Thursday, August 21, 2014

Adventures Of An Ersatz Aquaman

The time I played a Sea Ranger.
I love the ocean.  That should be obvious given how often I talk about pirates, sharks, Aquaman, or when I redecorate my page.  I love the sea and all that goes with it as much as I love Halloween, and that's saying something.  When AD&D 2nd edition released the Complete Ranger's Handbook in 1993 I was mostly unimpressed.  I didn't care much for rangers as a class and rarely played them, but upon finding the Sea Ranger kit I found myself excited about the prospect.  Clearly I had to play it.
So I made a character, picked the Sea Ranger kit and joined the game.
It was not, in retrospect, a judicious move on my part.
I was about to run smack into the Aquaman Problem.
What is the Aquaman Problem?
Well since you asked...
Aquaman is awesome. As a hero he has an amazing suite of powers that are really quite impressive. He doesn't just breathe underwater; he is adapted for life deep under the ocean surface. Every 33 feet of depth in the ocean is equivalent to a full atmosphere of pressure (sea level is 1 atmosphere). The pressure becomes crushing and in order to survive you must be tough. And he is. But it is more than that because he can quickly ascend and descend and move through it like it was air to a normal person. He is strong. On land, unencumbered by the pressures of the sea he is VERY STRONG, VERY TOUGH, and agile. True, he can only survive out of water for a short time (roughly an hour before negative effects begin but a quick dip cures it). A human can survive far, far less time underwater unaided. He commands sea life. He's a warrior king. He's awesome. The problem is that outside of his element, even though he is superior physically to most average heroes, he just isn't making full use of his abilities. Superman, by comparison, can just hold his breath and dive down into the sea and beat up the kraken. If you compare Aquaman to Superman he is not impressive. Of course he isn't. That's not the real problem though. The real problem is that the seas are his element and so his adventures need to be in and on the seas. Most supervillians hang out on the land. There are not many banks to rob, scientists to kidnap, or nations to rule beneath the waves. The result is that no matter how awesome Aquaman's powers and abilities, his element is just not very interesting to us. Thus Aquaman ends up on superteams, like the JLA, where he is seen as a 3rd stringer. If they have an adventure in the seas he's the expert, sure, but when Green Lantern makes glowing scuba gear for everyone (except Batman who has been just itching to pull out his BatScuba) and suddenly Aquaman is just another member of the team, not the mission leader like he should be. Back on land, while he is a formidible melee fighter most of his special abilities just don't come into play. Years of poorly written Superfriends episodes have left us with a low, comical opinion of Aquaman.  Which is just bullshit.
King of THE (definite article) Seas
Well that's what happens when you play a class tied to the sea in an RPG that is not, in and of itself, an aquatic campaign. See by the 1990s the 2nd edition was starting to drift toward bonuses, bonuses, bonuses as the baseline. The fighter might have been quite skilled in dealing out and taking damage but we, the players, wanted more and more special features, more abilities, more plusses. Thus the Complete Fighter's Handbook was released. As the first of the Complete series it provided minor bonuses and balancing hindrances to give the plain Joe Fighter more RPG punch. The success of that handbook meant more would follow and by the time of the Complete Ranger's Handbook things were getting a bit silly. Rangers were already specialized as a class, but the CRHB provided a list of completely unneccessary kits to give them more options. And bonuses. For the most part they sucked. Feral Ranger (Tarzan, Mowgli), Beastmaster (like the film), Justiciar (more fighter than ranger, which is bloody pointless) and more. One particular kit was the Greenwood ranger. More on that later. I was mostly unimpressed until I saw the Sea Ranger. I had toyed with the idea of making a Ranger that specialized in the sea instead of the forests sometime before the Handbook was released. It was purely a thought exercise until the kit made it official. The Sea Ranger had a number of neat special abilities and a few classic ranger abilities were removed. Where no note was made things stayed the same. Below is a short version of the Sea Ranger:

Sea Ranger Abilities:
Primary Terrain: Aquatic (which is expanded to include lakes, rivers, oceans, lakes, coastlines, beaches, small islands, and puddles but not swamps, which is odd)
Role: Sought out to be an expert in aquatic environments, but considered mild mannered on land, unsure of themselves, readily follow orders when not in environment. (Described in the text as professional sailors-clearly the authors had never met a real sailor; these are not mild mannered guys on land)
1. Sea Tracking-can use the tracking ability at sea.
2. Land Scent-Can smell the presence of land within 50 miles and has a 10% chance per level to ID it if he's ever been there before.
3. Sea Legs-good balance in situations such as a narrow beam or a rolling deck.  Takes no penalties to attack roll in THOSE SITUATIONS and gets a +2 to Dexterity checks and Saving Throws in THOSE SITUATIONS.
4. Aquatic Combat-No penalty to attack rolls when fighting in water, still must follow all other rules for Underwater Combat.
5. Parliament of Fishes-Starting at level 12, once per week, can call up some fish and ask them for a favor but must provide a gift or sacrifice.  Favors provided as examples included finding a treasure or asking about location of any nasty monsters.  Yep.
Using his amazing aquatic telepathy, AquaRanger summons dinner for his raccoon pal Toby.

1. Tracking-In non-aquatic terrain tracking chances are halved.
2. Move Silently/Hide In Shadows-Sea Ranger has neither ability.  They are replaced by Sea Legs and Aquatic Combat.

This is by no means the weirdest thing to come out of that book.  There is an option for a ranger to become a humanoid tree.  A damn tree.
This treeman grows bark skin, drinks water with his toes, photosynthesizes his food, can grow an extra limb (pun, but yes) and generally creeps people out. Oh, and has a pathological fear of fire, axes, and termites.
See?  I can't make this shit up.

Sadly he lasted one session then I junked him. Partly this was due to our tendency in those days to not stick with a single campaign or even characters within a campaign. Life's short, we thought, play everything. However in his one great adventure he did SFA. He was Aquaman hanging out on land. Being only level 1 he couldn't call up his fishy friends and even so we didn't do anything aquatic. You really have to make sure your DM wants to do an aquatic campaign, otherwise you end up never getting to use your special abilites. Even if you do they aren't that great. My DM at the time was more story oriented than detail oriented. He could come up with some memorable storylines and some crazy encounters but he was not one to hand out penalties and bonuses. What good is having the benefit of NOT suffering from penalties for fighting on a narrow beam or a rolling deck if the DM doesn't hand out the penalties in the first place? We just weren't getting into those sorts of games and if we did get near water, well chances are the players had to remind him to hand out the bonuses and penalties. As I said, story driven DM, not a number cruncher. Nothing wrong with that. The fault lies with me for picking the wrong kit. On top of that I had made the fatal mistake of preplanning my character's story instead of being ready to roll with the DM's game. DON'T DO THAT. I was tumbling chicken at Hardee's for 8 hours of the day and I got bored all the time. I created whole character backstories in my head back then to keep from losing my mind. It was only natural to advance that forward. So there I am playing this well-developed backstoried character with sealskin pants (to prevent water damage) and wrist claws made of Kraken claws (for fighting up close in the water) and ready for an aquatic adventure but I forgot to check what the game was going to be first. Yes, I was Aquaman in the adventure against the Sand Monsters of the Gobi! Mea culpa. So that was the short, tragic(ally boring) career of my Sea Ranger.

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