[This is part of a series analyzing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels. Previous installments can be found under the tag. Comments on old posts are welcome.]
To fill the time between now and the final spate of WOT analysis (which is currently scheduled to begin in September, but that’s assuming the January pub date for A Memory of Light stays put), I bring you: the Wheel of Time Roleplaying Game!
(Core book only. I did not pick up Prophecies of the Dragon, the sole expansion published before they dropped the line, though I have read a summary of it. The material in it is considered non-canonical anyway.)
Ground info first: this is a d20 game, published in 2001 (between Winter’s Heart and Crossroads of Twilight) meaning it dates back to the brief heyday of third edition D&D — third edition, not 3.5. Since WOTRPG has its own world-specific set of classes, the revisions made to the class system between editions don’t much matter, but the skill system is the old mess, lacking not only the simplifications introduced by Pathfinder, but even the improvements of 3.5. (“Intuit Direction” is a skill!)
Before I dig into the grotty details of the system, though, I should talk about the presentation of the book itself. As is usually the case with merchandising of this sort, it doesn’t appear to be entirely certain whether it’s trying to market itself to fans of the books — who already know the world, and are itching to imagine themselves as the Dragon Reborn or whatever — or to lure in outsiders who might then become enamored of the world and go pick up the series. Frankly, I’m always dubious of the latter approach: did anybody really say “oh look, another generic-looking d20 epic fantasy supplement!” and rush to play it? Everybody I know who bought or played it (which isn’t very many people) was already a fan — the sort of people for whom the “fast-track character creation” makes sense, because they already know what an “Aes Sedai Accepted” or “Runaway from the Stedding” is, or for whom it’s interesting to see Rand et al. get statted. And yet, there are little one-page potted descriptions of the Aiel and so on, and a worldbuilding section that explains all the countries of Randland, rehashing information fans already know.
Those are the same people for whom the art is going to be infuriating. Instead of the familiar map, we get a less sophisticated redraw — I guess they weren’t able to license the rights to the old one? — featuring place names like “Tamen Head.” Um, yeah. And the character images . . . well, let me just show you the Wise One apprentice:
Don’t you love her dark skirt, white blouse, and dark shawl? Or how about the Cairhienin noblewoman, with her striped skirt?
I know this is probably stock art purchased on a budget, but sheesh.
Actually, the art is a good lead-in to my main point, which is that d20 is an abysmal system for running a WOT game. It is, in fact, the stock art of the gaming world: cheap and easy to get, but bearing at best a vague resemblance to what it’s supposed to describe.
I’ve recently been debating with friends the merits of a level-based system vs. point-buy. Having played a lot of White Wolf games, and not very much D&D, I’m far more used to the latter, but I think I would prefer it even if familiarity were removed from the equation. The thing about point-buy systems is, they’re flexible. You can decide, based on your particular character concept, that you want to invest heavily in being awesome at one thing, or spread your effort and be competent at several. You can choose the order in which your character learns to do different things. You can save up for something major, if you want, at the cost of having other benefits sooner. For something based on a book (where flexibility is very much the name of the game), I think it works far better.
You can see the difficulty on full display in WOTRPG. This may ostensibly be a 3rd ed.-style d20 game, but it has a bunch of new mechanics grafted onto the top, in an attempt to make the system cover the the content. Take character creation: in addition to the classes (algai’d’siswai, armsman, initiate, noble, wanderer, wilder, woodsman), there are backgrounds: Aiel, Atha’an Miere, Borderlander, Cairhienin, Domani, Ebou Dari, Illianer, Midlander, Tairen, Tar Valoner, Taraboner, and Ogier. These alter character creation and advancement in a number of ways. They allow you to select from a new list of “background feats;” for example, “Bullheaded,” which is a background feat for Aiel and Midlanders, gives a +1 to Will saves and a +2 to Intimidate. (But for every 2 ranks in Knowledge: Local, you can select feats from another background of your choice.) They also provide “background skills,” which are class skills for you even if they don’t belong to your class, and gives you extra ranks for one skill chosen at char-gen. You get a starting equipment package based on your background (in addition to the starting money from your character class), but may also face restrictions or requirements; Sea Folk have to buy Profession: Sailor (and keep buying it as they level up), while Aiel can’t buy Ride at character creation, and receive no XP for any encounter in which they use a sword.
Weirdest of all is the way the system handles languages. There aren’t many in the Wheel of Time, of course: aside from the language that everybody speaks, there’s Trolloc, Ogier, the Old Tongue, and Aiel hand-talk. The latter two are class-specific (to nobles and algai’d’siswai, respectively), but both hand-talk and Common get divided up into dialects. For every point of Intelligence modifier you have, you can learn another dialect of a language you already speak; or you can allocate two points to learn a new language entirely. Why do dialects matter? You incur a penalty on Diplomacy, Gather Information, Innuendo, and Read Lips if you don’t speak the same dialect as your target.
. . . whut? This is not an attempt to make the system fit something that happens in the novels. Aside from occasional complaints about how the Seanchan are difficult to understand because they slur their words (after more than a thousand years apart; in Jordan’s world, linguistic drift moves slower than glaciers), dialects never operate as anything more than narrative color. Nor is it a standard part of d20 furniture. I have no idea why this is in here.
This is the problem with d20, from my perspective: it has to mechanize everything. You can’t just say, Borderlanders are all about the Blight, and then stat your characters appropriately; you have to make Knowledge: Blight a class skill for all characters with the Borderlander background, because if you don’t then some of them will only get a half-rank for every skill point they spend in it. You can’t trust GMs and players to respect the Aiel taboo against swords; you have to say they get no XP for using them. (And that means you can never really have an Aiel Aram, who decides to forswear his entire culture and pick up a sword. I may hate Aram as a character, but I hate even more the rules being a straitjacket on the story.)
Anyone who knows the first thing about WOT and d20 will not be at all surprised to hear that these problems strap on a jetpack and take off for the stratosphere once we get to channeling.
Here, too, we have extra mechanics glued into place, to try and make the spell-slot system of D&D fit a type of magic that is fundamentally not about spell slots at all. For example, Affinities: these are the Five Elements, and are used as descriptors for weaves. Channelers (whether initiates, i.e. those trained in formal systems like the Aes Sedai or Wise Ones; or wilders) get one Affinity at character creation, and can buy more later with the Extra Affinity feat. Women, of course, must choose from Spirit, Air, or Water, while men choose from Spirit, Fire, or Earth. (If you already have all three for your gender, you can start in on the other two.) Weaves for which you have at least one relevant Affinity use the usual spell slot. Weaves for which you have all the Affinities use a spell slot one level lower. Weaves for which you have no Affinities use one spell slot higher. Good so far?
Then there’s overchanneling, i.e. doing more than you’re really capable of. You can make a Concentration check to cast a low-level weave (0 through 2) when you’re completely out of slots, or to cast a weave one, two, or three levels higher than your highest remaining slot — including weaves ordinarily too high-level for you to cast at all. (You can learn weaves above your pay grade by watching somebody else and making a Weavesight check, that being a new skill specific to WOTRPG.) After you overchannel, you have to make a Fortitude save — DC based on what you did — and if you fail, the margin by which you failed determines what happens to you afterward, up to and including permanent burnout.
Oh, and did I mention Talents? These aren’t actually the Talents you know from the series, like Foretelling — that would make too much sense. Talents are, instead, types of weave: for example, “Cloud Dancing” includes “Foretell Weather,” “Harness the Wind,” “Lighting,” “Raise Fog,” and “Warmth.” You can’t learn weaves above level 0 that don’t fall within your Talent. And how do you gain more Talents? With the Extra Talent feat, of course — feats being the d20 answer to everything.
(I should mention, btw, that you can learn things like Foretelling. With feats! But if you want that, or to be a Dreamer or a sniffer or to have the Old Blood pop up in you or anything else woogy, you have to take the relevant “Latent” feat first, and then the feat that lets you actually do the thing.)
But wait! We’re not done! Some weaves also have the descriptor of “Lost” or “Rare.” Rare weaves are only known by a few people, and can only be learned by observing somebody else casting them; wilders can’t just “figure them out.” (One example of this? “Use Portal Stone.” Yep, good thing Rand had somebody around to show him that one; otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to just fling the One Power at the Stone and have it turn on.) Lost weaves are . . . exactly the same thing, except that the “few people” are limited to the Forsaken and the Dragon Reborn. (And the example here is “Compulsion,” which of course nobody in the series ever figured out for herself. Certainly not Liandrin and a bazillion other wilders, before they came to the Tower.)
All of this additional stuff can’t hide the fact that the base spellcasting mechanic just. doesn’t. fit. Channelers are not D&D sorcerers. But the mechanics mean that their ability to cast high-level weaves is based on class level and ability score: Intelligence for initiates, and Wisdom for wilders. This means the strongest channelers are also the smartest and wisest (HAH — I WISH), and it totally ignores the series’ common trope of novice channelers with enormous strength.
Nynaeve, as statted in these books, IS TOO WEAK TO CAST BALEFIRE.
(Midlander Woodsman 1/Wilder 14. She can only cast one seventh-level weave per day, and would have to overchannel by two levels to achieve balefire, because it’s ninth — which would utterly flatten her, since she’d have to make a DC 34 Fortitude save afterward, and her modifier is only a +10. On average, she’d hit the part of the table that leaves her unable to channel for the next 24 hours. And don’t get me started on the irony of Nynaeve, of all people, having a Wisdom score of 20. She ties with Egwene for the highest in the book. And Mat has a 10, because we all know he sucks at Listen and Spot checks, right?)
It isn’t that this system can’t work. (Though I find it awkward and unnatural — very obviously a system rather than anything remotely plausible as a magical tradition.) It’s that it is an utter and resounding failure as a method of systematizing the story. And isn’t that what a game adaptation is supposed to do? Sure, characters like Nynaeve are exceptional — but players want exceptional characters. Not all of them, but the gamers who are content to play an average Aes Sedai or noble with no special Talents or great power or whatever are going to be outnumbered by the ones who want to be Nynaeve, or Egwene, or Min, or hell, even Juilin Sandar. (Two feats before you get to be a sniffer. Third level, at a minimum, before you can do that.) But d20, as a system, won’t let you make trades: you can’t sacrifice all your skill points in order to be the strongest channeler seen in hundreds of years. Strength is pegged to level, period, the end.
Game systems in general have this problem, of course. If you were to go with my half-baked notion of using New World of Darkness Mage, you’d still have to address the question of the repurposed Gnosis stat; it’s damned expensive to buy up, so it’s still very hard to be Nynaeve as a new character. But if your GM is willing to work with you, there are ways to arrange it. With d20 . . . not so much.
(Ironically, Jordan’s introduction brags about how when he DM’d for his son and other kids, he made them stick to the rules: “No creating invincible characters out of thin air […] a basic character that had to be built up with experience.” While that’s a perfectly legitimate and laudable thing for gaming in general, it doesn’t really describe the world of Jordan’s own story.)
The book ends with a first-level adventure, “What Follows in Shadow.” Between this and the description I’ve read of the adventures in Prophecies of the Dragon, I have to say the general ambiguity persists: what exactly is this game aiming for? “What Follows in Shadow” takes place in Caemlyn during The Eye of the World, when Logain is paraded through on his way to Tar Valon, and it centers on Padan Fain — who has, for no particularly good reason, convinced himself that something owned by one of the PCs (the book’s default example is a cloak) will somehow help him kill Rand. To earn the PCs’ trust, Fain helps them track down some Trollocs who have randomly broken into an inn (yes, this is a “you’re all at the inn when…” kind of adventure) and kidnapped a girl, and then he tries an escalating series of gambits to get the cloak. Assuming none of them succeed, this culminates into the PCs chasing Fain into the Ways, whereupon they have a Thrilling Battle!
. . . no, not really. They kill two more Trollocs (having fought five or so already this adventure, along with three human thugs), and Fain escapes. The end. The PCs either succeed at a couple of checks to get back to Caemlyn, or fail and have other adventures (which the book doesn’t seem interested in) before popping out somewhere else in the world. Woo.
In other words, the entire thing is a pointless macguffin plot that really has nothing whatsoever to do with the PCs (except that one of them owns some family heirloom that was made with the Power and is therefore non-magical but nicer than usual). It exists in the shadow of the series’ actual heroes; Fain is trying to get at Rand, Whitecloaks question the PCs because they’re looking for Perrin, etc. Prophecies of the Dragon continues this trend: the mini-adventures are random, trivial little scenarios, and the main adventure tags along behind the real events, with everything revolving around Rand.
I think it would have been far better to focus on how one might tell stories in the world of the Wheel of Time: spend some time discussing how one might structure a campaign around Aes Sedai plots or the Great Game in Cairhien or the Borderlands’ struggle against the Blight or a war between Tear and Illian, and then set the adventure in the time of a false Dragon. Do something that allows the PCs to become important people. Because there’s no room for them in the actual series: the best the game can do is have them scurry around the edges, taking care of things that don’t get explained in canon (like how Mazrim Taim escaped Aes Sedai custody). And I think that’s a terrible, terrible way to structure a campaign.
Ultimately, the only thing of value I really see in the WOTRPG is the weave stats, and that solely because I could use them as a guideline for designing my own house rules (which Elements are involved, how hard is this supposed to be, etc). I don’t think it’s a great introduction to the world for a player who isn’t already familiar with it, though I might toss the setting info their way if for some reason we couldn’t get hold of a copy of The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (the companion book). It’s a complete failure as a foundation for a campaign. And I think it’s a terrible system for the story: you would be better off grabbing your favorite generic fantasy mechanics and winging the specifics. d20 has its uses — as I’ve said before, I would probably use it for Dragon Age — but this, my friends, is not one of them.
The pity is, a better effort could have been pretty cool. This is a big world, with lots of room in it for cool adventures; sadly, the game is too rigid to let you go explore.