Sunday, April 25, 2010

Confessions of a Genre Fiend

ME: "Hi, I'm Eric."
ALL: "Hi, Eric!"
ME: "And I am a genre fiend"

The term "genre fiend" to my knowledge first appeared in an old-school Champions supplement called Strike Force, published in 1988 (yes, I consider some of that stuff's 22 years old now). It was a complete campaign sourcebook, and nothing like it has been published since. It was written by Aaron Allston, who already had a storied history in the gaming community, having served as editor of the Space Gamer and Fantasy Gamer magazines, a few Car Wars supplements to his credit, as well as a couple things for Hero Games.  He later would go on to author the Rules Cyclopedia for TSR.  In Strike Force he details what different players may want from their games, and how to appease them. One of these player types was a "genre fiend."
A genre fiend, from what I remember, is a player who is a rabid fan of a certain type of fiction, and would like to see the tropes of the appropriate genre brought into the game. That is, if you're a genre fiend in a Champions game, you would want to see some Marvel/DC influence, and maybe some Ultraverse/Dark Horse too. If you are a genre fiend playing D&D, you might want to see more heroic fiction or swords & sorcery influence. In short, you'd want to see in your games what you loved to read about. 

**WARNING: This is an extremely pared-down version of my gaming history, as it pertains to genre-fiend mania. I have played probably every game under the sun, from those Storyteller games to lesser-known systems like Justifiers and Fading Suns, Feng Shui to Rolemaster and MERP, even Riddle of Steel, Talislanta, and Earthdawn. I don't include those for the sake of brevity.

Well, as time wore on, I began to perhaps sink more and more into the genre fiend mold, and fewer systems were to my liking. I'd like to see a build of Champions that didn't take forever to make a character or have hours-long combats. That's against the freakin' genre! My issues with D&D begin with the ridiculous manifold uses of the term "level" and end with the impossibility of emulating the fantasy genre. D&D does one thing really well, and that's D&D. Anything else is window dressing. I had finally realized that system does matter.
On the advice of others, I began looking at other systems that sounded like fun. I looked at Savage Worlds. No offense meant to Shane Hensley, but it seems to use the dice step mechanic from Sovereign Stone which had been out for a full 4 years before Savage Worlds debuted, and seems to resemble GURPS as to how it handles other things, like skills. There are parts of the system that look intriguing, but I'd played GURPS before and it wasn't to my liking, so I'm not sure if I'd want to play Savage Worlds. Maybe if I hit a demo game at con, I might get sucked in.

I began to take note of systems like Risus or PDQ, and noting how elegant their "freeform with guidelines" systems were. I began to dream how easy it was simply to declare a genre, give some guidelines on creating characters in that genre, and be up and running with a minimum of muss or fuss. My dreams were realized when a nephew of mine (nothing but videogame experience) and my wife and a couple friends were able to make characters for my Risus fantasy game and we ran quite successfully for a few sessions. And it was my world, with my take on things. It wasn't played for laughs. 

One of the problems I have with a lot of games is they take their cues from D&D. All of 'em, whether it's Traveller or GURPS or Warhammer or any of that, there are certain tropes in these systems that are universal. The main one that I have an issue with is that damage is based on the weapon itself, not on the person using it. Some people just accept that and move on, but it flies in the face of not just fiction, but reality. 

A trained sniper is going to do a lot more damage and be a lot more precise in his shot than someone who doesn't know jack. Yet, in a lot of these systems, if the dice fall just right, the newbie sniper hits and does max damage. Which is fairly stupid. Likewise, a guy trained with knives is going to cut you up, and probably kill you in one shot if he cares to. Yet in D&D (depending on edition) he gets a miserable d4 or d6 max, depending on the edition.

Three films, for your review: 

House of Flying Knives - You think those guys were doing miserably low amounts of damage with their throwing knives? I wouldn't want to go against any one of them, even with a gun. 

King Arthur - Eschewing the preposterous premise, the action scenes were solid. And Bors, big, bald, brawny guy that he is, wades into a battle with light armor and kills Picts with twin daggers. Again, not possible in a game, unless rules were made to offset this. And mook rules don't quite give that visceral satisfaction of mopping up the floor with dozens of well-trained guys. 

Lord of the Rings - despite the ridiculous rewrite of the original story, the action shots were pretty good. There is a scene, Two Towers, I believe, where Legolas, in light armor, slides down a bannister and starts killings orcs with...wait for it...twin daggers. In a game where armor type is king and your stuff matters, he'd be dead, with little appreciable damage done to the enemy.

In case you're not a film buff, here's an example from the book I'm reading now, The Legend of Deathwalker:

The man's sword snaked from its leather scabbard and he ran forward. Talisman's right hand came up and back, the knife-blade slashing through the air to hammer home into the man's right eye, sinking in to the ivory hilt. The warrior ran on for two more paces, then pitched to his left, striking the ground face first. As the second warrior leapt forward, Zhusai's knife thudded into the side of his neck. Blood bubbled into his windpipe. Choking, he let go of his sword and tore the knife clear, staring down at the slender blade in shock and disbelief. Sinking to his knees he tried to speak, but blood burst from his mouth in a crimson spray. Talisman's foot flipped the sabre into the air and he caught it expertly.

Again, not possible with meager weapon damage. And more exciting than I've seen in most games, but I digress.

I'm not advocating we raise weapon damages, or merely give some justice to the lowly dagger. I support something I found in Daniel Boggs' excellent Dragons at Dawn, a game based on Arneson's game pre-D&D. In Dragons, Arneson introduces a stat called Hit Dice, and, instead of being Hit Points as Gygax re-termed them, they are instead the number of dice you roll for damage when you hit.
Obviously, Fighters are going to roll more of those dice than Magic-Users and Thieves. Which makes sense. It keeps things balanced, and can even out the damage disparity starting at 5th level, where you can do 1d8 + whatever with your sword and your magic-user buddy can do 5d6 -- at range!

To avoid confusion, we'd probably have to call it something else.  How about the Battle Factor?  You could even work up a table for the Fighter, like this:

Level    Exp    Battle Factor
1            0       1+2
2         2,000      2
3         4,000      3
4         8,000      4
5       16,000      5
6       32,000      6
7       64,000      7       Bonus attacks
8      120,000     8
9      240,000     9       Lord (Lady)
10    360,000    9+2*
11    480,000    9+4
12    600,000    9+6
13    720,000    9+8
14    840,000    9+10

That way, at 7th level, while a 7th level Magic-User is doing 7d6 damage with a Fireball, the Fighter of similar level is doing 7d6 damage with his twin daggers. :)  Of course, in the meantime, if the Magic-User is forced to use his sword*, he does, say, 4d6-1 damage with it.  In this way, balance is maintained, and not artificially.  Plus it mirrors both heroic fiction and real life.  The best of all possible worlds, eh?

* = Of course, the weapons appear reversed here, but that's just aesthetics.  If a warrior chooses to use daggers, that's his choice.  With the damage now being based on the character class, anyone can choose any weapon they want.  Gandalf used a War Sword in Lord of the Rings and it didn't break the Trilogy...


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