USR Wednesdays: Young and Old Characters

Most characters in adventure fiction (movies, novels, comics, games) are somewhere between age 20 and 40. Thanks to the popularity of young adult fiction ― the “Hunger Games” and “Harry Potters” of the world ― that age range is getting lower. Older characters are getting a little less attention, though for every wise “Obi-Wan“ mentor there’s a still-vibrant older protagonist: think of the “Taken” series, or “The Expendables.”

Older versions of Dungeons & Dragons have rules for younger or older characters, which basically boil down to: older characters have more mental ability but less physical ability, and vice versa. Very young children (under 10) are not playable because they can’t keep up with adult characters. But of course there’s plenty of child-focused action-adventure fiction: “PJ Masks” and “Stranger Things” on TV, Power Pack in the comics.

RPG rules adjusting character stats to account for age do seem to be a thing of the past. So instead let’s look at a few potential settings for young and old heroes.

Kid Supers

Teen superheroes may be tortured with the angst of gaining unique, incredible powers while trying to fit in. But kids actually enjoy having powers: it’s not a burden, it’s a joy. Our kid supers are mutants, born with abilities and living with kind and loving families. No horrifying scientific experiments or orphaned children here; this setting isn’t about grim darkness. These heroes have fun being super, and stopping bank robbers. Our model here is Dash from “The Incredibles.”

Kid Paranormal

Like animals, kids can see the supernatural when adults can’t. They can peer through the mystical illusion created by ghosts which makes them invisible, and the one cast by vampires which hides their undead nature. Kids know the truth; getting adults to believe them is difficult, so a lot of the time they have to stop the monsters on their own. A secondary trope of this genre is the power of belief; a child’s courage or fear is more “pure,” more powerful, than an adult’s, which is tempered by skepticism and being too busy to think about things like monsters. The 1987 movie “The Monster Squad” and Stephen King’s “It” are the models.

In both of these “Kid” settings, the children are as competent as adults, if not more. Giving them lower stats or fewer Specialisms would be a punishment, and not really represent the characters as seen in fiction. Instead, the players should be challenged not by game mechanics, but by societal rules that hamper what they can do. A young character can’t get anywhere he wants to go, unless he can ride his bike there, or get someone older to drive him. A young character isn’t old enough to have a credit card… but she has resources, if she’s good at using the internet (in a setting where it exists).

Eleven is a little more powerful than the others.
Kid Paranormal at its finest. (image: Netflix.com)

Older Heist

A bank robbery or a sting operation is fun to watch on screen ― as long as the team making it happen knows what they’re doing. The best way to guarantee the heist happens like clockwork is to bring in the long-experienced experts. Start characters at level 4 or 5, toward the top of the Domino Writing-style experience track. Pick skill Specialisms like Hacking, Lock Picking, and Getaway Car Driving. The heroes will be able to accomplish almost everything, but remember that the difference between the die roll result and the Target Number can tell the game master how well they accomplish a task: Say there’s a thief making an Action roll against a Target Number of 6, to sneak past the guards. On a result of 12, he gets past them easily. On a result of 7, he still gets past them, but not without making a little noise ― cut to a scene of the guard radioing to his partner that he’s going to investigate a sound (on a result of 4, the guard wouldn’t hesitate, he’d just sprint over to where the thief is).

Royal Intrigue

There’s an old saying: Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill. Everyone in a royal court is scheming to increase their power and influence, but it’s the veterans in the palace who have the connections, the money, and the ruthlessness to succeed. A character in this setting should put the d10 in the Ego stat, then follow up with the d8 in Action (for former generals) or in Wits (for master courtiers). Heroes don’t fight the battles; they send poor saps out to do the fighting. A die roll in this setting isn’t about quietly, carefully assassinating a foe ― it’s about how convincing the character is in pretending to grieve the “mysterious death” of a rival the next morning.

How old will your characters be?

USR Wednesdays: Disease

I didn’t post last week because I was really sick, and I’m just now recovering, a week and a half later. Last Wednesday evening I watched the hours slip away, knowing I wouldn’t get in front of the computer that night. But it did inspire this week’s post.

Disease is something that’s not often used in role playing games; in traditional fantasy RPGs it’s no challenge at all, easily overcome with a spell. In contemporary or modern settings, technology like medicine or super-healing machines eliminates disease quickly (not quickly enough for me, unfortunately). No matter what the setting, having a character slowed to a crawl by an illness usually means you can’t tell a fun story… unless you describe it the right way.

Disease As A Weapon

The simplest way to represent disease is as a weapon — think of post-apocalyptic mutants carrying plagues, or evil druids spreading contagion. If an actual weapon, like a tainted sword or corrupt spell, is used to deliver the disease, the attack delivers its normal damage. If that attack is a hit, the effects of the disease also take place, usually a penalty of -1 or -2 to stat rolls: Action (physical illness), Wits (affected mental performance), or Ego (impaired social interaction). The penalty lasts as long as it makes sense in the story.

Bonuses to defend against disease.
The eternally cool and creepy plague doctor. (image: public domain)

Lingering Disease

To represent long-term disease, something that has an impact on a character without interfering with adventuring, try stepping down Hit Points. After the character first contracts the disease, make an Action roll against the Target Number of the disease (usually 7) to fight off its effects. A Specialism like “Very Healthy” or “Antibiotics” could help on the roll. On a failure, the character loses 5 total Hit Points and 5 current Hit Points. If the character’s total Hit Points fall to 0 (zero), he or she is dead. On a successful roll, the disease gets better, and the character regains 5 total Hit Points — but not current Hit Points; he or she still needs recovery time. When the character is back to his or her actual total Hit Points, the disease is completely cured, and no more rolls are needed.

Repeat this disease/healing check as often the game master decides is appropriate; once every two or three days of game time is realistic (that’s how often I felt incrementally better this past week). Extremely intense moments, like combat with “boss” monsters, may call for disease checks too, as the character suffers major strain.

Disease As Adventure

A disease can also be the trigger for the adventure: find the magical fountain of healing, or the special medicinal ingredient located deep in the wilderness. Alternately, the disease could be the villain, where the heroes have to retrieve a vial of lethal plague that was stolen from a medical research lab before it’s released in public, or unrest grows in a war-torn country as doctors struggle around-the-clock to come up with a cure for a deadly disease — can the heroes buy them enough time to do their work?

How will you use disease in your USR adventures?