I enjoy RPG's, even though I don't actually get to play them very often (they require a decent-sized group with similar time constraints). In fact, I have a small collection of sourcebooks that I've kept since my college days. Some of them, such as Werewolf: the Apocalypse, I've never actually played, but I like looking through the books and thinking about how such a game might go, or I used them for extra characters in games I ran beforehand, or I just wanted to read the book. Hey, I've already admitted to nerdiness.
Anyway, in my meanderings on this worldwide web we love so dearly, I came across a review of a game called FATAL (From Another Time, Another Land, although alternate acronyms have been suggested). The review is...scathing. It's a one-sided flame war. Tremendously fun to read (and, sadly, I can't find it now), and it pretty much says that the game is worse than stabbing out your own eyeballs--which you're likely to do when reading the sourcebook. The biggest discussion was in how incredibly perverted the authors were, and the sheer nonsense of some of the rules.
Well, naturally I looked it up. And there was a lot of discussion online about this game. Mostly people putting in their own two cents about how horrible the game was (a favorite was bringing up the fact that your average speech rate can be higher than your maximal speech rate), but there was also a crowd who insisted that, okay, the book was fairly childish, but if you left out all the sexual stuff, the system was actually a really good one to play.
These latter reviews reminded me of something...I used to have fun at parties by defending Yoko Ono's music by telling people "well she's not a great singer, but she writes good melodies." This made me seem deep, and no one could refute me because they hadn't actually listened to any of her music. Oh, and actually her melodies are worse than her singing, just FYI.
Anyway, I decided to take a gander at this infamous rulebook (I found a .pdf online) and see for myself. And yes, it's very childish, misanthropic, and frankly it's poorly organized. But you can't use that for the strength or weakness of the system. So I decided to try my hand at using the system to create a character, and, as a roleplayer, decide if I'm at least excited about the directions the game's taking me in.
I started one night at midnight--and promptly broke the rules. You see, there's a huge range of races you can play, and I couldn't be bothered to learn about any of them. Also, I'm only really going to have a "feel" for human characters, so I'm going to go specifically against the advice of the rulebook and choose. I also will choose to be a man, because frankly a look through the book more or less tells you you DON'T want to be stuck as a female (if nothing else, the detailed rules on how often there are gang rapes pushes me against that particular direction). Also, by far the biggest stat change in the game is a 30% increase to strength for men...and a 30% loss for women. The next biggest stat change for gender is 5%. Regardless of whether or not I should have made these choices (the books says to leave everything to chance), I did. Pay attention, because they're the last choices I'll make for a while.
So immediately on choosing my sex there are bunch of stat changes I have to note for later. Strength goes up 30%, Reflection goes down 4%...lots of nickel-and-diming, but there are 12 things to note for later. Yes, changes to twelve different stats, many of which will be very small changes in the end, but I have to remember them all.
All right, time to start rolling up a character. And I do mean rolling--there will be an absurd number of dice thrown about in this process. I start out by rolling 4d100/4-30 to get my starting age (taking absolute value, so no negative numbers, but it's possible to have to play a 2-year-old). The dice come down and I'm playing...a twelve-year-old. This puts me in the age category of Puberty, which has effects on height and weight, which in turn have effects on things like strength and attractiveness...holy mother of God, what have I gotten myself into?
Next we roll height, then weight. This little tyke is going to grow up to be 6'1" and 181 pounds, but is currently 5'5 and 144lbs. From here I can (and must) calculate my BMI, but I have no idea how much of it is fat versus muscle, because I haven't rolled strength yet. Still, a picture is slowly coming into focus for this fellow. Now I will refine it further by finding out my most attractive and repulsive features.
Most repulsive: voice. That dings my vocal charisma 8%. Most attractive: crotch. This...wait, what? I'm playing a twelve-year-old who's got a very lovely crotch? Yup. And this roll has attached bonuses.
Quick aside--in many games, height, weight, and features are left to the player. Here, that would be bad, because these inconsequential details have substantial effects on the real stats, especially strength (which, as every roleplayer knows, is the God Stat). And there's no justification for what I'm about to do, which is roll all sorts of purely cosmetic features. With no choices made on my part, I find out that I have dirty blond hair to the middle of my back, which is medium thickness wavy, and oily. I also have tanned skin, recessed brown eyes, and perfect vision. I know multiple dimensions of my nipples, and my tongue length. It's now 12:25, the time being taken by finding things in the rulebook and rolling lots of dice.
The next five minutes of my life are devoted to finding out that my twelve-year-old character has an eight inch penis, with a 5.9 inch circumference. Also, he can take an object of 5-6 inches up the ass without ripping, and the rulebook helpfully points out that that's the thickness of a "normal manhood." FUCK THIS SHIT. I just spent five minutes of my life rolling dice to find out that this twelve-year-old character has a schlong as big as many porn stars. And no, this isn't a case of the rules not taking age into account--when he reaches adulthood, he can look forward to almost nine inches of studliness, and 6.5 around, because "manhood" is based on height, which in turn was affected by age. And it takes FIVE WHOLE MINUTES to get this bit of lechery out of the way, because BOTH length AND girth require--deep breath--rolling (10d100)/5-1 (the minus one still cracks me up). A d100 is really two dice, so this is FORTY ROLLS OF THE FUCKING DICE SO I CAN TELL HOW WELL HUNG A TWELVE YEAR OLD IS. Not counting the height and age rolls.
At this point, it was 12:32 in the morning, and I got fed up. I'd spent half an hour rolling up a bunch of things that most games let you just choose, and I still have NO IDEA what this pubescent lad is capable of doing, because I haven't gotten to a SINGLE ONE of his actual stats. I shut off my computer, and decided to sleep it off.
I almost left it at that, but I decided to persevere and finish making my character. Who knows, maybe it'll all pay off...
There are twenty stats in the game. Yes, twenty. Each one is rolled separately, and lots of them have modifiers. They nominally lie on a scale of 1-200, although modifiers can theoretically push you out of this range. And the authors decided that these stats should, if you make a small army of characters, hit a distribution that fits a bell curve. I'm not extrapolating here: they have a lengthy footnote on how they're fitting all stats to the IQ bell curve. And the way they do this uses some theorem that's really big in actuarial math, which says that if you average a bunch of uniform probabilities, you get a bell curve. Can you guess what that means when you translate it to game terms? It means that we get to roll (10d100)/5-1 for EVERY SINGLE STAT!
Did I mention there are twenty stats?
In the end, this comes out to 200 rolls of the dice to finish getting my stats. And, because I'm being the Gamer Who Follows the Book, I'm rolling them all, tabulating the results, plugging into my calculator, and then trying to figure out all the additions and subtractions from my prior rolls (such as the twelve stats affected by my being male). These stats are also rolled in order, so you don't get to push them around to make it so your character would be a good warrior, or a good mage, or whatever. If your strength sucks and you want to play a fighting character...tough.
It takes an hour, but I get my list of stats. They range from 83 to 144, and most of the sex-based stat differences amount to adding or subtracting about three points, in a nominal range of 0-199. Soo glad I kept track of them...
In the process, I find out I'm basically average in physical fitness, body attractiveness, vocal charisma, facial charisma, agility, reaction time, and common sense. I'm quite good at kinetic movement (and thus sexual performance...*sigh*), hand-eye coordination, and intuition, and poor at enunciation, math, and health (which the book specifies means I'm not good at peeing).
More to the point, because stats are rolled independently, I have a few really silly conclusions. The hardest math I can master is fractions, but I'm good at analytic thinking. I'm a standard deviation or so above the mean in strength, but most men are at "genius" level (taking the IQ analogy). And yes, my average rate of speech is in fact slightly higher than my maximum.
But you know what? There's no point in quibbling about these minor inconsistencies. It's amusing, but hardly an essential part of the discussion. It's really overshadowed by a few significant factors.
1-I have now spent an hour and a half on rolling up this character.
2-In this time frame, I have made a grand total of two decisions, both of which the rule book suggested against the player getting to make.
3-After all this rolling, after all these stats, I have a statistically ordinary guy. You take the claw over the town, hit the button at random, and it scoops up a random person, and that's your character. Someone who was thrown at the bell curve for twenty statistics. The first person you bump into on the street in the morning is the hero of your campaign. In case this isn't clear enough: YOUR CHARACTER IS ORDINARY.
D&D started out like this. You rolled 3d6 for your stats, in order, and 10 was "ordinary." Then people realized that ordinary characters made for boring heroes, so they let players swap their stats around, and implemented Roll 4, Keep 3. Call of Chthulhu does it as well, but there the POINT is that you're both weak against the wonders of the universe and generally screwed anyway.
The other thing is, there are a lot of stats which are either useless or which overlap another stat quite heavily. What parts of Physical Fitness aren't covered by Strength and Health? Who cares when my character's first memory was? How do I describe the movements of a character with great agility, but terrible kinetics and hand-eye coordination?
Of course, the bell curve tells us that all these questions are unlikely to come up, because most stats are going to be in the range of 85-115. *sigh* At least the horrible flaws do a little to cover each other up.
Anyway, I'm actually still not done. I still have to find out that I'm a peasant, illiterate, was born in town, 3rd in a family with 2 brothers and 4 sisters (and no, I still haven't made any choices of my own). Then comes the roll I HATE. It's even worse than finding out a pubescent boy's anal circumference. I rolled my character's sexuality. I'm playing a breeder. Full stop. Which is fairly bad. And frankly, I think it'd be even worse for a straight guy to be told he HAS to play a fag...especially given that the next roll is Debauchery, which tells you what your character will and won't do as far as kink goes. No, it's not a player decision either. My character WILL, by the official rules of the game, get a handjob, get oral, have vaginal sex, will finger, dive in some muff, participate in an orgy, give anal, give or take pain, give or take urine, or be bound. He's just that freaky. Or, if you want to play a nice game that doesn't involve worrying about the cops, he *will be* that freaky when he reaches adulthood and gets his ninth inch of manhood. Egads.
Finally, after all this, you pick a job and start distributing your skill points. Yes, after an HOUR AND A HALF OF ROLLING DICE you get to make a few minor decisions. And as if to make up for lost time, there's a dizzying number of jobs and skills available, so there's lots of reading...and at this point, I gave up. Especially because there's a dizzying number of types of magic users, each of which gets access to completely different spells, but they're all in the same list, so you can't easily tell which ones you're choosing when you pick your class...but none of them are exciting.
Actually, just a note on looking through the spell list. Most of it sucks--lots of riffs on boring themes, such as "bestow dislocation," "bestow fatigue," "bestow earache." (I kid you not). Although there is a small sequence of gems--the "bestow [unit of time] family. They're a sequence of spells that age a target, from a decade to an aeon. Now these are certainly of limited application, but there's a certain amount of coolness. You could use the former to make my character creation process immediately much less "icky," because he'd suddenly be a 22-year-old stud instead of...well, let's not get into that again. But the same family of spells becomes a powerful offensive weapon towards the end, killing even the long-lived such as elves. And I can think of some other interesting uses for aging someone a decade. I will give them credit for this line of spells being rather cool, even though almost everything else is unweildy and doesn't spark the imagination.
Verdict: the game is trash. The only way of making a character in any reasonable amount of time is to program the algorithm into a computer, which involves LOTS of tables. Once you've done this, character creation is largely a matter of pushing one single button, which gives you an unremarkable member of the population--down to eye color. And your stats might well not work for the kind of character you really want to play. And even if they do...there's just not much of a sense of awesomeness about the things you get to do. It's great for a realistic game...in which unextraordinary people do unextraordinary things. And have lots of sex in the bargain.