August 31, 2010

The Limits of Reflavoring?

(Note to self: part of trying to keep up a regular blog is finding time to blog regularly. Must work on this).

So my Red Sonja exercise the other day got me to thinking about reflavoring. Normally I love reflavoring--changing the description or fluff of a game element but leaving the mechanics the same, in order to have something different but having the math and so forth work out. D&D 4e is particularly good about allowing flavor and description to be divorced from the mechanics (an aspect of the edition that some people lament). But are there limits to it?

For example, I mentioned that Sonja might work out well (mechanically) as a Half-Orc reflavored to be a human. I'd like the game statics of the race (the stat boosts, feat support, etc), but not the "you're part orc and so kind of ugly" flavor. I'm usually really cool about race reflavoring--for a number of campaigns I've considered running, I'm planning to ask the players if they all want to be "humans" (with the mechanics of whatever race they want), just to get rid of the whole "species" aspect to the game. [Note that some players might not want this, hence why I have to ask]. I've also done this pretty readily in the past. When I switched my Pirate game from 3.5e to 4e, one of the players who was playing one of my custom races (based on the Darfellan) ended up playing an Elf with a Human feat that gave him a swim speed. In this particular instance it worked out--the character had already been established as an aquatic race, and there were only a few disconnects when the player called out "I use Elven Accuracy" instead of "I use Darfellan Accuracy!" But in past games, race reflavoring has been awkward, as people consistently put air quotes around a player's flavored race (he's an "elf"), so that you basically end up playing the mechanical race anyway.

Moving on. For Sonja, a lot of options for reflavoring involve her gear. I kind of assume that I could just use mechanics for Leather or Hide armor and call it the chainmail bikini--it's light armor, etc. But what happens if I wanted to have her wear actual chainmail armor, but just say that it's the non-armor bikini. Could I do that? Or a bigger issue: I want her to use a sword in one hand and a knife in the other. But two-weapon builds (Ranger and Barbarian) kind of assume that you'll be using two big weapons--a sword in each hand. Could I reflavor a second longsword (or even a bastard sword) as a dagger? So her "dagger" does 1d8 or 1d10 damage and is a heavy blade ("it's a um... a big dagger").

Part of me wants to say "sure, why not?" The game mechanics won't change. I'll keep up with expected damage (instead of falling 3 or 4 points behind because I want a specific image for a character--not a lot, but not insignificant at first level).

Of course, then you have to deal with other minor rules. What if I want to throw the "dagger"? (maybe I make it a javelin reflavored as a dagger instead of a longsword...). What if I want to hide the dagger (maybe it's too hard to hide because the character just isn't good at hiding stuff...). What if I want to hand it to the Wizard to use as a backup? (maybe it counts as a dagger for them, but is still a sword/spear for me? But that gets into a level of abstraction that I think I will talk about next time).

Other issues come up when you need to deal with things that aren't covered by the normal rules. For example, my mind trick happy Force-user in a Star Wars games would love to reflavor his negate energy as making the attacker miss, or think they had fired when they hadn't or something (rather than the Vader-like "hold out a hand and block the attack"). But does that mean that I can use the power without others noticing? I'd like that, but maybe I shouldn't gain that advantage. There was an argument on the D&D boards a while ago where someone wanted to have their wizard carry a "walking stick" that was a reflavored greatclub. The argument was whether this means that the wizard could carry the weapon in to see the king, or whether the reflavoring was creating an advantage.

Part of me says "any game advantages that come from reflavoring can't be too great, so just let it go" as well as "maybe they should be rewarded for personalizing the flavor of their character". But it's an issue that has to be dealt with.

When I started writing this post, I felt like there were problem cases involving extreme reflavoring. But I seem to have had some problems coming up with them. Maybe I'm just unconsciously limiting myself--things that wouldn't work I don't even consider as feasible. Or maybe reflavoring is just a matter of getting players to agree that the mechanics for a particular option can work in a particular way, and then going ahead and enjoying your game and playing the character just as you imagine them to be.

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