Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Spoiled Rotten

John, who posts as jbeltman, added this comment to my work blog yesterday, leaving me to wonder if we have learned anything at all:

"What, fighters get no love? You mention clerics, magic users, etc but not the other classes. Was that just an oversight or are you restricting sages to these classes? I would prefer leaving the areas open to any class so that players can have any character concept they like. Like fighters who know about monster biology or famous arms and armour, or cultures and their military tactics, or art, science or poetry (think renaissance dandy or samurai poet), or religion and they love debating it; or thieves who know all about art and how much it is worth, or locks and mechanical devices."

Now, John's a good fellow, I have no wish to disparage the comment.  He is, after all, arguing for democracy, and the principle of enabling players to participate as they like.  It's noble, really.

Only, we went down this path, didn't we?  This was the sentiment that began somewhere in the early 80s and gained steam through national conventions and people who wanted to listen to players complain that thier characters weren't as powerful as mages and ... well, mages, and how we had to throw open the doors and embrace skills, not classes, because skills were more individual and friendly, and everyone could be the character they wanted to be, not the characters they were forced to be.  Yay.  Because the game is really about how I measure up to other people, it's about how important I am, and about how my personal needs to express myself need to be incorporated right into the game, for the good of everyone!  Because we know, when I get what I need, that makes me feel special, then that is always good for everyone.  That's why everyone needs to get what they need, so that I can too.

And so on until 4e spills squalling out of its mother's uterus, fully deformed and quite literally 'bloodied.'

So why didn't democracy work?  Well, to begin with, we began a system with skills that weren't all exactly the same value, so that power players quickly learned what were the strongest skills for the least cost.  RPG character construction follows exactly the same principles as Wall Street in that regard, or any other system in which the biggest rewards are given to those prepared to be the biggest, least morally compassed dicks.  This then left everyone else at the table as weaker than the biggest dicks playing, so to compensate they had to take the power options too, so that everyone's individuality ultimately became "the perfect path to sheeplehood" ... a process that was honed and refined right up through all the lovely 3.5 days.

This was then improved upon by getting rid of every skill or power that wasn't ridiculously powerful, then reducing everything in the game to meaningless proportions by giving beggars and little children living on the streets upwards of 200 hit points, and really tough monsters thousands of hit points, what with surges and special healing features and wands and god-given special compensations, until a battle between two ordinary citizens having a disagreement over bread prices could take all evening to play to its bloodied conclusion (all conclusions are necessarily bloody now, because bloody is a nice word, it works as a verb and a noun and an adverb and an adjective and ... heh heh heh, bloody - now you say it).

In reality, it isn't the expression of individuality that matters, that's just an euphemism for "When do I get what's coming to ME?"  John's comment above only seems to be about nobility and players liking things and having character development about samurai's loving poetry and so on.  The reality is that we see a rule like the one I proposed yesterday and a big part of our consciousness rushes towards the players in our campaign (because John was legitimately thinking about his players) suddenly moaning and complaining that the casters were getting all the pie, that the fighters and thieves and so on were getting shafted again, poor bloody fighters and their endless misery, standing in the rain and staring into the library at the mages and clerics having a great raucous time shouting phrases out of books and shimmying around in the glory of their superior knowledge.  Have I no love for fighters? John asks.  Hell no.  Freaking brain-dead meat-shields, I hope they get a sword stuck through their middles, spilling their weak-ass crybaby intestines so they spread like a carpet for the beautiful people to walk on.

For forty years players have been pounding their chests and simpering about what their character hasn't got, what their character needs to be happy, how unfair the game system and the world is to their character, blah blah blah, and for forty years the game industry has bent over backwards in absurd ways to compensate for what amounts to a shit load of poor moral fibre and the rectitude of a rectum.  This one cry and the service of it has irrevocably split the players into defensive clans, it has spoiled the continuity of the game, it has damned development, and it has now wasted two whole generations of children.  And still, there is the cry, there is the damnation of any system that says, for the sake of creating individuality, some characters can do this, while some characters can't.

Never mind that this is true for every class.  Never mind that the player can choose which class to play, or that options exist for a player to have more than one class at a time, so that the player can be a samurai poet (monk/bard) or a biology studying swordsman (fighter/druid) or a thief that knows about locks (um ... that would be just 'thief' - locking making is a secondary skill, not a field of knowledge).  The point isn't that the player CAN be those things, the point is that the player has a right to be those things in the way the player wants to be those things.  They want everything personally tailored for their personal satisfaction and their personal need, or else the thing is abusive, unloving, immoral, unacceptable and ultimately proof of poor game design.

And then everyone else, wanting no one to feel abused, answers "Yes, yes, you're right, I'm sorry, I'll redesign the game until you're happy. Okay, Veruca?  Okay?  Daddy loves you, yes he does!  And he will buy you squirrel, any squirrel you want ..."


Silberman said...

My feeling about this is that I like characters to be able to have special areas of knowledge selected by players, but I don't want to have these be from a predetermined, balanced list of "skills" with special rules and tables for each one.

What I've been doing lately is taking the additional languages AD&D used to give out for high intelligence, and letting them be additional knowledge slots in general, regardless of class. Players decide what they want to put in these slots, and during play, their chance to know something useful is some kind of INT check, with likelihood of success influenced by how broad or deep they chose to make their knowledge (monsters/humanoids/goblinoids/hobgoblins/this hobgoblin clan/the lineage of this hobgoblin king).

I mainly use these knowledge areas as one more way to give players minor clues and background about the world.

We've been assuming these areas of knowledge are at about the level of an amateur enthusiast, not a professional, and they don't improve as the characters level up, unless they devote time and resources to increases their expertise.

Jomo Rising said...

This is just an awesome sentence: "For forty years players have been pounding their chests and simpering about what their character hasn't got, what their character needs to be happy, how unfair the game system and the world is to their character, blah blah blah, and for forty years the game industry has bent over backwards in absurd ways to compensate for what amounts to a shit load of poor moral fibre and the rectitude of a rectum."

jbeltman said...

Cool, I wasn't really thinking about it in terms of min/maxing or optimising damage output but your sage skills look like they have some mechanical effect. And I don't know everything about how your world works.

I guess I would also add these points.

In your reply to my comment you said that not having the ability to read means they have no knowledge. I am not sure I agree with that.

You say that a fighter who wanted to also be a poet would be a fighter/bard. Yet you are giving the cleric access to art and music. Wouldn't they just be a cleric/bard? How tied to a class is an area of knowledge? If music is the sole domain of a bard would astronomy be the sole domain of the Astronomer character class (yet to be described)? So then you could have a cleric/bard/astronomer?

Does a person have to be able to do the thing to be a sage in that area? e.g. a music reviewer or critic might not be able to play an instrument. Conversely new bands might not know about music history.

A lot of people who fought in history were not primarily Fighters. I am thinking of Greek citizens in the city states, or medieval peasant levies, English bowmen, or hunters. These people were maybe merchants, carpenters or farmers first who also had to fight. The same as compulsory military service doesn't automatically wipe someone's brain.

Who taught the clerics? What is the primary source of knowledge? Who wrote these books? Were the clerics fighting the monsters? I suppose they can. I find it hard to imagine fighters not talking around the camp fires about monsters they have fought, the grizzled old timer knowing the most. I kind of like the idea of fighters all around the world employing clerics as henchmen to give them information. The fighter monster hunter exploring with his faithful cleric at his side, the fighter pirate with his cleric navigator, I am picturing buddy comedies everywhere!

I was also wondering if your rules will include the possibility of sages being wrong. Books were notoriously full of bad information in history. Like animals that did not exist, what strange people lived on distant lands, the earth being flat, etc. Would your astronomer believe that the Sun orbited the Earth? Would your beast sage be able to tell you in great detail about the Jabberwocky, or how tigers get distracted by marbles?

I also think that there might be an argument to be made that becoming a sage is dependant on time spent studying that subject. So anyone in the adventuring life, fighters, clerics and magic users included, who spend time treking, spelunking, fighting etc instead of studying, conversing and debating, would have a really hard time becoming a sage on any subject. i.e. there is a difference between a cleric who hikes through the forest, delves into a dungeon and smashes orc heads with his mace, and a cleric who spends the same time researching astronomy. The first cleric wouldn't be any different from a fighter, he would spend time hunting, cooking food, making and breaking camp and looking after his weapons and armour. So NPCs only.

I like what you are doing anyway, I just have trouble seeing the divide between the class occupation and what that character knows. I also like the idea of intelligent fighters, so many leaders from history started as fighters. e.g. Odysseus, Julius Ceasar, Tacitus, Hannibal, Sun Tzu, Alexander the Great. Some of these were noted writers. Many kings were fighters and it is hard to imagine them all being illiterate. Stuff like this as well I am just wondering how these kinds of people can exist in your world, if at all.


Alexis Smolensk said...


There is a lot of cluttered thinking in your reply. I believe the answers to many of your questions are self evident. I would say that clearly, no, you don't know how my world works. You don't seem to have read my post about bards, nor the post I put up yesterday (not two days ago) on sages.

You seem to be taken up mostly with justifying general game rules on the basis of a few examples from history that you have over-simplified. For example, among Classics scholars, Caesar's Latin is considered valuable for teaching children, as it is painfully simplistic. And while yes, Tacitus was a general, his histories were written when he was many years older, not when he was on the battlefield. That hardly makes him a justification for fighter/writer.

The strength of your arguments come from your belief that anything can be justified if you just think hard enough about it. That's all well for you. I am looking for a game mechanic that empowers players in a limited, reasonable way.

Feel free to go off and invent whatever sage system satisfies you. I think that the one I'm drawing up may not be something you're ready to understand.