Sunday, August 22, 2010

Campaign Notes : The Merlin Connection

Although he has never appeared in person (so far...), the Time Lord known to humans as Merlin has played a prominent part in the backstory of Lady Penelope's Odyssey - for he is, in fact Penelope's true father, making her the heiress to a very special legacy indeed.

But before I go into further detail, let's get a few basic Merlin / Dr Who facts straight - or as straight as possible, anyway.

The question of Merlin's identity in the Whoniverse is actually quite complex to begin with and concerns no less than three different characters : a mysterious and otherwise unidentified Time Lord, the Doctor himself (who retroactively posed as the legendary wizard at least once in his long adventuring career) and the High Evolutionary known as Merlin the Wise from the classic Doctor Monthly Comics - a character who was (unless I'm mistaken) created before the "Doctor as Merlin" idea came into existence in the TV show (in the Battlefield episode)and - just to make things a bit more fun - may actually be the same character as the Merlin from the Marvel Universe, who played a prominent role in Alan Moore's run on Captain Britain back in the early 80s.

To cut a a long story short :

To be honest, I wasn't aware of all these different incarnations when I decided to build my own Merlin character, whom I wanted to base on Captain Britain's Merlin, who, of course, seemed very Whooesque to me and I already had developed a pretty solid backstory featuring Arthur, Morgaine and Mordred when I discovered how complex the whole Merlin issue was - not to mention the fact that all the aforementioned arthurian characters had actually appeared, in one form or another, in the Battlefield episode...

And of course, there was the sword Excalibur - which I had wanted to use as the central "McGuffin" of my first season...

I was faced with a pretty classic DW GM's dilemma here : either follow the canon or ignore it and go with my own ideas. Since I had decided early on that my campaign would be set in an alternate universe, following the canon was by no means mandatory - especially since the "official continuity" was, in this specific case, pretty labyrinthine and that its inclusion in MY continuity would probably complicate things a lot, without actually adding anything to the campaign in terms of possibilities for the player... so at first, I was tempted to forget completely about Battlefield and all that - but the more I read about this TV episode, the more I was struck by the similarities between its take on Arthurian legend and my own ideas, which were intiially inspired by the portrayal of Merlin in Captain Britain as well as in Camelot 3000. There was so many similarities and convergences here that I simply couldn't forget about it.

So in the end, I decided to take both roads at the same time : I'd build my own Merlin and my own backstory, with my future campaign's plot as a priority (as opposed to orthodoxy to the DW canon)... and using the Battlefield storyline as an additional source of inspiration (and as a way to involve the Doctor into the whole thing) to recycle, reinterpret or alter as needed.

Over the next weeks and months, I'll try to post actual play reports of the first season - which will include the whole "Merlin backstory", presented in a progressively unfolding manner, just like Lady Penelope herself discovered it... but here are a few facts.

Merlin (who was dubbed "the Wizard" as others were dubbed "the War Chief" or "the Doctor")
was a very powerful and whimsical renegade Time Lord - a rebel, a manipulator and an architect, with a tendency to move other people like pieces on a chessboard, when he was not toying with the laws of time and space. But he was also a dreamer - perhaps even an idealist, a truly promethean figure. Unlike the Doctor, he was more a builder than a wanderer, though - he crafted Excalibur, the Sword of Possibilities, and created the dimensional sanctuary of Avalon... but in the end, his creation was destroyed - or rather "corrected" - by the Supreme Council of the Time Lords, leaving only legends and dreams in the memory of Albion... and Merlin the Wizard was sentenced to imprisonment.

But before his dream was erased from History, he sired a child - a "daughter of Time", whom he hid in the future, knowing that she would one day claim the legacy of Avalon - and protect it from her mother, the sorceress Morgaine, who had been Merlin's ally before becoming his nemesis... but hey, that's another story !

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

House Rule : Some Notes on Skills

The Meaning of Skill Levels

There seems to be some slight contradictions in the DWAITAS rules regarding the exact meaning of skill levels (as opposed to attribute scores, which are very clearly defined). The Gamemaster’s Guide states on p 25 that a skill level of 2-3 reflects a “quite confident” degree of ability, while on p 36, we learn that “The average human attribute is 3, the average skill level is 2-3 and the average die roll is 7, so an average person should be able to accomplish something with a difficulty of 12 more often than not.”

This latter statement seems to imply that a skill level of 2 or 3 is the standard level for an “average person”, which could explain why a fairly ordinary 21st century girl like Dona Noble has been given pretty impressive (or , depending on how you look at it, seriously inflated) skill levels of 2 in Fighting and 3 in Survival. Yet, it seems more logical (and intuitive) to equate a skill level of 2 or 3 with a fairly confident degree of ability. For the sake of clarity, skill levels should be interpreted on the following scale :

1 = Novice

2 = Amateur

3 = Proficient

4 = Seasoned

5 = Expert

6 = Master

Unskilled Attempts

Another feature of the skill system that does not really work for me is the -4 penalty for unskilled attempts. At first sight, it seems perfectly reasonable but is actually completely superfluous (IMHO) when you double-check the probabilities of the system.

Even with an excellent attribute score of 5, a character with an effective skill level of 0 already has to roll 10+ on 2d6 to succeed at a Tricky (15+) action and has no chance whatsoever to succeed at a Hard (18+) or really Difficulty (21+) task unless he spent Story points to boost his roll.

In other words, unskilled characters already have little or no chance of succeeding at actions where their lack of skill should logically hinder them (i.e. actions with an above-average difficulty), without having to add a -4 penalty on top of that. I've dumped it in my games and it works just as well. If you feel an unskilled character should have absolutely no chance of succeeding at a task because of his lack of training, simply set the difficulty at Hard or higher.

My Views on the Craft Skill

(Get ready for a loooooong rant - I knew I HAD to share this with you :)).

Even for an “all-encompassing skill” which “covers all manners of talents”, the Craft skill does seem a bit too, well, all-encompassing. Regardless of how you try to justify things, it does seem very difficult to accept the idea of a skill covering anything from carpentry to guitar playing or farming. Yet, treating every possible craft as a separate skill would have little interest in a game like DWAITAS and would also overlap with the concept of Areas of Expertise.

It should also be noted that this skill tends to be far less useful on adventures than most (if not all) other skills – something that is directly reflected on the sample character sheets of the Doctor and his companions : most of these characters have a Craft skill of 0 but have a level of at least 1 in all other skills – and the Doctor himself only has a Craft skill of 2. This actually makes perfect sense, since this skill is the only one which clearly fall outside of the usual repertoire of time-travelling adventurers – in fact, one is left to wonder why this skill was included at all in a game system which does an excellent job of representing a wide array of abilities with a very limited, tightly-packed skill list. Was the Craft skill added to the list simply to have a neat, well-rounded number of twelve skills ?

Getting back to the character sheets of the Doctor, and his companions, it is also quite difficult to figure what the Craft skill actually represents in the case of such characters. Only three characters have it – at a very modest level : 2 for the Doctor, 1 for Captain Jack and Sarah Jane. All the other companions, including Rose, Martha and Donna, have been given a Craft skill of 0.

My personal hypothesis is that these characters were given this skill to reflect some kind of jack-of-all-trades quality, adaptability or general ‘know-how’ born from experience – which would explain why none of the Doctor’s younger, less-experienced companions have any level in the Craft skill. On the other hand, one could argue that the Doctor 'sjack-of-all-trades aspect is already well-reflected by his levels in various other skills (such as his 6 in Knowledge) as well as by some of his traits, such as Technically Adept or Time Traveller – which, let’s face it, do feel more interesting and more genre-relevant than our increasingly dubious Craft skill.

Taking all these issues into account, the simplest alternative seems to dump the Craft skill altogether (which does not greatly differ from having a skill nobody will select anyway)… but this leaves us with the ugly, odd number of eleven skills, whereas the original six attributes / twelve skills pattern really created a neat, well-rounded package (yes, I know, when it comes to game systems, I probably qualify as a symmetry whore).

I’ve thought about several possibilities of solving this problem – including replacing the Craft skill by a general Jack-of-all-trades skill à la Traveller or by a character-specific Wild Card skill à la Buffy / Ghosts of Albion but neither option really proved satisfactory – the specialist / Wild Card approach, for instance, seemed interesting and fun but tended to overlap too much with the Areas of Expertise concept and did not seem to make much sense in the case of the Doctor, Captain Jack or Sarah Jane, since their Craft skill obviously goes in the opposite, "jack of all trades "direction. I had also considered splitting the Craft skill into four broad “proficiencies” (worker, artisan, artist and performer), each with its own Areas of Expertise but in the end, I felt it only added extra complexity to the system, without really making the Craft skill more interesting in the game.

I finally came up with the following house rule, which IMHO combines all these ideas but in a much simpler, more elegant and freeform manner.

If you really want to take the Craft skill then you must normally specify an Area of Expertise, even if your skill level is less than 3 (so yes, this is the proverbial exception to the rule) but you get this Area of Expertise for free, without having to spend one skill point for it. Note that this system can be used whether or not you use Areas of Expertise for other skills in your game.

Since every Craft skill will now comes with an Area of Expertise attached, it becomes much easier for the GM to decide whether or not a character can use his Craft skill in a given situation. A character with a Craft skill of 1 and Guitar Playing as his Area of Expertise would thus have an effective skill of 3 (1 for the skill level, +2 for his Area of Expertise) when playing the guitar but could also be allowed to use his level 1 skill for, say, singing or playing the piano, since this character’s version of the Craft skill is obviously musical – so his Craft skill would not come into play when trying to run a farm or repair a broken piece of furniture.

As an additional option, you may allow a character to select the Craft skill with no specific Area of Expertise (that’s the proverbial exception the exception), in which case he qualifies as a Jack of all Trades : he will never get the +2 bonus that an Area of Expertise would grant him but on the other hand, will be able to use his Craft skill in a much wider variety of situations – such as, say, playing the guitar and fixing a broken piece of furniture. This Jack of all Trades option seems to be the most logical choice for (and was inspired by) characters like the Doctor, Captain Jack and Sarah Jane.