Saturday, June 28, 2014
Musing On Preferences
In part, I do this because I really want to figure out what would be the perfect game for me at the gaming table. It's not going to be easy, since I have conflicting gaming desires. I like GURPS, for example, due to its flexibility and ability to model events with precision and detail. I like RuneQuest because of its clean, simple systems and feel of gritty heroic fantasy. I like D&D (in all of its variants, from AD&D to the Arcanum, Palladium RPG 1st edition, ACKS, Swords & Wizardry, Adventures Dark and Deep, and so on for hours) because of the ease of preparation compared to most other games, its particular feel of heroic, fantastic action, and its placement as a sort of "common language" of gaming. I like Traveller because of its relative simplicity and mundane feel (which is a boon, as it helps to highlight the more unusual material in a way that heightens the effect). I could go on, listing the things I like about Flashing Blades, Villains & Vigilantes, Top Secret, and so on, but I think that the idea is illustrated. The thing is, the detail and precision of GURPS is not a good fit with the clean simplicity of RuneQuest and neither fits well with the quick ease of D&D prepwork, the mundanity of Traveller does not compare well with the heroic fantasy of D&D, and so on.
So, I need to filter everything down. I can't have the world, so I need to figure out what part of it is most important to me. Right now, I'll think specifically about what I like and dislike about D&D.
As I said, I love the quick prep. To create a character, it's a simple matter of roll 6 stats, select a class, roll hit points, roll money, select equipment, and go. Magic-using classes take a touch longer because they require spell selection, and some versions of D&D require a bit more involvement what with selecting skills/feats/kits/whatever, but it's all still faster than choosing where to spend point (GURPS), figuring out skills (RQ), or generating a full career-to-date (Traveller). So, I love that. I don't like that characters are then limited to actions defined by their character class, so that (by most versions of the rules) a Paladin can't climb up a cliffside or even learn to do so, a Thief can't pray to the gods, a Cleric can't experiment with summoning demons, a Magic-User can't learn how to swing a sword well, a Druid doesn't know how to track animals and can't learn how, and so on. Obviously, individual Referees (and some versions of D&D) have their own way of handling those cases, but here I'm talking about the main structure of a rules system.
So, what is a character class? It seems to be a package of abilities that cluster around each other, so that a Fighter knows how to use more different weapon types than any other class, learns how to fight at the best available ability, has the best available hit points (representing the ability to defend in combat, endurance, and so on, like the long swordfights in old swashbuckler films), gets the best category of extra attacks, and all of the other things that are directly involved in combat in D&D rules. But that isn't quite right, because the Cleric isn't really centered on worshiping the gods, instead having those abilities, plus the second-best category of fighting skills. Still, D&D character classes cluster around four different archetypes: divine miracles, combat, magic spells, and skilled abilities. There are some classes that cross over between those categories (the Ranger has combat, magic spells, a bit of divine miracles, and skilled abilities, for example, or the Monk includes combat, skilled abilities, and something like focused magic spells that are not entirely unlike divine miracles), but they seem to me to simply prove the point.
So, the main distinction of abilities is along those four lines. Dividing skills any further seems like splitting hairs, for the most part. Perhaps we could consider that the "skilled abilities" category should be directed at specialties, so that one skilled person is a burglar, while another is a wilderness scout, and a third is a sailor. But why should a character have abilities only from one category? As we noted, a number of subclasses in D&D cross over between these main categories. One of my favorite games (deliberately not mentioned above) is Fantasy Wargaming, at least in concept. It handled the matter by simply giving every character a level in each of the categories (though it compressed the "combat" and "skill" categories into one "Combat/Adventuring" level), effectively meaning that there were only four "skills" in the game. It also gave six areas of special talent, to cover specific adventuring focuses such as climbing, stealing, or tracking, which follows my musing on specialties.
I really like the way that specialties of that sort are handled in Lamentations of the Flame Princess. In that game, a character of the appropriate class starts with all of the specialties at default values, which are appropriate to use with characters not of the class as well, and then adds a number of points to them, giving a result that shows how many chances in six the character will succeed with using that specialty. Similarly, it is only with Fighter levels in that game that a character becomes better at fighting. Those ideas would be easy to incorporate into a game that otherwise structures character abilities on the Fantasy Wargaming model.
This sketch so far keeps the game within my goal of quick and easy prep. A character can be rolled up in roughly the same amount of time that it takes to roll up any other D&D version's characters. The steps are actually easier at start, since every character will start out with the same "character class" selections, having a level (or 0-level, which is what Fantasy Wargaming does) in each of the main ability areas. As a result, there's no need to divide up ability points for the skilled ability specialties, no need to pick spells (since every character will have some facility with spells, albeit very weakly - those who wish to specialize will quickly pick up spell mastery and such). Or, we could alternately say that each character chooses one category to give one level, with the others starting at level 0. That would require a slight bit more work, with fighters choosing a fighting style (other characters would be allowed to wait until they finally achieve 1st level combat ability), magicians choosing initial spell mastery and perhaps a magical style (again, other characters would wait until they reach 1st level magic use), and so on.
The most difficult part, so far, is figuring out how a character divides up experience between the four levels. Presumably, combat ability would go up by defeating foes in combat, skill ability might rise by the acquisition of treasure, magic ability increase by various magic-related goals, and miraculous ability by pious actions.
To determine how the abilities will work in detail, I need to figure out specifically what sort of tone I want. Wuxia/chanbara/effects-laden heroics? Gritty low fantasy? High fantasy? Manapunk? Something else? To do that, probably the easiest way to go is to create an Appendix N of sorts for such a heartbreaker project (I guess that it's a project now). I want my Appendix N to include both books and movies, since we have a wide enough range of fantasy film now to make that effort worthwhile. I'll do that in a different post, though. For now, I'll just pick two items to give a quick idea of the feel I want: Robert E. Howard's Conan stories and the movie Dragonslayer. That seems to indicate that I want a gritty low fantasy default setting, with magic that is mostly in a ritual mode and powerful, or quickly used and on a par with physical action.
I actually want the magic to more closely resemble a slightly fantasy version of what real-world magicians have claimed to be able to do, but not reaching into the stratosphere of the more outlandish, mythic magic of some of the wilder epics (like the Kalevala, say). The magic should look more like magic in the Lord of the Rings books with a perhaps more medieval tone, and less like the Dungeons & Dragons movie. Maybe I want to include the exotic rites found in Howard's Conan stories too, but you can actually find similar things in the grimoires of the medieval era into the 19th century (and even some of the more outré 20th and 21st century grimoires like the Voudon Gnostic Workbook and its related texts; not that I know yet if I'm going to directly draw on those late sources).
A not-unrelated question is what level of abstraction to choose for combat. Should it be the D&D-like abstraction of vast quantities of hit points being worn away until someone scores a telling blow? Or should it be the detail of GURPS, where every blow is described in detail by rules parameters and resolved? Or (more likely) somewhere in between those two extremes? That needs thought.
How should religion work? I think that I would most like it if the system could handle monotheist, polytheist, and abstract mysticism equally well. While the system in Fantasy Wargaming works reasonably well, it requires a lot of fiddly tracking of fluctuating numbers. I want to handle that with less constant attention and Referee fiat. I'm still not sure of the best way to go about that, so I will have to think about it for a while. I suspect that treating piety as the experience system for the religious level is the best way to go, with sins (or spiritual pollution or blasphemy, for those religions without a general concept of "sin") throwing a block in the way of appealing to God or the gods for favor and assistance. Further, there could be a system of mysticism related to this, in which a character gains spiritual insight instead of piety and learns to perform amazing feats (which would be something like the Monks of D&D). I'll have to think about matters like conversion from one religious type to another, practicing more than one religion, and so on. I'll also need to think about the differences between devotional action, theurgy, mysticism, belief, and other approaches to religious/spiritual power.
This took a turn from my original intention, wandering through the practical matter of design where I had originally just wanted to think about the nature of my preferences in a more abstract sense. Ah, well. It seems good enough.