Saturday, March 30, 2013

Word Puzzle

I developed this for my daughter's birthday party, but the kids weren't quite up to this.

Below is a list of random words. If you swap initial consonants around, you can get a list of animals.


Friday, March 29, 2013

Fighters of Animal Power

Crazy Horse, of the Lakota of North America, had a vision. This vision gave him an owl spirit animal, who would protect him, and the pattern of his face paint. He would be protected in battle. With this power, he would lead his people.

This phenomena is an example of a historical way that warriors gain special abilities in order to fight in battles. The story of Crazy Horse seems remarkable to us, but in no way was it remarkable for the hunting and gathering warrior. In that effort to gain power, the earliest way for the ordinary man to gain power was by gaining an animal spirit to help him. This belief is called totemism. By itself, totemism is not a religion. It is, instead, one aspect of a magico-religious tradition. These totems were generally reserved for the most respected and highest ranking members of the tribe.

Totemism defies the description of both magic and religion because the warrior’s belief only states the obvious: the world is full of spirits. Your communal and personal relationship with those spirits determines the fate of your tribe. If relations are good, then hunting and gathering are good as well. If the relationship sours, then the broken relationship needs mending. To a totemist, this is no more magical or divine than getting along with your family, your clan, or your tribe.

Just as you can make friends and help each other, so too do you build special relationships with the spirits. They can aid and help you just as a friend would, or as an ally. As these spirits possess a magic that you do not, their aid makes you more powerful. Their aid enables you to overcome normal human limitations.

In extreme cases, the person becomes the animal. The form of the animal spirit and the man become interchangeable. Thus, legends of the shape changer originates from this bond.

In D&D, totemism clearly falls to the barbarian and the druid, but not in any coherent matter. The label of “totem” is slapped on some barbarian abilities, but the implication of having an animal spirit on your side is not explored. You get a few special abilities based on those totems, but the totem does not really define your character, which is substantially different from the historical model. There, the totem was everything, defining you.

The druids gains animal companion and wildshape, yet these quite fail at communicating the relationship at the base of the powers. The druid has the hallmarks of totemism, but lacks the actual spirits dominating the belief.

In my opinion, totemism is an area in D&D where almost no one has adequately developed the ideas presented. You see glimpses of the ideas in some classes, but no class comes close to the ideal of Crazy Horse.

A second way of gaining an animal’s power is to eat that animal, especially its heart or its testicles. This is an idea especially entrenched in Africa. We still see it today with aphrodisiacs, which are animal parts said to amplify sexual prowess. The animal contains a vital essence, and you gain it when you consume that animal. (There’s an actual terms for this, but for the life of me, I can’t find it.)

Naturally, the stronger the animal that you kill, the stronger the power that you gain.

Due to this  idea’s nature, you just don’t see this type of magic in D&D. Very few independent books even touched on this idea. This type of magic does not nest well with any type of discrete magic system and the subject matter seems rather extreme.

In any event, the fighter does not inherit such a magic system, but for once, nobody else does either.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Fighters of High Technology

With the advent of technology, the warrior changes. He always changes with technology, adapting and embracing anything that would let him better slaughter his enemies in war. The spear gave way to the chariot, which gave way to the lancer. The bowman gave way to the musket, which gave way to the rifle. The spear gave way to the sword, and the sword to the bayonet.

Technology kills, and fighters lust after every moment of that.

How fighters embrace technology teaches us a great deal about how fighters in a fantasy world would act. They do not sit there as pure and passive participants, ignoring power while developing their skills. Like the warriors of technology, they seek and use whatever advantage they could manufacture or loot. When defeat leads to death, the warrior has every incentive to innovate.

To a fighter, there is no difference between technology and magic. They both exist as a means to their end. How do I defeat my enemy? What works? What doesn’t work? How do I remain effective? Who cares how it’s made?

Fighters are among the most high-tech medieval characters. Their arms and armor represent the pinnacle of modern fantasy technology. As they advance in level, their arms and armor increasingly become exotic and cutting edge. The heavy lancer, the pinnacle of medieval weapon technology, is every bit as specialized and dangerous as a jet fighter.

So, what does all this get a fighter? Not much, really. Most of what a fighter gets, he gets at first level. He might find better arms and armor as he goes up level, but that’s mostly numerical bonuses. His capabilities do not change. Given enough levels, he may eventually gain interesting weapons and armor, but I’ve always found such rewards few and far between.

The fighter does gain feats, allowing more use out of weapons and armor. Very few are universally applicable. So all in all, considering that the fighter is working with the best technology of the day, his return on investment in meh.

Do you disagree? A club, that’s a big stick, does 1d6 damage. A steel sword does 1d8 damage. One requires complex infrastructure and long training to produce while the other falls off trees. One would expect more difference than that, especially in the hands of a person whose entire career is based on exploiting and developing his skills with a high-tech weapon. That expectation would be wrong.

Obviously, use of a weapon must provide the fighter something that other classes don’t get. They spend their time learning these complex weapons. The advantages should be better than strict numerical bonuses.

These could include:

  • Bypassing DR
  • Disarming/Hobbling opponents
  • Making opponents bleed
  • Reducing an opponents damage
  • Pushing/pulling opponents.
  • Weaponizing magic which is not normally dangerous
  • Modifying arms and armor, especially with magic
  • Improvised Alchemical Weapons
  • Generally reducing disadvantages

For many editions of D&D, the fighter simply gets none of these things. 4th did a laudable job of designing in this area, while 3rd made an attempt but ultimately missed.

I would like to see Next do a better job of developing the fighters as a master of combat technology.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Fighters of Qi

In China, a new concept grew up to explain how warriors could become greater and more powerful. Taking from the Taosist and Buddhist concepts, such warrior build up their qi, or life force, and that qi residing help perfect their inner alchemy, and so give them great powers. Although, like the proverbial fish, those powers always seemed to get a lot bigger in retelling. (Following the Taoist and Buddhist concepts individually would be quite interesting, but they are so intertwined after so many centuries that  that this task would be far beyond my own knowledge.)

These stories of amazing warriors are famously told in the Monkey King. In that story, the Monkey King decides to learn great powers. He studies at a monastery, learning much esoteric wisdom, and learns how to change shape. He learns how to leap across the world in just a few bounds at astonishing speed. He gets a job in the Celestial Court, but only makes a mess of things, and while he’s at it, gorges on powerful foods (where just one bite is filled with awesome power) and gobbles down powerful medicines (where just one pill will make you immortal.) Monkey winds up being so much trouble that a buddha drops a mountain on him, then demons feed him red-hot iron pellets for 500 years. The punch line? That’s the beginning of the story.

Over the course of the tale, you see martial techniques that generate great winds, loud sounds, and all other sorts of effects that we in the D&D world associate with spellcasters. In the east, the division between magic and martial is non-existent. All great martial prowess is magical, for the basis of all magic is secrets. If you can learn and perfect the right secrets, you can do amazing things. Secrets hold hidden truth about the world, and by exploiting those secrets, anybody can do amazing things.

Who can learn the secrets? Anybody. There is no special talent behind magic. There is no birthright. Your specialness all depends on your ability to learn, practice, perfect, and most of all, stay loyal to your master util that master should teach you the most secret techniques.

In D&D, these types of warriors are called gishes (for some reason that I’m too lazy to relate). Gishes combine magic and martial prowess. The swordmage and the psychic warrior are two examples of gishes. They can both be used to simulate Chinese style heroes. Likewise, monks can simulate Chinese style warriors, although they do a poor job of it. Monks never develop the outrageous abilities that their mythical brethren take for granted.

How do these stories influence the fighter of D&D? They don’t. Chinese stories do not apply to the fighter class. Even the much vaunted samurai doesn’t get such power. (In 3.x, the samurai succeeds in actually being weaker than the fighter.) There are some feats that hint at these amazing abilities, but they don’t actually amount to much in practice. Strangely enough, even monks, who are supposed to be full of qi, don’t act anything like the monks in the Chinese stories.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Fighters of Divine Favor

As ancient Europe eventually became Christian Europe, and with the pronouncement of some Pope, nobody, not even Emperors and Kings, could claim descent from a god. How, then, do heroes gain favor in combat? By what right do kings rule if they are not divine? To answer that question, they turned to the Bible. Heroes, such as Samson, David, and Joshua achieved military victory, not through bloodline, but through the favor of GOd. They were the chosen ones of God, and with God behind them, no enemy could stand against them.

Naturally, the legends of knighthood in the middle ages coalesced around this very idea. The Christian knight, with his faith in God, would overcome his enemies. In the Muslim world, the exact same idea grew as well. It was through God’s power that Amr ibn al-As conquered the land of Egypt and the Rashidun Caliphate spread.

That is not to say that every Christian knight was a walking, talking virtue. Quite the opposite, the stories of knightly crudity and cruelty would fill volumes. It was another new idea, the Court of Love, that brought about the ideal that a knight should find his power in his faith, as portrayed generally by the Knights of the Round Table, and specifically in such heroes as Lancelot, and Galahad.

Not surprisingly, the tales of such knights inspired much of our idea of what a D&D fighter could do and how he acted. The paladin class (sometimes a fighter, sometimes its own class) modeled these holier warriors. Interestingly, the original cleric was meant to be such a holy warrior, but that class evolved into its own ideal.

So what are the themes running through such characters? First off, miracles. These characters are not merely mortals, they are miracle conduit. God literally works His will through them. Secondly, these warriors are actively protected from harm. God protects them. God provides them strength in proportion to their faith. Their strength literally flows from the divine, making them superior to lesser men. They do not need wisdom or education, for they follow in the ways of God, and this provides them all the wisdom that they need.

In some ways, faith acts much like the Chosen One archetype, but don’t get them confused. Ordinary men, with enough faith, can achieve just as many miracles as these heroes. The heroes are not innately special. For the Chosen One archetype, only one person can be the Chosen One. This choosing may be religious in nature, but that is not necessarily the case.

Going beyond the Christian tradition, we have other examples of divinity mixed with with the warrior culture.

In the Roman army, Mithraism was a popular cult. The cult itself was secret. We don’t know exactly what they believed. However, as the cult was popular in the army, it must have provided the soldiers with some benefits that soldiers valued. Given that Mithra’s symbol was a bull, we can speculate that the bull’s strength and vitality must have been conferred upon the initiates. We can also assume some afterlife where soldiers who died in battle were particularly honored. So Legionnaires gained their prowess through their relationship with the divine.

Among most peoples, warriors do not accidentally become warriors. Instead, they must be initiated to the warrior way. For example, the Mandans of North America lifted their warrior initiates on hooks. After enduring an ordeal, the initiate is recognized by his people as a warrior. He is different now because he is filled with a sort of magic that he received from spirits.

Some warrior cults go beyond this basic version of a warrior. Crazy Horse, of the Lakota, had visions and acquired an owl as a spirit animal. By this vision, he became a leader among his people.

After a quick perusal of warrior literature, I found no culture where the warrior was not, by nature, an aspect of religion. It’s only in the modern world where the warrior is divorced from religion, and even then, there are still civil ceremonies involved. The warrior must still go through boot camp and be initiated into the army. As the old saying goes, “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

Friday, March 1, 2013

Fighters of Skill

I began writing a blog post about "Fighters of Skill," until I realized how pointless this was.

Many warriors through the ages have been highly skilled. How many of them can you actually named? When it comes to skilled combatants, most people are just ignorant of skilled combatants. However, they are well aware of cinematic combatants.

In D&D, to no small extent, skill and cinematic tend to be confounded. Cinema is how we learn what a truly skilled swordsman is. We have Errol Flynn in our minds when we think of swordplay. We might even imagine wuxia films if we are broadly watched.

How many designers have see true sword fighting by well trained fighters? Even more so, how many players? Relatively few. Our basis for realism, for truly skilled warriors, is stunningly shallow, which is a shame.

From the brief examples that I've seen of trained warriors, those people can manipulate the battlefield around them with astonishing grace. They don't even seem to work at it. To them, the sword is secondary to the situation as a whole. A sword is just on tool among many.

This would lead you to think that D&D does swashbuckling and wuxia films better than true skill, but that's not the case either. Swashbuckling has always seemed a hacked in style to the game. It always seems to work so-so. Swordplay always seemed to work against the system. Where D&D did try wuxia, a vast amount of the player base rejected it.

One the whole, I don't think that the fighter adequately represents any skilled tropes that a player would be familiar with. Even more aggravatingly, in what should be a fighters unassailable mainstay, 3rd edition peeled off the swashbuckler class, leaving the fighter sharing the skilled warrior role.

Interestingly, this type of fighter is the only type of cultural fighter without some sort of magic, mostly because it's all stage fighting. There no place in film for warrior cults. Wuxia might have some magical effects, but just as often, has none at all.

Am I right in this, or is this just my limited observations?