Scarlet Heroes and Traits

One of Scarlet Heroes‘ biggest changes from standard OSR gaming rules is the introduction of traits. Traits are intended to assume all the functions normally covered by skills in other games, along with adding more distinction and mechanical variety to the classic four-class character generation system.

A trait is a brief phrase describing something about the hero’s background, relationships, or innate qualities. “Escaped mine slave”, for example, or “Constantly watchful”, or “Drunken ex-guardsman”, or “Friend to a city magistrate”. Traits are measured on a scale of 1 to 3, with more points indicating more investment and importance in that quality. Every hero gets three points to spend on traits at the start of the game, plus a couple more to reflect certain racial abilities or native aptitudes if playing a demihuman.

Traits don’t come with explicit mechanical effects. You may have a “Tireless endurance: 3” but it doesn’t give you a hit point bonus. Instead, they’re cues for the GM to let them know what your hero is good at, and the kinds of things they should automatically be able to do without a roll. If your character is a Pirate: 3, then she should be able to handle a boat, drink bad rum, clamber over rigging, and identify port-city fences without having to strain herself. The only time she should be rolling her Pirate trait is when she’s pulling off some feat that would challenge even an exceptionally salty dog.

For occasions of greater difficulty, traits are used in conjunction with checks. Whenever the hero wants to accomplish something unusually difficult, they roll 2d8, add their highest relevant attribute modifier, and add their highest relevant trait. If the total is equal or greater than the check’s difficulty, they succeed. If it’s less, then things don’t work out so smoothly for the hero.

Checks take the place of many of the sub-systems found in classic OSR mechanics. Bending bars/lifting gates is a check. Saving throws are checks, albeit with the character’s level added too. Even thief skills are checks, though that ties into the thief class’ special ability.

The thief class provided in Scarlet Heroes is something of a catch-all class meant for those heroes who rely on guile and expertise more than sorcerous power or heavy weaponry. At first level, a thief picks a trait to be their archetype. It might be something as straightforward as “Adventuring Thief” with the classic OSR bundle of abilities, or it might be “Academic Tomb-Robber”, “Grizzled Woodsman”, “Streetwise Guard Captain”, or any other archetype that suits. The thief automatically gets 3 points in that archetype- and each time they advance a level, that focus gains one more point, even above the usual trait cap of three points.

It doesn’t take long before that thief-hero is getting bonuses of +5 or +6 in their specialty, while other stealthy heroes are limited to +3. Thieves rapidly become almost supernatural in their talents, capable of overcoming challenges and beating difficulties that other classes would have almost no chance of handling. In Scarlet Heroes, if a master thief wants to infiltrate the Temple of the Frog, the Temple of the Frog is going to get infiltrated. The question then is what the thief is going to do once he’s inside.

Together, traits and checks are meant to streamline things for the GM and player while still giving the hero some mechanical distinctions from others of the same class. For some people, it’s always been enough to just decide that your fighter was a blacksmith’s son and let it go at that. Others have preferred more elaborate skill systems such as those found in 2nd edition AD&D or the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. Traits serve as a bridge between these two preferences, and a set of automatic hooks to let the GM know what parts of a character’s past and present are most important to the hero.

This talk of the thief class brings up questions of how Scarlet Heroes‘ class system is meant to overlay on top of another game. Next time, I’ll discuss ways in which the four classes provided by the game can be used as quick templates for more exotic professions- or how those professions can be brought in entirely to import new classes from other OSR games.