So, it appears the bloom may be fading from 4e. If you read my bio on this site, you’ll see why I’m not terribly broken up by these rumblings coming from amongst my various gaming groups. While Dungeons & Dragons will always be my first love and entre into gaming– and to this day many of my favorite settings, tropes, and themes are to be found amongst that cargo cult (Forgotten Realms, Spelljammer, Planescape, Birthright)– I fell off the wagon during the 3e years, totally ignored the 3.5 years, and reluctantly came back recently to play 4e because, well, it literally became one of the only games in town… If I wanted to continue to game with and hang out with folks whose company I enjoyed, I had to take the bitter medicine.
And honestly, as a player, there were some things I did come to enjoy about 4e. Man, can you play the ultimate sneak thief sniper from hell in that game!
But as an erstwhile DM, I was frankly horrified by the amount of labor that seemed to be involved in prep, and then the herculean task during the game session of keeping tabs on all the moving parts and widgets for not only all your NPCs but also trying to ::ahem:: help keep the PCs honest.
Anyways, as I was saying (talk about burying the lede), lately there have been some rumblings of dissatisfaction with 4e amongst various and sundry in the remaining Boston loyalists of the Ephemeral Circus. Hopefully I’m not outing anyone when j’accuse the founder of this site– Chris Tatro himself– confided in me that he’s toying with the idea of possibly thinking about perhaps looking in to maybe moving his campaign (which is about to enter Spelljammer territory) to something that “better suits his DMing style.”
Maybe nothing will ever come of this, but never being one to shirk from any consideration of rules toolboxes and tinkering with fiddly bits, I began thinking about it. One of the first games that came to mind was Lady Blackbird, an indie steampunk skyship game that crossed my desk a year or two ago. I honestly only skimmed it at the time, but it stuck with because the graphic design is gorgeous.
I hit Story Games for the first time in many months yesterday, and saw some of the great things people have done with those rules in the meantime, and was duly impressed and intrigued. Could one truly step down from the precipice of 4e rules bloat, play ersatz D&D in a rules light indie game, and at the same time breathe new life into all those bookshelves worth of sourcebooks by recycling their simulationist widgets as narrativist ‘tags’ and ‘aspects’? It seems so!
However, the one thing that gave me pause was Lady Blackbird’s seemingly baked-in conceit of GM pre-generated characters. I don’t know if that’s a relic of the game being a convention one shot or something… or perhaps because of some narrativist need for touchy/feely inter-party story hooks… but it strikes me as incredibly odd that in their quest to liberate the grognards from the shackles of DM railroading and ‘bad’ “I kill and loot the body” storytelling by introducing player narrative control, that they’d shackle those same players to being unable to roll up and create the character they want to play and evolve through said enlightened storytelling.
(And yes, before anyone yells at me in the comments that I’m being insulting, simplistic, and ad hominem, I am being deliberately hyperbolic and obtuse here for *hopefully* comedic purposes. Deal with it.)
So anyways, if you are still bearing with me, let me share with you some ideas I’ve come up with for addressing this gross oversight and crime against not only the hobby, but affront that cuts to the very core of what makes us human.
Taking a page from Spirit of the Century, I can envision the first session of a prospective campaign being one in which the DM pitches the overarching plot he’s got in mind (“in this game, you’ll be pirates in arcane space,” “in this game, you will be agents for a decadent and increasingly paranoid King”) and the players then make up their characters and build hooks to each other by writing up some of their prior off-screen adventures together; basically replacing SotC‘s pulp novel conceit with D&D‘s adventure module one.
So, mechanically, here’s how I’d run char gen for Dungeons & Blackbirds:
- Each player names 4 Traits for their character. These Traits can be pretty much any tried and true D&D trope like race, character class, prime requisite ability score, class feature, skill, AD&D non-weapon proficiency, 3e feat, signature weapon specialization, magic item, alignment, patron deity, 4e character role, etc. etc.
- For each of these Traits, name 2 Tags that further build upon and describe what that Trait means and does.
- Now, each player will come up with a title for one of the modules/adventures their character took part in. There will be one module for each player at the table. And feel free to dust off dimly remembered chestnuts from your childhood… who wouldn’t want to have their new character to have been in the Expedition to Barrier Peaks?
- They will write up a few sentences describing a pivotal scene their character had during this adventure. Based on this scene, they will come up with 4 more Tags that further flesh out their developing Traits and character advancement. These can be four Tags under one Trait, one Tag under each of the four Traits, or any combination thereof.
- Once everyone has done this, they should pass their adventure page to the player to their right. Now, they will write a scene their character performed as a member of the party in this other adventure. Based on what they describe, they will come up with a further 3 Tags for their character, again under any combination of Traits.
- Keep passing the adventure sheets off to your right until everyone has had a part in every adventure. For each of these additional scenes they get 2 more Tags due to character advancement. Once your adventure has finally returned to you, you should have several Tags for each Trait (it appears the pre-gens in Lady Blackbird each have between 5-9 Tags per Trait). It is time to move on to:
- Coming up with Keys. Keys are the motivations, problems, connections, duties, and loyalties that pull on your character. Each character will have three Keys.
- Each player should read aloud the final write-up for their adventure module. Based on what transpired in the story (and rather than choosing from pre-fabbed laundry lists of Keys which I honestly don’t have the time or desire to do right now) the players should discuss and brainstorm and come up with some ideas. Again: character classes, origin and background feats, alignments, prestige classes, magic items and relics, Forgotten Realm secret societies and Planescape Factions… they can all provide possible fodder for Keys. From the crowd sourced list that arises from their module, the player will pick one Key for their character and one Key for the character of the player to their left– the last person to add to their adventure module (and the one who ostensibly wrote the exciting climax).
- Once everyone has two Keys (one they picked themselves, one given them by the player to their right), the DM will assign each character their third and final Key. This can be something left over from the brainstorming session lists, something new that they want to see explored by the player during the campaign, etc.
- Finally, each character gets 2 Secrets. Secrets are extraordinary powers, abilities, rituals, magic items, etc. Dust off your D&D and AD&D sourcebooks and find some spell, artifact, prestige class, etc. that you want to be your character’s big guns. Mechanically, it appears Secrets are supposed to work in one of two ways:
* You can re-roll a failure once per session, or give someone else in the party this benefit.
* You have a power or ability that automatically accomplishes something storywise, and you get to narrate the scene of this success.
It all seems fairly straightforward, but never having actually *played* Lady Blackbird, I can’t quite be 100% sure that it is this simple. I think I may want to try and use this rules hack to run that Planescape police procedural I’ve always wanted to do (Law and Order: Sigil?!?), so if I can ever make that happen, I’ll let you know.