Friday, April 30, 2010
You are a d4: You are bright, perceptive, and driven. You would be considered a blessing to mankind, if you didn't insist on using your powers for evil. You are devious, deceitful, doubtful, and downright dangerous. Assassins can learn a lot from you. If your fellow party members knew how rotten you were, they'd go over and join the bad guys. Justified or not, you are meticulous in your ways: A poison for every person, and a dagger for every back. Much of your day is spent scheming or plotting. The rest of your time is spent trying to convince others that you're simply misunderstood.
- Avian (the language of birds, bats, and flying creatures)
- Canine (the language of dogs, wolves, coyotes, etc.)
- Elephantine (the language of elephants and their kin)
- Feline (the language of cats, lions, tigers, etc.)
- Mustelid (the language of weasels, badgers, wolverines, ferrets, etc.)
- Piscean (the language of fish, whales, and creatures of the sea)
- Rodent (the language of rats, squirrels, mice, etc. as well as rabbits)
- Saurian (the language of lizards and amphibians)
- Simian (the language of the apes, monkeys, and ape-like creatures)
- Ungulate (the language "toed" or hooved herbivores, including camel, deer, cattle, giraffe, horses, pigs, rhinos, goats, hippos, etc.)
- Ursine (the language of bears and their prehistoric kin)
- Optional: Ancient Beast (the language of dragons and mythical beasts)
Thursday, April 29, 2010
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Well, in defense of my reverse stance on barbarians, I will say that PREVIOUSLY I was caught up “in the moment” when everyone was high on Pat’s excellent B/X Sword & Sorcery mix. However, even in B/X there’s very little reason to have a barbarian “class.” For reasons already cited, I feel that “barbaric” is a descriptive term that is easily applied to any of the original archetypal classes, and a barbaric fighter makes a fine “barbarian.”
That being said, the REAL REASON for my barbarian rant was as prelude to THIS post wherein I give an alternative class that, while perhaps non-archetypal, doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else.
Now I’m sure plenty of you are rolling your eyes and recalling Marc Singer’s bronzed perfection and vapid/obtuse face from the 1982 film, but give me a moment or two to make my case.
Yes, I too have seen the (TBS Beloved) film about a hundred times on television, and Singer makes me wince a way Schwarzenegger never did (at least in the original Conan the Barbarian). But the story is pure fantasy…there’s no “real world” equivalent of the places or cultures in the film and the thing could easily be translated as a straight D&D adventure (with about as much “story” as usually comes from such adventures; i.e. not much), including the “dungeon setting” (temple) that the title character has to navigate towards the end of the movie.
Characters that communicate with beasts and birds…and who use those alliances to overcome obstacles…are nothing new in fantasy literature or film. Tarzan is, of course, the ultimate “beast master” character, and Sheena: Queen of the Jungle is his female counterpart. But other characters with animal buddies can act as inspirations for a beast master character from Kipling’s Mowgli to James Silk’s version of Frazetta’s Death Dealer.
Would Disney’s Cinderella or Snow White be considered beast masters? Quite possibly…and it doesn’t get much more fairy tale than that.
Unlike the barbarian, there’s really no archetypal equivalent of the beastmaster in D&D as written. Hmm, I may need to elaborate a bit so you folks know exactly where I’m coming from.
The “barbarian” ALREADY has an archetype in D&D. It is called The Fighter. Not true, say some, the barbarian class of AD&D provides better hit points, freebie bonuses, class restrictions, and a number of “skills,” none of which are possessed by the fighter class. HOWEVER:
- Inflating hit dice or additional ability bonuses are not a “change of archetype.” They’re simply “grade inflation.” If you want every barbarian to have a huge number of hit points & cat-like grace say “your fighter needs a DEX and CON of 13+ (or 16+) to be considered a barbarian.”
- Class restrictions are artificial impositions that can be placed on any character class by any player. The DM can say, “To be considered a true ‘barbarian,’ you may not wear armor heavier than X.” Alternatively, the DM could say, “To be considered a true ‘barbarian,’ you may not start with more than X gold at 1st level.”
- Skills? Skills?! This is D&D, not D20! Characters have ability scores, and per B/X, ANY character can try to climb a rough, rock wall with an ability check. If you want to climb a sheer surface, play a thief. It’s not like there are giant sheets of marble for ‘barbarians’ to practice on “in the wild.” Don’t be ridiculous.
[by the way, the same thing goes double for the Cavalier class. There is already a cavalier archetype in D&D. It is called The Fighter. Write your OWN “Code,” folks!]
That being said, there’s NO equivalent of the beast master, despite the character’s presence in fantasy fiction. Yes, a high level cleric can “speak with animals”…but a beast master is NOT a cleric. They’re usually scantily armored (hello, Marc Singer!). They don’t have any truck with the undead. They don’t “pray” or “worship” (most appear to be fairly animistic if anything). Often, they use edged weapons (knives and spears). They aren’t granted other spells by a deity.
But really it IS the communication with animals that truly sets the beast master apart from other characters. The beast master doesn’t cast study or cast spells; hell, they can get by being illiterate pretty easily. But the ability to speak with animals AT WILL, and be listened to and gain the trust and friendship of animals…now that really is a special attribute of the beast master “class” that is unavailable to any other class.
So now we really come down to it: what the hell got me thinking about the beast master in the first place? Well, the Compleat Adventurer, of course. Of all the character classes in the book it is, interestingly enough, the beastmaster class that I’ve always remembered (its presence and its accompanying illustration) all these years. While we never had a “beast master” back in our old campaign, this is the kind of character that WOULD HAVE fit right in with the house-ruled weirdness we did have!
Not that I’m totally satisfied with the beastmaster class as written in the CA. It’s a little too convoluted and “record-keepy” for my taste; though it would be about on par with your standard AD&D character class (no more than, say, the assassin or monk). But AD&D, while definitely my “first love” in RPGs, is a game I’m no longer interested in playing, and so I’ll have to do some condensing and tightening to make it fit for my preferred B/X play.
Hmmm…level titles will be tricky. I don’t want to get stuck with terms like “man-cub” or “monkey boy.” I suppose I should read Burroughs to get some more flattering ideas for a beastmaster character class.
The Unearthed Arcana was released in 1985 and I had mine by November of that year. How do I know this? ‘Cause I still own my original copy, and inside the front cover in the huge cursive scrawl of my 10-year old brother is written “Happy 12th B-Day Jonathan!” At the time, I was pretty angry that he would desecrate an otherwise pristine and newly minted AD&D hardcover with such terrible hand-writing. Now…well, I’m appreciative that it gives me an excellent anchor point in time when considering my AD&D evolution.
[which, by the way is a totally different blog post…I started writing out my personal gaming history a couple weeks ago, but put the project on hold when I got to page 7 or so]
While many folks have bad-mouthed UA over the years, it was probably my hands-down favorite TSR volume between 1985-88. In fact, my original copy is so worn from use that you can’t even read the writing on the spine. It just opened up so many possibilities to our evolving AD&D campaign at the time, including and especially (bleah!) Comeliness. Ha. My co-DM Jocelyn picked up her UA before me, and she had us all roll up the new stat for our existing characters prior to even telling us what we were rolling. While this would color much of the campaign for years to come, I was fortunate enough to actually roll an 18…not bad, JB!
HOWEVER, as I’ve gotten older more grognard-ish, I find myself pretty much distanced from AD&D in general and the Unearthed Arcana in particular. My 36-year old eyes peruse the pages and find most of it elicits a big “eh,” even from things that really got us cranked as youngsters.
That being said, one thing that generally failed to energize us, even in our wide-eyed youth, were the new character classes.
Oh, well actually that’s not entirely true…those of us with thieves (or thief multi-classes) weren’t against throwing the occasional acrobat in the mix…after all, many of the standard thief skills remained the same as did the attacks, saves, hit points, etc. But for the most part, all the players in the campaign were satisfied with the “basic” classes present in the PHB…fighters, clerics, magic-users, and (of course) bards. None of us played those goody-goody paladins, and the cavalier’s Code of Honor held even less appeal for us (back in the day, munchkinism wasn’t much of a factor and role-playing alignment and class restrictions was fairly strictly enforced, so the Cav code was a pretty big deterrent from adding percentiles from all the ability scores).
And the barbarian, sheesh!
Only one player ever brought a barbarian to the table and that was my younger brother, no doubt influenced at least in part to the Bobby the Barbarian character in the Saturday morning D&D cartoon, as well as the rest of the group’s perceptions of my younger brother (again, influenced in part by the D&D cartoon). To us, barbarians were not some powerful character class with D12 hit dice and bonuses up the wazoo…instead, he was some nut job that didn’t use magic items(!!) and who lost that fine Dexterity bonus if he strapped on plate mail armor!
In a long-running campaign that had plenty of high-level characters with a ton of magic items bulging from their pockets, the barbarian character looked pretty pathetic by comparison. Especially since those “double ability bonuses” didn’t apply to the barbarian’s Strength attribute (sure you could hit a monster only affected by magic weapons…but wouldn’t you prefer to simply use a magic weapon that increased the to hit and damage of the weapon in question? I sure would!). Even my brother would eventually chuck the idea of a barbarian, falling back instead on the fighter character who (especially with weapon specialization) was a much more formidable character in combat than the primitive, magic-hating barbarian.
[years later, my brother would tell me that he chose the character in part because the IDEA of playing a barbarian appealed to him; it was the concept, not the class as designed that was interesting. OH…and also the influence of my friends and I]
As a DM, the barbarian was a pain in the ass for young kids who were not interested in creating “barbarian cultures” for our game world. Our adventures took place in cities and kingdoms…civilizations with nobles with plenty of gold. Why would we want to play some spear-chucker or axe-wielder…especially when those weapons have so little damage potential compared to the ubiquitous swords of the AD&D world.
[I guess there was a LITTLE munkinism in us]
Yes, this was long before my personal fascination with Viking culture and axes and my plethora of “concept characters.” As kids playing AD&D, we weren’t interested in “gritty” or “mundane” adventures. We wanted high fantasy, not drab and shabby.
And looking at the evolution of the barbarian class in the latest editions, it seems clear I wasn’t the only one “not feeling it” for the barbarian. This whole Rage ability and the Uncanny Dodge (hell, the whole flat-footed, etc. rules) seem specifically designed to “spice up” a drab character concept.
Of course, it just makes that concept even more ridiculous.
I mean, really…what the hell is the barbarian supposed to be? Ancient cultures considered outsiders to be “barbaric” and “un-civilized” but within their own cultures, these people considered themselves plenty civilized. Certainly the barbaric Northern hordes were wearing the same armor and wielding the same weapons as their civilized southern neighbors. And “savage” American Indian had no issue with adapting the “magic” of guns and horses once they were introduced (and once they were able to procure them for themselves...shout out to the Apache!).
If the barbarian class is based on Conan, then it is a flawed concept based on a flawed premise. If Conan had a distaste for sorcery, it was because the entire mundane civilization IN THE HOWARD STORIES had a superstitious fear of magic and witchcraft…NOT because he was some un-educated buffoon. If he is strong or agile or hearty, it is because he is strong, agile, and hearty (in game terms, he has high ability scores), not because of his “class.” The guy is a fighter…he fights. He wears armor (and clothing!)…the best he can find/afford.
[yes, yes…I’ve hypothesized Conan as a thief in the past. I’m allowed to change stance. And anyway, either fighter OR thief work better as concepts than “barbarian”]
I hate the barbarian as a class. Oh, yes, I had a 3rd edition Wood Elf barbarian character because AS A CONCEPT I liked the idea of a two-fisted, hand axe wielding elf looking to go out in a bloody haze of glory (and there’s no berserker Feat). In fact, the concept was totally based on a cool Magic card illustration called “Elvish Rage,” coupled with my own contrarianism (“what?! Why an elf and not a half-orc? That’s stupid!”).
But IN GENERAL, I hate the barbarian as a class. It is inappropriate to the game setting. It is unnecessary as a class distinction. It is ridiculous and un-wieldy to play. And (in my experience), it was pretty much UN-loved by everyone with whom I played.
For the most part, character classes in D&D (at least the pre-2nd edition editions) are ARCHETYPAL. Which is good as they are called “classes,” after all. There’s nothing archetypal about a “barbarian.” Barbarian is an adjective changed into a noun. You can have a barbaric fighter, a barbaric magic-user, a barbaric cleric, or a barbaric thief. Trying to distinguish the class by giving it a few bennies (extra hit points and such) doesn’t change the fact that all those barbaric idiosyncrasies can already be accounted for with simple character choice, ability scores, and role-playing.
And I really mean that. Your character has a 5 Constitution? Call him a “malnourished” barbarian. He has a 16 Constitution? Call him a “robust” barbarian. Or even BETTER…you have a character (any class) that rolls only 1 hit point? Call him a Robust Barbarian…that just happens to have bad-luck and suffer a career ending death from the first wound he receives!
The numbers are just numbers to be freely interpreted by the player (in conjunction with the DM, of course). Do you really need boat-building skill? Is the DM really going to fault you if you want your character to be able to whistle like a bird?
Well, maybe he/she will…if you’re playing AD&D with the Unearthed Arcana (or any later edition utilizing skills or non-weapon proficiencies). But that’s why I’ve moved back to B/X play!
A few months back I set a deadline of May for the release of my B/X Companion and I fully intend to keep that release date. I realize there’s only a couple-three days left in the month, but I promise you won’t see another month go be without the Companion being released in SOME shape or form.
And by the way, it IS shaping up nicely.
Even so, I’m feeling a bit behind the 8-ball due to my recent illness/injury (excuses, excuses). But I am finally on some good drugs thanks to my medical doctor, and I am pleased to announce my first pain-free full night’s sleep last night.
[side note: why is it I can get $500 (street value) worth of Percocet for a 54 cent co-pay, but my insurance only pays peanuts for chiropractic care, limited to 10 adjustments per year? THIS is the problem with health care today…keep ‘em on drugs rather than fix their spinal-nerve damage]
ANYway…I hope to be able to do some work in front of the computer this evening (before drifting off into a narcotic slumber), but it still looks to be a fairly busy week for me. My brother, AB, is arriving tonight on a 10pm flight out of the Deep South where he’s been fighting the good fight against the coal companies (and who have apparently started to thump back, forcing his exodus)…homeless and jobless once again, I will be picking up the Rainman from SeaTac and bringing him home for a little “beagle therapy.” THEN my father is breezing into town tomorrow night, and we’ll all be meeting up with him and his wife for dinner (after a therapeutic spinal adjustment).
Of course, April 30th is Friday, so I should have the whole day free, right? Except it appears I’ll be baby-sitting our friends’ five month old baby while they celebrate their anniversary. Hmmm…
Ugh. Well, May is the deadline for release, and I’m doing what I can to have everything finished up, regardless of distractions. Wish me luck, folks.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Friday, April 23, 2010
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Especially considering I just re-read MechWarrior and can’t help making an un-favorable comparison with the Traveller universe. For the record, I believe I prefer Traveller’s over-all system to MW, but for whatever reason, I find MW’s background to be much more compelling. I’m not sure why…perhaps it’s the lack of aliens.
Outside of serious space opera like Flash Gordon or Star Wars (in which all the main characters are human anyway), I find intelligent alien life to be the corniest, hokiest (and most boring) part of any Science Fiction RPG. Doc, on the other hand, LOVES aliens…he prefers Farscape and Star Trek to Firefly and Star Wars and was telling me how much fun he had in his last Traveller game playing a “cat-person.”
When I told him I wanted to run a “human-only” Traveller universe, he was NOT pleased (though his character is human). I HAVE relented (it IS Traveller, after all…the encounter of strange new life is expected), but it doesn’t instill in me a burning desire to play, I’m afraid.
Which reminds me of something I wanted to write about last week. Over at Grognardia, J.M. talked about the referee as being a player, too…something I totally agree with. There are capital P “Players” that sit opposite the GM(s), but everyone at the table, including the GM is a “player” of the game. And as a player it is important that the GM have fun, too.
So...Why the hell would anyone want to be a GM?
Assuming you capitulate to the demands of your players (as I am doing with the alien thing), and assuming you are not breaking one of the Big GM Commandments:
Thou shall not railroad your players into your plot.
Thou shall not raise thy NPCs to a place of prominence above the PCs.
Thou shall not allow external strife to influence in-game events.
…assuming, in other words, that you are not a person who GMs for the sake of getting your jollies playing Master with the Players as Slaves…well, if all you’re doing is playing “Santa Claus,” facilitating everyone else’s fun, why the hell would you want to do it?
Because “someone has to?”
Because “it’s your turn?”
Because you’re the guy (or gal) that “knows the rules the best?”
Ridiculous…all of these reasons.
Now for Mr. Maliszewski, he enjoys the surprise of seeing “what happens next,” partly due to player innovation, partly due to random dice roll…I guess you’d call this the Wide-Eyed-Curiosity motivation. When I was a DM, I enjoyed challenging (aka “beating on”) the players: putting them in situations/scenarios to see how they react…call this the Saw IV or Sadistic-Overlord motivation. Of course ,nowadays I’m also interested in teaching the game to newbies…call that the Mentor-to-Grow-the-Hobby motivation. But is that fun? Or rather, is it ENOUGH fun?
Maybe not, as I struggle to find motivation to start up a new campaign. Oh, I’ve often thought about posting a “gamers wanted” sign down at the local hobby shop, and I’ve thought of a couple-few games I’d love to try out. But I still haven’t done so. It’s a LOW PRIORITY. Which means it’s not all that important to me. Which perhaps means it takes a special kind of masochist to be a game master, and I’m just not cut out for it anymore.
I look at JM’s Dwimmermount campaign and I see a couple things going on that fire him to continue:
- A serious study of the hobby’s roots (an in-depth analysis)
- A teaching of the game to his own children
I am far less interested in empirical observation than James (note my half-assed theories spewed all throughout this blog), and I have no children of my own (yet!). I search through the blog-o-sphere for other long-term RPG campaigns and I see the connecting thread is that the players are long-term friends, and gaming is just ONE of the things they do together. Otherwise, both on-line and face-to-face “pick-up” games tend to dissolve just as quickly as they start.
Could it be that the lack of glue to hold a group’s cohesion comes from a lack of interest/motivation on the part of the GM?
Maybe. Certainly, when I have been a capital-P PLAYER in these on-line games, the ONLY reason I ever walked away from a game was because the GM was a douche that didn’t know the rules. Otherwise, I always had fun as a player, rockin’ and a-rollin’ with my character. It was the DM/GM that would eventually walk away.
Is being a good GM/referee a truly thankless task? Is being a good Dungeon Master supposed to be “its own reward?”
I have acted as referee for my nephews playing Warhammer 40,000 on multiple occasions, and I can tell you that while being a ref greatly facilitates the fun of the players (providing that “impartial-voice-of-reason-and-rulings”), I would much prefer to be “in the game” and kicking ass than sitting on the sideline with a whistle.
Is it an age thing? I mean umpires and field referees for sports are often ex-players that just don’t have the stuff to play at their prior level (they "got old"), and so referee as a way of staying in the game, in addition to finding a practical application for their experience and knowledge of a sport and its rules. But RPGs (and war games) are NOT age restrictive in the same way as athletic sports…a player can be 85 years old and still roll dice and write down how many arrows he’s expended at a group of orcs. The only issue age might have is calling it an early night…and that “negative impact of age” will only be amplified if the octogenarian is relegated to the role of GM/referee.
It’s a quandary. RPGs need a referee to be effective (games like Polaris not withstanding). Referees, to be good at their job, need to set aside their personal expectations and attachments in favor of the players’ fun. So what’s to keep the ref at the table, besides some sense of duty or obligation.
I really don’t know. Money maybe? Once upon a time, I considered a scheme to become a “professional game master,” but quickly discarded the idea. Setting aside the issue of how the hell you’d get anyone to pay you in the first place (and would they pay up front? Would there be a “money-back guarantee” if their characters died?”), I could see no way to charge enough for the time, energy, and preparation one would need to expend to be a pro-GM. That is, no way one could charge enough AND get people to accept the bill.
And anyway if you started charging people for the service/act of being a GM would that suddenly turn gaming from a fun hobby into work?
But is it fun NOW to be a GM? Or is it already work (just without the cash)?
Ah, well, I’m not really looking for answers to these questions, I’m just musing. Running games IS fun, after all…that’s why people do it. And some folks (myself included) are “control freaks” anyway, better suited to being on the GM-side of the screen than the player (where we’ll question and second-guess and “rules lawyer” to our detriment).
Of course, even knowing THAT doesn’t get me super-fired-up to run Traveller. At least not with aliens.
And while I’m thinking about it…Happy Earth Day!
So just in case anyone was wondering, I get easily distracted. No I do not have ADD or ADHD, but I do have something I like to call “Wandering-Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder” or WOCD. Something sparks my interest or curiosity and then I dive the hell into it and plumb the depths for awhile, only occasionally coming up for air…at which time, sometimes something new will catch my wandering eye.
From an astrological point of view, this can be linked to a Mercury in Scorpio in the 12th House…not only do I need to plumb the depths of things I study, but I do this about EVERYTHING not just particular arenas (though escapist fantasy stuff and the occult holds the biggest “draw”). The Mars in Aries ruled by Mars in Aries accounts for the “wandering attention span” and the fact that it is in direct opposition to Uranus (pronounced Urine-Us, not Your-Anus) means that the more prohibited I am from doing something, the more likely I am to fight like hell to do it.
All of which is to say that I COULD have fixed my computer and internet connection (or at least made some attempt to do something practical that I should have been doing), when in fact I was really just distracted by BattleTech.
I have said before that, pacifist though I am, I dig on military fiction, especially of the speculative (sci-fi) variety. BattleTech is a guilty pleasure in which I’ve occasionally indulged for…well, shit, nearly a quarter-century. That is a long-ass time for something that started life as a board game with a single not-quite-64-page rulebook (I think it’s more in the 30-40 page range).
Of course, look how much time Dungeons & Dragons has sucked from my lifespan…talk about obsessions! : )
So my buddy, the Doc, picked up an old Xbox game called MechAssault which is completely and utterly based on BattleTech, and then I picked it up (I owned it before, but had sold it awhile back), and then decided it just wasn’t “BattleTech” enough, and went down to Gary’s for “board game night” where I thought I might be able to entice a few folks to break out the old hexagonal battle map. Problem is, I don’t own anything BUT the map (and the rule books, of course…the OLD rules that is), and I was also looking for any BT miniatures I might borrow for the evening.
Instead, Tim produced a used copy of the original BattleTech boxed set, complete with cardboard stand-ups, the same game my buddy Scott had owned “back in the day.” The same set I had originally learned to play on (and Scott had shamelessly targeted my Rifleman’s head with a Marauder PPC…why in God’s name would you design a ‘mech with only 6 points of armor on the head? Even a 20 ton Lotus has more!).
So I bought it, of course. And I skipped Board Game Night at Gary’s and spent the weekend indulging in BattleTech…including looking for freeware java apps on-line that would allow me to run huge as BattleTech scenarios like I used to with MechForce on my old Amiga 500 (I told you I’ve been doing this for awhile). Well, I couldn’t find MechForce for the Mac but I DID find an app called MegaMek that is a near perfect duplicate of the current version of BattleTech (sans MechWarrior rule stuff). Unfortunately the campaign builder only works with Java6 and Mac hasn’t bothered making that, so I have to edit everything line-by-line by hand and…
…well, you can see how my obsession with this stuff led to me being “off-line” for a few days. One thing leading to another to another, etc.
So, I’ve come up for air and decided that it’s time to take a big ‘ol break from BT (editing code and programming languages is NOT my forte, and my frustrations have been piling up). Plus I’ve got other stuff to do. AND BattleTech “Total War” is NOT the same BattleTech of my youth anyway.
Though it seems more like a miniatures/war-game, I always considered BattleTech an RPG. If your character sheet has a place for your character’s name (not to mention skills: piloting and gunnery), then as far as I am concerned, you are playing a role. If I am imagining myself to be some dude named Bob in a 60 ton, 15 meter tall, be-weaponed construction, by God this is an RPG…and if I’m commanding a lance or company of these mechwarriors, you better believe I’ve got names and call signs (and possibly personalities) for each of ‘em…usually based on friends and relatives (just easier that way).
Of course, that makes it tough to watch ‘em get shot all to pieces…but doesn’t it make you fight harder, too?
Of course, BattleTech DID have a role-playing game attached to it called MechWarrior. I don’t know if MW has been incorporated into the current three-volume-set of BattleTech Total War or not. I re-read MechWarrior over the weekend and man oh man, this is a vastly under-rated game, in my opinion.
In fact, I’ve often heard it remarked (or seen written) that MW is considered a spin-off game to BT…an RPG “based on BattleTech.” Frankly, I find this pretty insulting. Without MW…including it’s wonderful background material, BattleTech as a game loses a lot of my interest.
I’ll say this here and now: as far as original science fiction backgrounds/alternative histories/game settings go, I find the MechWarrior/BattleTech universe to be the most interesting, imaginative, and compelling story published in RPGs. Really.
Star Frontiers, Traveller, Aeon Trinity...even Warhammer 40,000 (I know there’s a lot of Rogue Trader fans out there!)…in my opinion, none of them holds a candle to the BattleTech universe, at least the original material up to the 3rd Succession Wars (I don’t have the later rules, so I can’t really judge the whole Clan Invasion thing, though on a superficial level I think the alternate-evolution-based-on-eugenics-and-warrior-lodge thing is cool…and better done in many ways than the Legion Astartes background of WH40K).
Even without the giant robots, I find the whole BattleTech story extremely interesting and compelling. As I said, I find it by far the most interesting ORIGINAL background material written for any game (I’m not going to judge it against games where the background/setting comes from fiction established in other mediums…for example, Star Wars…but it sure beats the hell out of plenty of those). Which is all the more surprising considering how many of the original mech designs were ripped off from other sources, including Robotech (the anime TV series) and Robotech (the 2-Issue comic book series that had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the Japanimation). The former provided the mech designs for the Wasp, Stinger, Phoenix Hawk, Crusader, Warhammer, Rifleman, and Marauder. The latter provided the designs for the Wolverine, Griffon, Shadow Hawk, Battlemaster, Thunderbolt, and Goliath. In fact the only mech from the original game NOT appearing in one of these two sources is (as far as I can tell) the 20 ton Locust. No idea where the game authors got the Gooney-Bird.
Despite not originating a single mech design (apart from the Locust) the background/history of the BattleTech universe (at least its skeleton) was already incorporated into the game, appearing in the side bars of the original rule book. MechWarrior fully fleshed the thing out and provided a great galaxy to scheme and intrigue in “outside of the mech.”
However, it appears that the game, because of its nature, tended to attract wargamers that weren’t interested in role-playing and repelled role-players that weren’t interested in the basic premise of mech combat.
Excuse me…I know there are plenty of folks out there that enjoy both aspects of gaming, but I’m talking about people interested in more “hard core” role-playing, not just “how much XP do I get for the mission and how do I level up my character’s piloting skill?” There’s plenty of room in the MechWarrior RPG for exploring other aspects of the BT universe without needing a Mech…or an Aerospace vehicle…or whatever.
It’s a shame because it’s a pretty nifty little system. Oh, it’s simple enough to use (base skill roll based on ability score plus skill level, hit points by location determined by overall “Body” score, simple point-buy character gen taking up about four or five pages total in the rule book), and immediately adaptable to the BattleTech game (if you DO want to keep exploring the “war campaign” aspect of the game). But the story ideas ingrained in the game: from court intrigues and diplomacies, to pirate kingdoms, to missing/recovery Lost Technology, to ComStar and the Word of Blake, to the alliances of the periphery, to assassination attempts and spying, to infiltration and sabotage, to jumpships and gladiator games, to political positions and acquisition of titles and land (planet!) grants…all of this is the stuff to make a great sci-fi RPG, even withOUT the “giant robots.”
Anyway, now the game is about “Total War,” a phrase reminiscent of WH40K’s tag line about there being only war in the 40th millennia. Which is fine I suppose, but I’m kind of “war-gamed-out” these days. As I said, I’ve come up for air from my BattleTech obsession, and I see that it doesn’t have what I want…mainly the role-playing aspect that I desire as much as the mech-on-mech combat. So fun as it is to re-tool and re-design the existing mechs for optimal efficiency (Step One: give the Rifleman more armor…on the head!...and make sure it’s using DOUBLE heat sinks), BT is going on the shelf for awhile. At least till the next time my wife is out of town and I’m thinking about Board Game Night at Gary’s.
Friday, April 16, 2010
So I spent an inordinate amount of time perusing a hardcover game called Witch Hunter today over at Ye Old Game Shoppe (that's Gary's Games in Greenwood for those who haven't been reading for awhile). "Inordinate," says I, because it is the type of game I have venomously derided many times on this very blog...you know, the giant, slickly-produced, glossy hard cover tome, thicker than a college Calculus text and full of a mind-numbingly painful skill system.
Witch hunters are an unusual class of characters who combine tracking skill with a knowledge of mysticism and ritual magic. There are two distinct types of witch hunters: those who are lawful good and the unscrupulous type known as chaotics.Lawful good witch hunters work primarily out of devotion to their church and deity. Like paladins, they will only have close associates with those of their own alignment. As their motives are religious (rather than financial) in nature, lawful good witch hunters will not accept work that in any way conflicts with their alignment or beliefs. They may be employed to find missing persons, retrieve lost or stolen holy items, hunt down necromancers and other spell casters of evil alignment, or to perform any sort of missions which will be of benefit to the church. Though they may charge for their services [they] will usually donate at least half of their monies to the church, keeping only what they need to live...Chaotic witch hunters on the other hand, have no ties with any organized church or religious group. Like bounty hunters, most of these individuals will accept nearly any sort of work providing there is money to be made. While chaotic neutral witch hunters are usually no worse (or better) than the average bounty hunter, their chaotic evil counterparts are dangerous fanatics who prey upon the superstitious beliefs of commoners and nobility alike. These witch hunters will often travel to villages and towns and "volunteer" to rid the area of witches, warlocks, and other spell casters, citing the dangers which such "devil-worshippers" present to the god-fearing populace. As proof of their good intentions, they will usually accept no fee until such time as they capture, bring to trial, and convict their first "witch." As students of history will recall, most witch trials consisted solely of torture, false accusations, and the subsequent execution of the defendant. There is a 50% chance that any such trial will strip up the demand for further trials [JB: wow!] thus ensuring the witch hunter's continued employment in the area. Not surprisingly, such witch hunters are much despised by spell casters of all alignments, and are occasionally subject to vengeful counterattacks.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
To understand the place of the adventurer in B/X Dungeons & Dragons, one needs to first wrap their mind around the whole concept of the “normal man.”
The Normal Man (NM) is one of the many monsters listed in the Basic rulebook. The monster represents any non-adventuring human except for certain, specific types that receive their own monster description (for example, the Noble or the Bandit). A Normal Man is any human one might find wandering around the game world…the innkeeper, the minstrel, the blacksmith, a town guard, a goodwife…whatever. From sailors to soldiers to sages, unless they fall into one of the human sub-categories (bandits, berserkers, buccaneers, etc.) they are ALL simply “normal men.”
A normal man has 1D4 hit points. He or she has the lowest line on the combat matrix (needs a “20” to hit AC 0 or better) and does 1D6 damage in combat. They have the worst possible saving throws. They have no other special abilities. In fact they have no “ability scores” at all…I suppose if necessary to make some sort of ability check, a normal man would simply fail.
Compared to these mooks, adventures are people of heroic proportion.
I wrote earlier about the power of the magic-user…how a person that can kill with a magic missile, sleep an entire cadre of guardsmen, charm the king himself, or magically decipher the runes of a civilization that vanished thousands of years before (think Linear A people) should be rightly feared and respected. The other human adventurer classes should be accorded that same respect in the game world.
Let’s compare ‘em, just for fun:
The Cleric: Now if this holy warrior doesn’t inspire awe and respect, something’s wrong here. The average NM should be incredibly deferential and humble in front of the pious cleric…even if the cleric is only 1st level! Why? Well, for one thing, his faith and zeal makes him a fiercer combatant than any average person (D6 hit points, better saves, better attack matrix…even at 1st level). For another, the power of the cleric’s faith alone is enough to repel the Walking Dead. Skeletons and zombies cut through normal men like a hot knife through butter…and a 1st level cleric can make a cross out of two sticks and a piece of twine and send ‘em packing. Right there: actual physical evidence of the power of the gods. And by 2nd level? The spells of a cleric ARE miraculous. A normal man falls under an out-of-control wagon and is lucky to survive with his life (1 hit point)…the 2nd level cleric simply touches him and he rises in the peak of health! Resist cold? The 2nd level cleric can stand naked in a snow storm and not freeze off his fiddly bits. Bless? A cleric can make a non-magical weapon capable of harming the supernatural creature that’s been rampaging the village un-hindered. And these guys only get more powerful over time (resisting poison and spells that would fell the average NM, gaining more hit points and becoming more proficient at attacking and turning undead). Even an “average” Priest of the 3rd level can survive the greatest possible strike of the Normal Man (attack roll 20, maximum damage of 6, versus an average of 10.5 hit points). The normal man better be reverential!
The Thief: At 1st level the thief looks almost like any other urban Normal Man…but it’s just an act. Even at 1st level he has abilities that set him apart from the general populace. The thief’s cunning and grace makes him an excellent combatant compared to the Normal Man (better attack matrix), and his wit, luck, and powers of observation make him immune to hazards that the NM would suffer (better saving throws). In addition, the thief’s skills allow him to attempt stunts that no normal man could hope to accomplish…climbing sheer surfaces, becoming invisible in shadows, picking the most complicated locks. The thief is like a ninja assassin (+4 to hit and double damage from behind? Yowza!), and normal men should walk carefully (and with a bit of trepidation) around such dangerous men and women. Even the “average” thief of 3rd level can survive the most inspired attack of a Normal Man (attack roll 20, maximum damage of 6, versus an average of 7.5 hit points). The normal man is going to be whispering the rumors of the thief’s exploits around the tavern fire, while glancing furtively about to see if the shadows have shifted unnaturally in the firelight.
The Fighter: It goes without saying that the true fighter stands head and shoulders above the Normal Man. The average fighter will generally have as many hit points as any two normal men…that makes a fight with any two teamsters an “even” fight for any career warrior, Actually a better than even fight, as the fighter has a better chance of landing a telling blow (better attack matrix) and will often use weapons that deal more damage (1D8 or 1D10). Normal men should be cowed and intimidated by a 1st level fighter, quite frankly…they are battle-hardened veterans and a one-on-one fight will lead to swift death more often than not for the normal man. And their ability to fight a sustained combat simply improves as they gain experience. It is not a question of how many guardsmen it will take to subdue a 2nd or 3rd level fighter; it is a question of how many men will the fighter kill in the process of being subdued. How many souls is one fighting man (or woman) worth? Would three families giving up their husband/father be too many? Four? The average 3rd level swordsman has 13.5 hit points…by comparison FIVE normal men have a total of 12.5 hit points. That’s five men that could be planting fields, paying taxes, raising families. The fighter has swagger for a reason. The normal man would do best to step aside (with a bow of the head!) when the fighter strides through the town.
Remember, this is Dungeons & Dragons, not World of Warcraft. In the latter game, you create a 1st level character and find yourself a crippled infant in a world of Uber-Men. Most other players you meet are going to completely dwarf you in power, and the normal townsfolk you encounter? They often dwarf even the experienced players!
[why is this exactly? Actually, nevermind -- I really don’t give a shit]
Even Pathfinder has 8th level laborers and 5th level craftsmen and whatnot…what a bunch of crap. Because a 60 year old human seamstress should have the fighting ability to receive and resist multiple blows of my two-handed war axe? Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.
Dungeons & Dragons, especially B/X D&D, does an excellent job of modeling the characters of proper heroic proportion, right from the get go. The mistake that many of us make (and I’ve been guilty of this as well) is down-playing how F’ing competent adventurers are, even at 1st level. They should NOT be treated as “amateurs” or “apprentices;” these characters are ALREADY a step ahead of their fellow humans. The fact that they get killed so quickly down in the dungeon is simply evidence of how dangerous their particular line of work is…and with a dangerous line of work should come ample compensation.
“Ample compensation” ain't just a matter of wealth; booty pulled up from the depths, the gold and jewels of lost treasure hordes already enables characters to live quite richly compared to normal folks (per the Expert rules, a two story house costs a couple grand in gold, and adventurers pull that out of a good-sized horde in a single evening…how long does it take YOU to earn enough money for a house?!). When asking people why they do the things they do, however, one of the reasons oft stated (right up there with money) is the status that their chosen career affords them.
Adventuring humans (clerics, fighters, thieves, and DEFINITELY magic-users) should be treated with deference, respect, fear, and hero-worship by the general population…and these feelings should simply GROW as a character gains levels of experience. Actions of PCs that affect the towns they visit (from rescuing people to off-handedly killing stable-boys in a Chaotic fit of mean-ness) should have the consequence of HEIGHTENING these feelings. There should never be a “what have you done for/to me lately” attitude when an adventurer holds the power of life and death in his (or her) hands…and adventurers DO hold that kind of power, compared to the 1D4 hit point Normal Man.
When the villagers ask adventurers to save them from a group of local bandits (a la The Seven Samurai) or fight a manticore or owl bear that has been terrorizing the town, it is not simply a matter of convenience to the populace. This is Life & Death to them…the average rampaging harpy will KILL A LOT OF PEOPLE before the normal men even ruffle her feathers…and a supernatural creature that is immune to normal weapons (like a werewolf or vampire) will absolutely run rampant over the town. Even if the town guardsmen have a “silver sword” or whatever lying around, the werewolf need only kill its Normal Man wielder and the population becomes sheep for the slaughter.
Normal Men need adventurers…adventurers are the only ones capable of holding off the threats of the fantasy world. Adventurers are the CHAMPIONS of the average human population, they should never be considered “lesser” to anything but a greater hero or champion (if one even resides in the region, which isn’t terribly likely). If PCs are having a hard time hiring porters or men-at-arms it’s due to the inherent danger of their expeditions (and the projected likelihood of survival) not any disdain or disrespect of the characters themselves. In the real world, if a group of mercenaries wanted to hire me to go to Iraq with them, I’d probably turn ‘em down, too…no matter how good the money they offered for me to “just drive the jeep.” I’m not trained for that kind of action!
ANYWAY…1st level demi-humans, with their superior abilities and racial talents, should receive an equal or even greater amount of fear and respect from the average human townie…at least dwarves and elves should; Halflings will probably be underestimated as usual (something I’m beginning to think is actually an advantage of the class). How their own demi-human community feels about them will vary depending on the campaign world, but if they can’t find high status in one place they should certainly find it in another.
SO THERE. Magic-users aren’t the only 1st level characters allowed to swagger (though as stated, they have plenty about which to swagger). ALL adventurers should all be allowed to strut, from 1st level on up to their level cap. DMs? We should give ‘em that. It’s a nice bit of gravy/reward…when adventurers get back to town, give ‘em priority at the inn/stable, a couple free drinks at the tavern, and the respect of any Normal Men they encounter.