09 April 2013

H is for Heroes

A cavalier in action! A true hero!

Heroes. I find the concept is alien to many gamers these days. I say that because, one of the worst things to come out of the 1990s and even the late 1980s is the skill/power concept. No, it did not begin with D20/3.0 (although that was the penultimate expression of the concept). What I mean is two ideas. First, there is the attitude of "If I don't have the skill I cannot attempt to perform a certain action," and its close corollary, "If I fail the skill roll, I miss it all." The gaming community is ripe with stories of failed notice rolls and the inability of the character to see the door in front of him. It's even become a running joke in some webcomics:
Elan fumbles a Spot check.
Second, there is the attitude that the abilities completely define the character. Followed too far, and this leads to 4.0-type skills that are just the "pushing of a keyboard button." At the other extreme, it leads to the ossification of the archetypal system that is a strength of old-school gaming and (1e) AD&D in particular. Allow me to elaborate on this last point.
Old-school gamers are quite pleased with the four "archetypal" classes: the armored fighter wielding  a sword and shield, the wise cleric healing and turning back the forces of Undeath, the skulking thief armed with quick-wit and ready blade, and the mysterious magic-user summoning arcane power to slay. In B/X and BECMI we also have the concept of "race as class": the sturdy dwarf fighter, the bright-eyed elf who combines steel with sorcery, and the resolute hobb-, er halfling fighter. These are clearly defined images. Anyone who has lived in western culture can equate these to literary and mythical figures: Lancelot, St. Francis of Assisi, the Grey Mouser, Merlin, Gimli, Lord Elrond of Rivendell, and Samwise. They work.
Some might say that the multiclassing in AD&D muddies the waters a bit, but not really. An elf fighter/magic-user is no different from a B/X elf. Even "new" multiclasses are acceptable: isn't Frodo more of a fighter/thief? And opening up new classes to demi-humans is good as well for the same reasons; Bilbo is probably just a straight up thief, for example. New specialty classes open up archetypes; as long as one doesn't go too far, it doesn't dilute things much. Rangers, monks, and druids, o mai! Even brand new classes from dragon are adapted from other games/editions are fine as well. Necromancer? Yes, definitely an archetype.
"We don't have a cleric...somebody is going to die, dude!"
If everyone is an archetype with their own little niche, what does one do when that niche is empty. So, how does a fighter climb a wall? How does cleric get rid of the trap his spell discovered if the thief is already down? The answer: very carefully! The character is not defined by the character sheet and its stats; the character is defined by the PLAYER!!! Both of the situations above can be solved without a thief. the thing is, the thieving abilities work (by my estimation) in a combat round (lock picking) or without extraneous equipment (wall climbing). Take note of the scene in "Conan the Barbarian." When climbing the Tower of the Serpent the two fighters (Conan and Valeria) are using a rope; the thief (Subodai) is climbing the wall freehand.
If the party had to disarm a trap without a thief, it would take them at least 15 minutes. They would describe their plan, and I would assign a chance, usually less than a thief....DEX as a %, add a racial modifier if applicable (a dwarf removing a trap, for instance), possibly doubling it if the plan was solid, halving it without a plan. Easily done.
What about other skills? Well, previous profession would be a guide (Secondary Skills Table, DMG pg. 12) and roll a % based on an applicable stat doubled or even tripled. Also class would. A fighter might not ride as well as a cavalier, but he should have some proficiency. As an aside, the reason I do not use the non-weapon proficiency system from DSG/WSG is that it leads down that straitjacket road too easily. Try anything; I'll give the player a chance.
I have wandered far from my intended post, but that's ok. Let me wrap up by saying two things. First, the PCs in AD&D are a cut about the average. Of the four archetypal classes, three have more starting hit points than normal men. If one looks at some of the expanded classes, it is possible to have way more than the norm; a ranger or barbarian with the right stats and rolls can start the game with a max of 20 HP at first level! Second, Kevin Siembieda writes in several of his games that it always amazes him that people forget they're playing HEROES! They complain that the character is not normal or realistic. Well, duh! You are a HERO!
Until tomorrow, gentle readers, keep the sword blade sharp and the components near to hand!
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