Friday, July 27, 2018

They Came Out of Nowhere

Lately my mind is all over the place creatively.

I want to talk some more about gaming The Incredibles, discuss my current campaigns, chat about news and trailers from San Diego Comic Con, and let you know I am really in the mood to do something Science Fiction/Space Adventure oriented again, but...argh. I'm conflicted as to which should take precedence and I'm freakin' exhausted from walking around all week in heat, high humidity, and rain. 

Then there this...

I was looking at the character creation system of the old SPI Science Fiction RPG Universe when I noticed something I found very interesting. A big part of generating a character is determining the planet they come from. Another key factor is what skills they have based on their Field of Study and Profession, but more specifically, how long they've been in that profession.

Wait...Traveller does the same thing. In Traveller, you figure out your homeworld, then roll to see how many Tours your characters has gone through before they became an adventurer. 

The various Star Trek games do this as well. Players determine what their PCs learned before going to Starfleet Academy, what they major in at the Academy, and then what they did after depending on what their assignments were and how many they had. This ages the character as it does in Traveller but also, like in Traveller, it means you can start the game as a more experienced person with interesting events in your background. 

Looking back on my earliest years of gaming and all the Science Fiction gaming I did, I realize that I had a number of characters who had 'lived' even before I started using them in a campaign. Traveller, Universe, Space Opera, FASA Star Trek, and others were the precursors to what we would later refer to as Life Paths. 

Now in Fantasy games...there's none of this.

At least in the Golden Age of Role Playing Games, you rarely saw the characters' past matter in relation to their creation. It was as if they popped into existence the moment you finished rolling them up - no history, no memory, no nothing.

PCs in Dungeons & Dragons, The Fantasy Trip, Tunnels and Trolls, and Rolemaster didn't really deal with the Life Path concept. To some extent the idea can be seen in Runequest and Middle Earth Role Playing, but never to the same level as it is in Science Fiction RPG.

It is this dynamic that likely contributed even more to my preference for Science Fiction games over Fantasy ones. 

Thinking back, as a kid getting into the hobby in 1977 and really building my love for it in the early 80s, Space Adventure RPGs had more of what I was looking for right from the get go. Games in the SF genre promoted the concepts of a creating a living, breathing setting and telling a story more strongly than those of the Fantasy genre did.

Fantasy, it seemed to me, was more concerned with being a game. Who the characters were and where they were from didn't really matter. The point of the whole thing was to generate a persona for the player to use to kill monsters, gain loot, and hope to have it not die.

I shouldn't have to say this but clearly not every Fantasy game of the old days ignored a character's potential history. Likewise, not every Science Fiction game had you develop your past to explore the future. 

This is merely an exercise in curious observation. It is something I noticed to be a trend in one gaming genre and not another. It lends itself, if correct, toward explaining to me the origins of my own attitudes. I was never here for the 'points', though I like them. I wasn't here to see my character become more powerful or richer, though certainly that's a welcome benefit if it should occur. No, I was always here in this hobby for the same reason I am here now, to tell stories, to listen to stories, and to use stories to generate memories of joy and wonder. Strong characters enable such stories to be created and I believe a Life Path type approach lends itself to creating strong characters. 

To the audience I pose the questions:

Did you ever notice the differences in Fantasy and Sci-Fi character creation I mention here?

Am I onto something or way off base?

Do you like the Life Path approach? If so why and if not, why not?

Let me know. I'm curious to see your opinion. 

Barking Alien


  1. I do like the life path approach. Sometimes I have a difficult time coming up with a backstory/history for a character and I find this kind of thing gives can help out a lot. Now D&D5e does this a bit now too. I think it would be pretty interested to have something like this for a superhero game...just not sure how it would exactly work.

    1. I too think it would be cool for a Supers game but I would want it to be very loose so I could come up with the particulars myself. Vague prompts for ideas rather than detailed information about the character so I can fill in the necessary specifics myself.

  2. I find this very interesting because the first place I encountered the life path character generation was the Warhammer Fantasy RPG. Neither of the sci-fi RPGs I played in the early '80s (Star Frontiers and FASA's Dr. Who) had life paths. But yeah, if you look at when things were published, life-paths did seem to be common in sci-fi.

    I can take 'em or leave 'em. They do give you a richer character, but you sometimes feel like you have to push things to get a halfway competent character. They can also feel somewhat limiting if you have a specific idea in mind. But especially ones with a random element to them (Traveller especially) can be a fun minigame in themselves.

    1. Interesting. I don't recall the Life Path aspect of Warhammer Fantasy. I only remember the way you took a Class/Profession and it help qualify you for a more masterful Profession at a higher level. A precursor to what we saw in 3-3.5 D&D with Prestige Classes or in a number of Japanese and Korean computer games and MMOs (notably many version of Final Fantasy).

      Star Frontiers is one of the few Sci-Fi RPGs I can remember from that period that didn't address what planet you came from. As for Doctor Who - which I played once but never ran - it astonishes me that you don't generate past life information. None of your previous regenerations did anything of interest?

      I liked the kind of Life Path used in Star Trek games, Traveller, and others that keep things general and open to player and GM interpretation. Although one of my favorite RPGs of all time, Mekton's Life Path is a bit heavy-handed, defining certain details a little too much.

  3. One of the house rules for the White Box fantasy campaign I'm currently running is the One Sentence Background

    I've been amazed at how much backstory my players come up with for their characters as a result of that simple exercise.

    1. Sometimes a simple phrase or stated motto is all it takes to paint the right picture.

  4. One relatively recent OSR fantasy game that addresses the background of the PCs in both a narrative and mechanic sense is Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures with its Character Playbooks

  5. One interesting feature of Golden Heroes and its derivatives is that after you roll up the powers, you have to justify them which usuall involves creating an origin and backstory for your superhero character.