This weekend I sat down in the player’s chair again. After an extended and glorious fight two weeks ago, the D&D game reached a “chapter break” and we picked a new game to play for a few months while my brain recovers from high level D&D 3.5 prep.

The game we selected is Aces and Eights. We have played around with it a couple of times in the past– a couple of one shots and character creation sessions.

Character Creation: The Process

Character creation in Aces and Eights is detailed and proves to be an interesting mix of random with lots of options. The easiest analogy for character creation complexity, for me, is to older editions of Shadowrun. (It feels particularly like Shadowrun when you’re going through long equipment lists.) But the randomness makes Aces and Eights a unique beast. Let’s dive in and look a little closer.

Characters are built off a platform of seven randomly rolled stats: the six you expect from D&D, plus looks. Each stat is the normal 3-18 range, but is also given a decimal percentage that is often truncated, but occasionally has a significant impact. So a character might roll a strength of 11.77, an intelligence of 6.12, and so on. Character creation is predicated on rolling 3d6– no funny business– but if you’re looking for a more talented bunch of characters you can reroll ones, roll 4d6 and drop the lowest, or whatever methods you’re familiar with from years of AD&D and similar systems.

Our game is intentionally less heroic [we just finished with high level D&D and wanted a change], so we rolled characters straight. Well, mostly we did. Kev’s dice were cold, and he wound up generating four sets of raw statistics before finally coming up with one that looked fun to play. The other characters… would have been challenged by life on the Savage Frontier. Probably too challenged to enjoy playing much.

Once you generate the raw stats, you can improve them a couple of ways. You can trade stats down to raise others– usually at a 2:1 or worse ratio, unless you’re improving sub-seven stat rolls. We avoided the trade system, and instead purchased incremental improvement. At the start of character generation, you’re given a pool of 75 build points. You can improve your stats by 0.05 per build point*, which is primarily used to cross the threshold to the next whole number when you’re close. So, for 5 BP, I could raise my 11.77 Strength to 12.02.
* Subject to diminishing returns; after 20 BP [1 full stat point], each BP buys you less.

Once your stats are all adjusted, you’re ready to move on. (Don’t spend all of your BP on stats– you’ll need them for skills and talents later!) Copy over your stat bonuses for your skills. Now roll up an age, roll to see if you’re right handed, and decide where you want to come from. (If you’d like inspiration, there’s a random table of birthplaces.)

If you like, you can take a detour and generate your family history and circumstances. We did so; it’s a chunk of additional rolling, but can really help settle a character in your mind. If you do so, be sure to use the amended Chapter 6.5— there are a few troublesome errors in the printed books. (Among other things, the first print run omitted the table laying out the chance for characters to be legitimate…)

From here, you calculate your Reputation, which is an average of your seven stats, modified by your looks and Charisma. The more naturally talented your character is, the better their reputation, and the more build points you gain. This is common throughout the system; good rolls early improve things for your character all along the line. It can lead to a rich-get-richer problem, but that’s reality, right? Speaking of rich, it’s time to roll up starting cash. [It doesn’t matter what you roll– it won’t be enough. There’s a lot of expensive gear that’s awfully nice to have… like horses and guns.]

Now you can roll or pick quirks and flaws. Much like older White Wolf games, quirks and flaws are flatly negative, but reward you with additional build points. If there’s a flaw you’d like to play you can pick it off the list– but for only half value. If you roll, you get full value, but results range from amputee to a love of food. If you want multiple flaws, you can take a second or third… but the build point reward descends by five for each additional flaw. This is useful for strongly discouraging a big pile of flaws. A quick d4 roll for HP and you’re essentially done with the easy part of character generation. Hopefully you have a big stack of BP at this point… you’re going to need them.

The next step is purchasing skills. Interestingly, none of the purchasable skills are combat skills; for combat, you’re rely on your stats and a talent or two, if you have the BP to purchase them. Skills are everything else: spotting things, chemistry, sewing, and so on. These are a little tricky; different skills have different costs, ranging from 1 to 10 for one tally of skill. What’s that? Well, each time you buy one tally, you reduce the skill percentage by your stat plus a die roll. The die sizes vary; highly regimented skills like medicine are often a d4, while physical and social skills are often a d8– all the way up to a d20 for drover. The law of diminishing returns is here in full force: the second tally of a skill costs twice as much as the first (so 2 BP for a 1 BP skill; 20 BP for a 10 BP skill), the third triple, and so forth. So becoming an expert in a skill can quickly drain your BP… unless it’s a low BP skill and your high stat gives you a discount. The process is a little tricky, and with die rolls for each skill level, it’s not something you can do independently. The skill list is alphabetical, which makes it easy to skim right over useful skills. Fortunately, a detailed writeup is available in the back of the book for each skill– skimming that chapter often reveals an oversight, or you find that a skill doesn’t quite do what you imagined on reading the title. It’s pretty easy to fix at this point, as long as you haven’t run yourself out of BP.

Now that you have your skills, you can buy talents, which are 10-50 BP. You probably can’t afford many, if any, but it’s good to look. (You should probably look before you pick skills, really, to ensure that you save enough BP for any talent you find necessary.)

You’re almost at the end! Now you can take that starting cash you rolled, augment it with your leftover BP converted into cash, and can buy equipment. There is a lot of equipment; 8 pages of small type with few descriptions. Not including the guns, which are 20 glossy pages earlier in the book. You can buy all kinds of things, from pencils and notebooks, to wagons and mules, to fishing line and a canteen. It’s a very extensive set of lists– and provides good insight into the relative value and rarity of items. When a horse is 3-4 months of wages for an average cowboy, you can see why they take such good care of their mounts.

Character Creation: Who Resulted?

While it took a while, we came up with three interesting characters that we’d never have come up with on our own. The combination of random stats (that you can ameliorate a bit), random quirks and flaws (encouraging you to play beyond your comfort zone), and a limited number of BP made some interesting characters. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of our three hombres.

Kev created Dr. Emerson Brown, a wealthy son of a doctor and landlord in New York City. He had a great upbringing, but wants to escape dad’s shadow. He just turned 21, and is headed out west with a few guns and a medical kit. He’s known for his doctoring and has a few other white collar skills. He’s impulsive, short tempered, and has high standards. He also has a terrible bedside manner. He should be interesting to be watch.

Mike created a orphaned kid of 15, who is an excellent scout and outdoorsman. He hopes to be hired on as the trailblazer for the wagon train. He is headed out west hoping to start up a ranch, capture some wild mustangs, and turn a tidy profit. He’s terrible at lying, prejudiced against the Irish, and carries a number of big guns.

I created Bob Cassidy, from rural Tennessee in the CSA, now 19. He’s got a lot of natural talent [high wisdom], leading to good cooking, fishing, and observation type skills, a lot of experience handling a wagon, and some good gossip and talking skills. He won’t say no to food, and can’t lie to save his life. If you hear rustling at midnight, it’s probably just Bob looking for a snack.

Character Creation: Was it worth it?

It took a lot of steam to grind through character creation, particularly through the thick list of skills. A lot of the rolls added personality, the family backgrounds suggested a lot of context, and quirks and flaws are great for a shorthand description of a character.

Skills take some effort to add, and I don’t see how much adding the die rolls [versus a fixed number] improves the process, but they aren’t too bad, really. The hard part is making sure you haven’t missed an “of course” skill– the first time we played, we all missed “observation” on the list and groaned when it was time to spot enemies. I think there are over 100 skills in the game… it’s very easy to miss one.

Worse than skills, however, is purchasing equipment. Making the first pass of purchases is pretty easy– but then, when you want to erase a few vials of ink and add a hunting cap and three shirts, it can get messy. I’m going to use a spreadsheet, mostly because our setting concept means purchasing is important. In other circumstances, I’d beg for handwaving equipment.

Character and Setting

This is not a game with a set “what characters do” like Dogs in the Vineyard. It’s the west, and you can be any reasonable person with a reason to wander. “Let’s play Aces and Eights” isn’t really a pitch. It has to be narrowed down so the characters have something to aim at and some interaction.

Our specific pitch, worked out last week, is that we will be members of a wagon train headed west. We’re going to start in St. Louis and head out to the Oregon territory. We laughed about it being an analog version of the Oregon Trail computer game from 5th grade, but it’s a great pitch. We know there are a variety of struggles in the future of our characters: the challenge of getting there, then the challenge of joining a settlement or forming a new town. Mr. Brown is already contemplating the position of mayor, and Mike has mentioned that his character might make a good sheriff… but it’ll take play to see how the rest of the wagon train reacts. Annoy the wrong person and you might get dumped in the wilds.

Questions? Pointers?

I was surprised when I began searching the web for resources; I remembered the excitement when Aces and Eights was first announced, but I didn’t find many resources for the game outside of Kenzer’s dedicated site. Arc Dream’s The Gang With No Name was one of the few play threads I found. Fortunately, the thread has neat resources like PDFs he built for his group, that will work great for ours.

What great resources have I missed? Have you played Aces and have warnings or encouragement to pass on? I know that I’m eager to play and find out how Bob is going to deal with the rigors of the trail. If you have questions, please ask!