Sunday, February 19, 2017

Rules Cyclopedia Oddities Part 6: Diversity

Sorry for the silence, folks, I've been brutally busy only to catch a cold, start a new job after that and now I'm even more busy than I was before *sigh* Anyway, on with it. Thought I'd start with something short and easy, while I'm at it: a new part in my longest running series, the Rules Cyclopedia Oddities! Herein I collect observations about the little details in the great D&D Rules Cyclopedia and ponder on them a bit. Today I poke the bear and talk about the diversity presented in that book that saw the light of day some time in 1991, frickin' quarter of a century ago (yeah, I feel old now. too). This is NOT a political post, just observations ...

Diversity, what is it good for?

Diversity has been an issue among publishers for round about 2 years now and although I really don't think in those kinds of terms (I try to see people for their individual merits and flaws, not necessarily for the flags they carry) the notion that it is something that needs to happen in role playing games, today more than ever, managed to sneak into my (everyone's?) subconscious and I tend to notice attempts towards or against it more often than before.

It's neither a good nor a bad thing, it's just an additional thing. I mean, I think it's okay to build a certain awareness for how different we all can be by showing those differences and making the labels a thing (empowering stereotypes that way, but anyway), it's just that I learned to value human beings in general and go from there ... Just different angles of the same thing, I suppose.

Role playing games have always been about playing what you want (within agreed rules) with whoever wants to play, so as far as I'm concerned, diversity was always a given ... the kind of diversity where you try to find a way to play a 3 meter half-bear/half-human (Beartaur?) with laser-eyes, razor-sharp wings, a light-saber, a rail-gun and a never-ending cigar (which is a thing, I'm sure).

Never thought I'd get a second chance to post
this picture. Heh :) [source]
But munchkin fantasies aside, you can play what you want, that's the big pull of role playing games: it only has the restrictions the group of people that plays can agree upon. The sky is the limit and all that.

With publications, especially with rule books, it's a bit more difficult. Ideally a book should reach each and every possible reader, regardless of age, cultural background, gender, education or whatever. The funny thing about the human brain is, we as readers already meet halfway with every written text, as we learn to associate with the contents we read when we learn reading to begin with. Thus I had no problem reading and experiencing books with children or women or even sociopaths or elves or robots or what-have-you as main protagonists. That's just how we are wired. Immersion and all that jazz.

What a rule book has to do, on the other hand, was a matter of debate for some time now. It's something I followed loosely, but when I took a look into the Rules Cyclopedia just the other day, I started noticing a couple of (I think) interesting, well, oddities about it.

Diversity in the D&D RC

Going by the English version, the whole thing is in a very conversational tone and the author (Aaron Allston) speaks directly to the reader*. I think that's the ideal approach, actually. No matter what examples you bring, it's always to illustrate something to the reader, not assuming it is the reader.

Additionally, Allston always uses "he or she", not just one version over the other (like 3e did, for instance) and the word "male" and "female" are mentioned about the same time as often ("female" is used one more time, I think in the Monster section) ... So as far as gender is concerned, this is an even match.

As far as the rest is concerned, it gets a bit tricky to argue with just the text, so let's check the illustrations next. Actually, that's the thing I noticed that made me write this post right now: the illustrations are blissfully all over the place. Most (all?) of the book is illustrated by Terry Dykstra** and we have a broad range of ethnicities and cultures, with many female characters as a bonus.

Not the Gandalf we know ... [ill. by T Dykstra, D&D RC p. 20]
You might run to your book now and check if that's actually true (and you should, questioning is good), only to find that I am somewhat right, but most illustrations in the book still depict mostly white males. I would then agree with that observation but point out that (A) illustrations are sparse in the RC to begin with and (B) they made a conscious decision to show all kinds of diversity where it counts: the character illustrations.

This is crucial. With the 9 classes the book sports, we get 4 females (not the wizard among them, btw, but Thief, Cleric, Elf and Mystic), two black guys and one Asian (also the Mystic, for obvious reasons?). From all the illustrations in the book, those are the ones getting the most traffic on the table. Deeper into it (mostly stuff DMs look at the first couple of times and keep to the text after that) you'll find it a little bit more uniform, but still pretty varied. I think it's very well worth mentioning that the overall expression must be here that there is something for everyone, really. AND we are talking 1991 here.

All of that sums up to an atmosphere of cultural diversity and adventure, with some hints towards fantasy and danger. No gore and no hints of sexuality or sexual orientation, but that's totally fine.

Well, they all look like criminals adventurers to me.
[ill. by T. Dykstra, D&D RC p. 67]
One final observations: it's well known that the RC has no "gods", but "immortals" instead. I think most of that is to make the ascension from mortal to god in the game a little bit more palpable while offering a broad spectrum of possibilities for all kinds of worlds a DM could come up with. This general approach brings general rules that apply to all gods/immortals. One of them (and that's really just a "nice to know", because it had been part of many online discussions) is that an immortal is completely free to choose his appearance, gender, race, age ... everything you can come up with, really. Just like that. 1991. See page 221. No need to make a thing out of it.

Oh, and one fun fact: the Japanese translation of the RC chose (famously so) a very different route for it's presentation and made the book look like a manga comic. Now, is that more diversity (as in more diversity as far as how many languages the game exists in) or less diversity (as in choosing to cater just to the Japanese audience with a new layout and presentation). Couldn't say what else they changed (but would be interested to hear more about that).


The Rules Cyclopedia is, first and foremost, a collection of rules (and still the only complete set of D&D rules in one book, at that). It's the kind of book that should appeal to everyone interested in the subject it presents. I think it did that very well in 1991 and I was surprised to find out that it still holds true today. There is no politics in it or any kind of pretentious attitude. As a matter of fact, Allston keeps himself (and everything else, really) out of the book and instead makes it solely about D&D and what the game can do for you, the reader. I think that's a wise choice.

The guy in the full plate is Asian ... [ill. by T. Dykstra, D&D RC p. 126]
The RC really is the book we should find alongside all the other classic games like chess or monopoly, warts and all (also in a pretty box with pretty dice and pretty character sheets ... a boy can dream).

One final caveat: I'm not a scientist and I didn't analyze the whole text of the book in detail or from a sociological or linguistic perspective. If you did that and came to a different conclusion than me, I'd be happy to check out your results. But my impression is that they really tried to make this a book for everyone, everywhere.

If you liked this post, you might want to check out the other oddities in this series. Comments are, as always, very welcome. Especially if they praise the Rules Cyclopedia :)

* German translation is, of course, the same, but chose to use the more formal German version of "you" ("Sie" instead of "Du"), which, I think, was a mistake. But that's just an aside.

** Sorry for linking to that very empty Wikipedia entry, but there are close to none informations about that person online (he or she? couldn't say). If anybody reading this has more information about the artist or a better link, please share it in the comments. A mystery, no less :)

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Skill Ranks for the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (from LSotN)

Wow, time is flying when you are having fun ... I'm very busy right now behind the scenes, most of it is because I want to get Monkey Business out there, some of it is because I want to get the beta document for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs updated so we can start play testing it again (see my last post for more on that). While I was doing the latter, I finally got one of the missing pieces for the game written down: a skill rank system. Since Lost Songs has some solid roots in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (and similar systems), I thought I'd share it with you guys.

Skills (then and now)

I just like the picture and
it is about skills, so ... [source]
The D&D RC has optional skill rules and they are quite easy: you basically get 4 skill points with character creation (more if your INT score is high) and for them you buy skills. To use a skill, you make an ability check. Most (all?) skills come with additional gimmicks (little bonuses here and there). Skills start with no bonus, but if you use a second skill point for a skill, you get a +1 a third gives you a +2 and so on.

The next time a character will get a skill point (really, just 1 point each time) is when reaching level 5, after that you'll get another point at level 9 and every 4 levels from then on ... So skills are rare and far between. It's really just a nice little thing that adds flavor to the game.

With our games the house rule was that a skill point always buys you a +1 to a skill (because ability checks already do what skill checks are supposed to do otherwise and that's just lame ... plus, it's easier to explain).

Lost Songs is not much different: a skill point buys you a +1 on a skill and that's a permanent bonus you add to an ability check when using the skill. Characters will have a few more skills, but not much. Advancement is also faster, but not much. Additionally you can raise a skill one point if a skill check comes up with a natural 20.

So having a skill of +10 or more would be very rare in both games. 

Well, one thing that didn't make it into Lost Songs, was that with the RC every skill is unique and has one of those little gimmicks I talked about. It's okay, but most people will forget it most of the time and in my experience it's not used often enough at the table to get it internalized by the players (or me, I'm just as guilty in that regard). So I didn't bother with it for Lost Songs. But without it, skills are just reduced to a bonus and that's boring too.

I wasn't happy with it and it bothered me some time how I could solve this problem and give skills that little extra back without all the bloat. Here's what I came up with (and I think it would work just as well for the Rules Cyclopedia or similar systems):
Skills & Contests 
Skills are not Reserves but Permanent Bonuses. It's a trade-off, really. When characters are young, they have lots of raw potential and while they lose some of that potential over time, they will specialize in some areas and get stronger through experience in others. This chapter will give a short outline how skills work. How they are learned and advanced will be in the Codex Historia
Other than doing what skills usually do (giving an advantage in something a character does), skills also come with Ranks. The higher a characters Permanent Bonus is on a skill, the higher is his Rank. There are 3 Ranks in LSotN and each of them gives a character a new advantage when using that skill. 
Rank I – Novice (+1 to +5) = Every result above 10 on d20 can't be a total failure. 
Rank II – Master (+6 to +10) = 1. Benefit (chose one of four possible benefits for the skill: Earn your Keep, Produce & Maintain, Fight with Skill or Teach Others). 
Rank III – Grand Master (+11 and more) = 2. Benefit AND your tribe benefits from your skill between adventuring seasons (heal more permanent damage, see Codex Historia for details). [that healing bit won't apply in D&D, of course]
Skills can have two out of four Benefits that anchor a characters abilities in the narrative of the game even if a player isn't using them actively. When evoked (that is, the player actively narrates how the character is applying himself), a character can get a regular income, equipment, Combat Statics or he can teach others without the need of a Test to see if it works (as a Test would usually resolve this): 
Earn your Keep: Character is able to apply his Skill in a way that would earn him his keep everywhere he is a guest. Alternatively he could earn some coins (amount and currency as appropriate). Evocation is to describe what the character does in his off-time to earn it. 
Produce & Maintain: The character is able to apply his Skill in a way that will either produce, refill or maintain a resource the group has available (armor, weapons, rations, healing herbs and so on) on a regular basis. Evocation is to describe what the character does in his off-time to achieve that. 
Fight with Skill: The character is able to apply his Skill in combat and gains a Combat Static for it (see blow). Characters can have one Master and one Grand Master Skill as Combat Static. Evocation is to describe how the character is applying the skill in Combat. [as a D&D variant I'd let the player roll 1d6 per static as a pool in a fight that can be spent on attack or damage rolls until the pool's used up ...
Teach Others: Character is able to apply his Skill in a way that will teach others the skill. As long as the teaching character is close (shouting range), pupils get a +1 to the skill (as long as the skill value is 1 point lower than that of the teacher). Successful Tests under stress determine if the pupils internalize the Skill and get to keep the +1 as a Permanent Bonus (see Codex Historia for details on learning). Evocation is to describe how the character helps others to use his Skill effectively. 
Example: Wilgar the Bald advances to +6 in his Riding Skill and decides that he wants to be able to Teach Others. The group benefits from this, because all get a +1 to their Riding Skill as long as he's around to advice them and the player remembers actually describing that his character teaches the others. Over time it could even turn into Permanent Bonuses for the others, as successful tests under stress could make that happen. But their Teaching and/or Permanent Bonus can't get as high as the teacher's Skill that way, so somebody with a Riding Skill of +5 couldn't learn anything new from Wilgar and wouldn't receive the +1 for Wilgar being around.
And that's that. Players decide what the ranks mean and have to talk about it to activate it. Ideally it takes some of the dice rolling from the table and enriches the narrative. It'll go into testing in a couple of weeks, but I'm confident it will work as it's supposed to.

Comments and thoughts about this are, as always, very welcome. Next up should be another post about rereading classic Vampire: the Masquerade ...