Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day: Character Backgrounds

Today is Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day! And what is Swords & Wizardry, you might ask? It is a "retro-clone", actually a modern remake, of the very first edition of the world's most famous role-playing game. It comes in three flavours, White Box (basic rules), Core (somewhat more complex rules) and Complete (with a lot of advanced rules).

Frog God Games has discounted their entire line of Swords & Wizardry products for 1 day only in celebration of Swords & Wizardry appreciation day (April 17th 2013). The discount is good for 25% off S&W Products but you must use coupon* code SWApprDay on April 17th 2013 at check out.

*The coupon excludes items less than $1, S&W Cards, Pre-Orders, and Subscriptions.

The D20PFSRD store is also running a sale on Swords & Wizardry PDFs. Use the provided link and use coupon code: SWAD252013.

My favourite variant is White Box. Why? Because it is so simple and straightforward that modifying it to suit your tastes is completely painless. It is very easy to 'wing it' before, during and after play, focusing on role-play rather than rule-play. While this kind of play might seem weird to those accustomed to later versions of the world's most famous role-playing game, it does allow for the easy preparation and play of interesting adventures without being constrained in large tomes of rules and/or a battlemat grid.

So for this day I offer you a few simple house-rules for Swords and Wizardry - this time about character backgrounds.

The following guidelines may be of assistance to flesh out a character's background and non-adventuring capabilities without involving complex rules or extensive skill-lists.

The Basis for these Rules
The key concept here is "reasonableness" - if it's reasonable, the Referee should allow it (possibly requiring a Saving Throw - this is essentially a "skill check"). Also, keep in mind that under an Old-School mindset, the vast majority of non-combat tasks should be handled by narrative and role-playing rather than dice-rolling. Neither skill nor background should allow a player to avoid role-playing and/or thinking; there should be no skill used to persuade NPCs, to sense motives, to solve riddles without needing to think through them or to disarm complex (as opposed to simple mechanical) traps.

Adventurers know how to Adventure
Player Characters (PCs) - as opposed to most Normal Men - are adventurers. Therefore, they should still be assumed to know the basics of adventuring and exploration. Assume that all player characters know how to tie simple knots, how to climb a surface with obvious hand-holds, how to swim, how to row a small boat, how to build a reasonable bonfire (usually requiring a tinderbox), how to make minor repairs and maintenance on arms and armour and how to ride a horse. Also assume that all PCs are literate in all the languages they speak, know how to read and know math at least at an elementary school level.

The fact that the adventurer knows how to do each of these basic tasks, however, does not mean that he or she will automatically succeed in doing them. The Referee should judge each attempt and rule on its results. Simple stuff (such as climbing a ladder or a rope or lighting a bonfire out of dry wood with a tinderbox) should succeed automatically; difficult tasks (such as climbing a difficult cliff or a wall or trying to light a fire without a tinderbox) should require an Adventuring Skill roll if it fits one of the eight Adventuring Skills, or a Saving Throw otherwise. Clearly impossible stuff (such as trying to set stones on fire with a tinderbox and no oil) should always fail - no roll required.

Note, again, that thinking should usually be done by players, not characters. No roll should solve riddles or puzzles - players should try and figure them out themselves (this way is usually far more enjoyable, too). In fact, characters are assumed to be literate and know a bit of math for this exact reason - to allow the Game Master to present the players with interesting and enjoyable challenges without too many problems.

Adventuring aside, talented characters may also be proficient in one or more professions which are not directly related to adventuring. Each character starts at level 1 with 0-2 Backgrounds (1+/-the Prime Attribute modifier). Characters with low prime attributes have to work harder to learn the basic abilities of their class, and thus have less (or no) time to learn other trades; on the other hand, characters with high prime requisites have an easier time learning their class abilities and thus have more time available to learn additional professions.

Each Background is a broad profession, such as Mason, Carpenter, Noble, Jeweler, Farmer, Blacksmith and so on. It entails all the basic skills involved in this profession or social class. Assume that a character can easily perform the day-to-day tasks of each his or her Backgrounds as long as he or she has access to the required tools, equipment and materials; there is no need to roll dice in such a case. Only particularly difficult tasks require a Saving Throw. For example, a character with the Blacksmith background can easily produce horseshoes, pots, and even average-quality weapons as long as he or she has access to a functioning forge, coal, iron and so on; only making a special item (such as a high-quality sword suitable to be later enchanted) will require a Saving Throw.

Note that Backgrounds should not be used to simulate professions that are already represented by the various character classes. There is no need for, say, a Gladiator  Background - theis fields are already covered by the Fighter class. Also, as a rule of a thumb, a Background Skill should not directly affect combat or spellcasting.

NPC Normal Men, of course, are as skilled in their professions as the Game Master needs them to be.

Learning new Backgrounds
Learning a new profession takes time. A lot of time. And sometimes a considerable amount of money, too. There are two ways to learn a new Background Skill: hiring a teacher or becoming an apprentice.

A hired teacher can provide intensive training, taking a single season (for example, an entire winter) to teach a Background. This option, however, is expensive as the teacher cannot do anything else during that time; the cost for intensive training is thus 2,000gp. The student, too, cannot do anything else (including adventure) during that season. Alternatively, a skill can be taught from time to time between adventures, taking a whole year to fully learn it; in this case, the cost is 1,000gp.

Being an apprentice is free of charge as the apprentice works for his or her master. On the other hand, the master has to work as well, and many of the tasks that the apprentice has to do are various menial jobs rather than dedicated learning. Full-time apprenticeship (which does not allow adventuring in the meantime) requires a whole year to learn a single Background. Part time apprenticeship (allowing adventuring) takes three years.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a cool idea. I might use this and mix in an idea from DCC and give one background at 0 level characters and then after 1st have them progress as normal.

    My Swords & Wizardry posts, The S&W Witch and The Ördög


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