By the time Unearthed Arcana was released in 1985, my friends and I had been playing the game for almost six years. I’m sure that for some players somewhere it was a shot in the arm, but for us it was largely a piece of junk, full of typos and badly worded design flaws. While some of the ideas had merit (notably cantrips), most of these ideas had already been put forth by Dragon Magazine and had been incorporated into campaigns by the players themselves.
I bring up the U.A. because it indicates the thinking process of the company that continued to sell products for the game, resulting in three flaws: A) they were perpetually behind in their thinking process, rushing to solve problems that savvy DMs had already solved on their own; B) they continued to perpetuate the original flaws of the game; and C) they were interested most of all in selling the same game over and over again, reworded or “reworked,” as exemplified by the 2nd and 3rd editions and the books released to support them.
I need not discuss the lag in thinking, as this is to be expected with a corporate mentality. Eventually, the game players split into two factions—one of which is clearly visible everywhere on line, which discusses the latest releases with the avid interest of pop fans everywhere. As this group does little thinking for itself, and is dependent on the corporation to feed it, there’s no need for the corporation to be particularly forward thinking. This plays to point (c), in which we see that all you need is a shiny new cover on the same old shit in order to sell product. Car manufacturers have been playing this technique since their inception.
The other group doesn’t buy product. This group doesn’t need prefabricated plastic-dungeon sets, as they know they can make their own with a few power tools and effort. This group doesn’t need another book with sixty pages of character creation, forty pages of weapons, eighty pages of magic items and sixty pages of spell descriptions (with two pages of equipment and one page describing “outdoor adventures’). Thus, this second group has NO IMPORTANCE WHATSOEVER as to the commercial development of the game, which has become the only public face that anyone can see.
Having dismissed points (a) and (c) therefore as mostly uninteresting, let’s discuss point (b)…flaws and failures in the original system.
First and foremost is clearly “alignment,” the brain child of Gygax probably, who felt that players couldn’t have a personality without grafting some standardized graph onto it. I never knew anyone in the first half of the eighties that used it, with the exception of Paladins, forcing them to be “good” in order to limit the character at high level. Later on, I met a string of rather queer DMs who felt that it really fueled character development—though none of them could explain how, and I learned to stay far away from such people as they tended to pocket silverware and such. The public relations problem the corporation was having with the fact that the word “evil” was being used at all in association with a “children’s” game practically guaranteed that alignment would continue to have relevance in the commercial game—along with the clear understanding that parties should be encouraged towards the “good” path.
I have made an unending stream of players happy by merely using the words, “I allow evil paladins.” In fact, I don’t give a rat shit how a paladin behaves…having read Le Morte de Arthur and thus knowing that knights behave in all sorts of ways. Moreover, it’s just common sense. Death and decay are part and parcel with nature; the GODS, having some greater knowledge of the natural world, would have less invested in the notion of mortality than mortals…and thus what care they that paladins rip goodwives asunder and butcher little children? All the more meat to occupy the outer planes and from which to pick an army.
Paladins aside, the problem was made worse with the advent of the Unearthed Arcana, which tried steadfastly to establish character codes, such as those of the Barbarian and the Samurai…characters which, if we were to believe what we were reading, would be run more by the DM than by the players, forced to kowtow to pre-set character traits loaded with punishments for “incorrect behavior.”
Why should I, as DM, suddenly have to behave as the character police every time a puffed-up fighter wants to take a shit in the woods? Or, in the case of the barbarian, wants to behave rationally in the face of extreme danger? It was clear from the first readings that these characters were woefully over-supported with powers and abilities in exchange for the political correctness of their class structures. I saw no way in which this would support the game as designed, so I disregarded the new classes. I took some of their features and sprinkled them among the original classes (without restrictions on their use).
For about six months I heard protests from people wanting to try the new characters. After six months most of these people had had their opportunity to do so, in someone else’s campaign. Interest quickly died.
Free action, I found, was a better sell than character abilities.
Let me take a moment, here, to reflect on another failing in the character system as it stands now—and as it is loved by the commercial advocates of the game: the use of skill points to buy skills to create characters not restricted by class.
I admit, I’m not fully clear on how this manifests itself in the present 3rd edition game. I’ve looked over the tables and read the rules, and I feel confident that the system came directly out of RuneQuest, dressed up of course. I played that system as part of another hybrid, Middle Earth, and hated the system immediately. Here’s why.
It takes very little time to discover the most efficient way in which to use skill points, to create the strongest most efficient players. While there may be other skills available, one has to be an idiot to take them rather than the more practical skills. Our deviating idiot will find his or herself constantly demoted to the second rank in every encounter—because they don’t get +7 when they attack and they don’t cast magics enabling them to fly or what have you. Whatever the system, pretty soon you have twelve characters running in your world who are all exactly the same in their abilities. And don’t say it’s not true, because I’ve seen it happen again and again. If you’re the sort of person who is willing to pay points for useless skills, come on over; I have a used car for sale that you’re gonna love.
So what about character classes? Ah, that gets us down to the nitty-gritty at last. Let’s discuss characters next.