Monday, March 30, 2015

Good Guy Pirates

Here's the rhetorical question that starts this all off: Was Robin Hood a good guy or a bad guy?
Everyone knows the answer is "good guy".  Yet he was an outlaw.  He broke the law, constantly.  We accept he is a good guy because we are told he is a good guy and because we are presented with his foes (Sheriff of Nottingham, Guy of Gisborne, and Prince John) as unequivocal rotters.  Does it matter that he became an outlaw after poaching a deer and then killing a man all because his youthful pride led him to anger and poor decisions?
Admit it, you think this guy is a hero.

Well, honestly that story has long since been replaced by the noble-in-exile outlaw story, so I suppose it doesn't, but the point is that Robin Hood and his Merry Men are outlaws, which makes them criminals and they rob people, which makes them criminals but we accept that they are fighting against bad guys so they are not "bad" in our estimation.  There is something comforting, I suppose, about the outlaw being loyal to a rightful king and fighting against an evil despot.
Yet this does not apply to pirates, it would seem.
Pirate fiction, whether it be written or visual, tends to paint pirates as bloodthirsty rouges, mean-spirited, rapacious, and of generally no count.  The main avoidance tactic is to make pirates into silly and lovable rogues in a comedy piece.
In order to have a heroic pirate you have to have a privateer, since privateers work for a government.
Can you spot the privateer in this picture?  How about the pirate?

Of course history, if you dig deep enough, provides ample evidence of pirates that were outlaws resisting what they saw as oppressive governments, such as the Navy that impressed men and refused to pay them after a voyage, merchant captains (including slave ship captains) that paid low wages, if at all, and were harsh with discipline, and even the nations to which the pirates had previously belonged.  We have ample evidence that the great Blackbeard might have been fighting against an England that had a new monarch of whom he did not approve.
William Kidd as history remembers him
Indeed some famous pirates began their careers as privateers, including Benjamin Hornigold, his protege Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, and William Kidd, who sent out with a privateering commission but turned pirate due to unfortunate circumstances.
Long before those men sailed the seas as gentlemen of fortune, Sir Francis Drake sacked Spanish colonies in the New World, and indeed the Spanish called him pirate and much later when the father of the US Navy, John Paul Jones, conducted terror attacks against the British in their own waters, he too was called a pirate by that nation.  Pirate or privateer, it really comes down to a piece of paper and whether or not you are being targeted by the holder of it.
Captain Kidd, a product of the imagination (of Howard Pyle, in fact)

What is a Privateer?
A Privateer is a privately owned ship holding a commission to seek out and attack shipping and commerce of a nation that is an enemy of the nation that provided the commission, and/or an individual holding said commission or crewing said ship.  The privateer was legitimized in its actions by a government (and possibly financial backers as well) through the issuance of a letter of marque and reprisal.  Effectively it was a license that gave a private individual/vessel the authority to make war on behalf of government of issuance within certain boundaries laid out in the letter itself.  Issuing letters of marque was a good way to increase the naval power of a nation without specific cost to the nation itself.  As part of the practice, a portion of the plunder would be given over to the government, or perhaps the financial backers, with the rest going to the crew of the ship.  There is a certain patriotism to the role of privateer, and yet a certain romantic freedom to the idea as well.  The privateer fights for the home nation (or indeed might fight for a different nation, since profit was the prime motive) but is legitimized by the support.
POTC:OST calls Barbossa a privateer, but the entire ship is full of Brit Navy so he's hardly a good example.
Privateers also make for heroic characters that get to basically act like pirates, but can be good and noble because their crew is not a bunch of bloodthirsty rogues out to rape and plunder.

Only they are, and that's the problem.  People have no difficulty accepting the heroic nature of the privateer captain fighting for King and Country, but the attitude and motivation of privateer crews is essentially the same as a pirate crew: profit and freedom from the onerous merchant/navy shipboard life.  Even if the crew is made up of patriotic persons, these are still private individuals and they want prizes.  But we can pretend they are Merry Men, and that takes the curse off it.  A special case is the pirate hunter.  Benjamin Hornigold started out as a privateer, became a pirate, and then accepted a pardon from Bahamian governor Woodes Rogers and ending his career hunting down his former pirate buddies.  The pirate hunter gets to be a romantic, heroic figure as well, thanks to pirates always being portrayed as vile, evil rogues (save for comedies, where it could go either way).
The thin paper line between legitimacy and outright knavery.
But this is all bollocks, because the only thing that differentiates a pirate from a privateer is a piece of paper and who is making the call.  All the letters of marque in the world do not change the enemy's opinion.  England's privateer is Spain's pirate, you see.  We can say that there is another difference, but now we are getting into the nitty gritty of it, the nuts and bolts, if you will.  Pirates, by virtue of taking up the life of high seas crime, are self-determined individuals.  From the buccaneers of Hispaniola to the sunset of the Golden Age, pirates entered into agreements when they joined crews, had full democratic decision powers within it, and elected their own leaders, but privateers less so.  The captain of a pirate crew held his position through popular election and only as long as the crew wanted him, while a privateer crew was through a contract and the captain had authority close to, but not as absolute, as a naval or merchant ship's captain.  Mutinies did happen.  Strictly speaking a pirate crew cannot mutiny because a pirate crew can also depose an unpopular leader.  At the same time it is the nature of humans that they set up ordered chains of command in any ad hoc grouping, and sailors are given to a routine life, so pirates and privateers could be counted on to mostly get on with the business of being fighting sailors with or without an admiralty court in some distant land handing down absolute authority.  This makes the privateer your beloved Robin Hood of the seas with his Merry Men being the crew of NOT bloodthirsty and rapacious rogues.  Centuries of bad press have made it so that the word pirate precludes heroism, by and large.  We all want to be one, it seems, but we don't want all the bad press that goes with it.  Thus the privateer becomes the solution to creating the heroic pirate captain we really want in our fictional work.  Whereas the image we have of the pirate captain makes us think that he cannot command without murder and fear as his allies, we can accept the privateer sparing the enemy's lives and the crew will not turn against the captain because they are not all bad people, just private individuals with a desire to fight for their nation.
Yes, it sounds pretty sappy and ridiculous when you say it out loud.

Having said all of that, I don't mean to suggest privateers are wimpy pseudo-pirates, because they are not.  Famed French pirate Jean Lafitte could serve as the model for Jack Sparrow, engaging in smuggling, open piracy, spying and serving as a privateer for multiple governments during his career.  Indeed he cut deals, not throats, and tried to maintain a good image as much as possible all while engaging in a variety of quasi-legal and downright illegal activities.  Yet he is the romantic hero played by Yul Brynner in 1958's The Buccaneer.
The aforementioned Benjamin Hornigold may or may not have started as a privateer, but was by all accounts a man of some scruples who preferred to not attack British ships (his home nation), was a pirate and who ended his career as a pirate hunter for the crown.
Sir Francis Drake, sailor, patriot, and according to Spain, a pirate.

Is a privateer really a better choice than a pirate?

Given everything I have said above, it would seem that the line between privateer and pirate is a thin and blurry one at best, and I believe this is so.  What the privateer offers is a good way to have all the cool trappings of a pirate without the image problems that we naturally associate with piracy.  It's to be expected, sadly, that we love the pirate image, but when pressed we all (well not me) tend to sheepishly admit that pirates were bad people, which is not an accurate assessment at all.  You say, "I like pirates.  I'd like to be a pirate." and somebody is going to say, "Oh, you want to be a murdering rapist thief?".  It's like suggesting that slavery is okay.  So you sheepishly admit pirates were evil people, but it's just not true.  Some pirates were evil people in the same way that some car salesmen are evil people.  Still, there is no changing hundreds of years of opinions, so the legitimacy of the privateer allows us to have our pirates and call them heroes if we like.
We can also focus on the privateer captain as the big hero without running into the problems of the fully democratic pirate crew.  Our privateer can be a rugged individual, perhaps former navy, that has his own quest and we don't feel a conflict with his having to keep control of a pack of backstabbing, bloodthirsty rogues.  But we still get the whole pirate attitude and style.  It's a win-win situation, really.
Henry Morgan sailed as a privateer against the Spanish in the 17th century, sacking Spanish towns and recruiting the buccaneers of Hispaniola to form an amphibious strike force, eventually retiring from a life of adventure to become Lt. Governor of Jamaica.  This is a picture of a twat from a rum bottle, not at all the man in question.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Witch Hunters, Warhammer and Otherwise

It's not pretty, but I'm afraid we have to talk about it.
Witch Hunters.
Now I'm not talking about real life witch hunting.  I'm talking about fantasy game witch hunting.
So calm down.

I can't say what fantasy game first included a Witch Hunter character or class, but I can say where I first encountered it.  It was Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st edition which had an advanced career option called Witch Hunter.

In the world of Warhammer these fellows don't hunt witches, per se, but rather root out Chaos, which often means vile spellcasters.  In their extremes this would apply to all magic users, even the good ones, but then that is up to the individual writer or player.
Let's have a close up, shall we?
When I first saw that image I was instantly drawn to it.  It looked familiar to me somehow.
Looks damned familiar...
Ah yes, that was it.  It reminded me of Solomon Kane, a character I had become familiar with thanks to Marvel Comics, in his own limited series and in issues of the Conan magazine.  I liked the swashbuckling Kane far more than the naked barbarian and something about the hat really stuck with me.
Solomon Kane was not a witch hunter himself, but his never-ending battles against the forces of evil, in a setting that historically frowned upon magic as a form of evil, created a template for this type of hero.  It comes as no surprise that his iconic look would be applied to the witch hunter as well.
This guy cares little for the total lack of Puritanism in the Old World of Warhammer and resents your implications.
Thus it was when I saw the Witch Hunter expansion miniature box at a local game store I purchased it, despite not owning the base game Warhammer Quest (I would purchase that as well shortly afterwards).  I painted it up to look more like Kane with black and white, vice the buff coat shown and started using it in games with my mates on base.
He's got a pistol, he's got a sabre, he has magic amulets, he can use faith to alter the outcome of a battle and he can learn dirty tricks to kick evil right in the unholy balls.
It was a glorious character indeed, capable of fighting any evil, but committed to destroying evil casters, undead and Chaos wherever it might hide.  Which was conveniently in dungeons.  I once took out the big bad of the box set, the Minotaur, by my damn self.  Which is something I could never manage on my Bretonian Knight (which is bullshit, by the way) and managed to piss off my buddies since I got all the gold for the kill.  Ah, good times.

Within the Warhammer setting itself Witch Hunters seem to be in a nebulous position.  Sometimes portrayed heroically, sometimes portrayed as craven psychopaths, and sometimes just plain badass, such as the trilogy of novels by C.L. Werner starring Witch Hunter Mathias Thulmann.
"Overkill, you say?  Look, if there were witches in there they are not a problem now.  I call that efficient."
There is nothing about this cover that is not totally badass.
At the time of the writing of those novels the Witch Hunters were considered a sect of the Templars of Sigmar.  You can tell that superficially Werner borrowed from the historical Witchfinder General Mathew Hopkins (including giving Thulmann an assistant/torturer named very close to Hopkins own John Stearne), but Thulmann is not near as unsavory a character and is downright heroic by the end of the series.
Yet I prefer this simple red silhouette on black background cover.  I find it more menacing by far than the omnibus edition shown above.  Less fantasy, I suppose.
When Warhammer entered the MMO market with Warhammer Age of Reckoning (WAR) the Witch Hunter was one of the available classes for the Empire and my preferred class.  With no business being on a battlefield (it was a major stretch to fit them into the story and one I thought could have been done better) the class had to be given the MMO treatment with a build mechanic that allowed them to unleash "finishing" attacks that never seemed to finish shit.  The lore on it was accusations (attacks, really) and then you unleashed when you'd built up enough accusation, only it didn't have to be the same target as you'd accused, so what the hell is that about, really.  My favorite was called Absolution and supposedly involved using a flaming torch to burn the sinner up, but the UI never actually showed a torch.  Sad, really.  At least the hats were cool.
Fortunately my own imagination did not fail where the MMO did.
Part of the problem, I will admit, is the MMO problem itself, which you will know if you play them.  MMOs rely on a set of programmed routines for the hotbar such that what started as a pretty neat animation just becomes another thing to ignore as you grind away in the game.  Something like Absolution should be a rare occurrence, great for a big fight in a movie or book or an asspull to save the day.  In an MMO it just becomes part of a routine and thus not at all spectacular.  When I said I killed the Minotaur all by my damn self, understand that was an inspired bit of gameplay where I looked at the rules, at what I had available, and figured out a way to give myself something like 6 attacks in one turn by using up all my resources.  It was a heroic move and not to be repeated ad nauseam like some bloody video game.  Hell, even Mortal Kombat restricted the awesome killing to once per match at the end.
Suck it, Chaos!  Hope you like that skull, cuz it is going right up your arse.
Once the Witch Hunter had made MMO status, it pretty much became just another regular character with hundreds of them running around fighting in the war, not at all like the lore would suggest.
Looks downright happy.  Like he's saying, "It's a dirty job, but oh do I love it so."
Other games, like Deadlands, would play with the archetype as well, such as our Weird Western friend above.  I admit it, I love that picture.  The artist has really worked the hat and coat into something we instantly recognize and yet appropriate for the setting.  The virtue of these games is that they are fantasy games.  Monsters are real.  Evil is real and can be denoted by an alignment, or a description in a manual.  The characters called Witch Hunters are really evil hunters and get to face down a variety of vile things, like necromancers and undead, as well as spellcasters practicing maleficium.  Are they not similar to paladins?  They can be and indeed a paladin can be one, but to make a character or class specifically is to touch on the idea of a person fighting against evil by knowing it intimately yet resisting it through some combination of faith and skill, often with very little magical help.  Very little vice no?
Well yes.  Again, fantasy genre, which means magic is just an accepted part of the whole thing.  Solomon Kane acquired a magical staff from the African witch doctor, N'Longa (with whom the Puritan developed a lasting friendship, I might add) which was revealed to be the Staff of Solomon.  So it is not that magic of one kind or another is not employed.  Indeed another favorite of mine, Giles Redferne (played by Richard E. Grant) in the film Warlock, displays several times his knowledge of folk counter-charms for the titular Warlock's magic.  The use of minor beneficial (or at least not harmful) charms to counter true evil magic is well-established in folklore and literature.

What makes a Witch Hunter?
Expand for a better view
Observe the handy illustration above.
While any player can choose to play a character as nice or nasty, good or evil, understanding or prejudicial in judgement, the best characters are the ones that are not disruptive to the game or party and can get along with others.  We are all here to have fun.  That said, the Witch Hunter type is, like the Paladin, a character of great conviction.  There is no room for self-doubt when fighting pure evil.  Evil will seek to use any weakness or chink in the proverbial armor to gain an advantage, seducing, manipulating, and even equivocating to gain the upper hand.  Do not let a vampire get chatty.  They might try to convince you that they are just another organism feeding on prey in the natural world, or worse try to gain your sympathy for their plight, all the while they are really bloodsucking fiends of the night that must be destroyed.  Thus only characters with strong convictions and absolute confidence should take up this monster hunting role.
Guns are a plus, but not necessary.  The image of the Witch Hunter with gun and sword is so commonplace and so popular (I like it) that it would seem to be required, but really it is not.  However a good Witch Hunter type character will have an arsenal about their person consisting of trinkets mostly; items that are bane to supernatural evil, such as silver, iron, herbs, holy water, minor talismans and such.  The Witch Hunter trades supernatural power (such as Clerical spells) for knowledge and how to apply that knowledge in practical ways.  Unless the character is also a Paladin, torture is an acceptable method of fighting evil (even Solomon Kane was tempted to use it against the vile Le Loup in "Red Shadows"), including the all too human variety for which there is simply no excuse.  While you could play the character for comedy (as Frank Finlay played the Witchsmeller Pursuivant in series 1, episode 5 of The Black Adder), typically this character is played as more grim and determined, but it can still be a hell of a lot of fun.  Dry sense of humor is, however, always appreciated.  Think Batman.
"My lord, you see how the duck still possesses him!"
Play us out, Solomon.
"Unholy fiends to my back.  Devilspawn serpent before me.  The gloom of the cave oppressing but for my absolute faith in God Almighty.  Must be Wednesday."

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.