wilds. My name is Sven.”
“Ok.” (The referee rolls the dice behind the screen, scoring 11, 9, 15, 6, 13, and 11).
“Sven is broadly as strong, smart, and personable as most of the villagers. Where he stands out is in his perceptiveness and strong common sense. Sven also seems to have a little more stamina and can endure labour in the forge longer than most of his friends.”

The advantage of this approach is that it is quick and easy, placing the onus on the player to respond to the forces of fickle fate. The disadvantage is that it produces a random set of abilities which might not gel with what the player wanted to play.

Let’s consider a different approach:

“Who do you want to play?”
“I would like to be the blacksmith’s son. I’m bored with the heat of the forge and want to join my friends in exploring the wilds. My name is Sven.”
(The referee rolls the dice behind the screen, scoring 11, 9, 15, 6, 13, and 11).
“Ok. How do you see Sven? Is he physically or mentally stronger?”
“Physically, probably.”
“Is he strong, fast, or tough?”
“I think maybe he’s strong due to working the forge all those years.” (The referee assigns the 15 to Strength.)

And so on, working to explore the priorities of the player and assigning the scores in a way that responds to the player’s answers.

Choosing Role

The question of Class is perhaps more thorny. In regular play, you’d ask straight out: Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, or Thief? But this immediately triggers the kinds of rules-orientated decision-making that undermines the grounded style of play we are seeking. Given that I am seeking to invite players to enter into role based on the World, this might not be the best course of action.

When I introduced players in the Northern Isles to the far-wider and more detailed choices offered by the Imagine game system, I started by asking them what role they see themselves playing in the group. In other words, what kinds of activities do you think your character would emphasise? From this discussion of role, the Referee can make a judgement call.

A third approach might be to begin play and see how the player chooses to behave in situations that arise. This has rapidly become my preference because it allows me to understand how the player envisions the character through a “show don’t tell” approach.

I stumbled upon this almost by accident when I gave a player some situations of a moral flavour with the aim of discovering their Alignment. My players and I enjoyed it because we discovered that playing through dilemmas helped to define the character much better than any other method. It also allowed me to understand the roles that might emerge once the group leaves the safety of the village.

Another way of looking at it is to realise that watching how the individual player approaches situations during play is a much better indicator of preference than what they say they want to do. This is because it’s very hard to know what you want until you are in the thick of things. I generally recognise that, in practice, a mix of all the above is probably the best methodology to use.

Next time, we need to talk about the biggest vulnerability using Classic D&D-style games presents to this more Otherworld-immersive style: Hit Points.

Game on!

Next Post: OSE Behind The Screen, Part 3

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