Friday, July 29, 2011

DragonRaid: The Weirdest Game I Own, Part 3

Today I'm going to make a character for DragonRaid, because making a character for a game is a great way to start looking at how the game works.

Like most games I'm familiar with from the Silver Age of RPG's, DragonRaid uses random character creation, and has a ton of stats. I find the sheer weight of the character creation process kind of surprising, considering that it's a ministry tool intended for bringing younger gamers into the arms of the church. It's not nearly as involving as making a character for d20 games (a personal bugbear for me), but with all the division and searching through various booklets, it's kind of bothersome, and really, you don't get a sense of who you are making. Yes, you know which Christian virtues they exemplify, but you don't know what they're good at, really, until the end, since there is no class system, and since everything is dictated by random rolls except a few minor choices near the end.

While I myself preferred more complicated games in my youth, I honestly just ignored most of the rules unless I suddenly felt like bringing them into my game. Still, I got my start with the D&D 3.0 starter set, and though I would be glad if I never had to plan ahead to meet the requirements to join a PRC, I feel that 3.0's level of rules-complexity was the perfect entry point, so maybe I'm wrong in this.

Anyway. As I have mentioned, character creation is a little on the arcane side. The CD that comes with the game has both an audio guide transferred straight from the cassette tape the game used to come with, as well as an excel-based character generation program. In the audio files, a calm, firm, masculine voice leads you through the process of character creation to the sound of smooth jazz. Unfortunately, the voice tends to drone a little, and the character creation program is incredibly confusing the first time you look at it, so instead I went with the books to figure out how to.

I probably should have just listened to the calm voice and the smooth jazz.

Also, I used my own d10, because the StarLot's numbers are not filled in and it's impossible to read. It's a nice little artifact of a bygone era of gaming, when polyhedral dice weren't as common and you had to fill in the numbers, but as a gaming tool it's obtuse.

You roll 1d10 for each of the Character Strengths, of which there are nine. These are based on Christian virtues. I got Love 4, Joy 4, Peace 6, Patience 3, Kindness 3, Goodness 7, Faithfulness 4, Gentleness 10, and Self-Control 8. I actually like the idea behind these stats, because they're thematic and definitely fit into the game's source material. It also gives an idea of your character's personality. My guy, for example, is super gentle and good and pretty willfull, but he's also not that caring or happy, and... Wait, how can I not be kind by be super gentle?


Well, whatever.

Next, we calculate Physical Attributes. This involves more random rolls and addition and division, and I'm not sure how I feel about personality traits impacting physical ones. Considering how random the character creation process is, well, I don't like that there's such a strong likelihood for a huge difference in character strengths. Anyway, I got a Physical Vitality of 24, and by my Strength and Agility are 10. Which is super lucky, because otherwise he wouldn't be good at fighting, which would essentially render this poor hero of Light fairly useless. Well, more useless, since there's no way I'll ever convince my group to play this game.

Character Abilities are all based on the Character Strengths, and calculating them involves tons of addition and division. It's by no means hard, but I really don't like division. I like my math simple, because I hate math. I'm also not really sure why some of the character strengths impact some of the character abilities, but I guess Courage could be a combination of Love, Joy, Goodness, Faithfulness and Self-Control.

I guess.

I mean, it makes more sense for that than for physical qualities.

So I got Courage 5, Listening 5, Endurance 4, Quiet Move 5, Hope 4, Vision 3, Knowledge 4, and Wisdom 5. I'm not a fan of how small the range is in the abilities. Maybe I just rolled really bad Strengths, but I feel like even if I have a 10 in one score, it gets brought down badly by other, lower scores, making my character really average. Which feels weird. I want to specialize in stuff. I don't like it when random rolls make my character sucky, or generalized.

Next comes Armor. Unlike most games, you do not buy armor. Instead, your faith grants you divine protection, which is, again, nicely thematic, but there's something fun about buying a sweet suit of platemail on a fantasy game. I got a Belt of Truth 4, Breastplate of Righteousness of 7, Shield of Faith 5, Helmet of Salvation 4, and Boots of the Gospel 5. Again, I ended up with fairly average scores, but with my character's high Strength, Agility, and Breastplate of Righteousness, I feel like my character, while average everywhere else, is starting to look like a stern-but-gentle paladin kind of guy. Which is pretty cool, I guess, and something I might steal for a game of D&D or Warhammer.

I'm not yet sure what these divine armor-pieces actually do in the game yet, but I guess I'll figure that out when I try to figure the rules out later.

After that, we come to Weapon Abilities. I'm not sure what Solo Battle does in the game yet, other than impacting your skill with the weapons you choose, since the rules are fairly scattered about (and could definitely use some heavy editing), but mine is 5. I think it's just a general fighting skill, and I think if it were called, "fighting," it would be a little clearer.

You get to choose 3 weapon-classes, and since my character is shaping up to be a strong-but-silent knight, I went with Flail, Sword and Dagger. Daggers are cowardly weapons, to be sure, but useful in off-battlefield situations, and they are certainly more honorable than striking your foes from afar with an arrow or bolt. I really wanted Lance, but the formula for that weapon skill required a number I couldn't find anywhere on my character sheet. In fact, I couldn't find it anywhere, which really frustrated me. I checked the errata sheet, and didn't see anything there.

For the next twenty minutes I went through everything in the box, trying to find what the hell "SE" stood for. Was it a misspelling of "SC," or, "Self Control?" What in the world was freaking "SE?"

Then I turned my worksheet over, and found it there under Optional Character Abilities, and threw my hands up in fury.

I understand that I'm not the target audience. I'm not a fan of some of the themes and subtle ideas present in the game. However, and it may not look like it, I'm really, really trying to be impartial, for the most part, but it's hard to be impartial on the rules of a game when they're this arcane and poorly edited. I get that this isn't a product from a big company with a large staff, but it's very hard to find what I want across the various booklets and books and sheets.

Having discovered the back of the sheet, where the Optional Character Abilities hang out, I decided to do as the worksheet said, and select three.

Some of the Optional Character Abilities have odd names. Why is Water Movement not just called Swimming?  Why is Climb Skillfully not just Climb? Why does Strength or Agility not affect your ability to climb stuff? Why does Peace not affect things like Persuade Foe? Why can you only pick three? While some abilities, like Sense Evil and Hatred of Evil, make sense that you should have to pick them to obtain them, does not choosing Talk with Locals mean you literally cannot talk to people who are local to an area?

Anyway, I went with Merciful Compassion (which I thought was a little redundant with the Character Strengths), Talk with Locals, and Hatred of Evil. I felt those kind of went with the character I was starting to think up. I guess he's not very good at everything I picked, but hey, they fit the concept. And I was still kind of miffed.

Having essentially finished my character's stats, I copied them from the worksheet onto the character sheet. I kind of like the worksheet, the more I think about it, because unless you have a character creation program (which DR has, but it's baffling and ugly and excel-based, which means I'm compelled to not like it), using scrap paper or whatever can get a little confusing, and this way you don't have to sully a clean, unused character sheet by erasing things you later decide you don't want. It's a clever little tool, and while I was frustrated that it's the only place I could find the Optional Character Abilities, I'd like it if more games did this.

The character sheet itself is small, but pretty much everything you need is on it, including the Success Table (to figure out if your d% rolls succeed), and a chart that explains how to roll a d5 using a d10 (which seemed kind of silly, but then, it's meant for beginners, and I probably would have been really confused when I started playing if I were told to divide a d10 by 2). The back of the sheet has a large, open space for tracking wounds, and a space where you can check in boxes to note if you've used special WordRunes that can only be activated a set number of times. It also has a list of Standard Equipment, which is a great idea, because having to copy down the stuff everyone starts with on a character sheet eats up time, and honestly, if it wasn't on the sheet, I would have probably had trouble finding the items in the first place. The weapons are the in the LightRaider handbook, for example, which is primarily setting information, and it's odd that they aren't in the rulebook, since that's where all the actual rules are supposed to go.

While I haven't managed to play a game of it, of course, my cursory reading of the rules (obtuse and difficult to figure out as they are), I think that, if worded and organized better, they would actually be fairly simple and pretty good overall. It's mostly a d% system, and it reminds me of a skill-less Stormbringer (which is kind of an ironic comparison), with shades of Pendragon, and I like that instead of just rolling a static difficulty number (with modifiers the GM will inevitably forget to apply), a Difficulty Level is chosen, sort of like in d20 games and the like, and that sets what you need to roll against. I don't like that you don't get to choose a class until later, and I don't like that by the rules you don't really get a say in what you want your character to be good at, but it's fairly simple and from the 80's, so that kind of goes along with the overall gaming zeitgeist of the time it was released.

I feel like, with some re-jiggering, this set of rules would actually be pretty great for playing a Narnian RPG, since you have character virtues really affecting the character's stats, and it's light once you figure out what in the hell you're doing.

My biggest beef with the system, though, is the whole WordRune business. Beyond the uncomfortable propaganda-vibes I get from them, I don't like them because a player who can memorize phrases easily is automatically a more effective player. A lot of old-school games emphasize player skill over character skill, but in this case, it's not just knowing how to game the GM and know the proper trap-searching procedures, and when the GM's being a jerk and what monsters to avoid, but rather it's the ability to memorize trivia that will allow a player to be successful, and I think that's bad game design.

I think that's a massive flaw in the game's design structure. Sure, a nice Adventure Master (the DragonRaid GM) could just give players photocopies of the WordRunes, but that defeats the very point of the game, which is to teach Bible verses and try to get players to apply those verses to the situations they are in.

Essentially, the idea seems to be to get players to solve their problems by reciting the Bible.

This is something I take issue with, because problem-solving skills should involve creative and flexible thought, not to mention action, and I don't see how being trained to find an appropriate verse from a dogmatic text actually solves anything.

This is where DragonRaid's status as a game comes into question.

The game design isn't great, and it's primary purpose is to be a ministry tool. As I am not a youth minister, nor am I interested in ministering to anyone, that's where I get off the train and wave goodbye.

I don't think this makes DragonRaid an objectively bad game. It's not FATAL, or any rules system (not setting) by Palladium Games, but from my liberal, gay, agnostic-leaning-atheist point of view, it's not that great, though there are kernels of brilliance shining through an otherwise murky miasma of religious ministry through rules.

Also character creation took me like an hour, and that always ticks me off.


  1. Do you find this system more difficult to make character for, compared to 3rd Ed or Rift?

  2. I would say it's significantly easier then both.

    However, the issue is that some of the information is scattered about, there's a lot of division involved (which is kind of dumb), and because it is so deeply entrenched in randomness, it's entirely possible that you won't know what you're character is really good for, or worse still, you'll end up with stats far, far worse than someone else.

    Now, in a game like RIFTS, the lack of balance between characters is something you expect, and while I most definitely dislike the system RIFTS uses, I understand it's part of the charm of the game.

    However, in a game where you're actively working together to solve a problem and save the world from Satan's stand-in, having wildly differing levels of competency in your party is a very, very bad thing.

  3. Basically, it's a rules-light-to-medium game obfuscated by a lot of unnecessary clutter and weirdness.