A large number of character customization options attracts many players to the d20 System and its variants, such as Pathfinder. All of the feats, traits, and alternative class and race features make it seem as if players are wide-eyed kids clutching hands full of dollars in some gonzo candy store.
Compared to everything available to d20 System characters, the classes in an Old School Roleplaying game, such as Swords & Wizardry, might seem spartan and uninspiring. Consider the fighter class in Pathfinder. It offers the player 10 class skills, three class-specific features that improve with level, and 11 bonus combat feats over 20 levels. In contrast, the Stars Without Number warrior has one class feature that doesn’t change or improve, and a smaller, more variable list of skills. The Swords & Wizardry fighter has three class-specific features and no class skills at all.
This apparent paucity can create a bit of shock for players not used to the Old School’s desire to not have a rule for everything, to avoid creating the impression that the game is about what’s on the character’s sheet moreso than it’s about what’s in the player’s mind. (That doesn’t mean, however, that the d20 System discourages imaginative play. It doesn’t. It also doesn’t mean that Old School gamers are more imaginative. They aren’t.)
I grew up as a gamer on Old School games back when the Old School was the only school. Back in the day, we frequently customized our characters with special abilities, quirks, et cetera. For example, my longest running 1E character had the ability to talk with wolves. He couldn’t control them or summon them. He just spoke Wolf. Why? Because it was cool.
I want to give my players some Old School customization options, and I also want to increase the players’ narrative control over the game. So, I’m dusting off my treatment of a story-telling RPG idea.
Write a Statement
It might seem like there’s not much variety among Stars Without Number characters. One warrior seems pretty much like every other warrior. Oh, sure, ability score modifers will be a little different and background packages adjust skills, but warriors end up on paper looking a lot like each other. Thus: Enter statements.
Statements are a tool for making a character unique. A statement is a short description about a character. Statements define a character’s special strengths, beliefs, and talents. During gameplay, a hero’s statements may provide a bonus to certain rolls. At 1st level, every character has two statements.
What Makes a Good Statement
The best statements are written as simple sentences or short phrases focused on some sort of action, belief, or quality important to a character. A statement should strike a balance between too narrow and too broad, even if these parameters are hard to define. If a statement is too narrow, it will seldom (if ever) affect a character’s success. If it is too broad, the statement turns into a blanket bonus to pretty much everything.
In general, statements fall into three categories: physical, mental, and social. Due to the nature of statements, however, there is some overlap. When writing a statement, focus on one of the three categories to start with. Here are some examples:
Physical: Trained by the Space Marines. Healthy as a horse. Swimming is the best way to travel.
Mental: Stubborn as a mule. Secrets deserve to be revealed. Logic always finds a way.
Social: A silver tongue opens many doors. Daughter of an aristocrat. Child of the streets.
Example – Writing a Statement: Christopher is making up an expert. He thinks about his character. What is he like? Does he have any special talent, noteworthy strength, or important belief? Christopher decides his character suffered a horrible tragedy that changed his life. He writes a statement about this tragedy: “Xenomorphs ate my father!”
During gameplay, Christopher watches for times when his character’s statement would affect his hero’s actions. During those times, Christopher can narrate how the statement affects his character. If he does so in a way that makes sense within the game’s story, then Christopher’s charactergets a die-roll bonus.
How Statements Work
During the game, the player should be on the look out for situations in which his character’s statements can affect gameplay. When such a situation arises, he narrates his character’s actions appropriately. If he narrates appropriately, his character enjoys a +1 bonus to a single roll.
In general, statements are meant to be widely applicable and flexible enough to let players be creative. Keep this in mind when narrating actions: The die roll determines success or failure. The narration earns a bonus, but not automatic success. Thus, narration must be modest enough to account for the possibility of failure.
Example – Narrating a Statement: Let’s look at two different ways the statement “Xenomorphs ate my father!” can affect gameplay. First, in combat: “Chuck swings the flamethrower toward the monster, remembering all of those nightmare-haunted days he studied xenomorph biology and habits.” This is worth a +1 bonus on an attack roll to simulate Chuck’s intimate knowledge of xenomorphs. Next, in a social situation in a xenomorph-ravaged facility: “Chuck gently takes the kid’s hands in his own and looks into her eyes. He says, ‘I dunno how you managed to stay alive, but you’re one brave kid, and you’re safe now. I will never leave you. That’s a promise.” This is worth a +1 bonus on a Persuade skill check to calm the kid down.