RPGs are marvelous things, with many strange twists and permutations, yet as different as they can be, nearly all of them have certain core concepts in common, and one of the most core concepts is character generation. Building a character is a rite of passage, and when done right it can be one of the best parts of playing a game. However, there’s always some weird stuff that sneaks in on the periphery, and this list includes some of the strangest. It couldn’t possibly be complete, so feel free to add your own favorite bits in the comments.
1. Go To Jail or Die (Traveller)
Characters in Traveller are expected to be seasoned adventurers, to the point that some versions require you to make rolls to survive your pregame adventures. Traveller New Era had several career paths that could result in jail time, for instance. Some harsher versions could literally let you be killed before you even play, such as MegaTraveller. It’s a very strange experience to lose your character before the game. You don’t hear about D&D Rangers getting killed in a freak companion training incident, for example. Still, it does create an opportunity to mock those to whom it happens, which is valuable in and of itself.
2. Jail Isn’t So Bad (Traveller New Era)
Traveller New Era allowed periodic opportunities to raise your attributes, which, generally speaking, is pretty rare in RPGs of that era. One of the best ways to do it was to fail a roll as a Corsair or miscellaneous Criminal and end up in jail, where you apparently take some weight training classes. Usually when I made a New Era character I was hoping to get in jail to get that strength boost. It was a little bit of a cheat, and theoretically stigmatizing, but you could always rehabilitate yourself afterwards by becoming a Martial Arts instructor (and getting a sweet agility bonus to go with your strength).
3. Why Not Try Pyromania? (GURPS 4th Edition)
GURPS allows you to gain points by taking Disadvantages for your character, but some of them have some strange costs. Taking Hard of Hearing gains you ten points, while being epileptic gains you 30. Fair enough so far, but one has always bothered me. Being a full pyromaniac who could compulsively set fires at any time is only worth 5 points, the same as being overconfident (like most player characters) or feeling a sense of duty to your actual friends. Apparently GURPS writers think most people play in a way where things are being lit on fire at random anyway. This is not my experience, but who knows.
4. Hooray, You Can Read! Sort Of. (GURPS 3rd Edition)
GURPS is often very dedicated to authenticity, particularly in past editions. Thus, the Semi-Literate advantage sort of makes sense. Still, there’s something really funny to me about someone only wanting to half be able to read. As in, you really could have just bought literacy but decided to cheap out and go halfway. Also, the idea that you’re playing a game and no one can read but one person, and then there’s someone else who can sort of fake it with some extra time seems hilariously overcomplicated.
5. Gypsies Are Totally Liars (World of Darkness: Gypsies)
Now, these days, when the term “gypsy” is becoming pretty loaded to some, you probably wouldn’t see this in a book. This is from a simpler time, the mid ’90s, before people were as much on that wavelength. However, one should remember that the Romani are real people who might even pick up an RPG book by a major publisher. If they did and saw the ability “Truth Of the Rom,” which represented their apparent racial ability to lie to authority figures, they might get a little offended.
6. Gypsies Are Lucky (World of Darkness: Gypsies)
Now, calling someone lucky is less questionable than saying they have racially inherited super lying abilities. Still, it’s a little odd because, like the Irish, they actually have a pretty nasty history full of fleeing oppression. I’m not sure where the magic luck comes from. It’s also funny because the first level of the power is “you find pennies on sidewalks.” Yes, your character can get free pennies with their magic luck powers. You’ll never go without those tiny Chiclets packs again!
7. Technology is Magical (Dark Heresy: Second Edition)
Dark Heresy is a Warhammer 40K product, and thus is known for over-the-top descriptions, and having the blackest of black senses of humor. For instance, the Stablight. What is it? Well, the description is “Just as the Inquisition acts as a light against soul-devouring darkness, so these small portable lamps act against the physical darkness of night.” In other words, it’s just a flashlight with an oddly-threatening name and a small mound of descriptive text. Thus is the way with Dark Heresy, which in fairness does have a theme of being in a dark age of technology, to the point that people probably literally worship flashlights as having magical light-up powers.
8. You’ll Never Be the Star (Dark Heresy, First Edition)
The first Edition of Dark Heresy featured Acolytes working for a reclusive Inquisitor that they might never have even met. It took a bit of an exception to the usual zero-to-hero RPG narrative in that now matter how powerful your character became, he or she was always attached to their origins. This is to say that there was no way to become an Inquisitor yourself, or really gain any traction in the Inquisition. No matter what you did, you were still second banana. This was changed two years later when a book finally came out detailing how to make/become an Inquisitor. On the plus side, Second Edition put the rules in the first book, so clearly the authors agree this was a bit weird.
9. Skills? We Don’t Need Skills. (13th Age)
13th Age is a bit of an RPG hybrid, a game that marries some of the loosy-goosy story-first approach with a more tactical/gritty genre, which is to say D&D style games. One of the clunkier bits in D&D-style games is the treatment of skills, which tend to create a giant mesh of pluses, bonuses and add a whole lot of thought to questions like whether or not you can climb a wall or sneak past a guard. 13th Age takes a different approach to this with Backgrounds. Basically, instead of Climb +5 and Stealth +3, you have something like Famous Gladiator +2. The weirdness here is that you can choose any background that remotely makes sense, so things like Underwear Stealing Pervert +2 or Serial Axe Murderer +4 are options (actually I’ve seen characters that would probably have the second a few times).
10. Just Make One Part Up (13th Age)
This rule is actually sort of brilliant but it’s also dangerously open-ended. In 13th Age, each character has One Unique Thing about them, something that makes them different from literally everyone else. This can be anything, and the GM is supposed to be accommodating of them. Does your character have a clockwork cybernetic arm? Minor super powers? A divine parent? Whatever it is, you can write it on your sheet and everyone can try to figure it out in play. It’s subversive and fun, but crazy enough that it deserves to be on this list because it can be anything at all and take the game absolutely anywhere.
11. Dragon or Hobo? (RIFTS)
RIFTS is a very old game that has been published continuously for about twenty-five years, refusing all the while to release a new edition of the game. This means that there are some seriously weird and outdated rules in these books so it is hard to choose just one. Probably the biggest, weirdest rule to a modern RPG player is the fact that character options are completely unbalanced. In the original book, you could be a mech pilot, a scientist who can tell stories about the past, a wandering hobo, or a dragon. Yes, a dragon. Able to literally tear other characters apart and usually having some magic and psionics to boot. Later books made this even weirder as superheroes and demigods joined the milieu along with bartenders and professional gamblers. Be good at palming cards or wield a large assortment of super powers? It’s a tough choice!
12. Choose Your Vice (RIFTS)
RIFTS also has some characters that gain powers in exchange for their sanity. It’s a cool story-telling device and these can be fun characters to play (if potentially a little stigmatizing by making insane people look like violent cartoons). The important part, though, is your specific limitation. One is a power food, so your character can have to eat spinach to get super-strong. Oddly enough, this list included Twinkies, probably based on the urban legend that Twinkies never go bad because RIFTS is post apocalyptic. This can make your character an obsessive Twinkie hound, almost twenty years before Zombieland‘s Tallahassee existed. The really funny part is that apparently they received many grouchy letters and emails from Twinkie fans, enough that a revised printing on the core book contains a lengthy explanation that your character isn’t eating old Twinkies. Instead, someone found an old Twinkie factory that happened to be intact and thus Twinkies are now popular in the post apocalypse and easily found. Retcon!
13. It Doesn’t Make Sense (Star Wars: Edge of the Empire)
Actually playing Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is a lot of fun because it eschews normal dice mechanics for custom dice in varying amounts. That is to say, you have both bad dice and good dice and if something is very hard you add more bad dice to your dice pool before rolling. In actual play it works really well because there are a lot of possible results to rolling dice, way more than the usual yes or no with degrees of success you usually see. Unfortunately, for character generation, it has a frustration factor as the book doesn’t really explain itself well. You have abilities like trading one yellow dice for a green dice, taking out one black dice, or adding a blue dice. Which of these three color swaps is better? It’s really not clear, and the book doesn’t seem to even try to explain. So basically you just end up guessing.
14. Buy This Book or Suck (Star Wars: Edge of the Empire)
RPG supplements have a certain reputation for making player characters more powerful than the basic books do. There is a lot of truth to this, as later books add more options and abilities, which GMs can have some trouble keeping up with. Edge of Empire takes the interesting tactic of totally embracing power creep with Signature Abilities. They are explicitly designed to be more powerful abilities that can only be taken by experienced players. The main issue with this is the fact that each supplement covers one character class and they haven’t yet managed to release books for each class, which means that some classes have their most powerful abilities and some don’t. Also, people who buy more books have better powers. So it goes, I guess.
15. The System Hates You (Pathfinder)
The makers of the original 3rd Edition D&D rules that Pathfinder is based on deliberately put suboptimal options into the game so that as people learned the system, they could pick better stuff and feel better about themselves as a result. These days this style of character generation system is less popular, but not unknown. Regardless, Pathfinder keeps this tradition alive with character archetypes that trade core abilities for useless ones or feats that have no real benefit. Many, many Rogue abilities give away Trapfinding, which makes your character being a Rogue feel questionable. There are also weird bits like a Paladin giving up their save bonus for learning an additional language, which would be a strange choice, to say the least, as it’s one of the main benefits of the class.
16. My Friend, the Tumor (Pathfinder)
On the other hand, Pathfinder does give you the ability to have a tumor that serves in all ways as a regular familiar, save that it likes to climb in your body and sleep there. I once played a game with a guy who has a tumor/hawk familiar that would climb out of his body and scout every new town we came to. He also had a dinosaur, because we were playing Pathfinder. Did I mention he was a giant mouse?
As Vampires get older, they gain more blood potency. The only problem is that the more powerful you are, the more drawbacks you have. Probably the worst is that every time you run into a Vampire, you have to check your potency levels against each other. Higher Blood Potency types will attack lower potency, and lower potency types will run away. Being as the second is embarrassing but not per se dangerous, it is usually the better option. Running away doesn’t lead as easily to getting arrested or being jumped by someone else’s friends. Fortunately, they got rid of this unintentionally hilarious rule that made chance encounters into fistfights and disrupted boss battles by forcing people to run away in Second Edition.
18. You Have No Friends (Vampire: The Requiem, 2nd Edition)
Vampire: the Requiem has always been a socially-based game, so advantages like Allies, Patrons, and Contacts are common. Vampire is also a dark game where people tend to get screwed over by associates, so the rule in Second Edition is that you can pay 3 merit points (30% of your starting total) in addition to the cost of a social advantage to say the person in question is actually your friend and won’t be out to get you. This actually makes total sense within the context of the game but it’s funny to realize that your character has no friends and usually won’t unless you pay a hefty cost.
19. Hide Your Insomnia (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons)
Non Weapon Proficiencies in AD&D were an optional rule at first, then later expanded more and more until they became an ill-fated point based system (more on this a bit later). Since they were technically optional they weren’t always well thought out, which explains a lot, but still a few deserve calling out. For instance, Feign/Detect Sleep. Yes, your character is especially good at pretending to be asleep or knowing when other people are pretending to be asleep. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t come up too often in most games that I’ve played. But I guess if it ever did, there would be rules for it…which is sort of a plus?
20. Options for Breaking the System (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons)
This was an attempt to make AD&D a more generic/point-based system and it was pretty awful. For instance, a Fighter with 17 strength could drop their strength for carrying equipment down to a still-respectable 15 and then have a 19 strength for hitting opponents, which put them up with small giants and made them absolute monsters in combat. On the other hand, a Wizard could pay a bunch of points to be really bad at using a sword “like Gandalf.” Also, just for fun, there were custom Cleric rules where they could do basically anything from learning Thief skills to gaining Wizard spells to gaining a Fighter’s Extraordinary strength because AD&D loves Clerics, not that that ever really seemed to change. Still, it was horrible, nonsensical and probably led to the rigid and carefully planned rules of 3rd Edition, for better or worse.