Sunday, April 3, 2022

Ages of Life

I'm now middle-age. I've developed an interest in ways of folding this experience into gaming. In particular, I've become interested in the starting age of player characters, less the aging process over the long term and more what it means to pick up and play a character of different ages, although I would be very interested to see serious attempts to bring that into gaming. 

Here are some features of aging from my own experience that seem possibly relevant to starting characters. I don't want to suggest these are universal, but they're certainly some aspects of how aging feels to me. 

  • I know more than I did when I was young, having acquired greater skills, both in terms of breadth and depth. I've even learned from some of my mistakes. 
  • I have developed deep relationships that take time to develop, including parenting children and building a marriage and some very long lasting friendships, although I've lost many more friendships to drift and family relationships too over the years in some cases to death. 
  • Although I'm lucky to be about as healthy overall as I was when I am young,  my body is subject to constant injuries and indignities that remind me I can't handle what I used to. I'm very aware that pushing it physically might injure me. Even when I'm doing something rugged, I feel fragile. 
  • Mortality is on the brain. I can survey all too clearly the delimited vista of the finite time remaining to me. For this reason, I am forced to accept that there are a lot of things I'm just not going to get to do in this life. 
  • This is part of the reason that I no longer have a shapeless and endless hunger to learn and experience new things. I know I have to pick and choose. 
  • I have a vivid sense of how hard it would be to pick up and start something altogether new this late in life, especially a career. I have always felt profound admiration for people who do this late in life, but now I can vividly imagine what that would take, especially when it would involve starting something new alongside those who are young, as beginning a new career at the bottom inevitably would. "I'm too old for this sh**," is a sentiment I get.  

I'm sure there's a lot more I could say that could be relevant to gaming, for example about intergenerational relationships, understanding better where my elders were coming from than I could when I was young, and a lot of other things. But this will do for now.

With this stuff in mind, let's look at the way a few old school or OSR systems handle the starting age of player characters. 

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1E

In AD&D 1E there are five age categories (DMG pp. 12-13): young adult (15-20), mature (20-40), middle-aged (40-60), old (61-90), and venerable (91-120). Starting age is determined randomly at character generation based on your class, which give you a base starting age a die roll on top of that. For example, a fighter is 15 + 1d4 years old, whereas a magic-user is 24 + 2d8 years old. 

Given the starting ages and ranges specified, if you're a fighter or a thief it's fixed that you'll be a young adult, close to maturity. If you're a cleric, monk, or ranger you will be mature. And if you are a magic user you will be mature, possibly within striking distance of being middle-aged. In this system, the effect of the age categories is solely to modify your stats, like so. 

Young Adult: -1 Wisdom, +1 Constitution
Mature: +1 Constitution, +1 Strength
Middle-aged: +1 Wisdom, +1 intelligence
Old: -2 Strength, -2 Constitution, -1 Dexterity, +2 Wisdom, +1 Intelligence
Venerable: -3 Strength, -3 Constitution, -2 Dexterity, +3 Wisdom, +2 Intelligence

Why do different classes start at different set ages? I assume because we assume people start "training" for their class in childhood. It takes longer to learn to be a wizard, but not very long to learn to be a fighter or thief. By this logic, if your fighter or thief were older, they would be higher than 1st level. 

I find these choices unnecessarily confining. They bake some boring choices about worldbuilding into character generation. Why assume that everyone is training from youth? Can't an adult like Bilbo become a robber when some dwarves unexpectedly knock on his door? Can't someone pick up arms later in life after having done something else? And why assume that "wizard training" takes decades? Can't someone start as a young apprentice magician, like Ged? Or as a young monk? 

Furthermore, the effect of belonging to an age category is solely an effect on base ability scores. There's some truth to this, insofar as my constitution is not what it once was, and perhaps I'm a little wiser than I used to be. But there's an awful lot it leaves out. This system is not about the life the character has already built as someone mature before they begin adventuring, with their acquired relationship, resources, and skills. Nor is it about the advantages of youth, the hunger for new experiences, boundless vitality. Nor are the penalties for aging about one's relation to mortality, or about the difficulty of starting something new, or about what one has lost and left behind at that age, and so on.

Given the  effects of belonging to an age category, we can't just fix the prior problem by allowing players to choose their character's starting age, because all that will do mechanically speaking is encourage min/maxing. Since the only effect is on stats, fighters will choose maturity, and magic users and clerics middle or even old age. The effects of age just aren't very interesting, with optimum trade-offs for each class based on their favored ability score.  

Although these rules were published when Gary Gygax was 41 years old, they don't really strike me as the kinds of rules someone who had personal experience of aging would write. Or at the very least they seem close to the least interesting possible translation of that experience into game terms. 


In Traveller, the starting age of your character is determined entirely by the clever career mini-game that's involved in character generation. In the system presented in Book 1, everyone is basically ex-military. At the start of the process your character is age 18 and has no skills. (Your stats are determined by 2d6 down the line.) The character generation minigame follows you career through the service until you "muster out". 

You enlist or are drafted into one of the branches of the military for 4 year terms, with a roll to determine if you have the chance to re-enlist at the end of each term. So the minimum starting age for a character is 22 if they are unlucky enough to fail to re-enlist even once. Each 4 year term you serve comes with at least one new skill (often multiple skill) and possible chances to be promoted, which brings additional skills and benefits when you muster out at the end of your service. But each 4 year term also comes with a non-negligible chance of being killed, with a greater probability in the more dangerous branches of service. 

If you manage to re-enlist three times, getting yourself to starting age 34, you check to see whether various stats decrease. For each term you re-enlist you check for further decline of stats, meaning that as you manage to survive and climb through a successful military career into the 4th, 5th, 6th, or even 7th term (very rare), your stats are likely declining along the way. On a 2d6 system, each point lost is significant!  

When you muster out or retire you get benefits based on how many terms you served, and what your rank is at the time you leave. You might leave with a large load of cash, or free passage on a starship, or with a fat pension that pays out annually, or if you enlisted as a merchant, even a ship of your very own. The importance of the skills gained through winning at these gambles and so aging is amplified by the fact that Traveler has no real character advancement mechanic. So the skills one has at the start of the game are very likely the skills one has throughout the campaign. As a result, being older is MUCH better than being younger, although it may come with some decline in stats.

The end effect of all of this is that aging represents successful advancement along a career trajectory that involves training and access to more resources. It is a pure positive up until 30. To age is to have increasing skills, respect, and financial resources. Past 30 one faces trade-offs with randomized stat loss, but the effects are likely still quite positive.The mini-game aspect means that one is invited to gamble, pushing length of service against the possibility of being killed in service, which nicely represents the hazards of a lengthy term of service in certain branches of the military, or against losing stats if you manage to re-enlist a whole bunch of times. 

Mortality figures in this system, but only in terms of death in character generation. Physical decline is rolled into the gambling aspect of the system in pleasing ways. But the primary driver is the idea of how important it is to have had a successful military career before you start adventuring. Although Traveller does not have levels or experience points, to be an older starting character in Traveller is essentially to start as what would be in other systems a higher level character in a system without any real possibility of further advancement. All the leveling happens in the game happens before you get to the table.

I like the Traveller system a lot. But for one thing it's focused on an ex-military style game, and works less well outside of that context. And for another, it represents aging in a way that is relentlessly positive. If you've managed to live this long, then you're likely to be that much more formidable. Because what you used to do is super relevant to the new career you're embarking on, the skills translate seamlessly. Think how different the system would be if the four year terms represented stages in your career in a secretarial pool, moving up a corporate ladder, or as a teamster. 

Beyond the Wall

Beyond the wall is interesting on age (actually, on almost everything). Since it takes its flavor from coming of age fantasy books like The Chronicles of Prydain, or The Wizard of Earthsea, the default assumption is that the player characters are youths who are just coming to adulthood. However, Beyond the Wall: Heroes Young and Old introduces the possibility of playing an older character. 

Beyond the Wall, like Traveller, uses a lifepath character generation minigame. Unlike Traveller, the lifepath in Beyond the Wall includes collaborative setting creation. Character generation begins by picking a class. You then select a playbook, which tells you what background you have. So, for example, if you are a fighter, you might pick between the "village hero" or "would be knight". This playbook assigns you starting stats (e.g. the village hero has 10 on strength and constitution and 8 on everything else). It then comes bundled with a set of tables that tell you about experiences you've had, and what you've gained (or lost) from them. Some of these tables are shared across playbooks representing facts about childhood, and some are playbook specific. As you roll on these tables your stats will go up and you will also acquire various skills. 

The tables also serve to introduce NPCs who are meaningful to you, and give you the chance to contribute facts about the starting village for the campaign. Importantly, they also involve a mechanic whereby the player character to your right shared certain experiences with you that affect both of you. So your final stats and skills from a record of experiences that get weaved together with locations, NPCs, and facts about the setting that you develop together through character generation. It also explains how the party members are tied to one another through shared coming of age experiences.

Instead of quantifying age numerically, Heroes Young and Old folds age into class selection by introducing a separate elder playbook for each class. The assumption seems to be that there will be at most one elder in the group. The elder begins at 2nd level. They share the same common tables with the youths, but their playbook-specific tables introduce novel materials. One table represents an adult relation to another person in the village, subtly different than the the playbooks of youths. Another discusses the characters previous adventures, or past military experience, or mastery of sorcery that brought them to 2nd level. The final one explains how the player to their right became their pupil. So these tables introduce an intergenerational connection, and it assumes that your elder character is a mentor to one of the other player characters, and likely by extension to the group as a whole.

Given the coming of age focus of the game, Beyond the Wall: Heroes Young and Old introduces a subtle and interesting use of age as a mechanic. It represents the aged as more experienced and skilled than the young, and it gives both the character and the group a subtly different relation to the world of adults. It also ties the party together with intergenerational bonds, by representing the older character as a mentor to one of the younger characters. To balance all this out, it gives them character slightly lower stats over all, perhaps in some way to represent what they've lost along the way, or perhaps merely for the sake of game balance. 


One assumption that Traveller and Beyond the Wall share is that characters who are older have already had experience adventuring. This is implicit in the AD&D rules as well insofar as the assumption is that you've been training since childhood, and your starting age is determined by class on the basis of how long that training took. If you could start older in AD&D, you would logically start the game further down the same path, i.e. at a higher level

Note that things go in a very different, and potentially more interesting, direction if we assume that all starting characters are 1st level characters with 0 experience, but we nonetheless allow them to be different starting ages. In that case, you can start the game as a middle-aged apprentice wizard, or as an aged spinster newly turned to thievery. This of course raises the question what these older characters were doing before they started adventuring.

One thing that Traveller and Beyond the Wall do well is give play to the idea that an older character brings with them the experience, relationships, and knowledge they gained throughout life. I like that and want to hold onto that. But if we ditch the assumption that this takes the form of a previous adventuring (or a military) career,  what you bring to the table will have to be something different than what you get through increasing experience in your new class. In terms of downsides, perhaps we could capture the feeling, or anxiety involved in feeling too old to start afresh, especially among younger people. 

One thing that all three systems fail to do pretty much anything with is the sense of physical frailty and mortality that comes with aging. The closest they come is simply decrease starting attributes. This just sort of makes your character worse. It doesn't bring home mortality or vulnerability in any very strong way. Traveller does, of course, have the wager against death in service, but that's a vulnerability that exists only during character generation, i.e. offstage. Is there some more interesting way we could bring the sense of mortality and physical vulnerability into play?

A New System for Ages of Life

When you generate your character, select one of three ages of life: youth, adult, or aging. Each has benefits and drawbacks. 

These mechanics use a new saving throw against death that I took this saving throw from Gus L's HMS Apollyon Player's Guide. The way it works is this. When a character falls to 0 hit points or below, they roll a save against death by rolling 1d20 trying to hit the target number specified by their save. If they make it (roll equal or higher to the target number) they return to 1 hit point immediately and may continue acting, but their save permanently goes up by 1 point, becoming harder to make each time. If they fail, their character dies. (As an aside, this mechanic introduces a wonderful sense of drama at the table. Everything stops for that single roll, with all eyes riveted to the d20 clattering across the table. It's the most high-stakes roll anyone could make.)  

The system also uses a bonus to experience points. It is intended to replace rather than complement the "prime requisite" mechanic from older editions of D&D. (Additional XP for high stats is boring, especially where high stats already bring substantial other benefits.) 

Finally, the system refers to skills. I actually find it works best in games that don't have a skill system or have very freeform systems. However you resolve such matters, it's important that you treat the skill seriously. The starting skills possessed are a whole range of things connected to a line of work that represent serious knowledge about that subject matter derived from training and long experience. 


You have the vitality and hunger for experience of youth. You are adaptable and learn quickly like a sponge. But you have not done much in life yet. What you know is mainly what skills your class provides you.
  • Death Save: 8
  • + 10% on all experience points gained


You had a trade before becoming an adventurer. The skills from your past life may come in handy from time to time.

  • Death Save: 10
  • Choose a former profession. You are skilled in all matters pertaining to that profession. Begin with the tools of your trade, whatever those might be. These can be substantial and valuable. A trainer of horses might have a horse, a jeweler might have jewel cutting tools and small bag of cut gems, a midwife might carry tinctures, herbs, and other medicinal remedies. 


You had another life before becoming an adventurer. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but you bring more to the table than your younger comrades.

  • Death Save: 12
  • -10% on all experience points gained
  • Choose a former profession. You are skilled in all matters pertaining to that profession. Begin with the tools of your trade, whatever those might be. These can be substantial and valuable.  
  • Begin with one loyal companion. This companion could be an animal, like a hunting dog, trained monkey, or horse; or a a human companion: a fastidious butler, bodyguard, thug, or sub-apprentice. If they are an animal, they are attuned to your reactions and cleverly trained to follow simple instructions the way a remarkable dog or horse might be so trained. If they are a human they may be the equivalent of a skilled hireling. Either way, this companion is utterly loyal and need not make morale checks. Describe the nature of your character's bond with this companion. If they are human are they your son or daughter? Or a very old friend? Someone who was in your service in the older profession?  

I have now playtested this system a bit. In play, it allows players to trade off flavor and backstory for the character against the straightforward mechanical benefits of youth, and also allows you to build some "character concept" even in systems that work with very basic class selections. It also induces a vivid sense of mortality, since the number for the death save looms so large at the table. 

Of 6 PCs to date, we had one wonderful aged character, a fighter named Jonah who had been a sea preacher in a former life. His loyal companion was a seagull. We have also had several adults, including one cleric of Mother Winter who had been a midwife in her previous career. Her skills in herbalism and medicinal remedies frequently came in handy. It's been a lot of fun, especially since I'm playing at the table with folks who themselves range from adults to aged. 

Have you seen starting age handled in interesting ways in other RPGs? How about the aging process during play? What other good materials are out there for thinking about how to meaningful incorporate this basic dimension of human experience into our games? Drop it in the comments.