Monday, April 29, 2013

Drunken Dragons#2: Fighters*

If you're the most famous Cleric in the world, who are you? The Pope, or in D&D worlds a high priest, or even a demigod. These are all good things to be. Maybe you establish your own religion. People like to do this.

If you're the highest level Magic-User around, you're a well known wizard, sorcerer, archmagus, or maybe a lich or something. All good things. You may hold an entire nation in your sway with your power. People like to do this.

Thieves are interesting because to my mind, the highest level, most skilled thief in the world wouldn't be a household name or leader of men, but a puppet master on whose strings everyone secretly dances while the thief himself is invisible. Dread Pirate Roberts, Keyser Soze, your old nickname is legend by now, a by-word for larceny, but that was so many cons ago you've lost count. If people don't do this they fucking should.

Elfs, dwarfs, and halflings all get to be great figures in their communities, and yes that is super awesome. Being the greatest hero among elfs is awesome but elfs and dwarfs in particular traditionally have strong blood ties to long lineages of monarchs and royals, a society your actions can buy your way into, sure, but no amount of orc-thumping is going to turn Legolas into Elron or Gimli into Thorin. Oldschool D&D doesn't even afford that much consideration to halflings, you're basically the halfling everyone comes to with their problems but since the image of halflings are so non-centralized and rural you don't so much lord over a community as you lead from within. There is an untapped well of awesomeness here, especially with high level halflings being named things like Marshall or Sheriff, of the halfling as cowboy and I don't know if I've ever seen that explored. Some people don't like the oldschool demihumans having level caps but honestly I've never run into a game where it has ever been a problem and I'll start worrying about it when it does. But yeah, you can build a community but you are only ever big fish in small pond in the grand scheme of things...

Fighters are different than all these, though. There's a specific word for the fighter who's over all fighters that has, whether in history or in literature, been a word on which religions, cultures, science, art, discovery, diplomacy, sex, and legend all turn. Fighters get to be kings, and anybody who doesn't think that the virtue of simply being able to say "I AM THE KING" is at least as awesome as being able to cast Geas once per day isn't thinking all those ramifications through, or else they forgot everything they knew as a kid, or else they never saw that Brady Bunch episode about slavery.

I load Fighters down with stuff in my games. I use Encounter Critical's great companion rule ever since No Signal! reminded me of it. I nicked Jeff's idea for "bonus" subclasses for fighters of high level of skill and I put together my own not-quite-Monk-not-quite-prestige-class fighter variant. And I've got another big Fighter mod I'm throwing down in the next two days.

My reason for this is that fighters are awesome but from the outside they don't look pretty to a certain mindset. There's a line of thinking which goes if you have the stats for a fighter AND a dwarf you go dwarf, unless you can also be an elf in which case you go elf. It's not even all about min-maxing or's about options. A Dwarf searching a room always has more options than a fighter because they come standard, an Elf in combat always has more options than a fighter because they have spells. You absolutely don't need these things to have a good time as evidenced by all the rpgs out there without things like infravision and Growth of Animals, but neither does someone need seat warmers in their car. But, if you're going to be buying a car anyway and the price difference is small enough or negligible altogether, the option of seat warmers might make a difference to a lot of people. So, I try to entice my players with seat warmers.

But nothing compares to being king, especially in a D&D style fantasy landscape where for the majority of the population bread is still a pretty big deal. Anybody who has been king on graph paper will tell you, do this. Five stars of five, Would King Again. Once you become a king through conquest or good old fashioned capitalism, this is the biggest thing you can do. Wizards being too awesome at level 20 get you down? Outlaw wizards. Tired of thieves stealing your payroll? Congrats, you can commission a network of spies to counter the thieves' guild. Tired of your god's rules? FIND A NEW GOD, declare yourself a living god, or just outlaw a faith and burn its pope at the stake. You're the king and you've got the force of a kingdom behind you and all the resources and time in the world; eventually your enemies run out of Magic Missiles or bungle a pick-pocket check from simple attrition.

Once you're king you're the metal ball on the rubber sheet. Short of leaving mortal reality behind and traipsing the starways punching gods and crap, there are fewer bigger things that shape your game world. Short of casting Wish, there are fewer things your individual PC can do to make their mark on the campaign, especially when it's a given cliche that anybody given a bunch of wishes will at least try using one of them to put themselves in charge.

Now yes your elf can be king of his little burg but as far as most elfs are concerned you can fuck off. Same with dwarfs. And yes the idea of the sorcerer king has a lot of weight behind it in source literature but nowhere near as much mental real estate as that possessed by the living god-king or holy monarch because we've actually had those. In life. In reality. And even that is such a small thing compared to how large looms the vision of the ruler-by-conquest.

Just the fact that you find so many warrior kings (or Adventurer Conqueror Kings?) in fiction is a testament to just how powerful an idea that is and how central that is to our ideas about power, since so much fictional ground is given over to this idea in a world where becoming an immortal wizard is also a thing you can do. And yes the appeal of being someone who can wave their hand and do the impossible is impossibly appealing. It is. But after a particularly gnarly fight with a dragon or a mummy or a thoroughly challenging dungeon, your Magic-User may be out of useful shit for the day. The stuff they may have prepared might never come up. And worse still, when they run out of spells they are usually, practically, just a dude.

Not a king.

When you have a player king in your game as a GM it's like the biggest present because that writes your game for you. You can wake up in the middle of a morphine drip and no prep and run a game for a table almost entirely made up of neophyte players, so long as one player on your table is a king. Even a knight is a huge deal, never mind a lord or a baron. But a king? Once one of your players becomes a king, the levels-long fuse has finally burned out and you get to just sit back and watch the fireworks. Nothing automatically generates plot and story hooks like a kingdom. Nothing automatically attracts threats and dangers and challenges like a kingdom. And yes few things afford players more opportunity for high-falutin' ACTING! than being royal as hell.

All of this at the feet of a player picking her character and yet Fighters are still so often so overlooked. "Yeah their attack progression is pretty great, I GUESS, but can you throw in satellite radio and dual climate control?" So, yes, I tart up my Fighters at early levels. Because kings.