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.
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.”
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).
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).
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?