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. 

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