I hear and see a lot of discussion about issues with mechanics in roleplaying games that are at odds with the flavor a player or game master want to stay within. The problem is… This isn’t a problem. For the sheer amount of talk about this “issue”, I can’t be brought to care when the answer is so easy. Flavor in gaming is all skin deep. If you don’t see how to let’s talk about it.
The comment thread that inspired this post was a discussion of rapiers in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. The issue is Dexterity based combatants have access to the rapier at first level (DM abiding) with a 1D8 damage. That is pretty good. My bard, in the game I play in, uses one and regularly hits as hard as some of our frontline fighters. It’s great.
The problem for the commenter was that the weapon wasn’t a good flavor for their character/setting. So here’s the problem I have. In taking a piece of imaginary equipment, in a game of imaginary fantasy story telling, you can totally imagine that the rapier is just something else. I say this, and I feel like a jerk for laying it out there, but it really is that simple. Reskinning equipment is a pretty straightforward process. Say what you’d rather carry and move on.
Let’s pretend instead of a rapier you want to carry an iklwa (short shaft spear made in the Zulu Empire). As a player, this could be really special as it is out of the norm for most Euro-centric fantasy settings (see Appendix J for everyone is still hung up on the Lord of the Rings and thinks all D&D games need to be based in Fantasy Europe). The iklwa is a really interesting weapon made for close combat and in many ways acts like a rapier in the rules. They could both be piercing weapons, have a similar range, and would be similar in strength for parrying/defending.
I think the larger problem is the fact that A) some DMs believe in only Rules As Written (RAW), and B) players don’t always vocalize their ideas well. For example, if a player wanted to have an iklwa but tried suggesting a spear maybe the DM thinks they want the range and downgrade the damage. Maybe they don’t vocalize the flavor of their character that they want. Or maybe the players and the DM all have a very different idea about exactly what the setting of their world is. Trying to fill those gaps between how the characters relate to the world they are in can be a fulfilling exercise for the entire group.
How about another example. I was running a campaign of an RPG I was developing. The main rules of the game were GURPS-lite. This was for a system I was building based on GURPS. I basically boiled everything down to attributes then players made up their major skills for proficiencies. We were testing the system with a steampunk setting and the player wanted to be a plague doctor. He asked (maybe half joking) if he could have a halberd with a chainsaw for the end. I thought about it and then made it happen.
I started by taking the spear item, adding an ammo/extra damage mechanic (basically +1 if he had the gas for it), and then took the cost out of his starting cash. He loved the flavor and it really gave his character something to think of as his contribution to the world’s setting. Not only that, but it added to his backstory. He had the device because of his profession in the plague doctor’s guild. Because the guild spent money on equipment and not personnel, he was poor. This ‘simple’ reskin grew into a wider platform for him to roleplay in the world.
So, what I’m getting at is reskinning may seem like band-aids. Little patches to the world to make your players happier. However, think of them as little platforms for your players to express themselves further. That iklwa may be just another name for rapier to the DM but to the player that maybe their character’s family heirloom that was passed down as a tradition from master to apprentice. Maybe they are rare so any fighter that sees it stops to ask the player about it. What if only a very particular group uses that weapon and it identifies the player a member? Now there are whole sessions that could be based on this one little reskin.
Point is, flavor is more than window dressing. It’s tiny chapters from a much larger story. Telling a big story may be fun but it’s the little chapters that flesh it out and make it a living breathing world.
One more example before I call this blog. Back to my bard, I started his concept as a MIN/MAX experiment in a spellcasting bard. I wanted to be a midrange wizard that could mix it up with the fighters but still sling fireballs for fun. The concept started out blank. As I filled in his background I slowly added to his story. I thought he’d be a squire or like a drummer boy in an army. When I got to a weapon, though, I took rapier for the damage. But, this made me think of the Three Musketeers. A soldier that is charismatic and uses a rapier? Sign me up!
This evolved in time to become a long thought out backstory. For instance, I’d taken Half-Elf for the racial benefits but now that was why he was a soldier. He signed up with mercenaries since it was hard to find work in human or elven communities. Then it hit me, what if his parents had met through the military? Now I was a regular d’Artagnan for sure. This grew into my role play now as the character wanted to show off and perform daring feats in combat for applause. It just kept growing till I really felt like I knew this character.
And that’s kind of how Viktus Saul, Lore Bard and Jack of Most Trades came to be. I took the flavor of the rapier and grew it into a whole persona.
So remember, the flavor can be more than just something pretty. It can be a real hard hitting piece of your world. So get out there! Find YOUR FLAVOR TOWN!