Sunday, December 1, 2019

(AD&D 2e) Player's Option: Combat & Tactics

I can't tell you what a relief it is to no longer have Player's Option: Combat & Tactics looming in my future. It wasn't the driest of my remaining books, not when there's another edition of GURPS left to read, but it was definitely not in the sweet-spot for entertaining vs informative content. It reads a lot like game rules, which I suppose is the point of the exercise, but it's always a little offputting to be reminded of that.

Combat & Tactics does have the distinction of being the first one of these Player's Option books that is not objectively worse than the material it supplants. It might be controversial as to whether a highly-detailed, miniatures-focused tactical combat system is desirable, but if you come down on the book's side of the issue, you're mostly going to get a system that is robust and functional. It feels exactly like what it is - a prototype of D&D3's combat. There are ambiguities that are destined to get cleaned up, and there's more bookkeeping involved, but there are also more features. I'd never want to use it, but I don't hate it.

The only major flaw of this book (aside from the fact that it's 190 pages devoted to combat, the most boring part of every rpg) is that it does not overcome core AD&D's curiously limited vision. This is probably something that rankles me more right after reading Spelljammer than it would have if I'd read it when I first intended to, but the equipment section of this book is probably as pure an expression of AD&D's bizarre historiographical priorities as we're ever likely to see . . .

Let's put in 20 types of polearms and separate equipment lists for the Dark Ages, the Crusades, and the Hundred Years War, but India is basically in the Middle East, right?

It's depressingly Eurocentric. There's a section devoted to martial arts. You know, the famous Shaolin styles of A, B, C, and D. Also, you can't use improvised weapons with martial arts. I guess I've been long under the impression that Oriental Adventures was inspired by Hong Kong cinema, so how does this happen?

I have a theory. The Foreword says that Combat & Tactics' goal was not to make combat more realistic, but rather to make it more believable, and it occurs to me that believability is one of those things that is as much in the minds of the audience as it is in the context of the fiction. It only takes a little effort for a person to believe all sorts of improbable things.

So maybe when we look at a fantasy history being "believable" we should look less at the detail and nuance of its world-building and more at what the reader is already primed to believe. It reminds me of something I said in my video game blog, while I was playing Europa Universalis IV:
It's like they're saying that way things played out in the real world was inevitable, but I'm sure that if you replayed human history 1000 times, starting in 1444, in 999 of those timelines, China would be the preeminent global power going into the 19th century. So why not let the game play out that way? Why pretend that the real world outcome is the likeliest or most plausible?
I was referring to EUIV's mechanics that sidestepped the rules of the simulation to nudge the game towards a "historical" outcome, but I think the question is even more salient when talking about creating a fantasy setting. It was a train of thought kicked off by Combat & Tactics' discussion of bronze age technology:
Unlike Stone Age or savage cultures, Bronze Age cultures are almost never found as contemporaries of more advanced civilizations.
First, the obligatory "Savage cultures? Really?!" Though at least Combat & Tactics has the good grace to acknowledge and condemn European colonialism
Historically, many African, Asian, and Malaysian nations were considered "savages" by Western European explorers as late as the early part of this century. These unique cultures suffered terribly at the hands of their supposedly more-civilized visitors.
Which is nice to read in one of these books for a change, but raises the uncomfortable question, "if you know that, then why are you still using the word 'savage?'" And the slightly less uncomfortable, but still difficult question, "if you know that, why haven't you let it inform your world-building."

Why is it that Stone Age technology can coexist with more advanced techniques like iron? What trait or quality do stone-using cultures have in common, that sets them apart from iron using cultures?  It's a question with a lot of racist baggage, but the answer really does seem to be nothing more complicated than geographic isolation. Small populations of people never developed the infrastructure and specialization to allow for the exploration of metallurgy, so they were still using stone when they made contact.

Which brings us back to the quote that started this all. Why can't bronze coexist with iron?

Because, historically, it didn't. That's the only reason. I mean, except for the 500+ year period where it did, because the reason it got supplanted was a continental trade network that moved goods, people, and ideas along a giant meta-civilization that allowed people to benefit from the accomplishments of people thousands of miles away . . . and that process takes time. But there's no real reason why it would have to shake out that way in a fictional world.

When you use the term "Stone Age" to refer to everyone from Homo Habilis to the Aztecs, you kind of lose the ability to talk about it as if it's a uniform technological stage (a fact acknowledged by this book, ironically, but never explored to its logical conclusion). And that opens the gate to historical counterfactuals. "What if the Mayans discovered bronze?" It's not an outrageous idea. They had a rudimentary version of the number 0, almost a millennium ahead of Europe. It makes you wonder, when the book says "Bronze Age cultures are almost never found as contemporaries of more advanced civilizations" what's the sample size?

Believability seems married, in D&D, to an unspoken racial essentialism. A "believable" world is one where you have fantasy-Europe and fantasy-Asia and fantasy-Africa, and never the twain shall meet. Your viking-inspired culture can't have blowguns because blowguns aren't European enough. It suggests a view of history where our world has taken the form it has due to the inevitable unfolding of immutable natural law.

With all due respect to Marx, though history may indeed largely be driven by material circumstances, chaos theory counts as material. "For want of a nail" isn't just a poetic truism. A first principle of fantasy worldbuilding should be to identify the nails, and what happens if they're wanting.

I mean, a "western" culture that also happens to practice martial arts as a monastic discipline or a samurai wielding a pole axe don't even come close to violating the laws of physics. So why do the rules discourage them in worlds where you can violate the laws of physics?

Of course, that's a lot to pit on an optional rpg supplement that mainly exists to make TSR's existing customers into unwitting playtesters for their new edition, but sometimes with these posts I just follow where my train of thought takes me (especially when the book itself is as resolutely generic as this one).

Ukss Contribution: Oh no, there is so little setting stuff here that it's almost impossible to choose. Maybe on some asteroid the residents practice "Martial Arts Style B" (actually, despite this being a joke, the idea of a culture with a martial arts tradition, but no imagination is beginning to intrigue me).

To save myself from getting super weird, I'll go with something that's only implied to exist by a literal reading of the book's rules. One of the new innovations was the weapon mastery system, where single-class fighters could go beyond mere weapon specialization and achieve the ranks of master or grand-master. One of the weapons listed in this book is the "combined weapon" known as the sword-pistol.

Logically, then, there must be Grand-Masters of the Sword-Pistol.

Technically, that's the coolest thing about Final Fantasy VIII, but I'll take it.

1 comment:

  1. "'For want of a nail' isn't just a poetic truism. A first principle of fantasy worldbuilding should be to identify the nails, and what happens if they're wanting."

    This is a good line.