Thursday, May 7, 2009

Feature Characters and their Stats

This is another subject that I stumbled over while reading a couple RP forums. I'm going to comment on it here because in the short time I dabbled with forums, I quickly came to the conclusion that there are a lot of morons out there who see the Internet (and forums in particular) as their chance to be an ass to everyone else without any repercussions. I don't want to wade through the mud-slinging and flames. But I digress...lets talk Feature Characters (you know, like Luke, Han, Leia, et.)

One of the big complaints a lot of people seem to have about the original D6 system was how 'bogus' the Feature characters were. I can understand where they're coming from on this. From a 'fairness' point of view, there does seem to be a huge leap between your average starting Star Wars character (with their 7D worth of starting skills) and say Luke Skywalker (with his dozens of dice). Looking at it from a strictly rational viewpoint you can ask the question: Why would my own ex-farmboy character start off with so many less?

I suspect that the reason the writers of the game statted the feature characters as they did was to make them 'larger than life'. But then, I am of the opinion that the ACTIONS of the characters made them heroes, not their abilities. Yes, Luke was a good pilot, but he wasn't the best (recall his "I can't shake him!" situation). Yes, Han was good with a blaster, but he knew his limitations (he ran from Stormtroopers, didn't mow them all down). In the movies, we see skilled people, to be sure. I'd even go so far as to say they're well above a 'normal' person in that setting. But (in the first movie at least) the heroes were never portrayed as complete badasses.

On the flip side, however, when you have a character with a past, like Han Solo, I'd expect him to have more and even better skills than Luke Skywalker, who was 10 years his junior. Han had been out 'adventuring' for years prior to the events of Episode IV. That's quite obvious. Similarly, Chewbacca (being in his second century of life) would no doubt have picked up quite a few skills, even if he had been confined as a slave for a good portion of that.

The problem comes when you try to mesh this realistic rationale to game mechanics and balance. In the RPG, the age of your character doesn't matter. You could be playing a 'Retired Imperial Captain', who served for 20+ years in the military—possibly even in the Clone Wars—and they would still have as many starting skill dice as the 'Kid', who is just 12 years old and grew up on the streets. Does it make sense logically? No. Does it ensure game balance? Yes.

So what's the answer? Well, like most things in an RPG, that depends on the gaming group. When I first started my Vermillion campaign, I recall following the letter of the law rather strictly—the first characters in the campaign had 7D worth of starting skills. When new players joined, down the line, I generally gave them more than that, so they'd be at least in the ballpark of where the more established PCs were. Thankfully, at this stage, everyone had characters that were pretty much the same age—early 20's. So logically, all of them being at the same skill level worked.

In the D6 campaigns that I've run since Vermillion (and there have been a few) I have moved away from the 7D starting thing. Now its more like 24D or maybe even a bit more. The only caveat to this is that starting characters can't have over 6D in any skill. What this encourages (in most players, at least) is a more well rounded character who has respectable levels in a variety of different skills.

Where does this leave the Feature Characters? If I had to do it all over again, a new Star Wars campaign would see the starting stats of Player Characters rise (to the 24+ starting die level) and the stats of Feature characters (especially younger ones) lower. Essentially, they'd meet in the middle. Luke and Leia would be at or near the level of starting PCs. Han and Chewie would remain pretty high in skill levels, however, since they'd both be 'Veteran' NPCs. Any player character who wanted to start with an older and more experience character would not be allowed to have more starting skill dice—and to suit my own sense of logic, they'd also have to come up with a reason WHY they don't have more skill dice. 

For example, everyone in the party is a 20-something, except for one who wants to be a Failed Jedi—someone who was a Padawan during the Clone Wars. Everyone would get the same number of starting die. Logically, the Failed Jedi should have about 20 years more experience than the rest of the group. But the character's backstory revolves around a 'broken' past of heavy drinking, hiding and trying to 'suppress' who they were. Thus, they weren't going out seeking adventure during all this time, and through their actions, they actually could have LOST skill dice in certain areas due to poor health and degredation from neglect. In the end, this puts them on the same level with a bunch of kids just starting out in their careers.

Of course, this is just how I would handle it. Some people don't care about balancing story logic with gameplay and that's fine too if you want to just abide by the written rules. What gets me, though, is the assumption that the rules are the end-all-be-all of a system. A lot of people on the RPG forums use Feature Character statistics as one of their main arguments as to why they don't like the D6 system. It's a weak argument, especially when you consider one of the first rules outlined in the game: ...the purpose of the game is to have fun. If our suggestions get in the way—toss 'em out. Having a good time is more important than any picayune details. In short, rule 1 is: if rules 2 through infinity don't work for you, change them. If you don't like how Feature Characters are statted, then make up your own. 

And finally, in response to one other related 'complaint' on the forums, I'd like to briefly address the notion that 'In a well run campaign, a player character will never reach the skill levels of a feature character'. Again, I say that depends on the campaign. First of all, as stated in many previous posts, I don't believe in arbitrary character death. Thus, well run PCs in my campaign tend to survive and grow over the course of the game. Secondly, if you run a campaign long enough, PC's may very well grow to feature character levels. My campaign has been going on since the early 90's. And for at least 3 of those years, I was gaming regularly (i.e. about every week). When you put that much time into a character, you can very easily see their skill levels rise to extraordinary levels. And as I have posted previously, I feel that the way I run my campaign is just as valid as anyone else's. I try not to make generalizations about what constitutes a 'well run' campaign based on my own, subjective criteria. I wish more people would do the same.

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