Comparative Character Generation, Part 4: Let’s Make Some Characters, Already!

Posted: 2009-05-13
Word Count: 7516
Tags: character-generation old-stuff rpg traveller warhammer-fantasy

Table of Contents

The title of this series is “Comparative Character Generation”, and yet the past two installments involve me going into Analysis Paralysis over whether to run a d20 game or not. I’ve pretty much decided NOT, at this point.

However, let me build three characters under the d20 system, just to wrap up. Then I’d like to explore random character generation in Labyrinth Lord, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (2nd Edition), and Mongoose’s Traveller.


Having explained d20 ad nauseam, ’ll make a 1st level character for each variant, then discuss how the character advances.

D&D E6: Brother Maynard (Human Cleric)

E6 characters start as ordinary D&D characters, so generating a Cleric (“Brother Maynard”) uses plain old D&D rules.

To generate stats, the Player’s Handbook 3.5 says to roll 4d6, dropping the lowest die, each time. I wrote a small program to simulate this procedure, and ran it a couple of times to get an interesting mix of numbers:

 9, 10, 12, 12, 14, 16

Now, I assign the numbers to Brother Maynard’s stats, reserving the high numbers for the characteristics most useful to a cleric (Wis, Cha, Con):

 Str  12 (+1)
 Dex  10 (+0)
 Con  12 (+1)
 Int   9 (-1)
 Wis  16 (+3)
 Cha  14 (+2)

Brother Maynard’s high Wisdom allows him to cast an extra 1st, 2nd, and 3rd level spell when he reaches the appropriate levels. On the other hand, his low intelligence will penalize his acquisition of skills.

According to the table on p 22, all classes get one feat at 1st level. (Their maximum ranks in class skills is 4, and their maximum in cross-class skills is 2.)

Humans get one additional feat and 4 extra skill points at 1st level (plus an additional point per level after that).

Clerics get the following benefits:

So, I have to pick Brother Maynard’s clerical domain, 6 spells, 2 feats, and 8 points of skills.

Let’s say Maynard worships a Neutral Good deity associated with Healing, so Maynard will take that domain. He’ll take Cure Light Wounds as his domain spell. Because of his domain, he also casts any healing spell at +1 caster level.

As his 0 level spells, he takes Cure Minor Wounds, Detect Poison, and Purify Food and Drink. As his two regular first level spells, he’ll take Bless and Protection from Evil.

Looking at a list of feats, he chooses Improved Turning and Combat Casting. He’s a mediocre fighter, but he hopes to leverage his Wisdom and Charisma to defend others.

He’ll also take Heal at 4 ranks (+7) and Diplomacy at 4 ranks (+6). He’s a peacemaker, not a fighter.

Finally, we would buy armor, weapons, and other gear, but I’m going to skip that bit.


Under E6, characters stop normal progression at 6th level. At that point, Brother Maynard will have had one Ability Score Increase, 9 skill points total, and 4 feats total. He will also have slots for four 3rd-level spells, five 2nd-level spells, five 1st-level spells, and 5 0th-level spells (including the spells for his domain of Healing).

Every 5000 XP after 6th level Brother Maynard will get a new feat. New E6 feats would include

He could also choose cleric-appropriate feats from D&D, or other sources.

Unearthed Arcana: Arak the Sarkennian (Generic Warrior)

One of the many rules options in Unearthed Arcana is generic classes. The Explorer class in Omega World resembles the “generic” Expert class, only with a bonus feat per level and a “Mediocre” save in place of a second Good save.

If I ran a Conanesque Swords & Sorcery campaign, but didn’t want to use an entirely new rulebook like Mongoose’s Conan RPG, I might have one Warrior class, based off the “generic” Warrior. (The “generic” Warrior itself is essentially a Fighter with more flexibility in feats, skills, and its “Good Save”.)

Arak was born in tribe of horse nomads on the Sarkennian steppes. He grew up venerating his ancestors, and the gods of earth and sky. As he reached manhood, though, Gulam kal-Okram, a prophet of a so-called “One God”, arose. The Red Prophet’s followers conquered his neighbors, and their neighbors, and the decadent coastal city of Qutub besides. From Qutub the Red Prophet’s warrior-priests fanned out across Sarkennia, and across the seas, converting all to their blasphemous Monotheism … and killing any whose knees would not bend.

Arak fled Sarkennia, and into the wild lands …

As before, we roll 4d6, dropping one die, six times.

18, 14, 13, 13, 13, 11


 Str	18 (+4)
 Dex	13 (+1)
 Con	13 (+1)
 Int	11 (+0)
 Wis	13 (+1)
 Cha	14 (+2)

According to the table on p 22, all classes get one feat at 1st level. (Their maximum ranks in class skills is 4, and their maximum in cross-class skills is 2.)

Humans get one additional feat and 4 extra skill points at 1st level (plus an additional point per level after that).

Generic Warriors get the following benefits:

So, I have to pick Arak’s 3 feats and 12 points of skills, plus his “good” save and class skills for future growth.

As a horse nomad of the steppes and a man on the run, his class skills would likely be Bluff (Cha), Handle Animal (Cha), Intimidate (Cha), Jump (Str), Move Silently (Dex), and Ride (Dex), plus Craft (Int). His Good save will be Fortitude, boringly enough.

His actual skills will be 2 ranks each in Bluff (+4), Handle Animal (+4), Intimidate (+4), Jump (+6), Move Silently (+3), and Ride (+3).

Feats will be Mounted Combat, Power Attack, and Weapon Focus (Battleaxe).

Since this is a low-magic campaign, with limited healing, I as GM introduce Reserve Points. In addition to his 11 Hit Points, he has 11 “Reserve Points” he can use to replace lost hit points between battles.

Once again, I’ll skip buying gear.


Because of his flexible list of “class skills” and “bonus feats”, Arak could emulate any non-magical class, or forge his own path. Arak could pursue thievery with feats like Sneak Attack and Improved Sneak Attack, combined with Move Silently. He could also augment his horsemanship with Wild Empathy after improving his Animal Handling skill. He could choose to go heavily armored with Armor Proficiency (Heavy), or lightly armored with Evasion, Improved Evasion, and Uncanny Dodge. Maybe he becomes a pirate, or a hunter. Maybe his hatred of the Monotheists manifests as Favored Enemy (Priests) if the GM allows it.

With a different set of “class skills”, he could also become a scholar, investigator, con artist, or diplomat … but slowly. I could up the skill progression, or lift the “class skill” restriction entirely. I could also transplant the 4th Edition skill mechanics, so that he starts off with four high skills (again with no restrictions), and can add others by adding feats.

True20: Selena Vasquez (Expert)

Speaking of “generic classes”, let’s build a character in True20, which only has three generic classes: Adept, Expert, and Warrior. To test True20’s viability outside the fantasy genre, let’s try Selena Vasquez, our Afro-Hispanic P.I. The Expert class fits a P.I. best.

Characters have 6 points for ability scores. Unlike other d20 variants, the six abilities range from -4 to +4 (default zero), essentially using characteristic bonuses from standard d20. Let’s do this:

 Str +0
 Dex +1
 Con +0
 Int +2
 Wis +1
 Cha +2

First-level characters of every class get 4 feats and 3 “conviction points” expended to re-roll bad die rolls among other things. Experts get 8 + Int starting skills at 4 ranks in each (yes, really), and one Good Save. Humans get one bonus feat, a bonus starting skill, and two “favored feats” outside the normal General + Expert lists she can take any time.

So, Selena starts with 11 skills at 4 ranks, 5 feats, and two “favored feats”, plus a Good Save.

Useful skills for a modern urban P.I. are Bluff (Cha), Computers (Int), Disable Device (Int), Disguise (Cha), Gather Information (Cha), Intimidate (Cha), Notice (Wis), Search (Int), Sense Motive (Wis), Sleight of Hand (Dex), and Stealth (Dex). Int and Cha skills are at +6, Wis and Dex skills are at +5.

Fitting the original character concept, I’ll pick the following feats: Attractive, Connected, Contacts, Hide in Plain Sight, and Firearms Training. “Favored feats” for later will be Tough and Seize Initiative from the Warrior List. Her Good Save will be Reflex.

Finally, there’s gear, which I’m going to skip again.


At each level Experts get 8 + Int skill ranks, and (like other clases) one extra feat and another conviction point. She can take one or more levels of Warrior to improve her attack bonus and Fortitude save, as well as pick up additional Warrior feats.

If it’s appropriate to the genre, she can also take levels in Adept to pick up paranormal powers and a better Will save. In the horror genre, though, the GM may provide weaker magical classes. The True20 Companion, later incorporated into the second edition of the main rulebook, provides a point system for constructing custom classes, and example classes for Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, and Modern games.

Labyrinth Lord

Labyrinth Lord is a retro-clone of D&D Basic/Expert/Companion/Master (BECMI), which TSR published in parallel with AD&D. Created using Open Game Content and released under the OGL, it’s available as a free download.

Our Character

Having no fixed idea yet, I’ll call our character Guillaume, or Guy for short.

Unlike d20, Labyrinth Lord suggests rolling all characteristics in order. I’ll use the 4d6 drop 1 method.

 Str	11  (+0 modifier to hit, damage, and forcing doors)
 Dex	16  (-2 AC, +2 to Missile Attacks, +1 to Initiative)
 Con	11  (+0 to hit points per die)
 Int	9   (no additional languages, can read and write)
 Wis	12  (+0 to Saving Throws)
 Cha	7   (+1 Reaction Adjustment, 3 Retainers w/ Morale 6)

From his high Dex (Experience Adjustment +10%), our character seems best suited to be a Thief. The benefits of being a Thief in Labyrinth Lord are:

Finally, we need to choose an alignment (let’s go with Neutral), and buy gear, which as usual I’m going to skip.


Advancing in levels brings more hit points, higher skill odds, a lower THAC0, and better Saving Throws. Note that a character’s level, class, characteristics, and alignment completely define the character’s abilities.

Skill Use

Thieves have specialized skills, which require a percentile or d6 roll. Note that no factors modify skills, except comparative levels in the case of Pick Pockets. For other situations, the Dungeon Master (DM) may roleplay the scene out, roll a d20 at or under a characteristic, or make some other “ruling”.

Skills in “Old-School Gaming”

Many self-identified “Old-School Gamers” emphasize “rulings” over “rules”. That is, in “old-school gaming” the DM decides whether a PC can do something or not based on the situation and roleplaying instead of simply rolling a die. Players talk through disarming traps, and DMs judge whether a character hears a noise based on how quiet the players say they are and how loud the noise is.

In fact, one “old-schooler” named James Maliszewski doesn’t like the Thief class because disarming traps, concealing oneself, or hearing noises become mechanical die rolls, and by extension defines such abilities as exclusive to Thieves. (Soldiers can’t hear noises or sneak up on people? Really?) Indeed, the whole notion of a “skill system” seems anathema to Mr. Maliszewski’s version of “old-school”.

I confess I find his distaste for skill systems a little baffling; I’ve always believed skill systems to be a vast improvement over classes and levels, since they give characters multiple dimensions. Furthermore, an “Oratory” skill (for example) grants the character an ability to sway opinions that a player may not possess, just as skills or attack bonuses grant characters the ability to strike with a sword that a sedentary and perhaps out-of-shape player does not have. Separating a character’s abilities from his player’s, though, appears to run counter to the point of “old-school gaming” … except in the case of combat.

Defining a character solely by combat abilities and spells (often a different kind of combat ability) might encourage an immersive, imaginative experience. On the other hand, without a safety net or guide ropes, this sort of game might cause players and GMs to shy away from complex and detailed features and focus on munchkin-style play: kill monsters, take their loot. Even the experience system mainly rewards players for loot and corpses, not for clever puzzle-solving, dramatic characterization, or contributions to the DM’s unfolding story (if one exists).

But I digress.


To quote Labyrinth Lord pp 52-53, each combat round consists of the following sequence:

  1. Players declare character movement or actions.

  2. Initiative: 1d6 is rolled by each opposing side.

  3. The winner of initiative acts first. The Labyrinth Lord [DM] may check morale for monsters.

  4. Movements can be made.

  5. Missile attack rolls are made, accounting for DEX adjustments, cover, and range.

  6. Spells are cast and applicable saving throws are made.

  7. Melee combat occurs; attack and damage rolls are made, accounting for STR and magic adjustments.

  8. Other sides act through steps 4-7, in order of initiative

  9. When all sides of a conflict have acted and the combat will continue into the next round, the sequence begins again at step 1.

Curiously, p 50 refers to rolling initiative on 1d6 for each round, once per “side”. An option allows each character or monster to make his own initiative roll, presumably once per round, with a DEX modifier to the roll.

The rules also allow for surprise, and all the usual conditions.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 2nd edition

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is a roleplaying game based on Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy miniature games. After bouncing from company to company, Fantasy Flight Games now owns the rights … but it’s easier to find Green Ronin’s out-of-print version of its 2nd Edition Core Rulebook on eBay and at various online retailers.

Our Character

Once again, we shall create a human, whose name I’ve randomly determined (p 26) will be Gustav.

WFRP characters have five primary (“Main Profile”) characteristics: Weapon Skill (WS), Ballistic Skill (BS), Strength (S), Toughness (T), Agility (Ag), Intelligence (Int), Will Power (WP), and Fellowship (Fel), all percentile scores. A human rolls 2d10 + 20 to determine each score:

WS BS S T Ag Int WP Fel
30 34 28 38 27 27 27 32

There’s a rule called “Shallya’s Mercy”, named after the goddess of healing, that allows me to raise one below-average stat to average. For a human, average is 31 across the board. I’m going to raise Will Power:

WS BS S T Ag Int WP Fel
30 34 28 38 27 27 31 32

Secondary characteristics are Attacks (A), Wounds (W), Strength Bonus (SB), Toughness Bonus (TB), Movement (M), Magic (Mag), Insanity Points (IP), and Fate Points. SB and TB come from the first digit of their corresponding Main Profile characteristics; Wounds and Fate Points are rolled randomly using tables on page 19. All other stats start at race-specific defaults.

1 13 2 3 4 0 0 2

Humans get the following skills: Common Knowledge (the Empire), Gossip, Speak Language (Reikspiel). I also roll on a table for two talents, and I get Suave (+5% to Fellowship) and Excellent Vision.

Finally, I roll for a random starting career, and I get “Initiate” … as in, an apprentice priest. Hm. I’ll roll again … and I get “Thug”. Holy man or thug … what to choose, what to choose. Oh, I guess I’ll take the high road, and become an Initiate of (flipping through the list of gods) Morr, God of Death and Dreams.

With that career, I get the following (choosing among alternatives):

Here’s the final version of Gustav:

WS BS S T Ag Int WP Fel
35 34 28 38 32 32 31 37
1 13 2 3 4 0 0 2

Skills: Academic Knowledge (History), Academic Knowledge (Theology), Charm, Common Knowledge (the Empire), Gossip, Heal, Perception, Read/Write, Speak Language (Classical), Speak Language (Reikspiel) + 10%,

Talents: Excellent Vision, Lightning Reflexes, Public Speaking, Suave, Warrior Born

I could roll on further tables for height, weight, hair color, etc, but I’m not going to.

Next I would buy gear, but I won’t.


With every 100xp, Gustav can gain another characteristic advance from his Initiate career. When he’s taken all the advances he can, he can choose one of the careers listed as a Career Exit for Initiate (Barber-Surgeon, Demagogue, Friar, Priest, Scribe, Zealot). He must then collect all the trappings of that career through gameplay, and spend another 100 xp to cement the change.

Unlike his starting career, Gustav doesn’t automatically get every skill and talent of his new carrer. He must spend 100 xp for each skill and talent in his new career he doesn’t already have, as well as for each characteristic advance, before changing careers again.

Warhammer characters, if they survive long enough, can go through several careers in their lifetime.

Skill Use

All skills rely on a characteristic on the Main Profile. For example, i Gustav were listening for something, Gustav would make a Perception test by rolling his Intelligence or less on percentile dice. If he was looking for something, he could add 10% for his Excellent Vision talent.

WFRP classifies each skill as “Basic” or “Advanced”. If Gustav tried to use a Basic skill without training, e.g. Ride, he would have to roll half the associated characteristic (Agility) to succeed. He cannot, however, even attempt an Advanced skill, like Sleight of Hand or Speak Language (Tilean).

When necessary, a GM can determine a check’s degree of success by each full 10% the roll is under the character’s target roll. For example, Gustav uses his Charm on a crowd (which his Public Speaking talent allows him to do); his Fellowship is 37%, and he rolls a 19, so he has one full degree of success.

Like other skill-based systems, characters can roll “opposed” tests (e.g. Stealth vs. Perception); if both parties win, the GM can break the tie by degrees of success. In case both parties lose, or win by the same degree, the GM can declare a stalemate (if it makes sense) or have both parties re-roll.

Sometimes a character makes a straight characteristic roll without a skill. For example, Gustav would roll his Strength to force open a door, and roll his Weapon Skill or Ballistic Skill directly in …


WFRP combat resembles combat in other games:

  1. Roll Initiative (Agility + 1d10) for each character.

  2. Determine Initiative Order

  3. Determine which characters are Surprised, and therefore can’t act in the first round.

  4. A round starts: each character takes his turn, which consists of actions like Aim, Move, Standard Attack (1/round), Swift Attack (maximum attacks/round), etc. Some take half a turn, others a full turn, still others may stretch over multiple turns (e.g. reloading a crossbow). Assess damage after each attack.

  5. The round ends.

  6. Repeat #4 and #5 until everyone flees, dies, or stops fighting.

An attacker rolls Weapon Skill for melee weapons, or Ballistic Skill for ranged weapons. If he hits, he reverses the numbers on the roll to determine a hit location, and therefore which armo(u)r value to use. The attacker rolls 1d10 and adds the weapons damage value; the defender subtracts the armo(u)r value at that location and his Toughness Bonus from the value, and subtracts the remainder from his Wound Points.

If Wound Points fall below zero, the poor sod who got hit must roll on the Critical Hits table and crossreference with the excess damage points. The results are never pretty: combat penalties, maiming, instantaneous death, or getting ripped apart like a victim in a slasher movie.

Mongoose Traveller

GDW first published Traveller in 1977. It’s gone through many hands and many rule-changes since then. Originally a generic far-future system, it spawned an Official Traveller Universe (OTU) called the “Third Imperium”, which itself was translated to d20, GURPS, and the HERO system.

Mongoose’s Traveller is based largely on the “Classic” rules, with only a few ties to the OTU.1

Our Characters

First Character: Calliope Hsieh

Let’s call our first character Calliope Hsieh.

First, we roll 2d6 six times and assign the numbers to six characteristics: Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education, and Social Standing. Here’s the final stats, with associated Dice Modifiers (DMs).

 Str	4   (-1)
 Dex	7   (+0)
 End	10  (+1)
 Int	12  (+2)
 Edu	6   (+0)
 Soc	3   (-1)

A lot of variation there. I put the two best rolls in Int and End, both of which matter a lot in getting and keeping careers. So far, we get a picture of Calliope as small and not too strong, but with unusually good health and perseverence. She’s bright, but grew up at the bottom rung of society and had limited educational opportunities.

Next, we consider her Background and Homeworld to determine her starting skills. (She gets 3 + Edu DM skills, or 3.) She may have grown up on a backwater, or in the slums of a central world. Let’s call her world Pelagos, a Low Technology (Survival 0) Water World (Seafarer 0). For her third skill, we’ll pick a skill from the general Education list, Trade 0.

To quote the rules, “At this point, you are eighteen years old”.

Like every other PC in the Traveller universe, Calliope chooses a career to boost her skills and characteristics. She decides to become an Agent; to qualify, she has to roll Int 6+ (2d6 + her Int DM), which she does (8 total). Her basic training includes all the service skills for an Agent: Streetwise 0, Drive (Wheeled) 0, Investigate 0, Computers 0, Recon 0, Gun Combat (Pistol) 0. She takes an assignment with Intelligence.

For her first term, she rolls for Personal Development (6), gaining Athletics (Strength) 1. Alas, she must also roll Int 7+ to survive this term, which she does (10). We then roll 2d6 for an Event, which starts: “You go undercover to investigate an enemy. Roll Deception 8+.” She doesn’t have Deception, so she starts at -3. Adding +2 for her Int, she rolls 2d6-1 … which fails badly (4). Rolling on the Citizen mishap table as directed, we find “Hard times caused by a lack of interstellar trade costs you your job. Lose one Social Standing.” Apparently, while investigating a citizen, she got made and fired, with a black mark on her already bad Social Standing. Despite that setback, she beats Int 5+ and gets a promotion to full Agent (Rank 1), and (a bit late) gains Deception 1.

Second term, she tries to beef up her Specialist skills, and gets Recon 1. She survives another term without incident, and the Event table indicates she completed a mission successfully; she gets a +1 DM to the Benefit table when she musters out. Rolling for promotion again, she jumps up to Field Agent (Rank 2), and gains Investigate 1.

Third term, she rolls for Personal Development again, and jumps another level of Athletics (Strength). This time, she fails her survival roll, and suffers a mishap. She “learns something [she] shouldn’t know”, and gains an Enemy, let’s say Director Harrison Grant of the Imperial Information Agency. She’s forced out of the service. However, for her two successful terms, she gets two benefit rolls, plus an extra benefit for reaching Rank 2; one of those gets a +1 roll. Rolling once for cash (with the +1) and twice for other benefits, she gets 50,000 Credits (!), a piece of scientific equipment (she chooses a comm unit), and a weapon (probably a pistol).

At loose ends, she decides to become a Scout for the Survey service. Her intelligence DM is counterbalanced by a -1 for her previous career, but she makes the Int 5+ roll easily. Since this is her second career, she can only choose one skill as her “basic training”; she chooses Pilot 0. She rolls for Personal Development, and gets +1 End. Her survival roll (End 6+) fails … and, to quote, “You have no idea what happened to you – they found your ship drifting on the fringes of friendly space.” Once again, she’s drummed out of the service, this time without benefits.

At the age of 34, after her four terms, she must make an aging roll: 2d6-4 (the number of terms). She eluded decrepitude this time.

Her mediocre Education and abysmal Social Standing hampers her in many careers. She tries one more career as a Field Researcher (Scholar) … and fails again (4), because her previous careers cancel out her intelligence. Not willing to risk the Draft, she becomes a Drifter (Wanderer), choosing Stealth 0 as her “training”. She tries Personal Development once more, and gains +1 Str. Failing an End 7+ roll, her mishap is “betrayal by a friend”, let’s say another wanderer she knows as “Percival”, and she gains another Enemy, and ends life as a Drifter. At least she manages to survive an aging roll.

Tired of her run of bad luck, she decides to become an adventurer at age 38.

Calliope Hsieh

Str: 5 (-1), Dex: 7 (+0), End: 11 (+1), Int: 12 (+2), Edu: 6 (+0), Soc: 2 (-2)

Skills: Athletics (Strength) 2, Computers 0, Deception 1, Drive 0, Gun Combat 0, Investigate 1, Pilot 0, Recon 1, Seafarer 0, Stealth 0, Streetwise 0, Survival 0, Trade 0.

Connections: Enemy (Director Harrison Grant), Enemy (“Percival”).

Equipment: 50,000 Cr, comm unit (TL 5, voice only), pistol

Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken Personal Development so often, but I wanted to raise some of her bad stats. Her high Int should make some of her zero-level skills more effective, but she’ll have to raise her skills and Education through training during the campaign.

I’m not sure how to handle her low Social Standing; as it stands, she’s dirt-poor (bank balance not withstanding), and either in public housing or squatting in an abandoned building. With two enemies on either end of the social scale, she’s likely living off the grid as much as possible.

Second Character: Galina Vladimirova Kutsenko

Not satisfied with Calliope, and having forgotten to time myself, I’m going to roll up another character, Galina Vladimirova Kutsenko. Redistributing numbers, I’ve settled on:

 Str	6  (+0)
 Dex	7  (+0) 
 End	9  (+1)
 Int	10 (+1)
 Edu	10 (+1)
 Soc	8  (+0)

Average physical stats, above-average mental stats. A little more promising, if a bit less interesting. A solidly middle-class, middle-of-the-road character. Let’s say she grew up on a High-Technology (Computers 0), Industrial (Trade 0) world, and studied engineering in school (Engineer 0).

Since we’ve been through the process already, let’s summarize her career:

Term Career Enrollment Training Survival Advancement and Benefits Event/Mishap/Aging
1 Navy (Engineering) Int 7+ {12} Pilot 0, Vacc Suit 0, Zero-G 0, Gunner 0, Mechanic 0, Gun Combat 0; Specialist: Gunner Int 6+: Yes {6} Edu 7+: Yes {10}, Rank 1; Mechanic 1 Notable military engagement; chose Engineer 1
2 --- --- Specialist: Engineer No {5} --- Quarrel with a fellow crewman; gained Rival.
Mustered Out: Two Ship Shares, 5,000 Cr
3 Scout (Survey) Int 5+ {8} Astrogation 0; Personal Development: +1 Edu End 7+: Yes {7} Edu 7+: Yes {10}; Vacc Suit 1 Several years from world to world: chose Navigation 1
4 --- --- Specialist: Recon Yes {9} Yes {8}; Rank 2 Life Event: New Contact (Calliope Hsieh).
Aging Roll: Passed {5}
5 --- --- Advanced Education: Jack of All Trades Yes {7} No {6} Ship ambushed by enemy vessels: escaped with Pilot skill {12}, gained Enemy and Sensors 1.
Aging Roll: Failed {-3}, reduce two physical characteristics by 1, one physical characteristic by 2.
Mustered Out:: 50,000 Cr, 20,000 Cr, +1 Edu, weapon

In narrative terms:

Galina joined the Navy to pursue Manoevre-Drive Engineering. In that she succeeded, particularly due to the recent war. However, in peacetime a quarrel with a fellow crewman escalated to a dishonorable discharge from the Navy. She left the corps with enough owed favors to pay for 2% of a ship and a few thousand credits.

Shocked by her discharge, she volunteered for a long survey mission with the Scout Service. During that time, she rescued Calliope Hsieh, a fellow survey scout, adrift on the edge of friendly space, with no memory of what happened to her. (The incident spelled the end of Calliope’s career, but Galina kept tabs on the poor woman as much as she could.) The Scouts furthered her general education significantly. However, an attack by hostile forces, being passed over for promotion, and her age catching up with her dramaticaly persuaded her to retire at 38.

As an aside: Traveller encourages players to choose other PCs as Contacts. Each PC contact allows a character to raise one skill; Galina chooses Astrogation.

Here’s her final character sheet.

Galina Vladimirova Kutsenko

Str: 5 (-1), Dex: 6 (+0), End: 7 (+0), Int: 10 (+1), Edu: 12 (+2), Soc: 8 (+0)

Skills: Astrogation 1, Computers 0, Engineer (M-Drive) 2, Gun Combat 0, Gunner (Turrets) 1, Jack of All Trades 1, Mechanic 1, Navigation 1, Pilot 0, Recon 1, Sensors 1, Trade 0, Vacc Suit 1, Zero-G 0

Connections: Contact (Calliope Hsieh), Rival (crewman TBD), Enemy (raider TBD)

Equipment: 75,000 Cr, two Ship Shares, pistol.


During adventures, a character doesn’t gain “experience points”. In Traveller, characters typically improve their bank accounts and gear.

A character can spend a number of weeks in game time training up skills, although the more skills a character already knows the more time it takes to improve one by a single level. Characters may also buy technological “augments” to skills and some characteristics, but augments can impede medical treatment.

Skill Use

In every skill test, the player tries to roll 8 or more on 2d6 plus a Dice Modifier (DM). Determining the Dice Modifier is the fun part.

The GM can determine a “level of effect” for success or failure, rated Marginal, Average, or Exceptional, based on whether the roll just barely succeeded or failed, lies solidly in the range for success/failure, or succeeded/failed by 6 or more.

Success or failure aren’t affected by a “Natural 12” or “Natural 2”. A character with a total DM of +6 would never fail, and reaches Exceptional success as often as a character with a DM of 0 would succeed at all.


Combat, as usual, proceeds in rounds, with 2d6 + Dex DM determining initiative order. Skills like Tactics can add to the initiative of one side. A character’s initiative order can change: reactions like dodging and parrying can subtract from a character’s initiative, as can recoil from heavy weapons. A character may also “hasten” himself to get +2 initiative at the expense of a -1 DM on all other actions that round.

As in other skill-based systems, characters use their weapon skills to hit a target. The GM assesses range penalties, among others, to the roll.

If a weapon hits, the attacker rolls damage based on the weapon. The target subtracts his armor value, and applies the remainder to his Endurance. When Endurance reaches zero, he then applies it to either Strength or Dexterity (but not both in the same hit). If either of those goes to zero, the character goes unconscious, and needs medical assistance badly.


Generation Times

I’ll attempt to break up generation time into three categories: die rolling time, selecting options, and sheer rule lookup. Totals should be accurate within a few minutes, but broken-down times ar, by their nature estimates. In some cases, notably Traveller, looking up rules, rolling dice, and choosing options happen at more or less the same time.

System Dice Options Lookup TOTAL
D&D (Standard): <5 mins 15 min 25 min 45 min
D&D (Generic): <5 mins 15 min 25 min 45 min
True20: none 10 mins 10 mins 20 mins
Labyrinth Lord: <5 mins none 10 mins 15 mins
Warhammer: 15 min 5 mins 10 mins 30 mins
Traveller: ??? ??? ??? 45 min

Subjectively, at least, I spent a lot of time flipping through the PHB to figure out how many feats, skill points, and spells my two characters get. Separating the Experience and Level-Dependent Benefits table from class-specific advancement tables means more page-flipping.

True20 kept most level-based basics on the master table, and class-specific benefits with the class in question. Its feats are more descriptive and more easily distinguished, making choices easier. Even substituting characteristics from 3-18 with their bonuses from -4 to +4 makes character generation faster and more painless.

Labyrinth Lord characters are incredibly simple. I did find myself hunting in the index to find various derived numbers like Saving Throws and the combat matrix (from which I derived THAC0).

In contrast, I generated Warhammer characters with one pass through the first chapter and minor flipping between two random careers. Traveller required more page-flipping and a lot more time to walk through multiple career terms, but at the end each character had a complete and unpredictable history.

d20 vs. True20

First-level True20 characters start out more competent than their d20 bretheren, particularly in skills. An Expert’s main abilities are skills, but Arak’s counterpart would get three feats plus Weapon Training and 4 + Int starting skills at 4 ranks at first level. Maynard as an Adept would get four feats and/or Powers and 4 + Int starting skills at 4 ranks at first level.

Certainly character generation is faster, and players can more easily build what they want.

Random Generation vs. Point-Based

Not surprisingly, the more randomness in character generation, the less predictable the results. I didn’t intend to create a Labyrinth Lord Thief, but that’s what made the most sense given his characteristics. Similarly, I didn’t even think of creating a Warhammer Initiate of Morr, but that’s the less disagreeable career that I rolled up.

Traveller is a peculiar case: there are plenty of choices, but bad die rolls can significantly alter the fate of a character. Calliope started out with a few bad characteristics and a few amazing ones, but bad die rolls derailed her career as an Agent, and bounced her out of three others. On the other hand, if I had not focused on her bad stats, she might have gained more skill levels; she’s OK at a number of things, but not great. Galina fared better until that disasterous Natural 2 on her aging roll. (2d6 is a shallow pyramid, not a bell curve, and is nearly as “swingy” as a single-die roll.)

The Traveller career system does create characters who feel like they’ve had a life before adventuring, and have gotten knocked about (especially Calliope). Skills end up being a bit random, but the Core Book also provides “free” packages of skills, distributed to the entire group, to guarantee that someone can fill each role of a particular campaign (Trader, Criminal, Explorer, etc.).

Whether players want to embrace the uncertainty (but not Chaos, especially in Warhammer) is up to them.

Levels, Skills, and Feats

Somehow a system with levels, skills, and feats feels overly complex. Let’s consider each mechanism in turn, and decide how we can simplify.


Levels are a legacy of D&D, to reflect combat ability (attack bonuses, saving throws, etc.). In d20 and its derivatives, levels provide skill points and define skill caps; gaining levels also gives characters special class abilities, extra feats, and/or higher characteristics at certain points.

Without levels, attack and defense abilities become skills, or primary stats as in Warhammer. In such sysstems, skills and “feats” have intrinsic limits like escalating skill costs (e.g. GURPS), improvement rolls with diminishing probability (e.g. Basic Role-Playing and its relatives), or a career system limiting access (e.g. Warhammer). Traveller uses all three types of limits: random development limited by career during character generation, and escalating training time afterward.

Of the three mechanisms, “levels” seem most expendable, being the least flexible. Most modern games discard them, D&D and its derivatives being an important exception.


Skills provide a quantitative measure of capabilities and knowledge the character would have but the player would not.

As noted above, “old-schoolers” reject skills in favor of the “player” solving puzzles, describing actions precisely, and attempting anything he can imagine himself doing in the situation. While laudable, that style of play doesn’t suit a GM pressed for time, or genres like science fiction, private investigation, or military operations; players and GMs would need to know the details of each technology, standard investigative practices, or the contents of every military manual. It might work in limited cases, like low-tech fantasy worlds, survival horror, and planetary adventure.

Warhammer provides a better alternative, where players roll against their characteristics based on Talents and coarse-grained Skills. The Fantasy Trip which inspired GURPS, had only “talents” which provided all-or-nothing knowledge or abilities. On the other hand, systems like Fate, PDQ, and HeroQuest, reviewed a while back, eliminate characteristics entirely in favor of skill-like abilities. Spirit of the Century, a successor to Fate 2.0, has Aspects, Skills, and Stunts, with skills like Might, Endurance, and Resolve taking over from characteristics. Warhammer’s “Weapon Skill” and “Ballistic Skill” characteristics demonstrate the arbitrary boundary between characteristics and skills. On balance, skill systems provide the greatest flexibility in defining characters.


Feats (a.k.a. advantages, merits, talents, stunts, edges, …) provide qualitative special abilities in addition to quantitative enhancements of skills, characteristics, and other bonuses. Sometimes the interplay between feats, skills, characteristics, and (where present) levels gets a little confusing.

Eliminating feats produces a pure skill-based system like Basic Role-Playing or Traveller. Some players might find the resulting system a bit bland; one alternative is a system like PDQ or HeroQuest where players and GMs make up their own abilities and measure them against each other with a universal mechanic. Another is Fate’s Aspects, mentioned above.


Level-based systems define advancement solely in levels, with other benefits like characteristic advancements, skill points, spells, and feats following suit. E6 halts normal level advancement; extra XP provides new feats (some of which provide characteristic advancements, skill points, and spell-slots or spell-like powers).

Games without levels, like Warhammer and GURPS, generally translate XP into advances in skills, advantages, and/or characteristic advances. However, not all games use XP: BRP uses random skill advancement rolls to improve skills, and Traveller uses game-time training. Spirit of the Century has no advancement scheme at all in the rules-as-written, under the assumption that characters are already sufficiently awesome. The authors of SotC intended it as a “pick-up” game, for players with irregular schedules to play a stand-alone adventure when they have time. For that type of play, an experience system might prove a burden.

Games without adventure-related advancement, like Traveller, may not suit every group. Pursuing purely story-related goals may confuse and annoy players used to “leveling up” and becoming more awesome every session.


As I’ve said at the start, I’m going to give d20 a miss. I can’t think of a compelling world that fits the D&D assumptions about Clerics, Wizards, and the other magic-using character types, and I’m not sure whether non-D&D d20 will attract players. E6 reduces the level of spells PCs can cast, but that doesn’t solve all of my problems. Using generic classes, or writing my own, might provide the sort of low-magic setting I’d like, but I’d rather not modify a system I don’t especially like to please a probably non-existant player base. True20 substitutes broad Powers for fire-and-forget spells, and supposedly plays faster; it’s my pick of the three, if I could only pick d20-based games.

“Old-school gaming” has its charms. Maybe I’d run a retro-clone game just for the heck of it, but as written I don’t think I could stand an entire campaign. Perhaps I’d augment it with a “talent” system (or maybe Aspects?) to indicate special talents and training. Then again, if I want to use Aspects, I’d be more comfortable with Spirit of the Century.

Warhammer looks like a cool game to run or play, especially with its detailed setting. Its character generation isn’t unbearably random, and the end result is fairly simple if you can remember what all the Talents and Skills do. Actual play looks fairly simple, being based on percentile and d10 rolls.2

Traveller captures a little of that “old-school” minimalist ethic, despite its use of those nasty skills. Character sheets fit on an index card, and in play everything but damage is a modified 2d6 roll. I’d love to run a science-fiction game, without running something as complicated as GURPS. Traveller also has limited “brand recognition”, at least among gamers of my generation. Still, I’m not sure how many players would embrace the randomness of careers, or the lack of “experience points” to “level up” their characters.

  1. Since this was written, Mongoose released a second edition of their Traveller rules. Mongoose released their rules under the OGL, and third-party publishers have released “cleaned up” versions, notably Cepheus↩︎

  2. After I wrote this, I got a chance to run WFRP 2nd Edition. It was kinda cool, but more for the setting than for the rules, which I only vaguely remember. Its successor, from Fantasy Flight Games, was a beast of a system (that formed the basis of their Star Wars and eventually became “generic”). From what I can tell, a fourth edition from a completely different company went back to something like 2nd edition, with maybe bits of 1st and/or the Warhammer 40K line. ↩︎