Thursday, July 28, 2016

Backgrounds for Old School RPGs

Designer's Notes

Like the backgrounds in 5e D&D, these are intended to provide a backstory and some characterization, hooks, and minor powers to player characters. However, they are inspired more by medieval societies than by contemporary fantasy fiction. The ability bonuses are used in my human-centered Twilight Empire campaign, but can be dropped without fuss. The skill bonus is like a 5e proficiency bonus, but uses my house rules for ability rolls in old-school campaigns. The skill bonus is quite high at +1 per experience level, but this assumes low-level campaigns; the skill bonus could be reduced to +1 per 2 levels (round fractions up) for high-level campaigns. Social level is similar to the Judges Guild rule, but I use a different table. The background descriptions contain a handful of other references to house rules from my Twilight Empire campaign, such as for trials, the right to bear arms, and sumptuary laws. Groats are large silver coins that have the same value as a standard gold piece.

Backgrounds

A character’s background represents his social position and his early education or training. A background gives a character two ability bonuses, bonus items, a skill bonus to relevant ability rolls, one or more powers, and a starting social level (SL) score.

Background Table

#
Background
Ability Bonuses
Bonus Items
Skill Bonus
Powers
SL
1
Barrister
Ch +1
I +1
Fine hat (5g)
Gown and robe (10g)
Legal codex (100g)
Bargain
Courtesy
Oratory
Scribe
Law
9-12
2
Craftsman
D +1
I +1
Breeches and tunic (2g)
Cap (1g)
Craftsman’s tools (5g+)
Appraise
Bargain
Build or Repair
Drive Vehicle
Craft
7-12
3
Engineer
I +2
Breeches and tunic (2g)
Cap (1g)
Compass and square (2g)
Build or Repair
Scribe
Engineering
7-12
4
Forester
D +1
W +1
Breeches and tunic (2g)
Hooded cloak (2g)
Staff (1g)
Direction Sense
Natural Lore
Outdoor Survival
Track
Set Snares
1-10
5
Herdsman
C +1
W +1
Bagpipe (2g)
Breeches and tunic (2g)
Hooded cloak (2g)
Riding horse (40g)
Play Instrument
Ride
Train Animal
Weather sense
Animal Husbandry
1-10
6
Mariner
C +1
S +1
Breeches and tunic (2g)
Compass and sextant (5g)
Fur-lined cloak (5g)
Direction sense
Pilot Vessel
Swim
Weather Sense
Seamanship
1-10
7
Merchant
Ch +1
I +1
Abacus (5g)
Fine hat (5g)
Fine tunic (10g)
Appraise
Bargain
Drive Vehicle
Scribe
Merchant
7-12
8
Miner
C +1
S +1
Breeches and tunic (2g)
Cap (1g)
Spade (1g)
Drive Vehicle
Natural Lore
Mining
Underground Sense
1-10
9
Noble
Ch +1
S +1
Fine breeches and tunic (10g)
Fine cape, cloak, or hat (10g)
Riding horse (40g)
Courtesy
Ride
Scribe
Track
Nobility
Servant
13-16
10
Pauper
Ch +1
D +1
Soiled breeches and tunic
Soiled cap
Wooden bowl
Bargain
Beg
Bluff
Folk Lore
The Cant
City Lore
1-6
11
Peasant
C +1
W +1
Breeches and tunic (2g)
Cap (1g)
Draft horse (30g) 
Drive Vehicle
Folk Lore
Natural Lore
Farming
1-12
12
Physician
D +1
I +1
Fine hat (5g)
Gown and robe (10g)
Medical codex (100g)
Courtesy
First Aid
Natural Lore
Scribe
Physic
9-12
13
Scholar
I +1
W +1
Codex (100g)
Fine cap (5g)
Gown and robe (10g)
Wax tablet and stylus (2g)
Courtesy
Folk Lore
Oratory
Scribe
Ancient Languages
Scholarship
7-12

Ability Bonuses: A character receives two ability bonuses for his background. They don’t raise ability scores above 18. 

Bonus Items: These are in addition to items purchased with a character’s starting money (30-180 groats, modified by social level).

Skill Bonus: A character receives a skill bonus equal to his experience level on ability rolls related to his background. The table above lists two or four standard ability rolls related to the background, but the skill bonus also applies to any other ability roll for which the background would provide an advantage (referee’s discretion).

Powers: A power enables a character to perform special actions not covered by standard ability rolls, or gives him some other edge or advantage.

SL: Social level determines social class and rank, and affects starting money and cost of upkeep.

Barrister

A barrister is an expert in the law. A barrister does not serve as an advocate during a trial, but may be consulted by a judge (or, more rarely, by a party to the trial) to interpret the law and cite precedents. A barrister has general knowledge of the law, and chooses a specialization: canon law, common law, imperial law, merchant law, or urban law. Canon law is the law of the church; common law is based on local custom or judicial precedents; imperial law is promulgated by the emperor; merchant law is used by merchants who trade across legal jurisdictions; and urban law is promulgated by towns or cities.

Law: A barrister’s knowledge of the law can be used to help avoid arrest or prosecution, to avoid conviction in a trial, to bring a suit against another party, or to otherwise navigate a legal system. A barrister can discover a precedent or loophole to support one party to a trial, which provides a +4 bonus to a trial roll, or +8 if the trial in question relates to his legal specialization. A barrister can also recall obscure facts about the law with a successful intelligence roll, which can help with legal investigations and disputes.

Craftsman

A player character craftsman is assumed to have obtained a journeyman level of training in his craft, before going off to a life of adventure. There are three levels of craftsmen: apprentice, journeyman, and master. Apprentices learn their craft while working for a master craftsman in exchange for their labor. Journeymen are fully trained, but have not received the title of master from their guild, and do not have their own shops. Masters are senior members of the guild, who have their own shops, and are involved in guild politics.

Craft: A craftsman is able to manufacture items given adequate tools, time, and materials. The player chooses which craft his character knows from the following table, or another craft of his choosing (with the referee’s permission).

Sample Crafts Table

Craft
Items Made
Armorer
Cuirass, helmet, lamellar, mail, melee weapon, plate mail, shield
Blacksmith
Crowbar, hammer, horseshoe, iron spikes
Bowyer
Long bow, short bow
Cartwright
Cart, wagon
Fletcher
Arrow, bolt
Goldsmith
Holy item, jewelry, signet ring
Gunsmith
Arquebus, cannon

Engineer

An engineer designs complex devices and structures, such as buildings, clocks, and machines of war.

Engineering: An engineer can design or repair a complex structure or mechanical device, including: castles, churches, fortifications, houses, and other buildings; mills and other basic machinery; water clocks and simple mechanical clocks; and ballistae, catapults, siege towers, and other machines of war. Actually building the structure or device requires a team of skilled workers and sufficient time and money (referee’s discretion). An ambitious or novel design requires an intelligence roll with a difficulty level of 4 or more; failure indicates a collapse or malfunction, either during the period of construction or sometime thereafter (equal chance of each).

Forester

A forester makes his living in woodlands, through timbering, charcoal making, foraging, hunting, trapping, or serving as a warden to guard a territory from poachers or other trespassers.

Set Snares: A forester can set snares and build pit traps. It takes one hour to set a snare. A snare can be set either to inflict 1-6 damage or to immobilize the target. It takes six hours to construct a pit trap. A pit trap causes the victim to fall into a 10’ deep pit. The victim suffers 1-6 damage if he fails a dexterity roll. It takes at least one turn for the victim to climb out of the pit trap, and the victim may only be able to climb out successfully after abandoning armor or other equipment (referee’s discretion).

Herdsman

A herdsman cares for large herds or flocks of domesticated animals. Some own their own land and animals, others watch over animals owned by others, and still others own their animals but not the land they graze on.

Animal Husbandry: A herdsman can raise, care for, and assess the value of cattle, goats, horses, sheep, or other domesticated animals. With a successful wisdom roll, a herdsman can increase the value of a flock or herd by 10% over the course of a year.

Mariner

A mariner works aboard a rowed or sailed ocean-going vessel.

Seamanship: A mariner can find work aboard a ship, which enables him to earn his keep and to get free passage to ports of call. If need be, a mariner can also function as a ship captain and perform basic navigation.

Merchant

Merchants typically live in towns or cities, but some (peddlers) travel the countryside to sell their wares, while others travel by river or sea. Unlike most commoners, merchants are often literate and numerate.

Merchant: A merchant can buy items at half their usual retail value and sell them at their full retail value. Doing so requires locating a buyer; the chance of this varies based on the item, local tastes, and the size of the local population, but there is a base chance of 1% per month in a village (100-900 inhabitants), 5% per month in a town (1,000-9,000 inhabitants), and 50% per month in a city (10,000+ inhabitants).

Miner

A miner has had experience working in an underground copper, iron, lead, salt, or silver mine.

Mining: A miner can engage in prospecting and oversee the construction and operation of a mine (possibly requiring the assistance of an engineer, depending upon the difficulty of the site).

Underground Sense: With a detect secret doors roll (base 2 in 6 chance), a miner can notice sloping or shifting passages, recent construction, approximate depth underground, and other underground phenomena.

Noble

A noble is born into a family that bears at least one noble title and that owns one or more feudal estates. Feudal estates are distinguished from other land in that their tenants owe the landlord feudal dues, and in that the owner of the land is a vassal to a higher-ranking noble. A noble is familiar with rules of etiquette, courtly song and dance, and elite pastimes such as chess and falconry. A noble is likely to be literate, and to have at least a passing familiarity with “the classics”—epic and lyric poetry, sacred scriptures, famous speeches, and a handful of historical or philosophical works. A male noble receives training from an early age in the hunt and the art of war, and a female in weaving and household management.

Ranks of Nobles Table

#
Rank
Type
Social Level
1
Emperor
Royalty
20
2
King
Royalty
19
3
Prince
Aristocrat
18
4
Duke
Aristocrat
17
5
Marquis
Aristocrat
16
6
Count
Aristocrat
16
7
Viscount
Aristocrat
15
8
Baron
Gentry
14
9
Knight
Gentry
13
10
Esquire
Gentry
13

Every noble family in the Twilight Empire is either part of or allied with one of the six great noble houses. Each noble house is a virtual nation in its own right, owning numerous estates, castles, and noble titles, and able to field a large feudal army. The noble houses are divided by intense rivalries, and in the past these have broken out into civil war. The twilight emperor is always from House Beryl; the other five noble houses are roughly equal in power. A player character noble is generally assumed to be from a lesser branch of one of the noble houses, or from a lesser noble family allied with one of the great houses. Such a character will nonetheless be affected by the grand politics of the empire, as shifting alliances and hostilities among the houses are felt at all levels of the feudal hierarchy.

#
Noble House
Coat of Arms
Reputation
1
House Beryl
Gold gemstone on a black field
Majesty, ambition
2
House Boarshead
Blue boar’s head on a gold field
Valor, treachery
3
House Falconcrest
White falcon on a blue field
Chivalry, courtesy, heresy
4
House Ravenwing
Black raven on a white field
Orthodoxy, loyalty
5
House Tawny
Red rooster on a gold field
Pride, prudence
6
House Winterwolf
White wolf on a black field
Endurance, independence

Nobility: Nobles generally receive deference from commoners, and can expect hospitality from nobles and commoners when travelling. They are permitted to bear chivalric arms such as swords and lances, and to wear silks and other luxurious clothing. A noble’s testimony is more valuable in a court of law.

Servant: A noble character begins play with a 0-level NPC retainer in his service, who is either a maidservant, manservant, or squire. Noble fighters are served by squires, while members of other classes have a maid- or manservant who matches their gender. Maidservants are armed with a knife, manservants with dagger and staff, and squires with gambeson, helmet, shield, dagger, sword, and bow or crossbow.

Pauper

Paupers are characters of humble circumstances who dwell in towns or cities, such as beggars, day laborers, maids and valets, pimps and prostitutes, and thieves and con men of various stripes.

The Cant: A pauper is familiar with the dialect and distinctive terminology used by thieves and the urban poor to veil their meaning when discussing criminal matters and to verify their identity when among mixed company.

City Lore: A pauper is familiar with the principal guilds, criminal organizations, and other factions in Greymouth or another city, and knows shortcuts for cutting through streets and safe houses used by thieves and other members of the criminal underworld.

Peasant

A peasant works the land for a living. Peasants are usually illiterate and uneducated. It is often illegal for a peasant to hunt or fish from the surrounding countryside, if the land is owned by a lord jealous of its use, but this does not always stop peasants from doing so anyway. Some peasants live in isolated farmsteads, others in villages connected to a manor or estate, still others in independent villages with their own government (a headman or village council).

Farming: A peasant can oversee the operation of a farm to grow crops (grains, lentils, flax, fruits, greens, etc., depending on climate and terrain) and raise common domesticated animals (mainly geese and pigs, with small numbers of cattle, goats, horses, or sheep).

Physician

A physician has had some training in the art of medicine, and works as a surgeon, diagnostician, and prescriber of alchemical remedies.

Physic: A physician can determine the diagnosis, prognosis, and prescribed remedy (if any) for illnesses or other debilitating conditions (such as poisoning). A physician can also perform basic first aid and primitive surgeries. First aid must be performed within 1 hour of the infliction of a wound, and restores 1-4 hit points with a successful intelligence roll (plus skill bonus). First aid may only be performed once per character per combat (or other source of wound or injury). Surgery may be performed at any time after the infliction of a wound or injury, but may only be used once per wound or injury. Surgery requires both a successful dexterity roll (plus skill bonus) and a successful intelligence roll (plus skill bonus). Successful surgery restores 1-4 hit points, but inflicts 1-4 damage if either ability roll is a natural 1.

Scholar

A scholar has spent time at a university studying the liberal arts. A scholar can find work as an instructor or tutor, regardless of whether he has obtained a degree.

Ancient Languages: A scholar knows one to three ancient languages of the player’s choice. It is up to the player how many languages his character knows, but they count against the maximum number he can learn based on intelligence. Knowing ancient languages is useful for interpreting inscriptions and magical texts.

Ancient Human Languages Table

#
Language
Currently Used By
Originally Used By
Analogue
1
Demotic
Clerics and magic-users
Pantarchy—commoners
Latin
2
Hieratic
Clerics and magic-users
Pantarchy—scholars
Greek
3
Old Terran
Magic-users and sages
Galactic Empire
Indo-European
4
Old Valish
Magic-users and sages
Ancient Val
Old English

Scholarship: A scholar is familiar with the main traditional areas of learning: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. A scholar also has some familiarity with philosophy, theology, and other areas of learning. A scholar knows where to find libraries and how to use them effectively for research. Libraries, however, are few, small, and privately held, whether by abbeys, cathedrals, colleges, or nobles, so it generally takes some convincing (or sneaking) in order to gain access.