Saturday, 31 August 2013

Beauty is in the Die of the Beholder

If your looks are holding you back,
Get some armour and a small
European country and you'll soon
be beating them off with a stick.
Or a death ray, as the case may be.
D&D had charisma as an "ability" from the start and from that start, the lack of appearance was noted by players, DMs, and adventure writers alike. The idea that charisma subsumed appearance never worked for a moment with anyone I knew and it's still a pretty laughable idea; just talk to a good-looking 18-year-old sometime and test it out.

So, when it was added in UA it should have been good news, surely? All those succubi could be stated out sensibly without giving them huge loyalty bonuses; and handsome rangers could set hearts aflutter across the boarder lands while good-looking rogues could wile their way into the confidences of women without being automatically regarded well by everyone around them.

Yeah, well. You know; didn't work out that way. I think like many others I rejected some aspects out of hand but a recent discussion on DF made me wonder if it was worth surveying it again with a more detached view compared to the exciting days of holding a new AD&D hardback in my hands.

Firstly, there was the name. "Comeliness" is not a neutral word, nor is it an elegant one for the concept. "Appearance" is much better and has the virtue of not abbreviating to something that starts with "Co". Just a plain stupid choice, which I suspect was driven by pride - Gygax simply couldn't admit that so many rival games which had used "Appearance" for years had been right.

Second problem, and the main thing I want to post about: comeliness grants a special power of fascination for the higher scores. Which sounds oookayish, except that "high" starts at 14 in a game which suggested that all player characters should have two scores of 15 or more. So, 14 isn't that impressive sounding to the players.

Heroes are just different.
(click to enlarge and read 2nd paragraph)
But player characters are special. For the bulk of the population, 15 is the highest score they can have and that's only as common as 18 is when rolling 3d6. Combined with a 15 charisma, for a +1 bonus, the best a normal person can hope for is a comeliness of 16. At the other end of the scale, the lowest score possible is 5 - "simply ugly".

In the context of the rules, the 1-in-46656 village heart-breaker is only able to use the fascination power on people with a wisdom score of 8 or less, which sounds fine, really, and probably more of a nuisance than a boon.

But PCs are not normal people and they can have the full range of comeliness from -2 to 21 (-5 to 23 with inter-racial modifiers) and the effects of the fascination are greater as the numbers climb, and not just in proportion.

A character with comeliness of 17 can still only fascinate creatures with wisdom of 8 and under, but with a score of 18 that jumps to 12 for the opposite sex (and starts to work on the same sex, albeit at a lower strength).

The next step up is at a score of 22, which is just about reachable for elves dealing with humans although it would be so incredibly rare as to be insignificant if scores were being generated randomly. While the wisdom score affected remains at ⅔ of comeliness (14 or under at this level), a new power has appeared which means that if such an attractive being actively attempts to seduce a character then they must have a wisdom of 18+ to resist being fascinated.

Fools in love
Strictly speaking, the maximum score is 25 like any other ability, available to a CHA-19+ with a base 18 comeliness and a couple of points inter-racial bonus. The rules however give details for scores up to 30 presumably in the expectation of them being used for an updated Deities and Demigods or something similar. I'm going to ignore this category for now.

In parallel with the fascination power, the new rules say that reaction rolls are modified. Firstly, it seems that ugly characters (scores under 10) simply get a negative reaction. Does this mean no roll is made? Who knows?

For mildly attractive characters in the 14-17 range, the reaction roll is still made and increased by the comeliness score; at 18-21 this is increased to 1½ times the score and at 22 and up the modification is a whopping 2x the score. So that's at least +44%! To put that into context, that on its own is enough to leave just a 1% chance of a reaction below "neutral" and an 88% chance of a positive reaction.

"On its own". Well, is it? Because such a character almost certainly has a high charisma too, which also has a reaction bonus. Combining them simply breaks the system.

On top of that, there's the question of when do the comeliness effects actually apply? Plainly, not while in full plate armour with the visor down. What about when wearing a veil or mask? This is where comeliness gets tricky, because it's in actual play when players want to use or manipulate their comeliness that questions like this come up.

"And where do you keep
your spellbooks, Merlin?"
"Oh, come on! That's got to
be worth +4 at least!"
Leaving that aside for a moment, there is some interesting material in the explanation of the fascinate power. The first one being the saving throw against being manipulated - roll 3d6 and try to exceed the comeliness score in question. Bonuses are given for being asked to do things against one's nature (with +3 or +4 suggested for alignment-changing requests).

Any successful save against the fascination power breaks it permanently. I think this is something that's often overlooked when judging the effect of this power in the game. Until scores get really high, it is reasonably possible to break free quite quickly.

There's also a note about how shape-changing magic works and in particular a mention of polymorphing only allowing a modification of 2 from the figure's original score due to "subtle social clues", which offers a possible solution to the question of hidden faces.

Finally, the whole shebang is modified when dealing across races - and in the special case of drow, across sexes too. Essentially, all the demi-humans and humans are divided into classes and given a modifier for when dealing with others. There are some groupings within these classes whereby two races see each other without modifiers. For example, all races see the grey elves and high elves as having +2 to their comeliness but they do not get the bonus when dealing with each other.

There's an odd note about humans and halflings being paired this way, but since both have a zero modifier it makes no difference anyway.

Drow females get +1 to comeliness from other races, including drow males; drow females view drow males as having a -1 penalty. Which is quirky and quite good, or at least as close to good as anything about the done-to-death clich├ęd tedium that the drow represent ever gets.

Complicating this further is a note in UA for comeliness of 7-9 which implies that the modifier due to charisma is not received when dealing with other races. Perhaps this is another of those cases where subtle social clues leave the viewer none the wiser about what makes a particular dwarf or elf more beautiful or, as I believe, it's just a mistake in the text. I suspect the idea was to point out that dwarves have a maximum charisma of 16 to non-dwarves and do not get a bonus for higher charisma in those cases.

Evil is as Evil Seems
Did I say "finally"?  I lied. Most of the above is about high comeliness and there is a quirk of low comeliness which reflects some mediaeval views on the subject of beauty (which were themselves rather muddled). Ugly evil creatures are, apparently, seen as beautiful by evil characters so that a negative score in such circumstances is treated as positive.

"You can't book me for 'being funny looking'!"
This effect is mentioned only in relation to scores below -8, so it's not entirely clear whether these scores are the only ones to which it applies. Nor is it clear if anything is meant to be inferred about evil characters and positive scores. And on top of that, harsh rejection by a high comeliness character results in their score being treated as negative by the spurned would-be lover. What if both are evil? Does that mean there's no effect? I doubt it but it's another sloppy bit of thinking in a section of rules that has similar issues, I think.
Since this range of scores is impossible to generate, the questions it raises are only in relation to specifically placed encounters so I guess it's up to the DM, and the same is true of the ultra-high scores. I suppose that it makes some sort of sense in a fantasy world to have evil characters view, for example, both  Juiblex and a succubus as equally attractive.
Interestingly, comeliness is defined in the rules as being something that effects creatures of a human sort, not something only they posses, so the DM is free to apply it to anything that takes his/her fancy as being horrific or beautiful, even if not actually humanoid.
There's a subtext here that evil acts perhaps should reduce comeliness, but that perhaps would not go down well with players. Still, it's an interesting "Dorian Grey" notion that might be worth playing with.

"Okay, that's 700sqft of rug
and one Egyptian queen.
Cheque okay?"
Conclusions
That's the rules as written, pretty well. The problem for me is not actually the power of fascination in itself. Stories are full of examples of great characters (usually men, it has to be said) led astray by beauty and the rule reflects that but is, in my opinion slightly too hard to snap out of at higher scores (technically impossible at scores of 24+).

No, for me the problem is the blanket applicability of of the power. Beauty is not quite subjective in the sense that any particular person is as likely to be classed as ugly as they are to be judged good-looking by each other person. The standards for beauty vary over time, but there are standards and certain people clearly float more boats than others. But who floats every boat? Even Helen only managed 1000.

If I were writing a computer game, I would effectively roll 3d6 and add the charisma modifier each time characters met and record the resulting score for future reference, effectively recording how attractive character A is to character B separately from how attractive they are to character C etc. That's not possible in a pen and paper game, clearly.

What I normally do now is to record the PC's comeliness scores (with charisma mods) and keep them secret from the players. I then pick key figures that they come into contact and check only them for the fascinate effect. Players are free to think of their characters looking god or average or whatever and I'm free to track when it matters whether the rest of the world agrees or not.

I also give the targets of fascination a bonus equal to their own level and a save the first time the power is exerted, whether in  a way which is harmful or unnatural to the character in question or not.

Beyond that, I just use it as a loose guideline. But, having looked over it all again for this post I think I might go back to a more BtB system and see how it works out.

Here's my suggestions for using comeliness:
  • Comeliness trumps charisma for reaction rolls where the character's face and/or body shape is visible. Ugly characters get initial negative responses no matter what their charisma score.
  • If only the face is hidden (by a mask or similar) then inter-racial modifiers are based on expectation or are ignored if there is no expectation.
  • Also, if the face is hidden then comeliness is modified by 2 points towards 11 (so 6 becomes 8; 18 becomes 16).
  • Modifications for dubious requests should be cumulative - so if Mistertique asks the Snow Queen for two unreasonable (or just plain annoying) requests at +2 each, she will get +6 on her save for a third such abuse.
  • Age-related changes in wisdom are matched by equal and opposite changes in comeliness.
  • No effect on the opposite sex, in the general case.
  • Only inflict the fascination power on PCs if the situation is trivial and funny or serious and key to an interesting plot line. Don't bother with every damn shop keeper.
  • Only inflict PCs' fascination power on NPCs if the player specifically tries to use it, if it would be trivial and funny, or it is serious and key to an interesting plot line.
  • Call it "appearance" and abbreviate it to "A".

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