D&D: Level-Locked Skills

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Yeah, yeah, I know I’ve done this twice already. This time, rather than solving my issues with margin of success in D&D, I’m instead specifically targeting the high-level divide between specialists and incompetents (i.e., how there’s no way to make a skill DC challenging for one PC without making it impossible for the rest of the group). I’m also trying to do something that’s less invasive so it could be added onto a standard 3.X or Pathfinder game without redoing a bunch of other systems to accommodate. It’s largely based on The Alexandrian’s skill musings, but stripping out the potential 5E system of descriptive qualifiers. It’s also probably similar to 4E’s system in a lot of ways.

Skill Rank

A character’s skill rank is determined by the following factors:

  • Character level or Hit Dice: Always add your level to your skill checks (you can either write this in or just remember it so skills don’t have to be updated as often).
  • Class Skills: All of the character’s class skills (including those gained by multiclassing) gain a permanent +1 to their rank.
  • Feats: Skill bonus feats add their normal value to a skill (+3 or +2/+2). However, only take the highest bonus from feats (i.e., a +2/+2 feat coupled with a skill focus in one of those skills is only +2/+3 not +2/+5). GMs should offer players that initially buy a +2/+2 and want to upgrade it the ability to swap the initial +2/+2 feat out with a second skill focus for the other skill.
  • Magic: Add +1 for every +5 that a magic spell or item would normally grant the character for a skill (e.g., a Ring of Jumping gives a +1 Acrobatics instead of its normal +5).
  • Racial Bonuses: Racial skill bonuses that give a +2 instead give a +1. Racial (or size) bonuses that give a +4 instead give a +2.
  • Other Modifiers: For other skill bonuses not listed, grant +1 per +4 normally gained (e.g., improve jumping ability by +1 for every +10 movement speed and give Rogues a +1 for every +4 they would normally get for Disable Device).
  • Mastery: For every 10 skill ranks earned, you can master a skill. Add +2 to that skill’s rank. You can only master a given skill once.

A character also gains a +2 circumstance bonus to a skill check if his or her relevant ability score (not bonus) is equal to or greater than the DC (e.g., an Acrobatics check gains a +2 against any DC 15 or less if your Dexterity is 15). This provides an early reward for natural talent that eventually gives ways to masteries. It provides a continual bonus if you focus heavily on one ability score without letting escalating ability bonus widely extend the skill rank range.

This rank system effectively means that a character specializing in a skill will have a total of +6 (plus a circumstance bonus) greater than an incompetent party member of the same level before magic and other misc bonuses (which will likely only extend the range by a few points until very high levels). Effectively, a challenge that is very difficult for an incompetent party member should still have some chance of failure for a specialist (but the specialist still has a definite advantage).

Difficulty

The DC of an opposed check is the target’s total skill rank +10. Trying to detect a hiding 5th level rogue with a +3 bonus to Stealth (mastered class skill) is a DC 18 Perception check.

The DC of an unopposed check is based purely on the “level” of the challenge +10. Effectively, assign an unopposed challenge a level based on at what character level a completely untrained character should have even odds just based on years of generic adventuring competence. For example:

  • There’s a pretty decent chance that any adventurer has heard of the basic weaknesses of an appropriately challenging monster, so the DC for knowledge rolls to know about a monster is 10 + CR (with a small increase for monsters that are supposed to be rare and mysterious).
  • Even the party fighter eventually gets savvy to what spells are being cast, so a spellcraft DC to identify a spell is equal to 15 + the spell’s minimum caster level (giving those with no spellcraft a 50/50 shot of identifying spells three levels lower than their own wizard can cast).
  • In general, written skill DCs in the 10-20 range should be appropriate and actually stay challenging to the party for longer. Do consider collapsing DCs that escalate at a rate of +4 or +5 to +1 in order to match the decline in skill bonus spread.

Note: For a tighter range of DCs and a bigger advantage to specializing, you could go 4E style and halve both bonus from level and DC from level (e.g., a level 6 character only gets +3 from level but that’s okay because level 6 challenges are only DC 13).

System Review: CthuluTech, Part 3

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Fightin’ Crime in a Future Time

Let’s talk about the CthuluTech combat system.

In general, it’s about what you’d expect from a skill based, gunfire-favoring system that’s not too far removed from modern horror. There’s a margin of success based damage modifier. There’s a list of special attack options that includes automatic fire, using cover, dual wielding, and all the usual stuff. There’s even a scatter diagram and a common item hardness chart. You’ll feel right at home paging through.

There are a few things it does that are unusual, though.

First, and perhaps most significantly, you always get a defensive roll at your full dodge skill without using an action (unless you’re restrained or something), and this sets the difficulty for an opponent’s attack. Note that your dodge skill is on the same scale as your opponent’s attack skill in most cases. So characters with a high Agility + Dodge are significantly likely to be missed by attacks. One of the major opponents of the setting, the Mi-Go (or Migou as the game calls them), are expected to start with an Agility + Dodge higher than is possible for a starting character (they get a big Agility bonus and start with Dodge 4 when PCs have a starting skill cap of 3). Effectively, combat is a huge whiff fest against a lot of opponents until they randomly roll low on dodge.

Thus, extra actions are a big help. There’s a standard multiple-action penalty, but you can’t even try to take multiple actions unless your Agility is high. So Agility makes it drastically more likely that you’re never going to take damage, gives you more chances to deal damage, and is also the operative ability for melee attacks. You want to buy this ability as high as you can. At least it’s not also the ability for shooting (that’s Perception).

So you’ve managed to land a hit against an opponent who didn’t have an overwhelming Agility advantage. Now you add up damage dice. The calculation for this is generally pretty straightforward: base dice for weapon (plus Strength bonus in melee) plus a bonus die for every 5 MoS on the attack roll. These are the standard d10s used everywhere else in the game, but for this roll you don’t count them the way you would when making a skill roll, you just add them all up. Damage dice are generally on the same scale as skill dice (i.e., you’re often rolling 1-4), so they could have been on the same curve as skill checks. Instead, they have a way more swingy high end and bigger numbers in general.

Because damage swings so high, you get a wounds system that can account for that. All characters have a lot of hit points, divided into five tiers with mounting penalties.

Effectively, combat seems to be mostly a very fiddly series of misses, complex to account for but small bits of damage, and periodic lucky rolls that obliterate the target.

Mecha Damage

Mostly, the reason for the fiddly damage seems to be an interesting conceit: the reason D-Engines have the side effect of giving pilots a sixth sense about their vehicles is so mechs can just use your own combat skills. You don’t pilot them via intense training so much as you just get in one, transfer your prioperception to its limbs, and are able to seamlessly translate your physical combat skills to mech combat. The Mech Piloting skill is used for things with no clear human analog, like flying, but you use your normal combat skills in mech combat.

So, while mechs have their own hit points, they use the same format as human-scale hit points. So human scale combat has bulk HP so mech combat can bring all the joy of marking off big blocks of hit points you used to love in BattleTech. Theoretically. In actuality, mech combat does add several more rules to baseline combat like acceleration speeds, tracking which mech systems are taken offline at different damage thresholds, and special self-repair systems that only function in the middle damage thresholds (because they don’t turn on until the mech has more than superficial damage, but are heavily reduced and deactivated at lower tiers… and they don’t really heal very much anyway).

Ultimately, I found that it was too complicated to really be on the same field of playability as regular combat in the game as it professed (and regular combat is already cumbersome), but attempting to be in line with human-scale combat meant that it wasn’t really fun as a standalone mech combat game either. As mentioned earlier, I played a lot of BattleTech back in the day, and even with the massive complications of two pages of small-print charts, multi-location HP tracking, heat sinks, ammo management, and the difficulty of customizing your mech without the aid of a computer program, CthuluTech‘s mech combat feels nearly as complicated without being nearly as fun. Perhaps I’d feel differently if I was running it with a group more invested in mech combat and against opponents without the Mi-Go’s massive dodge bonus, but I’m not optimistic.

Also, having mech scale combat required them to add mega-damage to the game (sorry, Integrity damage) so human-scale weapons can’t blow up mechs. Except they created “hybrid damage” for the occasional human-scale attack that can damage mechs… except it mysteriously does human-scale damage to humans and mech-scale damage to mechs. Effectively, there are weapons that will do the same percentage of damage against a human as against a mech with the same attack and damage roll… for some reason. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Spells

There is a spell/ritual-based magic system in the book, and it is pretty Lovecraftian in its scope. It requires a lot of downtime to work, but often produces useful things that you could use later if you wanted to make a PC spellcaster for some reason. So it’s probably pretty decent, even though the player that got the caster in my one-shot wasn’t too pleased that his magic wasn’t super useful in a shorter game.

Conclusion

Making a Supers Plot Web

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I’ve been watching the Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon on Netflix recently. One of the cool things about it is that it freely draws on regular canon and Ultimate canon to create a more unified set of origins for everything. Genetic villains tend to come out of Connors’ lab while tech villains are mostly involved with OsCorp. This suggests to me a fairly simple way of making superhero games feel cohesive.

To start with, make a few core plot nodes; one per player ought to be plenty. Specifically, each one ought to speak directly to the origins and agenda of at least one player character. They can be either concrete things like businesses, labs, or shadowy masterminds, or esoteric things like magical confluences, a particular catastrophe, or a tightly focused theme.

When you introduce a new complication to the story, connect it to one of these nodes. This villain was powered by the same thing that happened to this PC. This natural disaster mirrors the other one that a PC failed to prevent. This new NPC has mysterious ties to that PC’s reclusive nemesis. This connection may be obvious (the PCs are at the lab when an accident creates a new threat) or the source of a long term mystery (who is this mercenary villain working for?). Regardless, it is a primary link that informs all of the future interactions with the complication.

However, each time the complication features prominently in a game, create a weaker connection to some other element on the map (a central node or one of the other complications). This week, the PC’s mysterious girlfriend has been kidnapped by the mercenary villain. Is this just to get at the heroes, or is there something else up? Next week, the unstoppable monster created in the lab comes under the control of the shadowy mastermind. What is the mastermind planning?

Once you’ve got several sessions under your belt, add a few deeper plot nodes: new major complications that change the field or conspiracies that are just beginning to show their edges. Tie each of the original core plot nodes to one of these elements, and then start attaching complications to them as they recur.

Ultimately, you’ll have a pretty deep and cohesive plot web with fairly minimal up front effort. New plots and threats you add become interesting by virtue of having a clear relation to other details the players have been dealing with. Recurring plots and threats become deeper each time they make a repeat appearance (allowing you to only focus development on elements that were a big hit with the players, rather than overly building up a threat that falls flat).

And, of course, you don’t just have to use this for supers games.

System Review: CthuluTech, Part 2

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Arcanotech School is Hard

With the premise and dice system out of the way, the best way to describe the Framewerk system is that it owes an awful lot to early-90s skill-based game design. If this game had come out alongside Fading Suns in 1997, it would have been only slightly behind the curve on design elements. However, it came out in 2008, where massively complex simulationist skill-based chargen had, I thought, largely been eliminated.

Character creation in this game has it all:

  • Linear-cost point-buy attributes: you can min-max to get very high scores in the stats you’re likely to roll a lot and mediocre scores in dump stats (e.g., Strength just provides a minimal melee damage bonus so can be safely dropped for ranged characters)
  • Agility as king: you want this attribute as high as you can afford
  • Equally priced skills of widely varying utility: you could spend your points on Artist and Trivia or on Marksman and Dodge
  • Derived Attributes: these are particularly noteworthy because you regularly have to average multiple traits only to compare them to a chart (i.e., you could have just added them and then looked at the chart)
  • Cheats: that’s right, this game has Freebie Points, and you need them because they’re integral to having…
  • Merits and Flaws: excuse me, Assets and Drawbacks… for everyone who missed the min-maxing potential of getting bonus character points for flaws you never expect to come up; note that even White Wolf dropped the freebie points for flaws concept in 2004

Alright, admittedly I’m being overly harsh and a lot of other recent games have a lot of those same features. But they usually don’t feature all of them. As noted, not even White Wolf features all of them anymore. In a lot of ways, character generation feels like someone making a few big house rules to kit bash Trinity or some other 90s White Wolf game into their desired genre.

But maybe you like this old school fiddly character generation method. It served us well for over a decade, after all. In that case, the character generation system only features two real flaws… but they’re glaring ones.

The first is that this game is actually three games with a unified character creation system:

  1. In the core game, you’re government-sponsored occult investigators. You run through arcologies and bureaucracies hunting monsters and conspiracies. It’s the classic Call of Cthulu or Delta Green tropes in the future setting. For this game, you’ll want to make an arcanotechnician, intelligence agent, occult scholar, or soldier.
  2. However, you might not just be government investigators, but actually mech pilots fighting on the front lines of the war in your D-Engine-powered mecha, possibly even in the organic hybrid Engels. For this game, you’ll want to make an Engel pilot or mecha pilot. You might also choose to make an arcanotechnician for this if the GM isn’t going to provide you an NPC to do the boring downtime work of fixing the mechs.
  3. Finally, you might just be playing as a member of the Eldritch Society, a heroic cult that operates outside of the government to track down shapeshifting infiltrators and destroy them using their interdimensional monster forms. They’re effectively a Lovecraftian take on Werewolf: the Apocalypse. If you play anything but a Tager (the shapeshifter character type) in this game, you’ll be woefully underpowered in combat.

If you try to create a hybrid of these games and let players take any character type they want, there’s going to be a substantial amount of sitting around. Mech combat takes a huge amount of time, so anyone that isn’t a mech pilot is going to spend large parts of sessions sitting out if those happen on screen. Tagers are grossly overpowered in human-scale combat, and will quickly outshine characters that thought they were combat characters in a non-mech game. Even the example scenarios in the back of the book assume that games will break down into one of the three types. But character generation doesn’t differentiate them in any way for players.

The second flaw harkens to the title of this section: there’s a very unbalanced amount of simulationism inherent in the skill lists. Specifically, to become an arcanotechnician or arcanotech engineer, you have to take a huge stack of prerequisite skills such as (regular) technician and earth sciences to high levels. And the prereqs don’t overlap much: if you want to be both a technician and an engineer (i.e., can both fix and build weird tech), you might barely have enough skill points to buy both skills at chargen. Note that both of these skills, and most of their prerequisites, are highly situational and mostly take realistic amounts of time, thus will only be useful in downtime in a typical game. So you could spend all your skill points to become an excellent engineer who is basically useless in a typical scenario, or just buy tons of combat and investigation skills and constantly be useful.

All told, there are around 50 skills in the core book, and experienced gamers are going to be able to very quickly identify and purchase the ones that are likely to matter in play, while less experienced players wind up with characters that are much less competent unless the GM is constantly looking for ways to apply their skills.

Perhaps the weirdest thing about this whole character creation system is that it would have clearly been D20 if it had come out just a couple of years earlier. The attributes map easily to D&D ability scores, the professions could easily become classes, and the skill list makes a lot more sense if there are classes with different in-class skills and available ranks to spend. Hell, there is even an extra playable race with minor stat differences from humans and combat skills are already kept distinct from the main skill list.

I’m really sad CthuluTech missed the D20 boom, because, besides making character creation work better, it would have drastically improved the combat system… which I’ll talk about next week.

Part 3

D&D: Adrenaline

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While this is written for D&D, it could theoretically be repurposed for any system that supports a running series of fights.

I’ve been playing Heroes of Neverwinter lately on Facebook: it’s an isometric video game using a stripped-down 4E system to run party-based dungeon battles. One of the things about 4E that got stripped out was the ability to spend healing surges between encounters. Consequently, without using healing potions, your party will often slowly get worn down past what per-encounter and per-dungeon healing abilities are available, making the last room far more difficult than it would be if it were the first room. This is, of course, how pre-4E D&D often plays when fighting a series of encounters. It also reminds me of Pendragon mass combats, where players receive a series of encounters with enemy knights who have to be knocked unconscious or unhorsed in one shot to count as a real victory… and new opponents tend to come in fresh all battle long while the PCs are slowly ground down every time they lose a roll.

This kind of thing is a major cause of the 15 minute adventuring day problem: players know that they’re going to be constantly fighting encounters with fresh enemies that don’t give out any more exp or treasure if the PCs aren’t fresh as well, so do everything possible to enter every fight at full power. Most MMOs have flat out embraced this behavior such that PCs recover to full HP and other resources very quickly outside of combat, making most dungeon crawls a series of completely unrelated battles: for the most part, you bring precisely the same resources to encounter 6 as you did to encounter 1.

Some MMOs, however, include mechanics that incentivize quickly rolling from encounter to encounter rather than resting back to full health in between. The ones I’m most familiar with are City of Heroes and Champions Online. CoH has an archetype that builds a damage bonus meter during combat that quickly drops when out of combat, encouraging blitzing through multiple fights. CO has several powers that build stacks of some kind of buff in combat that quickly fall off to nothing outside of combat. Additionally, most characters in CO only recover energy up to a very low threshold outside of combat and have to be attacking to get more, such that certain high-cost powers can’t be used to lead off a fight… unless you’re rushing from one battle to the next while your energy bar is still full.

The following system is a rudimentary attempt to do something similar in D&D to encourage players to keep up momentum in a series of encounters rather than doing their utmost to enter each one fresh. It’s the carrot to Dungeon Inertia’s stick, and either or both can be used to whittle down the 15 minute adventuring day.

Basics

  • Every character has Adrenaline points and an Adrenaline bonus (these are per character and not shared across the group).
  • Adrenaline points are earned one per round in which a character makes at least one attack or casts an offensive spell (i.e., not a buff or heal).
  • Whenever Adrenaline points reach a certain threshold, the character’s Adrenaline bonus goes up. By default, this is every 5 points (e.g., 1-4 points is +0, 5-9 is +1, 10-14 is +2, etc.). This threshold can rise past a certain point if it’s becoming very easy to get a really high bonus (e.g., past +5, the thresholds change to 1/10).
  • The character loses one Adrenaline point per minute outside of combat. The GM may choose to have this loss halted or slowed when the between-fight time is tense and/or outside of the player’s control (e.g., in a Pendragon-style mass combat, Adrenaline wouldn’t decay at all during the battle even though there’s theoretically a lot of time in between fights, because the player can’t do much to make these fights come quicker).
  • The Adrenaline bonus applies to several types of roll. Suggested applications include Initiative, physical skill and ability checks, and critical hit confirmation rolls. Limited use situations (such as feats) might let a character apply it to even more rolls.

Feats and Abilities

Once players have become accustomed to using the system, it’s entirely possible to allow Feats and other special abilities to selectively extend the benefits of Adrenaline, and even use it as a new resource. For example:

  • Momentum Blow: a feat that requires Power Attack as a prerequisite and allows you to spend Adrenaline points equal to your current Adrenaline bonus to add that bonus to your next attack roll.
  • Berzerker’s Adrenaline: a Barbarian special ability that allows the character to get an extra Adrenaline point for each round in Rage (but lose all these bonus points when the Rage ends).
  • Exciting Explosion: a feat that allows a spellcaster to gain an one Adrenaline point for each enemy caught in an AoE instead of just one point for the whole attack.
  • Better Part of Valor: a feat that allows a spellcaster to spend all current Adrenaline points to cast Expeditious Retreat, Fly, or Dimension Door as a Swift action.

Enemy Adrenaline

As a counter to the idea that enemies are almost always completely fresh on being encountered by the PCs, the GM can choose to sometimes expend their HP or other resources in exchange for Adrenaline as if they’ve also been involved in a running fight. A suggested tradeoff is 10% of their HP or major limited-use ability lost per 5 Adrenaline Points/+1 Adrenaline bonus. For many enemies, the greater chance at winning initiative and making an extra attack for the battle may offset the loss.

The GM might also start a completely fresh group of enemies at a small Adrenaline penalty when surprised by the PCs (and, vice versa, might do the same to PCs surprised while resting at 0 Adrenaline).

System Review: CthuluTech, Part 1

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Mind-Bending Power

CthuluTech is basically BattleTech plus Lovecraft by way of anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion. In the mid 21st century, humanity begins rediscovering old Mythos tomes, resulting in magic becoming less secretive and, more importantly, using insanity-causing dimensional theory to create an engine that produces nearly limitless clean power (sufficient to make mechs feasible). Unfortunately, the new adventure into space and ocean colonization this enables pisses off forces both undersea and extraterrestrial, and also suggests to a bunch of apocalypse cults that it’s a good time to really work at bringing back their elder gods. So there’s a multi-front war with mechs, other high-tech stuff, magic, and monsters. Give Voltron a more Lovecraftian twist and you’re most of the way there.

It’s a pretty neat setting, all things considered. And it’s usually interesting to explore “A Lovecraftian Take on” whatever non-horror sci-fi, fantasy, or supernatural genre you care to think of. I have heard that the later sourcebooks for the game line tend to follow the thought of “Lovecraft monsters have tentacles… we’re anime-inspired…” to its inevitable and squick-inducing conclusion, but I’m only working from the core book, so that’s not a concern for my review.

On the inspirations front, I’m pretty well qualified. I played a lot of BattleTech as a teen, and the old tactical-RPG Mechwarrior game was one of the first PC games I ever played (even if I didn’t stick with the video games when they became shooters). I’ve read a lot of Lovecraft, even helped make a short film on the subject, and am familiar with the Cthulu-related RPGs on the market. I’m not a big fan of anime, but I have seen a little bit of NGE and a lot of the Americanized 80s cartoons like Voltron and Saber Rider that seem to be right in the wheelhouse of giant robots vs. monsters.

So I’m more than passingly familiar with the subject matter and I like the ideas behind the specific setting. By all rights, this should be a game that I’m excited to play and run, and for which I’m willing to overlook small flaws just to get at the monster-smashing eldritch technology goodness.

Unfortunately, there are significantly more than just a few small flaws.

Core Mechanics

The game engine for CthuluTech is called Framewerk, and is clearly intended to be used for other projects. It features a pretty straightforward, if idiosyncratic, core dice mechanic:

  1. Choose an attribute and pick flat mods: this is your base result
  2. Choose a skill and roll that many d10s
  3. Determine which d10s you keep and add their result to the base result
  4. Compare the total number to a target, with margin of success improving results

Step 3 is the idiosyncratic part. Determining which dice to keep is a multi-step process:

  1. Keep the highest die unless you have a higher double or a straight (e.g., I roll 9, 7, 3 and keep 9)
  2. If you have doubles, add them together unless the highest die is bigger or you have a higher straight (e.g., I roll 9, 6, 6 and keep 6+6=12)
  3. If you have a straight (a sequential series of 3+ dice), add them together and keep them unless you have a higher single or double (e.g., I roll a 9, 8, 7 and add them all together to get a 24)

The dice curve for this system is weird as hell. Because of the way doubles and straights work, you’ll frequently get probability spikes at certain totals surrounded by impossible rolls (e.g., on three dice, there are 6 results that give you 21, 24, and 27 but no results for 22, 23, 25, or 26). I had to brute-force the results, and only got up to three dice (but it’s rare for starting players to roll more than three dice on a skill). One die’s average roll is 5.5 with a high of 10, two dice gives you an average of 7.7 and a high of 20, and three dice gives you an average of 9.7 and a high of 27.

So, despite how strange it is, the dice system does seem to give out a pretty steady +2 average result for each die you get with a gradually diminishing spread on the top end (assuming greater numbers of dice follow basically the same trend). And, in practice, even though it’s confusing to describe, it quickly becomes pretty easy to use at the table. Well, not just easy, but fun as well: the act of picking out doubles and straights isn’t significantly more time consuming than just counting successes on d10s, White Wolf-style, and my players really seemed to enjoy it.

Unfortunately, calculating dice results was about the only thing they enjoyed about the system. And I’ll start to explain why next week.

Part 2

Theorycraft: D&D and Point Buy

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Paizo posted the playtest for the new race-creation system for an upcoming Pathfinder hardback last week, to general buzz on the internet. The dominant note I saw was how easy it is to make a hideously powerful race that’s considered balanced by the system: for example, a race with +8 Intelligence, -2 Strength, -2 Charisma, and spell resistance equal to 11 + HD is priced the same as any basic character race. Part of the issue is not accounting for uber-specialization while another part is potentially undervaluing rules elements that can be exploited (Sean K. Reynolds’ point-buy feats list was mentioned as significantly undervaluing Natural Spell for druids, for example). But the biggest part of it, I feel, is just the danger inherent in trying to retrofit a system with the low granularity of D&D with high-granularity modifications.

Back in the early days of 3.0, I attempted to convert the system to point buy. I proceeded from a similar assumption as Paizo seems to with their race building guidelines: all classes are basically balanced against each other, so by accounting for their similar features one can also come up with valid pricing for their special features. The document did come out looking fairly authoritative, was easily understood in play, and could be used to recreate the existing classes pretty accurately. And then the cherry-picking began: wizards with barbarian HP, rangers with full Druid spell progression and shapeshifting, and so on.

Ultimately what I discovered was that, if D&D elements are balanced against each other at all, it’s because they are package deals. You can give classes like Druid a bunch of situational abilities like Resist Nature’s Lure and Trackless Step because they aren’t optional, the same way you can give Dwarves a +2 Appraise vs. stone or metal items. Players that want everything else the element provides will accept the situational abilities as what they are: lines on the character sheet that are only useful in rare circumstances. But as soon as you give a player the ability to trade 2-3 situational abilities for one consistently useful one, the dross falls by the wayside. It’d be suboptimal for a Druid to keep Resist Nature’s Lure if it could be traded in toward more attack bonus or HP just like it would be weird for a Dwarf to keep his miscellaneous bonuses to saves and appraisal when he could get a pretty beefy SR instead. That’s pretty much the benefit of a level/package-based game system: you can get players to take flavorful but less useful traits along with the things they really want, and nobody feels like they’ve made a bad choice.

The Pathfinder race system is, at least, intended to only be available to the GM, so it should have fewer optimization problems than my point-buy class system did. However, it does proceed from the faulty assumption that, because all the elements (races) are basically balanced against each other, there must by some mathematical solution to award value to each individual element. And that’s just not the case. A +2 Appraise can’t be accurately figured because it’s a flavor addition to Dwarves; it’s either worth nothing to you, or is a fun way to sometimes show off your Dwarfiness. But it’s certainly not worth the same as a free skill focus (no, really, the only reason in the world to take that instead of Skill Focus would be if you also wanted to take a Skill Focus in Appraise and become the best appraiser of metal and stonework ever).

In the long run, the best way to balance races is probably the one that has worked forever: you make one up, give it some abilities, and then start polling players to see if they’d play it. If it’s about equally attractive to your players as the other races, then it’s balanced, no matter what its actual array of abilities looks like.

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