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Aces and Eights: Character Creation

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 [1]. 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!

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Aces and Eights: Character Creation"

#1 Comment By theEmrys On March 15, 2010 @ 5:56 am

Sounds like a great start. I hope you have a great time with the game. I’ve run A&8 a few times now, but mostly just “one shot” scenarios. Most of my gaming group is more interested in HackMaster Basic right now to switch gears to a western. Still, I love the system and have found it much easier to use every time I play. I found it a very “sandboxy” setting in that as a GM I enjoy just seeing where the players take it. Also, there are a few new products coming out for A&8 right now that I’m anxiously waiting for and may use as a springboard for a new game.

There are some threads on the Kenzer boards of play examples, but most of them are a bit older so you have to open the default filters a little wider.

I also highly recommend a “theme night” around a game sometime. We had a BBQ night where I got some hats from the local party store and which ever hat someone picked decided their pregen. We watched some western movie gunfights (like the big shootout at the end of open range) to get in the mood, and then played some A&8. It was a great time and really helped people get into the setting a bit more.

The biggest thing that my players have learned playing A&8 is that no matter who is playing, no matter where they aim, someone always seems to get a shotgun blast to the groin sometime during the session…

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On March 15, 2010 @ 11:59 am

[2] – Thanks for the encouragement. We discussed watching an episode of Deadwood before each session, or something similar to get us in a western mindset.

The game is naturally a pure sandbox, particularly with encouragement from the campaign game chapter. It took some effort to wrest a coherent pitch out of it. I hope that it will work out well; overlapping stories tend to do better at our table– several players drift off if they’re in spectator mode too long.

#3 Comment By Greylond On March 15, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

[3] – Good article. You covered character creation pretty fairly. Character creation is quite involved, I recommend you download the spreadsheet that is hosted on Kenzer&Co’s forums in this thread, [4] . A&8s is a Great Game, I love it. I don’t currently have an active campaign per se, but I run it at conventions and since we have 3 local cons here in the area and I usually have the same players, plus one or two people trying it out as a demo, then it’s turned into a mini-campaign. A bit of advice though, don’t go charging into combat like you would in most RPGs. Combat in A&8’s can be very deadly and even if you live healing up from the wounds can take a long time.

Hope you enjoy the game. Stop by K&Co’s Forums sometime if you have any questions.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On March 15, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

[5] – Thanks! I tried to be honest but fair– if your idea of a big game is PTA, you’ll hate A&8. But if you enjoy the granularity of Shadowrun 2 or 3 and want to play in a Western, you’re likely to enjoy it.

We played in some one shots– we know how deadly guns can be! The wagon train setup is to make sure that there are lots of interesting non-combat things to do.

I hit Kenzer’s forums last night and found a few good threads within the last month. Maybe I’ll return and set it to within the last year…

#5 Comment By BryanB On March 15, 2010 @ 10:39 pm

Over 100 skills? Woah.

It sounds like character creation is a lot of work. But it also sounds like you get a lot of detail for the effort. I’d probably stick to Coyote Trail or FATE for a western. Aces and Eights sounds too complex for me. The book sure is pretty though.

For resources, you can’t go wrong with Knuckleduster’s Cowtown Creator. It has a lot of building floorplans for western towns that could come in handy when the GM is running on the fly or doing game prep.

Another good one book source, depending on how historical you are being, is Time Life Book’s The Old West. I would be fine with loaning one or both of these to your group if you think they will help the GM with his efforts.

I hope the game is a fun one. 😀

#6 Comment By GrimJesta On March 16, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

@BryanB: The ame is only as complicated as you want it to be. The rules are broken up into three tiers: The basic, core rules, which are simple to use. Then there’s the secondary tier, which add a bit more realism and complexity to the game. After that is the advanced tier, which adds a lot of rules to the game and a ton of realism. You can choose to use whatever rules you want. So, for example, you can play the basic rules with one or two of the secondary tier rules that you like, as well as a few of the advanced rules. You build it all however you want to and whatever the needs and desires are you your players.

Sure there’s 100 skills in the book. But as the GM you can rule a bunch of them out based on whatever type of campaign you are running. Or you can use them all (it sounds like a lot, but a lot of them won’t be used by your PCs depending on the campaign). The system is designed to cater to the user’s needs.

But at its core basic level, Aces and Eights is about as complicated as Savage Worlds or AD&D: i.e. not very.

You should try it at least once. It’s very addicting, especially once you start using the ‘shot clock’ for combat. Targeting bullets never had it so good. 🙂


#7 Comment By Scott Martin On March 16, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

[6] – I’m interested in seeing how it turns out. Hopefully, much of the complexity from character generation is unique to just that phase; look at my character sheet for the relatively simple “in play” sheet that resulted. [Though, after reading the forum threads last night, I noticed that we hadn’t included the “universal” skill bonus. So the character sheet is updated… we continue to learn.]

#8 Comment By Greylond On March 17, 2010 @ 5:26 am

That’s why I recommend using the Character Creation Aid from here


It keeps you organized during the process.

After you have a couple of gunfights it isn’t all anymore complicated than any other RPG. Like Grimjesta says, you just use what rules you’re comfortable with and add more as you go.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On March 18, 2010 @ 11:25 am

[7] – Rule complexity will be an interesting line to walk. We know that we should use the basic rules to start, but those specialized rules for everything are so shiny…

We ran a few one-shots, so we know the system reasonably. I’d be afraid (and good character creation would have been impossible) if this was really our first time using the system.

#10 Comment By Greylond On March 19, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

Too bad you’re not near Memphis or I’d run y’all through a game.

#11 Comment By Foolster41 On March 25, 2010 @ 7:58 pm

Only browsed the article, I gotta go soon, but looks good from what I’ve seen.

I wanted to plug Ash’s Backgrounds ( [8]) as a great resource I come back to using over and over again. I’m going to read the article later and give further thoughts when I can (no home compy, so very limited on time online. 😛 )

#12 Comment By Foolster41 On April 13, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

*reads article*
Oh. I had thought this was about general character generation. Still sounds interesting.
“analog oregan trail” is an intriguing tag-line.