In the Starguild game, everyone has a background that consists of their talent, previous profession and home world. Here I will describe why this is, examples of each and why it is important in the game.
Why have backgrounds?
The number one reason is that it helps players to customise their character. To make them quickly distinct from other player characters, and to give an instant hook while playing them.
There are no non-human playable races in Starguild, for reasons that I explain in an earlier article. In many RPGs races are used to give stereotyped packages which support the stereotypes with ability score modifications, some bonuses to activities which are significant, and a bunch of ‘role playing background’ which gives players some ideas about how to play their character. The background rules I have here originally crystallised when I was reading the rules for Spycraft from Green Ronin. It seemed that in that game they had talents such as fierce, brainy, charming and so forth as a stand-in for racial benefits which might be seen in a more traditional fantasy rpg. I didn’t like their implementation very much, but I did like the general idea.
Starguild also doesn’t have “character classes”, which are prepackaged routes for progression for a character. Any PC can learn any skill, and can develop in any way that the player wishes over time. However, it is useful to gather together a group of skills into a “profession” so that new adventurers have a sense of what they have been doing up to now, what their trained skills are.
Lastly, each character will come from a particular regime and home world; that gives some social background and additional benefits. Let’s talk about each of these in some more detail.
Each character picks a home world. The first step is to choose the Regime that you want the character to come from. There are five regimes, and each of them has a typical naming scheme and a typical outlook on life to which characters may conform or rise against.
This regime is characterised by independence of spirit and rampant individualism. Those from this regime include fanatic loners who oppose any governmental control at one extreme, and those whose believe that freedom for everyone depends upon strong organisation. It is a great choice for those who always want to be pushing the boundaries and accepting new experiences.
This regime is characterised by religious ardour. Amongst its people there will be those who are fanatics and those who are moderates; those who give lip service and those who fight against it. Whether for or against it tends to be a defining element in their background. It is great for those who want a dour or a fiery temperament.
This regime is characterised by decadence, formality, aristocracy and eccentricity. Some of the people are snooty, and look down their nose at other regimes. Others are almost fey in their sense of fun and eccentricity. Federation worlds are a great choice for those who want to portray aristocratic, eccentric or mysterious characters.
This regime is characterised by arrogant militaristic governments. These worlds include those who have staked their lives and reputation on finding their place in the strict military hierarchy and others who have spend their life in active resistance to it. Union worlds are a great choice for those who want to portray militaristic or rebel characters.
League of Stars
This regime has no strong characterisation, but does contain a few interesting worlds in their own right.
The characteristics of ones home regime are not prescriptive; you don’t have to act like that. But it does give useful stereotypes which you can apply during your character generation.
Once you have chosen a regime, you choose a home world within that regime – the actual planetary system which you hail from. Each home world has a brief description about what makes it unique and it provides an appropriate skill specialty – the one thing that you know everyone from that world is able to do.
During the game your character can tell stories about their home world in order to regain spent conviction.
The next thing you choose is your characters former profession. There are separate lists for Core world professions and Frontier world professions, with a small overlap between the two. This profession is what you were doing before you started adventuring, and it gives you a number of things.
Each profession gives you four specific trained skills. To this you choose two more skills freely from the whole list. Mark this six skills on your character sheet as trained, you will get +5 on all skill checks which involve those skills.
Here is no restriction on choosing your additional skills – if you want to play a rough and ready miner who has also been trained in Pilot and Style then you certainly can. Similarly the refined socialite might be trained in Brawl and Sneak in addition to her four normal socialite skills. These choices might suggest something interesting about the characters backstory.
Each profession will also give you an association with a social group or organisation, and a basic rank within it. This reflects the lifestyle you are used to, the money you are likely to have on hand and so forth.
Your background will provide you with an NPC contact from your past. This might be a potential patron, rival, enemy or ally. Details can be filled in straight away, or they can be left as placeholders with the potential for the referee to bring them into play at a convenient time. Or, indeed, an inconvenient time! Typically professions with more apparently useful skills are more like to provide rivals and enemies. Those with less outwardly useful skills are compensated with patrons and allies.
Another way of recovering conviction
In the same way that you can tell stories about your home world to regain conviction, you can also tell people about your profession. This is especially the case when you can relate current circumstances to something in your past associated with your profession.
Finally you get to choose a talent, which gives you an adjective and a couple of early advances – ability score boosts, skill focuses, social edges, that kind of thing. You might be brainy, fast, gonzo, addicted, romantic or one of many others.
When you are clearly acting in a manner appropriate to your talent, you can recover one conviction point.
So there you have it – the backgrounds system in Starguild which differentiates characters at the start of their career, and through the interaction with the Conviction mechanics remains relevant for their entire adventuring life.
Character Ability Scores
One of my ongoing goals during development of the Starguild rpg is one of simplification. You can see that in the ability scores used for character generation too.
In the beginning
Way back when I started there were eight ability scores drawn from Runequest, and then there were six aptitudes which were derived from them. Those were the early days of RPGs where complex interlinked components were seen as a good thing. Later when I moved to the OGL I switched to the ‘D&D standard’ six, which remained with me for quite a while before I realised that I wasn’t gaining anything from them, and in fact I was losing something important to me.
When I had strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma I had three abilities which tied into combat, two mentally based ones and one socially based one. This was quite an uneven distribution which may have worked well for games which revolved around combat, but relegated social interaction to a single tail end ability score. Another problem is that these abilities come with forty years of baggage; how many ways have people interpreted ‘charisma’ anyway?
Time for a new start
So, I decided to strip things down to three abilities, each of which would be used both offensively and defensively in their sphere of operation. Passion, Intellect and Physique. Even the order of listing them is designed to promote the value of social conflict. In addition, I didn’t want to have people get a value in the range 3-18 by dice or some other mechanism and then have to derive the bonuses that they would get for things from that. Why not just use the score as it is?
This incorporates your emotional control and your ability to emotionally control others. This might be manifested as a cool and calculating logic or someone who wears their heart on their sleeve. Someone with a below average passion finds themselves easily swayed emotionally.
It is used for the skills of bluff, coercion, comradeship, craft, disguise, leadership, persuade and style. It helps with social saves and horror saves.
This represents your cleverness, memory, intellectual ability and above all your ability to think clearly under pressure. You might choose for this to be manifested as great wisdom, rapid thinking, methodical care or anything else which portrays intellectual self control. Someone with below average intellect might be forgetful, or gets flustered easily, or is a little dim witted.
It is used for the skills of commerce, intuition, knowledge, medic, programming, sabotage, search and technical. It helps with chase saves and drama saves.
Your physique represents your physical capability and control. This might be because you are strong or swift or agile, you might be tall and powerful or small and wiry and still have a great physique. Someone with below average physique might be clumsy or weak, possibly very overweight and slow. You can choose how you want to describe your ability.
It is used for the skills of aim, athletics, beastmaster, brawl, drive, pilot, sneak and survival. It helps you with stun damage saves and lethal damage saves.
How do I use them?
A character will start with a base of 0 in each ability. At creation points can be shuffled around between these on a one for one basis. Each character also gets a ‘talent’ which may give a bonus to one or two ability scores. Whenever a character gains a level, one of the advances available is to increase one of their ability scores by +1. An ability score can never be more than +5 or less than -5.
The ability score is added to all skill checks which are related to that ability. It is added to the difficulty needed to resist any conflict action you take associated with that ability. It is also added to any saving throw you make to resist conflict which is tied to that ability.
Skills are the foundation of almost all dice rolls in Starguild. There are twenty four skills in all, arranged so that there are eight associated with each ability. Each skill covers a broad range of competency under a single heading. The Starguild RPG relies primarily on rolling 1d20 against a target DC for a skill check.
Skill rolls are when you want to make something happen. Conflict saves are when you want to avoid or mitigate the ill effects of something.
To the basic 1d20 roll you will add half the characters level, +5 if trained, +5 if relevant skill specialty is held. There may be additional benefits from circumstances, the help of friends or the use of ‘conviction’ (which will be described in a later article).
When someone has been trained in a skill, either because of their background or an advancement, a check mark is placed by that skill on their character sheet. Training means that you apply a +5 bonus to any check that you make with that skill – whether you are using the skill as a whole or any of its specialties.
When someone receives a specialty in a skill, that is noted down next to that skill on their character sheet. Some skills provide specialties in modes of operation – so the pilot skill has specialties in pursuit, targeting, ECM, navigation and so on, while others provide specialties in certain equipment so driving has specialties for skimmers, watercraft, wheels, dirigibles and so forth.
It is perfectly possible to have a specialty in a skill you are not trained in. You might have a specialty in dirigibles but haven’t leaned the general principles of driving anything else. In this case you are as good with dirigibles (+5) as someone with general drive training. If you have both training and a specialty, then you are extremely good, gaining +5 from the training and +5 for the specialty for a total of +10.
The basic rule for using a skill is that you will have a target difficulty class (abbreviated to DC) and you want to equal or exceed that DC by rolling 1d20 +ability score, + level, +5 if trained, +5 if specialty can be used, + any benefit from assistance 1, inspiration 2 or conviction 3.
Standard difficulty levels are:
|10||Routine||something that an experienced, trained person should be able to accomplish with ease|
|20||Difficult||something that is going to be a challenge unless you are specialised|
|30||Exceptional||something that requires specialisation and experience to even attempt|
|40||Impossible||something which is virtually impossible (not actually impossible!). A really difficult accomplishment|
Make failure interesting
A failed skill roll isn’t a roadblock in the adventure – the referee should make failure interesting. Apart from during conflict, a failure result would normally be considered to be a ‘Yes, but’ result. In other words the PC (player character) has accomplished the check but with an unwelcome and unforseen consequence. Perhaps the lock was picked but an alarm is set off. Perhaps you gather rumours but have drawn attention to youself in the process. The referee may offer the player the option of achieving success at a cost – perhaps some equipment is broken, they receive a mark on one of their damage tracks or something else.
If they fail the check by more than ten there may be a disaster, especially if they are attempting something hazardous like disarming a bomb or climbing a cliff face.
If a player succeeds by ten or more, then this may be considered a master stroke or critical result, and they gain some additional benefit at the referees discretion. Perhaps they complete the check more quickly, or they achieve a better result than they hoped for.
If a check or task is described as hazardous, there is a serious penalty for failing the roll by 10 or more. Disasters count in these circumstances, if climbing a cliff or disarming a bomb.
There are many situations where you can attempt to make a check in one tenth the normal time, but at a significant penalty.
Sometimes there are activities which it doesn’t make sense to treat as a single all or nothing check. For dramatic purposes it is advantageous to treat this as a skill task. What is the difference? Well, in order to complete a skill task, you need to accumulate four successes before you reach four failures. There is still a difficulty DC, and you gain a success for equalling or exceeding that DC. Furthermore, for every ten points over the DC you get an extra success. For example, if making a routine DC10 check and your skill check was 19, you would receive one success. If your skill check was 20 you would receive two successes. If your skill check was an 8, you would accumulate one failure. Every ten points under the DC is an extra failure too.
You do not add plus and minus values to one total, otherwise you might never end! Keep separate totals, and the first one you reach is the result.
Opposed skill tasks
Sometimes two or more people will be working against one another on a task. In this case the first one to gain four successes is the victor.
Degree of victory
When a task is completed, look at the difference between the success and failure totals, and use this to help describe the degree of triumph or failure. If there is only one point difference you just squeaked through. If there is a full four points difference then the result was comprehensive.
- Assistance can be offered by another person who is collaborating and using the same skill. The person giving assistance makes a skill check and divides the result by ten, rounding up. The resulting figure is provide as an assistance bonus. E.g. If the person assisting makes a skill check of 13, they would give a +2 bonus. If they made a 10 they would give a +1 bonus.
- inspiration is a specialty of the Leadership skill, which allows a someone to assist others through canny leadership – whether it be inspirational speeches, barked commands or some other methodology.
- Conviction will be covered in detail in another article. You can spend a point of conviction to add +1d6 to your skill check by pushing yourself that bit extra.
We have already talked about Skills – your attempt to do something by beating a Difficulty Category (DC). Now I want to talk about Saves which are an attempt to avoid harm or failure by beating a Threat Number (TN).
Saves are only ever called for as a result of conflict. It might be social conflict, horror, chases, dramatic scenes or violent conflict. In each of these cases someone or something has happened which threatens you in one way or another, and tests your resilience. The result of your Save Check (sometimes called Saving Throw) will determine whether you have resisted the threat or fallen to it. The degree to which you make or fail the save will indicate the degree to which you are affected.
So while Skill checks are made against a DC (Difficulty Class) in order to accomplish something, Saves are made against a TN (Threat Number) in order to avoid impairment.
In each case making the save by 10 or more over the TN is a perfect success and you are unaffected.
Making the save, but by less then 10 over the TN, is a success with a short term consequence – you are Dazed, which makes you more vulnerable until you’ve been able to remove that condition. It is simple to remove a Dazed condition (it just takes a single action) but there might be additional considerations that cause you to put it off – perhaps you desperately need to reach the control deck AND pull the emergency lever, so you decide to leave the Dazed condition in place for an extra round while you concentrate on the bigger threat.
When someone is attempting to captivate you, seduce you, persuade you, dissemble with you, taunt you, swindle you or sow distrust, you may have to make a social save.
First of all they will be making a skill check against a DC which reflects how difficult it should be to attempt – so sowing distrust amongst criminals is quite a routine check. On the other hand seducing someone and binding them to you emotionally is an exceptional check.
If the check is failed, then their attempt to manipulate your emotions has failed too. They cannot try again for a day.
If the check succeeds, then the target has to attempt a social save to reduce the side effects.
If the check succeeds really well, and they beat the DC by 10 or more, then it is a critical success and the TN is increased by 5.
Failing a social save indicates how long your opinions, emotions or whatever remain affected.
- If you fail the Save, then you are Persuaded and the effect will last for an hour or more.
- If you fail the Save by 10 or more then you are Convinced and the effect will last for one or more days.
- If you fail the Save by 20 or more, then you are Overwhelmed and the effect will last for one or more months.
A campaign which focusses on the potential for cosmic horror may make much use of horror saves, but they can be usefully used in a wide range of standard adventures too. Combatants may attempt to scare their foes by using their Coercion skill to gain an advantage. You might come into possession of unnerving information or catch on fire – any of which might impair your ability in one way or another.
- TN 10 – you come into possession of disturbing information. You learn that a trusted friend has betrayed you.
- TN 15 – you catch on fire or are doused with powerful acid.
- TN 20 – you are surprised by something terrible – horribly mutilated corpses, a large predator bursting out in ambush.
- TN 30 – you are confronted by something spine-chillingly alien. An unknown horror, a chest bursting alien and so forth.
Failing a horror save limits your actions and gives some roleplaying tips to enjoy
- If you fail the Save, then you suffer Fear. Your knees have turned to jelly and every instinct is telling you to run for your life. You cannot concentrate enough to take “double actions” until recovered.
- If you fail the Save by 10 or more then you suffer Terror. You have a panic attack, scream or shout and drop things you are holding. You find it difficult to function effectively hand only have one action each round until recovered.
- If you fail the Save by 20 or more, then you suffer Horror. You are frozen in place, unable to take your eyes off the horrible thing you have seen. You are doomed and you know you can’t do anything to prevent it. You cannot take any actions until you recover.
Chase saves are made during chases on foot, in vehicles or in spacecraft. Each round of a chase the target and the pursuer make opposed skill checks and the loser of the opposed check has to make a Chase save against the environmental risk TN. The more dangerous the environment which the chase is taking place in, the higher the TN. Driving down a highway is less risky than driving the wrong way down a highway!
- If you fail the Save, then you have a Collision and must make an appropriate damage save.
- If you fail the Save by 10 or more then you have a Crash and you must make a more difficult damage save.
- If you fail the Save by 20 or more, then you are Caught. The chase comes to a premature end and your opponent has won.
A dramatic conflict is used to resolve tense manhunts, careful hacking, bold infiltration, dangerous interrogation and large scale battles. The process is similar to Chases, but the TN is set by the degree of Peril rather than an environment. Infiltration by getting in with the cleaning staff takes longer to accomplish than a brazen challenge to the boss at a social event, but the peril TN is considerably lower! Similarly attempting to evade a manhunt in the wilds has a lower TN for failure than attempting to hide in plain site in the midst of those searching for you.
- If you fail the Save, then you have a Crisis.
- If you fail the Save by 10 or more then you have a Disaster.
- If you fail the Save by 20 or more, then you are Catastrophe.
The specific meaning of each of those results depends upon the dramatic conflict in question – but rest assured, if it sounds worse it is worse.
You may be called upon to make a Stun save as a result of unarmed combat, stunners, environmental threats or drugs amongst other things. The more you fail the save by, the more restricted you are in terms of the actions you can accomplish. Recovery from Stun is quicker and easier than recovery from Lethal damage.
- If you fail the Save, then you are Staggered. You cannot take “double actions” until recovered.
- If you fail the Save by 10 or more then you are Stunned. You are knocked prone and only have one action each round until recovered.
- If you fail the Save by 20 or more, then you are Unconscious. You pass out and cannot take any actions until you recover.
You may be called upon to make a Lethal damage save as a result of armed combat, poison and most other sources of harm. The base TN depends upon the weapon used or source of harm.
- If you fail the Save, then you are Injured. You cannot take “double actions” until recovered.
- If you fail the Save by 10 or more then you are Wounded. You are knocked prone and only have one action each round until recovered.
- If you fail the Save by 20 or more, then you are Dying. You pass out and cannot take any actions until you recover.
You have places on your character sheet to mark conditions you are suffering. If you fail a save and you already have that condition checked on your character sheet, then you mark the next most serious position in that damage track.
So if you received a nasty kick and failed your Stun save, making you you Staggered and then the other bad guy smashes a chair over your back and you fail the save again – the Staggeredposition is already marked, so you mark the next condition down and you are Stunned even though you only just failed the Saving Throw again. If you subsequently fail again before you have had the chance to recover any stun damage, you will be Unconscious.
The precise mechanism for removing marks from any of your Save condition tracks varies depending upon which kind of save it is. The general rule is that you have to remove the most serious condition first on any given track, working your way back up to the least serious condition.
The Design of NPCs
The NPC (or Non-Player Character) is a crucial part of almost any role playing game. It is someone with agency just like the characters which the players are running, but it doesn’t belong to any of them. It is run by the referee instead.
Often it isn’t necessary to have much written down about the NPCs game statistics. It is only when some kind of conflict seems likely that you may want to have some statistics to hand. Ideally these would be fairly straightforward to use and easy to scale to allow for threats at different levels of the game.
I’ve had experiences in some other RPGs where creating an NPC was a long, tedious job, and making them appropriate as antagonists at different stages of the game could be even more time consuming. So I wanted to make sure that the NPCs in Starguild were easy to pick up and use, and very easy to modify as foes with different degrees of difficulty.
The following picture (and the single page downloadable pdf) shows one page from the ready to use NPCs. The basic stats are for Novice (level 0) characters.
How to read the sheet
At the top of each is the generic name, and a brief discussion of what that kind of person is, what they normally do.
Then you have three columns, one each for Passion, Intellect and Physique. Next to that is the ability bonus associated with that ability. This is used for making any untrained skill checks associated with that ability.
The second row shows the basic saves for each ability. If they are wearing any armour or have any general bonus to saves this number will be higher than the ability bonus. There might be an * to indicate that they have a save specialty which will be expanded upon in the notes (e.g. the Rancher has a save specialty against Coercion. Her normal social save is +0, but it is +5 against attempts to coerce her, whether through intimidation or taunting.
The third broad row shows trained skills under their appropriate ability, with the +5 bonus for being trained already included.
The Notes row includes any skill specialty, save specialty, social edge which increase the TN of a social attack, or any other relevant advance which that generic type of NPC has.
The Conflict row shows, in order, the kind of conflict actions which that particular NPC is likely to take should conflict arise. You can see that the Suit will normally start with Sow Distrust, moving to Dissemble and ultimately Peacemaker if they have to. Ranchers on the other hand are likely to start with intimidate, and then move to their revolver, with their knife as a backup weapon. In each case it gives the total bonus to skill checks and the TN for the save to avoid consequences for each attack form.
Increasing their level
Since these start as level 0 Novices, moving these up to any level is simple. You just add the desired level to their ability bonus, saves, trained skills, specialties, Conflict attacks and conflict TN. For experienced NPCs you would add +2 or +3. For Veteran NPCs you would add +4 or +5. For Elite NPCs you would add +6 or +7. For Legendary NPCs you would add +8 or +9.