As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, I’ve been playing quite a bit of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game recently. At its most basic level, it has a lot in common with the Lord of the Rings LCG.- it’s a cooperative Fantasy Card game, with a bit of deck-building involved, and the players working together to defeat a randomised selection of monsters and other difficulties. The key difference comes in the linear progression of Pathfinder. Players start with a basic character and deck, and as they go through the scenarios (equivalent to quests in LotR) they can improve their deck, and level-up their character – taking bonuses to dice rolls and to individual powers.
I’m going to look next week at how this levelling up process might be applied to Lord of the Rings, but for today, I wanted to think about the player-characters themselves.
These heroes are very much the Mirlondes and the Thalins of this world – brave but basically ordinary types drawn together by circumstance to fight a growing evil. Aside from special abilities, the characters have 6 basic stats: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. For each of these, they will be given a certain dice value, from D4 (i.e. a 4-sided dice) for someone who is terrible at a particular thing, up to D12 (i.e. a 12-sided-dice) for someone with truly spectacular gifts in that area. On top of these basic stats, there are additional skills, which each character will typically have 2 or 3 of: for example “Melee: Strength +2” – meaning that this characters can roll their strength dice and add 2 tot the total for melee checks.
As many of you will be unsurprised to learn, one of my first thoughts after a few plays through with the basic content, was how to create some custom characters, specifically folk from Lord of the Rings.
The problem with this, was realising just how powerful some of Middle Earth’s heroes really are. Let’s take Aragorn as an example.
First of all, his strength. Well, he’s probably not quite as strong as Boromir, but he’s definitely a powerful figure, capable of going toe-to-toe with most of Sauron’s Henchmen, D10 seems about right.
Dexterity, which reflects jumping around, but also the stat used for ranged weapons. He’s not as powerful as Legolas, but again, he’s handy with a bow. D10 is probably a good bet again.
Constitution is one of the fuzzier ones, but in other systems it is sometimes represented as stamina or endurance. A hardy Ranger of the north who tracked Orcs halfway across Rohan in a few days. He’s probably a D12 for this.
Intelligence. I can’t recall that we’re ever told much about Aragorn’s intelligence, but he certainly doesn’t ever come across as an idiot. He’s been raised by the elves, and is learned in the Lore of Middle Earth. I think I’d go for a d8, with “Knowledge: Intelligence +2”
Wisdom. Whilst his school-exams-intelligence might be a little bit unclear, I don’t think the wisdom of Aragorn is in doubt. Although he is not typically listed alongside Elrond, Galadriel or Gandalf in these matters, he shows shrewd judgement throughout, and is one of the greatest rulers Gondor ever sees. D10, with bonuses for Perception and Survival.
Lastly charisma. At first glance the grimy ranger at the Prancing Pony might not seem like a charismatic individual, but when the Grey Company come to the Stone of Erech, every man’s heart fails him, and they are driven on alone by the love they bear for Aragorn. For movie fans, think of the various rousing speeches we see – urging Theoden to ride out of Helm’s Deep, or the speech before the black gate. Clearly a very charismatic and persuasive individual. D10 again, with +2 for Diplomacy.
To sum up then, we have a character whose basic dice are D10, D10, D12, D8, D10, D10. Amidst various long discussions on the internet, a consensus seems to have arisen that the “balance” of a custom character can be worked out with a simple number formula: D4 = 1 point, D6 = 2 points, and so on upto D12 = 5 points. A balanced character comes in around 15. Aragorn comes in at 24.
Obviously Aragorn is an extreme example. Any of the Hobbits would typically rate a D4, or maybe at most D6 for Sam in strength. Boromir could probably be knocked down quite low on the wisdom scale. Nonetheless, it does bring home just how powerful the characters of the Fellowship are, and the difficulty of representing them accurately in a game without a.) over-powering them so that more generic characters are useless, or b.) under-valuing their stats so they just blur into the background.
One obvious option for the designers is to fill the ranks of heroes with characters of their own devising: Beravor, Eleanor, Mirlonde, Caldara, Thalin. On a pure stats level, these do tend to be among the weaker heroes, although their abilities can often make up for this.
I feel like the difficult line which this game is always treading, is where exactly it falls in the Lore of Middle Earth. Hobbits aside, the Fellowship were basically a champion from each of the peoples of Middle Earth, and should rightly be powerful. Outside of Saga quests though, is it really plausible to think that Denethor, Dain Ironfoot and Theoden, with Gandalf along for the ride would be tasked with something so mundane as taking a message through Mirkwood?
The threat cost is of course one tool the designers have to stop us from just using the most powerful heroes all the time – some of you may remember the deck I made with a starting threat of 34, proving that the power of a hero cannot be ignored – likewise a deck full of five and six cost allies would struggle to get started, but it still remains a difficult balance.
Overall I think the designers of this game do a good job, even though there is the occasional stinker amongst some of the cards (Theoden, I’m looking at you), but I do still wonder whether we need more distinction between the true legends of Middle Earth – figures like Aragorn confronting the Army of the Dead, Boromir slaying a band of orcs whilst peppered with arrows, and Eomer routing the army of Harad single-handedly in a red-mist, versus the ordinary heroes: the rangers of the north, the scouts and messengers who guarded the shire, investigated and reported for the Wise, and helped hold back the advance of the Shadow from Mordor?
Having been unable to turn the Fellowship of the Ring loose upon Golarion (the world in which Pathfinder is set) I decided to look back a bit in time to one of my favourite characters from Tolkien’s world. A mighty warrior undoubtedly, and capable of significant persuasion by force, he is not particularly noted for his intelligence, and thought that “wisdom” was an old comedian. I actually think he makes quite a playable character…