Friday, March 13, 2015

Chargen (and Skills!) in Crowns of Blood

[this is probably "Part 1 of Several." We'll see]

Spent much of this morning using Knights Adventurous (the Pendragon supplement for "non-standard" character creation) to see if I could generate something the equivalent of Robb Stark, one of the protagonists of Martin's Westeros saga. Well, at least until he gets the Charley Manson Special (as  happens to major characters with fair regularity). Even sticking "by the book" (more-or-less) I was able to generate a fairly competent young man that roughly models the character at the beginning of the series.

Which was tricky, 'cause we're talking about a guy who had just turned fifteen when the books begin.

Pendragon assumes knighthood (and, it appears, adulthood) round about age 21. Characters created using the default chargen rules of the game all start at age 21 unless a player wants to have an older character (in which case, you were just an old geezer squire...all PCs begin the game with their knighthood ceremony). In the Westeros world, characters are considered adults upon reaching age 16, though many characters begin their "careers" earlier than that (Robb takes up the "King of the North" mantle at age 15, Jaime Lannister was knighted at age 15, women-folk are married off anywhere between ages 13 and 17). The "game of thrones" might be a vicious game, but it's a young person's game.

Knights Adventurous provides rules for creating characters (both male and female) as young as age fifteen. Of course, a 15 year old character to come anywhere near the competency of the 21 year old knights of the Pendragon setting. Hell, it's impossible to even qualify as a knight at that age, unless you get some extremely lucky rolls...the best most can hope for is to become a squire, and then advance (over several years) to a point of proficiency. Usually around age 21.

For Robb, I was able to just barely qualify him for knighthood at age 15 (even though the Starks, and Northmen in general, aren't big on knighthood, I wanted him to be the equivalent). I first selected what I felt was the closest homeland to represent the Starks: Gorre in The North. The most civilized area north of Hadrian's wall, the people of Gorre are culturally Cymric (the default "knight culture" of Pendragon) but religiously Pagan (roughly as equivalent to Martin's "Old God" religion as the Holy Seven is to "Christianity"). Defaulting him to the eldest son of a bannaret knight (the only noble title possible for the region per K.A., though I suppose I could have "cheated" and made him a straight Lord), I was just able to make the bare minimum requirements for being a night by giving him the family characteristic "At Home in Nature" with its associated bonus to the hunting skill.

"Hey! I'm fifteen!"
Even so, he's a less-than-average knight, lacking any martial skills greater than 10 (the "young knight" of the Pendragon NPC lists carries sword at 15 and lance at "knight" is a closer equivalent to the "guardsman" NPC). A couple years of seasoning (and good training rolls during the Winter Phase) could probably get him up to snuff by age 17, but its difficult to believe he'd be winning as many battles in his sixteenth year.

I guess having a pet dire wolf helps.

[for a dire wolf, I'd probably use the same stats as an Irish Wolf Hound, though perhaps with SIZ and STR equivalent to a carthorse as Martin's "dire wolves" are as large as ponies]

Does this mean I need to rewrite how skill points are accumulated (in order to better emulate the fiction I hope to model)? Mmm...maybe. Probably, if I want to stick to Martin's canon. If I want young, conquering hero types (Robert Baratheon waged his rebellion beginning in his 19th or 20th year of age) to have a chance against veteran military commanders (crown prince Rhaegar Targaryen was 24 and a consummate badass when Robert beat him at the Trident), then there needs to be some adjustment to "even the odds." Probably that begins with the default (Pendragon) assumptions regarding "adulthood." I know that a team of 30 year old professional athletes will beat the hell out of young college players in the same sport every time (and really wipe the floor with high school players). Wouldn't warfare be a similar affair?

Anyhoo...some long time readers are probably wondering how I can reconcile myself to a game system like Pendragon when it includes one of those "dreaded" skill systems that I've railed about in the past (like here, for example, or here). Well, there are several redeeming aspects to Pendragon's system that assuage my concerns:

  1. Despite being a "roll D20" system and not the standard Chaosium percentile, Pendragon is still a "roll under" skill system. There's no GM fiat that comes into succeed or you don't based on the roll against your level in the skill (opposed or not), and the most the GM can do is assign a modifier (plus or minus 5) based on advantageous/disadvantageous circumstance.
  2. The game doesn't attempt to create a universal matrix for "every skill in the world," instead providing a finite selection based on a unified theme. You won't find skills like "jump" or "listen" or "hide in shadows" or "pick pockets" because either A) they're not applicable to knightly action, or B) they're governed by other game systems.
  3. There's a conspicuous lack of player choice in skill selection. Skills have assigned numbers based on culture and background with a very limited number of "extra" picks for the player character (and even where those picks can be placed is subject to limitation). As such, character creation is not especially drawn out as player choice and "customization" is curtailed. This is a good thing.

Because of these three factors (and its overall elegance of implementation), Pendragon's "skill system" is one I can live with. I was actually a fan of Stormbringer's (back in the day), and I personally think Pendragon's variation on the Chaosium standard is a better design. Certainly, less search-n-handling time and quicker selection.

That being said, I think Pendragon still has too many skills for what I need in Crowns of Blood. On first pass, here's how I'd shorten the list:

  • Flirting and Romance can be combined into a single skill called Seduction. Dancing might go here too unless rendered as a DEX check (like jumping and climbing) or rolled into the Courtesy skill.
  • Faerie Lore can be combined with Folk Lore.
  • Hawking will simply be a specialty within Hunting (other specialties might be boar, stag, etc.).
  • A single skill Music replaces Compose, Play, and Singing (becoming individual specialties).
  • Gaming, Recognize, Swimming, and Tourney removed altogether (medieval gaming being a matter of luck over skill - I don't care if you can play chess - recognition being part of heraldry, swimming being treated like other physical feats, and tourney etiquette being part of the Courtesy skill if really necessary).
  • Creation of a specialized Knowledge skill for specific types of lore (like Religion, Orate, speaking/reading a foreign language, or the setting-specific care and use of "Ravens"). 
  • Stewardship, while not knightly, becomes a lordly skill necessary for wise governing (and retaining and hoarding resources).

Skills that have "specialties" require the player to choose a specialty; it's simply treated two points higher than the actual skill level, or four points if the character is deficient in other areas (for example, a character with Music 2 and specialty "Harp" plays the harp as if they had four points of skill. If the character has no ability to compose or sing, they play the harp as if they'd assigned six points to the skill).

To sum up, the non-combat skills in Crowns of Blood include only:

Awareness*, Boating (Sailing), Chirurgery, Courtesy*, First Aid*, Folk Lore, Heraldry*, Hunting*, Industry, Intrigue, Knowledge, Music*, Seduction, and Stewardship.

New skills are marked in bold; "knightly" skills are marked with an * (though, I might modify this list). Hunting, Knowledge, and Music all require a character to choose a particular specialty.

Not bad...only about half the number of skills left to worry about.
: )