Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Changing Gamers assumptions about Pathfinder (Part III, some Classes)

I. Berserkers (a.k.a. Barbarians), also known as the Possessed, the Forsaken or the Anathema. Berserkers are cursed fighters that appear on every race. They’re identified by birth marks, strange eyes, sharp teeth and a thousand other signs that mark them as possessed by banished spirits (from demons exiled from the Abyss to forgotten and destroyed deities). Some are ordinary looking, but become bestial and horrendous when “manifesting” their inner demon (i.e. Rage). The Forsaken are universally shunned by must organized churches (and a few cults) and burned still as babies. Those few that reach maturity are deadly and natural warriors, consumed by unholy hungers. Some, however, managed to keep their chaotic taint under control – you’re one of them.

II. Mundane Bards are wandering artists, rogues and scoundrels. Easily accepted and common to most cultures under a myriad of names. They’re just performers, nothing more. However, there’re rumors of strange musicians and minstrels capable of invoking spells and powers different from god- or book-magic. Masters of illusions, healers, diviners and mind-benders, the presence of such Mystics is usually followed by the sudden demise of wizards, priests and rulers. Bards are actually the last (and much diminished) descendents of the Holy Ones, the first spellcasting tradition among mortals, their magic a perfect blend of the divine/arcane dichotomy known today. Bards keep the ancient Balance and travel the world guided by their Hidden Master’s orders – usually to silently kill a spellcasting mortal, to banish otherworldly presences or to manipulate certain rulers (so that they destroy or promote a certain religions). The world once belonged to mortals; the Bardic Secret Orders will make sure this legacy becomes again a reality.

III. Druids are the memories of a Lost Age, of a better world. A long ago, the Humanoids Hordes warred against the Beast Kingdoms. It was a terrible war and the Humanoids won. The beasts were cursed, diminished and banished. Most today are simply animals, their higher spirits and gifts buried beneath millennia of humanoid magic. Inside the deeper forests and farthest wilds, there still a few of the old Beast Kings. When the lands of these old half-gods are taken by Humanoids and their final demise is at hand, a few decide to assume the guise of their enemies, to survive. They’re the Druids, the Shapeshifters, magical animals locked in humanoid form, possessing a forgotten type of spirit magic. Most Druids don’t remember who they’re as primordial gods, as the Ritual that creates them erases and buries their long memories, shapes and powers. Only after much training and soul searching can a Druid becomes but shade of the old god that it was in eons past.

IV. Fighters are just warriors and warmongers. And wizards are just old men that study maddening tomes. Both are lies. Any man can pick a sword and fight. A few can even train and become warriors. But true Fighters – the Ironborn – are above any mortal combatant. Fighters can take on ogre, face armies or even vanquish dragons. They’re the sons of the Orders of Steel, ancient religious sects of the dead gods of war. Each sect teaches secret techniques (feats) besides exercises that allow a Fighter to use weapons, armors and their bodies to limits undreamed off (weapon and armor training, lots of hit points). Each Order of Steel has its own symbols, colors, holy weapons and armors; besides an agenda. They’re also devoted to certain kingdoms. It’s no wonder that Fighters are banished from royalty by ancient traditions and taboos. Otherwise they’d rule the world.

V. Paladins are a living mystery. Feared Champions touched by the Otherworld, anointed simultaneously by the Higher and Lower Spheres. Inside each Paladin resides the potential of greatness and the fulcrum of destinies. Things simply happen around Paladins, ominous acts, terrible coincidences and greater events – legends. Some whisper that simply to sleep inside the same house of a Paladin can change a man’s life. Because Fate walks by their side, Paladins are constantly watched by supernal forces. It’s a gambit for their souls. The Higher Spheres have the initiative, but the Lower Spheres have the longer play. A Paladin is thus blessed by the cold and judgmental Celestials, but each such Champion is also accompanied by a fell spirit (an imp, shade or other unclassifiable demonic being). This demonic soul guide constantly attempts to guide, cajole and deceive the Paladin to dark paths. At the hands of Heaven, a Paladin can enlighten nations, but turned to the Abyss, an Antipaladin can bring about Apocalypses. Each Champion has this potential. It’s no wonder that none wants Paladins around (but, ironically, all are also extremely afraid of being the one responsible for killing one of the Fated).

VI. Sorcerers are those mortals that somehow meet powerful supernatural creatures and manage not only to survive, but to make a ritual pact with them – the dread Joining. This ritual is concluded when the mortal drinks the blood (or essence) of the supernatural creature, becoming bonded with it. The mortal share his master’s dreams, nightmares and traits, gaining supernatural and spellcasting abilities (some whisper that he also shares his master’s fate). Sorcerers are also known as the Others, Nightspawn or the Tainted. Servants of old beings and inhuman creatures, they work in secret and against their master’s rivals. A few claim that Sorcerers are to their supernatural patrons what familiars are to most humanoid arcane spellcasters.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

In praise of the Token System

Ok, small post. I just would like to share this little gem. During the height of d20 madness, one of my favorite pieces of game design was Iron Heroes, from Malhavoc Press. This was a variant d20 fantasy designed by Mike Mearls where (practically) all the classes were just different styles of Fighter (or Barbarians). Although you got an Arcanist class, it was very wonky; and while the Thief class was your classical S&S thief, the Executioner was more a ninja than the traditional Assassin of AD&D 1st. Other classes included the Hunter, Man-at-arms, Harrier, Armiger, Berserker, Archer and Weaponmaster (besides other classes from a Companion released a few years later).

Iron Heroes’ proposal was interesting but it was not its major feature for me. The real brilliance was the Token System. The entire game was absurdly obsessed with tactical cinematic-like combat – a feature that seems to eventually become the sole point of D&D 4th – which was really a shame since the Token System was a lot more versatile than that. In fact, I find it to be as original as other famous subsystems, like 7th Sea’s Advantage/Disadvantage system and FATE’s Aspects. But, as usual, I digress.

What where Tokens? Basically, they’re a small bonus designed to encourage specific actions. In a game dedicated to fighting styles, they’re awesome, though they could be expanded to cover entire different actions – like social, economic or even magic actions (in fact, some of the social feats that used Tokens were pure genius).

For example, if you’re a Berserker in Iron Heroes (and this is just an example, as I don’t remember the details) you would gain 1 Token every time you’re hit in combat. You could then spend this Token to fuel various Rage-like effects or feats, like increasing an attack’s damage or providing you with more actions.

I remember that at the time Iron Heroes came out (around 2005) I was running an Iron Kingdoms’ D&D 3.5 campaign. Remember my last post about how Weapon Focus and Weapon Specialization sucks? Well, I hated those feats even them. I started to incorporate the Token System design ideas on my D&D, but only for Fighters (a way to make the class more unique… one of my obsessions, as you know, if you’re an old reader of this blog). In other words, if a Cleric bought the Weapon Focus feat, nothing changed. If the party’s Fighter bought Weapon Focus, then he’d gain Tokens.

I was playtesting the stuff and unfortunately the campaign didn’t last too long. I proposed that the Fighter would gain 1 Token every time he hit a foe with his chosen weapon (Weapon Focus). He could spend Tokens on 1-1 basis to gain an attack bonus to his d20 roll. I also remember that we created an Armor Focus feat that granted 1 Token each time our armored Fighter was hit (if using his chosen type of armor). He could spend 1 Token to soak part of a hit as non-lethal damage (usually an amount equal to his armor bonus); or he could spend 3 Tokens to use his armor bonus as DR against one hit.

It was a simple but very fun resource-based system, with lots of potential. Yes, it could get cumbersome. Some Iron Heroes classes were amazingly broken, while, in other situations, tracking all your Tokens (granted by different class abilities and feats) could be a problem.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Weapon Focus & Specialization... sigh...

First, a little about D&D Next's Expertise Dice and Pathfinder's Stunning Fist feat.

A monk doesn't need to meet the prerequisites of Stunning Fist, gains it for free and can it use once per day for each monk level (other characters must meet all prerequisites, buy the feat and can only use Stunning Fist once per day).

Well, what does that have to do with the Weapon Focus and Weapon Specialization feats? I believe these are the Fighter's "hallmark" feats (and usually every PC Fighter that I know buys both). If so, why are they so boring? (I admit that I hate "arithmetic feats"... like 99% of D&D 4th feats).

The idea here is to give Fighter some exclusive toys when buying those feats. It’s here that the Expertise Dice come in. For those of you that don't know them, Expertise Dice (or ED) are a class feature of D&D Next. To be sincere, I don't know if they still are called that. I don't follow D&D Next's open playtest anymore.

ED are an amazing idea with a rather poor (or clunky) execution. Basically, they're a floating dice poll to be used every round and added as a bonus to things like attack, damage and AC. They were supposed to be the Fighter's "unique stuff" for Next, but by last time I checked
almost every class used them. To make things worse, there's a Maneuver System attached to them. In the end, their implementation ruined D&D Next's "simplicity" that I so enjoyed from the first packet.

I still believe that ED are great (and I'll probably use them for my OD&D games). In a sense, they remind of the Action Dice of Dungeon Crawl Classics (in fact a lot of stuff in D&D Next reminds of DCC RPG).

They can be a good "solution" for the Fighter's hallmark feats in D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder. This is how I'd use them. As usual, this is pure brainstorming without any playtesting (sorry, no time).

Weapon Focus feat

A Fighter who buys Weapon Focus gains a Focus Die (FD) instead of the normal benefit of the feat. During a combat, at the beginning of her turn, she can roll her FD and add its result to one of the options below (only while wielding her selected weapon):

I. As a bonus to attack rolls.
II. As a bonus to combat maneuver checks.
II. As a bonus to AC.
IV. As a bonus to CMD.

The Fighter must declare where in what option she’s using her FC before rolling. All bonuses last until the beginning of the Fighter’s next turn (optional rule: rolling dice is fun! So, the GM is allowed to let the player roll her FC at every attack roll – or against every attack, if using for AC –, instead of rolling once and using the result to all rolls for the round).
The FD beings as a d4 at 1st level, increasing by one step every 5 fighter levels (5th, 10th…), to a maximum of 1d12 at 20th level.

Greater Weapon Focus feat

You gain two Martial Dice (MD). They work like FD, except that once used they’re spent until the beginning of the Fighter’s next turn. You choose to use a MD after rolling but before the Gamemaster narrate the consequences of your action.
MD use the same type of dice determined by your FD. If your FD is a d8, you gain 2d8 as MD. It’s recommended that the FD be of a different color, so as not to be confused with the MD.
MD can be spent/distributed on the following options:

I. One or more Martial Dice can be spent and the result added to one attack roll or combat maneuver check.
II. One Martial Dice can be spent and the result added as a bonus to AC against one attack.
II. One Martial Dice can be spent and the result added as a bonus to CMD against one attack.
IV. One Martial Dice can be spent to automatically confirm a critical hit.
V. One Martial Dice can be spent to negate one Attack of Opportunity.
VI. One Martial Dice can be spent to increase by 5 ft one attack roll or combat maneuver check (your threat range doesn’t change).
VII. Two Martial Dice can be spent to redirect an attack from an adjacent target to you.

A Fighter of 12th level gains 3 MD from this feat, plus another die at 16th and 20th levels (a maximum of 5 MD).

For example: a 16th level Fighter with Greater Weapon Focus has a 1d10 as FD and 4d10 as MD. While using her selected weapon, before rolling, she decides to use her FD as a bonus to attack rolls. During her turn, she spent one MD to negate an AoO due to moving. She then spends another MD as a bonus to one attack roll, holding her final MD to boost her AC if attacked.

Weapon Specialization feat

A Fighter who buys Weapon Specialization can choose to add her Focus Die (FD) to all the damage rolls. When a FD is used on damage rolls, it’s open-ended (if you roll the maxim number on the dice, roll again and add it).

Design note: yes, you must choose to use your FD on damage instead of using one of the 4 options granted by Weapon Focus. Non-fighters get the +2 bonus to all damage rolls. I don’t find to unbalance the feat, because when a fighter decides to use Weapon Specialization she tends to deal more damage. Besides, fighters in Pathfinder (due to Weapon Training) always deal a lot more damage. Finally, the open-ended bit above provides a good boost (and I hope an interesting gambit element).

Greater Weapon Specialization feat

You can spend Martial Dice (MD) on damage rolls. These rolls are open-ended, except that only die can “explode” (if you roll, for example 2d10 and come with 2 “10”s, choose one and roll again).

You can also spend one MD to treat you next attack roll as magical, silver and cold iron. You can spend 3 MD to make your next attack bypass alignment-based DR. Finally, you can spend 4 MD to bypass adamantine-based DR.

P.S.: I wrote these rules about a month ago. Reading it again now, just before posting, made me note a possible design mistake – these feats should be class features (because the Fighter is still forced to buy them). This is easy “to fix” if you’re playing D&D 3rd or 3.5. In Pathfinder thing are trickier. That’s because I should have find a way of using Expertise/Martial Dice on the Armor and Weapon Training class features. Why didn’t I do that? Well, first I’m lazy; and second I don’t have much free time lately. To tinker with those class features would require more thought. It wouldn’t also change the way those feats work for Fighter – they’d still suck. Anyway, if I get a better idea on how to use Expertise/Martial Dice on the Fighter I’ll let you know (until that time, you may be interested in my variant Fighter that also has a resource-based mechanic).

Monday, March 11, 2013

Changing Gamers assumptions about Pathfinder (Part II, Races)

I. Humans were created by a dead god, later betrayed and killed by them to gain the boon of magic. This forgotten deity had a brother, who swore a terrible oath, to live in darkness and fire, until all the betrayers were plunged in eternal damnation. The name of the brother? Asmodeus.

II. Humans came from the first dwarves who reached the surface eons ago. Some human royal bloodlines are still "pure" enough that their scions are long-lived and can use dwarven magic items.

III. The first dwarves were forged and molded by the gods of the depths. And that is still the law. All dwarves are formed directly from clay, stone or crystal by their priests. This secret is a holy mystery hidden from the other races, though dwarves know that one human empire stole this secret eons ago – until the dwarves fell that forgotten realm [Yes, I'm totally stealing this from Dwimmermount].

IV. Dwarves are actually half-breeds. They're descendant form exiles, criminals and slaves who fled their overlords and reached the Brightlands (the surface). To survive under the blazing light and cold weather the dwarves united with the most populous surface race – humans. True Dwarves never left the depths and are still proud, stern and strong. They call themselves Duergar (“True Folk”) and they won't suffer their mongrel cousins of the Brightlands.

V. What most people call elves are actually half-elf/half-human. True Elves are an outsider race of chaotic, care-free and amoral fey who accepted a pact with the gods to banish a common foe of old (demons, titans, pre-humanoid deities... the legends aren't clear). Half-elves are just humans with even less elven blood.

VI. Elves are actually a dream given flesh. That's why they can't sleep and must trance to rest. Some believe that the first elves were taken from the bright dreams of mankind (the first human tribes, who believed in the fair gods of the woods, glades and lakes); others think that they're taken from a god's last dream. Elves believe that their spirits dissolve into nothingness when they die, unless they can touch a human, halfling or dwarf's life (with wonder, love or dread) so that they can keep living in their dreams.

VII. Half-elves aren't a true race. Also called Elvenmarked, Elf-friends or Startouched, they're a special (and magic) status, bestowed upon those blessed by the elven kings (or deities) for great services and perilous quests. Most "half-elves" are humans only because they're everywhere at the present age.

VIII. Gnomes are actually half-elf/half-dwarves. This is a secret very dear to them. The little ones fear that if the truth ever comes out, both dwarves and elves will declare war upon them (and upon each other) to clean "the Shame". Gnomes can use items made especially for elves and for dwarves (and they're also affected by effects that hurt elves or dwarves).

IX. Gnomes aren't a true race and must kidnap children of other races to create new gnomes.

X. Orcs are actually elves cursed when the world was young. If an orc drinks elven blood, he gains all Elf traits for the next 7 days. If an orc drains an elf's spirit (through a secret 5th level necromancy spell), they remove part of the divine curse, becoming the dreaded dark elves. Orcs are also as long-lived as elves; unfortunately, their society is so violent that rare is the orc who lives more than 50 winters. It’s still unclear if half-orcs can gain such benefits.

XI. Half-orcs are actually created through sorcery, as orcs can’t crossbreed with other races. The problem is that all half-orcs are vulnerable (-4 on saves) against commands and mind effects from their sorcerer overlords.

XII. Few people know but all Halflings know how to speak Abyssal. It has something to do with halflings myths and their origins (curiously must legends don’t mention who created halflings, only that they’re always “around” humans). All halflings deeply fear demons [This idea came – if I’m not mistaken – from a error in the early open playtests of Pathfinder where it typed that all Halflings knew Abyssal].

If you have any other (crazy) ideas, please share it.