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Reflective Revision: Weapon and Skill Training, Money and Equipment

...yeah, not exactly the most dynamic cover ever

As before, I'm using this as an opportunity to discuss some of my design intentions and considerations as I work through proofreading the rulebook of my retroclone. Obligatory link to the main file.

Today, I'll be finishing up the character creation chapters and continuing on to several of the overarching rule systems. Due to the length, though, I'll split them into 2 posts along those lines. Here's a link for the second part.

There's an obvious departure from the source rules in nomenclature, because "non-weapon proficiencies" is just an awful attempt to get around saying "skills". I've got no idea why TSR used that nonsense (it's not even like "skills" was such a taboo word, given that the whole NWP subsystem was an outgrowth of "secondary skills" from 1st edition). My best guess would be that it was meant as some kind of a jab at Gygax by using the sort of senselessly over-complicated verbiage that he was notorious for. Whatever the case may be, it's dumb, and the fact that WotC continues to harp on "proficiency" instead of a more natural term (I opted for "training" eventually) doesn't make it any less dumb.

Anyway, weapon training follows a grouped approach. I've got a strong simulationist bent, so I like the idea of a character not being able to just pick up and use any weapon equally well, but going down to individual weapon types with that is too granular. The starting number of training points for the various groups was adjusted to suit; Warriors begin with 3 (down from 4 in the source rules, true, but they no longer need to invest separately in long swords and bastard swords or each of the eighteen types of polearms), Rogues begin with 2, and Priests and Wizards begin with 1. The rate of point gain was set such that either the last or next-to-last point gained would allow the character to have training in all of their usable weapon category, because it's pretty unlikely that anyone other than me is going to run this system, so I don't need to care much about what happens at such high levels.

The penalties for using a weapon without training are mostly in line with the source rules. Warriors don't need to worry about it too much (especially since they get an extra +1 attack bonus compared to the source rules), Rogues can use something in a pinch with a notable handicap, while Priests and especially Wizards are pretty useless with weapons they aren't trained in. Again, I find that this satisfies my simulationist desires, and the broadness of the weapon categories allows for at least 3 distinct weapon types for each (not even counting stuff that isn't listed, like rapiers, sabers, scimitars, and epees could all fall under long blades).

It has been interesting to see that my new players tend to gravitate towards "traditional" weapons (like daggers or spears). I always liked the oddball weapons like flails, glaives, mancatchers, or whips (hence why I included all of them), but then, I'm a huge opponent to the Heroes Prefer Swords trope (I understand many of the cultural and historical reasons for it in real life, but I don't see why fiction should have to mimic that, especially in a setting where those cultural/historical reasons are missing). Anyway, the categories are mostly built around easy access to weapons dealing less than 2.5-3.5 average damage per hit and more restricted damage to weapons dealing 4-5.5 average damage per hit, though there are a few exceptions (hand axes are only 3.5 despite being in the hafted category because I wanted it to have a thrown weapon option, exotic weapons all deal low damage in return for a gamut of special properties, and both bows and projectiles are a bit higher than they "should" be in return for the increased penalties for ranged weapon accuracy compared to the source rules).

Ability checks use a "2d10, roll under" approach, which allows an average character to accomplish a medium-difficulty check about half the time (45% or 55%, depending on whether you define an average stat as 10 or 11). There is a definite impact on the feel for players when they have an weighted probably distribution instead of the uniform distribution of 1d20. Even if they aren't thinking of it in those terms, I can see the difference at the table, and it's pretty much exactly in line with my intended effect. Characters are reliable at doing most tasks that fall into areas that they're good at, and the players know that the odds are against them when something comes up that their characters are poor at.

Skills fall into nineteen areas. This is obviously more than 7+/-2, but it's an area where I felt like a greater degree of complexity was acceptable because I tried to avoid any trap options. The three language-based skills probably say a lot about the style of game that I like to run, but when I'm running for just 1 or 2 PCs, I do give them some freebies in those to avoid turning them into taxes. I want players to pick them because (for instance) they want to be able to have conversations on the side that others can't understand or because their characters are part of a diplomatic delegation, not just because someone has to know how to read. It's a similar reason to why I didn't include Insight, Investigation, or Perception, despite carrying over most of the skills from 5th edition. Those are usually not taken as meaningful choices but rather because they're ways to shortcut playing the game which become necessities because GMs feel obligated to gate content behind those skills as a result of their existence. I'm sure I could write several thousand more words about why those skills are bad, but that's the main thrust of it.

Most OSR systems I've seen fall into 2 categories when it comes to skills: (a) there are none or (b) they basically follow a continual investment model similar to 3rd edition. Neither of those is satisfying to me. I believe that skills are a meaningful way of differentiating characters and that a good skill system will stimulate the development of creative solutions to problems, so I wanted to have a skill system. At the same time, though, I wanted it to be driven primarily by ability scores, and I wanted to avoid a situation where a character who hadn't trained in a skill should just avoid ever using it. Thus, I went with the approach of using skill training primarily as a means of reducing randomness by changing the roll from 2d10 to 3d10, drop the highest (basically the same as a bonus die in Call of Cthulhu, though I wasn't aware of that at the time). Once again, it's about having a character perform reliably, particularly in stressful circumstances. I do make some additional use of skill training (namely that the training is necessary to use specialized knowledge or perform highly-specialized feats), but in the main, my goal is that training doesn't let a character do more, it just lets them do it with fewer failures.

The skills themselves are fairly broad, I think. So far, the ones which seem to get avoided for being too specialized are Languages, Reading/Writing, and Musical Instrument. This seems funny to me, because knowing another language, being literate, and being skilled at playing a musical instrument are all things which are generally seen as extremely valuable in real life. Literacy is pretty much a fundamental requirement to function in a modern society today, and language skills and artistic talents are highlights in pretty much any "tell us about you" application. I wonder if combining Musical Instrument; stuff like drawing, painting, and sculpting; and maybe even Performance into a broader Artistry skill might be a good idea. It's not something I want to do immediately, but it could be an idea for the future, perhaps along with combining Nature and Survival.

For money, I went with a gold piece standard. I know there's a large push in the OSR for a silver piece standard since that lines up better with real history and reduces the amount of "worthless" treasure, but silver just doesn't carry the same symbolic impact as gold does for me. The coin piles in my treasure generation is all calculated in gold pieces, because filling out hoards with copper is a dick move, and I'm fine with items like torches or candles being only nominal expenses. Electrum and platinum pieces are there just for compatibility purposes; I don't use them, personally.

Weapons are presented with a bunch of property tags instead of footnotes and exceptions. It's the same effect, really, but I find this presentation is more transparent and immediately informative. Even if you don't understand the details of what "Medium" or "Trap" or "Missile (200 ft)" mean, it provides more of a hint than a simple "(1)". It did mean needing to have separate tables for melee and ranged weapons because I couldn't think of an elegant way to handle rate of fire otherwise, sadly. Well, I mean, other than the obvious thing of having the same rate as for melee attacks, but I feel like having a difference between melee and ranged attack rates is good for making them feel different.

Armors were simplified compared to the source rules by reducing them to just one armor type per Armor Class value. I debated between using ring mail and chain mail or chain mail and scale mail for AC 15 and AC 16, respectively. I think the former is more accurate historically, but I went with the latter in order to preserve the original three (leather, chain mail, and field plate) as the middle value for each weight category. This does introduce some inconsistency with actual 2nd edition products (where scale mail was 1 point worse than chain mail), but none of banded armor, splint armor, or bronze plate mail fit in with my preferred aesthetic. Being able to cut the straps on heavy armor to turn it into padded armor was something that is entirely my own creation, as far as I know, but it always struck me as a perfectly sensible thing to be able to do, since you don't wear metal plate armor directly against your body. I've seen some ideas about layering armor, but again, plate armor includes padding as a necessary component already.

Clothing is one of those things that I liked having in the source rules for completion but hated actually having to buy because it felt like a pointless drain on my starting funds. Giving a free set of clothes but including prices for replacements and upgrades seemed like a good solution.

Mounts and vehicles were included here mostly because there wasn't really a better place to put them. I'm sure my solution for handling the cost and weight of barding is an oversimplification, but really, I don't think I've ever had a character try to buy barding multiple times. I've rarely even had a character try buying it once. It's one of those things where I wanted to have a rule because I didn't want to stop and think about it during play, but it just needed to be something quick and simple.

I had a lot of fun with the miscellaneous equipment. There's so much crap that can be put to creative use in play that the hard part was keeping the list from growing out of control, even after breaking out containers into a separate table. That said, the fact that it is the longest list of stuff you can buy does send a subtle message: this is the main thing that the game is about. Combat is there because it's exciting and dramatic, but resource management, risk mitigation, and creative problem-solving is the real heart of the game for me, and I think that's a large part of the dissatisfaction that I felt while running 5th edition (and 3rd edition before it). I can have a lot of fun with an adventure of just traps or just social interactions. An adventure of just combat, though, sounds like a poor substitute for playing an action video game.

The musical instrument list is indeed longer than it needed to be. I wanted to include more than just European instruments (since I think this is a subtle place where that Anglo-centric pedigree sneaks in), I wanted to exclude instruments that don't fit in with the overall technology level, and I happen to like musical instruments personally.

Including guidelines for alternate/special materials is something that I'd sworn was in the source rules, but it's only in the 2nd edition DMG as alternate metal types. Other materials are important for druids (at the very least), and sometimes a guy just wants a glass shield, you know? Cold-forged iron is how I'd always interpreted the thing of cold iron weapons being useful against certain monsters. I understand that it's largely an ahistorical fabrication, but I like the fantastical feeling of it.

Carrying capacity was something that I struggled with. Encumbrance is a mechanic that adds to the core elements of the game (resource management, risk mitigation, and creative problem-solving), but handling it in a reasonable way at the table is difficult. I started out with a single cut-off (STR x 10) to make it easy to eyeball, but then I came across the idea of weight by stone from Delta's blog, and it really clicked with me. I made some changes from his system (5 *s = 1 stone instead of 3 *s, ** added as a more rigorous way of quantifying very small items, and the limits are based on STR score instead of an absolute scale), which happened to take me close to the approach used by Justin Alexander. Again, there are some fine differences in the step values, I keep the limits entirely linear with STR, and we have a different ** bundle limit (his 20 vs. my 10), but I digress. I tried it out on some pregenerated characters I had handy, and I was able to calculate carrying weight in a matter of seconds with just mental math instead of needing a longer time to do it with a calculator. It's a fantastic idea that I'll forever be grateful to Delta for, and I can't imagine playing without it again (perhaps unless it's just a burden-counting system like Lamentations of the Flame Princess).

The quick-start packs from 5th edition were something that I really liked about those rules, so I ported the idea back into my retroclone. Not only do they provide a way to gear out a new PC quickly, but I think that the names and item associations also help to get new players thinking about how they can actually use things like sealing wax or soap.


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