Episode 72: In the Unlikely Event That They Survive

This month, Roger and Mike look at random tables, random character generation and particularly social class, and consider what to do when the system lets you down.

We mentioned

The Kraken, the Random Harlot Table, the Night City Sourcebook, nominative determinism, the Central Casting series by Jennell Jaquays, the dice probability calculator at anydice that Roger couldn’t remember, and yes it will do Genesys, “Mad Jack” Churchill, Runquest Glorantha, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, En Garde and How to Be a GURPS GM.

We have a tip jar.

Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com.


The “GURPS add-on” luck roll is actually derived from the Hero System. All the way back to 1st edition Champions (which I recently got my grubby little digital hands on thanks to the Bundle of Holding), the Luck power (or Talent in later editions) let you roll a d6 per level to see if something good happened (you rolled a 6), and the Unluck disadvantage let you (well, your GM) roll a d6 per level to see if something bad happened (you rolled a 1); the two were mutually compatible, had mirrored costs, and capped at three levels, so a case could be made that a normal person had 3 levels of Luck and 3 levels of Unluck, simulated by rolling 3d6 and counting both 6s and 1s.

The Random Harlot Table has a special place in my heart because of a guy I knew in High School who would use random terms from that table as low-level insults (to boys exclusively, as I recall). One day he flubbed his delivery and called me a “blazing strumpet.”

A lot of historical names, of course, are less a matter of nominative determinism and more a matter of nominative informativism: Gary Cooper was probably the local barrelmaker, Will Smith was probably the local blacksmith, and so on. The weirdness happens when Gary Cooper and Will Smith are in the traveling theater troupe.

Central Casting normally produced very bland results, but when it got interesting it could get very interesting. My group still occasionally tells the story of “God in a Dress,” the cross-dressing psionic knight with fantastic melee weapons skill and his own personal Dyson sphere, generated one day when we were bored and playing around with Central Casting: Heroes of Tomorrow. Still not sure there’s a system out there that could do him justice.

On Michael’s experience with outdated stats for the Bad Man, my first thought (not having seen RQG yet and being fuzzy on shamanism in older editions) was that if it was originally a POW vs. POW test and it’s now a Spiritual Combat Skill vs. Spiritual Combat Skill rwar, the obvious solution to me is to figure out what the typical POW of a testee is, divide that into the POW of the Bad Man, and multiply the result by a typical testee’s Spiritual Combat Skill. Then again, I’m fairly amenable to a bit of math on the fly, which I know a lot of gamers aren’t, even among those of us Of a Certain Age (which I think I might just barely qualify for; I haven’t hit the big 5-0 yet, but I’ve been gaming since I was 9, so I consider myself a bit of a grognard). Then again, “roll the dice and see if it matters” is always a good starting point for any situation where you know there’s a chance of success

Between Roger and Dirk & Blythy I’m starting to think that it was common for gamers in the 80s to not read the forewords of their books. It says right there on the second page that you need the Players Handbook and the Monster Manual to play!

All hail our lords and podcasters! All praise to Roger and Michael!

Oh, but by then I’d bought the thing…

To be more strictly accurate, I assumed that Advanced D&D was the next thing after the Basic and Expert that I already had – and the shop where I found it (Beatties, a shop that mostly sold plastic model kits) didn’t have anything other than those three items. So I spent a certain amount of effort trying to make the things work together.

Surely, in a minimalist sense, Traveller was the first RPG to feature random character background generation, in that you rolled social status (whether you were posh or street scum) and education level (which was, give the Imperium credit, apparently independent of social class).

For that matter, although you could try to choose your service (not always successfully), you then faced a whole lot of random rolls for how your past adult life had gone. In the advanced character creation options, these actually got moderately detailed.

Mind you, one theme I saw emerge more than once was “really wanted to learn X, but the bastards in charge of personnel assignments made him/her/it learn Y”. The character who wanted to become a doctor but who ended up as the goddess of carousing did quite well from this, admittedly.

That’s certainly my feeling; social standing didn’t seem to do much once you got out of character generation (and only affected some careers even before that), but it was a tool you could use for impressing some sorts of people, a bit like the way Credit Rating tends to be used in Call of Cthulhu.

A good random table, used appropriately, can be a real help to jog the game and inject a little freshness; if only there weren’t so many bad ones, or people who seem determined to stick to the result however awkward. It doesn’t help when a writer attempts to throw some whimsy into a game where it doesn’t belong or needs to be used with caution: one of the Victory Games James Bond adventures had a table in which Sheriff J. W. Pepper (Clifton James in Live and Let Die) featured implausibly often, even potentially encountered offshore, floating on a lilo.

An occasional alternative to lists and random tables can be the Oblique Strategies cards devised by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, rather usefully available as a website. They can give you an interesting approach to a gaming situation, but I’m not sure it’s quite as satisfying as rolling on the Call Me a Taxi! table from TOON.

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The “semi-random” character generation reminds me of the One-Roll Engine random character generation (mostly from Reign) where you roll a bunch of d10s and get skills/abilities based on sets of numbers, with an option of setting a number of dice to a particular value before rolling

I am a Big Fan of the Reign character generation system.

It can put things into your game that you didn’t know were there in the first place!