Sunday, October 19, 2014

Majestic Mummers & Malcontents: The Marvelous Mountebank

I remember having a few old copies of Dragon magazine back in the day and reading an article Gygax in which Gygax wrote about his thoughts on a second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, particularly classes he would like to see included and class options he would like to see expanded. Gygax was, of course, pushed out of TSR long before the actual second edition came out. Whatever would have been, we have only his notes. Some of these ideas actually came to pass - barbarian and thief acrobat made their way into Unearthed Arcana - but the one that always really stuck out in my imagination

THIEF — Mountebank: This sub-class of thief specializes in deception, sleight of hand, persuasion, and a bit of illusion. These factors, together with speed, are what the mountebank relies upon. However, disguise and theatrics also provide valuable tools of the trade to this class, so that one might never know one has been had by this class.
- Character Classes to Consider, by Gary Gygax. Dragon Magazine no. 65
Professional charlatan and huckster, snake-oil salesman, and confidence man extraordinaire. What's not to love?

So if we were going to home-brew this class, how would we do it? I've seen various ideas floated over the years, but honestly they have all rubbed me the wrong way. The common thread of contention is that these classes all seem to be based on making the Mountebank an illusionist wizard, who happens to have picked up a thief skill or two. They aren't wrong. The article seems like Gygax may have had that in mind. I'm just not a fan.

I had this problem in 3.5 as well, with the Assassin PrC. In my mind, an assassin is an extremely  disturbingly skilled stealth operative who has made murder into an art-form. What I actually got was instead a rogue whose major advantage was that he began to learn stealth-oriented spells.

It's a matter of personal taste, but I like my mundanes mundane. I would rather believe that my assassin was just that good that he could pull off mind-boggling feats of precision and stealth than "He used Greater Invisibility and then cast True Strike." It subjectively feels less impressive, and the more people you have who can cast spells, the less special magic-users are. Besides, If I want to go that route, I could have just played a wizard in the first place.

If I am going to have a Mountebank that fits my tastes, I don't want him to be a discount Illusionist. Besides, that goes against type. If anything, a Mountebank would be a stage magician using prestidigitation to pretend to be an actual wizard. That sounds awesome.

So what can he do? Clearly sneaking around is a thing, so Hide and Move Silently, sure. The Disguise ability from the AD&D1e assassin would fit nicely. Picking Pockets and Sleight of Hand are a must. But how do we deal with the core of the class?

I actually argued in one of my John Wick articles that the problem with social mechanics is that if you don't include them as a thing that you can invest your character in (read: some kind of skills or traits) then you essentially preclude players from making archetypes based on that character. A character who would have, in another system, focused exclusively on social-skills is without them mechanically just mediocre. Such is the problem we have with the mountebank.

 One of the best and worst features of OSR games, and particularly B/x, is the free form way that it handles role-playing and social situations through the Reaction Roll. Essentially, when encountering random, intelligent monsters or NPCs, the DM can either decide the other party's attitude in accordance with the situation, or he can roll 2d6 on a chart to find out, ranging from immediately attacking to hostility, uncertainty, or even friendliness. Some editions of the game give you a Charisma modifier that can be applied, making high-CHA characters more likely to start with better reactions than low-CHA characters. After this is determined though, there's no more rolling, no skill checks, nothing. You just role-play. If the PCs can talk their way out of the situation, or maneuver it to their favor, awesome. Otherwise, events play out in time with the narrative.

The problem this creates for the Mountebank is that they are essentially a class built around a social archetype. One could give them the same ability AD&D2e gave the bard (essentially giving them a chance to adjust that reaction roll up or down by one category if they succeed), but that alone is a poor basis for Mountebank as a stand-alone class.

Other options I've seen floated around included various "they can talk someone into something and it counts as a Charm Person spell" kind of solutions - which is better, but not perfect, or my favorite - Snake Oil Salesman: they can make fake potions and pass them off as real, with randomized effects. So you could make a Heal potion that actually may heal your party member, but also has a small chance of poisoning them. This is also very, very cool and flavorful, but then we've gone from Poor Man's Illusionist to Poor Man's Alchemist, and without some major effect, we remain Poor Man's Bard.

At it's heart, the dilemma is simple: I want to make a class that is essentially all about social prowess and fast-talk, but simultaneously don't want to give them a "roll to win RP" ability as that means the class most based on social encounters mechanically relies on RP the least.

I fear as though my goals are at cross-purposes. I will have to think more on the subject for now.

Until then,

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