Abilities in M20: Brawl Additions!

Okay, so anybody that read my previous M20 related post knows that my initial reaction to the division between Brawl and Martial Arts in M20 was extremely negative. During a discussion with Satyros Phil Brucato, the game’s developer, in the M20 Facebook group, this fact came up, and I’ll shortly get to why that fact is relevant to this post. I have great respect for his wide ranging talents, his creativity and his hard-charging work ethic, even if I don’t always agree with his output. To be honest, how could anybody ever really always agree with another creator’s or artist’s or writer’s output if they’re actually thinking for themselves? It’s just not going to happen. So long as folks can be polite about those creative differences, cool.

Anyhow, Satyros argued that I was giving this particular creative decision short shrift and that I ought to take a closer look at how he integrated a meaningful distinction between the two more fully into the combat system and also built it into the Focus rules. He pointed out that this distinction was not exactly new to the Storyteller System, having appeared previously in Kindred of the East and World of Darkness: Combat back during the 2nd edition era. To that last I maintain that I disliked the division back then too and don’t care for either of those prior books. I took those rules’ having been left out of the Revised editions of Vampire, Mage and Werewolf as a sign that White wolf had moved on from the concept also at least insofar as the Storyteller system was concerned. He suggested that I step back, blank my slate and ignore the negative associations I have with the prior sources and look over the combat and focus systems on their own merits with an open mind. This I have done over the course of the past month or more, mulling over the implications of the division within the rules themselves, on play and how I feel about said implications. A more serious and thoughtful dive into the book did change my views on a number of things from my first impressions (the value of Esoterica, for example), but I hardly found all points persuasive.

As an aside: I really, really like how the New World of Darkness handles unarmed combat and martial arts: Brawl is one ability, but players that want special combat maneuvers to showcase how strong their kung fu is can buy a class of Merits called Fighting Styles, and there are even Fighting Styles specific to Melee and Firearms as well rather than just Brawl. That’s a much better and more elegant design decision as far as I’m concerned. Anyways, we’ll turn back to Classic World of Darkness since I’m not advocating porting the Fighting Styles rules over though I’d be perfectly happy to see what it would look like if somebody did so.

One of the arguments that I have seen for the distinction is that Brawl is a more crude, less sophisticated version of the more refined and superior techniques of Martial Arts. It’s also been said that the increasing acceptance of martial arts as well as greater access to instruction in said arts in western society in the new teens argues that an increased number of characters should now have access to said instruction and the associated Ability. Now, martial arts are definitely more refined than street brawling techniques, to be sure… but I have decided that I just do not buy those arguments.

First: to address the further refinement argument. Let’s look at the example of professional medical and surgical techniques, which are absolutely much more refined than and superior to the sort of basic first aid that a layperson could pick up on their own in the course of parenting, athletics (“I’ve dislocated a finger before. I know what to do”), first aid certification and the like, but the only division, game system wise, between these more and less refined techniques and training is explicitly the number of dots that the character possesses. One dot is taken to be somebody that’s learned basic first aid, while 4 dots is a professional level of skill in both advanced medicine and surgical procedures with the commensurate academic degrees and education. I’d say there’s a greater degree of difference in refinement of advanced heart surgery versus basic first aid than there is between hapkido and street fisticuffs, but the Medicine Knowledge does not get this granular a distinction. The different number of dots is considered distinction enough. I feel that the system as provided already gives an adequate model for superior and more refined techniques versus cruder ones: the degree of the character’s expertise as reflected in the number of dots that they possess in a particular Ability. Under this design philosophy, having such an animal as Brawl and a separate, equally point-costly yet inherently superior Brawl+ (not to mention the Brawl++ that Do represents) seems superfluous.

Stanford University students studying Shaolin Kung Fu with real life Shaolin monks. For all that’s wrong with the 21st century, it’s still a pretty cool time to be alive. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Second: the greater popular awareness of and access to martial arts training world-wide and notably in the Western world (how I dislike that charged and misleading term, but that’s a discussion for another time) versus past generations. While I’ve seen it said that this demystification and greater acceptance of the Martial Arts means that it’s time for Mages to be able to buy this Ability, I see the reduction of Martial Arts from “the mysterious fighting arts of the East” (ignoring historical European modes like Pankration, Savate and so on) into “what those guys at the MMA gym down the street are doing” or “what the FBI agents/cops/military are trained in” actually argues for the reverse: folding what some people once considered a totally separate Ability back home in the Brawl Talent where it belongs. Anybody with the interest, the work ethic and the will (not to mention Will) can learn martial arts grade abilities now, so what’s the point of splitting it off? These greater techniques are comparatively commonplace now, so just call it all Brawl, buy a commensurate number of dots and/or specialties to reflect a particular character’s expertise and move on. We don’t have separate “melee” and “martial arts weaponry” Abilities, and that works quite well as is. The rest of the Storyteller system lists different martial arts forms as specialties of Brawl rather than a separate Ability, and after due reflection and serious consideration, I’ve decided that this is where they belong at least in my own chronicles.

What about the Focus rules? Martial Arts is listed as a whole Practice in there. That’s great, and I love how that section was written. The Focus rules in general are pretty darn spiffy, and I totally commend Satyros for clarifying how magic(k) works in Mage. He did really great work there. Reading over that Practice, however… I just don’t think that it logically follows that a separate Martial Arts ability actually contributes anything to the Focus rules at all. In the section on Dirty fighting on page 422, the book points out that street-smart and street-tough Mages use Brawl and Dirty fighting as a focus for an assortment of Effects and Spheres, a point that further erodes some of the argument of Martial Arts as a necessary component of the Focus rules. Use the focus rules as written, but where it says Martial Arts in the mechanical aspects rules, just use the Brawl Ability. Done. It’s simple, it keeps Martial Arts as a mystic Practice going strong without the need for a whole separate Ability, and it loses not a single thing that I feel contributes to the role playing experience. If you want an Ability for chi manipulation and all that stuff, just use Esoterica with Do or some martial arts related thing as a specialty. Note: my first instinct on contact with M20 was to ditch Esoterica too, but Phil’s writing has since totally sold me on that one as a useful component on the character sheet with a solid place in the Mage system.

What about the combat rules? Isn’t it too deeply integrated to parse it out? After numerous read throughs and much wrestling with the concepts involved, I still don’t think so. The game does definitely and laudably integrate the distinction more meaningfully than the old 2nd edition books did (it felt basically tacked-on in KoE), but it’s far, far from integral. Vampire and Werewolf function quite nicely without adding a giant list of Martial Arts maneuvers, and even omitting the Martial Arts maneuvers list wholesale wouldn’t have much if any real effect on the system itself beyond taking away a few options that don’t exist in the rest of the Storyteller lines anyways. That said, there’s admittedly some pretty darn cool and flavorful stuff in there (Counter Throw and Deflecting Block are standouts), there are also things that I don’t feel are necessary at all like Hard Strike/Soft Strike, Elbow/Knee strike or the Snake Step. Those are just some preexisting move (punch, punck/kick or dodge, respectively), but “more better” and use a different Ability to roll for them. Yawn. Punching/performing a better hand strike should be the province of having more dots in the relevant Ability, not in having a different Ability. In a combat system as abstract as Storyteller, I don’t feel much need for a systemic distinction between a punch and an elbow strike. The combat utility of flying kicks is widely disputed in the martial arts world, but I’ll give that one a pass since this is after all a roleplaying game and flying kicks are admittedly awesome even if their actual practicality in the real world is dubious at best.

Now, the book does point out that Mages are theoretically more likely than some other supernatural beings to seek out such advanced combat techniques since they don’t have the built in claws and fangs and such of other night-folk, and some folks might see this as an attempt at balancing mages versus other supernaturals in combat. Yet when I see discussions of Mage versus other critters from inside the Mage community it’s mostly about how Mages are the ones with the competitive edge, even without special martial arts maneuvers, so I don’t think game balance is a valid argument for incorporating them, though I do acknowledge that yes, Mages are absolutely more likely to study martial arts as such than, say, vampires.

Am I saying that we need to throw the whole thing out? Hardly. While I don’t favor the existence of Hard Strike or Elbow Strike as distinct from the Punch maneuver, I understand that some folks will want to leave these things in as options even if they eliminate Martial Arts as a separate Ability. That’s fine and I won’t sweat it. Besides, if Dirty Fighting merits a list of maneuvers that characters can learn, martial arts deserves the chance too even if the discipline gets folded into the Brawl Ability. If we ditch Martial Arts, though, we’ll need to tweak how players get access to those maneuvers. Here I’ll provide an alternate system. Now, this is just my take, and if I see somebody out there with one that I like better I’ll cheerfully steal it. 😀

Now, the rules as written give a character with Brawl 3 and the prerequisite sort of background access to eight special maneuvers, with the strange fact that two of said maneuvers don’t include Brawl in their dice pool. One of them relies on Melee, in fact. The Martial Arts Ability as given doesn’t wait until 3 dots to grant special maneuvers, and you get two of them per each dot you pick up, so at 3 dots a street-tough Brawler will have two more maneuvers than them with the caveat that the Martial Arts maneuvers are superior pretty much across the board, and two of the Brawl ones can only be performed if the brawler is packing a firearm. Martial Arts provides 16 different maneuver options, though, which a character can choose from depending on whether they study a hard or soft style. Also, even a character with Martial Arts 1 will already have two special maneuvers.

So how to tweak that if we drop Martial Arts? Well, if we call martial arts forms a specialty of Brawl, I think that we take a tip from Dirty Fighting and hold off on martial artists getting special maneuvers until 3 dots, just like Brawl. If Martial Arts are “more refined” techniques, the character doesn’t get any mechanical benefit until their techniques are actually more refined: they haven’t got the expertise to make the most of these techniques until they have got a good handle on the discipline. Then, we can give them six special maneuvers at 3 Brawl so the character’s on par with where they’d be in the existing rules. Grant two more per level beyond that? Sure, why not? That’s what I’ll go with for now. I definitely do think that using the Well-Skilled Craftsman rule (one of my favorites among the number of really cool things that Satyros added to M20) to grab additional specialties beyond the first is an excellent way to unlock more maneuvers from a different style, probably granting a like number to what the character had picked up in their first specialty, if there are that many left to take of course.

An aside about Do: I personally am not crazy about Do having so very many special rules since no sect other than the Akashayana gets any special Ability that offers nearly so much in the way of mechanical advantages. That bothers me from a game design philosophy standpoint. Frankly, my preference for Do would be to just say it’s an Esoterica or Brawl specialty with its own separate maneuver list and move on, and rule that Akashics’ storied prowess comes from them having such a long history with using the Martial Arts practice to boost their effectiveness with the Spheres rather than giving them some inbuilt inherent advantage, but I understand that Akashic players might feel cheated if I took their unique toy away from them. I guess I’ll just roll with The Mysterious Fighting Art of the Akashayana as is. The only Akashic player character in my chronicle died over a year ago real-time anyways, and I allowed Do back then so I won’t roll that back even though it doesn’t much affect my players’ characters either way unless they’re tangling with NPC Do wielders.

I’ve chewed up a whole lot of word count here to say why I don’t think I’ll retain Martial Arts as a distinct Ability in my own Mage games. I now have a much better understanding of why the developer put it in there, but I just don’t accept that the conclusions follow from those reasons. I’m not saying his approach is worse than mine, but I’m saying that I don’t think his works for me on either a conceptual or a game design level. Apparently our paradigms don’t mesh neatly. Given that this is Mage: the Ascension we’re talking about, is that any huge surprise?

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