Friday, September 6, 2019

The Gray Mouser and Ba5ic

If I were to pick a fantasy author whose work I love and have read avidly but had the least impact on the way I play D&D, that author would be Fritz Leiber. When I first discovered Appendix N in the 1e DMG, the first books I went out and got were Leiber’s stories about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. After reading them, I stopped looking to Appendix N for inspiration because Leiber demonstrated to me the serious limitations of D&D and I didn’t want to be further disappointed by anything else on that list.

I don’t know anybody that doesn’t have that literary hero that they want to emulate in D&D. For a lot of guys I grew up playing D&D with, that character was Drzzt Do’Urden. (Not so coincidentally, he is also the reason I don’t like using drow in any campaign I run). For me, that character has long been Leiber’s Gray Mouser. Unlike all the Drzzt fans, however, there was no easy way for me to play the Gray Mouser in D&D.

Sure, I could play an elven Magic-user Thief, or dual-class with a human or multi-class in some of the newer versions of the game…but none of those options would be the Gray Mouser from 1st level. Given the fact that most long-running campaigns I have ever taken part in end around 5-7th level, the effort to go dual- or multi-class never really appealed.

Thus, I had avoided all things Leiber in my D&Ding because it reminds me of what I can’t do. That is, until now.

In my opinion, the most important mechanical innovation that 5e has brought to the table is the Background. Not only does it offer up some interesting backstory to a character, but it expresses this story with some mechanics — a couple of proficiencies and a kind of perk that come with the territory. When I first read through the SRD to see how I would use it, my first impulse was to declare the that Rogue class is no longer mechanically necessary. All of the things a thief/rogue brings to the table can be handled through the Background mechanic.

In other words, I can finally play the Gray Mouser from 1st level on. Human Wizard/Sorcerer/Warlock with a Criminal Background. Done. Finally.

The Background Mechanic doesn’t stop there, though. As I was editing down the 5e SRD to make Ba5ic, I came to realize that 5e doesn’t really understand what it has in the Background mechanic. I can completely understand why — the game is tied to classes that have existed since the 70s and it can’t really jettison those traditions. In redacting the SRD, however, I kept finding myself asking the question: What if we did?

This is why Ba5ic only has three classes: the Adept, Expert and Warrior. These are simply generic mechanical chassis upon which to place Backgrounds that result in truly literary characters: Sorcerers that can’t cast magic, for example.

In other words, the Background mechanic is a means of making D&D into a set of mechanics that can be used to create a plethora of concepts. The reason I could never play Gray Mouser was that D&D has always been about concepts that have mechanics to justify them. While that works and has done so for decades and (hopefully) decades more, I have always chaffed at the limitations that such frameworks operate under. While the concept might be really cool, I have usually found myself wanting a different concept that the mechanics can’t always handle.

Long-time readers of this blog will know that my go-to Supers RPG is Champions. Regardless of how many excellent Super RPGs have come out over the years (and there are many — V&V will always have a place in my heart), Champions just does it better. The reason is simple: it is a game of mechanics that invites you to dream up concepts to place upon those mechanics. Thus, instead of a Firebolt (which uses the same basic mechanic as a bunch of other offensive spells in D&D), Champions has Energy Blast, which is explicitly those mechanics, without the flavor text of “You hurl a mote of fire at a creature or object within range.” I am free to think of those mechanics as anything from a Fireboat to a flying rocket-propelled fist.

Used in the right way, Backgrounds could very well be a means by which to strip D&D of its concepts and leave only mechanics and an invitation to go wild with our imagination.

While I think Ba5ic falls short in this lofty vision, I think it is a step in that direction. I feel justified in saying this because my oldest decided to start her first D&D campaign as a DM with her friends. Knowing that she probably couldn’t get away with not doing 5e, she asked if she could borrow both my Essentials Rulebook and my (now rough draft) copy of Ba5ic. She pitched both to her friends and they chose Ba5ic because they felt they could have (and I quote) “weirder” characters.

Ba5ic should be generally available in printed format soon.


subhuman said...

Well, that must be a proud daddy moment, having your game chosen by your daughter's friends.

FWIW, I'd say the Gray Mouser is less of an Adept with a criminal background and more of an Expert with an arcane background. His magical knowledge usually gets him into trouble, and rarely gets him out.

Scott Anderson said...

I’m happy that you’re happy.

In my opinion, trying to use d&d to emulate literary heroes (aside from two specific cases) is bound to fail. That is not a limitation on d&d though because it isn’t really trying to do that (again, with two exceptions.)

I also use three classes in my set (plus three Demi-men as race as class, so maybe it’s really six.)

These classes are super bare bones. I want to work with players to add what they want, whether it’s gear or interesting and special class abilities.

We’re going on the same direction I think but you’re working out the crunch and I’m not? Maybe?

Probably because you intend your product for the mass market and I use mine for a very very small market.

JB said...

Mmm. Mmm, mm,

I feel your pain, Padre, at least regarding the lack of literary modeling that's possible in early (pre-2000) D&D. My favorite literary character was probably Elric...or, even earlier, MZB's sorcerer Lythande...both of whom were fairly impossible to emulate without re-skinning B/X elves (which, in my younger years, I would never thought of doing).

These days, however, I'm more inclined to feel it's a failure of perspective on *my* (and others') part than a failing of D&D. Literary creations, like Mouser, have backgrounds/backstory as part of their character. The beginning of a first level character's career in D&D is the beginning of a PC's "backstory." You have to create/play through all don't get to invent it to start.

At least in D&D "as written."

If 5E (or your own Ba5ic) scratches that itch for you to model literary characters who manifest with existing backstory intact...well, I'm happy for you, I suppose. For my money, I'd rather start a first level character in a Lankhmar-like setting and create (over time) my own complex and interesting character.

But that's just me.

Dennis Laffey said...

I've become (over the past dozen or so years) a big fan of "here are the game mechanics, give them whatever color you prefer" the way Champions apparently does (never even had a look at it!).

And while it's completely unnecessary to the conversation, if I were to try and write up the Mouser in full 5E stats, I'd probably make him a Human (alternate) Dex-based Fighter with the Urchin background and the Ritual Caster feat.

Fafhrd would be a Human (standard) Ranger with the Entertainer background. :D

FrDave said...

Truth be told, the audience I really write for is me. It just so happens that that formula is a good way to create stuff because your joy and excitement shine through and sometimes it gets others to be excited, too.

FrDave said...

5e/Ba5ic are abstract and mechanical enough that they can take the burden of an unusual concept in a way previous incarnations of D&D struggled with. I will grant that I could have played Gray Mouser before all of his adventures in Leiber's stories using older editions, but I just wasn't interested. That doesn't mean that 5e/Ba5ic do away with that kind of character growth, they just allow players to come at it far more easily from a more literary direction. The Sorcerer who can't cast spells, for example, can be a kid trying to prove himself to his family that he does belong despite his "handicap."

FrDave said...

@subhiman @ Dennis Laffey

This is what I love about 5e and the Background system. It allows us the freedom to tackle the same concept from a multitude of different directions. Both of your versions of Gray Mouser excite me as much as mine does!

Scott Anderson said...

Upon further thought, this sounds like it has the same impact of fear chains in 3.X

FrDave said...

I hate to admit it, but I have no idea what "fear chains in 3.X" means.

Scott Anderson said...

In third edition there was the early concept of feats - special abilities you chose from as you leveled up. Some feats required prerequisite feats and once you chose that chain of feats, you had a quite powerful ability.

David B. said...

It almost looks like a primary archetype and a secondary archetype. Wasn't there barbarian/Conan RPG where you choose 4 backgrounds and put points in them ? Mechanically it's very different, but I get the impression the desire is the same: to mold the character from the get go.

Monkapotomus said...

Huh. Apparently I can't comment from Chrome anymore.

That is awesome. Backgrounds were always my favorite thing about 5E and I had implemented something similar in my 3E games before they fizzled out. I actually first got the idea for them from the 3E Wheel of Time expansion that WoTC released.