Monday, November 5, 2012

The Thief Problem: Playing Thieves In FLAILSNAILS Games

My copy of this is under lock & key
This last weekend, I played in my very first FLAILSNAILS game (well, first other than the one Edgar & I run), run by Shawn Sanford over on the G+. This, of course, meant that I would need a character and since my only FLAILSNAILS characters are babies (still level 0), Shawn let me roll up a level 3 character to head in to the Forbidden City (in module I1: Dwellers in the Forbidden City) and thank god for that since I1 has a level range of 4-7; 0 would have been completely out of place. I had decided that I wanted to play something I don't often get to play: a thief. Thieves have always been one of my favorite classes (right up there with wizards), mostly because of their ability to do so many different cool and strange things. I tend to enjoy jack-of-all-trades characters (sorta because that's what I do IRL); wizards do it through spells, but thieves do it through their skills. And so, what draws me to the thief is ultimately what can make it difficult to play one. You see, every incarnation of the thief is slightly different, with slightly different skills and sometimes with vastly different ways of accomplishing those skills on the player side. Whether it's percentile rolls, d20+n rolls, or d6 rolls, there are a number of different routes to go about measuring a thief's success or failure. The neat thing about FLAILSNAILS games is that any character you make for one game can be carried over into another, although changes may be necessary depending on the DM or the system that the DM prefers to run.

Right. So, how should I go about rolling up my thief?

Dungeon Crawl Classics

I wish I could justify another copy for this cover
DCC is my current retro-game of choice which I'm sure is painfully obvious to anyone who's spent five minutes on this blog and, as such, this was my go-to game when deciding on what game to roll up a character for FLAILSNAILS. And why not? Awesome art, crazy-cool systems and characters that feel intuitive and super-fun. Oh right, that's actually the "why not." First off, among retro-style games, DCC is (I think) alone in having a level cap of 10. Since there are fewer levels, more power gets crammed into each level. Don't think so? Ask yourself, what's a fighter's HD in any edition of D&D? Is it a d12? No? Well there you go. DCC characters' ten levels equate to a similar power curve that other games will have over 20. Does that mean that a level 3 thief in DCC RPG way overpowers other characters from other systems of comparable levels? Yes and no. First, the statistical probabilities attached to attack rolls aren't much higher than in other systems but, second, other mechanics sneak in to make things more complicated, like Luck. If my thief is the only character burning luck to gain extra dice on my attack rolls, does that make him more or less powerful than the other PCs? Boy, that doesn't take much to figure out. Third, there's the saving throw problem. When Shawn tells me to make a save vs. Petrification, how do I do that? My gut tells me to make a Fortitude save, but how do I report a completely different save to the DM and even know if I've succeeded or failed without a DC or a saving throw number like in other editions? Similarly, thief skills present a huge problem (in case you couldn't tell by the title of this post, it's what's driving me the most crazy here). In DCC, the DM provides the Difficulty Class for all such actions, and the player makes a d20 roll, adding some modifiers to determine success; the success requires the DM and the player to work together to determine the result. In other editions, the character possesses, as a feature of his class and often level, a flat out chance of success based on a die roll; in effect, the success or failure is all player-side loaded. This may seem like a simple semantic difference, but it's one that's really surprising me as I compare retro-games, retro-clones and various editions: where is the success located? And though my personal preference is the hybrid player & DM model, I'm not sure that this is best for FLAILSNAILS where DMs could be running six different characters from different editions/games.

I rolled up my thief using DCC rules and I didn't even realize that this might be a problem until Shawn started calling for attack rolls against descending ACs and saving throws against things that I haven't been used to saving against since the 90's. So, looking closer at the situation, DCC (what with it's lack of Charisma and all) might not be a one-size-fits all solution that I was hoping for. (Oh right, then there's the XP thing, but we'll not be talking about that right now.) So, what system should I use?

Swords & Wizardry

What about using the industry leaders of LL or SnW? These guys feature rulesets that are readily intelligible by folks across the OSR community so there's a big feature in their favor. I really enjoy both rulesets and can see getting a lot of mileage out of them, so lets look at each one in turn.

Okay, Core, not Complete
Swords & Wizardry is a sexy, sleek retro-clone of the '74 OD&D white box, although I'd have to use the SnW Core rules (which add some material from the OD&D Supplements to the core game) since that's the set that adds thieves. So, stuff that's in favor of SnW: simple but "player-side" saving throws and attack progression. Unfortunately, the way I see it, that's all the pro's there are. SnW features depressingly slow HD progression and a skill system that, while being "player-side" and hitting a nice sweet spot between generality and specificity, is sadly mostly based on something that I really can't stand: percentile probability. Percentile-based probability is, I believe, simply the laziest way to determine the success or failure of any action. There are always simpler, smarter or sexier ways to accomplish a task resolution system than cruddy old percentile rolls. Sorry folks, I just can't get behind them. The power gamer in me wants to complain about the paucity of ability score effects on task resolution, but really those could be adjusted as seen fit by the DM one way or the other, so that's not really a complaint. The final word here is that I really, really like SnW, but don't think it's the right system for me to use to write up my thief or to use in a general FLAILSNAILS environment unless the entire game is powered by it.

Labyrinth Lord

If Orcus plays it, should I?
On to the king of retro-clones, Labyrinth Lord and LL AEC. LL boasts the street cred of being a retro-clone of one of the most flavorful types D&D, therefore coming with a "baked in" audience. That's cool. The rules are cool. The ability score modifiers are standardized and what I'm already used to from DCC (well, init is a bit different), and this is borne out in AEC as well. It has the old-school style player-side saves (broken up the same way old editions did it) and attack progression. The skill selection is robust but based on percentiles, so I'm pretty turned off by it. HD progression (in LL as written) is not too hot with thieves using d4s instead of d6s (unless you use an optional rule). All in all, it may be the granddaddy of retro-clones, but I don't feel fantastic about using it.

OSRIC/1e

If LL is the gold standard by which all retro-clones must be judged -- and I'm not sure that it is -- then what the hell is OSRIC? I may have called LL the granddaddy of all retro-clones, but I think that honor might actually belong to OSRIC. All in all, I COULD use OSRIC, but I could just as easily use AD&D first edition. I've got that close at hand. But really, the only thing that OSRIC/1e has over LL is the standardized use of d6s instead of d4s for HD. Other than that, it's got all the fiddly bits that make me never feel completely comfortable with 1e. This system is out.

LotFP Weird Fantasy

Without art, its a lot less weird
Okay, I'm going to tell you right now that I love LotFP. If I wasn't running DCC right now, I'd be running LotFP. I may in the future run LotFP. It has something that I really, really dig: you roll d6s for success and you spend skill points to "buy" faces for success on those die. Here, "2" would mean a "roll of 1 or 2 on 1d6" whereas "4" would mean "a roll of 1, 2, 3 or 4 on 1d6." Nice, simple, elegant and it puts the player in control of his character's development. The HD are in the right place and the game features player-side saving throws of the old school sort. The attack progression is hybrid, though, and uses attack bonuses and ascending AC, which I like but doesn't seem to be as wide-spread on FLAILSNAILS as I'd like. Now, to offset all the stuff that I really, really like about LotFP, the experience charts for "Specialists" (the LotFP name for thieves) is slanted higher than in other games (level 2 at 1500 compared to 1250 for most others), which I think is a worthwhile gimp for all the stuff you're getting. So, realistically, I think that the LotFP rules are the ones that I'd most like to use, assuming I'm not using DCC.

Conclusion

Okay FLAILSNAILS DMs, as one of you (which I sort of am), I'm going to ask that you pick a ruleset. That you call out somewhere what ruleset you yourself are going to be using to resolve conflict so your players can be on the same page, so your players can convert their characters to that system. Sure, some things won't need to be converted (ability scores, hp and such), but it seems that thieves have the most complex set of changes from one game to the next, so we need to be prepared.

For now, the plan is to (at least temporarily) move my 3rd level thief over to LotFP but also write him up as a 1e/OSRIC character as well, since that's the ruleset that I think Shawn was using for most of the session (but I couldn't really tell; my guess is primarily based on the names of the saving throws he called for and the fact that Edgar plays a 1e fighter). I used the ACKS "mail you some PCs" thingy for stats (the first one was perfect for a thief, so I lucked out), so my stats are pretty balanced and not overpowered. All in all, I think the LotFP & 1e route is the most likely to hit closest to the mark; one is more ideal, but the other is likely a better fit to the particular DM in question.

Why Didn't You Talk About System X?

You might have noticed that I just talked about Adventurer, Conqueror, King in the previous segment. Why didn't I compare the relative strengths and weaknesses of that system? I'm also an outspoken proponent of Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperboria; why didn't I consider that system as well? To be short, you have to draw the line somewhere. One of the arguments in favor of all of the systems discussed above other than DCC is the fact that all of them are available online for free in one form or another. I have considered that, I think, when I initially statted my thief out for DCC: shouldn't I be playing with a ruleset that I know that everyone has access to? Similarly, ASSH is only $10 on RPGNow/etc., but I can't assume that every DM is going to shell out the cash to allow one player to play one character. So, for simplicity's sake, I considered the major options for OSR-style games, whether retro-clones (LL & OSRIC) or retro-styled games (LotFP), where I should have started in the first place.