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Chop Shop

The Fifth Atrocity: Lifepaths

by Eric Brennan
Jan 28,2003


The Fifth Atrocity: Lifepaths

It's been another 30 days, and I'm back with yet another cool piece of game design 'jacked at gunpoint from some innocent RPG. I had assumed we'd be getting to my Clinton R. Nixon-inspired screed on "Play Rewards," or my long-awaited (at least by me) d20 Conversion piece, but no - the problem is, there's too much quality RPG material swimming to the surface at my FLGS, or catching dust my bookshelf. Overwhelmed by the variety of it all, hyperstimulated by the sheer wondrous possibility inherent in these books and .pdfs, I can only hop from topic to topic, like a methamphetamine addict with ADHD.

This month we're going to talk about Lifepaths, a term coined by R. Talsorian Games. The pedigree of the concept, though, goes back to the halcyon days when the game industry was young, foolish, and operated out of basements in Midwestern and Northern states. Specifically, the first place I remember hearing about the idea was in Traveller - rolling up the history of your character in that game was the seed of what would become R. Talsorian's Lifepaths, surely, and the grandfather of the history/template systems that are in vogue these days, such as Decipher's CODA system, HDI's Fading Suns, 2nd edition, or FFG's cyberpunk-for-smart-kids Blue Planet, 2nd edition.

Lifepaths, for those of you who don't know, are charts and templates with which you can structure your character's history, handing out skill points and merits and flaws along the way. While it is a step up from the simplicity of say, D&D3e's choose class-level-and-race chargen, after a bit it becomes even simpler and faster. After all, in Star Trek (by Decipher) you just choose a race, profession, and then two backgrounds, one for childhood and one for early career. After padding it out a little, you're done. There was a marvelous set of generic supplements out in the late '80s called Central Casting that typified the whole Lifepath idea, and I heartily recommend them to anyone who can find them cheap (and who can stomach the sometimes politically-incorrect take on homosexuality evinced by the writers, if memory serves.)

The Lifepath idea has gone through some evolution over the years, and there are varying degrees of depth in the kinds seen in RPGs. The Lifepath used in Central Casting, Mekton and Cyberpunk was nothing more than a random background generation system, with little actual effect on skills and backgrounds. You rolled on a table for each year between when you hit adulthood and the start of play, and received results that ranged from a lucky break that netted you contacts with a local gang, to a bad love affair that made you an enemy or lost you a limb. You were just as likely to get some extra cash out of those "Financial Windfall" results as you were to lose Attribute points because you got scarred in a knife-fight. They did generate an awful lot of hooks, though.

The new version of Lifepaths, the template systems, are what we're going to try to design today for ourselves, with maybe a snatch of the old R. Talsorian magic. They typically work by having the players choose an early childhood background, an early career background, and then, if you're HDI's Fading Suns, a few key events in your career.

The questions to ask yourself as we design a lifepath for our games are: * What do I want out of this? * Will it improve character generation? * Will it improve the game? * How far are you willing to tweak the rules? * How much detail and specificity will be needed to satisfy myself and my players?

If your answers to the questions above satisfy you, then take a gander at how this works. (Note: As my example games this week, I'm going to use D&D3e and Vampire - if you have any questions about how this can be used for a specific game, ask in the Forum.):

There are several steps to setting up a Lifepath under the guidelines I'm proposing. The first is that you've got to break up the PC's life into discrete sections, be they time-based or even social-class-based.

Example: For Vampire, I'm going to set the divisions up as Childhood, Adulthood, Early Unlife. For D&D3e I'll set them up as Social Upbringing, Training, Early Adventuring.

Now, you'll next have to decide how much character generation is going to happen in the actual sections. Will the PC roll for events that occurred in the relevant time period? Will they pick up skills in that period, and if they do - are those skills from the normal starting allotment for PCs or are they "bonus" points? How will classes and levels affect this, or points-based generation?

Example: The way I envision the Vampire Lifepath working, the player chooses from a set list of categories for his Childhood and establishes where he comes from. He then chooses from a set list of occupations for his Adulthood (including a wildcard category that will allow the players to build an occupation for themselves.) Under Unlife, they decide what type of experiences they had after first being embraced - those experiences will determine starting Merits & Flaws, and starting relations with their city and with the key personalities in it. All of this will use the existing allotment of skill points and Merit and Flaw options.

Example # 2: I figure that for my D&D Lifepath, players will establish their race and class from the beginning, then work on the Lifepath to fill in the blanks. I've decided that the first part of the Lifepath, Social Upbringing, will establish basic skills (some of them potentially cross-class or class-specific) and maybe some starting wealth above and beyond the normal parameters. It'll be broken out by race, so Dwarves will get to choose from "Warrior Clan," "Mining Family," "Nobility," "Outcast Existence," "Orphan," or "Child of a Fallen Dwarfhold." The second part, Training, establishes what occupation the PC was originally trained for, be it musician, seamstress, guardsman, etc. This is where PCs can get some skills that fall outside of their normal class skills - imagine a Bard who was trained as a guardsman, or a Barbarian who was a herder in his tribe. The final section will basically be a random generation system to establish that the PC might have contacts in an important city, or start with an extra spell, or maybe a mildly magical weapon.

Now, it's time for you to actually to do the math and establish how many points, and for what, are available in each section of the Lifepath. Pertinent questions include - where do these points come from? If you give the PC free points, will it throw off game balance? Are you handing out things other than points, i.e. Merits, Flaws, connections, and the like - and if so, how are they reflected in game terms?

Example: Vampire allows a 13/9/5 Skill/Talent/Knowledge split, which the player is supposed to prioritize. This makes it especially difficult to structure a Lifepath, because you never know how a player wants to prioritize those Abilities, or whether or not you should do it for him. I make a command decision that the Lifepath will set the priority. It takes away a certain amount of player volition, but the players get it back by choosing their categories in the Lifepath process.

Example 2: I decide that the skills, connections, and other items gained during the Lifepath for my D&D game will be in addition to the standard allotment, but that Feats won't - what each section of the Lifepath will have is a guide to where PCs can spend Feats so that they'll fit into the concept. In essence, I don't mind that a PC gets a few extra skill points in Profession: Herder, or Knowledge: Kingdom of Erewhon, but I do mind that he gets a free Martial Weapons Proficiency.

Finally, you'll want to add any "extras" you're thinking of, like a random table to establish how many parents or siblings you have (that are still living) and perhaps a list of events that have happened since you reached adulthood (or just after your Embrace, or in the early days of your adventuring.) You might also think about having a system that adds extra phases to the Lifepath for either more experienced PCs or for NPCs who've been around the block a few times.

So there you have it, a guide to creating your own Lifepaths. I'm a little disappointed though, since the advice seems too pat and the actual examples too loose... So what I'll provide below (Ed. In the forum) is a link to actual, hard-rules examples from a D&D3e Lifepath, based on the examples above, so you can see what I'm talking about once it's actually designed. Take a gander at it, feel free to comment, and see you in thirty - maybe I'll get around to talking about Rewards and d20 conversions, or maybe I'll be fickle and work on a mass-combat system.

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