Okay, I have sort of a love/hate relationship with ACKS proficiencies. On the one hand, I love how all of the “normal human” specialist roles are broken down and incorporated into a unified system: I know exactly what level zero humans are and how they go on to bigger and better things. I like how a lot of stuff which tends to come in as house rules is codified here in such a way that players have to give something up to get at them. People that have a favorite proficiency not only get the benefit of it, they flaunt it. Finally, I like how the proficiencies rules open up just enough formal customization that there is no need for a lot of the multi-classing and variant classes that other games have been engulfed by. What’s not to like, right?
Well I’ll tell you. The main thing that’s so annoying about it is that it slows down character creation. Normally it’s just the Magic-User that has to pour over a list of obscure items, making a crucial game strategy choice based on a few opaque passages he can glean something from. Granted, it’s only a brand new player that really has to do that, really. Everybody else just has to figure out if they want Sleep or if they want to get really crazy and try Charm Person instead. But you know what I mean.
Dropping this proficiency system into B/X D&D means that everybody has to sort out a character creation choice that’s about three times as complicated as magic-user spell selection. And you’d think that it wouldn’t be that complicated, but it is. I’ve handed pregens to people, pointed out that they can make a different choice for their one general proficiency and their one class proficiency. Then I’ll get through over a dozen hours of gaming with them before I notice that they ended up going with two class proficiencies. Doh! No, it’s not that complicated. But when you have a table full of rowdy players, subtle nuances like this are about the first thing to go.
At the other end of the spectrum, it’s player system mastery that becomes a problem. I mean, part of the reason I play “3d6 in order” in the first place is to head off the whole min/maxing, power gaming, munchkin attitude. In B/X, there’s really only one big choice in char-gen: what class do you want to play? Integrate in a proficiency system like this, and suddenly the spirit of post-TSR D&D rears it’s ugly head. Okay, there’s nothing quite like a real feat-chain here. And there’s hardly anything resembling a perfect builds that everyone expects you to just roll with. But I tell you… this thing with players bringing in clerics and magic-users with every proficiency slot they have dedicated to healing just drives me crazy.
See, the proficiency system is something that was meant to just be a bit of a perk; something that would let people personalize and round out their characters a little, you know? But here it is, all that stuff that’s here complicating my D&D? Well it’s not providing the sort of benefits that convinced me to turn it loose on my table in the first place. Now, sure. It’s perfectly natural for the players to take every step they can to give them their best chance for survival. They’re all liable to see their player characters come to a violent end, after all. But I want something more from this than double damage on natural twenties and a truckload of healing proficiency checks after every single skirmish. I’d like… well… and I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but… I’d just like to see these characters be just a bit more individualized before they die. (Note: this is not an endorsement of special snowflake gaming!)
This is where the ACKS Player’s Companion comes in. For every core class and for every class in the Companion, there is a 3d6 table breaking them down into a selection of eight templates. These include not just proficiency choices, but also gear and (in some cases) starting spells for these guys as well. That problem I had with proficiencies bogging down character generation? It’s gone!
But there’s more. Let me bring back to my set of five characters that I’ve been working up as a part of this series so you can see what I mean.
- 10-12-11-9-10-12 Fighter, 7 hit points
- 7-10-9-18-13-11 Thief (+10% XP Bonus, +1 hit point per hit die, -1 to to-hit and damage with melee weapons), 2 hit points
- 10-10-7-10-10-12 Fighter (-1 penalty to saving throws vs. magic and magic items.), 5 hit points
- 9-18-10-10-12-6 Mage (+10% XP bonus as mage, -1 penalty to reaction rolls and max number of henchmen), 3 hit points
- 9-10-13-10-16-8 Cleric (+2 hit points per hit die and +5% earned XP), 6 hit points
Rolling on the chars from the Player’s here are the template results:
- Corsair — Swashbuckling, Seafaring
- Cat Burglar — Cat Burglary, Gambling
- Guardsman — Alertness, Signaling
- Magical Scholar — Loremastery, Collegiate Wizardry, Knowledge (astrology), Alchemy; Spells: Sleep, Chameleon, Detect Magic (Note: one general proficiency left open to be selected during play; note that Chameleon came up twice in spell selection, so he has an empty slot in his spell repertoire as well!)
- Undead Slayer — Righteous Turning, Healing
I have to say… I really like this set of results. Those two fighters that were more or less identical before? They’re like completely different characters now. In fact… all of these guys have backgrounds now. I can even see players invoking these generic templates as a mean’s of introducing role-playing elements into the game. Nothing fancy, mind. Maybe just an angle that players might use to gather rumors: “I’m an Undead Slayer… so I want to ask at the tavern if there are any sites where such things have been encountered in the past while.” That corsair might know things about any treasure maps the party comes across. And so on. This is the sort of thing that I wanted the proficiency system to inject into the game. And note… the raw mechanics from the core book combined with full player autonomy did not give it to me. (I could have house ruled it in order police what I think of as being as abuse, sure. But you know I’m not inclined to start down that path. Heh.)
But there’s something familiar about this effect I’m observing here. And it’s not a connection I would have immediately drawn without actually working through this. What these templates bring to the table are the this whole idea of descriptors. I first saw this sort of thing in Ron Edwards’s Sorcerer where he had players choose from among a set of colorful phrases that explained why a particular attribute was at the level that it was. Applying something like this to D&D classes strikes me as a really good idea because they give you the option to step away from the implications of the rules and instead think in terms of the character background could have driven the selection of those individual proficiency slots in the first place.
This is not just chrome. I think something significant is happening here. It’s not flashy, but it is a move a way from something that really breaks the sense of immersion at the tabletop. And yes, if we’re going to be playing a game like this for thirty hours or more, this matters to me! It’s like what Jeff Lee was saying:
In D&D (and similar systems), the rules are a tool in which you actualize the rules. They are arbitrary, self-referencial, and exists only for their own purpose, not to actualize something about your character.
Yes! That’s exactly what I dislike about AD&D’s multi-classing.
The descriptor feature of the ACKS templates encapsulates those proficiency selections into an easy to remember hook that reaches back and connects to the wider setting in a very playable way. It gives the player a focus that he can use to interpret the raw numbers of his character. Most importantly, novices can take this and run with it even if they are not clear on the details of how their proficienies even work! This does not turn classic D&D into a new wave story game, not by a long stretch. But it nudges things in a direction that I’d really like to see encouraged. At the same time… it addresses actual annoyances that emerge in play. This is not the sort of brilliant game design flourish that I expected to find within the covers of the ACKS Player’s Companion. But this is a really great idea for a lot of reasons.
My advice to ACKS gamemasters using these tables would be to look out for when the players reference their template title to justify role-playing actions. If you can’t wholeheartedly say, “it worked!” you can at least throw them a bone with a good old “yes, but….” The spirit of the template as a whole may be more relevant in some situations than the actual capabilities of the the proficiencies that come with them!