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Chop Shop

The First Atrocity: Two Archetypes

by Eric Brennan
Sep 23,2002


The First Atrocity: Two Archetypes

(Or: Age and Treachery Meet Youth and Skill)

Welcome to Chop-Shop, a column for those who like rules tweaks, importing rules components from other systems, and converting things wholesale from one system to another. We're not about building our own RPG or showing anybody the One True Way, we're about getting the most out of your favorite system by using... um, let's call it "Acquisitive Archaeology."

In other words, we're going to dig stuff up from other games and then steal it.

As a preface, let's start with a ground-rule:

The First Rule of Chop-Shop: "Steal from the best, and admit your sources."

Rookies and Veterans

The little snippet of rules legerdemain we'll be working with today comes from R. Talsorian's wonderful Mekton Zeta game. Mekton Zeta character generation, to summarize, posits two types of characters in mecha anime: the Rookie and the Veteran. It then proceeds to provide rules for both of them, the heart of which is the idea that the Veteran is more skilled than the Rookie, but the Rookie gains experience faster.

It's that simple, beautiful and elegant. It has the seed of everything a solid rules-tweak should be, and the best part is: it's portable to any system you want, within reason. Think about it - Luke Skywalker, Neo, Jon Snow, Harry Potter, Katsushiro, Taran, and dozens of other young prodigies in every conceivable place you can think of - fantasy novels, action movies, television... everywhere. And they've all got mentors and allies who fit into a Veteran cast: Roy Fokker, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Morpheus, Gwydion, Aragorn, Gandalf, Dumbledore, ad infinitum.

So we're going to flesh out the initial Mekton Zeta rules a little bit to get to the heart of what being a Young Prodigy and Grizzled Veteran are all about, and then talk about slotting it into another game. At heart, these character types are not just about skill - they're about what drives them.

(As a note, not every character in a campaign has to be one or the other, a Prodigy or a Veteran. It's a bit of a drag if everybody is, simply because those archetypes stop being special. In addition, in actual play, not everybody wants to start out less skilled in exchange for a meteoric rise, or start out more skilled and go nowhere. These kinds of character types work best as part of a team, and it goes without saying that this kind of concept goes over best in a narrative-game, rather than just a hack & slash fest of endless combat and little character development. Both the Veteran and the Prodigy have major campaign goals that drive them, and the only way these character types really work is when the players buy into those goals. Otherwise, it's just another way to min-max.)

The core of the Young Prodigy archetype is that he starts out less skilled - or perhaps unskilled - and gains power quickly, all in the name of a goal, a quest. The goal could be to "become a Jedi-Knight, like my father," or "become the One." It could be less of an epic undertaking, and merely be "become a good cop," or "become a great gunslinger," or "be the best magician at Hogwarts, and meet my destiny." The one thing to remember is that whatever that goal is, it drives the character's rise throughout the campaign. If the character loses that goal, he ceases to be the Young Prodigy and becomes just another normal PC. The goal, then, is everything to that PC, and everything else is a permutation of the quest to reach that state. For all of the narrative importance of Luke confronting his father in "Return of the Jedi," facing down the Emperor, saving his friends, and resisting temptation, they are all mere tests or important side-notes to the heart of his quest, which has been with him since the first movie: To become a Jedi-Knight, like his dad. When he utters the statement that he is that Jedi-Knight, we know it is the conclusion of his quest, and while it may not be the end of the story, he's now ready to face that final showdown. Challenges to this character type within the storyline of an RPG campaign should test both the character's commitment to his goal, and his prowess.

The Grizzled Veteran is the counterweight to the Young Prodigy. He exists to teach, to guide, and even to be a moral counterpoint or friendly adversary. The Veteran is skilled, and knowledgeable in the ways of the universe. The difference between the Prodigy and the Veteran is that the Veteran isn't working toward "becoming" something, he's working toward "overcoming" a challenge. Han Solo's challenge was to leave the smuggler's life behind, to overcome both his own instincts and his past. Obi-Wan had to overcome the challenge of the Sith by finding the Young Prodigy and setting him down the right path. Morpheus, from The Matrix, had to do the same thing as Obi-Wan, but also overcome his own willingness to sacrifice himself for the cause.

As a rule, the Grizzled Veteran is not going to exist just to show the rest of the party up. The player of a Grizzled Veteran has to buy into the idea that his payoff is going to involve overcoming his challenge or falling to it, rather than just hurling 8th level fireballs while everybody else is 4th level. There is no mechanical way to guarantee this - it has to be a contract between the GM and the Grizzled Veteran's player, and the Grizzled Veteran's player and the rest of the party. The Veteran is also, as a story convention, more likely to destroy himself in the process of overcoming his challenge, since his is an adversarial plot point, rather than a transformative one. Thus, the player should be aware of the end that he wants to meet. He can die, like Obi-Wan, or deal with his challenge and move on, like Morpheus.

(A brief note: There's a form of the Grizzled Veteran that I like to call "The Specialist." These are the Josey Wales and the Mad Maxes of entertainment, and they frequently combine the skill of the Grizzled Veteran with the transformative goal of the Prodigy. The hallmarks of the Specialist are a need to overcome the past and transform oneself from a killer into a normal human being, combined with a prodigious amount of skill in a field that works counter to that goal. After all, you're less likely to give up your guns if you're being hunted by the law and the only marketable skill you have is "gunman." We might deal with the Specialist, along with some other character types, in another column.)

Making it Work Within the Rules

Now that we've got our airy-fairy theory, let's talk about application. Chop-Shop is all about application, baby, because otherwise we're just wristing off in some 'net forum about high-falutin' archetypes.


If you're using the Young Prodigy and Grizzled Veteran in a class-and-level system like Dungeons And Dragons Third Edition, CODA, or others of that ilk, things are a little easier on you. Obviously, the Grizzled Vet starts out at a higher level than the "average" member of the party, and the Prodigy starts out at a very low level indeed. If you're a stickler for game balance, and you're using a system where XP is based on the average party level, then you should make sure the average challenge is aimed at the average member of the party, rather than the Vet or the Prodigy. The Prodigy will naturally go up faster than average party member will, and the Veteran should go up slowly, if at all. Make sure the Grizzled Veteran spends skill-points on things like social skills and knowledges, and perhaps contacts and the like - he's not just an ultra-cool combat monster, he's a citizen of the world. He's been around.

All of that's if you're a stickler for game-balance and the rules. If you're tweaking things, you should get into the spirit of it and fudge the game balance. In an ideal world in a class-and-level system, the average party member should advance normally while the Prodigy should advance like a rocket. The GM should time things so that each major adventure or plot-arc results in the PC being much closer, in important ways, to meeting her goal, and that she is able to meet that goal at the climax of the campaign. If this results in the Prodigy meeting her goal at a higher level than the rest of the party, so be it - since her transformation often accompanies a showdown with the Big Bad while alone, this is wholly appropriate.

The Veteran, on the other hand, should advance little, or not at all. He has the skills to do what he needs to do, in order to overcome his challenge, he just needs to find the inner-strength or best way to do it. His challenge isn't one where experience will help; it's centered around overcoming the challenge, whether his opponent is the evil empire, or something inside himself. The milestones in the Grizzled Veteran's career should be baby-steps toward meeting his challenge (if a long-term character,) punctuated by missteps. If a short-term character with a fatal challenge (and the Grizzled Veteran is a great short-term character,) his challenge should occur at a point in the campaign where it presages the final showdown, or where it pushes the growth of the rest of the party, especially the Prodigy.

Points-based Systems

Points-based systems like Hero and GURPS are all about game-balance, and so just throwing it to the wind is a bit more problematic here.

The easiest way to do the Young Prodigy is to make sure few of her powers or skills are developed when she's created. She should have fewer contacts, fewer Disadvantages, and shouldn't be capable of anywhere near full-power relative to what she'll look like toward the end of the campaign. You may want to create her on fewer points, and "add" the missing points as experience bonuses as the campaign goes along.

The Grizzled Veteran, on the other hand, should be very skilled. You may want to give him extra points for skills and then remove the possibility of any XP awards. Given the nature of the Veteran, he should have Disadvantages like Duty, Oath or Vow (to overcome challenge,) and maybe a personality defect or two that he has to work to overcome. If you allow the Veteran to have more Disadvantages than other PCs, than allow him XP awards, but insist that they are devoted to buying off the Disadvantages in order to presage his challenge.

Other Systems

In most other systems, freed from the strict balance requirements of points-based systems, the solution is fairly simple - the Young Prodigy should be built on a reduced platform and gets less advantages and disadvantages, with fewer skill points. She should gain XP faster, working her way toward her goal. In a system with something like the Drama Points in Eden Studio's Buffy RPG, the Young Prodigy should start with more Drama Points then the rest of the party, with those points becoming more in line with everyone else as she reaches their level. If she surpasses the party level as she continues her transformation, the Drama Points should slowly be reduced below the party average.

But Wait - You Can Do Better!

This is by no means supposed to be exhaustive or thorough, but a starting point. The entire focus of Chop-Shop is that I give out a solution that's worked for me, and you say, "Hey, I've got something way more elegant than that!" and we all nod and do things your way, if we're so inclined. The Chop-Shop model is based on a bunch of guys, sitting around a garage, chatting amiably about how to modify our hot-rods. (Or our old junkers. It's okay to love a junker, folks.)

So--got a question? Got a comment? Got a fix? Use the forums, or if you want it dealt with in a future column, email me at and put Chop-Shop in the subject line.

Next Time: We'll look at rewards. In two columns time we'll look at making d20 squeal like a pig as we talk about conversions. See you then.

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