Monday, November 18, 2019

(AD&D 2e)Player's Option: Skills & Powers

They should have sent a poet . . .

This book is truly awful. As in, I am literally full of awe right now. I don't want to say that it's "bad," because that would imply that it was unbalanced or unfun, and . . . it may be, or it may not be, but it's actually impossible to tell because what it definitely is is a total mess.

The book's pitch is pretty simple and appealing - what if you increased the flexibility and diversity of AD&D's character creation process by adding in point-buy mechanics. Unfortunately, the execution of this pitch feels a lot like it's a point-buy system designed by someone who only really heard about the concept of point-buy second-hand, from someone who was super drunk at the time.

There is still a lot of vestigial AD&D mechanics in Player's Option: Skills & Powers makeup, and they are deployed with breathtaking whimsy. The most obvious D&D-ism is the fact that you're still expected to roll your Abilities. They don't interact with the new character points system in any way. There is one option that says it uses character points, but then gives you a whole new pool of CP just to spend on Abilities. You can't save any of these points for later in character creation and you can't use the points you get later for extra Abilities.

This siloing of character points is the weirdest part of the Skills & Powers system. It could work pretty well, if available point totals and the related point costs were designed with any kind of precision, but if there's any design principles at work here, I cannot discern them.

For example, it costs 40 character points to play an elf and 30 character points to play a halfling. Which, aside from the brutal slam on the value of halflings, seems fair enough. Elves are traditionally heroic figures who stand astride the events that define the turning of an Age, and halflings are traditionally the bumbling every-man, who gets reluctantly dragged into adventure and brings to the table more optimism than skill. The obvious next question is then - how many character points do you get and what can halflings spend their 10 extra on?

But you're thinking too logically here. The answer is that elves get 45 character points and halflings get 35 character points. The way it works is that each race has a menu of special abilities that mostly seems to draw from their historically published variants (eg elves can spend 10 points to get the aquatic elves' underwater breathing or 15 points to get the drow's spell-like abilities) and there are a number of standard templates that have totals equal to your starting points-5. You can either spend your full pool to play a better-than-average sub-race like the drow or you can customize your character to be some kind of unique Elf+ or you can save up to 5 character points for later in the process.

The number of character points vary wildly between the races, but also the costs of the racial abilities seem to follow no earthly logic. It's tough to get apples-to-apples comparisons, but I did manage to find a good one. Both halflings and half-orcs can buy "Mining Detection Abilities" for 5cp.

Here's the halfling version:
Determine approximate direction underground, 1-3 on 1d6
Detect any grade or slope in the passage they are passing through, 1-3 on 1d4
Here's the half-orc version
Detect any grade or slope on the passage they are passing through, 1-2 on 1d4
Detect new construction in stonework, 1-2 on 1d6
What the fuck is even going on here? Class point totals are somehow even worse. Fighters get the fewest cp, with 15. Priests get the most with 125. Is this a reflection of class power? Probably not, because Mages get 40 and thieves get 80.  Near as I can tell, the available character points are a reflection of class complexity and are directly proportional to how many sentences it takes to adequately describe the class's abilities. But then the point costs are on a completely different and incomprehensible metric. Thieves can spend 10 points to get the Pick Pockets ability. And Clerics can spend 10 points to get major access to the Necromantic sphere. You know, rummaging around in someone's pockets for spare change vs reaching beyond the veil to return the dead to life. Those sound about balanced against each other.

So much of this book feels like they were given a mandate to add this new character points system, but also strict instructions to not accidentally fix anything about AD&D in the process. It's frankly bizarre, the way things that you'd expect to get improved by a la carte class customization nonetheless wind up getting baked into the Skills & Powers system by things like the curation of powers lists or just straight-up exceptions to the general rules. Demihuman level limits are still in. Why? No earthly mind can possibly know.

I guess what I'm saying is, don't get this book. If you want what it promises, play D&D 3rd edition. If you want to play AD&D 2nd edition, play AD&D 2nd edition. This? It combines the worst aspects of both, but, like, if they were misleadingly presented by someone who wanted to slander the systems in question. I'd call it a historical landmark in how not to design an rpg.

Ukss Contribution. For the riding proficiency, it uses as an example a halfling who rides a giant lizard. Halflings are goblins in Ukss, but it's a pretty neat image for a wandering hero the PCs might meet.


  1. It's been a long time, so I don't remember any of these wonderfully incoherent details. But I do remember loving Skills & Powers in play. I played using it for maybe 3 years of weekly D&D. It gave us a healthy chunk of what 3e gave us before 3e actually came out. I suspect in the context of 2e, it didn't seem that bad.

  2. I love the admonition against getting the book, as though anyone today is considering it for anything other than historical value. =D