For obvious reasons, I’ve been in a very introspective frame of mind in recent weeks. It occurred to me today that my life has now changed almost comp-letely from where I was ten years ago.

Ten years ago, my primary occupation was as a bookkeeper. I hadn’t worked for a few years, but was still searching hard for employment and writing the occasional DVD review. These days, I write for Campaign Mastery twice a week and work on my own gaming publications the rest of the time. I’m now considered disabled because of a degenerative back problem that limits how much I can work; ten years ago this problem was a recurring but undiagnosed problem growing progressively worse. It had not yet reached the point of being semi-crippling.

I was living in a unit in a different suburb. I walked to the shops every day or two to shop, and made relatively little use of my refrigerator. Having lived in that location for more than ten years, I knew the shopkeepers and had set routines in terms of shopping and consumption. My diet was relatively consistent, week-to-week.

I now live too far from the shops to casually walk to them – actually, it’s not much farther than I used to live, but my health is not as good as it was. I travel to the supermarket every six to eight weeks and spend up big, then get it home delivered – using the refrigerator and freezer extensively. I’m only now getting recognized by a few of the local shopkeepers, and I can’t say I know any of them by name yet. I eat very few of the same foods that I did back then – having grown tired of some, having others become unavailable or too expensive, and simply having different shops available to me. (I still go back to the old stores occasionally and am still remembered there).

The programmes that I watched on TV, the websites that I visited, even the computer games that I played, were all matters of habit. I don’t remember the Tv shows that dominated my viewing landscape, but at the time there were only six channels available. These days, there are 16 (not counting redundant duplicates and home-shopping-only infomercial channels). While a couple of the shows that I watch regularly are repeats of classic TV, most of the programmes I watch regularly at the moment had not yet premiered. One of the few things to remain consistent to both periods is that I watch every Formula 1 Grand Prix. The websites that I visit regularly now are very different – for one thing, Twitter didn’t even exist ten years ago! I now get my TV guide and weather reports over the internet. Because of changes to computer technology – ten years ago I used Win98, and now I don’t – many of the games I used to play no longer function, sadly. Not that I have as much time in 2012 to spend on them.

My weekend activities also followed a fixed pattern. I played RPGs at a fixed time and place – a game store in a reasonably nearby suburb. I travelled to games according to a set routine – with Ian Mackinder once a month and with Stephen every other time. The games being played were fixed to a timetable – I played 7th Sea on the first Saturday of the month, GM’d my original Fumanor on the second Saturday, GM’d Warcry on the third Saturday, and GM’d the original Zenith-3 campaign on the fourth. On the fifth Saturday, on those months that had one, I would board game. About once a month, I would also run a campaign, “The Rings Of Time”, on a Sunday.

In modern times, about half of my gaming happens away from the suburban game store for various reasons. These were mostly held at Stephen’s place until his passing, and I expect that they will now take place at my home, simply because it is the most convenient location. I will usually be using public transport to get to gaming when it IS at Burwood, but will be able to get a lift home most weeks with Ian. While a fixed timetable is no longer essential, I still produce one every year. 7th Sea has moved to the second Saturday, and I am no longer in that campaign; the first Saturday of the month is now devoted to The Adventurer’s Club, the pulp campaign that I co-referee. At the same time as Seventh Sea, I usually run Fumanor, splitting the year between the two campaigns. Over the last few years, there have also been periodic Sunday sessions split between the Fumanor: One Faith and Warcry campaigns. The latter is necessary because the third Saturday has been given over to a new campaign, Shards Of Divinity. I still run the Zenith-3 campaign on the fourth Saturday of the month, and on any fifth Saturdays as well.

My reading matter has changed to some extent as well – I used to buy two formula-1 related magazines, one or two computer magazines, and a general motorsport magazine. These days, I only get one monthly F1 magazine. I still have all the books that I had back then, and still re-read them regularly; while I have added some additional ones to the list in the meantime, most of them are classics. Heck, half of the books in question were added to my collection back about 30 years ago. So that’s one area that hasn’t changed much.

The Character Analogue

These changes have occurred one piece at a time. Some of them have been gradual; others have been the result of monumental disruptions. This is normal, the product of simply being alive. Life is inherently a dynamic process.

Compare that with the state of existence of most characters in a roleplaying game. The default status of these characters is static and unchanging. This is something that I have talked about previously, in Time Happens in the background, part of my Lessons From The West Wing series.

In that article, I suggested tracking encounters with NPCs by campaign day number, and ensuring that the NPCs circumstances have changed by an appropriate amount according to the interval since the NPC had last been encountered. I also suggested using a building that is commonly seen as a visual calendar to reinforce the impression of the passage of time.

What I have realized in the last week is that this is not enough. No PC in ten years, game time, would be as unchanged by circumstances as we are in real life.

Muddying the confusion: Static Societies

When it comes to societies in RPGs, they are also quite frequently static except as the direct result of events in which the PCs are involved. To some extent, this is due to fidelity to genre; to some extent, it is due to preservation of game setting; to some extent, it is because our impression of feudal society is that it didn’t change all that much for long periods of time; and to some extent it’s because its a lot of work and GMs have better things to do with their prep time. These reasons all have a certain level of validity, but they aren’t enough to justify the lack of personal change in the life of a PC.

A more serious consideration is the fact that a PC belongs to a player, not to the GM, and therefore it should not be subjected to arbitrary change without that player’s consent.

Rather than simply throwing up our hands in defeat at this point, though, let’s simply take these two requirements – minimal GM prep time and player involvement – as parameters that my eventual solution will have to satisfy, and move on.

Muddying the confusion some more: The shortness of existence

What is the average life expectancy in a game? Not of PCs, but of the general population?

This is obviously something that is going to be extremely variable, dependant on lifestyle, diet, economic status, and a whole host of other factors. But most fantasy games are based on the feudal era of human history – so, to restate the question, what was the average life expectancy in that era? I’ve heard all sorts of numbers used in different games, and had a lot of trouble tracking down any historical statistics to use (mostly because the notion of compiling such was unheard-of until the Domesday Book of 1086. But, finally, I came across this Wikipedia page on the subject. And very interesting reading it makes, too, especially the numbers for Medieval Britain – 30 years, but if the individual survived to the age of 21, the forecast could be extended to 64 years of age. Since some people would obviously die at the age of 21, that essentially means that as many people died above the age of 64 as died below it, though we can’t say exactly what the distribution of numbers was – it is statistically just as likely from the information presented for them all to drop at 65 as it is for some to survive to the age of 80, or 90, or 100 – or 1000, for that matter.

What can be deduced from these numbers is an absolutely appalling child mortality rate – enough people under the age of 21 died to drop the overall average from 64 to 30. In fact, more than half of all children could not have survived to reach the age of 21. (In fact, I think it would work out to be 64/94ths of the population, or about 68%, but don’t hold me to that).

These numbers suggest that in any group of 100 people, roughly 3 would die in any given 2-year period. (100/64=1.5625). And two of those would be children.

Sure, the fantasy world has access to healing that this population didn’t have, but at the same time, there are many more ways to get killed in a fantasy world – so we can rather arbitrarily assume that these factors roughly balance out. Though there’s lots of room for a GM to weight the balance one way or the other, if he so desires.

Compare that to the modern age, with an average lifespan of 67.2 – and that’s including those areas of the world which have still not received the full benefits of modern medicine, nutrition, and so on. In the western world, the life expectancy average would be higher again. Assuming an even distribution of deaths at each age below this point, and using the results to exclude those who die at 21 or less, gives me a rough average of 97.7 years.

Both numbers suggest that we’ve added something like 32 years to the average lifespan.

Here’s the significance: in a world where people die younger, they will try to pack more into the time they’ve got. They can only go so far in that respect, of course, and that also brings in the question of opportunities for advancement socially and professionally. But it would not surprise me to find that the average age of marriage was reduced proportionately – by a ratio of 67.2/97.7, or about 69% of what we’re used to.

What’s the point?

The whole preceding question is about how quickly things will change. The conclusion is that any given change will take place after only about 70% of the time we’re used to. Middle age, and the respectability that comes with it, wouldn’t be age 30 – it would be age 21. Marriages wouldn’t take place at an average of 25 years of age, they would happen at about 17.5 (on average). A couple’s first child would arrive within a couple of years – say, around 19-20 years of age. Their second and third children would follow at intervals of about 18-24 months – by the time the couple were 25, four children would be typical – but there would be around a 10% chance that one of them would have died already (2 in 3 will die under 21, and the eldest is now around 6 years old; 100 x 2/3 x (6+4+2+0)/21 / 4 = 200 x 12 / 3 / 4 / 21 = 200/21 = 9.5%. By the time the couple is 30, their eldest would be around 11 (assuming he was still alive) and the father would be looking for a trade into which a boy could be apprenticed – even if it was simply “farm boy”. Certainly, the child would be expected to earn his keep soon, if not already. If a daughter, it would be time to start seriously thinking about accumulating a dowry.

Multiply this accelerated pace of life by the number of people a character knows, and there should be something happening every week. That something might be minor, or it might be major. And that’s without taking into account dramatic circumstances like Wars and Orcish invasions and the like.

Ending The Confusion

While society overall might not change very much, the individuals within it would be changing almost perpetually. Similarly, a PC’s family and neighbors would be in a constant state of flux.

What we need is a system for simulating that flux, one that also meets the other criteria that I’ve outlined.

That calls for a reasonably complex system that is nevertheless easy to use. My favorite tool for such systems: a deck of ordinary playing cards.

The List Of Events

During character generation, or when first implementing this system, the GM simply shuffles a deck of cards and hands them to a player. He then explains the rules: Red cards represent a positive event – a birth, a marriage, whatever. Black cards represent a negative event – an illness, robbery, imprisonment, death, and so on. The face value of the cards gives a rough guide to the severity. After every 2nd picture card, the deck must be reshuffled.

Then he simply tells the player to invent a list of events to match the cards he turns over. These should be described as succinctly as possible – who (generally) experiences the event, and what happens to them. “Brother falls ill.” “Father breaks leg”. “Friend imprisoned”. “Sister born”. “Father remarries.” “Honored by the Duke”.

These events should be listed on a sheet of A4 or foolscap paper with the PCs name at the top, and the name of the player.

The players should be encouraged to be as creative and soap-opera as possible in making out these lists, and not to fear repetition if they run out of ideas.

In The Meantime

While the players are working on their lists, the GM can create one for the neighbors and shopkeepers that the PCs encounter. This should be twice as long as those of any given player, because the GM will get more use out of it. Since this list will address multiple people, there is no need to be consistent – it’s quite possible for there to be multiple “father remarries” entries, for example. Otherwise, the same rules apply.

Sequencing events

Once everyone’s finished their events, the next step is to shuffle them in order so that the players don’t know exactly what is going to happen next, and can’t take advantage of it. The easiest way is to take the picture cards out (except for the aces) and shuffle the remaining cards.

  • Spades = 1-10
  • Clubs = 11-20
  • Hearts = 21-30
  • Diamonds = 31-40

With this chart, or some equally-simple list of suits, the GM should be able to write a number next to each background event almost as quickly as he can turn cards over. Once he has each list in sequence, the tables are ready for use – the GM should file them away until he needs them. Of course, if necessary, after dealing with the first 40 events, he can start again if necessary.

Employing the Domestic Events list

So, here’s how it works: Each time the PCs are in a position to interact or hear from a family member, the GM takes the next item in numeric sequence off the list for that PC. Using recent game world events as a guide, he puts it into a context, and simply describes a single paragraph of “news from home”. If a week passes without the PC being in position to receive such news, the GM jots his paragraph down on a sheet of paper, adding events each week (in order) until the PC is in a position to hear from home.

With each event, the GM has a three-fold choice:

  1. he can interject an event of his own creation, leaving the next item on the list for a later time;
  2. he can replace the subject of the event with the name of the PC, or the PCs spouse (if there is one), or append “-in-law” to the subject, as he sees fit;
  3. or he can use it as it stands.

Each time he exercises options 2 or 3, he crosses the number off the list. So the event that the GM has numbered (randomly) #1 happens first, then #2, and so on.

Similarly, every time the PCs interact with a neighbor or a shopkeeper, the GM can select the most recent event that has affected them off the list that he has created.

When a list runs out, the player or GM simply generates a new list and files it away.

The goal is that in 10 years – about 520 events – the mundane life of the PC should have changed completely.

Just as it would have done in real life.

Non-fantasy gaming

A similar approach should work in every game. Some of the events might be different – there would be less emphasis on death and injury and more on career milestones and changes in a modern game – but the general principles will still hold.

Give it a try and see how much your PCs lives come to life!

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