Heavily Networked Player Characters

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As cellular networking improves, the ability to tell certain types of story become harder and harder, approaching impossibility.

Horror movies made in the last decade almost always need to justify that their protagonists have no signal, and that’s going to become an increasingly unlikely scenario. How often have you had no signal lately, compared with even five years ago? For modern games, you already have to explain a signal dead zone because it’s very unusual. For games set in the near future, the networks are only going to get more and more extensive (and, if mesh networks ever come into vogue, everyone’s a chain to the nearest node).

Occult and other weird mystery stories have a similar problem: everyone has a camera to put secrets on the internet, and everyone has a smart phone to pull them back off again. It’s particularly problematic if you want to build your story on real-world inspirations; your players only need a few points of reference to find all of the online resources you used to build the mystery, and telling them the Wikipedia page they’re looking at doesn’t exist in the game world stretches credulity.

Assuming you want to continue running modern games and/or futuristic games not set after an information apocalypse, how to you handle this prevalence?

A wizard did it

The go-to explanation that I see the most often is interference in technology caused by the mystical. Weird shit causes signal dead zones and extra dimensional beings can’t be recorded or even described electronically. This is hard to do well for a few reasons.

First, it means that you have to integrate this trait throughout your world building. It’s generally considered cheating if your magical beings can use technology perfectly well when they want to, but then deny it to the player characters whenever necessary. And not every game about the occult wants the monsters to be like Dresden Files wizards, forever blowing up any high tech they try to use.

Second, unless you are an IT professional, you’re probably not going to close all the loopholes your players come up with. Maybe it’s just because I’ve regularly had at least one programmer or network engineer at my table for the last several years, but I’ve grown accustomed to never satisfying them with a simple block. Saying that something technological doesn’t work correctly simply opens you up to a series of increasingly complex steps to route around the problem that they would use should they encounter something like it at work, many of which you won’t even have realized were possible or have any way to adjudicate.

Third, the natural response to the previous is a blanket, “it just doesn’t work, okay?” This tends to piss the programmers right off (unless it can be pointed out that their characters have less computer knowledge than they do, so they should have put more points into it). But even in the simplest denial, you tend to shake faith in the world. Players are becoming more and more complacent with information solutions to real world problems, and denying them in game sometimes stymies rather than inspires creativity. Technology not working the way we expect it to is already an out-of-context problem for tech junkies, and it’s only going to get worse as time goes on. If Googling doesn’t work, what do you do next? If it prevents an online search, is an electronic search for a dead tree book at the library going to work better?

Finally, frequently jamming technology might be more of a survival risk. A group of secretive beings that regularly causes cellular outages is eventually going to have their secrecy blown wide open by something as innocuous as a crew of telecom employees trying to figure out why their customers keep complaining about roving dead zones. That’s awesome if your protagonists are those telecom employees, but maybe not so much for other campaigns. And your IT-savvy players will try to use any “rules” you put in place to their advantage in detecting threats.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Perhaps a more plausible solution, given all the governmental wiretapping revelations, is that networking always works, but you might not want it to. While shadowy conspiracies with a back door into various telecoms can’t necessarily destroy information on the internet, they can potentially be alerted to people looking for it.

This mode relies on the protagonists being more worried about the men in black showing up than they are about the monster, but that kind of paranoia tends to be pretty easy to create. Also, from a mystical standpoint, “I have a spell/power that alerts me that someone’s looking for me, even via an internet search,” is probably an easier sell than, “magic cleans my traces from the internet entirely.”

Essentially, this says to players that they can use technology to investigate, but if they don’t cover their tracks they’ll give away the element of surprise and possibly have even more threats dropped on their heads. The PCs need their hacker not just to do a search, but to correctly configure TOR and come at a topic via search terms and linking that won’t set off any alarms.

And in a future game with mesh networks, you can even pull off the trick that suddenly there’s signal… because the enemy is in between them and the cell tower, and they’re sending all their searches and conversation right through its own computer.

You can’t ever split the party

Players in most games don’t ever want their characters to split up, so much that “never split the party” is a meme. GMs love to throw out threats against lone PCs, and the players have learned this lesson too well. Refusal to split up, even when it makes sense, is almost pathological.

This is an area where taking communication for granted is a strength. I’ve found that players are much more likely to split up in modern games where they can instantly call or text to share information or ask for help, and even more likely in futuristic games where they don’t even have to grab a phone to accomplish this, but can simply stream their permanent video feed to friends in real time.

You don’t even have to cut the feed to make this work. Normally, when you’re describing something terrible happening to a split PC, the other players at the table are having to struggle to avoid metagaming with information they know but their characters don’t. Getting it all on speaker phone while unable to do anything more than shout advice can make them more invested, and lower the metagaming dissonance.

Even if you’re not regularly going to pile tragedy on a lone party member, open communication can be a boon. Unless players have extensively played games where party splitting is common, it can be hard to retain focus and be polite when another player is getting spotlight time and you can’t interject in character. That is, they’ll tune out and become a distraction to the GM and active player. Giving them the ability to keep up with what’s going on in-character and to potentially give advice but not physically affect what’s going on is likely to keep them much more invested without detracting too much from the main player’s spotlight time.

D&D: Another Magic Item Creation System

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The magic item creation system in 3.x/Pathfinder remains one of the things that I obsessively try to revise until I’m happy with it, so here’s another attempt.

As a restatement of principles, my problem with the default system stems from several source.

  • First, it tends to devalue found treasure. Since you can sell most things for half value, and craft for half value, interesting items that weren’t exactly what the players wanted get sold and converted into something flavorless that does exactly what they want.
  • This is the second problem: the system seems to assume that a significant portion of character magic item wealth will be in situationally useful item and consumables. However, too-custom crafting means that everything a PC is wearing is laser-focused on that PC’s goals. Cool utility items never get kept or used.
  • Finally, odd breakpoints in the creation math mean that letting players have the ability to customize precisely can result in items that are underpriced for their benefit. The classic example is the wand of cure light wounds: it heals half as much as a wand of cure moderate wounds for one sixth the cost, and it is almost always the most cost-effective way to heal up out of combat (though I hear that the new flavor of the month is a first level spell that gives Fast Healing 1 for ten rounds).

The following systems are another attempt to address these perceived weaknesses.

Recipes

No permanent magic item can be created without first having a “recipe” for that particular type of effect. The simplest recipes are gained upon learning to craft a particular type of item, while others must be researched. The shape of the item (including the weapon or armor type for arms and armor) can vary, but the effect must be learned (e.g., once you’ve learned the Flaming enhancement, you can apply it to any valid weapon, but you still don’t necessarily know how to apply Frost).

A combined item does not require a special recipe, just having the recipes for each effect and paying the normal additional costs to combine multiple effects in one item.

An aside: I’ve chosen to minimize the use of Spellcraft in these systems, as the potential range it can take at even mid levels is huge and makes setting DCs almost impossible. A Wizard with high Intelligence, Skill Focus, and a +5 item has Character Level +20 or more in the skill, while a more skill-point limited, non-Int class might have significantly less. DCs impossible to meet for a Cleric might be basically unfailable for a Wizard. I think a lot of the default magic creation and research rules in Pathfinder suffer from this problem; making a Spellcraft check to accomplish something is a negligible cost for some characters unless you make the DCs insurmountable by others.

Default Recipes

Each crafting feat comes with a set of default recipes. All others must be learned separately:

  • Craft Magic Arms and Armor: You can add any level of straight enhancement bonus (assuming you meet the normal prerequisites) to weapons or armor.
  • Craft Rod: You can make any metamagic rod for which you have the matching metamagic feat and meet the other prerequisites.
  • Craft Staff: Pick three medium staves; you have the recipes for those items.
  • Craft Wondrous Item: You can make any ability-score-boosting item for which you meet the normal prerequisites.
  • Forge Ring: You can make rings of protection for which you meet the normal prerequisites

Learning Recipes

There are three ways to add recipes to a character’s list of options:

Training

If you assist in the crafting of an item that you would be able to craft if you had the recipe and are there for the full duration of the crafting, you add that item’s recipe to your list. This can be assisting another PC or an NPC (and NPCs may charge a fee of their own devising for learning their secrets).

Reverse Engineering

If you obtain an item that you would be able to craft if you had the recipe (and which is not somehow immune to dissasembly), you can dismantle it to gain an understanding of how it works. This takes about the same length of time as it would take to craft in the first place. When done, the components can be sold for approximately 25% of the item’s value (instead of the 50% you can usually sell an item for).

Research

You can take approximately as much time as it would take to craft a particular item (that you could craft if you had the recipe) to attempt to work out how to make it. This consumes money/resources (but not XP, if you’re using 3.x) equal to the crafting cost of the item (and an item is not produced at the end of the process) and has a small chance of success. The GM sets the chance of success depending on how obscure the item is and how little she wants it in her campaign. Suggested chances are:

  • Item from the core rulebook: 30% + 1% per CL the character has above the item (e.g., a 10th level caster researching a 7th level item has a 23% chance of success).
  • Item from other primary sourcebook: 20% + 1% per CL above item
  • Item from non-primary sourcebook: 10% + 1% per CL above item
  • Item from third party book or player-suggested: 0% + 1% per CL above item

A failed roll doesn’t mean the researcher goes away empty handed. Roll on the standard treasure table that most closely approximates the item being researched (e.g., if researching a medium Wondrous Item, roll on the medium Wondrous Item table). Through some fluke of research, the character learns the rolled recipe instead.

Other Changes

Brew Potion

While the change to Craft Wand below may bring them closer to parity, in general I’ve seen players profoundly uninterested in making potions: they cost over three times as much per use as a wand, they take more actions to use, they’re slower to create, and they’re less versatile. So I’d suggest:

  • Potion value is equal to Level x CL x 15 gp (instead of 50 gp; this brings the cost for 50 potions equal to the cost for a 50-charge wand).
  • If you’re making several of the same type of potion, you can make up to 1000 gp worth per day (instead of four per day if under 250 or one per day if between 250 and 1000).

Craft Wand

Wands have a minimum CL of 5. (This means that a wand of Cure Light Wounds should have a much more consistent comparison in cost to wands of higher-level healing spells.)

D&D/Pathfinder: Constrained Cleric Casting

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Since 3.0, clerics and druids have suffered from an overabundance of casting options. Wizards learn two spells per level and get more only when they’re ready to spend money to borrow books or scribe from a captured book. Divine casters get a giant list of spells dumped on them each time they hit a new spell level, and it only gets worse as more sourcebooks are added. It’s completely overwhelming to new players, and even experienced players have to comb through a whole list of spells they never use to find what they actually want to cast. Plus, while getting everything is obviously better from a pure power standpoint, it’s part of why clerics are boring to level; wizards get to make choices of spells on levels where they’d otherwise just get some skills, but clerics don’t.

This idea is blatantly borrowed from Harbinger and tweaked to work for 3.x/Pathfinder (his version was mostly focused on 5e). It affects all divine casters that normally get their whole spell list added automatically (so clerics, druids, paladins, rangers, and possibly some expanded material casters).

Basics

Divine magic is in many ways simpler than the complex formulae of arcane spells; the god is doing a lot of the heavy lifting, and the priest needs only request the spell in an hour of prayer. While this means that the priest can keep all spells known in memory without the aid of a book, it does not touch upon understanding. That is, a prayer for a spell is more than just the words, it is the complex emotional resonance that conveys to the god exactly what the priest wants and that she is worthy. Attaining this mindset for each spell is essential to being able to channel its energy.

Divine casters gain basic spells known in the following ways:

  • They automatically gain any spells they can cast spontaneously (e.g., cures, inflicts, or summons) upon attaining the necessary spell level.
  • If they have a domain, they automatically get to cast the domain spells normally, and add them to the full spell list if they are normally available (e.g., a cleric with the Knowledge domains adds all spells from it as they become available except Detect Thoughts, Legend Lore, and Foresight, which do not otherwise appear on the cleric list).
  • They gain all level 0 spells on their list.
  • As soon as they can cast first level spells, they can add additional first level spells equal to their casting ability bonus (i.e., wisdom for most, charisma for paladins).
  • Finally, they automatically add spells known per class level like a wizard (i.e., no spells are gained automatically from a prestige class that grants additional caster levels).
    • Full casters (cleric and druid) add two spells per class level past 1st.
    • Partial casters (paladins and rangers) add one per class level past the first level they can begin casting spells (e.g., a Paladin gains first level spells equal to Charisma bonus at 4th level, and one spell each level at 5th level and beyond).

Any further spells have to be added via the methods below.

Scrolls

Whenever a divine caster casts a spell through a scroll, he can feel the flow of energy and try to get a sense of the mindset required to cast it. The spell must be on his spell list, and of a level that the caster could produce (i.e., if you cast a higher level scroll than your max level, you can’t learn it for later).

Make a reflexive Knowledge: Religion check at a DC equal to 15 + [Spell Level x 2] (e.g., DC 19 for a second level spell). If successful, add the spell as a spell known. This requires no additional actions, and the spell is available the next time the character prepares spells.

Teaching

Divine casters can teach others if they know a spell that the student is capable of casting but doesn’t know yet. The teacher explains the mindset of the spell (which takes about ten minutes) and casts it while the student is adjacent and paying attention to the energy (which requires a full round action if in combat).

The student then makes a reflexive Knowledge: Religion check at DC equal to 25 + [Spell Level x 2].

  • If both casters are of the same religion, the student gains a +5 bonus on the roll.
  • If the roll is failed by less than 5, the process can be repeated and the student gains a cumulative +1 bonus for each subsequent try (e.g., +2 on the third attempt to learn).
  • However, if the roll is failed by 5 or more, the student can no longer attempt to learn that spell from that particular teacher (their styles are just too different).

Relics

One of the major purposes of churches and glades is to retain the relics of fallen clergy. This might be the literal remains of the priest, either interred in a grave or sepulcher or displayed in the church itself (e.g., fingerbone). Depending on the religion, it might be the priest’s signature arms (for war deities), a work of art produced by the priest (for deities of craft and beauty), or simply a natural space that the priest tended and loved (for nature deities).

Each relic resonates with one spell of each spell level the priest could cast in life, and the clarity of the spells is even better than what the priest could teach while living. Priests of the same faith may meditate before the relic and consider the history of the fallen priest’s life to learn one or more of these spells. This is usually a service that churches allow all members in good standing to attempt for free; after all, they’ll leave behind their own relics to the church upon death.

Like the other methods, this only works for spells the priest should be capable of casting. The priest must meditate for one day per spell level (and it’s the level on the supplicant’s own list; e.g., a paladin only takes four days to try to learn Dispel Evil, even if it is from the relic of a cleric that knew it as a fifth level spell). At the end of this period, the priest makes a Knowledge: Religion check at DC equal to 15 + [Spell Level x 2]. If successful, the spell is immediately added to spell’s known. If failed, even by 5 or more, the priest can repeat the time spent to try again.

For a standard way to figure out what’s available in any particular church or glade, determine the head priest’s highest level spell. The church has 1d4 spells of that level and each level below, +1 cumulative for each lower level (e.g., if the priest is 5th level, the church has 1d4 third level spells, 1d4+1 second level spells, and 1d4+2 first level spells). Larger and older churches may have 2-3 times that available, while newer and smaller churches may have few or none (none of their priests have died yet; at least in a way that left a usable relic). Discrepancies in the random rolls on the levels (i.e., more higher level spells than lower) means that there’s some doubling up at the levels with fewer spells.

Churches often pay quite well for the remains of lost members of their clergy found in dungeons (and it’s left as an exercise of the rogue’s Bluff to sell back the remains of a priest that the party killed to his church). At the very least, they might pay as much for them as an NPC wizard would pay for a captured spellbook.

Blood Mandate

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This isn’t so much a full system as an interesting bit of math that popped into my head on reading Harbinger’s post about Birthright. It’s essentially an averaging function for settings like Birthright where certain characters (hopefully PCs) have some potency of blood that sets them above others. Maybe the high fantasy world’s rulers really do have a divine inheritance. Maybe the modern occult world’s sorcerers are carefully protecting a flickering fire in the blood from ancient Atlantis. Maybe the supers world’s mutants breed true, and everyone wants to be descended from the really potent heroes.

It’s an exercise for the GM to make sure to avoid the obvious pitfalls in this kind of idea that would make it come off as really racist :) .

The Math

The math is very simple: when two individuals have a child, average the magical power stat appropriate to your setting.

  • If your setting expects power to be something that can be maintained for generation after generation (at the cost of a little inbreeding), round fractions up. That is, in slightly uneven pairings, the kid will tend to maintain the stronger parent’s power.
  • If your setting wants a really, really inbred nobility and power that fades as soon as a dynasty is broken, round fractions down. In even slightly uneven pairings, this will mean a permanent decrease in the power of the next generation that can never be repaired.

The bigger your power stat gets, the more generations you can have before simple rounding math tends to cause dalliances to weaken the line down to nothing. That is, if your power stat only goes up to 10, rounding down is often much more detrimental than if it goes up to 1000.

But, honestly, the math is probably something that happens in the background when you’re setting up NPC family lines, and maybe a roleplaying pressure on powered PCs to choose between their One True Peasant Loves and those unlikeable but well-bred marriages their parents arranged for them. The idea is to mathematically back up a culture of inbreeding and insular nobility. It’s not just superstition: that family that can’t clot can move mountains with its powers.

Revitalizing the Line

Even in an averaging up system, unless the setting is about how far the mighty have fallen since the golden age when the blood was still strong and men had not faded, you’ll need a way to put high numbers back into the system. Possibilities include:

  • Boink with Greatness: Sometimes the gods (or inexplicable beings of similar import) walk the world, and they have the highest possible power stat. The kids they leave behind would average out half the highest possible stat even if they’re from some powerless peasant, and they’re even more powerful if someone from the nobility can arrange a liaison.
  • Throwbacks and Wellsprings: Sometimes, inexplicably, a normal person is born with an abnormally high power stat, or gains one from an event that can’t be reproduced. Maybe it’s because the magic genetics aren’t fully understood, and a high power can become dormant only to rise up, or maybe it’s just that magic is weird and can sometimes supercharge someone with no particular lineage. Suddenly, a seeming nobody is likely to be elevated to prominence, and may drag friends and family along.
  • New King, New Mandate: Sometimes, power is not something that is husbanded, but claimed by conquest. The royalty of the world doesn’t really like to make it obvious that inheriting rulership allows the blood to thin, but taking it by force inevitably results in a new surge of power for the conqueror. History is full of lines that bred their power for as long as they could but inevitably waned until a distant cousin or total nobody raised an army, sat the throne, and started a new dynasty to start the cycle all over.

Blood Magic Weirdness

  • The story of the Countess of Blood is an oddity for most, but a cautionary tale for the nobility. Of course you can maintain your youth and beauty by bathing in the blood of the young and beautiful. You can take all kinds of useful traits in a similar fashion, if it strikes your fancy. But each time you do, it’s like you’re born again as child of your former power and the power of your victim; if you bathe in the blood of peasants, each bath halves your power. The only way to perform the ritual without loss of power would be to murder someone of equal or greater station, and anything you could get from a peasant isn’t worth the permanent cost in power.
  • They say that in the early days, potent blood led to a form of immortality. The first kings never truly died, they simply slept in their tombs and mystic isles. If those stories are true, in these days of weakening blood, we must fear that someday the ancient royalty will wake, find us wanting, and reclaim their birthrights. The early days were not nearly so enlightened as our current age, so pray that these ancient warlords do not rise up.
  • You think I don’t want you to be happy. That I’m just trying to protect our family’s power, and that’s why I don’t want you to marry your peasant love. It’s true, your child would be half as powerful as you are. But it’s worse. That level of drop in power is much harder on the parent that doesn’t have power to bring to the tryst. I’ve heard stories of noblewomen that sucked the life out of their strapping peasant lads to conceive, and noblemen whose peasant brides couldn’t survive the birth of a powered child. It doesn’t happen every time, mind you, but it happens much more than you’d think, and much more than normal breeding. Do you want to risk that your lover will be lucky? Or do you want to do the right thing, breed within your station, and allow your low-born love a long life with a spouse that’s equally bereft of power?

A Powers Framework

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I’m not really sure what the system below is for, but it more or less came together all at once in my head while thinking about how comics tend to have very plot-devicey magic and how it would be cool to do something more consistent. So the frameworks include magic, psychic abilities, and superpowers. The major goal is to make the three types of effect have limited overlap. It also makes mind control really hard, because that’s generally more trouble than it’s worth in a supers game.

Magic

  • Magic is an act of will: Creating a mystical effect requires the mage to imagine it completely and use this mental template to create a change in the world. This is often done by using ritual objects and chanted spells to more easily force the mind into quickly envisioning common effects. Many mages study languages invented for magic, where spell vocabulary that would be complex in conversational languages are much more efficiently spoken. A spell in a language the mage doesn’t understand is almost always useless. Envisioning new effects is mentally draining, but a mage can use well-remembered spells indefinitely.
  • Magic requires sympathy: The more things are connected, the easier it is for a mage to channel magic through them. A mage has a much harder time throwing fire at a stranger across a room than igniting a nemesis via blood and a true name across the world. Forging symbolic links between the target and intention is essential to all magic.
  • Magic moves energy: Mages cannot create or destroy energy. To throw lightning, a mage must have access to a significant source of electricity. However, due to sympathy, this energy doesn’t have to be on hand, just connected to the mage by a sympathetic link. Naturally occurring sympathetic “channels” link vast untapped wells of various forms of energy within the earth, and a mage with access to these ley lines can evoke significant power. Even a master mage cannot evoke significant effects without access to power (but such mages often know many different ways to find and channel power).
  • Magic cannot invade another’s mind: Magic may not alter or divine the thoughts of another sapient being. However, mages can teach most such individuals to willingly project parts of their thoughts in a way that the mage can access (essentially visiting their dreams). Some mages develop ways to trick individuals into doing this to read their minds without them knowing, but even then nothing beyond surface thoughts can be accessed or adjusted.
  • Magic cannot deliberately alter the wielder’s body: Despite the dreams of many a mage, it’s not possible to change the body of the mage. This is likely due to even the most minor of changes being invasive enough to break concentration or throw off the sympathy of the mage to him or herself. Magic can create the illusion of personal change. Sometimes magical backlash will alter the mage. The inherent use of magic often seems to extend the life and health of the mage within the human norm. Magic can alter the forms of others, but doing so requires very complicated rituals (as altering biology is an extremely complicated thing to envision).
  • Magic cannot create or destroy mass: Magic can teleport matter in discrete chunks (beings or objects that are part of a sympathetic whole), but cannot create it from nothing nor eliminate it. Thus, magic cannot cause things to grow or shrink, and cannot remove part of a coherent being or object. Magic is very good at removing foreign objects that don’t share a sympathetic unity with their hosts. Magic can cause a target to slowly increase or decrease in mass by exchanging matter with the environment (e.g., eating or excreting for living beings).
  • Magic is impermanent: Reality seeks to undo magic, leaving behind only what would make sense in a purely rational world. Damage dealt by flung energy remains, and objects or beings altered slowly and within the bounds of chemistry or biology may retain their changes. But pure magical constructs or significant physical changes revert quite quickly. A mage can weave a more complex spell (creating a more complete and robust visualization of the change) to make the effect last longer, but it will eventually expire. Through great effort, a mage can sometimes set up a persistent sympathetic bond to a source of power that will renew the magical effect, but breaking the bonds or exhausting the power source returns the magic to temporary status.
  • Magic is learned: Magic is knowledge and training, won like any skill through dedication and practice. Some individuals seem to have more of a knack for it, just as some individuals have a knack for any other educational focus, but there are no humans “gifted” with a shortcut to power and none that cannot evoke magic if they successfully learn the discipline. If one puts in the time and effort, magic is available to all sapient beings, and is a learned skill like any other.

Psionics

  • Psionics are exhausting: Unlike magic and superpowers, psionic abilities seem to violate known physics: they can exert energy on the environment with no clear source. However, using them exhausts the wielder proportionate to the strength of the effect. Only time and relaxation can restore a psion’s ability to exert power.
  • Psionics enhance perception: Many psionic abilities provide sensory information to the wielder without a clear chain. A psion can learn to read minds, interpret energy signals outside the normal spectrum obvious to humans, view remote locations, and even glimpse aspects of the past and future. In most cases, the psion can only detect, not influence: minds cannot be controlled, signals cannot be generated, locations cannot be teleported to, and time cannot be traveled.
  • Psionics extend touch: Psions can move things with only the mind and a force beyond what their muscles can create using telekinesis. Many learn all kinds of interesting variations beyond simply lifting objects, such as defensive “force fields” and generating or halting sufficient friction to alter fire, heat, and even electricity (pyro, cryo, and electrokinesis). The range on these effects is always based on the wielder’s perception, but that is often greatly expanded by other psionic abilities. Creative psions can seem to violate the limits of their powers by applying telekinesis in precise ways.
  • Psionics are part of sapience: Only sapient beings can gain psionic powers, and only a subset seem to have the gift. Rather than some kind of inherent limitation, these powers seem to be accessed by reaching a state of mind that is unique to the wielder. It remains uncertain whether all humans could gain these powers, but they appear in only a small fraction of the population. There are no individuals limited to only a minor talent, though some psions may not realize their starting insight can be further developed by training. If the psion’s mind was to change bodies, psionics would be retained.
  • Psionics are all connected: Psions often cannot devote the time to become skilled in more than one aspect of psionic power, but no psion is limited in the choice of disciplines. A psion skilled in telekinesis could choose to develop his or her telepathy at any time, and vice versa.

Superpowers

  • Superpowers store energy: Each individual with superpowers has a type of energy that his or her body will absorb and store within an internal “battery.” Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can often be stored drastically more efficiently than chemical batteries. Some powered individuals can project energy commensurate with a small power station, but only if they’ve previously absorbed all that power from their preferred source. When the internal battery runs out, the powers stop working. Common sources of power are light, electricity, chemical (i.e., eating food), or kinetic. The powered individual takes reduced harm from the energy type, but the conversion is rarely completely efficient and those that can absorb more dangerous sources tend to find them a less robust source of energy (e.g., a kinetic absorber is hard to hurt but not completely invulnerable to impacts, and requires more effort to fill up than an individual powered by sunlight).
  • Superpowers alter the body: All superpowers in some way alter the wielder’s body. This may mean an actual physical change or the ability to project energy or matter. No powers allow the wielder to alter the world without a direct link to the physical form: telekinesis, teleportation, telepathy, and anything else that could reasonably have “tele” in the name are the province of magic and psionics.
  • Superpowers can seem to alter mass: Individuals with superpowers can shrink, grow, or add physical augmentations that seem to create mass from nowhere or make it disappear. In all of these cases, the individual is coupling dimensional warping with shapeshifting. An individual that grows retains the same mass, but is slightly shifted outside the normal dimension to seem heavier and larger, and one that shrinks is shifting in the other direction. The cube-square law doesn’t come into effect, but neither does strength scale directly: a “giant” is stronger, but not in a completely proportionate manner. Characters that alter mass are not completely in phase with this reality, and that can become a vulnerability that magic or psionics can sometimes exploit.
  • Superpowers cannot directly alter another: All superpowers affect the wielder, not anyone else. However, projected energy, chemicals, or biological agents can have minor or major effects on a target. In all cases, these must be transmitted to the target through a logical vector for the type of emission.
  • Superpowers are part of biology: All superpowers come from mutation, accidental or deliberate genetic manipulation, or entirely alien biology. Someone who knows what to look for can identify a powered individual via DNA (though uncommon powers may appear at unexpected places in the genetic sequence). If an individual were to transfer his or her mind to another body, all powers would remain with the original one.

Fantasy Combat Energy Types

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Rob Donoghue had a cool post last week about using different classes of mana to power 4e-style powers. The idea is that your more powerful (“encounter” and “daily”) powers cost mana that’s generated by using your less powerful (“at will”) abilities. In addition to nicely solving the problem with alpha strikes, or just people using up their cool powers and getting bored when they get down to at wills, it also removes a bit of the metaness of such powers. That is, instead of something arbitrarily usable only once per day or per combat, it’s at least now something that has an in-story rationale (even if that rationale is a mostly gamist mana pool).

I haven’t played much Magic, but I’ve been playing a lot of Guild Wars 2 and some Warhammer Fantasy lately. Thus, the following energy categories leaped almost fully formed into my brain.

Fury/Rage/Adrenaline

The purview mostly of heavily armed and armored warriors, this energy is powered by battle lust and adrenaline. It is used for abilities that allow the user to hit harder and shrug off pain.

One point is generated whenever the character is hit by an attack (even if the damage is reduced to nothing). At-will abilities that generate this energy include Power Attack (trading attack for damage) and Wild Blow (trading defense for damage).

Momentum/Initiative

Meanwhile, lightly armored physical characters tend to rely on the “energy” of motion and staying ahead of the opponent. It is used for abilities that allow the user to hit more easily, maneuver the opponent, stay out of harm’s way, and act sooner in the turn order.

One point is generated whenever the character is missed by an attack (or saves against a spell). At-will abilities that generate this energy include Careful Strike (trading damage for attack) and Combat Expertise (trading attack for defense).

Blood

The province of dark mages, this energy is drawn from the power in blood itself. The types of effects it powers vary based on how evil blood magic is within a given setting, but it is a natural fit for vampiric effects.

One point is generated whenever the character takes slashing damage (possibly of a minimum amount based on level), either dealt by an opponent or self-inflicted. At-will abilities that generate this energy tend to require a bladed melee weapon and cut an opponent to bleed freely.

Life Force

Both forces for good and forces for evil can find great power in the energy of the soul itself. It can power effects that control, heal, or blast with the very force of consciousness.

One point is generated whenever the character willingly expends life energy (in the form of a minimum number of HP). At-will abilities that generate this energy are either psychic drains (for unsavory users) or less effective attacks that nonetheless allow the (more savory) attacker to fan the flames of his or her own soul.

Grace

Harder to come by than life force, the direct energy of a deity is useful to all manner of priests. It can be used to replace any other type of energy in any ability taught by the character’s church.

One point is generated by fulfilling one of the character’s ethos requirements (i.e., a list of deity-specific actions that grant Grace). There are no at-will abilities that grant this energy, but certain abilities powered by other energy types may grant Grace on an exceptional/critical success.

Elemental

Mages and some priests have the ability to absorb and channel the very power of the elements. This energy fuels extremely large and explosive magics.

One point is generated whenever the character takes elemental damage. At-will abilities that generate the energy are cantrips with limited effect and targets.

Note: Some settings may track each elemental type separately, with some in opposition. For example, unleashing an at-will Cold attack may create heat energy that the character can use to launch a Fire attack.

Arcane

The rarest of energy types, arcane power is the pure, unspecialized energy of the cosmos. This energy can replace any other type in a mage’s abilities, and can also be used to enchant items.

It is only generated by willingly destroying a magic item or having access to a rare, naturally occurring source of power.

Willpower/Chi

Certain martial artists and psions can deliberately expend their own personal mental energy. This energy can be used for a wide variety of physical and psychic effects.

It is generated by meditation. Unlike other forms of energy, a character will often start a battle with several points of it, but be unable to generate more easily during the fight.

Other Notes

I envision this as generally following a couple of simple rules. If you have more of any energy type than your level, you lose a point of each overfull type per round. If you have less than or equal to your level, you lose a point per minute (and generally won’t have to start counting until out of combat). So a fifth level character with 7 Fury and 6 Momentum loses one point of each on the next round and one point of Fury the round after.

Too many types of energy could be prohibitive to keep track of, particularly for the GM. Most characters will only have abilities that use and generate a couple of types, so can disregard the others. For example, a wizard hit by an attack is technically owed a point of Fury, but if he doesn’t have any relevant abilities, he doesn’t need to track it. Meanwhile, NPCs should probably by eyeballed by the GM rather than tracked precisely, unless you’re up for the bookkeeping.

I really like Rob’s suggestion that “utility” spells are just a quicker version of a ritual that you use in combat. The energy types above would probably phrase the long-term casting of such a power differently for different sources. That is, a Fury, Momentum, Elemental, Willpower, or Grace ritual may simply have a level requirement with the assumption that the character can typically generate the requisite energy easily in non-combat rounds and only the size of the personal “battery” is important. Meanwhile, a Blood, Life Force, or Arcane ritual might have very specific energy costs, as those energy types tend to require a sacrifice in items, personal health… or the blood or energy of others.

D&D/Pathfinder: Modified Buff Spells

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As per the most popular post on this blog, I have a few issues with some of the lower level buffs in 3.5/Pathfinder. Here are modified descriptions for some of them that I hope are less overpowering, but have some new features to make up somewhat for the nerfing.

Protection

CASTING

School abjuration [good]; Level cleric 1, inquisitor 1, paladin 1, sorcerer/wizard 1
Casting Time 1 standard action
Components V, S, M/DF

EFFECT

Range touch
Target creature touched
Duration 1 min./level (D)
Saving Throw Will negates (harmless); Spell Resistance no; see text

DESCRIPTION

This spell wards a creature from attacks by extraplanar creatures and mental control, and has three major effects.

First, the subject gains a +2 deflection bonus to AC against Outsiders.

Second, the subject gains a +2 resistance bonus to Will saves against mental control magic (including enchantment [charm] effects and enchantment [compulsion] effects).

Third, the spell creates a feedback field around the subject that can damage any Outsider that touches the warded creature, or any spellcaster that attempts to possess it. Whenever the subject is struck by the natural weapons of an Outsider, the attacker takes 2 damage. For every round an Outsider is in physical contact with the subject (e.g., grappling), the Outsider takes 2d6 damage. If the subject is possessed by a spellcaster (not simply compelled, but fully controlled as by Dominate Monster or Magic Jar), the possessor takes 2d6 damage per round. All damage dealt by this field is untyped and bypasses all Damage Reduction.

The protection against contact by Outsiders ends if the warded creature makes an attack against or tries to grapple the blocked creature. Spell resistance can allow a creature to overcome this protection and touch the warded creature without taking damage (the warded creature retains the bonus to AC, Will Saves, and feedback for possession). Outsiders allied with the deity of the caster (for divine versions of this spell) may be immune to all the effects of the spell.

Silence

CASTING

School illusion (glamer); Level bard 2, cleric 2
Casting Time 1 standard action
Components V, S

EFFECT

Range personal or long (400 ft. + 40 ft./level) (see text)
Area 20-ft.-radius burst centered on a creature, object, or point in space
Duration 1 minute/level or 1 round/level (D) (see text)
Saving Throw: Will negates; see text or none (object); Spell Resistance: yes; see text or no (object)

DESCRIPTION

This spell can be cast in one of two ways.

The first method releases the spell energy around the caster. All objects within the radius are muffled by invisible mystical force, reducing their ability to produce noise. All creatures within the burst add the Caster Level of the effect to their Stealth checks to remain quiet (or half the caster level if the Stealth check represents both being quiet and being unseen). Affected creatures can leave the radius after the spell is cast and retain the bonus. Voices are muffled somewhat, but subjects retain the ability to speak and cast spells without penalty. This effect lasts for 1 minute per level.

The second method uses the energy to make an attack on the ability to vocalize. In this case, the spell is used at range. All creatures within the burst must make a Will save. If the save is failed, they lose the ability to make any noise for 1 round per level. This prevents spellcasting, sonic attacks (if created by the creature rather than as a spell-like ability or spell-completion effect), and speech in general. Once affected, leaving the area of effect does not eliminate the silence.

Magic Circle

CASTING

School abjuration [good]; Level cleric 3, paladin 3, sorcerer/wizard 3
Casting Time 1 standard action
Components V, S, F (a circle of silver or silver dust describing the boundaries of the magic circle)

EFFECT

Range special (see text)
Area special (up to 10-ft.-radius) (see text)
Duration 10 min./level
Saving Throw Will negates (special); Spell Resistance no; see text

DESCRIPTION

This spell empowers a circle of silver with warding effects. The circle must be made of unbroken silver, and can be up to 10 ft. in radius. While under the effects of the spell, the circle has Hardness 20 against all attacks to break it, but only 1 HP. If the circle is broken, the spell immediately ends.

Each Outsider that encounters the circle receives a single Will save. If successful, it can ignore the boundary of the circle (but those within are still protected, see below). If the save is a failure, however, the Outsider is unable to cross the circle, attack the circle, or direct any supernatural or spell-like abilities across the boundary of the circle (it can make purely physical ranged attacks across the circle, however).

All creatures within the area gain the effects of a Protection spell, and can enter and leave freely. These effects apply even to Outsiders that have successfully saved against being bound by the circle.

Outsiders can be called (e.g., via Planar Binding) into the circle by a caster standing outside of it. A creature successfully called in this manner is automatically treated as having failed the Will save against the circle. A Dimensional Anchor spell can be cast immediately before using a calling effect in this manner, and will automatically affect the called creature for the same duration as the Magic Circle (though the Dimensional Anchor can be Dismissed independent of the Magic Circle to allow called creatures to return home but not exit into the physical plane).

A Magic Circle can be made Permanent.

D&D 3.X/Pathfinder: Cooldown Casting

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Most MMOs these days use cooldowns for abilities. While this is almost entirely a nod to how the pacing of video game combat is different from tabletop combat, a cooldown system could still work for tabletop. This system has not been tested at all, and probably drastically changes how casters play in D&D.

Characters receive spells the same way as normal: spontaneous casters receive a list of spells known, and prepared casters essentially create a different list of spells known each morning.

Casters should have space on their sheets (or on an extra sheet) to have a different area to track counters for each spell level castable. They should also, of course, have counters of some kind (coins, chips, or beads).

When all spaces are clear of counters, a caster may cast any spell he or she knows/has prepared. After casting a spell, place counters equal to the spell level on the appropriate area (e.g., if casting a 5th level spell, place five counters on the “5th level spell” tracking area).

If a spell level has at least one counter on it, no spell of that level can be cast. For example, if there are three counters on the “5th level spell” area, the caster may not cast any 5th level spells. The caster can still cast spells of levels that do not have counters on them, and then adds the appropriate number of counters to the area.

Once per round, at the beginning of the character’s action, the player may remove one counter from a single spell level:

  • Wizards, Clerics, and other caster classes that would normally have fewer spells per day cannot remove counters from any spell level until the next lowest level is clear of counters (e.g., if both levels 4 and 5 have counters, the counters on 5 cannot be removed until the counters on 4 are all gone).
  • Sorcerers, Bards, and other classes with more spells per day can remove counters from any level, regardless of the state of lower level spells.

Remember that there are 10 rounds per minute: out of combat, a caster with 9th level spells that is completely exhausted will refresh all levels in less than five minutes.

This system should create a natural rhythm to spell use in combat, as casters move around spell levels while other levels are recharging. Access to higher levels spells means more options at the beginning of a fight, and an easier ability to cast while previously expended levels are recharging. Ultimately, even in a protracted fight, all casters should be able to cast first level spells indefinitely (or alternate between spells and other actions to allow bigger spells to recharge). Theoretically, the ease of using lots of medium-to-long duration buffs should be compensated for by having to devote lots of prepared slots to those buffs; unlike standard D&D, lower level spells may see a lot of use in fights, so low level slots might not be advantageously devoted completely to buffs and miscellaneous spells. While this system essentially allows casters to “nova” every fight, it provides drastically fewer spells of the highest levels to do this with; i.e., the caster can cast max level spells every fight, but can’t cast multiple max level spells every fight (except in longer fights).

Pathfinder, Kingmaker: House Rules

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The second adventure path I’ve started running is Kingmaker. As a more sandbox-type setting, I wanted to make the rules less forgiving than my Rise of the Runelords house rules. However, many of the same fixes and imports from Trailblazer are still apparent.

Not listed are the Chase rules or the Weariness and Foraging rules but I’m using those as well.

Character Creation

  • All PCs are built with your choice of 15 point buy (elite array/standard fantasy) or 4d6 standard dice method (reroll only if total ability bonuses come out negative).
  • All PCs get half (rounded up) HP for each die at each level, with a +6 HP bonus at first level.
  • Only core classes are available (Advanced PG classes may be selectively available once it comes out).

Character Advancement and Replacement

  • All prestige classes must be earned through roleplaying/training in game, and then only setting-specific classes (Pathfinder, Hellknight, etc.) or limited core classes will be available.
  • All PCs get half (rounded up) HP for each die at each level, with a +6 HP bonus at first level.
  • We will be tracking experience per normal rules, and using the medium advancement speed for Pathfinder.
  • Characters do not need training to level (except in Prestige Classes), but do require time to rest and reflect, typically with no Weariness tokens (see Weariness). Essentially, leveling happens between games when the characters are in town. Action Points refresh when this happens (see Action Points, under Trailblazer Rules).
  • Item Crafting feats other than Scribe Scroll and Brew Potion are not available in this campaign. Class abilities that grant the ability to imbue items (like the wizard’s bonded item) still function normally. See magic items, below.
  • All experience is evenly shared among all present PCs, and absent and replacement characters gain the party total exp when entering the game.
  • New characters will receive level-appropriate gear, but will purchase magic items from a random assortment of available options.

Magic Items

  • No item crafting feats are available (except Scribe Scroll, Brew Potion, and class-granted abilities).
  • All magic items are assumed to be either:
    • Remnants of Thassilon or other ancient cultures
    • Newly created upon rare and potent forges or altars in the greatest cities
    • The unique and limited product of a culture or being of rare potency
    • Imbued by the essence of a dead hero
  • This is not to say that magic items are incredibly rare, simply that the ability to custom-tailor one’s arsenal is out of the reach of most individuals.
  • Items both found and available for purchase will be predetermined by the modules or random. However, the occasional trader may be willing to special order an item of a particular type for payment up front if he knows where to get it.
  • Player characters can invest hero points into an item to have it level with them (see Hero Points, under Trailblazer Rules).
  • Wands can be recharged much like Staves, even when reduced to 0 charges, to a maximum of 50 charges:
    • The same spell as contained within the wand can be cast to recover 1 charge.
    • Only the wand’s Caster Level in charges can be renewed per day.
    • The recharging caster does not have to meet the caster level of the wand to recharge it.
  • When item creation is allowed, the Spellcraft check for creating the item is replaced by a Caster Level check, much as with Concentration (as, otherwise, there is effectively 0 chance of failure).

Trailblazer Rules

Iterative Attacks

  • When a PC gets his first iterative attack (at BaB +6), he gets the ability to take a full attack and a -2 penalty to all attacks for the round to gain another attack at full BaB.
  • This attack functions similarly to Flurry of Blows, Two Weapon Fighting, and Rapid Shot, and stacks with these abilities.
  • When the character would normally get subsequent iterative attacks (at BaB +11 and +16), he instead reduces the penalty for taking iterative attacks by 1 (e.g., a character with BaB +11 can take an extra attack at only a -1 penalty to all attacks).

Action Points

  • Each character refreshes to 6 Action Points on leveling (or keeps current APs if higher than 6).
  • Events in game may award AP that is added to a party pool. APs in the party pool can be spent by any PC, and do not change when the characters level.
  • APs can be spent to:
    • Improve any d20 roll (attack roll, skill check, saving throw, caster level check, etc.). Roll an action die (typically, d6) and add the result to your d20 check. You may only use an action point to improve the result of a roll before the DM informs you of the outcome of the roll. You may only use one AP per roll to improve any given d20 check.
    • Re-roll a failed d20 roll. In this case, you spend the action point after the DM informs you of the outcome of the roll. Spend an action point to roll again. The second result stands. (You may spend another action point to improve this second roll.) Note that the average improvement when taking the better of two d20 rolls is about +3; in most cases, you are better off using your action point to improve your first roll.
    • Negate a critical threat scored on you by an opponent.
    • Confirm a critical threat without having to re-roll your attack.
    • Use a limited resource ability (“per rest/per day”) an additional time (even if you have exhausted your normal supply).
    • Take an additional attack or move action on your turn. An extra attack is at the same bonus or penalty as your other attacks that round. (Once per turn only.)
    • Emergency stabilize – If you have 0 or fewer hit points and are dying, you may spend an action point to automatically stabilize; you do not have to make a Fort save to stabilize.
    • Make a “second chance” saving throw or SR check on a subsequent round. This use is only permitted if the target failed his first saving throw/ SR check and is subject to an ongoing (not instantaneous) effect.
    • Finally, a PC must spend an AP to bring his soul back from the dead.
  • AP dice are exploding (i.e., on a roll of 6, roll a second d6 and add it).
  • An AP can be invested in any magic item that gives a +1-+5 bonus (armor, weapons, or any item that modifies Natural AC, Deflection, or Resistance). The item’s bonus increases to the characters level divided by 3 (i.e., +2 at 6th, +3 at 9th, etc.). For each item so invested, the character spends an AP on investment and reduces his AP refresh by one.

Aid Another

  • When characters are working together on a task, each rolls the same skill (or a related set of skills).
  • The character that rolled highest is the leader.
  • Each additional character that beat DC 10 adds +2 to the leader’s roll.

Diplomacy

You can propose a trade, agreement, or conflict resolution to another creature with your words; a successful check can then persuade them that accepting it is a good idea. Either side of the deal may involve physical goods, money, services, promises, or abstract concepts like “satisfaction.” The difficulty of the Diplomacy check is based on three factors: who the target is, the relationship between the target and the character making the check, and the risk vs. reward factor of the deal proposed.

The Target: Your Diplomacy check is opposed by the highest Sense Motive or Diplomacy check of all creatures in a group you are trying to influence. All such creatures use the Aid Another rules for skill checks. (For this purpose, a number of characters is only a “group” if they are committed to all following the same course of action. Either one NPC is in charge, or they agree to act by consensus. If each member is going to make up their mind on their own, they do not get the benefit of Aid Another, and you may roll separate checks against each.)

The Relationship: The DC modifier depends not only on the personal relationship between you and the target (if any), but also on the magnitude of their feelings for you.

Relationship Example DC
Intimate A faithful lover or spouse. -10
Friend A long-time friend or family member -7
Ally A member of the same army, team, or church. (Helpful) -5
Acquaintance (positive) A business associate with whom you do regular (satisfactory) business. (Friendly) -2
Just met A town guard (Indifferent) +0
Acquaintance (negative) Someone you have met regularly with negative consequences. (Unfriendly) +2
Enemy A member of an opposing army, team, or church; a bandit. (Hostile) +5
Personal Foe An antagonist who knows and opposes you personally +7
Nemesis Someone who has sworn to you, personally, harm +10

Risk/Reward Analysis: The amount of personal benefit must always be weighed against the potential risks for any deal proposed. It is important to remember to consider this adjustment from the point of view of the NPC; what is highly valuable to one may not be equally valued by another. When dealing with multiple people at once, always consider the benefits to the person who is in clear command, if any hierarchy exists within the group.

Risk/Reward Example DC
Fantastic Great reward, negligible risk; a best case scenario. -10
Favorable Deal favors the target. The reward is good and the risk is tolerable. -5
Even No reward, no risk; or an even swap. +0
Unfavorable Deal does not favor the target. Either the reward is not great enough or the risk is intolerable. +5
Horrible There is no way the deal can favor the target; a worst-case scenario. +10

Success or Failure of Diplomacy: If the Persuasion check beats the DC, the subject accepts the proposal, with no changes or with only minor (mostly idiosyncratic) changes. If the deal favored the target, his attitude improves by one category.

If the check fails, the subject does not accept the deal but may, at the DM’s option, present a counter-offer that would push the deal up on the risk-vs.-reward list. For example, a counter-offer might make an Even deal Favorable for the subject. The character who initiated the Diplomacy check can then simply accept the counter-offer, if they choose; no further check will be required.

If the check fails by more than 10, his attitude worsens by one category.

Complex negotiations may involve multiple checks, especially when determining the details of a treaty for example.

Combat Reactions

  • Every character gets 1 Combat Reaction plus an additional one when he would normally get iterative attacks (at +6, +11, and +16 BaB). Combat Reflexes adds positive Dex mod to BaB to determine when one gets new Reactions (e.g., +2 Dex gets new reactions at +4, +9, +14).
  • The reactions refresh at the beginning of the character’s turn, and can be used as immediate reactions when the monsters or the other PCs act. They can be used for:
    • Attack of Opportunity: Same as before, just uses up a Reaction.
    • Aid Attack: Add +2 to the melee attack of another PC against a target threatened.
    • Aid Defense: Subtract 2 from the attack of a target threatened when it makes a melee attack against another PC.
    • Dodge: When an attack is declared against you, but before the result is announced, add half your BaB to your AC for that attack.
    • Parry: When an attack is declared against you, but before the result is announced, add half your BaB plus your Shield AC as DR X/- for that attack.

Attacks of Opportunity

  • Moving around in someone’s threat range doesn’t provoke an AoO, only trying to leave it without a retreat or 5-foot step.
  • Other actions like spellcasting or drinking a potion still provoke normally.
  • Reach weapons still allow an AoO on moving adjacent (as the target leaves the threatened space), but creatures with natural reach that covers all space up to the reach will not provoke AoOs from approaching the monster.

Downtime Money

  • Craft, Profession, and Perform all use the same system for earning money:
    • This system can be attempted once per week spent working for money.
    • Declare a DC (representing the quality of work the character is attempting)
    • Roll a test of the skill used vs. the declared DC. If the roll is successful, multiply the result times half the DC and earn that much money in silver pieces. If the roll is a failure, earn no money for this week.
  • Lifestyle costs are in effect unless superseded by in-game cost of living systems.

Dying

  • Characters are Disabled between 0 HP and their Level in negative HP (e.g., a 3rd level character is Disabled between 0 and -3 HP).
  • Characters are Dead at a negative number equal to 0 minus Constitution minus level (e.g., a 3rd level character with Con 12 is dead at -15 HP).
  • Healing and stabilization is per the normal rules.

Initiative and Combat Order

Combat order is a shared experience:

  • All enemies act on the same initiative roll (generally an average of enemy initiative scores), and can coordinate their actions if appropriate.
  • During surprise rounds and the first round of combat, PCs roll initiative normally, and act in their normal order until the enemies act in the first non-surprise round.
  • After the enemies have acted in the first round of combat, initiative becomes a tradeoff between enemies and PCs: the PCs go, and then the enemies go (and allies might go on a third tick if appropriate).
  • PCs are encouraged to coordinate their actions on their initiative mark, though this coordination may be cut short if it becomes excessively complex for what could be conveyed in a combat round.
  • Once the PCs have coordinated their actions, actions are resolved clockwise around the table unless some actions need to take place before others (e.g., “I have to move over there so the cleric can heal me.”).
  • PCs may split their move and standard actions, to perform maneuvers such as two PCs moving to flank an enemy before either takes an attack

D&D 3.5/Pathfinder Overpowered Spells

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My Rise of the Runelords campaign has marked the first time I’ve actually run a game for a high level party in the 10 years or so since 3.0 came out. Somehow, most of my previous games ended around 12th level. What I learned is that magic starts to get disgusting pretty quickly past mid level. I’m not talking about the symbols and the other save-or-die effects that are constantly quoted. I’m talking about the lower levels spells (primarily buffs) that have been gradually overpowered to the point that you really start to notice them when your casters have enough slots to be running a bunch of them all the time. As a GM, you don’t ever really have as much time for mastering the interactions of spells as any player, and it’s rather depressing to see something you’d intended to be a major challenge to the party shut down by a handful of long-duration buffs the caster runs as a matter of course. Thus, the observations below:

General Observations

Spells, particularly lower level spells, should probably never provide a blanket immunity to core capabilities of higher level casters/spells. Unless it’s something of very marginal use that’s only annoying, not actively harmful, it’s a big problem when a spell specifies “immune.”

I started down this path when I noticed that Freedom of Movement completely invalidated the core shtick of my group’s monk: Grappling. It didn’t make casters much harder to grapple, it made them immune, no matter how good his grappling ability got (and it got very good indeed). In its original conception, any cleric that expected to fight the party and had heard about their monk would be a fool not to cast this spell, and then the player would never get to do his favorite thing.

In general, I figure that any spell that creates an immunity should probably either be retooled to a very high resistance (that scales with caster level, possibly to a max for the spell level as the Cure spells do) or offer a contested caster level roll (say, attacker’s CL + Spell Level vs. defender’s CL + Spell Level + 20). This should create a chance, even if it’s a small one, for a higher level character/spell to punch through defenses that are easy to erect.

Specific Spells

0 Level

  • Create Water: This one is a Pathfinder problem because they let casters use unlimited level 0 spells per day. A GM is advised to declare that this pulls water vapor out of the air, and is thus far less effective in dry environments and/or when cast in rapid succession, if he or she ever intends to run a desert campaign.

1st Level

  • Protection from Alignment: At some point, this fairly long-duration, first level buff became a blanket immunity to most of the Enchantment school and a large chunk of Conjuration (Summoning) in addition to being a fairly decent defensive buff against evil creatures. A world with this spell is a world where it’s foolish to be an Enchanter unless you’re true neutral, and it’s not worthwhile to summon any kind of outsider to assist you unless they happen to wield weapons. For future uses, I’d probably roll the non-domination Enchantment immunities back into the the standard +2 save bonus, give summoned creatures a Will save against the spell DC to attack, and run the domination immunity as discussed above (with a contested caster + spell level check to punch through).
  • Magic Missile: I know it’s iconic. I know it’s little changed from its original wording. But at some point, a first level damage spell shouldn’t be the go-to fallback for high level casters. An interesting side effect of the spell is that it also eats through Mirror Image at high levels. Really, I think the key problem with this spell is that it deals unresistable damage. If it did the caster’s choice of fire, cold, or electricity damage (even determined at time of casting) it would at least be somewhat balanced at higher levels.
  • Disguise Self: This spell isn’t so much overpowered as it is annoying, particularly in how inexpensive it makes a Hat of Disguise for being 1st level. A character with access to this spell becomes an infiltrator unparalleled. I’m not sure what one could do to fix it without making it useless, however.

2nd Level

  • Resist Energy: 10 energy resistance is always good. This spell already scales to be a very long duration buff at high levels. It probably doesn’t also need to scale to 30 energy resistance. Did you know that there aren’t a lot of energy spells that can consistently do more than 30 damage that aren’t subjected to multiple reductions by this spell? 30 Fire Resistance declaws Meteor Swarm.
  • Glitterdust: I hope you didn’t plan on ever using a monster that was invisible again after third level. This spell should probably use the Dispel Magic mechanics and just be a targeted Dispel to suppress Invisibility-related effects, rather than automatically making them pointless.
  • Scorching Ray: Like Magic Missile, this spell may simply scale too well, and is another go-to attack spell even at high level. I’ve heard that this one is particularly disgusting in the hand of Arcane Tricksters, as each ray can get a sneak attack.  It’s probably fine, and faster to deal with at the table, if it becomes a single-target Fireball: 1d6 damage per level to one target as a ranged touch, capping at 10d6.
  • Knock: This spell has the twin effects of potentially invalidating the rogue and becoming a required spell in modules to open anything magically locked. It should probably require the caster to make some kind of level check as an automatic attempt to open the lock at the lock’s normal DC. Conversely, magically locked devices should probably have some kind of DC, even a very high one, for rogues to get them open, rather than relying on the characters having access to Knock.
  • Delay Poison: Did you know that this spell technically makes you immune to poison for many, many hours? Sure, you’re supposed to take the effects later, but having to remember that makes a lot of extra work for the GM. And do poison-related spells, such as Cloudkill, even technically still exist later? This spell should probably just be a flat bonus to saving throws vs. poison and/or be cast to delay the effects of a single, specific application of poison.
  • Silence: Apparently, Silence was originally just meant to help armor-wearers stealth. Very quickly, it became a mage-killer spell. Even though it theoretically has a save for the target, no one ever targets the caster; they target the tank or, even better, a rock that can be carried by the tank or thrown next to the caster. I’d suggest changing this to a bonus to Stealth in a radius when cast normally, with the option to target a caster specifically (and allow the save) if you want to prevent verbal spells.

3rd Level

  • Magic Circle against Alignment: This has all the problems of of Protection from Alignment, plus it’s bigger and has a larger duration. It’s also changed a lot from 2nd edition, where it didn’t ever seem to be intended to be an aura that traveled with the caster. Even 3rd edition seemed to have intended it to be static, but accidentally used the term “emanation” to describe its radius instead of “burst.” From 3.5 onward, it became an aura. The spell is fine with the Protection from Alignment adjustments described earlier and if it’s changed from an emanation to a burst, thus staying put once it’s cast for both uses.

4th Level

  • Scrying: They still haven’t fixed Scry/Teleport. Pathfinder’s description of the spell is almost there, but it still lets you teleport to the target. I’d go so far as to say you only see the target against a completely indistinct background. That way, the spell serves its purpose as a spying tool without also making it a perfect weapon to insta-gank the target, wherever he or she may be.
  • Greater Invisibility: It doesn’t break. It used to at least make the attacker partly visible after the first attack. Now, it’s sneak attacks, all spell long. A rogue would be crazy not to ask for this spell to be memorized and cast every day. The spell is 4th level, and invisibility has a lot of methods to disable it. But damn.
  • Freedom of Movement: As mentioned above, it’s really annoying to a grapple-specialized character to be blanket immune to grappling. I changed this in my game to a + Caster Level bonus to CMD vs. grappling and to checks to escape grapples. It still had mostly the same effect, but preserved the chance that the monk would get a hold on the target. (However, as a side note, attempts to escape a grapple should really be a contested CMB check, not a check against the grappler’s CMD. Someone who’s doing a lot of grappling probably has a truly disgusting CMD, particularly if a monk, as CMD adds in Dex and all deflection and evasion bonuses to AC. Those bonuses don’t exactly explain why it’d be harder to escape the character’s grapple.)

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