The Skip-Combat Dice

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I’ve subscribed to the Pathfinder Adventure Paths since the beginning, and run quite a few of them. One of the things I’ve come to dislike about the experience is the accountancy of combats involved in published modules of all stripes: especially since D&D 3.0 set forth the logic of shooting for four-to-five even-CR encounters per day and 13 such encounters to level, the traditional format of modules has been to pad the content with fights that aren’t particularly interesting. Sure, the module authors try to make them interesting, with all kinds of tricks, but at the end of the day there can only be so many encounters that are relevant to the story arc, and a bunch of things that are in the way.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if I were more willing to retune encounters to be a more interesting fit for my party, instead of speed bumps. Brandes does a lot of this kind of thing: his games feature fewer, more challenging fights. But, to me, the main virtue of purchasing an adventure path is that most of the crunchy work has been done for me, and if I’m going to adjust all the combats it’s not much of a stretch to just doing the whole thing myself.

A few years ago, a Bioware employee stirred up a controversy about her suggestion that story-focused players in CRPGs be able to skip combat as easily as combat-focused players skip through conversations. At the risk of creating the same flavor of offense, I think this kind of thing could work in D&D as easily as in a CRPG. I’ve actually made a stab at something similar before, aimed more at trash encounters, but it’s not exactly a total solution. This week’s system is simpler and thus easier to remember, but more encompassing. It steps away from trying to convert to resources directly, using modifiers that are optional to convert back into D&D stats.

Because, in general, this is for skipping combat all the time. The vast majority of module fights are foregone conclusions, designed to eat up time at the table and amuse a group that wants to shift between roleplay and tactical skirmish wargame. But my theory is that an adventure path could spend way more time on the things I and many of my players like—roleplay, strategy, and investigation—if combats, possibly all combats, were skippable in a way that seems fair.

Core System

Each player character can be in one of four states:

  • Rested: This is the beginning state, and the state to which most PCs return after plenty of rest. It represents a character with full heath, spells, and abilities.
  • Spent: This state indicates that the character has spent a significant portion of resources, in an abstract way. For a spellcaster or other character type with a lot of per-rest abilities, it indicates most of them have been used. For martial characters, it may actually indicate that health is starting to dwindle and the party’s healers are running low on healing. For certain encounters, it may indicate longer-term negative conditions.
  • Injured: By this point, the character has expended almost all rest-renewable options, and is getting low on health with no easy way to get it back.
  • Incapacitated: A character in this state is out of health or otherwise taken out. In a truly dire fight where the stakes were announced beforehand, the character might be dead.

For each combat, each player rolls a single Fudge/Fate die, and the party totals the results and adds it to their party level (e.g., if you’re 6th level and roll a net +2 on all the dice, you count as 8th level):

  • If the result is equal or greater than the encounter level, the party triumphed with no particular issues and only negligible expenditure of resources (these are the fights where everyone wins initiative and nukes the monster before it even gets to go, barely even using any spells).
  • If the result is less than the encounter level, the difference is resource drain, as described below.

If the fight used up resources:

  • In order of the players whose dice rolled lowest, assess a -1 to the state counter. Do this for one player per point of the difference. For example, if you had a -3 to the encounter level, three PCs expend resources, starting with the ones that rolled -1 (or the ones that rolled 0, if somehow nobody rolled negatives and it still went against you). For ties on the dice, impact the least injured characters first (e.g., if two players rolled -1 and only one needs to expend resources, the one that’s Rested will take the hit if the other one was Spent).
  • If the number is greater than the party size, wrap back around until it’s used up.

The GM, with input from the players, then narrates the results of the fight. If it went very well, describe a flawless victory with the players that rolled +1 doing particularly awesome things and the ones that rolled -1s squeaking by as their mistakes didn’t cost the party. For results of -1 to -4 total, describe a more brutal fight, with the players that lost resources getting the worse end of things and players that rolled +1 doing useful things that swung the fight their way. For results of -5 or worse, it might have actually been a loss, with the GM describing how the PCs had to cut and run to escape foes too mighty for them (this is the “it’s only 10 levels above us and we’re rested, the worst that could happen is a couple of us get incapacitated, but we still win” rule; mild negatives are usually a win, but this isn’t an excuse to take stupid risks).

Each character typically recovers by one state level when resting overnight.

Additional Options

If you want to model how much an extra PC or two helps out in modules tuned for four-member parties, ignore one -1 on the dice for each additional party member past four. For example, with five members a -1 -1 0 0 +1 result is read as a 0 instead of a -1 total, but a 0 0 0 +1 +1 is still just a +2.

If you want to create more of a death spiral, assess the following penalties at reduced states:

  • Spent: A rolled 0 counts as a -1.
  • Injured: A rolled +1 counts as a 0 (and the effects of Spent).
  • Incapacitated: Automatically contribute a -1 (don’t roll).

To simulate consumable magic items helping a fight, grant items that can be discharged or consumed to allow rerolls/best-of-two (for an individual player or the whole party) or flat out additional pluses to the party effective level.

To encourage strategic play, grant similar bonuses to magic items for advanced preparation that would make a big difference in the fight if you were actually to play it out.

Math Notes

I haven’t done a deep model of the stats on this, but my simple “lots of random results in a spreadsheet” check indicates that this should work fairly close to the four-to-five encounter math, particularly if you assess penalties for worse states. In particular, what should happen is that (assuming mostly even-level fights) there will be a couple of fights that cause no problems whatsoever, a couple with mild resource drain, and maybe one with a larger hit. After a few fights, even if only a couple of members of the party are Spent, they should start weighing the risk of the next fight rolling low enough to knock someone to Injured (which requires another day to recover), and thinking about camping. In situations where you’ve engineered time pressure, it should make the players very nervous about fighting things they don’t need to fight, and whether they should plow deeper into the state tracker to go ahead and get things done.

And, note again, this is all very abstract. I don’t expect you to try to model this back out to the standard trait system. In fact, it’s possible that you could do this whole thing with extremely minimalist stats that gloss the D&D/Pathfinder tropes (“I am a level X Y of race Z”) without needing to fiddle with the math. Obviously, there are a lot of people for whom fiddling with the math is a huge part of the fun, but this isn’t really for them… all of D&D is normally for them.

Pathfinder: Ability Point-Based Supers

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Points

Two unrelated things that became related in my brain:

  • It would be reasonable to model Captain America’s superpowers (from certain eras and writers) as just “human max attributes.” In D&D/Pathfinder, that’s 18s (or maybe 20s) in all six ability scores.
  • While I have my misgivings about the fungibility of the race features in the Advanced Race Guide*, I couldn’t help but notice that the point scales involved in race building seemed fairly similar to the points used to buy ability scores. In particular, I wondered if it would be fair to do something like allow a player to be an aasimar (a 15 point race) in a party of players handbook races (9-10 point races) in exchange for the aasimar PC having 5 fewer points for ability scores.

Those ideas gelling in my head, I did do some additional math and found out that, indeed, the race point balancing is relatively close to ability point balancing. To wit, if you made a PC with all 18s it would cost around 90 ability or race points (not counting the first 15 points that normal characters get); for race points, it’s using the +2 ability score bonus with no strings that increases in cost for each cumulative +2. The price is likewise similar (around 130) for all 20s. Since the math is close enough, let’s move on to the system below.

* In that my intuition and experience is that it leads to players ditching rarely used but interesting features for boring features they think they’ll use more

Point-Based Supers

You can turn Pathfinder into a supers system by just giving out bonus points that can be spent on ability scores or racial features. A character of around Captain America’s power level gets 100 or so points. Notably, these characters will be hella awesome for first level characters, but scale normally through character level (and mythic tiers, if you’re feeling particularly gonzo).

Character points can be spent in three major ways: enhanced ability scores, racial features, or spell-like abilities.

Ability Scores

While the normal point buy rules stop players from buying over 18, it’s easy to extend the costs indefinitely upward: the cost for each ability score increase is equal to the modifier for that score (e.g., it costs 5 points beyond the cost of 19 to get to 20, because 20 grants +5).

The extended chart is below:

Score Total CP Cost Score Total CP Cost
7 -4 22 37
8 -2 23 43
9 -1 24 50
10 0 25 57
11 1 26 65
12 2 27 73
13 3 28 82
14 5 29 91
15 7 30 101
16 10 31 111
17 13 32 122
18 17 33 133
19 21 34 145
20 26 35 157
21 31 36 170

So someone that had 100 points and went all in on an ability score could start with a 30 or better.

Racial Features

Most of the racial features from creating new races (p. 215 of the ARG or here) are probably viable for building heroic abilities. Hell, you need a pile of superhero points to afford to be a robot (sorry, “construct”).

Specifically, leave out the racial features that modify ability scores (use the point costs above) or grant one-off spell-like abilities (see below). Otherwise, anything the GM and player agree works for the character’s power concept should be fair game for the prices listed.

Spell-Like Abilities

The real bread-and-butter of making supers is the freedom to pick spells to use as spell-like abilities. Want to be a blaster? You can do worse than Scorching Ray. A teleporter? Dimension Door.

The costs in the ARG seem relatively cheap for this purpose, though: it makes more sense to sell players a second level spell per day for 2 points when they’re going to have less than a dozen points, but that’s a LOT of scorching rays if you have 100 points to spend.

So I suggest for this purpose you cost spell-likes as their level squared. So:

Spell Level CP Cost
1 1
2 4
3 9
4 16
5 25
6 36
7 49
8 64
9 81

You can also work out with the player how many uses are required for something to become an At Will spell-like ability, or an always-on supernatural ability. For attacks and other primarily-in-combat powers, I’d work out how many times I genuinely expect the player to use it in a day, and make it At Will once that many uses are purchased. For utility abilities, particularly long-duration ones, it may only take a few per day to become a self-only, always-on supernatural ability. Healing and other things that become really good out of combat with unlimited time should probably never become At Will.

Like racial spell likes, the caster level for these abilities is equal to total character level/hit dice, and the save DC is equal to 10 + spell level + the most relevant ability score modifier (but don’t let the player browbeat you into setting the save DC to the ability score he’s raised to a crazy high level if that doesn’t actually make sense).

And with all of that, you’ve hacked in superheroes. Either turn them loose on the normal fantasy classes and setting, or strip down the core classes to run something more traditional for supers.

D20: A Facing Hack

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Facing is admittedly complicated. Third edition D&D removed it, and subsequent editions haven’t seemed to have cause to question that decision. Particularly in the already tactically dense 3e and 4e, tracking facing would be another complication on top of a bunch of other rules that could slow down play.

But Attacks of Opportunity, flanking, and the rules for the Stealth skill are also complicated. I’ve often wondered whether the complexity saved by removing facing really saved much effort after the rules that had to be put in to preserve some level of simulation.

So this is a small hack (mostly for 3.x/Pathfinder) to see whether the cheese can be moved a bit to try to make those other rules a little simpler to allow slightly complex facing rules, as follows:

Facing

facingDuring combat, each character is always considered to be facing in a particular direction. On a grid, the facing is always centered in the direction of one of the eight adjacent squares. The character’s total facing is essentially a cone covering the square in the center and the nearest two other adjacent squares (see diagram).

A character making a move action is normally considered to be facing in the direction of travel while moving. If a character wishes to specify facing from square to square while moving (e.g., to keep from turning her back on a target while moving away or past), the character moves at half speed for that move action.

While stationary, on her turn, a character may choose any facing desired (e.g., you can make an attack against a character on one side of you and then make your next attack against someone on the other side). A character must pick a final facing upon ending her turn.

A character may also change facing during any other character’s move action in order to center facing on the moving character (i.e., you can always turn to face someone who’s moving to keep them from moving around behind you). However, you can’t turn when another character takes a non-move action (so be careful if you turn to face a target when that target’s ally is already adjacent to you). You also must be aware of the other character to turn to face her (see Stealth, below).

Attacks

You can generally only make an attack on a square within your facing (as noted, you can change facing at will on your turn).

Attacks against a target from squares not covered by that target’s facing count as flanking (gaining a +2 bonus and Sneak Attack). This applies whether or not there is another ally involved and works with melee or ranged attacks (do not turn your back on a rogue archer).

You may use an Immediate or Swift action to make a melee attack against anyone that is not facing you, if the attack would otherwise be legal. (This is why you might want to keep facing toward someone and back away: they can use their Immediate to hit you with a melee attack if you turn around completely to run, or just try to go past them.) (Note to GMs: Adjust Combat Reflexes and other sources of AoO as makes sense to you.)

Stealth

You can use the Stealth skill as if you had concealment if none of your enemies have you within their facing. That is to say, a character using Stealth may use it to move from cover to cover if no enemy is facing in a way that covers her path, and may use Stealth to get behind a target and make a Sneak Attack, even while combat is ongoing.

Enemies that aren’t facing you still get to make a Perception check to become aware of you (and then may turn to face you as you move), but it is possible to make the Stealth check even if you’re out in the open. (It’s up to the GM whether some kind of special tricks are needed to regain the ability to Stealth after enemies become aware of the character the first time; this is mostly so that you can start the fight by sneaking up to make a Sneak Attack in a way that’s logical but is normally extremely complex to pull off in Pathfinder due to the lack of facing.)

The Old Gods and the New

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It’s a bit of a busy Memorial Day weekend, so I hope you’ll enjoy some setting notes I put together for an upcoming Pathfinder game in lieu of a systems post I didn’t have the time to write this week.

To the elder races, the time when the old gods walked the world is still within living memory. To the younger races, it is the distant past. Nonetheless, all histories agree that there was an epoch when gods were flesh. When gods demanded that all participate in their great works, whether they wished it or not.

The line between the old gods and various other powerful entities from the cosmos is blurry, though scholars tend to split the difference at agendas: demon lords and the like share a nature and a mandate with an unearthly realm, while each of the old gods seemed to have his or her own unique goals, petty though they might have been.

Some were more agreeable than others. And, in the beginning, each of them gathered a following of mortals, if for nothing else than support against enemies. But those that were content to protect and rule were outnumbered by those with a towering need to reorder the world. Their conflict etched the world into the state it is in, even today.

Eventually, it became too much. Mortals sought out new gods that were less present. Entities that were more concept than flesh, with no need to reshape the world on a whim. Many believe calling them the “new” gods is a fundamental error; they were always here, but the arrival of the “old” gods temporarily blinded the world to the protectors that had always been among them.

Nonetheless, the old gods could not contend with an uprising of mortals backed by gods that had no physical forms to slay, no presence to fight directly against. Over eras, the old gods were defeated and killed.

The new gods are quieter, on the whole, content to lend power to their clerics and allow the churches of different nations to color their worship. Some are all but silent, and many prophets claim to speak for them, causing schisms. But the worst of these holy wars is but a simple disagreement compared to the war of the old gods.

The Gods

There are four gods that are openly worshiped, and two others that few will admit to worshiping directly (or even believe exist).

The Sun

Known by many names, each agrees on one salient attribute: the Sun knows everything upon which its light falls. As the Sun is also extremely fond of life and justice, those that mean ill to their fellow mortals must make their plans in darkness, lest agents of the Sun stop them before they have even begun.

However, despite its essential light and strong gifts given to its clerics, the Sun seems unable or unwilling to intervene directly through a show of force. It is also hard to commune with: sometimes, at great need, it gives visions or omens to the faithful to seek out an unfolding ill, but otherwise only clerics with strong magics may communicate with their god.

Domains: Fire, Glory, Knowledge, Protection, Sun

Nature

Few can agree whether Nature is the planet herself, or merely the ecosystems that lay upon her. Whatever the answer, Nature is unafraid to act: from titanic natural disasters to fortuitous shifts in the wind, the roused god can alter many things. It seems deeply aware of all that happens within its domain, as well, as many disasters eventually reveal a problem mortals were unaware of.

This brute-force problem-solving is important, because it is the only way Nature communicates. Any who claim to have gotten a direct message from the god, even its powerful clerics, are understood to be liars. Fortunately, Nature seems to have a mild benevolence; scholars that have done studies tend to find that the innocent are spared much more often than the guilty by the chaos of the natural world.

Domains: Animal, Plant, Strength, Water, Weather

Progress

The most esoteric of the four openly worshiped gods, each culture places its own stamp on Progress: to some, she is an artist or a freedom fighter, and to others, he is a smith or an engineer. All agree that, of all the gods, Progress is the one most inclined to work to see mortals succeed and grow. Helpfully, Progress is also free with communion and visions, often granted as dreams or just flashes of inspiration.

Unfortunately, Progress is limited in ability to act in the world and almost totally blind to what’s going on but for what its priests tell it. Minor miracles of enhanced creation can sometimes emerge as a response to prayer, but otherwise the world’s progress is unevenly and very inefficiently distributed… almost as if the god is distributing inspiration entirely at random.

Domains: Artifice, Community, Earth, Healing, Liberation

Fate

The world is flooded with prophecy. Many speculate that these are merely messages from Fate about things the goddess (often rendered in triple-form by various cultures) would like to see enacted, and will back with divine potence. Others wonder how you’d tell the difference between seeing the future and using divine might to cause it.

Most believe that Fate is blind to the present, and only able to see the world that may be. Even Fate’s priests also agree that she is the god with the least interest in helping mortals: what will be, will be, whether or not it rewards the virtuous and punishes the guilty.

Domains: Air, Luck, Magic, Nobility, Trickery

Discord

Some postulate that there must be a new god responsible for all the conflict that still exists in the world after the death of the old gods. Brutal, uncivilized cultures often seem to field clerics with access to powers different from the followers of the four primary gods, but these may be awarded by the remnants of old gods or demon lords.

Domains: Destruction, Death, Madness, Void, War

Sin

Meanwhile, another force is often invented to explain why civilized society often seems to break down from within, despite the best efforts of Progress. It’s hard to be certain whether the leaders of debauched mystery cults are truly clerics of such a deity, or draw their powers from the remnants of old gods or hellish princes.

Domains: Charm, Darkness, Repose, Rune, Travel

A Few E6 Hacks

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After all this talk about variations on Epic 6th over the past few weeks, I thought I’d devote a post to a few modular ideas for improvement I had in the process of writing them.

Bonus Feat Classes

One of the classic problems with E6 is the difficulty it causes the fighter (and, to a lesser extent, other classes that get bonus feats). Once characters have hit their level cap and started piling up additional feats, the character whose class advantage is extra feats starts to look much less attractive next to characters that have a bunch of special abilities and a bunch of feats.

A potential fix for this is that, at level cap, these classes upgrade their bonus feats to also qualifying for better feats. For each bonus feat you got as a class benefit (either a broad choice, small list, or specific feat), you also add +1 to numerical values to qualify for feat prerequisites once you start earning post-cap feats. So, for example, in straight up E6, a Pathfinder character who is a 6th level fighter gains +4 to prerequisites for his four bonus feats. He qualifies for feats that require character level or base attack 10, and treats all his ability scores as four higher for feats with ability prereqs (even a fighter with below-average intelligence can eventually figure out Combat Expertise, and one could be fairly clumsy and still try two-weapon fighting).

This bonus should probably affect Caster Level as well, to allow Wizards to potentially get higher level item creation feats. For multiclass characters, I’d suggest limiting it to doubling the effective caster level (e.g., a wizard 1, fighter 5 counts as CL 2 for feats rather than CL 5).

If the feat has any scaling bonuses, those go off of the actual score, not the modified one. This ability affects availability of the feat, but not its scaling.

For classes like ranger and monk who get access to feats that allow them to totally skip prerequisites, you may wish to not count those particular feats. But it’s probably additional bookkeeping that isn’t much of an actual limit.

Ability Score Retraining

Particularly in a modern game with a lot of downtime, there may be some degree of verisimilitude to be gained by allowing player characters to change their ability choices. Without the regular ability bumps at every four levels, E6-based games don’t really have any way to model hitting the gym.

This system has players keep permanent track of their point buy pool. Over time, you can lower one or more ability scores to return points to the pool and spend them to raise another ability. This can take as much time as the GM thinks is reasonable for a workout regimen. I’d suggest a default of 1 month per point respent (which means one could go from an average score to an 18 in about a year and a half, which seems decently realistic).

As a side effect, this can also model ability drain in a world without access to Restoration: having an ability “permanently” damaged returns its points to the pool, and you have to go through months of physical/mental therapy to restore the damage, but the points aren’t really lost.

If you’re running a version that includes one or more ability +1s from levels that are multiples of four, I’d suggest actually treating those levels as giving the character +4 additional point buy points to avoid having to deal with a weird floating +1. (I’d actually suggest doing this anyway, as it’s a good fix for the laser focus on improving prime requisites to ludicrous levels that’s so common in 3.x).

If a player deliberately lowers an ability score that was serving as a feat prerequisite below the minimum qualification, the player should replace the feats in question (and any feats dependent on them) at the same time. If Intelligence bonus goes down, the player needs to remove the granted skill ranks.

Class Retraining

As mentioned last week, E6 variants can put the spotlight on the differences between NPC and PC classes and what those mean for how much formal schooling you’ve had. Within a 3.x framework, Commoner represents having no formal schooling, the other NPC classes represent merchant apprenticeships, army memberships, and other methods of learning-while-doing, and PC classes represent being taught elite skills from the best of the best.

This leaves open the door that characters should be able to multiclass to a better class once better schooling is available. The farmer that gets called into a militia, finds she has a knack for it and stays with the army for years, then impresses an elite swordsmaster might be a Commoner 1, Warrior 4, Fighter 1. And in normal, uncapped progression, that might be fine. But in a capped progression, that character is now stuck, never able to transcend her peasant roots.

So in a capped game, the GM might allow characters to trade up levels in Commoner for a better NPC class, and in an NPC class for a PC class. This can take time and/or XP as makes sense to the GM, and should generally follow a couple of rules:

  • This isn’t a gestalt: you lose the old level, gain the new one, and retain any choices you’d made previously (e.g., skill points remain spent).
  • The upgraded class should generally be one that doesn’t require losing any abilities. Commoner, by virtue of being terrible at everything, can easily transform into any NPC class. Expert has enough skills that it can only upgrade to rogue, ranger, or other classes with at least six skill ranks per level. Warrior can only go into full BaB classes with at least a d10 hit die. Adept can only go into other caster classes. Aristocrat may require very special handling.
  • Adept spellcasting could prove strange. Ideally, if you know an adept is looking to eventually upgrade, her spell list should be pared of any divine or arcane spells that won’t be available later. Spells per day and known should remain those available to the highest level of adept taken until the PC class exceeds that (e.g., an adept 6 training into a wizard keeps casting as an adept 6 until shifted into an adept 2/wizard 4; at that point, the wizard 4 grants better casting than the adept 6, and the player can ignore the adept levels for spells per day purposes from then on).

As a side note, this system may actually work for 5th edition as well: “NPC” classes become just taking a background plus a generic small hit die and the standard proficiency bonus (e.g., you could be an Entertainer 5, which just means the Entertainer background for proficiencies, proficiency bonus +3, 5d6 hit dice, and no class features). That character can then upgrade to an adventuring class (gaining class features and replacing the d6 hit die with a bigger one, if the class grants it). You might even create a midpoint where the character has an adventuring class but not that class’ selectable template (e.g., you could go from Entertainer 5, to Bard (with no college) 5, to Court Bard 5).

Epic 10th (E6 Shifted 4)

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Let me tell you about the random idea I had in a dream a few weeks ago! Unlike most ideas that come to me in dreams and seem totally amazing at the time, this one actually held up after I fully woke.

Epic 6th is the idea of capping D&D/Pathfinder at 6th level (and getting feats for subsequent level-ups). I suggested a variation down to E1 last week, and I’ve mentioned some arguments for E8 before. This is another simple modification to the concept:

All PC-race adults are presumed to start at 5th level, and characters cap at 10th level before they start to just gain feats as normal for E6.

This should result in some interesting benefits over normal E6 (and normal 3.x in general):

  • Starting adult PCs are pretty burly, more on the order of 4e PCs with a pile of HP that means they can handle a lot of punishment. Starting adult PCs should feel like they can have a bit of backstory to them, rather than just being callow youths. You can assume the PCs already farmed goblins and wolves in their backstories, and throw them right into more interesting modules (or make them take on a really ridiculous amount of goblins).
  • If it’s important to you, you’ve plugged the problem where 1st level Wizards start much older than “easier” classes, but then anyone can multiclass and pick up their first level of Wizard almost instantly (because now that level is only 1/5 the levels the Wizard started with).
  • Discrepancies in midlevel special abilities are ironed out (e.g., in Pathfinder, some cleric domains get a special ability at 6th but some don’t get one until 8th, so normal E6 makes the 8th level bonus domains less attractive, but this way they all get such abilities).
  • Low-level NPCs are even more of a long-term threat to PCs than in regular E6: 10th level PCs have to respect being hassled by 5th level guards more than 6th level PCs have to respect 1st level guards. You get more mileage out of standard NPC stat blocks and just adjusting how many the PCs face.
  • Unlike normal D&D, you have a lot of room to run a Harry Potter/the Magicians/Name of the Wind-type school campaign. Start students at 1st level and have them level to 5th by graduation.

In a setup of this type, using NPC classes to differentiate NPCs is likely to be very important. It makes a big difference if a town guard is a Commoner, Warrior, or Fighter when they all have a minimum of 5th level. There’s a lot of room to use access to better classes as a way to differentiate characters by education. Who wins in a fight between the 10th level Commoner who’s the town brawler, the 7th level Warrior who’s actually been a soldier in the wars, and an unblooded 5th level Fighter straight out of dueling school?

The big drawback of going up to 10th level is that it opens up something that E6 deliberately excludes: the common availability of 4th and 5th level spells. In particular, daily access to Scrying, Stone Shape, Teleport, Wall of Stone, Sending, Fabricate, and Raise Dead can blow out the low-fantasy feel of E6 (and even the spells that are just continuations of earlier ones can begin to cause the linear fighter/quadratic wizard problem). GMs that try this are advised to make careful revisions to the spell lists to make sure they’re happy with what the players will get to at the high end, possibly drastically modifying problematic spells or removing them altogether. As an upside, a few of the spells (e.g., Atonement, Death Ward, Break Enchantment, etc.) are somewhat key to the math of mid-level D&D, so E10 makes them available without having to resort to house rules for rituals.

The only other drawback I can think of is some players really dislike not starting at 1st level, because they don’t feel like they’ve “earned” the levels honestly. Make sure you don’t have any players with such feelings before instituting the hack, or there might be some pushback.

Ultimately, this hack should have a number of interesting benefits gained from recontextualizing the ordinary play mode of E6, with only a slight push from the gritty, low fantasy it usually represents up into the top of heroic fantasy and the threshold of wuxia.

And since I’ve been talking about variations on E6 for the past two posts, my plan for next week is a few options for whichever variant of E6 you use.

D20 Modern, Epic 1st, and Action Horror

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Ash vs. Evil Dead was a fun little romp of a first season, and got me thinking about different ways to model what it (and a lot of other action horror shows/films) demonstrate: the supernatural threat can mow through cops and soldiers like grass, but comes up short dealing with initially lucky but now badass everymen. One possibility uses the ideas of Epic 6th (E6) to go even further into the realm of grittiness.

First off, make some classes that make sense for your timeframe. If you’re doing a fantasy horror game, the standard D&D/Pathfinder classes are probably fine. If you’re doing something more modern, you might need to work to update D20 Modern’s classes (or just make your own as modern interpretations of existing classes). The important guidelines are:

  • Each class you include should have interesting tradeoffs at 1st level compared to the others (e.g., more class skills vs. more HP vs. +1 BaB).
  • They should probably get some interesting unique ability at first level.
  • It wouldn’t hurt to retain the NPC Class/PC Class split, if you want to model highly-trained characters that flat out have an advantage even at 1st level.

Most people in the world reach 1st level at adulthood, and improve further by gaining more feats. Depending on how egalitarian you feel about human competence, some people may just be born with better ability scores, or ability scores may be something you can improve over time as another way to advance. But almost no one will ever reach 2nd level.

This creates a pretty interestingly constrained system space that models reality (or at least movie reality) much better than standard D20:

  • It’s virtually impossible to get an ability score over 20.
  • The grandmaster in the world of a skill has a +12 bonus before circumstance modifiers (+4 ranks, +3 skill focus, +5 ability score).
  • The toughest character in the world has 20 HP (D12 HD, +5 from Con, +3 from Toughness), so will die to a few hits from a d8 or greater weapon. Most characters have 6-10 HP (d6 or d8 HD and some Con bonus), so will usually get dropped by one, maybe two hits from a deadly weapon.
  • The biggest badass in the world with a weapon can maybe eke out +10 attack bonus in ideal circumstances (+1 BaB, +5 ability score, +1 weapon focus, +1 masterwork weapon, and a couple points of situational feat bonuses like point blank shot).

On its own, this might be a passable way to run an extremely low-powered/realistic/gritty game. If you don’t allow a feat that gives extra skill ranks, you’d probably want to allow respeccing class-granted ranks in some way. You’d probably also want some way to gradually respec ability scores and class. But, particularly if you gave out bonus feats on a regular enough schedule, and the rest of the world was clearly on the same power level, it might hold your players’ interest for a decently long time.

But it’s also a good way to run an action horror game.

Here, the premise is simple: supernatural monsters are the only source of XP that can improve your character level.

Whatever the in-narrative source of these monsters, they’re basically an out-of-context problem for the existing paradigm. They’re going to have supernatural abilities. They’re going to have multiple hit dice. They’re going to have high AC, attack, and damage relative to what’s possible for even the best of the best that are stuck at 1st level.

So surviving an encounter with one is going to be more likely if you’re a cop or a soldier, with good combat stats and feats, but it’s far from guaranteed. Against even a CR3 creature, particularly one that uses surprise attacks so soldiers can’t get organized, it’s going to be almost pure luck who survives out of a random sample of people. When the monsters hit the cross section of humanity in a department store or a diner, the survivors may just be a bunch of everymen that happened to get some lucky hits in and somehow not die.

And then they start to level up.

You’re now telling the story of a bunch of ordinary people that have become extraordinary purely by virtue of the standard D&D advancement mechanic. Who has a greater chance of taking out a nest of monsters: a team of the very best 1st level Fighters in the world, or a lucky bunch of 6th level Commoners? You don’t go to Ash Williams to solve your Deadite problem because he’s easy to work with, forward-thinking, or able to respond to tactical suggestions. You go to him because he’s the highest level character in the world, and monsters that can threaten a whole Seal Team aren’t really that much of a bother to him.

Hail to the king, baby.

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