Mongol Home

Mongol Home

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Oriental Adventures: What's Missing & What Could Go

I was discussing the current OA campaign with my wife today and gaming in general, it's nice to have a wife I can bounce ideas off of, and I got to thinking about all the stuff that is missing from OA and all the stuff that could be cut.

Since I was just complaining about 3e and skill checks and how they evolved from 2nd edition non-weapon proficiencies, which in turn evolved directly from late 1st edition AD&D non-weapon proficiencies which were introduced in my beloved Oriental Adventures book; I thought to myself would it be rank heresy to just cut all of the NWPs out of OA altogether? Just assume that a Samurai is going to know how to do the things that a person of his social class would know how to do, the same thing with a Monk or a Yakuza or a Barbarian. That saves a tremendous amount of time in character creation and you can scale back the number of proficiencies that OA characters get to the level of their occidental brethren. I haven't thought this all the way through, and it may totally screw things up, but I don't ever really recall anyone ever using Tea Ceremony or Flower Arranging all that much anyway. Then we can go back to my standard fall back DMing position of "if you can give me a good reason why your character SHOULD know how to do this, then OK."; what's worse is that in the primitive form they exist in in the OA book, they aren't linked to your stats or your level; meaning they are in dire need of either ditching or an overhaul.

Comeliness is another one, not only does the stat have a cumbersome name, HackMaster Basic changed it to "Looks", "Appearance" might have been a better choice too; but it also has no real affect on play, except to make sure that EGG finally gets his point across that Charisma is more "Force of Will" and "Strength of Personality" than it is a beauty stat. I am not surprised that later editions of AD&D/D&D did away with it. My current group is having fun with it, because one of the Samurai has a 6 Charisma and a 17 Comeliness; so he is being played as haughty but handsome, but I can see just dropping this stat altogether too.

Partial armor has always annoyed me too. There are plenty of armor pieces that can be worn separately in occidental settings too, what made them think that breaking up the armor in OA was a great plan? If your standard AD&D Paladin just went into battle wearing Vambraces, Cuisses and Greaves wielding a two-handed sword we'd think he looked strange and that he was not really armored, but in OA you can have your Samurai charge the enemy with his No-Dachi wearing just Haidate, Sune-Ate, and Kote and he looks OK and his AC doesn't suck. OK, it's not great either, but I think my point is made.

My wife Mona hit the nail right on the head though when she said "What Oriental Adventures really needs is a DM's Guide", to be fair I extrapolated that out to mean "What OA really needs is a set of core books- A PH, DMG and MM"; right now it's all crammed into one book, and you need the three standard AD&D books to play the game along with the OA book*, but I think that a lot of players, and DMs too, missed the stuff that wasn't there and didn't use it. Because the OA book did do such a good job of being self contained and separate from the rest of AD&D we kind of forgot stuff from the rest of AD&D simply because it didn't get mentioned in the OA book.

For instance why is there is no multi-classing in OA. I can't see any good reason why there shouldn't be multi-classing in OA, but there isn't a table that tells you what multi-class combinations are available to which races like there is in the PH. Instead they just tell you that no demi-humans in OA can multi-class and that's it; it really isn't hard to figure out; in standard AD&D if a race can be a Fighter or a Magic-User or a Thief, then they can multi-class into any combination of those; so why not in OA? Korobokuru for instance can be Samurai, Barbarians, Bushi, Wu Jen and Yakuza. Some of the classes are probably exclusive of each other, like common sense dictates that a Samurai/Yakuza multi-class is probably a bad idea for setting/cultural reasons and some are exclusive because of Alignment, so Samurai/Wu Jen is out. Barbarian/Wu Jen is out because Barbarian doesn't play well with anything magic, and as a class Barbarian should probably be exclusive of any other. For that matter I guess I can see both of the Fighter sub-classes Samurai and Kensei being exclusive, Kensei because it is a lifelong devotion to the art of a single weapon and Samurai because it is so much your entire life too. So the only real possible combinations then would be Bushi/Wu Jen or Bushi/Yakuza, and I can see that. So why are they just banned? All OA demi-humans then pretty much suck in comparison to standard AD&D demi-humans because they get level limits but no multi-classing to make up for it. That said Dual classing still works the same way, so OA Humans actually get the much better deal, unlimited progression in any class and the ability to Dual class, which none of the demi-humans has because in standard AD&D they have multi-classing as an option.

The next missing thing is a section on Hirelings and Henchmen, in standard AD&D those are mentioned on the pages right after equipment, in OA they are absent. The AD&D Players Handbook spends the better part of an entire page on it, first describing the typical types of Hirelings to be hired, then how their loyalty works and the differences between them and Henchmen. So players know right away that they should probably start hiring on some help, guys to help carry stuff, guys to carry light sources and guys to help out with the fighting; and that's just the 0-level staff. Most of the page is devoted to Henchmen and even then it says that the DM will have way more information for you, and boy does he; about 10 pages of the DMG and scattered other references therein, types of standard and expert Hirelings, lots of things to know about Henchmen including the crazy morale/loyalty system. All of this could pretty easily be extrapolated into OA, just convert the money, classes, weapons and armor.

The PH has 60 pages devoted to spells, and a lot of them say "See the 2nd level cleric spell of the same name" or something to that effect. Standard AD&D has four spell casting classes- Magic-Users, Illusionists, Clerics & Druids; OA has 40 pages devoted to spells, and some of them are of the "See the 3rd level Shukenja spell of the same name" variety, OA has three spell casting classes Shukenja, Sohei & Wu Jen; why the disparity in numbers of spells? Was OA a rush job? A lot of them are the same as they were in standard AD&D too.

I could keep going on about the sections of the PH that aren't in OA, but needed to have an equivalent section, but that's really just the tip of the iceberg. The DMG is where all the real meat is for DMs and there is almost nothing in OA; not counting monsters, which I'll go into in a minute, there are really just three short sections for an OA DM- Events and Encounters, which has the calendar and and tables and explanations for how to plan out an entire year's plot line in advance, plus random encounter tables; 7 pages. Next is the Treasure and Magic Items section, which is much smaller than the one in the DMG, and essentially tells you to use the DMG, but to "translate" the stuff to OA items, then gives a list of exceptions to that, items that don't really translate to OA well and also a new table of specific OA items and their descriptions, 6 pages. The third DM section, I hesitate to call a DM section, despite it being in the back of the book where players are unlikely to look if they are being good, is the An Overview of Kara-Tur, which is just setting material and probably most players should read this, that said, it's 8 pages if you count the 2 pages of sample floor plans.

Now let's talk about the monsters, standard AD&D got an entire book of it's own to start with, OA got 12 pages and told that a number of previously released monsters were also acceptable, if they were willing to reprint the spells from the PH that were OK for use in OA, why not the monsters from MM, MM2, FF & LL (D&DG)? In all of east Asian myth, legend and folklore that's all we could come up with? Japan alone, from which, let's face it, the bulk of OA is drawn, has got to have more than this.

To sum it up the AD&D PH is 128 pages, the DMG is 238, the MM is 112; OA is 144 pages and has to do the job of all three of them, plus be the setting guide. I think OA is probably the best alternative take on AD&D ever officially produced, but it wasn't perfect; it may well have been a rush job. I know that EGG's French buddy Francois Marcela-Froideval was originally supposed to write it and David "Zeb" Cook got called in to do the job instead, probably because of the politics at TSR at the time, I have heard from a number of sources that's why Kara-Tur got divorced from Greyhawk and ultimately married to the Forgotten Realms.

Actually, if it was a rush job that might explain some of the rough edges like the poor mechanic for non-weapon proficiencies (and the cumbersome name), the lack of so many little things and even some big things, like multi-classing, and stuff that might have been smoothed out in play-testing, like the birth table only having 2 modifiers on it +10 for Samurai and -10 for Yakuza, that means all Yakuza come from crap backgrounds and get screwed over on birthrights and all Samurai come from a minimum upper class and are usually pretty much rich kids, which is OK, I guess, since they can be ordered to adventure by their lord, but every other class gets hosed there. Missed opportunities for classes like Yamabushi or an Elemental based magic system that really works with more and better spells, and opposition elements. I think at the time the only other fantasy Asian RPG out there was Bushido, would it have killed them to look through it and get some ideas? Or maybe hire those guys on as writers for the OA book? They obviously liked RPGs and knew how to write them and knew the subject matter and writing for AD&D isn't rocket science, plus a job writing a book for TSR in 1985 probably would have paid them an order of magnitude more than they ever made from FGU. I wonder if the management at TSR ever even considered it?

You know, now that I think about it, there's a bunch of stuff I'd fix in that book, like why do all Samurai have to specialize with the Katana and the Daikyu? Why can't you choose one or the other? Or both if you want? Or Katana and Wakizashi? Why are they allowed to specialize in more than one weapon anyway? No one else can. Why can't a Kensei use a magical version of his special weapon? It says it's because it wouldn't be a true test of his skill, but wouldn't the same thing be true of a weapon of quality? Or wear armor of any type, that's pretty harsh for a Fighter sub-class, although at least they make up for it by giving them a weird dexterity based AC that no other character class gets; which you'd think the monk would get instead, but their AC just changes by level the same as it always did. I'd probably have made the Yakuza an NPC/Monster type and made some other Thief class, or maybe explained that the Yakuza were "guild" Thieves and not real adventuring Thieves; and a proper Ninja would have been good, instead of the split-class abomination they gave us. I actually did fix that myself back in the day by writing up a Ninja class I called the Shinobi, I based it on the Assassin class from the PH and Orientalized it; sadly it never really got tested because everyone was busy playing Samurai and Kensei, it has now been lost to time, but wouldn't be too hard to recreate.

It's something to think on.

*Actually it is assumed that you will have access to every AD&D book released to date, that's the big three (PH, DMG, MM) plus Legends and Lore (Which I only have copies of as Deities and Demigods, is there any difference?), Fiend Folio, Monster Manual II and Unearthed Arcana.


  1. As I recall, there's no difference between the 1e Deities and Demigods and Legends and Lore.

  2. I love your OA posts. I'm in a minority in that I love Oriental Adventures, but it does present some compatibility problems which you've nailed spot on.

    I hate Later Edition 'skill check' culture, so OA's NWP are an issue. Would it be better to have characters 'buy' certain abilities with experience points and only allow 'always on' abilities? Should XP be tied to Ki power?

    Partial armor almost seems to require breaking each AC rank into subranks where each armor piece has a value that is 1/4 of an AC 'point'.

    I loved that OA was contained in one book, but much more DM info should have been in there. It seemed way too geared towards impressing players and not DMs.

    Multiclassing: I always assumed that the focus/Ki power made it tough for a character to divide his attentions. If Ki powers were extracted out of the classes, a character might choose (or have to) forego Ki power for the ability to multiclass.

    There definitely should have been more placed in there about hirelings and henchmen, especially in a world where refusing to serve a samurai would be an affront to a daimyo.

    Spells: OA was a great opportunity for TSR to have a greater range in magical casting and spells and rituals, and they skipped it.

    It is definitely too light on setting info, and the few modules I bought for it didn't help all that much.

    Eastern mythology has such a massive array of spirits, the monster portion definitely deserved its own book - or at least a section on generating monsters.

    The biggest play problem for us back in the day was the frigging martial arts rules and things like Feint: give up a successful attack roll so that your next attack would have +2... bewildering. A martial arts style with 3 attacks per round and d6 damage!

    Looking back on the character classes, it occurs to me just how dependent OA characters are on NPC interactions: Samurai are given missions by their lord as are Ninja, Yakuza, Sohei, and even the Shukenja. The WuJen seems kind of a lone madman. Regular AD&D classes offer much more player freedom overall. All the OA classes would probably be better if they were much more subtle.

    James is correct, Legends and Lore is simply a redistribution of Deities and Demigods. The copy I have lists James Ward and Robert Kuntz as authors... I'd love to hear that story...

    I do like the birth and honor tables, even if some of the entries are strange.

    I had high hopes for the published modules for OA, but none of them were all that memorable.

  3. Martial Arts are another one of the things that should have gotten smoothed out in play testing, until Lee Ann started killing Ronin with Tae Kwon Do last Sunday, I had forgotten just what a mess they actually were. I think that your "sacrifice ki power for multi-classing" makes good sense and is a good compromise. I am tempted to ditch the standard OA birth table and have it be a stat, replacing comeliness, Social Class- and it would affect your ancestry rolls and birth rights, and whether or not you could be a Samurai. Sadly, then I'd be forced to design my own character sheets.

  4. Jag, I never thought about birth/honor as an attribute... that is genius!

    As for the martial arts, the best I can think of quickly would be to consider the base unarmed stats (single attack and damage) for regular combat and consider modifiers to that. For special moves, flips, etc. perhaps make each point of damage represent a '-' to the opponents saving throw to dodge the effect:

    I roll a strike and declare that I'm trying to flip or throw the opponent. I roll 6 points of damage, which gives the opponent no actual damage but a -6 on his saving throw to get thrown. He misses his save and is moved 5 feet in a direction declared by the attacker and is prone. If I, as the martial artist attacking, had initiative, I've essentially not done damage but forestalled his attack and relocated him.

  5. I pretty much agree with the previous comments - martial arts are kin of crazy in a way that only can be inspired by cinematic presentations. And yes, the wu Jen does come across as a lone weirdo. The classes seem split between "honour is meaningless to you and you have no obligations" and "NPCs will tell you what to do and if you don't do it then bye bye honour". I'm trying to lessen the impact of this in my labyrinth lord conversions.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.