Okay, I get it. Modern players want options. Not only when they’re picking character classes, but they also want to have options for the abilities of their characters. After all, I hear them saying, what’s the difference between one barbarian and the other if this difference is not expressed in the rules, in the characters‘ skills and abilities?
That thinking right there. It’s the reason why games like Dungeon World exist. A game that lists a whopping 26 special abilities for the barbarian character class (it doesn’t matter what class you take, they all have numbers in that ballpark).
I call that thinking („Characters matter because they each have unique abilities the player can choose from“) mechanical. It’s „the more, the better“. What falls by the wayside is player creativity, that magical think early DMs and players all had, or had to have if their characters were to survive. The difference between player characters was in the way their players portrayed them. And if the DM thought a class or a description warranted a bonus for certain tasks, then the player received that bonus.
I don’t know if it’s my age or the years I’ve been active in our hobby, but to me it seems this kind of spontaneity and creative flexibility is receding, making way for rules that explain and pre-digest everything for the players. Heck, even the great OSR game The Black Hack presents its character classes with special abilities. Even there, we find ability creep.
Blood of Pangea is soothingly, refreshingly different. There are no detailed rules for special abilities, skills or extraordinary stats. Players write a 30-word-paragraph before the game starts. This text is called „narrative“, and it codifies what makes a character special.
Let’s take a look at a narrative. This one is taken straight from the rulebook:
Aja‘ was a tribal girl taken by raiders and trained in the arts of navigation, sailing, and general piracy. She speaks Nemian and is a great leader…
The above paragraph tells us what Aja‘ is good at. And if you saw Aja being roleplayed, you’d notice a few very peculiar things about the Blood of Pangea rules:
1) The player is free to interpret the narrative, ie., details can be added when needed, and don’t have to be frontloaded. Let’s take „general piracy“. What can it mean? Aja’s player knows, and with that new information, the DM is free to decide if it warrants a bonus on the 2d6 roll.
2) The DM is free to adjust the narrative to the action level of his group. For one group, „general piracy“ may mean Aja knows how to capture a ship, for another it might allude to melee fighting skills, for yet another group, it might mean both.
3) It gets better: If you’re so inclined, you could come up with on-the-spot, one-off special abilities for the entries in the narrative. Right off the cuff, when I hear „general piracy“, I can imagine Aja gets a bonus when fighting on deck, when swinging from ropes or when using force to intimidate.
I can go one level deeper and formulate the ruling „Davy Jones‘ Locker: When you receive a mortal wound on board of your beloved ship, you are allowed to make a daunting roll (9 or better), plus 1 point bonus. If you succeed, you won’t die“. Or „Air grappling: When you fight against an opponent in the rigging, you know how to move. +1 bonus on a roll to somehow incapacitate the enemy, resulting in a free attack immediately afterwards“.
It’s easy to see how the examples given in point 3) could be special abilities/moves in other games. And yet, the open-ended nature of the Blood of Pangea rules allow for so much more.