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Thursday, March 11, 2010

On-the-Fly Character Races

I've talked about tools for GM improvisation of story elements, but players create story, too; they create the story around their characters, if nothing else. Does this mean players can't be allowed to improvise? No!

Three years ago, when I started work on a retro-future rocket patrol RPG, still unnamed, I had some ideas about on-the-fly description of character races. Back then, I was thinking about how aliens in sci-fi serials of the '40s and '50s start out as mostly just humans with one alien feature and sketchy details about their culture. Over the course of a serial, more details are revealed, not just about their home planet and customs, but even about special abilities.

The quintessential example isn't from the '50s, but the '60s: Spock. At the beginning of the original Star Trek, he's just a guy with pointed ears, very smart, coldly logical. Soon, slightly above human strength is added, then touch telepathy, and over the course of the series, more features, like the mind meld, nerve pinch, inner eyelid, copper-based blood. The vulcan race wasn't completely pre-defined but grew during the series.

What I want for the retro-future game is a method for leaving race/species details blank and filling them in during play. Naturally, fantasy games have multiple races as well, so on-the-fly races could be used there as well.

The basic approach, as I see it:
  • pick a visible or otherwise detectable physical difference for your new race;
  • pick a simple ability tied conceptually to that physical difference (glowing eyes = night vision or hypnotic gaze or something else eye-related;)
  • pick a defect (risk) of roughly the same power that happens on 1 in 6;
  • if the GM or rest of the players agree, this is your base race;
  • if, during play, you want to add another ability, you and the GM need to agree on a roughly-equivalent risk that fits what you are trying to do;
  • roll 3d6 and read left to right:
    • first two dice match: you have the ability you want to add;
    • second and third dice match: you have the defect (risk) you agreed to, even if you don't have the ability you wanted; from now on, there is a 1 in 6 chance that the defect takes effect anytime the same conditions are repeated.
Thus, you might not get the ability you want, but might get a freakish defect instead. You can keep adding racial abilities as long as everyone's willing. A good limitation is to allow unlimited development for the first three levels, but only allow one previously unmanifested ability per level thereafter until 9th level.

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