Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Complete Fighter's Handbook

I really want to like this book, and, indeed, there is a lot here to like, but there is a 30 year gulf between now and when it was written, and there are some things that might have worked in 1989 that simply don't fly today.

Like the Amazon Kit. Cool female warriors? Sign me up. Let's just take a look at their special abilities. They get a bonus to the accuracy and damage of their first attack in a battle because men underestimate them? Eh . . . Their weakness is that men are really sexist against them? Sigh.

I'm sure they meant well. At the end of the next Kit, the Barbarian, the text gently reminds us that women can be Barbarians just as much as anyone.

The mechanics of this twist the brain just a little bit. The "underestimation bonus" isn't a general rule. It's not something available to every female character. But maybe the Amazons have special training to take advantage of their enemies' sexism. Except . . . wouldn't an all-female society have the least use for techniques like that? And all those people who were giving the Amazons a hard time, they somehow didn't have a problem with female Barbarians?

Then there's the Samurai, which just brings all that weird Oriental Adventures baggage back into the game. There's this weird mental forcefield that the writers put up around Asian-inspired fantasy. "Before you create a samurai or ronin, ask your DM if such things exist on his world and if you may play one. It could be that the DM does not wish to allow samurai or ronin in his campaign (because the campaign world has no oriental setting to act as their origin, for instance.)"

It's not a warning that gets attached to Pirates or Barbarians or Myrmidons. Somehow, only the Japanese archetype gets singled out. Considering how weird Vampire: the Masquerade was about Asian vampires, I'm thinking maybe it's just a 90s thing. Global trade was increasing, the cold war was dying down, the US had a slight, but growing exposure to Japanese and Hong Kong cinema, but it was still a decade before the ubiquity of the internet, so people could draw on these cultures for inspiration, but in-depth research was difficult and direct exposure to actual, living Asians was rare.

There's no excuse for the "Savage" kit, however. I mean, it's just really racist.

Leaving aside the books retrograde politics, I can say that it does seem to represent a growing paradigm shift in D&D as a whole. I've often heard it said that the difference between "old school" and "modern" rpgs is that modern games treat characters as the protagonists in a story, whereas old school characters are just people who events happen to. The Complete Fighter's Handbook seems to want to straddle this line, eschewing plot protection for PCs, but treating them, nonetheless as immaculate designed things, even going so far as to suggest making point buy Attributes the default character creation method, to ensure that players can have a character who matches their vision.

It's that attitude, more than anything, that makes the Complete Handbook series such a standout part of AD&D 2nd Edition for me. They spoke to a desire I did not yet have the ability to articulate - to create at the table a sort of living fantasy fiction that evoked my favorite books and movies - a desire that was poorly served by core AD&D alone.

The verdict today?

Don't get The Complete Fighter's Handbook. I think it's well-intentioned in that careless 90s way where they accidentally validate stereotypes even as they're denouncing them. But honestly, the cringe-factor was kind of a deal breaker. Most of the best stuff in this book gets reprinted elsewhere and game balance is nonexistant (for example, the Cavalier kit gets serious combat bonuses at the cost of . . . having to roleplay your character exactly as you intended to roleplay them when you chose the Cavalier kit.) So as much as it expanded the mind of a young kid who yearned for more out his roleplaying games, it's something that's largely been rendered obsolete by the tide of progress - in both society and game design.

UKSS Contribution - Swashbucklers. It's kind of an abstract kit. And it's definitely an abstract idea for a setting contribution, but UKSS is going to have swashbucklers. Some people, somewhere, in some context, are going to buckle some swash  - that's a guarantee.

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