Some game systems have rules built in for character aging. Others don’t.

Some of those aging rules function gracefully. Others don’t, or are shockingly clumsy.

This post is all about how I handle character aging in my campaigns – gracefully and relatively painlessly.

The Harbinger Of Aging

Quite early on in my GMing career, I wrote up some sophisticated aging rules for AD&D, which took the rather loose guidelines provided in the PHB and DMG and turned them into a functional system. A couple of the key features of the system were:

My original system for aging

Aging checks

There were no automatic “X years older gives X points of stat loss”. Instead, characters made a CON-based saving roll against a target based on their age and history. If they failed, it indicated a characteristic loss or other ageing symptom. On a critical failure, this occurred immediately and permanently. If they succeeded, the size of the next potential characteristic loss increased, and the target for the next check became harder to achieve, but there was otherwise no effect. If they got a critical success, the target for the next check still became harder, but there was no other impact.

Shrinking intervals

These age checks took place at intervals across the entire average lifespan of the race in question that steadily declined in size. When characters first started adventuring, they could look forward to making their first check in about a decade, game time, for humans, about 50 years for Dwarves, etc. These intervals would gradually get shorter until they became once a year, at which point the rate of increase would slow eventually becoming twice a year, then three times, and so on.

In fact, it was tracked as the number of days until the next check.

Modifiers

There were all sorts of modifiers – to the number of days until the next check, to the number of days since the last check, to the target required for success, and to the size of the potential impact of a failure. Each night spent “roughing it” while adventuring counted as two days toward the next check, for example – hard living brought aging forward – but it also counted as a day of exercise, and every ten days spent exercising between intervals improved the chance of success by 1%. Each day spent in decadent luxury counted as three days towards the next check, but also counted as a day of rest. If you rested ten days in a row, you negated the extra days accrued by ten days hard adventuring.

In particular, each time that the character was reduced to 25% hit points was counted as an extra day; each time the character was reduced to 10% hit points or less counted as two extra days.

Warning Niggles

The system was set up to reward an appropriate “work-life balance” long before the term came into vogue. After each adventure, the characters needed to rest – how badly they needed to rest, and for how long, were dependant on the character’s constitution. If characters rested too long, they would get out of condition. Both of these would result in “warning niggles” – passing mention of an ingrown toenail, a stiff back in the mornings, and the like. As an aging check approached, this would also be signaled by a series of warning niggles.

Abandoning this subsystem

This particular aging subsystem didn’t last beyond my first couple of campaigns (I’m a little surprised that I remember it so clearly). But its legacy lives on in the approach that I use for aging in my current campaigns. (NB: this is the first time they’ve ever been codified in writing)…

Growing Old Gracefully

I always felt that growing older didn’t change the personality or expectations of a person. They still wanted to do the same things as they were doing twenty years earlier, but no matter how willing the spirit was, the flesh was weak; an accumulation of little niggles handicapped the ability. Having aged a few decades since first formulating the aging subsystem discussed above, I stand by that perception. I don’t feel 49 years old – I feel 25 with encumbrances that prevent me from acting like I was 25.

Another part of the aging process is learning to manage those encumbrances. Compromising how much I do, how hard I work, permits me to achieve more in the long run by not aggravating the various infirmities that have accumulated. Compromising how I do things slightly – relying less on my own memory, for example, and more on my ability to take reminder notes – is actually more efficient because I spend less time getting up to speed each time I resume a task. My particular case is compromised by a degenerative ailment, but the principles are the same – the tolerances are just tighter.

I don’t run any more, for example. My knees and back won’t permit it, save in cases of emergency. That doesn’t mean that I can’t do it – just that the price of that type and level of exertion would cost me more in lost capacity in the long run. I stop and rest after walking a few city blocks, if I can – not because I can’t walk any further, but because doing so will leave me bedridden the next day. At the same time, there are limits to how far I can walk comfortably, and exceeding them not only causes distress and reduced capacity for some months afterwards, part of that loss is permanent.

Aging, then, is an accumulation of niggles, and an increasing cost of performing activities, and a diminution of the ability to recover.

Life Increments

My whole approach to aging is somewhat different, these days. I no longer enforce stat loss on characters, instead suggesting that the players make appropriate adjustments. They key to determining how many such adjustments are needed is the concept of Life Increments:

Life Increment = (Average Lifespan – Age of maturity)/20,
+0.5 for each physical stat 16-20
+1 for each physical stat 21-25
+1.5 for each physical stat 26-30, and so on;
-0.25 for each physical stat 6-10,
-0.5 for each physical stat 4-5,
-0.75 for each physical stat 2-3,
-1 for each physical stat 0-1 (D&D scales, adjust as necessary for other game systems).

Physical stats in D&D are STR, DEX, CON, CHAR.

EG Generic D&D Human:
Life Increment = (65-25)/20 = 40/20 = 2 years. So every 2 years after they achieve maturity is an additional 5% of their allotted span.

EG2: D&D Human with STR 18, DEX 15, INT 22, WIS 14, CON 16, CHAR 16:
Life Increment = 2 +0.5 (STR) +0.5 (CON) +0.5 (CHAR) = 3.5. So every 3.5 years after they achieve maturity is an additional 5% of their allotted span, gone.

When the appropriate time comes, I simply inform the player, “Your character is another 5% older than he was” and ask how they think that will affect the character’s stats. As part of the process of justifying their decisions, I will also usually characterize what the character has been doing for that time – “Adventuring too hard too often”, “maintaining a reasonable balance between rest and adventuring”, “spending too much time sitting down and arguing politics with the king and not enough exercising”, and so on. In general, there will be minimal changes until the character is about 50% old. I keep track of the number of life increments consumed.

Why this is better: No rolls, easy to calculate, rarely consumes game or prep time, very fast.

Serious Injuries

Every time a character drops to 10% of their hit points or less, assuming they survive, their life increments drop by 10%, and I add another life increment to the “consumed” tally. So the character gets 5% older prematurely, and their overall lifespan reduces. This is regardless of any healing that may be done and represents accumulated wear and tear. However, a character gets a number of these as “freebies” equal to their CON bonus (D&D scale), minimum of zero. The serious injuries count resets at zero each time the total triggers an adjustment.

Why this is better: No rolls, easy to track, minimal time & effort required, but still very responsive to individual circumstances.

Going Hard

Another key component of my current approach is the need to rest after any period of prolonged exertion. Every 2 days of adventuring or rough living adds one day to the total rest required to get rid of the accumulated discomforts and niggles that have built up.

Every 2+CON BONUS (D&D scale) days that the character has spent adventuring counts as 1 day that they need to rest. Before they can start counting rest days toward this total, they first need to rest for 1 day for every life increment they have lived.

Hard living adds discomforts to daily life, which are expressed as Niggles. On the assumption that a character will be more attuned to changes in their highest stat(s) and more susceptible to changes in their weakest stat(s), I will choose a niggle appropriately.

These niggles arrive at Niggle Intervals.

Niggle Interval (D&D scale) = 4 + CON – Life Increments consumed, minimum 1.

Eg CON 12, Age in Life Increments 4 gives Niggle Interval = 12 days.
Eg CON 12, Age in Life Increments 12 gives Niggle Interval = 4+12-12 = 4 days.
Eg CON 17, Age in Life Increments 12 gives Niggle Interval = 4+17-12 = 9 days.

Each niggle received reduces the Niggle interval by 1. So the next niggle arrives a day sooner. When the interval gets to zero, the character needs to rest (if he hasn’t done so before then). When he rests for long enough, the Niggles go away and the Niggle Interval resets.

Combat Effects of Niggles

None, nada, zip. Niggles are strictly a roleplaying cue. But as a character gets older, they will arrive more quickly, and give the impression of an older character. See also “Long-term consdequences” below.

Resting

Resting means loafing around for a day. In the wilderness, even in an idyllic location, each day counts as only half a day for resting purposes. In a civilized environment (eg an Inn), Spartan accommodations also only count as half a day, while luxury counts as a-day-and-a-half. Luxury accommodations in an idyllic location might count as double. As GM, I tweak these values constantly to reflect the circumstances. Characters can read, relax, feast, drink, stroll the markets, buy goods, play games, gamble – in fact, do just about anything that might normally be done on a vacation or day off. But they can’t undertake any strenuous activities, engage in combat, conduct serious spell research, or anything of that sort – if they do, the day doesn’t count.

Again, what is acceptable activity and what is not is variable depending on the character and circumstances – spending a day in solitary contemplation might count for a Monk or a martial artist, but would not do much for mage fascinated by politics or a fighter with a low threshold of boredom. This is about roleplay, not system mechanics!

Going Home

Soft living relaxes one’s tolerance for discomfort. This is a progressive effect:

  • when characters are actively adventuring, a period of rest eases any accumulated discomforts, so when they first set out on a new adventure, I will make no mention of such.
  • If they stay inactive for a little longer – say twice as long – when they do finally get going again, the first day or two (perhaps as much as a week) will be a compound of niggles as they work the kinks out and get back into shape, annoying discomforts as they get used to roughing it again, and a slightly giddying elation at the sense of independence and liberation from tedium. It will be an adventure, and overall, it will feel good to get back in the saddle.
  • If they stay sedentary and inactive for longer again – say three times as long – any exertion will trigger niggles and discomforts, which I will work into the flavor text describing their day’s activities.
  • If they stay sedentary and inactive for a lot longer – say, ten times as long as it takes them to rest up – they will start to experience niggles even without a triggering exertion. This might include having trouble fitting into clothing as they gain a few pounds, a shortness of breath after climbing a long set of stairs, and so on.
Long-term consequences

If characters don’t rest, or adventure too long, what are the consequences? At the time, none whatsoever. These niggles are just a cue for roleplaying, and the players are perfectly at liberty to ignore the prompts.

In general, though, they won’t. Firstly, because they give them the opportunity to put a different aspect of the character on display for a while, and do something different, Secondly, because there are always useful things that can be done in down-time; and Thirdly, because they will always be concerned that I might impose a combat modifier due to their niggles if they grow too frequent or pronounced.

Misses, Failures, and Fumbles

I feed that fear by frequently describing the results of any sort of failed die roll in terms of niggles (if any). So when characters are freshly out of town, a miss might be due to a lucky dodge by the opponent, or a leathery hide, or a blow bouncing off armor – but when they’ve been on the road for a while, it might be a muscle twinge, or a sudden cramp, or a moment of reverie. When the rogue blows his stealth roll, he might stumble – or he might sneeze.

Why this is better: Minimal math, no die rolling. Easy to track. It adds to roleplay and verisimilitude without becoming burdensome, gives you a source of flavor text, but doesn’t straightjacket players with an arbitrary aging system that has to be slavishly followed.

It’s not a set of rules; it’s a set of guidelines – and inspiration. It’s a way of Simulating ageing without forcing anything down a player’s throat – or onto their character sheet.

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