Thursday, July 15, 2021

New System, New Face: Cobbling Together an Orc Shaman in Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd Edition

Introducing another sub-sub-segment that takes me even farther away from what I initially started this blog to write about!

As I've mentioned in the past, generating characters is an old pastime of mine. I enjoy making character builds, not so much to powergame but to see how closely I can execute on a thematic concept within the confines of a system's mechanical limits- of course there's nothing wrong or contradictory with wanting to deliver roleplay potential and an effective party member. I think that's called the Stormwind Fallacy or some such?

Unfortunately, I'm only remotely good at this with games in the d20 system sphere. I have made far, far too many characters for D&D 3.5E, Pathfinder 1E, the Warcraft RPG, and more recently D&D 5E. This is natural to some degree, because d20 rulesets tend to have tons of rules and, conversely, tons of nitty-gritty player options that I enjoy tinkering with. But it reinforces the narrowness of my exposure to TTRPGs, and that's not a very good thing. So, I try to push against it once in a while.

This is why my blog has random bouts of TROIKA! and GLOG creativity- the rules are simple enough, and my attachment to the games minimal enough, that I can just futz around with them without triggering my anxiety.

New System, New Face (or whatever I end up calling this) will be another stab at that.

In essence, I pick up a system I've never played before that has enough crunch to build a character, and then do that. I put in some practice with those books I hardly touch while rambling like crazy, and you lot hopefully get some compelling NPCs out of it.



First in the lineup is, coincidentally, a child of the first gamey book I ever picked up as a whelp.


Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd Edition is based on the rules of Fighting Fantasy, the old choose-your-own-adventure book series with an RPG twist designed by Steve Jackson- no, the other one.

Goofy, grungy, and at times excruciatingly British, Fighting Fantasy had dozens of installments in the 80s and 90s, generally set in either fantasy or sci-fi worlds. You roll dice, track your character's Skill (do-everything combat and action stat), Stamina (health, and in the case of sorcerers, your magic pool), and Luck (permanently depleting saving throw stat), and hopefully don't die in a variety of horrible ways before hitting that last reference page. And gods help you if you didn't photocopy the character record before that cheap, mass-produced softcover book paper got erased full of holes.

My first exposure to the series was through the Sorcery! sub-series set in Titan, one of several FF universes. I actually found a copy of the first book, The Shamutanti Hills, tucked away in my elementary school library on a shelf low enough for me to reach. It hadn't been borrowed in half a decade before me, but I proceeded to take it out at least once every month for the remainder of my schooling. The librarians got so used to seeing me with that beat-up old thing, they gave it to me as a graduation present. I still have it tucked away in a shady spot in a ziplocked bag full of memories.

But this post is about building a character, not wistfully thinking back to the days before I learned what chilblains or systemic oppression are. On to the system!

AFF and its 2011 reboot AFF2E elaborate upon the same system as the old CYOA books. Skill, Stamina, and Luck are still there, but also Magic and Magic Points. You roll 2d6 to do everything, either opposed rolls or over/under target numbers, but you have a whole mess of special skills and talents to add to it. Character creation is fairly light and point-based, with no class or level-up system. You invest experience points in individual upgrades, and play how you want.

I want to play an orc, because of course I do, which means I need to turn toward the back of the book.

I find it pleasantly surprising that the core rulebook has rules for creating custom species and using them in mixed parties, especially when so much of Titan is divided along a hard, old school Chaos/Neutral/Good alignment axis. The rules aren't complex, but there are a couple of rounds to go through, and it works best if the type of creature you want to play already has a monster entry, either in this book or in the dedicated monster manual, Out of the Pit. Fortunately orcs do have an entry, alongside their goblin and troll cousins, and something like half a dozen crossbreeds.

A quick rundown of the rules is as follows: take the creature entry's stats and subtract 3 from Skill. Then, divide Stamina by 2 (but not really), throw out any fractions, and add your remaining Skill to that number. Then compare the sum to the baseline number 8- if your sum is below 8, you get extra points to add features to the new player species. If it's at the baseline, you're already on par with the book's default humans, dwarves, and elves. If it's above the baseline, you gotta pay for it in a small way later.

Orcs sit at a middling 6 Skill, 5 Stamina, which becomes 3 Skill and 5 Stamina. The point-buy formula number is 5 (3 + 2.5, nix the fraction), which is 3 points lower than 8. That means our orc gets 3 extra points to buy ancestry abilities with. The normal total is 6, but we have 9. Not bad!

Special Skills cost 1 point each, while characteristic bumps and non-combat talents cost 2 each. Combat or magic-related talents cost a whopping 4 points, and I won't be taking any of those here.

Orcs commonly live underground or are active at night, so I give my orc species the Dark Seeing talent for 2 out of 9 points. The Survivor talent raises that to 4, because they manage to survive in the most filthy and inhospitable places in the world, and that means constantly securing sufficient food, water, and shelter. I've decided my orc is from the deserts of the southern continent of Khul. That means my 5th point goes to the Desert Lore special skill.

The last 4 points I spend on characteristic boosts, increasing Skill from 3 to 4 and Stamina from 5 to 7. This makes the orc a little more competitive with humans, dwarves, and elves, who all start with stat minimums of 4 Skill and 8 Stamina, on top of their own racial bonuses. Luck starts at 8 for everyone, orcs included.

Building Friends out of Clay

I now have to decide what I want this individual orc to be like, and to choose that I need to know about the orc in general.

Orcs have it pretty rough in Titan. They and their aforementioned goblin and troll cousins are the premier foot soldiers and cannon fodder for the armies of Chaos, the blanket faction for everything evil ruled by a few dark gods in this universe. They are at home underground, but infest every known climate across the world. They live a miserable, squalid existence caught somewhere in between the flavors of fascistic Tolkien orc and the green-skinned savage pulp fantasy orc that was becoming popular in wargame circles in the 80s and 90s.

They are built from equal parts racial stereotype and boisterous rugby hooligan, and the disparate pieces are constantly on the verge of tearing themselves apart. No two depictions of orcs are the same across all of FF canon, from their culture and organization all the way down to their biology- and since FF orcs aren't resistant to Chaos like their Warhammer counterparts, mutations abound. Playing an orc in the modern incarnation of Titan means wading through this legacy-mélange of tropes whose only unifying factors seem to be cruelty and unhappiness.

It wasn't always like that, though.

The orcish origin story is rather Tolkienien. When the gods of good were ordering the world, a servant of the earth goddess Throff wanted in on the action. His name was Hashak, and he wished to create children of his own. So he stole a little lump of the Clay of Life from Throff, and shaped it into living things. First came the trolls, whom he was embarrassed by because of their lumpiness and stupidity. Next came the multitudinous orcs, and then the smaller and more refined goblins. They were all very primitive and childlike at this stage; the word "orc" seems to be a corruption of the first belch or grunt they made when they came to life- urk!

Hashak the Orc-God by Paul Bonner

But before much could be done with them, Throff came home, saw the missing clay, and commanded Hashak to destroy his unauthorized creations. Hashak feigned compliance, and mixed a bit of plain old soil into the ball of clay to make up the lost mass. Then he took his children and scattered them in vaults across the world, hopeful that at least some of them would survive in the world they were not meant for. His wish was granted in the worst possible way. The gods of chaos saw Hashak hide his children, and they followed in his wake, breathing evil into each and every one of their hiding places.

Basically, it's like if Aulë the smith was a well-meaning idiot who hid the dwarves when Eru Ilúvatar said playtime was over, and then Morgoth hotboxed them all into orcs with his halitosis.

Exactly like that.

Unlike Middle-Earth, pseudo-biblical redemption is not a very big part of Titan's story. It's a world of heroic fantasy that's every bit as noisy and dirty as the art style suggests. Orcs are only to be encountered as foes, and only rarely as pitiable characters in their own right.

Character Concept

Naturally, I say screw that. We're making a gods-damned orc shaman of Hashak, and he's gonna find a way rescue and valorize the hell out of the children of clay!

Our friend was once a totally unremarkable member of the small Withered Fist tribe from the Dark Land of Khul, located uncomfortably close to the Wastes of Chaos but not especially prone to mutation. One day he got cracked on the head so hard that his skull split open in an intra-tribal dispute, and his fellows left him for dead with the onset of a sandstorm.

Instead of dying as he rightly should have, something slipped into his fractured brain. A vision of Hashak came to him, urging him to take up the lost, old ways and reject the breath of evil. He also granted him a new name, calling him Gurumph'tani- a name very much unlike the stereotypically coarse, simple names most orcs seem to have.

When he awoke, Gurumph'tani was willing to pass it off as a hallucination. But he found that his skull was mended together with a piece of clay harder than rock. His mind felt clearer. For the first time in his life, he slowed down and started to think about things. He left the wasteland behind, and by some miracle was able to avoid getting killed on sight at the first human port city he came across- though they did butcher his name beyond recognition, so now he simply goes by 'Grumf' for the sake of simple human ears.

Now he follows the will of Hashak, always quiet and difficult to hear through the background static of Chaos. He is quiet, tolerant, and contemplative, though his pale yellow eyes and giant patch of head-clay can be off-putting.

My mind made up, we return to mechanics.

Building a Character (Finally)

A standard new "Hero" has 4 Skill, 8 Stamina, 8 Luck, and 0 Magic with 8 points to distribute between them, with points invested in Stamina counting for two. We have 4/7/8/0 which is close, and I'm sure that magic pixel of health won't be needed anytime soon...

As an orc who just wandered out of Khul, he's going to be hardy. But as a brand new shaman, he needs at least a little Magic. Fortunately Priestly magic is a lot less demanding than either Wizardry or Sorcery, so I think I can get away with a starting Magic stat of 3.

Luck gets 2 points added, partly because this character has been pretty lucky to survive up to this point, but also because you can never buy more Luck points after character creation, and it's a pseudo-finite resource that only gods and great deeds can restore, so you want to get as many as you can spare now. That leaves us with a nice neat 10, our highest stat.

Skill gets 2 to make a modest 6. This value gets lots of other numbers added to it depending on the type of roll, so we can compensate for the time being with decent skills. I was infected by the terribly video gamey trope of fantasy shamans being at least adequate melee combatants at an early age, like a less mail-clad cleric, and our buddy here will be attempting the same.

And yes, Skill and (Special) Skills being different stats is a bit confusing.

The last point goes into Stamina, bumping it up to 9. It's a little low for someone who isn't a dedicated thief or magic user, but the ability to self-heal with priestly powers will mitigate that a bit.

Speaking of priestly powers, we should address those next.

Instead of having to roll spellcasting dice and risking failure and a trip to the Oops! random mishap table like Wizardry and Sorcery require, Priestly powers just work. You say the power you want to happen, and it happens, but you can only use each power once a day. There are some numerical considerations, but all you need is your Devotion score (Magic stat + Magic-Priestly ranks). Grumf's starting Devotion is 5.

Powers are limited by the priest's deity, each of which has a list of 3 common powers plus one power unique to them. You can only be a priest of one deity at a time, and falling out of favor with that god is a massive ordeal that doesn't go well, because this is old school fantasy and unintuitive dogmatic henotheism is in full swing, baby. We're already riding or dying with Hashak though, so all we need to do is go to his entry in the list of gods and-


Oh right.

See, Hashak only ever gets a few small mentions in a scattering of FF books, the biggest reference being in Titan- The Fighting Fantasy World. But aside from a holiday (6th of Snow Cloak, AKA January 6th), Hashak gets none of the other treatment a god gets. That means he has no clergy or worship information, and no priestly powers list.

But we can fudge that a tiny bit. It'll be our little secret.

No, I'm not going to homebrew a bunch of stuff in a post ostensibly about practicing with a new system. I'm just going to rearrange a few things to be more thematically appropriate.

Since Hashak's one big claim to fame is making things out of magic clay, I'll be mashing together the powers of the aforementioned earth goddess Throff and her son Verlang the smithing god. We'll take Verlang's common powers--Heal, Commune, and Ward--and mix them with Throff's special power, a 10-second localized earthquake. Grumf's Devotion score is only needed for two of these powers- Heal, for the amount that he, well, heals with a single use, and as the target number to overcome Ward, which is basically a magic circle against undead, evil spirits, demons, etc. It's not much, but it's something.

Next up is Special Skills.

Special Skills get added to your Skill or Magic number for relevant rolls, and can have up to 6 ranks each. Most start at 1, but you can give a new hero three rank-2 skills at start. These three will be Magic-Priestly, Clubs, and Armour with almost zero hesitation.

The other six skills, all rank-1, will be Religious Lore, Magic Lore, Second Sight to detect magic, Healing to apply first aid to himself or others the way Hashak saved him, Awareness to keep his wits about him, and Magic-Minor to unlock some little tricks. He is still a fledgling to the supernatural, but he has a broad and ad hoc base for it developing.

Minor Magic is a collection of cantrips that only consume Magic Points when you miscast them. Grumf has 8 Magic Points (Magic stat x2 + Magic-Minor ranks x2). Things like creating a fire, mending holes in items, forming temporary disgust between two people, or making spoiled food edible are all Minor Magic spells. Makes me yearn for the sheer versatility and coverage of Prestidigitation, but oh well. I pick Mend, Ripen, and Weather Protection as basic utility spells for my shaman.

Language is a special skill handled separately. He's fluent in Orcish at a 4, and at Common 2 he can get by with occasional pauses and a noticeable accent.

We've got one last choice to make, and that is his starting (non-species) Talent. I chose Blessed, allowing him to cast one priestly power twice a day. It'll come in handy if he needs to spot heal an ally in danger.

With that, he's done. All that remains is to apply his starting equipment kit- backpack, food, 2d6 coins, a starting weapon of your choice, etc. I gave him a rather clerical mace because it uses the club fighting skill, and it has really consistent damage numbers- you deal or absorb damage in AFF by rolling a d6 and checking the individual armor or weapon's table for a value.

Heroes earn 50 experience points per adventure, plus or minus a bit extra depending on whether the player contributed to good or bad shenanigans. If he stays cautious, Grumf might survive long enough to really come into his own, and start delving into how to alter the fate of his people.

His best bets for where to go first are probably Blacksand or Kharé, both city-ports that host notable populations of "monstrous" citizens in and around the rampant crime and villainy. Not a great place, but a good place to make a first impression.

Here's his sheet, for those interested. If you want to make him an NPC just upgrade his armor to a leather hauberk and large shield, remove his Luck stat, and add the 2 points that were spent on it elsewhere, ideally Skill and/or Magic.

Tiny orc shaman face by Mihai Radu

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