Saturday, September 05, 2009

Fantastic Characters vs. Common Characters

Robertson Games recently posted an interesting contribution to the on-going discussion of how to define "old school," Differences & Directions in Dungeons & Dragons, which lists a bunch of differences he sees between Basic D&D and the latest edition. It hits most of the major features that I think of as differentiating the styles behind the two games, and both makes it clear that neither style is inherently superior to the other and demonstrates why different people might naturally prefer one style to the other.

In fact, it creates a pretty thorough checklist of things that I think are awesome in the Labyrinth Lord game. But not a completely thorough one, and that's another advantage of the list. It presents old school as a handful of features that, while they work well together, can also be taken and considered individually or in groups.

In my case, besides some quibbles about the power level part of the list (I love having just one spell slot to wrangle at first level, but I can't legitimately describe a game where a gang of 1st and 2nd level characters end up on the plane of Fire, however badly they do there, as "low power.") the main area where I don't clearly lean towards the Basic side is in the "Fantastic Characters vs. Common Characters" category. I really can't be -- I'm having too much fun playing a nixie, which isn't as far out there as you can be in terms of monsters with weird powers, but it's still a lot more exotic than the standard options.

But I'm not completely in the 4e camp, either. The character who's now a nixie started out as a dwarf, and a fairly non-descript one at that. No unusual powers, fairly standard backstory. Likewise, I tried to make my cleric a reasonably typical human with a reasonably typical backstory. I've been having all kinds of fun with her, because "reasonably typical" means she's actually fairly odd in some respects, by my standards -- she's argued with the party half-ogre in favor of slavery, and her religious ideas are, obviously, pretty far out from my own.

For the most part, I like making characters who are fairly normal, particularly when the setting itself is interesting. It's easier to explore a distinct milieu when my character's not an odd-ball herself. But I don't mind at all when a character doesn't stay normal. I'm much happier with my dwarf-turned-nixie than I would have been if she'd stayed a dwarf; though then again, that's partly because of all the interesting social issues it brings up for her and the rest of the group. And those wouldn't have been as interesting if I hadn't already been playing a relatively normal dwarf to begin with.

(Not entirely normal, mind. One of the things that made her being a nixie interesting to begin with was that there were a number of features of dwarven society that she really wasn't too thrilled with, but I didn't make her knowing that, and she only really found that out herself after hanging out with humans for a while.)


  1. that's those dang pesky humans for you...

  2. I know, right? They're always going and giving nice dwarven lasses all kinds of ideas about marrying who they want to marry. Of course, that was after she ran away to become a pirate all on her own, so she can't *entirely* blame them. ;)

  3. Yeah, the power angle is odd. It's not quite enough to say low vs. high, but mabye flexible vs. defined? With a neo-classical game, you can play low-powered or high-powered characters with relative ease, depending on the gear the PCs get and the optional rules you tack on. In 3.x+, you're pretty much stuck with the power levels as defined, unless you're willing to gut the feats, skills, and CR systems.

    (Of course, the price the neo-classical games pay for this is not really knowing what an appropriate challenge is for your group. Learning how to eyeball difficulties is something every GM has to learn by screwing it up every now and then.)

    And it's not just the power levels but also the power types. I was helping a friend build a 3.5 priestess last night and was shocked to learn that intimidate was a cross-class skill for clerics, where diplomacy was not. Apparently, clerics are supposed to be more Jean Luc Picard and less Sister Agnes Marie. ;)

  4. I suppose the difference is that the DM and players in a "common characters" game tacitly agree to limit the gear and play with optional rules that recognize the "common-ness" of the beginning character?

    You can play an interesting character in a "common character" game, but the character is fragile at low levels.

  5. trollsmyth: Yeah, there's definitely a lot more flexibility in the older games, just because there's less stuff already there. But I'm also not being entirely fair, by mixing up system-defined power and the fuzzier stuff that a character picks up. (The latter of which I think tends to be more significant in neo-classical gaming, but that's just me.) On the other hand, that's a point in itself: that you can have 1st-level, low-powered characters who are looking over their shoulders all the time because they could die at any second, and still have them matter because there's more important stuff in the game than how many giant spiders they can take on. ;p

    A Paladin In Citadel: The frequency of character death does exert some pretty significant pressure on the players when they're putting their characters together; it can change the whole process of character generation. And that's partly why my character has gotten weirder as the game has gone on, because I've gotten more confident that she won't drop dead at any moment -- partly because she's gotten tougher and I've gotten smarter, and partly because I've found out that my DM doesn't like killing characters, and while there are still deadly threats in the game they're usually in places where I know what's coming. Usually.

  6. Oddysey: Yeah, I think that kinda fits in with his Resource Optimization vs. Creative Problem Solving. A lot of what Rukmini does is off-the-character-sheet resource optimization, which in this case leans the game heavily towards Creative Problem Solving. It's really why we can have a team of 1st and 2nd level Labyrinth Lord characters on the Plane of Fire and not have the whole thing break to pieces.

  7. Well, that and the peculiar nature of efreet society in your game. But that's another point: regardless of how low or high the power level is in this game, the power curve itself is a lot flatter, and, I think, this is true of neo-classical gaming in general. Yeah, technically B/X goes all the way up to Immortal, but for the most part an old school game runs from "guy with a pointy stick" to "guy in charge of a bunch of other guys with pointy sticks," whereas 4e assumes you're going to ascend to godhood and engineers the XP curve so you can get there in a reasonable amount of time. Likewise, while Fire is a dangerous place, it's not the epic-30-level-danger-zone it would be in a later edition of the game, and it's dangerous more for social reasons that for stuff that'd show up on a character sheet.

  8. Robertson's wrong about D&D, and it's a weird thing to claim for anyone familiar with the original game.

    OD&D, Holmes Basic, and First Fantasy Campaign all clearly presented non-human, even monstrous, characters as perfectly acceptable. You didn't have any special rules for each kind, they were just 1st level characters with whatever powers & limits the GM thought appropriate, but plenty of my games had dryads, centaurs, and satyrs, and in "monster campaigns" ogres, balrogs, trolls, and young dragons.

    Dave Arneson created the Cleric to put a brake on Sir Fang the Vampire, run by another player.

    Obviously Tunnels & Trolls, Arduin, and Palladium Fantasy made that more explicit, with no clear delineation between "PC race" and "monster race", but it was present in OD&D.

    In the old days (until '82, '83?), monster characters were not unusual in D&D games I played in. After AD&D really took over, they almost completely vanished, even from D&D.

    AD&D is the dividing line where it became a racist Humans and Demi-Humans Only club, with that diatribe by Gary Gygax in the DMG. 4E is in this way, unusually, a throwback to the original game.

  9. Actually, if you look closely at the original post, Robertson is specifically talking about "early 80s Basic D&D."

    But there are two separate schools of thought on that topic even within "old school" D&D, and that's part of why I'm so ambivalent on that particular issue. I have equal affection for the laser-dinosaur-mutants school and the your-equipment-consists-of-a-dead-rat-on-a-stick school.

  10. Those two aren't so contradictory: The non-Humans aren't that much better than Humans, they can't be or Humans would go extinct. I usually let them have one of their species powers at start, with level uses per day (so roughly equivalent to spell-casting), the rest delayed until they reached their full HD in levels, and then level-capped them one level higher.

    Non-humans also start with the same 30-180 GP gear as humans. OD&D PCs aren't impoverished like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay; a starting Fighter (literally a "Veteran", an experienced & well-paid warrior) can easily afford chain (30 GP) or plate (50 GP), shield (10 GP), sword (10 GP), and a riding horse (40 GP), with a bit of pocket change for inn & stabling.

    That's the area where 4E is light-years away from OD&D; 4E is full of superheroes with magic powers that go off all the time. OD&D's biggest, weirdest things could maybe breathe fire a few times a day. Woo.