Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Thousand Suns Readalong Chapter 2: Character Generation

There’s actually room for improvement on the space gaming scene in the area of character generation. With Traveller, through all those editions, they never quite figured out what the relative value of attributes and skills should be. That means that, ultimately, all those super neato term-by-term character generation systems just make a pile of numbers that don’t mean anything to me. (How am I supposed to choose between rolling on the skill tables and rolling on the “personal development” table, anyway?) This is one thing that Steve Jackson had nailed down even as far back as The Fantasy Trip– he always wanted his attributes to do the heavy lifting in the game mechanics. Even though I enjoy Traveller character generation as a mini-game that allows you to immediately begin learning about the universe indirectly, GURPS has became my go-to game for space role playing mostly on the basis of that kind of good design.

In preparing for my GURPS Prime Directive sessions at Origins last year, I ended up spending two hours each on six characters. I had a blast running the games and just as is advertised I rarely had to crack the books at the tables. But that is really so much time that it occasionally dampens my enthusiasm for investing in a new scenario. When I ran a play-by-forum Humanx/Traveller/Prime Directive campaign, I had let the players just do whatever they wanted. Ultimately, I don’t think the character design system really mattered so much as long as they were excited about their character concepts. Given the number of hours we played, the time sunk into the character builds was pretty negligible overall. However, during play… there was a slight burden on my part that pushed me to ensure that everyone got their value for the points they spent. That just seemed to be the fair thing to do. It wasn’t a huge headache, but if you have an extremely fine level of granularity in a point-build system, it will influence play.

So given those gaming experiences, lets see if Thousand Suns can supply an attractive third option. I’ll go point by point through the process detailed in chapter two:

  1. Determine Ability Scores: The the default method is to divide thirty points between five abilities. The Strength/Endurance/Health type scores are conflated into the Body ability. Intelligence is broken down into Perception and Will. Presence seem to arrive here more-or-less as a stand in for the old D&D Charisma attribute. Dexterity survives the game designer’s tweaking process unscathed. Vitality (ie, hit points) and Initiative Rank are secondary attributes derived from the core five.
  2. Select Species: The species you choose will give you some ability bonuses, some racial skills, and some points to spend as you please on skills and abilities. Points are spent on abilities at two-for-one, while points spent on skills are one-for-one.
  3. Select Homeworld Package: The first bit of implied setting emerges here. You get to choose from Core (ie, Firefly’s Alliance), Civilized, The Marches (ie, Traveller’s most famous campaign setting), Spacer, and Wildspace. That last one is pretty significant because Traveller sort of assumed that there wasn’t much beyond the admittedly huge charted space in the game. Each package comes with its own skills. Note that what you get here is significantly more playable than the homeworld skills system that was presented in MegaTraveller and Traveller: The New Era.
  4. Select Career Package(s): GURPS provided a solution to the headache of multi-classed AD&D characters. Thousand Suns provides a solution to the problem of Traveller characters with terms in multiple careers. Instead of tweaking every single nuance of the character, you pick skill packages by career type and by level– either Novice, Experienced, or Veteran.
  5. Create Hooks: Traveller was fairly innovative for pioneering a classless system that defined characters entirely through skills, attributes, and career history. GURPS went beyond this by adding explicit advantages, disadvantages, quirks, and perks to the mix. Thousand Suns implements a good chunk of that sort of thing via hooks that encapsulate a mix personality, background, contacts, and advantages. Characters get one for their species, one for their home world, and three for their career. In order to encourage role-playing these things, players can get a skill bonus or a saving throw if the game master agrees that one or more of their hooks are relevant to the situation.
  6. Benefits Points: This is the Thousand Suns counterpart to Traveller’s mustering out procedure. Instead of rolling on tables, you just get a number of benefit points. You can spend these to get starting cash, a pension, membership in various organizations (à la Traveller’s Aid Society and the Psionic Institutes), retainers, and starship mortgage shares. This system captures the spirit of the old Traveler game and implements some things you find laid out in GURPS, but it is far less fiddly than either.
  7. Finishing Touches: Basically just choose a name, age, and gender. You’re done! No aging rolls dinging your stats or even killing you like in Traveller…. It’s up to the players and the game master as to whether or not sexual dimorphism has any impact on the game, as the rules themselves are carefully agnostic on that point.

Thousand Suns captures the spirit of Traveller and gives you a ruleset with slightly more granularity while at the same time making you do far less work. The granularity is less than that of GURPS, but the gist of some of that game’s features are here. It does not appear that prepping up characters for a Thousand Suns con game will burn too many brain cells. Of course, this chapter was largely just an overview; it will be a while yet before I can assess the full character generation system, so stay tuned….

See you next Tuesday for chapter three!

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10 responses to “Thousand Suns Readalong Chapter 2: Character Generation

  1. RogerBW January 5, 2012 at 8:01 am

    I’m not a fan of the writing style. Possibly I’m just used to the GURPS house style, but when I see Abilities… Abilities… Abilities… stats my first thought is that “stats” and “Abilities” are not the same thing. Listing them at the end of a paragraph that’s talking about something else is also unhelpful.

    The fix for splitting Body is no fix at all – if I’m playing a mental-focused character, I now have three dump stats rather than two and have more points to give to the important ones.

    Casually dividing something by two and giving no rounding rules… well, it may be old school, but it’s something I had hoped had been left behind. (Incidentally, (A+B/2) is normally understood to be the same as (A) + (B/2), not (A+B)/2.)

    This is the first rules writing I’ve encountered, and I’m sorry, but I’m profoundly unimpressed. This book desperately needs a rules-head as an editor even if it’s meant to be rules-light: what’s there has to work!

    The Kriilkna are blatantly borrowed from Spacemaster‘s Trilopters, particularly the multi-lobed brain.

    Is it encouraged to have a party whose members can’t talk to each other? Why not just give everyone Lingua Terra?

    I very much like the multi-level templates in the career packages. I think my ideal background system looks very like this (the old GDW House System approach is similar) – a list of templates that give background as well as skills, but relatively few restrictions on how you move between them, unlike Warhammer FRP‘s career tree.

    Hooks are sounding increasingly like a special-purpose version of Aspects…

    Action Points for editing seem very like the equivalent rule in GURPS and other places – but the problem I’ve found with this is that players are reluctant to make any suggestion unless they’re willing to back it up with points. In a cinematic game, I’d much rather hear players say “is there a chandelier I can swing on” simply because they’re PCs. The GM always gets approval anyway…

    What I don’t see here is recommended levels of things. What skill/stat level is a competent normal guy? If I want to mix and match backgrounds and careers, to end up with a guy who’s done a bit of everything but is particularly handy as a pilot, what’s the minimum skill level I should get? Again, this is the sort of guidance I’m used to in GURPS.

    • jeffro January 5, 2012 at 10:04 am

      Re: rules writing

      Perhaps some of what you’re seeing is a combination of the following:

      * Rules should not be the focus
      * Similarly, the meta-setting should avoid even the hint of canonicity
      * Assume the market for RPG’s is not expanding, so everyone reading will know how to play rpgs already
      * New players have to be initiated by an existing group, so don’t expect the rules to communicate how to play

      (I think the OSR’s infatuation with OD&D is a major setback for their rules writing quality. It’s like some kind of perpetual “No Prize” competition to explain why the most horrible rules were actually genius.)

      At the same time… the stuff that sticks in your craw isn’t bothering me, yet. Maybe running Moldvay Basic last month rotted my brain! :D

  2. Robert Saint John January 5, 2012 at 10:23 am

    “Casually dividing something by two and giving no rounding rules…”

    It’s there, page 16: ROUNDING FRACTIONS – Generally, if the rules of Thousand Suns ask you to divide a number, you should drop all fractions. That means that, if you divide 3 by 2, the result is not 1½ but 1; similarly, dividing 8 by 3 is not 2.67 but 2. Except in a few rare circumstances, this is a universal rule and, if it does not apply, the rules will specifically tell you so.

    Expanded on page 22, for Vitality: “Unlike other abilities, one determines Vitality’s numerical value not by spending ability points, but by a simple calculation, namely [(Body + Will) ÷ 2] x 5 (drop all fractions when rounding). Thus, a character with 7 Body and 6 Will (7 + 6 = 13 ÷ 2 = 6) has 30 Vitality.”

  3. James Maliszewski January 5, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    “The Kriilkna are blatantly borrowed from Spacemaster‘s Trilopters, particularly the multi-lobed brain.”

    The Kriilkna are in fact borrowed from another source — three, actually — though clearly not blatantly since none of those sources is Spacemaster, a game I’ve never owned nor read. A No Prize to anyone who can guess even one of them.

  4. John E. Boyle October 20, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    I like the feel of this character generation system. I’m not familiar with GURPS, but I am starting to get the same vibe I had when I played Traveller around 1980. In particular, I like points 3, 4 and 6: Homeworld and Career packages, and Benefit points, especially those multiple levels in the career package. These three elements look to give players a good shot at building the character they want without getting bogged down in the little details; they will also save a lot of time, which means more to me now than it used to.

    Not sure how Hooks will play out yet.

    I’ll have a better idea after I’ve created a dozen characters or so. Time to start making copies of that character sheet.

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