Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Shadow, Sword and Spell character creation

A couple of years ago I discovered Shadow, Sword and Spell, a pulp fantasy RPG from Rogue games.  I’ve only had the chance to play it once, but I am going to be running a short, two adventure game of it this week so I thought I’d take the chance to capture some of my thoughts on it.  Since it is only going to be a two week game I made up several characters for the players to choose from so that we could get right down to it, especially since none of the players have any experience with it. Character creation is fun and all, but it can also be time consuming, especially when you need to teach everyone an entirely new ruleset.  Which SS&S has, something that only uses a d12. A d12! The most neglected of all dice.  At first I assumed that the game would be nothing other than rolling for Barbarain Hit Die and damage from a greataxe, but it turns out there are other things that you can do with a d12.

I wanted to walk through character creation and sort of start to check out the rules that way.  In general I found making a character to be pretty easy, but the characters that you wind up with are sort of odd.  There is no rolling for attributes or skills (its not preferred for me but I am fine with it) but there is a selection of a Culture and a Modifier which can result in some strange traits for a character.  Culture gives a character a couple of skills, usually at a high level of aptitude. The Modifier gives a bonus (and maybe a penalty) to a couple of skills. Let’s take a look at the Assassin type character I made up for the group.

I wasn’t trying to do anything crazy, just a pretty straightforward killer in the night.  My guy would need to be sneaky, have some thief type skills, fight a little bit and be able to make poison. That seems doable in most games.  There are four different Cultures to choose from and they have a pretty significant impact on what your character is going to look like. They are Primitive, Barbarian, Civilized and Advanced.  By default I went with Civilized just because the others seemed so off base for a character that I picture being from an urban environment with a penchant for murder.  The problem was that by choosing Civilized it gave my Assassin proficiency in Bureaucracy and Diplomacy, two areas of focus that I just didn’t have on his radar.  By contrast if I had chosen Barbarian he would have been given Athletics and Melee (both of which fit this character pretty well), but he is not at all a barbarian. I suppose that I could just take Barbarian and call it something else but I am trying to stick to the rules so I will instead have some sort of bureaucratic killer.  For the Modifier I chose Tolerant, which isn’t about the character but rather the society that they come from. So he’s not a tolerant Assassin, just that all of his neighbors seem to tolerate his murder. It gives him a bonus to Diplomacy and Empathy. The Empathy I like, the Diplomacy I can once again do without. I chose Tolerant because it seemed the most neutral, the others are all regional (Southern, Northern) or much more extreme (Sorcerous, Pious). 

There are five attributes; Brawn, Quickness, Toughness, Wits and Will. Anyone who has played an RPG can sort of figure out what they do so I won’t get into too much detail, but this Assassin was focused on Wits, Will, and Quickness and light on the physical stuff. 

So here is where it starts to get weird.  Each skill is tied to an attribute and in order to buy that skill a character must purchase it at the Base Rank, which is equal to the level of the attribute it is linked to.  For example: Melee is linked to Brawn, this Assassin has a Brawn of 5. In order to purchase Melee at level 5 it costs five points. Characters begin the game with 45 points to spend on skills.  The problem is when a character has an attribute at a high level and there is no option to purchase a lesser level of the skill for fewer skill points.  Another example: I wanted this guy to have Alchemy so that he can make poisons, the Alchemy skill is linked to Wits.  Since Wits is the cunning attribute I gave him a 9, which means it costs nine points for me to purchase it. I only have 45 to start so I had to spend 20% of my point budget to make some poisons.  But the result is that he is very good at making poisons, though I would have been fine with just being okay at making poisons (he is just getting started on his “adventuring” career after all).  Ultimately I was only able to purchase a couple of skills and some others that would have really filled out the character I was unable to get, such as Bargain (which is the bluff skill).  I don’t find the system to be difficult to understand, I just find it to be a little quirky and creates characters that do a couple of things really well as opposed to being competent a bunch of stuff.  And I know that mastery of a few things is generally the preferred way to build a strong character but it is nice to have the option of going the other way.

Getting back to the initial selection of Culture also wound up making my Assassin have some unforeseen skills. Due to hailing from a Civilized culture he started the game with a +9 Bureaucracy and a +9 Diplomacy.  For comparison +9 is the highest that he has in any single skill. Which to me means that he is far too good to just ignore them when it comes to picturing what type of character he is. So he has to be an Assassin that operates in the realm of politics, business, government, etc…And with that level of Diplomacy he is not one to hide in the shadows, he is out there doing the talking.  Throwing this all in a pot creates a character I had not intended.  Instead of being an urban stalker he is more of a liaison and diplomat that uses access to get close to his victims.  Interesting.  So maybe I can ditch Athletics (which I pictured him using to climb walls, jump over roofs, etc…) and focus more on Socialize or Bargain? I’m not sure, but it strikes me as odd as I was sort of railroaded into making a certain type of character. 

Aside from getting equipment the final piece of character creation is creating hooks for your character.  Hooks are basically little mottos, statements, sayings, etc…about the character that allow them to get some bonuses in certain situations. I really like the idea of this.  If you decide to pick “My faith is stronger than any armor” as a hook then you could get a bonus in a situation where your religion is involved. I like it because it really shows that a character can be fueled by adrenalin, get caught up in the moment, come up when they really need to. It lends itself to good storytelling and for players sticking to what their characters are.  This is what I chose for the Assassin: “A knife in the back is worth three in the chest”, “Here, why don’t you have a drink?”, “Others fear shadows, I live in them”, “No, that wasn’t me you saw. You must be mistaken”, and “I was forced into a life of bureaucracy and diplomacy”. Okay, that last one I didn’t really choose, but you get the idea. 

For what it’s worth not every character suffered from these issues. The Nomadic Barbarian was just as advertised and seems like he will kick some ass and be a physical beast.  Which is exactly what I intended.  So I’m not sure if the Culture thing needs to be scrapped altogether, or have more options inside of it, but it doesn’t quite work all of the time. 

It seems like I’m very down on the game, when actually the opposite is true.  I’m very excited to play the game despite the weird issues of character creation.  What I do really like is a game centered around more of a pulp, low fantasy type of game. I tend to run campaigns like that anyway and when characters start to get to the higher levels the abilities of the characters start to clash with the functionality of the world. SS&S doesn’t seem to have that issue. 

I also really like the use of Action Points in the game, especially the ability of the players to “edit” what is happening. I’m excited to see what kind of stuff the players will come up with. I suspect it will keep me on my toes. 

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