Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Character Creation vs. Character Building

This is mostly a response to this post on The Word of Stelios, and is expanded from the comment I made there. Read his post first if you haven't already, and then come back here. I'll wait.

First Stelios, then Cirsova, and now me; it proves the point concisely, though.

I'll just come out and say it: I really, really don't like point-buy systems. They make character creation drag, they repel newcomers to the hobby, and they take the focus away from immersion and place it on min-maxing. Even in the simplest, most rules-lite games, so much time can be spent agonizing over where to put those last few points. It's one thing to have points able to be allocated to skills, if the game uses a skill system - heck, even AD&D 2nd Edition uses such a system for its rogue skills. But when the basic attributes of a character are determined by shuffling little numbers around, I call foul.

Let's use my current favorite game, Basic/Expert D&D (Moldvay/Cook & Marsh) as an example. To create a character, roll 3d6 in order. Then choose a class. Then roll for hit points based on that class (that is, if you don't just give maximum HP at 1st level like I do). Then roll 3d6 one more time for starting gold, and use that to buy equipment. Then write down Armor Class based on armor and Dexterity. Total time for an experienced player: 15 minutes or less.

The basic, essential attributes of a character - everything he or she has innately, before equipment, spells, and special abilities are factored in - can easily fit on half of a 3" x 5" index card. In preparation for a Dungeon Crawl Classics-style "Funnel" for B/X, I rolled up twenty-six 0-level characters - "Normal Humans", in B/X parlance - gave them first names, and figured out their Armor Class and Hit Points. All of this fit comfortably on an index card that had been cut in half to make two narrower ones.

"But what about equipment?" Write it on the back; it's a plain white surface.
"But what about saving throws and attack rolls?" Well, I can easily look up Normal Human (or, to use the exact wording in the table, "Normal Man" - although I tried for an even balance of masculine, feminine, and neuter names) on the Saving Throws table, and I know already that all of these characters have a THAC0 of 20.

True, there technically is a way of adjusting ability scores by lowering one to raise another - but as far as I can recall in my gonzo B/X campaign so far (the third session of which wrapped up this past Thursday), no one has actually done it. The curve for ability modifiers means that most adjustments wouldn't have a big effect; one of my players could have raised her cleric's Wisdom to 18, but she decided not to since it would only have affected saving throws, and wouldn't have raised her XP bonus at all (those cap at 16).

Now, I have a player who prefers point-buy to generate ability scores; part of this is due to his terrible luck with the dice when rolling up characters (something I've witnessed firsthand), but part of it is due to his desire to have as much control over the character as possible. I'm starting to think that this player suffers from acute Special Snowflake Syndrome, as the three characters he's had in my games are as follows: a Kitsune merchant, a Dhampir, and a giant(ess). You'll notice that none of those are even remotely core in any role-playing system outside of maybe The World of Synnibarr. In the first two cases, I had to scrape something together from homebrew sources; in the latter, I've had to combine information from The Complete Book of Humanoids with some references to the more obscure implied rules from the PHB and Monstrous Manual. This player insisted that his character had to be about 16 or 17 feet tall, but the largest giant-kin in the CBOH is the Firbolg, who stands about 10' 6". Fortunately, I was able to fudge this because the much taller Hill Giant has the same maximum Strength as the Firbolg (19).

This player is certainly not a bad person or even an annoying player while actually in session; he and I get along quite well otherwise. It just frustrates me that he seems unable to stick with the stuff already in the book. Isn't it enough to be able to play one of four to seven races, and choose from four to nine (or eleven) classes? Apparently not.

I think part of this is a result of said player having begun with D&D 3.5... which leads me to my next bugbear: feats.

I can't stand feats. They take too long to choose from, they're so vague that the player has to either write out a summary of the feat on their character sheet or resign themselves to the fate of having to crack open the rulebook every time they attack or get attacked, and there are some feats that are just plain better than others - a beginner's trap. (I have the same problem with the inflated spell lists in AD&D, but that's a whole other rant.) They're just another reason for me never to run D&D 3e or 3.5, or Pathfinder ever again.

At first, I thought that D&D 5th Edition had improved by making feats optional. But as I examined the process of character creation more thoroughly (and "built" a few characters of varying level myself), I realized something: no matter what optional rules are dropped, feats are still there, hiding under a different name. You might know them as "backgrounds" and "archetypes". Short phrases that have little to no meaning in and of themselves, serving only as shorthand for little packaged abilities or "skill bundles", chosen at character creation? Them there's feats.

Of course, feats are far from the only thing about 3rd Edition and 3.5 that would be a cause for Special Snowflake Syndrome; the mania for prestige classes and supplement bloat (the latter, naturally, also a problem with AD&D2, and even oD&D if you think about it) probably had something to do with it, along with the inclusion of a point-buy system into the core. Making a new character for any standard d20 System game - be it D&D, Star Wars Saga Edition, or something else - takes way too freaking long. Even worse is having to make a character, and then level it up to whatever number the DM has arbitrarily decided as the starting point. I joined an in-progress campaign where everyone was 8th level - and I do mean everyone. Not content with the evened-out XP table that is the same regardless of class, this particular DM (also a good person, and a fun guy to game with) did away with XP entirely, and just levels people up as the "story" moves along.

So anyway, I needed an 8th-level character. My first thought was to make a wizard, but I quickly realized that that was a bad idea; the class features gave me a big enough headache to incapacitate a hippo. Even making a fighter - a fighter, by the Nine! - required choosing a Martial Archetype, and following along with all the fancy feats that came with leveling up. This is probably why I like older versions of D&D more; in B/X and (core, no splatbooks) AD&D2, a fighter is a fighter. Sure, there's weapon specialization in AD&D2, but for the most part one fighter starts out the same as another. The uniqueness of each comes out in play. Delmar the Mighty is famed for his killing of the Dragon of Grindly Grunn, while Ulysses is a very smooth talker.

Likewise with wizards (or magic-users or mages). In either edition I typically run, you have one spell, four hit points, and no armor. You'd better play smart. I find that this is still somewhat the case in 5e (my 3rd-level wizard character got injured in a fight), but much less so thanks to infinite cantrips. (Of course, that's a whole other rant.)

I'm not really sure how to end this post; I've been working on it for two days off and on. Anyhow, thoughts? Has there ever been a system that, in your view, was so fun to play that it didn't matter how long it took to make characters?

Thursday, September 8, 2016

For Gold & Glory: First Impressions

My copy of For Gold & Glory just arrived in the mail today! It arrived much sooner than expected, which is fortunate since I'm planning to get my AD&D game back on its feet in the next few weeks. I'm looking forward to having a single-book rules reference to use in-game, and I'll likely post a more in-depth review of it once I've actually gotten to use it as such.

For now though, I can comment on its physical quality. I opted for color hardcover, and even then the price was just over $25.00 USD (including shipping). It uses matte paper, which doesn't show off the art as well as glossy (and some of the art - mostly drawn from Renaissance and later paintings, as far as I can tell - is very good), but it looks like it'll take pencil much better. Since I'm using this as a reference guide, and it's not a vintage or rare item, I will try to overcome my compunctions and make some notes of my own! It's also quite easy to read, being in my absolute favorite format: serif font, somewhere in the neighborhood of 8-10 pt, two-column layout.

More to come! (...at some point)

(Unrelated note: I'm so glad for the new, larger mailbox that was decided on after the previous one fell over in a storm. The whole book fit in it easily!)