Pirates & Plunder

   Don’t mess with Texas – even in tabletop gaming! Yes: I love Yaquinto Publications, and still have a lot of fond memories about Pirates & Plunder, which I ran from 1996 to ’99, and it was the only “fantasy” game I ran with absolutely no magic in the entire campaign – very refreshing. Everything else I ever ran had magic in it, except for one or two short sci-fi or James Bond campaigns. But not having to bother with magic is truly like a DM’s paid vacation...

    One player tackled the role of young Captain Joshua Tew, a (fictional) brother of the infamous Thomas Tew of the Amity. Josh Tew’s own ship was the Marmaduke, with a crew of 38 ruthless sailors, mostly Englishmen from the Bahamas, with some French outlaws thrown into the mix... Captain Tew was a good leader, bold, charismatic, just sneaky enough, and not as insane as most (if not all) of the other PCs.

   Second player was a crazy Quaker priest obsessed with converting Indians and Pirates alike to the True Religion – his own. He wasn’t a coward, though, and took an active part in every battle, slashing around with his sabre, and jumping like a madman right in the midst of Spanish soldiers whenever he had the chance. Sometimes he even went bananas and drew his blade during non-fight scenes, like at a dinner party in Tobago with some rich tobacco farmers and their families...

   Third player was a young chap who never seemed to own enough gunpowder and weapons and muskets and pistols and sabres and rapiers and knives. He was a fifteen-year-old walking arsenal, and never wasted a single round recharging any gun. He just lined them up along the railing prior to a fight, twenty or twenty-five loaded guns, and nobody else would dare touch ‘em, and he was all set then – because, honestly, what RPG fight scene ever lasted twenty-five rounds?

   Fourth player was an old hand: an experienced French sailor who never wore any armor. His Constitution / Toughness score was so damn high that his (hairy) bare chest was less likely to suffer a wound than the Captain’s with his leather brigandine and silk shirt. Old Jacquot owned two weapons – a regular sword, and a seventy-year-old musket with a slightly bent barrel. A cask of rum once fell onto the gun, and Old Jacquot kept it and patiently trained himself to aim with that bent barrel. After a few years, he’d mastered “the bend” and could fire his musket with a normal hit probability – but anybody else suffered a -30 penalty if they ever tried to shoot with this particular gun, and Jacquot himself had a -25 penalty when aiming with any firearm other than his own.

   They played long adventures on the Mosquito Coast, in the Bahamas, in Jamaica, Tobago, Maracaibo, and on more than a few tiny islands and cays. One time, they completely destroyed the small port of Matthew Town in the Bahamas – an operation that required almost three hours of sustained cannon fire, along with thirty powder kegs stashed in advance near city hall, the church, and the jailhouse! And all of that was just because one guy they needed to kill was hiding somewhere in town, and they couldn’t find him...

   I’ve heard quite a few Dungeon Masters talk about running the “best game of their life”. They think about it, they plan on it, talk about it... but is it going to happen? Or maybe the question should be: has it already happened?

   If you took up DMing at age fifteen, by the time you hit thirty you already have way more experience than EGG himself when he was running that legendary Greyhawk campaign in the early seventies. Here’s a little equation to measure that. You take the year you first started DMing, add fifteen to it, and that’s your “DMing Peak”. Now, what were you running right around that time? Look it up.



Which RPG is the best?

   If I were to pick pieces and parts of various role-playing games and then put them back together to fashion one “perfect” RPG, this is what my little Frankenstein’s Monster would look like.

   From the get-go, D&D gave us very good “To Hit” mechanics: this is a kind of simplicity I like. With one die roll, you know. Monster’s Armor Class, and there – you need 15. And the hit location doesn’t matter. Head or toe? Don’t waste any time rolling for that crap – the amount of damage you deal gives you a fairly good idea of where you struck your opponent, and that’s enough. In the White Wolf system, it’s much more complicated. Attacker rolls his seven, eight, or nine dice, says “four successes”, and then the defender rolls his Parry or Dodge, seven more dice, and says “three successes, you got me”, and now the attacker rolls his nine damage dice, says “five”, and the defender rolls his four or five Soak dice, says “two”, and registers three points of damage on his character record sheet (five Hits minus two Soaks). So, fourteen dice were rolled before any damage was dealt, as opposed to the one die with D&D. And that’s just one sword swing, mind you. Imagine the dice-rolling extravaganza if four player characters square off against six bloodthirsty scimitar-wielding ghouls! (When I’m gonna lay on my deathbed, at age 90, I’m gonna be able to say: “Well, one cumulative full year out of those ninety was spent rolling 10-sided dice!”)

   D&D also gave us the “levels” mechanics – and this is the kind of simplicity I don’t like. Players can’t spend XP where they want to, because all XP are automatically funnelled into levelling up. New spells, improved skills, augmented Hit Points, it’s all bundled up together. Too generic. All sixth level thieves are identical: they all have 45% in Remove Traps and 92% in Climb Walls, unless they’re Halfling, in which case they have 50% and 77% respectively.

   Level is the big impediment, here. Without it, you can have “spendable” XP, but you cannot have a one-die “To Hit” roll, because one-die To Hit is based on the monster’s (or opponent’s) Armor Class, and the character’s level. So if there are levels, you’ve got that easy breezy beautiful one-die To Hit, but won’t be able so spend your hard-earned XP as you see fit – they’re all gonna go straight into levelling up... Unless your To Hit is simply made into a skill (a skill you can therefore improve with XP).

   I prefer XP to be spendable separately and anywhere. Get a new useful spell, or boost Dexterity by one point? Increase your Drive Cart and Orientation skills, or get three more Hit Points?

   With Games Workshop things were certainly less monolithic, but Chaosium and White Wolf really unbundled the XP and it was great. “Increased Toughness can wait until the end of the next adventure, but I really need to improve Perception – for Initiative – and Missile Weapons – to defend our new stronghold from wandering goblins.” This way, each PC is totally unique and original.

   Skills are important, but AD&D had very few of them. What’s the roll if you’re trying to hear guards whispering in the next room? What’s the roll if you’re trying to remember which narrow alley you came out of when you escaped from those haunted sewers five nights ago? With Oriental Adventures, AD&D included “non-weapon proficiencies”, which are basically Skills. Newer editions of D&D added things like Perception and Will. You need those. Can’t play without those.

   Now, the magic system – that’s a headache. Oddly enough, I think the best magic system was the one found in Star Wars: the role-playing game. You only had three things there, called Sense, Control, and Alter. That is what you do with magic, isn’t it? You “sense” someone or something, you “control” natural or supernatural phenomena (a wound, a ghost, whatever), or you “alter” mundane or magical stuff. In the very good Ars Magica system, that would translate into Intellego (sense), Rego (control), and Muto (alter) – the other two forms, Creo and Perdo, being different combos of Control and Alter.

   That is a fine, simple system. And it also gives you a dice roll to see if you cast the spell correctly – a thing gravely lacking in D&D. And last but not least, to get a perfectly good magic system, you need Magic Points (thank you, Chaosium). To hell with that “cast and forget” thing; just consider how many Magic Points you’ve got, and you manage from there. Need to cast three fireballs in four rounds? Go right ahead, Quick Ben, but it’ll cost you thrice the Magic Points, of course. But it’s your spell. You know it. You’ve spent weeks studying it – not just the words, but all the inner workings of that particular sorcery. You won’t forget it every time you cast it. That’d be annoying. And what about magic-users learning a spell twice? How can you know by heart the lyrics to a song twice? It makes no sense.

   Magic Points, definitely. And when you level up (or spend enough XP), you add more to your base score. Easy. Like Hit Points. And those magic-user players will still need to “rest” often, not to relearn the same spell for the hundredth time, but to replenish Magic Points.

   To sum it up, the best RPG system would have:

  • A one-die “To Hit” roll.
  • No hit location.
  • Skills.
  • “Spendable” XP.
  • No experience levels.
  • Magic Points, and a spell casting dice roll.

   Some games came close, indeed, but I’ve not yet encountered the one with 6 out of those 6 specificities.