Monday, January 30, 2017

Cleric Domains Using Components     

In Second Edition D&D, clerics got a whole lot more customizable and interesting.  So it is only fitting that we use them to start our examples of how switching class components works.  As described in my last post, clerics break down into four components:  Primary Healer, Secondary Spellcaster, Secondary Armored Fighter, and Tertiary Community Leader.  This paints the picture of a fairly standard, good aligned cleric who follows a deity of healing, community, or goodness in general.

Domains, from Third Edition, introduced the idea of portfolios of special abilities that deities could grant to their clerics.  Each deity generally grants a number of domains (including up to two based on their alignment), and clerics choose two of these.  Each domain grants some special abilities and a small list of spells (some of which may not be normally on the cleric spell list).  Clerics then receive a special "domain" slot for their spell casting, usable only for spells from this particular list.  Looking at the total abilities granted by domains, they are probably closest to a Tertiary component.

Currently, clerics have the Tertiary component of Community Leader.  Which is fine for many NPC clerics, since that is generally the function that they will have in the story.  But adventuring clerics rarely have a community that they remain attached to and active in during the course of the story.  For these clerics, there should be an option for other callings.

Giving Each Deity Their Own Domain Component     

When I was in college, playing Second Edition D&D, I made a handwritten list of 100 things that a deity could have as their area of focus.  It was, of course, a chart so that you could roll percentile dice to select a portfolio item.  By rolling twice or three times on the chart, you would be able to randomly generate a unique deity, and the list would tell you what spheres of influence that cleric had access to for spell casting.  Sadly, I do not have a copy of that list anymore (along with many of my old D&D notes, it got lost somewhere along the line.)  Pathfinder has more than 100 potential domains (when you include all the subdomains).  But the world that Pathfinder uses, Golarion, has substantially fewer than 100 deities in it, as do most campaign worlds (Forgotten Realms may be the exception!)

Making a class component for each type of cleric in your campaign world has a number of advantages.  It takes the place of not only domains, but can also be used for archetypes that are specific to only a few deities in your world.  If you want to have only one deity with multiple orders of clerics, each can have their own component.  Finally, you can have class components that represent clerics that are more generalized than those who follow a single deity each, perhaps representing an entire pantheon, or representing philosophical concepts rather than gods.  In this way, domain class components become much like heritages: specific to the particular community that the cleric represents.

The Domain components, generally speaking, will replace Community Leader (as it is the default).  If you want your cleric to also be a community leader, you might consider replacing of the other components of cleric, and making your Domain that much more powerful as a result (making it a secondary or primary component).  Here is an example of a Domain component with three separate levels.  Since I have run many games in the Forgotten Realms, I've used one of those deities as an example:  Mystra, the goddess of magic.  (Note that this is for purposes of example only, as material for the Forgotten Realms is copyrighted by Wizards of the Coast.)

Follower of Mystra (a Domain Component)

Requirements:  Must be either Lawful or Good.

Hit Dice:  no change

Skills:  Followers of Mystra gain the following class skills:  Knowledge (arcana), Knowledge (religion), Spellcraft

Base Attack Bonus:  no change

Saving Throws:  no change

Additional Spells:  Followers of Mystra learn the following spells, in addition to any spells they learn from the Spellcaster component.  They must still meet level requirements to cast these spells.
  • 1st - identify, magic aura, protection from evil
  • 2nd - align weapon, bless water, magic mouth
  • 3rd - dispel magic, glyph of warding, magic circle against evil
  • 4th - arcane eye, holy smite, imbue with spell ability
  • 5th - dispel evil, spell resistance, true seeing
  • 6th - analyze dweamor, antimagic field, glyph of warding (greater)
  • 7th - holy word, legend lore, spell turning
  • 8th - holy aura, protection from spells, symbol of death
  • 9th - foresight, mage's disjunction, miracle
Special Abilities:  Tertiary Followers of Mystra gain two special abilities at first level:  Arcane Beacon and Touch of Good.  Secondary Followers gain two abilities at first level, and one additional ability every three levels, starting at level three.  Primary Followers gain two abilities at first level, and one additional ability every two levels, starting at level two.
  • Arcane Beacon: As the Arcane domain ability.
  • Blast Rune:  As the Rune domain ability.
  • Brew Potion:  As the feat, must meet level requirements.
  • Craft Construct:  As the feat, must meet level requirements.
  • Craft Magic Arms and Armor:  As the feat, must meet level requirements.
  • Craft Rod:  As the feat, must meet level requirements.
  • Craft Staff:  As the feat, must meet level requirements.
  • Craft Wand:  As the feat, must meet level requirements.
  • Craft Wondrous Item:  As the feat, must meet level requirements.
  • Dispelling Touch:  When you cast dispel magic as targeting a single object or creature, you may do so as a melee touch attack.  If the attack succeeds, the highest level spell on the target is automatically dispelled.  (Secondary Follower only).
  • Divine Boon:  As the Divine domain ability.
  • Empower Spell:  As the feat.
  • Enlarge Spell:  As the feat.
  • Extend Spell:  As the feat.
  • Forge Ring:  As the feat, must meet level requirements.
  • Hand of the Acolyte:  As the Magic domain ability.
  • Heighten Spell:  As the feat.
  • Holy Lance:  As the Good domain ability, but using character level, rather than class level.  (Primary Follower only).
  • Maximize Spell:  As the feat.
  • Quicken Spell:  As the feat.
  • Scribe Scroll:  As the feat, must meet level requirements.
  • Silent Spell:  As the feat.
  • Spell Rune:  As the Rune domain ability.
  • Still Spell:  As the feat.
  • Touch of Good:  As the Good domain ability, but using character level, rather than class level.
  • Widen Spell:  As the feat.
Note that many of these abilities and feats may yet be modified, and this is a far from complete list (including mostly only Pathfinder Core Rules).  Next post I will tackle the huge subject of Spellcasting!

This blog is funded by my Patreon! All proceeds are donated toward making gaming a more fun and more diverse place! Thank you so much to all my Patrons!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Considering Clerics     

We are skipping over bards for the moment (we'll come back to them soon!) to talk about clerics, a truly unique character class.  Clerics are one of the "original four" standard classes, along with fighters, wizards (formerly magic users), and rogues (formerly thieves).  The cleric, sometimes known as a priest, was a little bit crusader, a little bit Friar Tuck, and a little bit Van Helsing.  Clerics could fight in melee combat, but with restrictions that made them subpar fighters.  They could cast spells, which were generally less powerful than wizards, and they were extremely effective at dealing with the undead.  They had two very important abilities that set them apart:  they could heal other characters and they could cast spells while wearing heavy armor.

Magical healing is an absolute necessity in most fantasy RPGs.  You can do without the fighter or the rogue, because there are lots of character classes that shares those skills.  You can even do without the wizard, although it will slow you down in higher level adventures.  But you need a healer, and this means someone has to play the cleric.  I'm not certain whether it is because the class is practically mandatory, or because of the religious background, but for whatever reason, I have found that many players hate playing clerics.  If you are lucky, there is that one person in your group who enjoys it (it's almost always a dwarven cleric for some reason), and they end up taking the role in every game.  More often, the cleric is the last character class chosen, by the person who doesn't really care what they play.  The game designers of D&D and Pathfinder, beginning with TSR, realized this.  There were three approaches that they could take to solve this problem:  make clerics more interesting, allow other character classes to heal, or change the way the hit point and damage rules work.  What we have ended up with is a bit of all three.

Second Edition D&D made clerics more powerful and flexible, dividing their spells into "spheres" of influence by their deity, and relaxing the weapon restrictions a bit.  This was greatly aided by one of the classic settings of Second Edition: the Forgotten Realms.  In this campaign world, created by Ed Greenwood, the gods and goddesses were major characters in the story.  Suddenly, playing a cleric or agent of one of these deities gave a character a whole lot of story potential.  Other settings also helped, such as Ravenloft.  The predominance of undead as an enemy meant that clerics would always have a lot to do.  So clerics were still mandatory, but they became more interesting to play.

Third Edition D&D made druids a more viable and interesting character class, and they had access to healing abilities, but druids never really caught on as healers.  Their other abilities, such as wild shape, were not well-suited to support roles.  Bards also gained healing spells, but they were so limited that they were rarely used as full-time healers.  Instead, the main solution of Third Edition and later Pathfinder, was to crank the cleric's healing power up to 11:  spontaneous casting of healing spells and channeling positive energy made healing incredibly easy, leaving the cleric to focus on other aspects of their character.  At the same time, hit points all got a significant boost, so that by Pathfinder, no one had d4 hit die any more.

In my house rules, I've also modified the hit point and damage system considerably, which helps make having a healer no longer a mandatory requirement.  Fourth and Fifth Edition D&D have taken similar approaches, although they use substantially different rules.

Clerics are now about as powerful as they can reasonably get (they are overpowered compared to other character classes), and they still get little respect.  But I suppose that means that folks who like playing clerics (I count myself among them) will always have the option and be welcomed at the table.

How Components Interact

My ulterior motive for skipping to cleric is to discuss how different components of a character's class can interact with each other.  Here's how one could break down the cleric into four components:

Primary Healer
  • Heal skill
  • spontaneous casting (cure spells)
  • channel energy (positive)
Secondary Spellcaster
  • fast Will save
  • Knowledge (arcana), Knowledge (planes), Spellcraft skills
  • divine spellcasting, beginning at first level
Secondary Armored Fighter
  • 1d8 hit dice
  • medium attack progression
  • fast Fortitude save
  • proficiency with medium armor and shields
  • allows spell casting from Secondary Spellcaster with armor
Tertiary Community Leader
  • Diplomacy, Knowledge (history), Knowledge (nobility), Knowledge (religion), Linguistics, Sense Motive skills
There are more things that are granted by these components in my house rules, but these are how the current Pathfinder cleric abilities break down.  Clerics also get a few things that don't fit within any of these four components, such as Appraise and Craft, and some things that are granted based on what deity they follow, such as Aura and Domains (more on that shortly).  Note that I've assumed that this cleric is channeling positive energy.  That is because healing through positive energy channel is such an essential part of the cleric, as it is played in the vast majority of games, as to make evil clerics into practically a different class entirely.  I'll talk about changes we can make to this "standard" cleric in the next post, but for now, assume that the cleric is good aligned and follows a deity of good, community, and/or healing.

There are two ways that these components interact, both with spell casting:  Healer grants the ability to spontaneously cast healing spells, which is useless without Spellcaster.  And Armored Fighter grants the ability to cast spells while wearing armor, which can only be used with Spellcaster.

Spellcasting While Wearing Armor

The Armored Fighter class component is designed to work together with Spellcaster in order to reproduce the effects of the wildly inconsistent and incomprehensible "spell casting while wearing armor" rules.  Currently, arcane spells cannot be cast while wearing armor without a) incurring a chance to fail in casting, b) taking a particular feat tree, c) having magical armor made specially for the purpose, d) having a particular racial bonus, or e) being a Magus.  And what qualifies as "arcane" spells is equally unpredictable (bard spells, including healing spells, are arcane, but ranger spells are divine).  Divine spells, on the other hand, are cast in the same way, often with the same somatic components, but can be cast while wearing any sort of armor.

The real reason for restricting wizards from wearing armor is story based.  Wizards wear robes in fantasy stories, and not armor.  That's it.  There is very little game balance justification.  Granted, if wizards could wear armor, they would be likely to wear as much of it as possible.  Wizards would become small tanks, like rooks on a chess board, hiding behind their metal walls and lobbing spells.  And this would be fine!  The system could totally support this sort of change.  Any resulting game imbalance could be easily fixed in other ways.  However, since very few fantasy stories have this sort of character in them, and the genre as a whole is moving away from heavily armored characters, toward more mobile characters, this is not done.

So, instead, here is an alternate solution that generally maintains the status quo, but does so in a more streamlined way:  Armored Fighter allows a character who also has Spellcaster to cast spells wearing armor, if and only if, the Spellcaster component is equal to or less than the Armored Fighter component.  Since a character can have only one primary component, Primary Spellcaster characters cannot cast while wearing armor.

The core classes break down about like this:
  • Barbarian - not an Armored Fighter, not a Spellcaster, not applicable.
  • Bard - not an Armored Fighter, Secondary Spellcaster, cannot cast spells while wearing armor.
  • Cleric - Secondary Armored Fighter, Secondary Spellcaster, can cast spells while wearing armor.
  • Druid - not an Armored Fighter, Primary Spellcaster, cannot cast spells while wearing armor.
  • Fighter - Secondary Armored Fighter, not a Spellcaster, not applicable.
  • Monk - not an Armored Fighter, not a Spellcaster, not applicable.
  • Paladin - Secondary Armored Fighter, Tertiary Spellcaster, can cast spells while wearing armor.
  • Ranger - not an Armored Fighter, Tertiary Spellcaster, cannot cast spells while wearing armor.
  • Rogue - not an Armored Fighter, not a Spellcaster, not applicable.
  • Sorcerer - not an Armored Fighter, Primary Spellcaster, cannot cast spells while wearing armor.
  • Wizard - not an Armored Fighter, Primary Spellcaster, cannot cast spells while wearing armor.
If we added Magus to the list, they might have Secondary Armored Fighter, Secondary Spellcaster, and thus would be able to cast spells while wearing armor.  The only class that doesn't come out ahead in this equation is the ranger.  Sadly, the ranger loses the ability to cast spells while wearing armor.  However, as the spell casting ability of a ranger is of very low importance to the character class, that it isn't too great a sacrifice.  When I write about rangers, we can see whether we can make it up to them.  Druids also lose the ability to cast in armor, but other abilities and restrictions of druids highly mitigate against wearing much armor anyway.

If one of any of the above classes were to switch out Armored Fighter for a different component, they might lose their ability to cast spells while wearing armor.  And if a spellcasting class switched in the ability to wear armor, they might gain it!  More on switching out components, and how it is a highly useful way to make Domains more interesting, next post!

This blog is funded by my Patreon! All proceeds are donated toward making gaming a more fun and more diverse place! Thank you so much to all my Patrons!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Building an Agile Character     

Character creation in D&D starts from a very simple system: six ability scores.  In older versions of D&D, if you wanted your character to be agile, you would put your highest die roll (assuming you could place them as you wished) into Dexterity.  What does building an agile character look like in Pathfinder and Third Edition D&D?  And do the additional levels of complexity make for a better game?  This is, in many ways, the core difference in philosophies between "old school" and "new school" games.

In truth, there is nothing wrong with putting an 18 in Dexterity and calling it a day.  In the core rules of most versions of D&D and similar fantasy RPGs, this will make your character better able to dodge out of the way of attacks, which is certainly something an agile character would be able to do.  But when we think about agility, and the types of characters that demonstrate it, there is a lot missing.    Can my character jump and move around quickly?  Can I tumble and do acrobatics?  Earlier editions of D&D imagined a more heavily armored character, with a sword and a shield, on a relatively level battlefield.  But the cinematics of movies have introduced a less realistic, but more exciting kind of combat.  Adding the ability to emulate this cinematic style of combat adds excitement to a story and lets players make characters that are more like what they see in movies.

Agile characters will work best with little to no armor.  If you look at the abilities that go with agility, that has been built into the system in different ways.
  • Wearing heavier armor reduces the AC bonus that you are able to gain from having a high Dexterity.
  • Skills that rely on Dexterity have a penalty if the character is wearing heavier armor.
  • More agile character classes do not begin play with proficiency in heavier armor.  And many of their abilities are limited if they wear heavier armor.
  • Some abilities that relate to agility do not work at all if a character is wearing heavier armor (such as fast movement and evasion).
An easier way to work things than having to remember that fast movement will still work with medium armor if you are a barbarian, but requires no armor if you are a monk, and evasion won't work with medium armor (for either a monk or a rogue), is to standardize the Agile component as only functioning with no armor or light armor.

Another basic feature of the Agile component is a "fast" Reflex save.  All saving throws in Pathfinder can be divided in to those start at +2 and increase at a fast rate, and those that start at +0 and increase at a slow rate.

Taking the Agile component should give you access to certain class skills:  Acrobatics is the most obvious, but also Climb, Escape Artist, and Ride.

Just those features alone give us, essentially, a Tertiary version of the Agile component.  I'm using tertiary to indicate that it is of third-most importance, the way it is expressed in the bard class, for example (although we end up giving the bard an additional skill of Ride.)  What if we want Agile to be a more important part of our character?  Of Secondary importance, the way it is expressed in the barbarian class?  Or of Primary importance, for a monk or a rogue?

Here's a draft of how the component might look.  This version uses only material found in the Core Rules.  A more complete version would have additional material from other books.  Also, I have only sketched out the special abilities briefly, where in a more complete version they would have a more detailed description.


Requirements:  To use the special abilities of Agile, a character must be wearing only light armor or no armor.

Hit Dice:  no change

Skills:  Agile characters gain the following class skills:  Acrobatics, Climb, Escape Artist, and Ride.

Base Attack Bonus:  no change

Saving Throws:  Agile characters begin with a +2 Reflex save and advance quickly.

Additional Spells:  none

Special Abilities:  Tertiary Agile characters gain no special abilities.  Secondary Agile characters gain one ability at first level, and one additional ability every three levels, starting at level three.  Primary Agile characters gain one ability at first level, and one additional ability every two levels, starting at level two.
  • Defensive Roll:  gain a Reflex save against damage that would result in loss of all hit points(Primary Agile only).
  • Evasion:  successful Reflex saves for half damage result in no damage.
  • Fast Movement:  gain +10 speed.  Primary Agile characters may take this ability again, for an additional +10, up to a maximum of +60.
  • High Jump:  add character level to Acrobatics for jumping, always have a running start.
  • Improved Evasion: half damage on a failed Reflex save (Primary Agile only, requires Evasion).
  • Improved Uncanny Dodge:  cannot be flanked, except by a character of higher level (requires Uncanny Dodge).
  • Ledge Walker:  use Acrobatics to move along narrow surfaces without penalty.
  • Rogue Crawl:  move at half speed while prone.
  • Slow Fall:  reduce falling damage by 20 feet.  Primary Agile characters may take this ability again, for an additional +10 feet, up to a maximum of 100 ft.
  • Stand Up:  rise from prone as a free action.
  • Trap Sense:  gain +1 Reflex to avoid traps and +1 dodge vs. attacks made by traps.  Characters may take this ability again for an additional +1, up to a maximum of +6.
  • Uncanny Dodge:  cannot be flat-footed.
  • Weapon Finesse:  as the feat (Primary Agile only).
How can we expect this to change character creation?  Well, first off, trap sense is going to be taken much less often.  This is because it is underpowered as compared to some of the other abilities.  Barbarians, for example, will likely want to replace their trap sense with evasion, stand up, and other useful abilities that they did not previously have access to.  If we felt that this was a major problem, we could address this by making trap sense more powerful.  We could also make abilities Primary Agile only, if they feel over-powered.

How does having an Agile component benefit the story?  There are several ways, two short-term benefits and a long-term benefit.  One short term benefit is that the rules are simplified, making it easier for new players to learn them.  There are fewer exceptions or specific rules depending on character class.  Making the game accessible to new players of D&D has a direct benefit to the story, because you will get players from more diverse perspectives and experiences.  Moreover, there is an adjective "Agile", that clearly describes a character, and abilities that back up that adjective.  This will help players to define their character and understand what they should be able to do in the story.  Having characters that can be defined in a descriptive way, instead of by numbers or rules references, will make them more interesting to role-play.

The long-term benefit is that, eventually, we want to be able replace archetypes and multi-classing with a component system.  This has a number of story benefits.  It allows us to customize the character classes to better fit the campaign.  For example, if you were running a seafaring adventure, you might take the component of ranger that includes tracking and swap it out for something else.  It also avoids the problems with multi-classing within the story.  For example, if you want to play a multi-classed cleric or wizard, it is not necessary to explain why you gain those powerful abilities at second level, midway through an adventure, when you had no story reason to gain them.  Instead, you can start with the necessary components to build your multi-class character from level one, and advance at a steady rate in all of your areas of focus. 

This blog is funded by my Patreon! All proceeds are donated toward making gaming a more fun and more diverse place! Thank you so much to all my Patrons!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Class Components:  Breaking Things Down Further     

Thus far, we have identified four components of the barbarian:  Berserker (a powerful and balanced component), Survivalist (a front-loaded component), Agile (a somewhat unbalanced component), and Tough (a balanced, but less powerful component).

Examining the barbarian archetypes reinforces these components.  Archetypes gain certain class abilities, while losing other, standard barbarian class abilities.  Looking over the various archetypes, we can see that when an archetype gives up fast movement, for example, they usually lose uncanny dodge and trap sense as well.  Berserker, as the primary component and the granter of the barbarian's rage powers, is rarely lost entirely  The other three, however, are often switched out as the player desires, to modify their barbarian and make it unique.

Because these components are not balanced against each other, they should not be treated in the same way.  However, instead of swapping components out one for one directly, and attempting to force them to become balanced when they are not, perhaps we can instead think about each component as having greater or lesser importance to the character concept.

For Barbarians, being a Berserker is of primary importance, and being Agile is less important.  But let's consider the other character classes that might have Agile as a component.

The Rogue's Agile Component

Certainly the rogue is the first class that comes to mind when we think about a character that is agile. The following class abilities granted by the Rogue fit within an Agile component:
  • Acrobatics, Climb, and Escape Artist class skills (1)
  • Increased Reflex save (all)
  • evasion (2)
  • uncanny dodge and improved uncanny dodge (4, 8)
  • trap sense (3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18)
In addition, a number of Rogue Talents fit into Agile, including Acrobatic Stunt, Climbing Stunt, Escaping Stunt, Expert Leaper, Fast Getaway, Improved Evasion, Ledge Walker, Nimble Climber, and others.

The Monk's Agile Component

Monks are also very agile, having many class abilities that fit within this component:
  • Acrobatics, Climb, Escape Artist, and Ride class skills (1)
  • Increased Reflex save (all)
  • evasion (2, 9)
  • fast movement (3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18)
  • slow fall (4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20)
  • high jump (5)

The Bard's Agile Component

Finally, the bard, while certainly not as focused on agility as the rogue or the monk, has certain class abilities that fit within this component.  The bard's Agile component would be fairly front-loaded, and might look something like this:
  • Acrobatics, Climb, and Escape Artist class skills (1)
  • Increased Reflex save (all)

Standardizing Components

There is a lot of overlap between the way that different character classes get these same kinds of skills and abilities.  And yet, three general levels of components start to make themselves clear:  front-loaded, lower-powered components, such as the bard's Agile (as well as the barbarian's Survivalist), mid-level components, such as the barbarian's Agile and Tough, and high level components, such as the rogue or the monk's Agile (or the barbarian's Berserker).

Would the game benefit if we standardized these into three distinct levels?  Well, consider the rules as written that the players need to keep track of:
  • Barbarians gain fast movement at level 1, which is a simple 10 foot bonus to their move.
  • Monks gain fast movement at level 3, but this is a different ability of the same name, and increases every three levels.
  • Monks and rogues both gain evasion at level 2, but Monks gain improved evasion automatically at level 9, while rogues have to take an advanced rogue talent in order to get improved evasion (which they cannot access until level 10).
  • Rogues get uncanny dodge at level 4 and improved uncanny dodge at level 8.
  • Barbarians get uncanny dodge at level 2 and improved uncanny dodge at level 5.
  • However!  If a rogue or barbarian already had uncanny dodge from the other class, then when they would get uncanny dodge, they instead get improved uncanny dodge.
  • Rogue and barbarian levels stack, somewhat, for purposes of when you can avoid sneak attacks, but the rules are complex, to say the least.
These rules are unreasonably, and unnecessarily, complex.  They do not add anything to the story.  Nor do they add that much to the game itself, since the only time you need to think about them, as a player, is when you are creating or leveling up a character.  In the meantime, the GM is the one who is likely to have to use them the most, and this becomes burdensome in terms of slowing down creation of NPCs and antagonists.

Next post I will try to set forth a version of a three-level Agile component that will easily fit into the four classes discussed, as well as being available in some form to other classes!

This blog is funded by my Patreon! All proceeds are donated toward making gaming a more fun and more diverse place! Thank you so much to all my Patrons!

Friday, January 20, 2017

Breaking Down Barbarians    

As I discussed in my last post, Skills & Powers was an attempt to break down ability scores, races, and character classes into component parts, so that players could customize their characters more easily.  I think that this was a good idea, but poorly executed.  My goal is to try to do this in a way that is easier for the player (especially new players), preserves game balance, and offers useful tools to the gamemaster.

Let's start with barbarians.  There was a piece of art in Second Edition D&D that started me on my love of barbarians, despite the many flaws inherent in the character type.  It's by Jeff Easley, but he doesn't have a copy of it on his website.  I don't have permission to use it, but you can see it here.  It shows a muscular female barbarian grabbing an ogre-like monster by its nose ring, with her sword drawn.  Beside it, you can see that she has already sliced up the ogre's spiked club and shield.  At the time, it was a relatively unprecedented gender-flip of a very traditional image, down to the Conan loincloth, the Rambo headband, and the curly mullet hairstyle.  Barbarian started out as just a kit in Second Edition, although it was later made into a full class.  But it wasn't until Third Edition that barbarians really started to shine.

In Third Edition, barbarians were designed to be front-line fighters whose Rage ability gave them temporary bonuses in combat.  From a game design point-of-view, this was the first fighter type of character to have time-limited abilities.  Whereas before you could divide the party into "people who can do things all the time" and "people who can do things a certain number of times a day," and all the fighters were in the first half, barbarians were now in the second half.  The reasoning behind this is that Third Edition used a system of encounter-based balance to track party resources.  A party's resources included each character's hit points, but also the spells and abilities that were limited in use to a certain number of times per day.  The Challenge Rating (CR) system would rate each encounter or monster with a number that could be directly translated into the percentage of party resources that encounter was expected to expend.  This was great for gamemasters, because they could plan out encounters, knowing at about what time the group was going to have to rest or go back to town to restore their resources.

In Pathfinder, barbarians are still focused around their rage abilities.  However, there are several barbarian archetypes who do not rage, replacing that ability with a different one.  And, of course, all of the other barbarian abilities are also replaced by alternate ones in the many archetypes available to barbarians.  One problem with the class archetype system is, it is very hard to guess which abilities will be replaced with which!  There is no point value set to each individual class ability (nor am I suggesting that there should be).  Instead, it is done on an more crafted basis.  What this means, in practice, is that I might have to read through many, many archetypes in order to get the combination of abilities that works for my character.  Even then, I might have to take an archetype that doesn't really fit, because it is the closest thing I can find.

What I would like to do is to break barbarians down into a few large core components that can be swapped out easily, and without disruption to game balance.  Part of the challenge will be to balance out starting abilities from those that the class only gains access to at later levels.  Otherwise it will be too easy to select only from components that are "front loaded."  Fortunately, this is a problem that Pathfinder has addressed, somewhat, based on feedback from Third Edition D&D.  Because you could multiclass freely, many folks took the opportunity to take a single level of a "front loaded" character, such as the rogue, in Third Edition, before taking all the rest of their levels in a different class.  Pathfinder was written with awareness of that problem, and this should help us in our goal.


There are a lot of theories about historical berserkers, but they are generally associated with a warrior taking on the mystical aspect of an animal (a bear, a boar, or a wolf), and wearing the pelt of this animal instead of armor.  This signified that they were as a wild beast on the field, attacking anyone around them without mercy, and heedless of their own defense.  This inspiration is clearly at the forefront of the barbarian class.  Thus, berserker is the aspect of barbarians that focuses on rage in combat.

Features of the barbarian class that fit with the Berserker component (number indicates approximate levels at which it is gained):
  • non-lawful class requirement
  • Intimidate class skill (1)
  • high base attack progression
  • rage and associated rage powers and abilities (1-20)
As it stands, this component is very powerful, and fairly well spread out throughout levels one through twenty.


Barbarians are described as living out in the wild and being uncivilized.  This aspect follows the root of the word "barbarian" itself, as a cultural slur against a group that you believe is less civilized or worthy than your own culture.  Obviously, there are a lot of problematic things about using the word barbarian to describe people who, in the real world, would bear the most resemblance to indigenous tribes.  We can mitigate this a bit by focusing on barbarians as living apart from any culture.  Like someone from any sort of civilized society who abandons it to go and live in the forest, barbarians live alone in the wilderness by choice, not by nature or nurture (both of which are tied to heritage, and not character class). 

Features of the barbarian class that fit with the Survivalist component: 
  • Climb, Craft, Handle Animal, Knowledge (nature), Perception, Ride, Survival, and Swim class skills (1)
  • increased Fortitude save (1-20)
As it stands, this component is front loaded, and significantly less powerful over the course of time than Berserker.


Another focus of barbarians is their speed (fast movement), as well as their ability to move freely around the battlefield (acrobatics), and dodge out of the way of danger (uncanny dodge).  This fits the profile of a warrior who is likely going to be wearing little or no armor.  The Reflex and dodge bonuses granted by trap sense would also fit well into this component of barbarians.

Features of the barbarian class that fit with the Agile component: 
  • Acrobatics, Climb, and Ride class skills (1)
  • fast movement (1)
  • uncanny dodge and improved uncanny dodge (2, 5)
  • trap sense (3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18)
As it stands, this component is front loaded for the first levels, but tapers off in usefulness very quickly after level 5.


The fact that barbarians gain d12 hit points is a big part of their draw.  Other abilities also play up the nigh-invulnerable nature of these warriors.  Which is certainly something that they need, since they are often on the front-line and often unarmored.  In later levels, barbarians gain damage reduction to further increase their ability to ignore being damaged.

Features of the barbarian class that fit with the Tough component: 
  • 1d12 hit dice (1-20)
  • increased Fortitude save (1-20)
  • damage reduction (7, 10, 13, 16, 19)
As it stands, this component is fairly well balanced throughout the levels, but still not as powerful as Berserker.  Also, it lacks the interest and specificity of the other three components.

In my next post, I'll talk more about how to use these components, what might need to be changed, and how components can be used to create archetypes more easily!

This blog is funded by my Patreon! All proceeds are donated toward making gaming a more fun and more diverse place! Thank you so much to all my Patrons!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Talking about Character Class    

Let's take a break from heritage and race for a bit, and talk about class.  Class is another word that has a very different meaning in D&D than it typically does in the real world!  (It is hard for me to imagine being someone who has never been exposed to roleplaying games, but I can only wonder what such a person might think about our fantasy game where "race" and "class" are the way you describe your character.)  Character class serves the purpose of giving each character a specific set of skills and a role on the team.  Some versions of D&D, notably Fourth Edition, focus more on the role that your character serves from a tactics point of view.  Some versions are more concerned with the skills that your character has, such as fighting, spellcasting, healing, and finding traps.  Almost all fantasy RPGs attempt to "balance" classes, so let's first talk about what that means.

Balance is an elusive concept.  We can talk about mathematical balance:  If you and I have identical characters, but your character has much higher bonuses on their die rolls than I do, then you might say that our characters are imbalanced.  Of course, in all the systems that have individual random ability score generation, this is likely to be the case.  We can talk about balance in terms of challenge.  One of the guiding principles of D&D is that adventures should be dangerous and challenging, but that the players should often succeed in their goals.  Creating and maintaining that level of challenge, over the course of an epic tale, is probably the cornerstone of D&D's game design.  If I have a 4th level character for whom 4th level adventures are no longer challenging at all, then that character is not well-balanced.  Lastly, we can talk about balance in terms of "spotlight" time.  In early editions of D&D, my 1st level magic user had one spell.  When I cast it, I was (briefly) a rock star.  Once it was cast, however, it was gone for the day.  I was pretty much useless for the rest of the adventure.  In the meantime, the fighters and thieves were still busy doing things, since their abilities could be reused as often as they'd like.  That's one way to measure a "spotlight" time imbalance.

However, the way that it often gets measured is:  can my fighter beat up your wizard?  To me, this is the least interesting way of talking about character balance.  It requires a game designer to ignore what actually will happen in a typical fantasy game (the players working together to defeat a common foe), and design for a scenario that does nothing to contribute to the story (two players, on a desolate plain, a short distance apart, try to kill each other with all of the resources they have).

Instead, my rules of character balance are:
  • Does every character have a variety of interesting choices to make during the course of a typical adventure?
  • Are characters different enough that each has a relatively unique role to play, or are they interchangeable?
  • Will a team of characters of a given level be challenged, but often successful, in a typical adventure of that same level?

Lessons Learned from Skills & Powers

Player's Option:  Skills & Powers was a rules supplement for Second Edition D&D.  It appeared about halfway between the release dates of Second Edition (in 1989) and Third Edition (in 2000).  The changes to the rules were fairly simple, but so impactful that it was almost like a "2.5 Edition" for D&D.  Second Edition had allowed for very little customization of character classes.  You could take a kit, which gave you a few bonuses and maybe a special ability.  Kits were directly tied to particular classes.  So you randomly rolled ability scores, chose a race, a class, and a kit, and that was pretty much it.  Skills & Powers not only introduced a point-buy system for ability scores, it also allowed you to use the same sort of system to custom build races and classes.  Finally, it allowed you to customize ability scores so that you could tailor the bonuses to optimize your character.  For example, you could lower the "Endurance" part of your Strength score (carrying heavy things over long distances), in order to increase the "Muscle" part of your Strength score (bonuses to hit and damage with weapons).  You could reduce bonuses that were hardly ever used in the game (such as System Shock), and increase bonuses that were used constantly (such as Hit Points).

Some players loved Skills & Powers.  It let them build and customize their characters outside of the rigid class system.  Some players felt that Skills & Powers was too unbalanced.  It allowed players to make characters who were significantly stronger than the original Second Edition system had allowed.  D&D Third Edition attempted to strike a balance between rigid classes and unlimited character customization, while still maintaining "balance" between the classes.  What I will try to do, in the next few posts, is set out a way to be even more flexible, without drowning the player in class archetypes and options.


A Note About Balance and Player Restraint

One issue that often arises when we talk about system balance is: do we really need system balance at all, so long as we have "good" players?  This approach says that our problems with game balance are due to a certain kind of player, a "munchkin," who "min-maxes" the system in order to optimize their character.  They are "roll-players" and not "role-players" because they are only interested in dice rolling and combat and winning and magic items, and are not interested in making a story and an interesting character.  They are the "Mary Sue" of their fantasy game, good at everything, with no real flaws, other than perhaps a tendency to be a loner and not work well with others (Charisma is their dump stat).  And they don't need to work well with others, because they can already do everything themselves.  What we need, it is argued, are"good" players who are going to make characters that are interesting first, and competent second.  Who realize that the system can be abused, and choose not to abuse it.

I have always been adamantly opposed to this type of thinking.  First of all, it is often used as an excuse for poor game design.  And second, it demonizes people who want to play the dice rolling game that underlies the storytelling game, by telling them that they cannot do both.  If they are interested in optimizing game mechanics, they must not be interested in the story or in roleplaying or in teamwork. 

On the other side of things, there are people who revel in the "munchkin" label, who enjoy being "better" at the game than anyone else, and who place no value on whether the other players are having fun or whether an interesting story is being told.  This, to me, is just as bad.  It devalues people who enjoy story and roleplaying, telling them that they are avoiding the complex rules system because they are not capable of understanding it.  Again, it places a false dichotomy between story and game.

It will not come as a huge surprise that these differing points of view are often described as gendered.  I cannot count the number of people I have spoken with who believe that women like story and roleplaying, but don't like math and combat.  Whereas men like competition and rules mechanics, but aren't as good at emotionally evocative storytelling.  This is all bullshit gender essentialism.  And, just as it supports a view of gender that is binary and inflexible, it also supports a view of gaming that is binary and inflexible.  You can have both good storytelling and good system mechanics.  Well written game design requires it.

This blog is funded by my Patreon! All proceeds are donated toward making gaming a more fun and more diverse place! Thank you so much to all my Patrons!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Replacing Racial Traits:  Dwarves     

In the past few posts, I've laid some groundwork for how I approach race in Pathfinder and D&D.  Let's look at how that approach can help break down the structure of racial traits.  I'll use dwarves as my example this time, since elves have already gotten a lot of love.

Here's what I am using for the basic dwarven heritage:

Dwarven Heritage Traits
  • Languages:  Common and Dwarven
  • Underground Dwellers:  low-light vision
  • Builders:  +2 Craft, +2 Knowledge (engineering)
  • Merchants:  +2 Appraise
For game balancing purposes, each heritage gets three +2 skill bonuses and one additional non-magical ability, which I classify as being slightly less powerful than a feat.  (More on feats in a later post!)

Dwarves have been portrayed in many different ways, and there has been a large amount of disagreement about what characteristics are essentially dwarven.  Everything from appearance (beards on all genders?) to some of their traditional habits (drinking and singing about gold?) to real-world cultural references (Nordic dwarves vs. Germanic dwarves vs. Scottish dwarves?) has been the subject of so much controversy that Terry Pratchett has written whole sub-plots of his books about it.

I've started from the assumption that dwarves live underground, that they build things (mines count as things), and that they seem to be interested in money and trade (you can't eat gold, after all).  I've given them low-light vision instead of darkvision for several reasons:  first, dwarven mines and cities in fantasy RPGs always appear to be fairly well-lit; second, darkvision is ridiculously over-used; and third, I prefer darkvision to be more useful for seeing in the kind of darkness that players most likely face as a real obstacle, namely magical darkness.  This means that darkvision should also be magical, which makes it a birthright.

My discussion, in previous posts, about issues of size and racial hatred explain the reasons that some of the other Pathfinder dwarven traits are missing.

But now dwarves are very bare-bones, without a lot of detail.  How can we add in the level of interest that the Pathfinder rules provide, without having a huge list of things for the player to read?  First, let's review some design goals and parameters.

Identity, Heritage, and Birthright Mechanics Parameters

  • If a trait is something you are born with (nature), then it is an identity or a birthright.  If it is non-magical, it is an identity and does not alter the mechanics of the game.
  • A magical trait you are born with is a birthright.  It can be represented either through a feat (or feat tree if it is very powerful, like being able to fly), or it can be part of a class feature (such as a sorcerer bloodline).
  • If a trait is something you acquire through your upbringing (nurture), then it is part of your heritage.
  • Heritage grants three +2 bonuses to skills and one special ability.
  • Special abilities should be slightly less powerful than a feat.
  • Changes to either skills or special abilities can be the result of a different heritage or the blending of two heritages.
  • Whenever possible, as a design goal, special abilities and birthright feats should not grant bonuses that are only applicable in certain, very specific situations.  Too many of these clutter up a character sheet and are too many unnecessary things for a player to keep track of.
  • Ideally, heritages and birthrights should be evocative, they should provide for good story opportunities, they should not hinder the story by limiting the agency of the character, and they should be easy to understand.

Dwarven Alternate Racial Traits in Pathfinder

Pathfinder includes over forty alternate racial traits for dwarves in its rules.  First, I want to eliminate the alternate traits that are substitute racial hatred traits.  I've talked about my reasons for doing this in the prior post.  There is one possible substitute for these traits, which is the favored enemy feat.  I'll talk more about that more when we get to rangers.  For now, suffice to say that favored enemy could go one of two ways:  a hunter of monsters or an enemy of a (generally evil) organization.  Here's how some of the racial traits for dwarves break down along those lines:
  • Hunter:  The initial Defensive Training trait (giants), Barrow Scholar (undead), Barrow Warden (undead), Deep Warrior (aberrations), Giant Hunter (giants), Saltbeard (aquatic creatures), Sense Aberrations (aberrations), Wyrmscourged (dragons)
  • Enemy:  The initial Hatred trait (orcs and goblins), Ancient Enmity (elves), Spell Smasher (spell casters), Xenophobic (some sort of enemy organization that uses mind control).
Note that these traits, as written, have bonuses that are all over the place.  Instead of having to keep track of which specific bonuses go with which Hunter or Enemy feat, it is much easier to use the favored enemy template, which in Pathfinder provides +2 Bluff, +2 Knowledge, +2 Perception, +2 Sense Motive, +2 Survival, +2  attack, and +2 damage.  Since all characters now gain the bonus feat that was previously reserved for humans, dwarves can take favored enemy as a feat to duplicate the effects of these racial traits.

Next, let's look at racial traits that add skill bonuses.  Some are already covered in the heritage as I've written it.  Some of these represent new heritages.  And some are abilities that should probably be feats (these are often the ones that would otherwise add RP to the race, under Pathfinder rules), and can be taken as a bonus feat at first level.

Already Covered
  • Craftsman:  Technically, this also gives a +2 to Profession.  I'll talk about why I think Profession should be eliminated as a Skill in a later post.  But if you don't want to eliminate it, then this could be a new heritage instead.
  • Low-light Vision:  Already a special ability of dwarves.
  • Greed:  Covered by the +2 Appraise in the base heritage.
New Heritages
  • Fey Magic:  This gives the favored terrain ability, which is probably best reworked as a special ability.  Dwarves with mystical fey connections to their homes sound unique, and they would probably gain different skill bonuses than the "standard" dwarf.  The spell-like abilities granted by this racial trait can be duplicated by taking the birthright feat: sorcerous blood.
  • Fey Thoughts:  This could be combined into the heritage above, granting +2 bonuses on appropriate skills.
  • Lorekeeper:  Dwarves who value books and study are distinct enough from dwarves who are builders and miners that it could warrant a new heritage.  It is possible that this represents a different class of dwarves, living in the same cities as the others, but with their own heritage and traditions.
  • Mountaineer:  This could be simplified into favored terrain (mountains) and used for another heritage, dwarves who live outside on the mountains, rather than underground.
  • Saltbeard:  Dwarves at sea!  A new idea that merits a new heritage.
  • Sky Sentinel:  Dwarves in the air!  However, see the section on feats, below, as well.
  • Stoic Negotiator:  These dwarves don't seem interested in mining and building, but are focused on being merchants.  Since our "standard" dwarves are already merchants, this might be a good candidate for a blended heritage to gain the +2 Bluff and Diplomacy.
  • Surface Survivalist:  Dwarves that no longer live underground, but likely have favored terrain as their special ability instead of low-light vision.  This might be the same heritage as Mountaineer, above.
Bonus Feats
  • Behind the Veil:  This gives two +2 skill bonuses, only under certain circumstances, for 1 RP.  As a feat, it should probably be somewhat more powerful, and associated with a feat tree themed around concealment and shadows.
  • Darkvision:  A birthright feat, written up in a prior post.
  • Dimdweller:  Another feat in the same tree as Behind the Veil.
  • Dusksight:  Another feat in the same tree as Behind the Veil.  These are all skills for using dim light and concealment to gain combat advantages.
  • (original trait) Hardy:  See Healthy and Magic Resistant below.
  • Healthy:  Resistances to disease and poison (and needing fewer rolls to save against them) should be part of a feat tree with Great Fortitude.
  • Lasting Grudge:  Should be rewritten as a feat.  This is a good example of a birthright feat that reads more like a curse, but nonetheless provides a benefit to an adventurer.
  • Magic Resistant:  Unbalanced as written, this could be a part of a feat tree.  However, feats that scale with character level should be approached with extreme caution:  they are almost always better off as class abilities.
  • Minesight:  A birthright feat that could be part of a feat tree with Darkvision.
  • Poison Minion:  This 4 RP (!) trait is an interesting plot device, but if it is going to be used as a part of character creation then it should be a birthright feat (likely a tree of such feats).  Not for every campaign, but I could see an entire adventure based around this concept!
  • Sky Sentinel:  Although I think this should totally be a new heritage, it could also probably be part of a feat tree based on combat with flying creatures.  However, because it is not particularly supernatural, it probably is not a good candidate for a birthright feat, and should instead be a combat feat.
  • (original trait) Stability:  Part of a combat feat tree based around standing your ground.
  • Stonecunning:  A birthright feat, written up in a prior post.
  • Relentless:  Part of a combat feat tree.
  • Rockstepper:  Part of a combat feat tree.
  • Stubborn:  Resistances for particular uses of Will saves.  Should be part of a feat tree with Iron Will.
  • Tightfisted:  Should be a feat, although it's kind of all over the place and needs to be rewritten a bit.
  • Treasure Sense:  Definitely a birthright feat and a very interesting one!
  • Unstoppable:  Essentially this is already a feat (Toughness), with an added +1 Fortitude save.  More on Toughness in my post on feats.
  • Viscous Blood:  A really weird birthright feat, but certainly evokes a lot of potential story ideas!
  • Voice in the Darkness:  See Behind the Veil above.
Note that birthright feats that are part of a feat tree could very well be taken after first level.  By taking the first feat, you have laid the groundwork that it is a magical or supernatural ability that your character has.  As the game progresses, and your character learns to control this magic, and they gain additional benefits from it.

Sorcerous Bloodline Abilities (or other Class Birthright Abilities)

There are a few dwarven Pathfinder traits, such as Shadowhunter, Shadowplay, and Stonesinger, that may work best as class abilities based on a birthright.  Stonesinger makes direct reference to the deep earth and elemental earth bloodlines.  Shadowhunter would appear to be a good match with the undead bloodline, while Shadowplay matches well with the shadow bloodline.  More on sorcerous bloodlines when we get to character classes!

This blog is funded by my Patreon! All proceeds are donated toward making gaming a more fun and more diverse place! Thank you so much to all my Patrons!

Friday, January 13, 2017

OGL Races as Heritages    

If you like the idea of using heritages in your game instead of race, here are some conversions of Open Game Content races.  These are my versions of the races, but they can be easily modified if you want to put a different spin on them, or focus on a different feature.  Note that there are no "half-races."  If a player wants to have a character of mixed heritage, they may combine any two heritages together.  If they want to play a character who has a magical or supernatural ability, please see some sample birthright rules below.  What about humans, they are not listed here?  I discuss this in more detail below, but essentially, these are heritages, not races.  If you want to play a city dweller, that is a heritage.  If you want to play a forest dweller, then Elven is a heritage available to you, if you live with people who call themselves elves.  Neither makes any judgment on your humanity, or lack thereof, as discussed in more detail below.

Dwarven Heritage Traits
  • Languages:  Common and Dwarven
  • Underground Dwellers:  low-light vision
  • Builders:  +2 Craft, +2 Knowledge (engineering)
  • Merchants:  +2 Appraise
Elven Heritage Traits
  • Languages:  Common and Elven
  • Nocturnal:  low-light vision
  • Wilderness Dwellers:  +2 Perception, +2 Knowledge (nature)
  • Arcane Magic Users:  +2 Spellcraft
Gnomish Heritage Traits
  • Languages:  Common and Gnomish
  • Familiar with Illusions:  +2 Will save
  • Live in Hiding:  +2 Perception, +2 Stealth 
  • Arcane Magic Users:  +2 Spellcraft
Halfling Heritage Traits (note that I still do not like the use of the word Halfling, but unfortunately most other commonly known synonyms are copyrighted).
  • Language:  Common and Halfling
  • Fearless Explorers:  +1 to all saves
  • Mountain and Tree Climbers:  +2 Acrobatics, +2 Climb
  • Travelers:  +2 Knowledge (geography)
Orcish Heritage Traits
  • Languages:  Common and Orcish
  • Wasteland Dwellers:  +2 Fortitude save
  • Warriors:  +2 Intimidate
  • Animal Tamers:  +2 Handle Animal, +2 Ride  (if inspired by Tolkien, these can refer to Orcs' use of dire wolves as mounts)

Humanity for Everyone (and some notes about size)

If you are using these heritages together with other Pathfinder rules, you may note that they seem under-powered.  This is because, without the use of race (as it is used in D&D), all characters share the essential things that make us human:  free will and agency, intelligence and feelings, adaptability and tradition.

As a result, all characters, regardless of their heritage, gain an additional +2 on any ability score of their choice, and an additional feat at first level.  They do not gain the +1 skill point per level that humans would normally get as a Pathfinder race.  This has the effect of making heritages compatible (roughly) with Pathfinder.  Although first-level characters built using these rules will be slightly more powerful, that advantage will diminish over time, until characters who are around tenth level and higher will be slightly less powerful.  However, at that level, the few skill points lost are unlikely to cause any problems with using Pathfinder adventure products.

The additional feat can, if the player wishes, be used to choose a birthright.  Birthright feats should generally be chosen at first level (unless there is a compelling reason not to).  As described earlier, birthrights are always magical or supernatural in nature.

I also want to add some notes concerning size of characters.  In D&D and in Pathfinder, player characters are generally Medium sized, sometimes Small sized (if playing Gnomes or Halflings, for example), and rarely Large sized.  Size is something that is an ableism problem in D&D.  The concept that little people (in the real world, meaning people born with dwarfism) are more akin to mythological creatures than human beings is a pernicious one.  Fantasy has a sordid history of fetishizing and dehumanizing disability.  How can we avoid that in this case?  Actually, it is not particularly hard.

In Pathfinder, Small size refers to creatures or people that are 2 feet tall to 4 feet tall, Medium refers to creatures or people that are 4 feet to 8 feet tall, and Large refers to creatures or people that are 8 feet to 16 feet tall.  These are fairly large ranges.  As a side note, Peter Dinklage, whose character Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones is one of the rare examples of a human little person in the fantasy genre, is 4 foot 5.  Medium size encompasses most of adult humanity, and there is no reason it cannot be extended to encompass all of it.  Thus, Medium size refers to adult, human sized creatures or people, in all their variation.  Small size or Large size refers to human children (who are Small sized), creatures that are significantly smaller or larger than humans, or humans who are magically or supernaturally smaller or larger due to a birthright.  Size due to a birthright extends, by definition, outside of the range of normal humanity.

Some may argue, "But this would result in halflings using greataxes!  How is that at all realistic?"  My response is: if you want to play a very short person, it is because that is how you want your character to look.  You aren't getting the bonuses for being a small size unless you choose it as a birthright (in which case the normal size penalties and restrictions for weapons apply.)  If your story goal is to play someone small and overlooked, who nonetheless rises to greatness (in the grand Tolkein tradition), you are unlikely to want to play someone swinging around a greataxe.  If, on the other hand, you want to play a character who looks relatively powerless but will, in the blink of an eye, pull out a greataxe and hack your ankles off (in the equally grand Pratchett tradition), and that fits the flavor of the campaign and the stories you want to tell, then by all means, go right ahead!

Sample Birthrights

Birthrights can take the form of feats or special class abilities (such as Bloodlines for sorcerers).  The birthrights listed below are feats.  Most birthright feats are supernatural abilities, unless specified otherwise.

Darkvision:  When in completely darkness only, you can see the area around you (in a 60 foot radius), as if it were fully lit.  This ability functions even in magical darkness.

Dragonspawn:  You are immune to any draconic Fearful Presence ability.

Elemental Resistance:  You gain resistance 5 to one of acid, cold, electricity, or fire.

Large Size:  You are Large size instead of Medium.

Small Size:  You are Small size instead of Medium.

Sorcerous Blood:  You can cast four cantrips or orisons, as if you were a sorcerer of your caster level.  This is a spell-like ability.

Speak with Animals:  You can communicate with a specific type of animal (e.g., bear or crow or frog), as per the spell, as a supernatural ability.

Stonecunning:  You can automatically notice unusual stonework, including secret doors in stone walls, if you are searching for them.  Even if you are not actively searching, merely passing next to such stonework will allow you a Perception check to notice it.

Wakefulness:  You are immune to magical forms of sleep.

This blog is funded by my Patreon! All proceeds are donated toward making gaming a more fun and more diverse place! Thank you so much to all my Patrons!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Five Magical Rings for Your Campaign  

We have hit 20% of our fundraising goal for this blog, so that means it is bonus post time!  Here are a few of the magical rings that I have written up, over many years of game mastering.  Feel free to add them into your campaign where you need an interesting item of treasure!  And thank you so much for your support!

Ring of Nine Breaths

This ring is set with nine clear stones.  When worn, it grants the wearer nine additional breaths of fresh air.  Thus, a person holding their breath can do so for ten times longer than they would normally be able to.  As each breath is used, its stone turns black.  When all the stones have turned black, the wearer receives no more fresh air.  When the ring is exposed to fresh air, however, the stones regain their clarity and can be used again.

Aura:  faint transmutation

Ring of Puzzling Disappearance

This silver puzzle ring is made up of seven parts, all interconnected with each other in a braided pattern.  When worn, this ring functions identically to a ring of invisibility.  However, instead of activating the ring when desired, its invisibility function happens immediately after placing the ring on a finger.  This invisibility will last until dispelled or until the wearer makes an attack against a creature (as per the spell).  In order to become invisible again, the ring's owner must remove it, and then replace it on their finger.  Taking the ring off and immediately putting it back on again is a standard action which provokes an attack of opportunity.  Moreover, the wearer must succeed at a Sleight of Hand DC 10 roll, or the ring will separate out into its seven parts.  Reconstructing the ring takes one full minute of concentration and requires an Intelligence check, DC 20.  A character may take 20 on this action.  Once the ring has been reconstructed, it must immediately be worn, or it will fall apart.  Wearing the ring after reconstructing it is a free action, and does not require a Sleight of Hand check.

Aura:  faint illusion

Ring of the Serpent

This jade ring is carved in the shape of a serpent, entwining around the wearer's finger.  When worn, it grants the wearer a +6 bonus to save vs. poison.  The ring is loyal to its owner, however.  If placed on a finger without saying the command word, it deals 1 point of constriction damage each round until removed with a successful Strength check, DC 15.

Aura:  faint conjuration

Twin Rings of Misdirection

These are two matching silver rings decorated with carved swans.  Although they were crafted by a master jeweler, they nonetheless appear crude, and bear no maker's mark.  Despite their humble appearance, these rings contain extremely powerful illusion magic.  Like the spell misdirection, a divination spell cast upon the wearer of one ring will give results based upon the wearer of the other ring, thus providing the other wearer's alignment, location, thoughts, etc.  Unlike the misdirection spell, these rings affect all divination spells targeting one of the wearers.  In order for the rings to function, both must be worn by living creatures that are not separated by more than ten miles.  It is said that the last owner of these rings was a master assassin, but who can say into whose hands they have now fallen?

Aura:  major illusion (a Will save DC 25 is required to successfully detect this aura)

This blog is funded by my Patreon! All proceeds are donated toward making gaming a more fun and more diverse place! Thank you so much to all my Patrons!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Heritage and Race:  Creating New Rules    

Earlier, I talked about race in Pathfinder and I suggested different ways to break that concept down.  There are a few other issues with the way that Pathfinder (and Dungeons & Dragons) handles race that have less to do with story and more to do with system mechanics (but can be solved in ways that make better story!)  And there is one other elephant in the room that I want to talk about, and that is the concept of racial hatred.

In Dungeons & Dragons, humanity was always the default.  Races that were not human had advantages mainly in how they could multiclass.  Specifically, humans couldn't do it, but certain multiclass combinations were available only to characters of certain races.  This was "balanced" by a number of factors, including level caps for certain classes and experience point requirements for making level.  It was all fairly cludgy and got entirely rewritten when Third Edition came out.

However, some of the concepts from prior games continued to build on each other, until by the time you reach Pathfinder, race plays a huge role in your game and has a ton of game mechanics.

Again, let's use Elves as an example.

Here are the things that choosing an Elf as your character involve, in terms of what you need to keep track of and write down on your character sheet:
  • Ability Scores:  Elves gain +2 Dexterity, +2 Intelligence, and -2 Constitution
  • Subtype:  Elves have a subtype of Humanoid (Elf) which comes into play very rarely in the game (for situations such as when an opponent has Favored Enemy).
  • Languages:  Common and Elven, and then a particular list for bonus languages due to having a high Intelligence.
  • Immunity to magical sleep effects.
  • +2 bonus to save vs. enchantment spells and effects.
  • +2 bonus on Perception.
  • +2 caster level check to overcome spell resistance.
  • +2 bonus on Spellcraft, only for purposes of identifying magic items.
  • Proficiency with longbows, composite longbows, shortbows, composite shortbows, longswords, and rapiers.
  • Treat any weapon with the word "elven" in it as a martial weapon.
  • Low-light vision
  • There are also tables for rolling height, weight, and age (although, to be fair, those things rarely are used in the game at all.)
Some of these things you can write on your character sheet and more or less forget about for the rest of the game (subtype).  Some of them will not come into play unless you are playing a specific class (overcoming spell resistance).  Some of them will be completely useless to you if you are playing certain classes (weapon proficiencies).  Several of them are exceptions to general rules that you must write out on your character sheet if you haven't got them memorized (bonus to save vs. enchantment, bonus to Spellcraft only in one particular situation).  Note that most character sheets will not have room for you to write this in easily.

This is not, however, the end of your decisions regarding race!  There are currently forty alternate racial traits listed in the Pathfinder SRD, each with its own rules, prerequisites, etc., that you may want to use to replace some of the traits you already have.  In fact, you may feel cheated if you don't, since the fighter you are making has no use for three of the traits on the list.  If you haven't chosen a class yet, you may want to examine the favored class options, each of which grants a very specific, but tiny, reward every time you level up in the class you have chosen as "favored" (which could be any class available).  There are also racial archetypes that will change certain class abilities, racial feats that are only available to elves, and racial prestige classes that only elves can aspire to.

I could, if I wanted to, create an "elf" who had the racial traits of creepy, darkvision, fleet footed, and elemental resistance: cold, which would replace every trait above except for the ability score modifiers.  I am now, essentially, playing an entirely different race.

I am all in favor of empowering the player with many different choices when it comes to character creation.  But I am not in favor of drowning players with unnecessary rules and paperwork in order for them to customize their character the way that they want to.  So my question was, how can I keep all of these wonderful options for players, and simplify the rules so that they are more accessible, but still serve the purpose of having distinct heritages in the game?

Tinkering with Heritage

When I am running a game, I generally have a good sense of the cultures that are in the part of the world that is the setting for the game.  As a gamemaster, I might give the players a list of these, where elves look like the write-up that I used in an earlier post:

Elven Heritage Traits
  • Languages:  Common and Elven
  • Nocturnal:  low-light vision
  • Wilderness Dwellers:  +2 Perception, +2 Knowledge (nature)
  • Arcane Magic Users:  +2 Spellcraft
It is similar to the list above, except shorter, and with fewer specific rules (for example, the bonus to Spellcraft is not limited by what you are using the skill for.)  I've standardized it by including only one special trait (low-light vision) and three skill bonuses.  Suppose a player is building an elven fighter.  "I want to play an elf," they say, "but I'm never going to use Spellcraft."  "Can I swap that out for something else?"  I might suggest that there are two ways to approach this problem that don't involve just taking the same heritage and changing what it does.

Option One:  Create a different heritage.  If you look at my creepy elf with darkvision above, you can see the potential for a different heritage there.  These elves live underground in cold caverns, spearing fish like Gollum and scuttling away from torchlight.  Allowing a player to create a new heritage is going to make my game world richer and more interesting.  Sharing the world-building will allow players to be more invested in the game.  If it is something that is a problem with the story I have planned, compromise may be necessary, but more often I find that this is a win/win situation.

Option Two:   Have a blended heritage.  Perhaps there is another heritage on the list that has something this player feels fits their character better.  I would allow the player to take both, and choose one special trait and three skill bonuses from the combined list.  Perhaps one parent was from a family of forest elves, but another was from a nomadic horse-riding culture.  The player could take a +2 on Ride from the second heritage, which suits their fighter character better.  In addition, they now have some additional back-story for their character.

Removing Racial Hatred from the Game

It is true that part of having a heritage means dealing with the ugliness of hatred.  My own upbringing, in the deep South, certainly featured a lot of hatred.  It is a heritage that I have had to outgrow and leave behind as a result.  But fantasy roleplaying games, such as D&D and Pathfinder, often try to spin hatred of another race into positive storytelling.  It is clumsily done, generally identifying one race as "evil" and giving another race bonuses when fighting them.  There are several ways that enmity between heritages can come into a story.  Let's consider whether any of these need support from the rules, and how best to accomplish that.

In one example scenario, two individuals meet who come from different cultures.  Neither is in their homeland.  There is a long-standing enmity between their cultures, due to past historical events, and perhaps even current warfare.  No matter how the individuals react, it is going to be good for the story.  If they struggle with this enmity, then seeing that struggle is good story.  If they try rise above their differences, that is good story.  If they decide to rebel against the hatred of their culture, and work to make peace, that is good story.  What is not good story is if the players feel forced to be hateful to each other because the rules push them in that direction.

In another scenario, a person from a foreign culture has entered a place that is unfamiliar, and possible hostile to them.  Here, the struggle can be shown less as one individual vs. another, and more one individual vs. their environment.  Just as other hostile environments are supported in the rules, so can a hostile culture.  For example, the character might have a penalty on all Charisma based rolls while in this place.  The rules present an obstacle to the player, which they must then figure out how to overcome, resulting in an interesting story element.

In the final scenario, the gamemaster has designed an adventure where the people of one culture are the villains.  This is certainly a common fantasy trope, but I would argue, it is an over-used one.  In reality, identifying the culture of a villainous individual or organization is rarely sufficient to determine their motivations.  And painting an entire culture as evil has disastrous real-world effects.  It is almost always a better idea to create a villainous organization, perhaps operating within a culture, but not the entirety of it.  The rules can support this by not having any fantasy heritage labeled as "evil" or "thieving" or "bestial" or any of the other real world prejudices that people face, based on their heritage.

This blog is funded by my Patreon! All proceeds are donated toward making gaming a more fun and more diverse place! Thank you so much to all my Patrons!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Nature as Identity    

There are a lot of ways to define it, but in this post I'm using the word "identity" to mean the sum of all the things that you were born with that help define who you are.  Players often prefer to play characters who share their own identity (their own gender and sexuality, for example), but may also want to roleplay characters with identities that are different from theirs.  Because identities are things we have in the real world, how a fantasy roleplaying game treats different identities can be very important.  By making a judgment about an identity within the fiction of the game world, or within the rules of the game, we are also judging players who have that identity and potentially making them feel unwelcome at the table.

I'll use gender identity as an example.  In the old days of early Dungeons & Dragons, gender was a limiting factor for adventurers.  If you were female, you had handicaps (in physical strength, for example), as compared to male characters, which were the assumed default.  The rules tell players of the game: "In the fantasy stories we want to tell, gender matters, and women are weaker than men, and are only rarely fighting adventurers."  At some point in time, the story goals changed.  Writers of Dungeons & Dragons wrote rules for "comeliness," for example, that allowed particularly beautiful women to magically charm male characters.  These rules tell players of the game:  "In the fantasy stories we want to tell, gender matters, and women have advantages based on their appearance, and those advantages relate to their sexual power over men."  Regardless of how you think about these rules, which are clearly sexist, you can see the effect that fantasy stories have:  those two genres of fantasy ("male-dominated fantasy world with few women of power" and "fantasy world where women's power is based primarily on their sexuality and attractiveness to men") are very well-represented, and the gender rules were created in order to tell stories that fit neatly into those genres.

In most modern fantasy games, there are no (or very few) rules about gender.  This tends to tell the players of the game:  "In the fantasy stories we want to tell, gender does not matter."  The presence of gendered characters in the source material and art, and how they are presented, is the only guide that the players have as to what sort of stories might be told in the game.  Personally, I like this approach.  But as a writer, I want to be very aware that the absence of rules makes the fiction and detail that I add to characters that much more important.

Certain facets of identity are probably easier to handle in this way than others.  Gender can be made visible through writing and art, as can many aspects of physical appearance, such as skin color.  Other, facets of identity may need direct support in the rules.  For example, how do the rules of a fantasy game support a story about a character with a disability?  These are harder questions that may be best approached with several different solutions that players can choose from.  The important goals for me are:  don't write a set of rules that excludes a real life identity from the story, and don't let the absence of rules make a real life identity invisible.

Nurture as Heritage

Heritage, as I'm using the word in this post, is everything about how a person was raised, what they were taught, who their family is, and the events of their childhood.  I feel that these things are integral to storytelling in a fantasy roleplaying game.  I may not know everything about every character's past, but for a character not to have a past at all makes them appear flat and uninteresting.  So much of storytelling is about human interaction, and so much of human interaction is based on differences and similarities in how we were brought up.  Heritage is rich with possibilities for story.

In my house rules, heritage takes the place of race.  "Human," by contrast, is something that describes your identity.  There are no explicit rules for it.  I don't draw a line between humans over here and elves over there.  But there are rules for heritage, which grants skills and abilities just as race does in Pathfinder.  I try to avoid having heritage affect attributes (such as Strength and Intelligence), for a few reasons.  First, those things seem more tied to identity than heritage (to me).  Second, the practical effect of racial bonuses and penalties to attributes is fairly small in the Pathfinder rules.  Most bonuses total out to an overall +2, which, when you can choose where to place your ability scores, is of little effect other than a small increase in the starting cap.  Class is a much higher predictor of any given attribute than race is, as players will tend to maximize the attributes that they need for their class's abilities.  And by the time a character is level 8, they will likely have been able to compensate for any gain or loss of an attribute due to their starting choices.

Let's look at elves to see what an example heritage might look like:

Elven Heritage Traits
  • Languages:  Common and Elven
  • Nocturnal:  low-light vision
  • Wilderness Dwellers:  +2 Perception, +2 Knowledge (nature)
  • Arcane Magic Users:  +2 Spellcraft
Now, my elves may not be the same as your elves, which is fine.  There are a lot of different stories about elves!  But each of these things tells something about how a character with elven heritage grew up.  They probably lived in the wilds, far from cities.  They had to be relatively self-sufficient, but probably had to also trade to get things they needed.  Thus, they know the Common trading tongue, but at home they probably only spoke Elven.  They were not farmers, but rather hunters and gatherers, venturing out at night and resting during the day.  They were taught from an early age to be watchful for predators and recognize poisonous plants.  This potentially harsh life was made easier by the benefit of magic: at least one person in the family was probably an arcane spellcaster, if not more than one.  The words of magic would have been a familiar sound to this character as they grew up.  Even if they did not study magic themselves, they are familiar with how it works.

Imagine this character in a bustling city marketplace, during the day!  Their heritage gives the player an idea of how they might roleplay the character and what they might do in the story.

Magical Birthrights

Because this is a fantasy roleplaying game, we need to look more closely at the circumstances of our character's birth.  What if they are a fairy princess?  What if they are a seventh son of a seventh son?  What if they have bat wings?  What if they are a giant?  All of these things make for great fantasy stories, and so we should think about how to support them with the rules of the game.

Here are the ground rules I use for this broad category, which I've called birthrights.  First, birthrights are not heritage.  If your character were snatched from the cradle as a child and raised by wolves, they would still retain the same birthright, but they would likely have an entirely different heritage.  (Yes, "raised by wolves" is a heritage that I will cover in a future post.)  But second, birthrights are not identity.  It is true that a character born with a birthright cannot change it, but birthrights should be seen as a gift and a responsibility.  One that a character has not earned, despite the name, but one which they must live up to in some way.  Some birthrights might even be the result of a curse (although they are all advantageous for an adventurer.)  Third, birthrights are magical or supernatural in some way.

Not all characters need to have birthrights.  And for those that have them, they may or may not be particularly important to the story.  So the rules for birthrights can be divided up into feats, which can be taken by any character class, but which will have a relatively small effect, and class abilities, which are reserved for certain classes (such as bloodlines for sorcerers), and will have a large effect on what the character is able to do.

Certain birthrights will be suggested as matching up well with certain heritages.  However, a character might have been adopted into a heritage, or have a distinct and unusual birthright for some other reason, so all birthrights should be available regardless of the heritage you choose.  Providing an explanation for these will likely result in some interesting back story for your character!

This blog is funded by my Patreon! All proceeds are donated toward making gaming a more fun and more diverse place! Thank you so much to all my Patrons!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Humans, Humanoids, Halflings, and Half-Orcs    

It is not a secret that Dungeons & Dragons has a race problem.  Going back to its roots in Tolkein's Middle Earth, D&D has kept a few concepts that many fantasy writers believe are essential building blocks of fantasy stories:
  • Humans are people that, in most ways, are identical to human beings in our world, in diversity of appearance and culture.
  • There exist some races, such as elves, that are based on myths and legends rather than real world history.  Each differs from humanity in substantive ways:  they look different, they tend to act differently, they have a different culture and language, and they may have different physiology and/or magical abilities.  For almost every feature they possess, as a race, they will be slightly superior to humanity.  In the areas where they have lesser abilities, they are often described in idealized ways, a "slim, but delicate physique," for example.
  • There exist some races, such as orcs, that are subhuman in nature.  They differ substantially from humanity and from the other mythological races.  In appearance and culture, they are lesser.  In the areas where they have greater abilities, they are often dehumanized, with "bestial strength" and "animal cunning."  In general, they are to be considered the enemies of the players and the villains of the story.
  • There are exceptions to these rules, elves who are evil and dwell underground, orcs who are good and civilized, but what makes these characters interesting to the story is that they are exceptions.  They are defined in contrast to the majority of their people, and are not like them.
Almost every iteration of fantasy roleplaying game addresses, in some way, this concept of race in fantasy.  Some excuse it, some attempt to improve upon it, some embrace it.  And there is no "right" approach.  One of my favorite fantasy roleplaying games, Earthdawn, has the idea that every standard fantasy race is interesting and should have a deep and rich culture for the players to work with.  It embraces the tropes created by fantasy stories, but starts from the position that all of the "Name-giver" races share the same qualities that we think of in the real world, when we think of humanity and all its potential.

That said, it is not enough.  As much as I love Earthdawn, it doesn't do what I want, in terms of accessibility.  I want a roleplaying game that does not need to make excuses or compromises, or keep the negative tropes regarding race in the game, simply on the basis of tradition.

Telling a Good Story and Creating Rules that Support It

What are the things that we want from a system of rules that describe the circumstances of a person's birth and parentage?  Birth is an important part of character development.  It's something that is immutable, but for many characters, it is something that they will rebel against or embrace.  That decision will be core to who they are and what story they will follow.  So the first thing that birth does, in a fantasy game, is set your character's baseline.  This is where you start out, which begs the question: where will you go from here?

Birth and parentage can also be important in world building.  Having diverse cultures in a fantasy world makes it feel more realistic.  It allows for new story elements when the players travel to a distant land.  It provides plot ideas for conflicts between cultures, and classes within those cultures.

Finally, birth is another way for the player characters to distinguish themselves.  Dungeons & Dragons, and most other fantasy roleplaying games, are ensemble stories.  There is no single hero and a few minor supporting roles.  Instead, there is a "party" of equals, telling a story together.  Anything that allows characters to be different from each other is useful, in story terms.

However, given these story goals, the word "race" appears to be a poor term.  "Race," as we use it outside of fantasy games, is a very limited concept created as a result of the relatively recent, real world history of colonization and slavery.  Identity is much bigger than race.  All of the story goals above could be equally served by talking about gender, about sexuality, about ability, about class, about nationality, about religion, about tribalism, and about cultural heritage.  In fact, since this is a fantasy world, we could also talk about magical abilities and traditions, or about people who can fly, or see in the dark, or live for a thousand years.

In my house rules, the word "race," defined as broadly as it is in fantasy games, has to go.  So do words that draw from the history of racism, such as "humanoid" and "half-breed" and "mongrel."  In their place, I'd like to talk in my next post about some characteristics of characters that can help us tell good stories:  nature and nurture.

This blog is funded by my Patreon! All proceeds are donated toward making gaming a more fun and more diverse place! Thank you so much to all my Patrons!