Wednesday, October 4, 2006

The Wolf, the Wizard and the Dice Bag

My great shame is that I honestly have never had much interest in actually playing in a gaming session. Mostly due to a lack of compatible manpower in the islands. I mean, right off the bat, Hawaii is split up into 4 main population centers (Kauai, Oahu, Maui, Big Island), so we have a disadvantage right there. Even counting that most people live on Oahu (including myself, fortunately), that's only an isolated population of around 1 million.

Most of those people are not weird; they enjoy the normal island pastimes of fishing, swimming, shopping, golf and many other things that involve visiting the beach or getting some sun. Why not? We're Florida but with 90% less hurricanes and 100% less Disney World. I only have two friends that are not co-workers that I will actually hang out with. The third and fourth ones moved away some years ago after various graduations.

If I go to a meeting of other nerds of whatever persuasion, they just don't mesh with me. Either they are too nerdy and offend my normality (and/or my hygiene) or they are not nerdy enough to keep up with me; i.e. almost a normal person. The true problem is probably that I'm the one not nerdy enough to assimilate. Or perhaps more accurately, that I spread my nerdiness thinly that I give a (false?) reading of "normal" to the nerds around me, who are likely more specialized and committed.

All that said, I do find pen & paper systems to be very fascinating. Some go rules-heavy and try to spell out rules (and rolls) for everything. Then there are those that are rules-light and encourage participants to just go with the flow. And then there's LARP. (We won't go there.)

The first of my friends that moved away was into the World of Darkness. This was my first meaningful exposure to pen & paper. The rest of the roleplaying world I think just reacts with "VAMPIRE" when confronted with White Wolf. Which essentially guaranteed a split in the WoD community between Vampire players and everybody else. But that's neither here nor there. At the core of the World of Darkness is the Storyteller system. (2nd edition, if you must know.)

As I later discovered, it's fairly rules-light. I thought (and still think) that it was a rather simple and flexible way of viewing character statistics. My favorite of all was Mage: The Ascension, which separated schools of magic into broad "spheres" and encouraged free mixing of them to create custom-made spells for any situation. Training in combat skill was totally unrelated from the state of being a mage (no character classes). Freeform,  fast and loose. "Surely," I thought, "this is why tabletop is superior to computer gaming."

So imagine my surprise at being a D&D 3rd edition newbie some years later:
"Wow, that's a lot of numbers on the character sheet."
"Wait... we gotta depend on dice rolls for our stats?"
"Only even attributes have meaning. Why have them in the first place if only the modifier matters anyway?"
"What the hell is all these types of AC?"
"Level means everything, huh?"
"Wizard spells are prepared how now?"
"God I hate rolling only one d20 to determine success. Just assume I failed already."

The whole time I was reading the rules, I couldn't help but think that while it is certainly a solid core game, it really would benefit tremendously from having a computer crunch all these tedious numbers for you. I've gone through the dice-rolling combat-addicted newbie stage with White Wolf. Doing nothing but roll dice for combat maneuvers over and over quickly gets old. It becomes like a Final Fantasy battle: just spam fight and keep your HP up. Why not just use a computer for that?

I wasn't "born" playing a rigid class system so like every newb, I was drawn to multiclass. Turned out that such a thing is not to be taken lightly, with pretty tight level planning and a whole lot of potential suck if you want to be a caster. Did I mention prestige classes? I eventually went through a micromanagement phase where I mapped out characters' career path fairly extensively before I even started actually, you know, playing. Seriously. And people accuse Final Fantasy for being a spreadsheet disguised as an RPG.

The main offense to me was actually pretty simple: the order in which you gained class levels matters. I mean, unless you are beelining for a prestige class, why the hell should it matter? A character's capabilities in each field are roughly measured by level already. Why add this temporal interaction that just slows everything down? Combined with the wizard class only "sort of" remembering their own freaking spells and all the preparation and bookkkeeping, it seemed like the whole game was plotting to make me not play and just plan and plan and plan.

Spells per day... gah, one good fight and I'm out for the rest of the day. The fighters just keep going, though I'm told fighters are weak compared to other classes at high levels. Great. Honestly, I don't think I can stomach playing long enough to the point I have to worry about it.

As you can probably tell, I never really got into it. The most I've "done" in d20 are the 200+ hours I sank into KOTOR 1 and 2. Ah, those were much better: fewer classes to worry about, class level order is set, and the computer rolls all the damn dice for you. Famously inconsistent d20 results are still there, but 3 out of 4 ain't bad. Add a good plot and you have Good Times.

(Since SW EP 4-6 got re-released, I kinda want to play them again. I never did buy the last boxset--I was one of them purist holdouts that disowned Lucas's old age corruption of his own work. I'm disappointed in the letterbox widescreening of the original theatrical versions but oh well. At least Han shoots first. And yes, that matters.)

So I am essentially back to where I started. I haven't even gone back to White Wolf since flavorwise I didn't like the reset they pulled on the WoD, especially with the re-arcaning of mages. I am slowly getting interested again, especially since I saw that the current WoD character sheet has marked differences from what I was used to. Otherwise, my tabletop phase died before it even got out of the cradle. I still buy core rulebooks from time to time (Exalted was pretty nice), but that's really because I like to read the systems.

Why yes, I'm a rules lawyer. I passed the bar and would like to be a judge or maybe even a lawmaker someday. Why do you ask?

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