Friday, March 27, 2015

A (Retro)Review-The Complete Paladin's Handbook

TSR, 1994 by Rick Swan
Today's Subject

What a love-hate relationship.
I truly enjoyed many of the Complete line of handbooks that TSR put out in the 90s.  The kits gave characters more flavor and I always went straight for them, but I think I only read maybe 3 of them from cover to cover, the first being The Complete Fighter's Handbook, which was the first to come out as well, the Psioncist and this one.  See, I like knights and paladins are (were, but dammit they always will be to me) knights.  They were knights when they appeared in Supplement 1: Grayhawk and they were knights when they were made a subset of cavaliers, and thanks to this handbook they were mostly knights.  It had sections on courtly love, castle life, duties and responsibilities and a notation that paladins simply would NOT wear anything less than metal armor.  That's all very knightly.  Then there were sections on faith, clerical benefits and powers, and a set of kits that ran the gamut from very knightly to more hermit-like and made a few stops at very specialized forms, like a paladin that specializes in flying mounts.  There was a kit for specifically fighting undead (Ghosthunter), a specialist in dragon fighting (Wyrmslayer) and one of my personal favorites, the Inquisitor, a paladin devoted to combating evil magic and those who would use it.

In fact those three kits were employed by myself and two friends in the Navy specifically to annoy a newbie DM.  We knew our friend was running his first ever game and we knew he loved dragons and wizards and vampires very much, so we conceived the plan to all play paladins each with a kit to combat one of the things we just knew in our hearts we'd have to face.
Okay, I conceived of the plan and they eagerly agreed to it.  Apparently I am a bastard.  I played the Inquisitor in case you were wondering.
Of course I did.
That is one badass mini, trust me

The Inquisitor kit reminds me of the Witch Hunter from WHQ.  Which is probably why I liked it.

This particular kit gives the player a very strong ability to resist illusions that does improve over time as well as abilities to detect and dispel evil magic and a virtual (90%) immunity to charm, mind control, etc.  All very useful in hunting down and dispatching practitioners of evil magic.  It takes away a few abilities (as many of the paladin kits do) however.  The Inquisitor cannot heal by laying on hands, can never learn nor cast priest spells, cannot cure diseases in others, cannot turn undead.  He does retain his personal immunity to disease, saving throw bonuses and warhorse.  Wait.  What in the figurative f..., that's a lot to trade off to be able to dispel EVIL magic a few times a day (it maxes at 6).
Perhaps a regular paladin would be just as effective.

So where is the love-hate relationship of which I speak?
It has to do with the nature of the book itself.  Author Rick Swan was responsible for the book, as well as the Complete Wizard's Handbook, the Complete Ranger's Handbook and the Complete Barbarian's Handbook.  Complete Paladin's came out in 1994 while the first book, Complete Fighter's Handbook came out in 1989.  It was the first and set many of the standards for the line.  I found Complete Fighter's Handbook to be extremely useful.  The fighter had become so undefined in AD&D and the CFHB provided these amazing new things called kits that helped the player define their fighter giving them a few benefits, a few hindrances, and some guidelines for roleplaying their character.  The CFHB noted that the kits were available to rangers and paladins as well, those being subsets of the basic fighter.  For the most part the kits helped to give a player some focus, which might be needed as the fighter was a basic class with nothing special about it.  Paladins and rangers, however, were already quite well defined.  They didn't need kits, but we always liked to have the options.  While the CFHB was full of optional combat rules that any class could use, later handbooks would include class specific content for their subject class that were not easily shared by other classes, if they could be shared at all.  In the CPHB Swan wrote volumes about knighthood, and that appeals to me.  In keeping with AD&D 2nd edition's more "historical" and less sword and sorcery style of play and settings, Swan's work provides everything a player needs to know to play a knight.  I can't stress this enough.  Swan unequivocally establishes that a paladin is a European knight in the style of feudalism and the middle ages.
I know it's a ridiculous sword, but I have always preferred playing Siegfried
For example in the section on equipment he notes that paladins take their equipment seriously and seek to own the best that money can buy.  If that seems odd when you consider the 10% tithing and not keeping treasure (donating it to worthy causes instead) you might find that a bit less than the holy warrior concept you are no doubt harboring.  Yet it fits perfectly with the ideals of the class.  In terms of armor, again we see Swan declaring that a paladin will simply not wear non-metal armors and prefers plate, including giving up magical forms of lesser armor to obtain normal versions of better armors (such as giving up +2 scale for regular plate).  We saw the same thing in 1989 with the Cavalier kit in the Fighter's Handbook.  All of that I like.  I think it sets the paladin apart from the regular fighters as much as their alignment (always lawful good in those days) or their code of conduct (which Swan reinforces as chivalry).
It wasn't all good though, at least not to me.  Swan uses paladin in place of the word knight (although he does open with an introduction that explains the origins of knighthood) and makes it clear in several places that he considers paladinhood to be something bestowed upon a character by a church or government (which does follow along with knighthood, I admit).  Some of his explanations also don't suit when it comes to history, but it is an RPG so I suppose I can't hold that against him.  The kits are probably the area where I find the least satisfaction.  Although I do enjoy some of them, I find them all wholly unnecessary to the game.  Unlike Fighter, Paladin is a defined character.  As we've established the class is a knight, not a holy warrior, but then the various kits redefine the class to the point of creating new quasi-classes, which is very different from what was started in 89 in CFHB.  This reminds me of the Complete Bard's Handbook, which seemed to go out of its way to invent a dozen or so new classes all loosely defined as bards (some were more bard than others with the Blade and Gallant being variant fighters and the Herald being played as a medieval fantasy equivalent to James Bond, while others like the Jongleur, Jester and Skald being very much what the bard class of 2nd edition was originally designed to be).  The kits of the CPHB breakout as follows:

True Paladin-The paladin from the Player's Handbook, with an added requirement to learn the lance.
Chevalier-Effectively the Cavalier kit from the CFHB rewritten for the paladin.
Divinate-A paladin that is the militant wing of a church.
Envoy-A diplomat, really more of a bard's role one thinks.
Equerry-Master horseman, cavarly, scout or guide.  Gets a special bonded mount over and above a regular paladin's bonded mount.
Errant-A tournament jouster and adventurer, oddly enough not the Lancelot ideal version one would think.
Expatriate-Really just a way to play a normal paladin; no church or government support.
Ghost Hunter-Specializes in destroying the undead.  This was the first kit to lose some of the normal paladin abilities in exchange for specialized abilities, all the previous having the normal paladin abilities and a few benefits and hindrances added on.  The Ghost Hunter might be too specialized as normal paladin has a very good chance at success without the added undead turning, dispel evil and immunity to ghoul paralysis.  In exchange the GH loses healing, spells, immunity to disease and curing disease.  Maybe not awesome after all.
Inquisitor-The witch hunter I discussed above.
Medician-A combat medic, focusing on healing over harming.  A cleric is still more effective.
Militarist-A battlefield virtuoso with minor weapon specialization and mounted combat bonuses.  Honestly one wonders if a Fighter would be better.
Skyrider-A paladin that has a flying mount.  That's really it.
Squire-In keeping with the knighthood theme of the book, the Squire is a paladin that never actually becomes a paladin (as Swan defines paladin, meaning knight) and remains a professional servant to a paladin.
Votary-An ascetic, similar to a Divinate, but far less friendly.  Takes vows of chastity and poverty and has little respect for other faiths.
Wyrmslayer-Specializes in killing evil dragons.
I'll show you a Wyrmslayer, buddy.
Swan even suggests a list of possible kits the players and DM can make, noting that the possibilities are not limited to the suggested list.  Of the list two really stood out to me:
Pacifist-A paladin that fights evil by NOT FIGHTING.  That's just stupid.  This is an RPG and frankly that won't work.
Seaguard-A ship-riding paladin that fights evil on the waves.  That one actually appeals to me.

None of these kits are needed, most provide nothing but roleplaying guidelines and some actually harm the paladin as a class (like that Pacifist suggestion).  I don't know if Rick just needed to fill pages or if he really thought all of this was a good idea.  Maybe it was TSR company policy.  It's a shame because there are many good things about the book.  You can add to what I wrote before the sections where Rick breaks out the various paladin abilities and requirements (tithing, lay on hands, detect evil, etc.) to explain their purpose, mechanics, and in game flavor.  It's all very helpful, especially for putting the paladin back into its purpose of knight (NOT HOLY WARRIOR) for the last time (3rd edition would leave that notion broken, bloody and abused in a corner somewhere).  Sure, you could get a group of players together and everyone play a paladin and with the kits they can all be different enough to be interesting, but that does not justify such specialization.  Ultimately I feel like it is a failure compared to the earlier and more useful handbooks.  It didn't ruin one of my favorite classes, thankfully, but it is mostly superfluous to the game and the class and added little value.  On the other hand it did uphold the truth about paladins, which is not the holy warrior, but the shining knight, and for that I can't dismiss it entirely.
Everything that would come after, the tanking MMO bollocks, the leaving behind of the strictly human and lawful good requirements, the belief that the paladin was some sort of half-assed healer/fighter I choose to dismiss entirely.
Because THAT is not a paladin, I don't care how many times WoW tells you it is.
"Got my plate armor, got my shield, got my sword, what am I forgetting?  Oh yes, let me just get out my HAND YOU YOUR ASS button."

Look, not a naked barbarian in sight.  You know why?  Dumbass is dead lying in a pool of his own blood and feces.

Friday, March 13, 2015

(Extremely) Literate Wizards

A man by the name of Simon Washbourne wrote a game based on the old school retroclone Swords & Wizardry that he called Sabres & Witchery and which was by his description an rpg of historical monster hunting.  Being set in a fictional historical Europe like one might find in the film Solomon Kane from 2009/10, Washbourne's excellent (my opinion) re-working of the Swords & Wizardry rules provided a different kind of Magic User that kept both the old school flavor of the M-U and the historical flavor of the setting in a rules lite format.  I find it most intriguing.

We've seen magic systems that use power points and we've seen the standard Vancian Magic of Dungeons and Dragons, and we've even seen the barter with spirits and risk your life (and immortal soul) style of Deadlands, all of which I like for various reasons.  Washbourne's S&W magic system is bit like Deadlands and a bit like Vancian, but differs from both in that it feels more real than all of the systems I've mentioned.  It requires actually reading the spells.  Now in your Vancian "fire and forget" systems a wizard can read a spell from a scroll, and we know that the wizard must read his spells first thing in the morning and commit them to memory.  He's bringing his weapons, loaded and primed, in essence, with him.  He might have a vast library of spell books and resources, but these are the ones he's bringing to the fight today.  In the Deadlands system the wizard knows a small pool of spells but must duel with a demonic entity to get the power to use them; consorting with spirits, essentially.  Power point systems are just convenient ways to power up a few spells as a resource and rarely carry the risk of the spirit route.  S&W tries something very different.
"Wat!  Bring me more books; I've got casting to do!"

The spellcasting class of S&W is called a Magus and can choose either Intelligence or Wisdom (traditionally Magic User and Cleric respectively) as the casting stat.  The Magus starts with a spellbook and no spells in it and cannot learn them until he reaches level 2.  Doesn't sound like fun?  Well it gets better.  The Magus must find spells and copy them into his book to use them.  When he wants to cast a spell he has to actually READ it from the book to get the verbal nuances correct and he can only copy spells into his book that his level allows him to know.  The chart tells us how many spells of what level the Magus can easily cast per day.  Easily is the key here, for you see the Magus can attempt to cast spells all he wants, it just carries penalties that can lead to dangerous backlash and spell failure.  So you can certainly attempt to cast a spell, if you like, but a set of cumulative penalties (-1 each time) to the skill roll almost ensures that to push too hard to exceed your abilities will result in bitter disappointment for you.  It is risk and reward and I like that.  It makes magic dangerous and magical.  Want to cast a spell not in your book (such as from a scroll or some other source)?  Take a penalty.  Spell higher than you currently can know?  Take a penalty per level difference.  Already cast your number of spells for today and want to cast some more?  Take a penalty.
It adds up quickly.
Failure might result in nothing more than not succeeding or it might give you a phobia, blank your mind from casting until you sleep, or age you a decade.  It's a crap shoot.
Must be some pretty powerful spells to have to go through all this trouble, right?
Yes...unless you were expecting direct damage spells, in which case you will be disappointed.  There is not a single direct damage spell in the game.  Not a one.  Well Cloudkill, but that's not a map zap beam or anything and you can just sort of avoid the cloud.  And for good reason, unless you have fighter protection it is not going to be very easy to stop and have a read during combat.
Wait, Rook, what the shit?  Why is any of this good?  Why do you like this?
Okay, let me explain.  Firstly you get some good benefits in exchange for Magic Missile and Fireball.  The Magus fulfills both MU and Cleric roles, and thus can learn healing spells.  His combat profile is a bit better than a standard Wizard as well.  Regardless of casting stat (INT or WIS) a Magus can Turn Monsters (defined as undead, demons and evil beings).  That's quite useful.  While he can wear no armor of any kind, his weapon list is not bad: dagger, quarterstaff, SWORD, & PISTOL.  Aha.  Saw that did ya?  Suddenly looks much better, does it not?
He's 1st level.  That's not even his spellbook.  He's gonna go for it!  Good luck, Numnoots.

Secondly it's all about what you like, isn't it?  If you like magic to be explosive, flashy, and just another way to do damage, you know, MMO bollocks, then this is not for you.  If you like to think like a Magic User, like the subtle way spells can alter a battle or serve you in non-combat ways then this is for you.  For me it is about how the magic feels magical.  All the trappings of it, including the reading from the book, give it a feel of verisimilitude.  This Magus feels like a Wizard.  It's not unlike a Gandalf or Merlin where knowledge is power and the knowledge is right there, in the book, and he can access it.  Failing that he can shoot something in the face with a black powder pistol.  Un-Magic Missile does more damage than Magic Missile and makes a boom to boot.  Do you define the Light spell as powerful?  If you do not then this system is not powerful at all.  However this system does not have elves or dwarves as player characters.  Nobody has infravision save for the monsters.  Light sources, the ability to see that is, are going to be pretty important.  The S&W document is pretty big at 102 pages, but it is still a rules lite core that relies upon general familiarity with RPGs and with Swords & Wizardry to be most effective.  Plenty of monsters, often altered to fit the particular genre, are resistant to non-magical weapons (maybe having an elemental bane, such as silver) so the ability to use magic items, or even cast a spell that temporarily enchants a normal weapon, is a major part of the setting.  Such a setting allows the player to be like Van Helsing, using knowledge, items, and a bit of magic to take on a powerful evil monster.  The subtler magic of the system then simply does not work with fireballs and lightning bolts.  Indeed this is part of the appeal to me.

How would this stack up in a regular D&D game?  I'd still find it a good magic system.  It allows, as with Deadlands, the caster to be more useful in terms of magic if he is willing to take the risks.  Instead of determining which spell to memorize the Magus simply picks a spell from his book when the need arises, which gives the Magus utility, but if the spell is not there then it is the same as not having it memorized in Vancian magic.  At the same time the spell list and the inherent danger combine to make the Magus more than just a spellslinger, as so many modern systems would have it (and even a few of the older ones that tended to focus so strongly on casting spells that the wizard became just a piece of mobile artillery).  Just the inclusion of the sword and pistol to the weapon list makes a world of difference to me.  With a lack of armor the Magus would still be wise to avoid melee when possible, but know he can be seen as more of a well-rounded character.  Most importantly the idea that this erudite figure can do as so many have in literature, which is find a spell in a book and read it to cast it, taking the chance of failure and grave results, gives the entire magic system of feeling more akin to the books, legends and shows we watch about magic, rather than a simple mechanical process in a game. 
"This is my lab.  I have that little gargoyle thing over there.  Oh, that?  That's my spellbook.  What?  Yes, I can read.  I can read quite well thank you.  The stick?  You don't want to know about the stick, mate."

Ultimately I'm saying it is a good system and it feels good to think your smart guy is actually a smart guy who can read and solve problems but can make recourse to a boomstick when necessary.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

D&D Is A Girls Game

Whoa!  Did Rook just cast aspersions on D&D?
No, you sexist pig.  If you think that title is somehow derogatory to Dungeons and Dragons, or indeed roleplaying, you need to check your baggage before taking this flight.

My first introduction to Dungeons and Dragons actually came from two females.  The first was my first high school band director.  She had played D&D for years, before and during college, and would regale me with stories of her exploits.  I was fascinated.  If it had not have been for Ms. Burns I would not have known that fireballs have a huge explosion range and should not be fired in close quarters where the blast can take out your entire party.
Then there was my friend Callie Hallmark.  Callie had read all the Dragonlance novels printed at the time, the Moorcock Elric novels, and had run and played D&D.  I would pick her brain for D&D information before I ever picked up dice to play and play some games with her as well.  Callie was also responsible for my seeing the Exorcist for the first time, for which I am eternally grateful.
Before these women educated me on the finer (and more explosive) points of roleplaying my experiences were limited to solo play gamebooks (I was a fiend for them) and video games, which can hardly be called proper roleplaying.
Of course once I started playing it was in an all dude group and I should therefore be forgiven for thinking that, for the most part, RPG was a boy's hobby.  When we went to the game stores we mostly saw dudes hanging about and playing.  It was hard to get a girl to play in our area and if I did invite one, like a girlfriend, it never ended well.  I came to feel that girls were not just a minority in the hobby, but were some sort of aberration, which is not fair of me at all, I admit it.
Years later when I met my wife (meaning met the woman to whom I am married, not some sort of weirdo arranged marriage thing) she was a gamer, but I did not know that up front.  She is the person that got me to play MMORPGs, something I assumed was an evil trap designed to lure people away from the tabletop.  Which it might be, but that is not my topic right now.

The point is that women, girls, females, transgendered persons, heterosexuals, homosexuals, asexuals...all sorts of people play RPGs.  It was just that growing up in a small town where any sort of intellectual activity was treated with the same sort of attitude that having a pet frog was treated in Salem, I didn't see many female gamers.  Apparently in the early days of the hobby the grand founder, old Gary G. didn't think women gamed or had any interest in gaming.  Too busy cooking and doing their hair, I suppose.

Only it's not true.  Because women are some competitive people.  They can be downright cutthroat, man.

                Chadwick was forced to visit a specialist cleric very shortly after this conversation...
"So basically, little guys, girls just don't play games.  That's all I'm saying."
"Hold me back, Carl..."
"Now, Betty..."
"No, you better hold me back or I'm going to tie his nuts into a bow and shove his dick right up his sexist ass!"
"Ha ha, you crazy girl."
The typical chick in chainmail of gamer art might be considered a male fantasy, all Red Sonja and titillating imagery, but I've known female gamers that absolutely play that character.  It's a fantasy game.  If a dude who is far, far from fit wants to play a character that looks like Conan and beds wenches with no strings attached why would we think a woman wouldn't want to do the same?  Why would we think a woman wouldn't want to play as a dude?
And why, oh why, would we think we needed to make kobolds into Kardashians or spell out that women are allowed, even welcomed to play the game?
People can, and do, do what they want in a free society.  You want to play, you play.  That's the way it is.
"Looking a little timid there, Bob.  What's wrong?"
"I think we have a ghost, for I smell a fart and it was not me."
"Oh, that was totally me."
And I don't mean the girl has to be the cleric.  That's an unfortunate thing that somehow got started, probably due to D&D toys and art back in the early 80s.  The D&D action figures from the 80s had one female character, their Teela if you will, a good cleric named Mercion (and no, she did not wear a chainmail bikini, she wore plate and carried a staff).  The D&D cartoon of the 80s featured two female characters, both variants of the Thief class.  It seemed to be that TSR was saying that it was okay for girls to be gamers, but they needed to play the less martial classes, the nurturers and the sneaks.

Well that's bullshit.  Chicks play Magic Users.  At least in my experience.  Not always seductive sorceresses and beautiful witches either.  I'm talking full on, summon up a dragon to eat your ass, Magic Users.  Something about a wand, I suppose...
"That's right, keep looking at my nipple in the mail...automatic initiative for me, pervo."

And they play warriors.  I'm talking about fully armored, stab you in the face type warriors, and yes sometimes they play Red Sonja, but the point is people of all types like RPG.  Look at the SCA.  People like to pretend and those with ample imaginations (you thought I was going to make a breast joke, didn't you) enjoy playing a persona, getting into the game, having fun and throwing some dice around.

My wife plays an elf.  Bastard sword and shield, chain wearing, occasionally spell casting elf with a strange affinity for gnolls.  My buddy's fiance plays a straight up, two swords and chain armor wearing fighter.  Strictly speaking my character is the one most likely to wear a dress.  For I am a Magic User and that is just the way we roll.

I personally think Role Playing is a very pro-female activity.  From a young age, like in kindergarten, I witnessed girls creating entire, logical, fantasy worlds.  They called it playing "house".  Don't play house with a girl when you are 5.  You will not be in charge.  She is the DM and you won't even have a player's handbook to help you understand the rules.  Boys like rules, you see.  We are the ones that are expected to play sports, which is all about the rules.  Well the first rule of D&D was always that the rules are just guidelines and creative expression is what counts.   I was shocked to find out that Gary G. did not think there would be a large crowd of female gamers (or any really), since it was, in my earliest experiences, females who told me about the game.

Thanks, ladies.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Adventurers Have (No) Class

Aside from the not-so-clever pun, what is the title meant to express?  Certainly there are classes in an RPG.  You have to have classes, even if you don't, such as with GURPS or other "skill" games.
Yet the old school player (and young players of old school and retroclone games) would do well to consider that regardless of the character's class, they are first and foremost adventurers.  They seek adventure.  This is why the player comes to the table every session.  The player desires to have a game full of adventure.  If the character were not an adventurer then the character would be standing guard at some castle or performing daily devotions and duties in a temple somewhere, rather than descending into dungeons or ranging across the wilderness looking for monsters to fight and treasures to claim.  Essentially what I am saying is that everyone's class is, above all else, ADVENTURER-a seeker of adventure!
Adventure, which comes to us originally from Latin, but more recently via Middle English aventure, where it meant risk or chance (compare peradventure, meaning possibly from Middle English par aventure), not the normal, every day activities, but those of risk and possibly reward.  Sometimes the reward is simply surviving the adventure, but still, it implies excitement and interest, not rote activity.  This is why we play.  We want to experience, vicariously through our characters, some adventure.  An adventurer is an entrepreneur of excitement.   An adventurer seeks out adventure for its own sake (and possibly profit).  Risk and reward, death and danger, excitement and loot!  These are the things of which adventure is made.
Trust me when I say this is a cleric.  She's got a mace and some armor and that shield, but she is by no means limited to these things.

Now class, that describes a set of common characteristics used to define a player character within the world in terms of how that character best interacts with the world to solve conflicts.  Fighters are experts in physical combat.  Clerics gain extraordinary abilities through communion with higher powers.  Wizards know a thing or two about the forces of the universe that the common man calls magic.  These are the classes and they describe a loose set of abilities that are organized along common lines.  Wizards do magic.  That's a commonality.  Wizards do not wear armor.  That is a common restriction.  This does not, however, describe what the player character really does.  The player character wizard is not some sage in a tower spending all his time studying the mysteries of the universe.  The player character wizard is a seeker of adventure that descends into underworld labyrinths to face perils.  The paladin seeks to do good, actively promoting it in the world.  He could spend his time feeding the hungry and tending to the needs of the poor, but instead he rides out across the land looking for evil to face in death defying adventure.
See where I am going with this?
Pssst, that trouble you are looking for?  It's right behind you, mate.

Adventurers look for trouble; they are geared for it.  (That too was a pun, but only for gamers)

R.E. Howard's Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane is a great example.  While always attempting to be a devout man of God, the thing he loved best was adventure, even if he didn't know it himself.
"Far back in Kane's gloomy eyes a scintillant light had begun to glimmer, like a witch's torch glinting under fathoms of cold gray ice.  His blood quickened.  Adventure!  The lure of life-risk and drama!  The thrill of breathtaking, touch-and-go drama!  Not that Kane recognized his sensations as such.  He sincerely considered that he voiced his feelings when he said:  'These things be deeds of some power of evil.  The lords of darkness have laid a curse upon the country.  A strong man is needed to combat Satan and his might.  Therefore I go, who have defied him many a time.'"- Skulls In the Stars by R.E. Howard
Armor, sword, must be a fighter.  Yet he's so much more, for he is an adventurer and what you don't see is where the good stuff comes in.  He's not limited to hitting you with that sword.  He can kick you in the junk and follow it with a Glasgow kiss.

The thing to remember when playing is that the class is not a set of limitations.  The player is not required to simply fulfill a role as MMOs and modern RPGs set it.  The abilities of the class are what set the PC apart from the normal non-adventuring inhabitants of the world, like butchers and guards.  It's a mindset as much as anything else.  Eschewing the safe life of the workaday world for a life spent in peril trading risk for reward requires the character to think differently.  So you have a fighter.  He cannot cast magic spells or use most magic items.  Is this a handicap?  Nay, consider all the butchers and guards and tanners and coopers and such that cannot use magic either.  The lack of a special ability does not define the character.  You cannot lob a fireball.  Granted.  What is stopping you from lobbing a clay bottle full of oil with a lit rag in the top?  Only your imagination.  That's all.
                                Chadwick Goes Equipment Shopping:
"So this rope, what does it do?"
"It doesn't 'do' anything.  It's a rope."
"Yeah, but what are its functions when I put it on my hotbar?  Does it provide a plus to climbing?  Can I use it to make a lasso?"
"Oh (heh heh heh) you wanted a magic rope, I didn't know.  Let me just show you my 'premium' stock, oh discerning gentleman."
I recently had the joy of witnessing a youngster (well, under the age of 20), new to tabletop old school D&D, playing a dwarf (so a fighter, really) who thought to toss a rock down a hallway before proceeding, specifically to check for traps.  In that same adventure an elf (played by my wife) used a captured gnoll as a meat shield against a giant four-armed skeleton armed with swords.  This is how an adventurer thinks and acts.  An adventurer is part Indiana Jones, part MacGyver.  You look around, you ask questions of the DM, you use the environment to your advantage and you absolutely DO NOT let your character sheet dictate your actions as a set of limitations like the UI of an MMO.  An adventurer doesn't say, "I don't have a detect traps ability, so I guess I am screwed."  An adventurer tosses a goblin into a room tied to a rope so it can be pulled back if it survives!  Sure Indy is an archaeologist, but that hardly defines his character.  That is just the hook to get the adventure started.  By that same token MacGyver performs missions for the Phoenix Foundation, but again these are just ways to get the adventure started.  You are a first level Magic User.  You have 1 spell today and 2 scrolls that have no practical applications.  Are you limited by that?
Hell no.  Remember what Indy said to Sallah when asked how he was going to catch the truck holding the Ark: "I don't know.  I'm making this up as I go."
That is how to be an adventurer.  
                                Don't be like Chadwick:
"You'll be wanting the Panzer-Suit I presume?"
"I was thinking more off-tank, DPS really.  Something that buffs my hit probability and damage output, but offers decent protection."
"Son, this is a medieval city, just what the Hell are you talking about?"
"I hit things and they fall down."
"Oh, you're a FIGHTER.  Yeah, let's just get you suited up in our Warlord Starter Special, only 600,000 coppers, special today."

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Mathematical Simplicity of Dungeon!

How many hit points should you have to feel comfortable?  Does it depend on your level?
Would 1 or 2 make you uncomfortable and desire to avoid combat?
One of the features of the pre-3rd edition D&D games was the notion of combat as an abstract concept.  Real combat is anything but abstract, however games have to simulate combat and D&D chose to do it in the abstract.  Believe it or not, MMO logic not withstanding, RPGs are not supposed to be about combat.  Combat can be an important part, but it is only a part.  Interaction is far more important and avoiding combat can be just as rewarding, if not more so, than defeating monsters and taking their stuff.  Sadly combat is one of the most regulated parts in terms of rules and thus it gets much attention in the gaming manuals.  The early combat was very abstract, as I have said.  What this means is that it was not meant to be a blow-by-blow description of a fight with every move calculated and every swing of the sword rolled by the player.  The attack roll was really more of a combat success check.  By this we mean that the roll was a way to determine if any of the various blows, feints, parries, and maneuvers resulted in some measure of success against the foe.  To fully appreciate this we must also appreciate what Hit Points really represent, which is not life but ability to stay in action.  Hit Points combine many things including life, stamina, mental fitness for action, and resistance to pain, among other things.  The whole thing is an abstract; I can't say that enough.
Keeping all of that in mind, a combat round, which is anything up to a minute long as of AD&D 2nd edition, is a way to break out the chaos of a general melee into an ordered set of attack rolls, all meant to determine how each participant did during that minute.  It isn't one guy stands still and takes the swing from another guy and then takes his turn, it is just a way to determine an order of resolutions.  A successful "hit" might not actually touch flesh, even though Hit Points are reduced.  That reduction could be fatigue or a bruising through the armor vice a flesh opening slash of a sword's blade.  When Hit Points are gone (0 by default) the combatant simply cannot stay in action any longer.  The blow that reduced the Hits to 0 was the "killing blow" but whether that was the slash that actually opened an artery or simply the battering of a foe into oblivion is up to the descriptive powers of the DM and players.  Essentially Hit Points could be any amount, what they represent is if one is still in the action, so to speak.
In 1989 TSR released The New Dungeon!, an update of its 1975 game Dungeon! which was a game that boiled a D&D dungeon crawl down to its most basic elements: delve a dungeon, kill monsters, steal their stuff.  The 89 edition was the edition I owned.  Currently there is an edition that was released in 2014, itself an update of the 2012 release.  All told there have been 5 editions.  Each edition is marked by a highly simplified, but I think satisfactory, combat system.
Each class has a corresponding color (e.g. red, blue, green) found on the monster cards.  That color will have a number and that number tells the player what they must get on a throw of 2d6 (the printed number or higher) to defeat the monster.  If the player succeeds the monster is defeated and the player may take the treasure found in the monster's lair.  If the player fails to defeat the monster a second throw of 2d6 is checked against a chart to represent the monster attack success.  This is not done if the player succeeds in defeating the monster.  Depending upon the edition the outcomes were a bit different but in the 1989 edition on a throw of 9 or better the monster missed and nothing happened, on a roll of 7 or 8 the hero was stunned (miss a turn), a roll of 3-6 resulted in a WOUND and a loss of treasure and a roll of 2 meant the hero (player) was instantly killed.  That's a 1 in 36 chance of instant death (2.78% chance).  In the case of a WOUND result (14:36 or 38.89%) the player flipped their character card over to reveal a picture with a W marker to represent the wounded status.
A New Dungeon! character card showing the healthy and wounded statuses and a summary of abilities.

There was no penalty to being wounded save that to suffer another wound meant death.  Effectively the player had 2 Hit Points, but this must be viewed properly, in the abstract.  The classes did not all have the same chance of success.  Let us say that the monster in question is a Giant Spider.

We look at the monster card and see that Fighters and Paladins (the red number) need to score only a 4 or better on a throw of 2d6 to defeat the monster (33:36 or 91.67% chance of success) while a Wizard or Thief (the green number) needs to score 5 or better (30:36 or 83.33% chance of success).  It is even harder for the Dwarf and Elf (blue and white respectively) who must score 6 or better (26:36 or 72.22% chance of success).  This combat score holistically takes into account what makes each class what it is.  Fighters wear heavy armor and melee well.  Wizards wear no armor and melee less well than fighters.  Keeping in mind the chance of instant death on a score of 2 on 2d6 should the player fail to overcome the monster we can calculate the danger the player is in in any given combat.  Using our Fighter score of 4 to win we can deduce that the Fighter has a 3:36 chance of failure (8.33%) and a 1:36 chance of instant death only if he fails to win (2.78%) which is actually a 3:1296 chance of being instantly slain (0.23% chance).  Looks like it is worth the risk.

This simple system is reminiscent of the Chainmail fantasy combat table to a great degree.

Once the character is wounded the only change in the probability is that the previous 38.89% chance of being wounded in combat now equals death so you'd take the full 2-6 result into account (since 2 is always death anyway) and that's only 15:36 (41.67%).  The player simply reassesses the risk versus reward in such a situation.  Perhaps retreat is the better option.  But to be fair, if we take a wounded Fighter and put him against a Giant Spider his chance of failure (and thus death) is only 45:1296 (3.47%).  It's still a good risk versus reward.

If we look at all the editions and support articles published in Dragon magazine we can also take magic weapons and armor, as well as some alternate character abilities into account.  Small bonuses of +1 or +2 are much more effective in this system than in a more complex and detailed (such as the flawed 3rd edition) systems.  The gray number on the card image above represent the Lightning Bolt spell that Wizards may use while the yellow number is for the Fireball spell.  Tactically this gives the Wizard the ability to attack at a distance, which prevents the player having to check for the monster should the attack fail, but the numbers are not always better than the green (sometimes they automatically fail) and the Wizard has a limited supply of spell cards.

Now admittedly this is just a board game.  It does not support leveling play where you take a character from neophyte status to world-conquering endgame, but the essence of play could be used in any game.  We measure threats against our chances of success.  That Giant Spider might not be much of a threat to a Fighter or Wizard, but the top tier monsters are a significant threat.  The Red Dragon of New Dungeon cannot even be beaten by a Dwarf or Elf (unless they have a magic weapon, and then they need to throw a 12 on 2d6, which is a 1:36 chance) the Fighter and Paladin require an 11 while Wizard and Thief require a 12.  A Fireball will not work at all (red dragons are immune to fire, heat and flames) but a Lightning Bolt has an 8 (15:36 chance, 41.67%) of success.  If we compared this to a powerful and aged red dragon in one of the editions of the D&D RPG we'd see a monster with massive Hit Points, very good attack values, multiple attacks per round, a breath weapon, maybe spells and a defensive rating (Armor Class) that makes it very hard to hit by all but the highest level characters, and even then they will need to hit it many, many, many times to put it down.  All the while the players will be taking damage.  Does a single roll really change the outcome of the risk?

I am not, strictly speaking, advocating a single roll combat resolution for RPGs.  I understand that there are more hazards in a game than just monsters.  There are traps.  Sometimes the environment wants to hurt you too.  Ever been to a jungle?  Trees actively try to trip you and sprain your ankle.  I'm not kidding.  What I am advocating is the simpler, more abstract concept of combat where you don't have to make 15 rolls of the dice to try to trip an opponent just to get a bonus to kicking him in the junk.  What the 2d6 throw in Dungeon represents is not a single blow of the sword, but the results of the two opponents clashing in a space, perhaps a large room in the case of a dragon, and the statistical outcome of victory and loss.  It requires one to think in terms of risk versus reward and the possession of only 2 conditions (healthy or wounded) is a part of a larger formula that takes into account the attack value as a part of this abstracted conflict resolution system.  In such a case the Wizard does not need to suffer a d4 Hit Die and the Warrior does not need a d10 because holistically this is figured in as part of the number that determines success in combat with Warriors typically (but not always) having the mathematical advantage.  There are a very few monsters (enemy wizards, ghosts, the supernatural things, essentially) that the Wizard has a melee advantage against because of his knowledge of the monster, but for the most part melee advantage is to the Fighter, which is what we've come to expect.

And nobody needs an ever increasing, and frankly ridiculous, amount of hit points that makes a 1d8 longsword look like a toothpick at high levels.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Are You Wizard Material?

Ask yourself this question: When faced with an opponent is your first instinct or desire to blast them with magical energy?
If you said "Yes" you are not Magic-User material.  You should probably pick a different class.
It sounds like you want to be a superhero.  Nothing wrong with that, but that's not what a Magic-User does.
I may not have said this before, or I may have, but magic is about knowledge, not cool powers.  I realize that might seem counter-intuitive, but it's true.  The whole reason the other classes don't get magic is because magic is extremely powerful and dangerous and should not be used willy-nilly, if at all.  Think of magic as a nuclear weapon.  It is inherently dangerous and hard to control at the best of times.  It's fallout is understood, but not easily controlled or dealt with.  For proof of this I offer you the Owlbear.
It's like Woodsy Owl and Smokey Bear got drunk and screwed.
The Owlbear, a classic monster from Dungeons and Dragons, is, by all accounts, the product of wizard experimentation.
Oh my heavens!  Little girl, run...RUN!
"Owlbears are probably the crossbred creation of a demented wizard; given the lethality of this creation, it is quite likely that the wizard who created them is no longer alive. Owlbears are vicious, ravenous, aggressive, and evil tempered at all times."-AD&D 2e Monstrous Manual

That ain't natural.
But it is badass.
This is the product of magic when it is in the wrong hands.  Now Owlbears breed naturally in the wild and have a lifespan of about 20 years.  This is the unpredictable outcome of magic used for wondrous creations but poorly stewarded afterward.  Just the idea that there are places of "wild magic" suggests that this stuff is too potent to be allowed into the hands of the foolish (fighters) or the self-serving (thieves).  Clerics get to use magic, but their magic is highly regulated by their gods, so that is not too much of a problem.
But Wizards...that is Magic-Users, they are a different story.  The duality is that they covet magic for its own sake and simultaneously know better than to use it.

Ask yourself another question: You are working in your library and it has gotten dark.  A candle is on the table beside your lectern where you are reading a new spellbook.  Do you:
A) Cast light in the room
B) Cast Unseen Servant and have it light the candles
C) Stop reading and light the candle yourself
D) Realize you've been at this all day and stop for a cup of tea/pipe break

If you said A or B, you are not ready for the life of a Magic-User.  Put down the spellbooks and pick another class.
If you said C you have the right mindset for a Magic-User.  You won't waste a spell or magic power for something you could just as easily do yourself.
If you said D you might already be a Wizard.  After all you are supposed to be a Magic-User, that is one that uses magic, not an obsessed power hungry madman.

Remember this one?
Casting LIGHT for the party

Found at THIS LINK?
That's what even the simplest magic is supposed to be like.  That's the effect it should have.
Magic is powerful stuff.  You can use it for fun and profit, sure, but that should not be your first instinct.  Don't waste that Magic Missile when a poke with a stick will do the job!  And be mysterious about it too.  Too many people that WANT to play Magic-Users just SHOULDN'T.  They want to be flashy, showing off their power and resorting to magic first, only to find themselves bereft of power and spells when it is crunch time and they really need it.
Say you don't have a spell for a situation.  Relax, there are options that have worked since time immemorial that did not involve magic.  And don't let the party know that  you don't have a spell.  Play it off with seemingly wise and aloof superiority.
"Can't you cast something?" they will say.
"I could," you coolly reply, "but I won't.  This situation does not call for unleashing forces the human mind is ill-prepared to comprehend.  We brought a thief along for just such mundane tasks."
Yeah, that's how you play it.

If you can do that you might just be Wizard material and one day be able to summon demons from the 666th plane of Hell to the Prime Material Plane to get you a cold beer, but if you survive that long you'll be smart enough to know not to do it.  That's what we have hirelings for.

So what have we learned?
Magic is dangerous and should by no means be allowed in anyone's hands so you, the Magic-User, are the best person to horde it and by no means allow anyone to use it.  It's for their own safety, I assure you.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Psionics, Not Mind Magic

Psionics entered RPGs with Eldritch Wizardy, a supplement for the original Dungeons and Dragons game published in 1976.  Psionic powers were available to all character classes; there was no distinct psionicist class.  That class would not arrive until the 2nd edition Complete Psionics Handbook in 1991.  As originally presented psionic powers were a randomly rolled benefit, not easily obtained, and gave player characters one or more (though never very many) powers, not unlike low level super heroic powers (such as the ability to grow in height or climb walls), but acting as at-will micro-spells powered by psionic strength points.  This added a new dimension to characters and was not all that disruptive really.  It was the release of the aforementioned Complete Psionics Handbook that introduced a class devoted to psionic powers.
This was a very different type of class with a mixed bag of features that did not meld easily into the standard fantasy teams we'd come to expect.  From personal experience I can say that with the exception of my original gaming group the groups I played with did not like psionics and often would not allow them.  I suspect this had to do with personal prejudice, as I often heard people say they just didn't like it, didn't feel it fit a fantasy setting, or that is was imbalanced.  To some extent I can understand.  In every edition the psionics rules came out after the core had been published and was being played, sometimes several years after the fact.  This had the effect of shoehorning in the psionics rules and that can lead to imbalance if not handled properly.  I never noticed any imbalance personally.

3.X psionics even seemed to be just another form of magic, albeit using power points instead of "spells per day".  So if a 3.X sorcerer can cast any spell he knows, vice spells memorized, up to his allotment per day, how is a character than does the same thing but uses power points imbalanced?  If a cleric or paladin or bard can swing a weapon and wear armor while casting spells how is a psychic warrior imbalanced?
Short answer: They aren't.  It is personal prejudice.
There are spells a wizard or sorcerer can learn, depending on the edition, called ESP and telekinesis.  Indeed many spells exist that seem to mimic psionic powers, so what's the big deal?
To me the big deal is that psionics and magic should not simply be the same thing only different.  They should fundamentally work differently.
Psionics come from within.  Not like a sorcerer that is born magical with spells running in the blood, but from the mind itself.  The ability to move objects with the mind should not be the same as a spell that pushes an object.  Classic fictional psionics always seems to involve the continued application of the will, not a fire and forget magic spell.  Magic bends, twists and sometimes outright breaks the laws of physics and reality itself.  Psionics is more subtle in that respect.  As an example, let's look at the classic Fireball of magic.

Fireball is a spell that summons a ball of fire from nothing, that burns seemingly without the need for fuel, and then allows the mage to launch said ball at his target(s) whereupon it explodes on impact, doing damage and setting flammables alight.  One way to express this is to say that the mage, upon casting the spell, rips open a hole in the Prime Material Plane and pulls forth a bit of fire from the Elemental Plane of Fire.  This is pure fire.  This is Platonic Fire.  The mage then sends this ball of elementally pure fire toward his intended target(s) where it explodes, unlike normal fire, and then any remaining burning is normal fire.  That's magic.  That save for half damage represents the targets getting the hell out of the way as much as possible, not the targets being somehow immune to burning.  We can assume the remaining unsaved damage is heat, burning, ignition of flammable objects and shrapnel from the explosion.

For the psionic equivalent we have pyrokinesis (like in Firestarter), but what is pyrokinesis?  It is the ability to start fires with the power of the mind.  Can we do better?  Indeed.  Pyrokinesis is a specialized form of telekinesis wherein the pyrokinetic agitates the molecules of a target object causing them to generate intense heat (motion equals heat in an exothermic process) and that heat causes flammable objects to burst into flame.  Not at all like a fireball, really.  Can't be thrown, does not explode on contact, requires the object be able to burn, etc.  Unlike Fireball, which is a spell unto itself, pyrokinesis is a variation of telekinesis.  If you can do the one you should be able, with practice, to do the other.  Can the pyrokinetic use their ability to create explosions?  Sure, if the conditions are correct, but it is not part of the basic act itself.

This simple comparison illustrates the key difference between magic and psionics.  Psionics is not simply magic of the mind.  It is a fundamentally different concept.  It deserves its own rules and classes.  Think of spells as formula for a specific outcome.  For the most part these are rigidly defined outcomes.  The spell for levitation causes the target to defy gravity and float.  The spell should provide guidelines for how much weight can be levitated, for how long and at what velocity.  Can a mage use levitation to throw a target across the room?  Maybe, depending on the GM, the game system, and the creativity of all involved.  If a levitation spell specifically states that the movement rate is very slow then no, the mage cannot throw anyone with it.  He might be able to crush someone against a ceiling, however.
Even the Wookiepedia calls this "telekinesis"

Ideally, psionics works much differently.  The telekinetic does not have a list of spells, that is formula designed to produce a specific reality warping outcome.  Instead he has a power with a general description: allows the user to move physical objects with the force of the mind.  From there it is all about application of power and creativity.  Ideally we are looking at power, expressed in psionic strength, and skill, expressed as the psionicist's ability to manipulate his power.  I point you to the Jedi for a moment.  Is the ability to choke someone to death with the Force really a separate power or is it the application of the Jedi's (Sith in this case) knowledge of the Force.  That is to say that if you have the ability to manipulate the physical world with the power of your mind and will such that you can move objects, is it not an extension of this to crush the windpipe of a target?  Obviously it is and that is how it should be treated, although games disagree with how to do it.  Primarily I believe this is because games need to provide a structured rewards system (e.g. leveling).
Darryl Revok is about to have a very bad day
Remember the movie Scanners?
Remember the part about 15 minutes in where Revok (played by Michael Ironside) makes that dude's head EXPLODE?  Okay, keep that scene in your head, because that is psionics in action.  Revok closes his eyes, grits his teeth, starts sort of moving his head like he's imagining the outcome, there is shaking, the other guy starts to freak out, clearly in pain, and then...KABLOOIE...head explodes.  Now in the film scanners are telepaths only, but by connecting with the mind of another they can influence their nervous systems, sometimes in dramatic ways, such as the head exploding thing.  In the climactic final battle skin burns, eyes go white, veins bulge; it's almost telekinetic except that it all comes from within the target using their own nervous system.  The key thing to get from this is that it takes effort, the force of willpower, and it can be resisted, as with Revok and Vale's final battle.  Each is using their will like boxers use their muscles, straining, fighting, looking for openings in the other's defenses or forcing openings with their own strength and skill.  This is quite different from magic where the mage says the words, maybe pays the mana cost, and shit just happens per expectation and formula.

In game terms we could view this as follows:
You have a mage that wishes to get past a monster.  He looks at his available spells and decides to charm the monster to use it to aid him.  The mage considers his options.  His low level charm person spell will not work on the monster as it is not a person.  He must cast his higher level charm monster spell.  A spell like that requires more power and knowledge, which means a higher level spell.  A neophyte (that is, 1st level) mage simply does not have the power or knowledge to do it, represented by not having access to the more complicated magical formula that is charm monster.  If the game uses a mana system (power points) the spell will most assuredly cost more mana to cast than the simpler spell.  He says the words, uses whatever gestures and/or components are required and viola, instant pet.  That's magic in action.
The psionicist should, properly, have an ability to telepathically dominate targets.  A monster is tougher than a person, having an alien mind, so the psionicist must concentrate, focus his will and pour on the power points.  Ideally the system will let the psionicist keep adding power points in a battle of wills until the monster is under his command.  He can break off the attempt, saving his points, if he feels it is not going to work.  That's psionics in action.
At least that is how it should be.
Ultimately the balance is found when we see that mages are more powerful in the end game.  All the messing about with components and wands and such gives the mage a power advantage.  He violates reality with his magic.  Psionicists tend to be less powerful in that extreme but more versatile.  Not requiring magic circles, wands, or bits of freshly killed chickens means that the psionicist has all his abilities with him at all times, but is limited in their absolute power.  He has to be creative with it.  Mages throw magic missiles but not psionicists.  Psionicists disrupt neural pathways, or perhaps shoot bio-electricity.  It should not just be Mind Magic.  Think of it as internal versus external.  Magic calls on spirits, extraplanar entities, effects the physical world through the application of formulaic (or inborn for some types) power, but always it involves the world without.  Psionics comes from within and mostly works within.  Even the reshaping of physical objects or pushing them around is about extension of the mind's energy to interact with the very molecules, perhaps even the very atoms in the truly gifted, of the world.
There are MANY things wrong with 3rd edition DnD, but this is not one of them.
Mages that specialize in mind magic seem to cross the line into psionics, and while they have appeal, I like to keep them separate.  Of course there is nothing that says that a psionically empowered character would not be called a wizard in the right circumstances.  This is fiction, after all, and the author/creator can do what he or she pleases.