Xanathar’s Guide to Random Tables – adding story to D&D5e

D&D 5th edition is a bit of a gap in my gaming experience. While it’s hardly explicitly designed for one-shots (for me D&D hews pretty closer to the zero-to-demigod progression than any other levelled game), I’ve had great experiences playing it. It captures the sweet spot of nostalgia and actually working. I’ve never actually run it, but certainly intend to set that right in the new year. And, like Starfinder, it certainly can support one-shot play – a lot of its complexity is hidden in easily-parsed references to older editions!

Storifying D&D: it can / can’t / should / shouldn’t be done!

A common thread about ten years ago on various Indie game communities used to be how to add storygaming elements to ‘trad’ games like D&D. It was met with a range of responses, from the zealous “you shouldn’t bother, just play a game that will actually support what you want to do” to more helpful suggestions, like John Aegard’s excellent piece on making D&D 4th edition a player-led sandbox.

The foundation for story-based games lies in character (or pregen) generation – if you have characters with links to the world and NPCs in it, beliefs and motivations to act beyond money and orcslaying, everything else will come, and feel natural. So after a preorder of the new Xanathar’s Guide to Everything arrived and sparked a guilt about how little attention I’d given 5th edition, I decided to give it a run through.

Xanathar’s deserves a proper review on here when I’ve fully dissected it for one-shot play, because apart from a bunch of sub-classes, encounter design guidelines, additional uses for equipment, it also contains a few pages of shared campaign guidelines (which are absolutely golden if you want to design a one-shot, brief though they are). But what initially caught my eye were the piles of random tables.

A lot has been made of the random tables that have returned for D&D5e, and I can’t get enough of them. Right there, using the ones in the PHB alongside those in Xanathar’s, you can randomly generate characters with rich, punchy backstories. I tested them out by rolling up a 1st level human fighter, Robert (oh yeah, his name was random as well – there’s 18 pages of random name tables at the back of the book as well). The tables for family backstory, combined with the backgrounds from the PHB, have made my ‘standard issue peasant fighter’ into something much more exciting, an army deserter using adventuring to find his estranged father. Don’t believe me – here’s his rough character sheet, with the table results combined with a pre-written backstory (NB: I’ve kept any links to the background and location deliberately vague, with only a dubious-evil Baron for Robert to rage against)

Robert

Race: Human (5′ 7″, 154 lbs)

Class: Fighter

Background: Folk hero

Alignment: Neutral Good

S 16, D 15, C 15, I 11, W 14, Ch 11

Languages: Common, Orc

HP 12; AC 19

Proficiencies: All armour, shields; simple weapons, martial weapons; carpenter’s tools, vehicles (land)

Saving Throws: S +5, D +2, C +4, I +0, W +2, Ch +0

Skill Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Athletics, Perception, Persuasion

Fighting Style: Defense (+1 to AC when wearing armour)

Second Wind: Use a bonus action to regain 1d10+1 hp each short/long rest

Combat: Longsword +5; 1d8+3 slashing. Light crossbow +4; 1d8+2 piercing. Dagger +5; 1d4+3 piercing.

Equipment: Chain mail, longsword, shield, light crossbow (20 bolts), explorer’s pack, carpenter’s tools, shovel, iron pot, common clothes, belt pouch with 18gp, dagger.

 

Origin: Know who your parents are; born at home; no siblings. Raised by single mother (father was imprisoned); modest lifestyle with no permanent residence – you moved around a lot; others saw you as different and strange, so you had few companions

Background decision: A mad old hermit spoke a prophecy when I was born, saying I would accomplish great things

Fighter training: I joined the army and learned how to fight as a group

Defining Event: You broke into a tyrant’s castle and stole weapons to arm the people

Personality: If someone is in trouble, I’m always ready to lend help

Ideal: Sincerity – there’s no good in pretending to be something I’m not

Bond: I have a family, but I have no idea where they are. One day, I hope to see them again

Life Events: A relative bequeathed you a simple weapon, spent time working in a job’

Flaw: I have trouble trusting my allies

 

Born to simple carpenters, the prophecy that the mad gnome Oppleby spoke when Robert was born would prove to be his downfall. His father stayed at home from the work-gang to care for Robert following the prophecy, and though they tried to evade the Baron, Robert’s father was captured and imprisoned soon after by the Baron’s men. As Robert and his mother Emma moved from town to town, earning what little they could from odd jobs and the kindness of strangers, Robert’s heartbreak at seeing his father dragged away led to steely resolve to find his captors and bring them to justice.

Knowing he would need a strong sword arm to bring the Baron to justice, he joined the army, where he quickly became successful as a carpenter in the engineering division while his martial expertise grew. But seeing the lash of his sergeant’s whip on his comrades, Robert fled the army, defecting with his squad after stealing from the company supplies. In the escape his squad-mate Manfred was fatally injured, and he gave Robert the engraved dagger his own father had given him, begging Robert to continue his quest.

Robert found himself again moving from town to town, and making use of what carpentry skills he had, until the opportunity for adventure and making good on his prophecy came to him. He knows he will only bring danger to his mother if he returns to her, but still seeks to find his father, and free him from the Baron’s oppression.

See what I mean? It’s corny, and I guess a little obvious, but the table results just determined that juicy backstory naturally. Later I’ll be blogging here about adapting published adventures, but for a party including Robert you can bet that either (i) the Baron’s men are all over town getting in his way, and/or (ii) the adventure’s big bad has links to the Baron. Have you got any examples of how random tables can develop grabby character backgrounds?

Review: 7th Sea, Second Edition

7th Sea, Second Edition, is a trojan horse RPG – a hippie-smoking narrative indie game disguised as a big-budget trad game. Even its pseudo-European setting and swashbuckling, piratical leanings imply it will have rules for swimming, climbing rigging, initiative even. And it doesn’t, really – it has one unified resolution system for everything. It’s beautiful, fast-playing, and very, very good.

The Fluff – “Are we doing accents?”

In the pursuit of high-stakes swashbuckly pirate action, 7th Sea sets itself in a squished up map of Europe where each nation in Theah is very easily identified as its real-world analogue. Even the map is recognisably European, so if you can’t work out that the red-haired kilt-wearing barbarians of the Highland Marches aren’t Scots, you can check an atlas. I’ve no problem with this – and it is of course just an iteration of the setting of the first edition, which was apparently a much-loved aspect of the game. I’d expect a good deal of outrageous accents in play if I’m anywhere near the table.

The setting descriptions in the rules are a bit, well, basket-weavey. I’m not sure if I really needed to know what the average Castillan peasant eats to jump into the game, and it feels rather like a potential barrier to play rather than a boon; I found myself skimming once I’d worked out it was Spain, and then coming back to find the adventure hooks hidden within the descriptions of fashions and history. And this is the first bit where it comes across as a traditional game; there feels like an expectation that you should read the 96 pages of setting chapter before you start creating your character, even though there’s probably no need at all.

It’s worth giving a shout out to the system’s alternate settings – The Crescent Empire, which is the near / middle East analogue, is out now, and offers an inventive take on Arabian Nights-style swashbuckling, and New World – Jaguar Knights and pseudo-Aztec sacrifices and Ifri – their Africa – are lined up for release. I’ve only really dived in The Crescent Empire, and it really is impressive – and probably merits a separate review which I’ll get to soon.

The Crunch – Ready you magnetic fish!

As I said in the introduction, this is the most indie you’ll find in a shiny 300-page hardback. You roll a pool of dice, count Raises (which you make by summing dice to 10), and take action in order from them. That’s how you do everything. Action Scenes see you act in order of the number of Raises you have at each turn, Dramatic Scenes use a more narrative initiative order (as in, one determined entirely by the GM as suits the fiction). There are no difficulty levels, and an implication that players might try to use whatever combination of Trait and Skill they like to accomplish their task, under some negotiation with their GM.

One wrinkle is that every challenge or scene seems to be bespoke to the specific situation, and there’s advice that the GM will pre-plan these out, which makes it seem more complex than it is. What 7th Sea really needs is some general examples of, for instance, a shipboard battle, a tavern brawl, a chase through alleyways, a high society ball – that the GM can quickly grab and pick options from to invent scenes on the fly.

At every turn, it feels like there’s more to the system – and many of the early commentators on the system I think were disappointed in this – but, brilliantly, there isn’t. PCs have various Advantages that tweak the rules in certain circumstances, but like Fate’s Stunts, they are exceptions rather than interfering with the core mechanic. Even duelling, which adds the most additional rules, really just allows you to zoom in on the action in a combat sequence. Villains have two stats and one dice pool, and  groups of mooks – Brute Squads – just have a Strength.

The sole exception to the unified-system appears to be magic, which is specific to each Nation and both game-breakingly powerful and awesomely cool. You won’t be slinging spells regularly, but you can be sure that if there’s a magic-user in the group they will have additional – and very flavourful – ways to interact with the story and bring trouble their way.

The One-Shot

In fairness, there are a couple of cool things about the system which I don’t think translate well to one-shot play. Firstly, the experience system (such as it is) is player-specific multi-step Stories that are collaboratively written and plan out what the PC needs to achieve to get his next XP boost. The villain rules have resource management stuff for the villain to try schemes to raise his strength and an economy for sending stuff after the PCs. I can see an awesome game (not a one-shot) where the players just arrive with their own stories and the GM plays his villain’s schemes and gets in the way of them – but I’m not certain how that would work for one-shot play, although setting it up in a similar way to player-led PBTA might work.

These are the pregens I’ve made up for this game, and they give a fair indication of how straightforward the system would be to grasp for players – although you want to ensure that a player who is happy to get to grips quickly with additional rules and exceptions takes any PCs with magic or dueling. The setting is certainly easy to grasp, and the unified system will certainly make sense – but, as with everything, watch out for players who are drawn to a big hardback book expecting more rules than they find!

I’m looking to tidy up my own quickstart adventure and post it on here, and I might even have a bash at some generic scenes for the game and put them out there – but in short, this game might be my new hotness for a while.