Monday, 18 June 2012

Brute Characters

Half-orcs. Half-ogres. Half-giants. Nephilim. Lizardmen. Minotaurs. There's always the impulse in fantasy roleplaying games to let the players take on that role so familiar from the superhero comics ... the big, dumb, straightforward aggro machine.

There's a mechanical problem, though, and a balance problem. The mechanical problem exists in games like D&D through 2nd edition, where monsters follow different rules than player characters. It's alluded to in the AD&D material on playing monsters as characters; how do you make a centaur or a lizardman with their multiple hit dice realistically start off on the same footing as a 1st level party of player characters?

This leads into the balance problem. The brute kind of character is strong in combat ability and resilience, but weak in subtlety, strategy, restraint and charm. (And in intelligence, wisdom and charisma, but to be fair, those are pretty much dump stats for this kind of character.)

Ultimately, to be true to the character type, the player has to play dumb, impulsive, and crude. Restraining a mechanical advantage with a roleplaying restriction doesn't work for paladins, and it doesn't work for this type. And like with paladins, when the player does take on the brute's roleplaying burden it's often to the detriment of the party (see below):

So although I'm not sold on allowing the brute type character class in my race-as-class world, this did get me thinking on how I'd implement him. First, I'd make the brute rare. For example, you'd have to score below 12 on INT, WIS and CHA, and below 9 (penalty territory) on at least two of those stats; and I allow 3d6 in order with only one switch. Then you would get +2 on STR, hit dice d6+1 (1 less bonus point than a standard fighter), and an extra hit die on character generation. Its hide would count as leather armor but would have to have custom armor fashioned for it to get any more protection. The class would have no special powers, no feats, unable to even handle a bow, nothing but a pure tank. Oh yeah, and you could choose among a variety of options; basically any bipedal creature without special abilities and 2-3 HD in the wild; lizardmen, gnolls, ogrillons for Pete's sake.

The good grace of the Old School approach is that you can play this guy like a Machiavelli, or Beast from X-Men, because his powers and stats ultimately don't circumscribe the guile and problem-solving the player brings to the table. Might be something to try, anyway.


  1. I look at most stats as relative to the monster. So an Ogre with a Strength of 10 will be an average strength ogre rather than a weak one. That way I don't need to worry about what bonus will be appropriate or deal with non-linear advancement of high scores. A normal strength ogre character will still do more damage because he gets to use larger weapons.

    In any event, using race-as-class helps balance out monster characters because you can adjust their to-hit chart, saving throws and XP chart to give them appropriate penalties. An ogre class might not gain THAC0 as fast as a fighter and have worse saves in some categories.

  2. Also worthwhile to keep the original Gygax advice in mind (Men & Magic page 8):

    There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as let us say, a "young" one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.

    That's sort of similar to the 2E approach of having various monsters count as level equivalents (so a first level drow would count as a 3rd level character of a standard race, if I recall correctly).

  3. Being aware of such issues, I was amazed that creatures like the "Dragonborn" were added to 4E. Why be a dwarf tank when you can breathe fire and get +2 STR AND CHR as a tradition-breaking monster breed? Don't get me started on how all the latest races are best buddies too...