Thursday, 23 April 2015

How Do You Rate?

A comparison was attested in our last session, and it bears expanding. When all the players rolled new characters, one who reads this blog faithfully but has not yet commented made the assertion, after rolling a ranger character, that his ability scores in real life are higher than those of this character. I think this is an unfair claim and bears examination in detail. I would like to counter that if ordinary humans were equal to the task of adventuring, they might spend their spare time actually doing adventurous things instead of role-playing about doing them.

Let me preface this by saying that I know this isn’t what RPGs are about. It’s just that don’t seem to realise what these scores really mean, or what a big difference a point or two makes in a scale of 3 to 18.

In rolling NPCs, I give medieval peasants 2d6 for each of their ability scores. I give my players the chance to create superior characters by rolling 4d6 and discarding the lowest roll. Being merely superior, however, seems to have left someone unsatisfied. I would like to question the veracity of the claim of further superiority of player over PC by inviting everyone to evaluate themselves. If you have reasons to believe your ability scores really would make the grade, let me hear them. As I know myself better than anyone, the following will be an exposition of the reasons why I personally would make a rather poor adventurer.

Strength. The Player’s Handbook gives numbers for ‘heaviest weight a character can pick up and lift over his head’ according to each STR score (p. 13). When I do the overhead barbell press I can normally do between 6 and 8 reps at 50kg. The equivalent ‘max. press’ of a STR of 12 listed in the handbook is close to the 72kg clean that VinceDelMonte has notoriously called, ‘good if you’re 15 years old…and a girl’. (This is not as obnoxious as it sounds. I visited the weightlifting club at a local high school the other day and watched little 15-year-old Japanese girls clean heavier than that and barely break a sweat.) I don’t normally go that heavy for fear of injuring my shoulder even more than it already is, so it’s hard to know how close my one-rep maximum is to that. The parameters from one point to the next in the rules for D&D, though, are wide. With a ‘Max Press’ somewhere between the given parameters of 115 lbs. and 140 lbs. but closer to the former than to the latter, I have a STR of 11. 

Intelligence. Since the time this conversation took place I have read that the creators of D&D envisioned INT as IQ divided by 10. By this measure I place slightly closer to 13 than 14. At the time of our conversation, it was suggested that we simply use the number of languages we ‘know’ as a quick-and-dirty means of determining intelligence. I would want to qualify that as rather how many a person can know if he’s interested in learning them—another player in our campaign has the same tested IQ I have and doesn’t speak any foreign languages at all—and that still doesn’t address the question of what it means to ‘know’ a language. I’ve had a passion for languages since childhood and an MA in linguistics, but I’ve forgotten almost everything I’ve studied. At the moment, I would guess that my command of Japanese, in terms of the combined four skills, is about 80% that of my native tongue. According to Duolingo I can read nearly 80% of all Italian text, but my listening isn’t quite that good, and I almost never get a chance to speak it. (Duolingo also says I can read more than 20% of all French text, but I can just about guarantee that this is an exaggeration.) I’ve been confidently conversant in Spanish and German, but not at the same time, and not anymore. Three is probably my limit for simultaneous fluent languages. My INT is 13.

Wisdom. Most of what we see in the official rules relates to priestly magic, so it’s hard to get an accurate grasp of what this stat means. The best concrete description is on page 17 of the Player’s Handbook: ‘enlightenment, judgment, guile, willpower, common sense, and intuition’. In all of that I would guess I’m about average for a man my age, since I’m about equal proportions of the time impressed and disappointed by demonstrations of these attributes in my peers. Looking at how my application of wisdom has fared, the only member of the ‘local elite’ that I could count on for any favours isn’t involved in politics anymore, but on the other hand I haven’t fathered any bastard children that I know of, and I’m not missing any limbs as a result of my own foolishness. I’ll somewhat nebulously award myself a WIS of 10 or 11.

Constitution. I’m not terrible on this regard, but I’m not particularly hardy either. I catch cold about twice per year on average, and feel blessed not to have been seriously ill in several years. I’m very strict about what goes into my body, I take a cold shower every morning, and I travel by bicycle whenever possible; all of this surely boosts my health, but doesn’t mean I can necessarily survive very long in a hostile environment or sustain that much abuse without injury. As certain Navy SEALs are fond of saying, ‘It’s not how hard you can hit, it’s how hard you can be hit’. I can’t be hit very hard.

In our house rules, hit points are half of a character’s constitution score, rounded up. Considering that the punch of a character with 18+ STR can cause up to 4 HP damage, and a well-placed punch by any number of blokes at the local gym would more than incapacitate me, I award myself a CON of 8.

Charisma. I have a faithful wife and a handful of good friends, and I count myself lucky for that; I don’t have any henchmen. When I meet people for the first time, the majority of them forget me immediately. Perhaps another 10-20% take kindly to me, and another 10-20% treat me with avoidance or ill-concealed antipathy. As a general rule, I’m not overly fond of human contact, especially in large doses (INTJ on the Myers-Briggs) and I always need time alone to recuperate after prolonged periods of contact, or any contact at all with a crowded place. This is why I far prefer the countryside to the city. I do fine with one-on-one contact, usually, but in my far more exaggeratedly introverted youth my first feeling on seeing someone new was the hope that they wouldn’t try to talk to me, and it probably showed in my demeanor. I would place my CHA score slightly below average, at 10. (It might even be lower, but I’ll give myself the benefit of the doubt, because the players in our campaign consider even 10 to be a low roll for a PC).

Dexterity. Whether this is manual dexterity or a measure of reflexes, I rate worst of all on this score. I have a decent collection of musical instruments in my music studio at home, and I can even play some of them. In spite of 25 years of practice on the guitar, though, my chances of impressing someone with my amazing skills is pretty low. It has happened on occasion, but not more often than 5 on 1d20. I practise the flute every morning before work, and after several years I still can’t make my fingers go fast enough to play ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’ half as fast as it’s meant to be played without making it sound dreadful. I stretch my entire body for about half an hour every day as well, and yet I’m not particularly flexible. If my life depended on picking pockets, I would be slain after the first attempt. Yesterday morning, on entering the kitchen to make breakfast I loudly knocked over an ashtray and sent ashes and cigarette butts all over counter, waking up my wife. This morning I stubbed my knee on the living room table. I give myself a DEX of 5.

Now, as I take care of my diet and lifestyle, and put quite a bit of effort into both mental and physical fitness, I probably have better stats in a few areas than the majority of lazy 21st-century suburbanites. But compared to the average pre-industrial fantasy adventurer, whose life and livelihood depends on doing dangerous things for wealth, power and glory, I just wouldn’t measure up.

I could be a mage. That’s all. I suspect the same holds true for most D&D players: Few are athletes or labourers; fewer still are acrobats or skilled purse-snatchers; and not many are professional actors or politicians. Most are geeks, which means that, like me, INT will be the stat they should bank on.

There are high-profile individuals who might qualify for some of the prestige classes, to be sure. Certain politicians, for example, who are particularly charismatic and physically fit as well as prudent and circumspect in their judgments—Vladimir Putin comes to mind—might possibly have chosen to be paladins. Thích Nht Hnh could have been a druid. Judge Holden of the Blood Meridian cast mentioned earlier gives indications of possibly having the requisites for a ranger, but John Glanton would not have been more than a mid-level fighter.

If you, the player, can indeed boast of stats that qualify you for one of the ‘special’ PC classes, then let me shake your hand and buy you a drink. You’re a better human being than I am. What a shame you missed your chance to join the Special Forces.

Could we generate me by rolling sets of 4d6 and discarding the lowest roll? Sure, but the player would grumble that he’d had pretty unlucky rolls, and rightly so. If you still want to claim your stats are superior to those of the adventurers we generate by this method, please comment and say so. Silence will be construed as concession.

Me, I’m just about ready to go. As soon as I finish remodeling my kitchen, I’ll be sure to add a spellbook to the shopping list. 

Monday, 20 April 2015

Official Beginning of the Minoa Campaign

Depending on the researcher and the particular analysis used, the incidence of sociopathy in the general population is estimated between two and five percent. In the real world, a whole lot of these go into politics. For some reason, a lot of people whose behaviour in real life indicates the presence of a degree of empathy seem nonetheless irresistibly drawn to the opportunity to become sociopaths when they play adventurers in D&D.
I read the group the ‘Opening Module’ from this book—click the link to buy it; that chapter alone is worth the price—which expresses the idea that PCs, once created, are utterly free to engage in any sort of campaign they wish, and presents a few ideas to get them started. It only took the party a few minutes to decide. They asked some questions about rumours around the starting settlement of Vathypetro and determined to become pirate hunters. To raise the necessary funds to accomplish this end, they discussed some options, including legitimate jobs, playing music for cash, and forging documents, and in the end decided to mug people.
It’s not what I tend to do when offered to play in a sandbox campaign, but it’s not without historical precedent. A dear friend with whom I’ve been entangled in a protracted long-distance debate about the necessity of religion and politics once sent me the book Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. The novel is based on the documented story of a band of American brigands hired by the government to kill Indians but who, because they got paid by the scalp, illegally massacred plenty of Mexicans as well to bring up their scalp count, and mugged and killed numerous others for fun and profit. Again, not the sort of thing that would appeal to me, but then the captivating allure of violence, drug abuse and profanity encapsulated in a film such as Pulp Fiction eternally eludes me, while just about everyone in my acquaintance has nothing but praise for it. To each his own. As the DM, it was my duty to offer the chance to pass a bleak and dismal Sunday afternoon with a chance to emulate the antics of the Glanton Gang.
This is what we were drinking:
T-Money’s Original Hot Toddy
l  One part lemon juice
l  One part honey
l  Two parts dark rum
l  Four parts hot water
l  Dash of nutmeg
l  Dash of cloves
The game was cut short because one of us who remained sober had to leave for an evening engagement, but after last night’s session I have a much clearer idea of the type and degree of preparation I ought to make to provide a good game.
I still have on my shelf a ton of mini- and full-scale adventures toward which I have provided hooks and hints, but which players failed to pursue due to lack of interest, or persistence, or both. I won’t be able to use most of them, of course—at least not right away—but as I prepare more I have at least heard enough from the players, based on their opening discussion, to get a better idea of what their goals and interests are and how I can prepare to meet those. I’m still not able to predict all the courses of action the party might take, but I’m better equipped now than I ever was before.
Some awkwardness resulted from the conversion to the character classes and weapons available in this world from those in a more medieval setting. These differences will be explored in greater detail in subsequent posts for the benefit of the players.