Developing to Spec: Part 18b –Followers and Leadership

This is the second section of Part Eighteen of a series of articles looking at creating a set of Starfinder feats under specific constraints.  You can read along as we convert every feat in the PF core rulebook to Starfinder (and  share my thoughts on that process, as a developer and writer)— or you can just look at the finished feats (as they are written) here.

And we’ve reached Leadership.

Leadership has always been a contentious feat. It brings with it some unanswered questions, such as whether the GM or player writers the cohort gained by taking it. There’s no question it is among the most powerful feats, based on action economy alone–even if your cohort is a few levels below you, having another character that can take a full set of actions every round is a huge boost to the effectiveness of a whole group. The feat has never been allowed in any official organized play program, and it’s easy to see why Starfinder’s designers chose not to include it. But now, we have to.

Of, at least, we have to create a feat called “Leadership.” No one said it had to include things like followers and cohorts. On the other hand, even if we decide cohorts are out of the picture (the Alien Archive 3 companion rules *could* be adapted if a group wanted to do so), there are going to be players who want followers, conceptually, even if we go a different route with the Leadership feat.

So, if a feat is too powerful and too flexible, maybe we need more than one feat to emulate it in a new game system.

FOLLOWERS
You’ve got a lot of fans out there.
Prerequisites: Cha 15, Cha as key ability score, or a theme that grants +1 Cha.
Benefit: You have allies, fans, supporters, and boosters all over the galaxy. Each day you can call upon those supporters to assist you in one of the following minor ways.
Friendly Face. In any settlement, with 1d4 hours of inquiries, you can find a typical local who is one step friendlier toward you than the typical population. You can make Diplomacy checks to try to improve this attitude normally.
Reconnoiter. You can ask your supporters to gather information for you, anywhere you can communicate with them. This takes 1d4 hours, and the bonus used for the skill check is equal to your level + your Charisma modifier.

LEADERSHIP
You have a knack for keeping a group together and on-task.
Prerequisites: Cha 15, Cha as key ability score, or a theme that grants +1 Cha.
Benefit: When ally determines if they are within range to affect a friendly target with beneficial abilities, you are within the range of the ally’s ability, and the friendly target is within that range to you, the ally can affect the friendly target. You can also act as a middleman for line of sight and sense-dependent abilities (as long as both ally and friendly target are within line of sight of you, the ally can affect the target even if they are not in line of sight of one another), and language-dependent abilities (as long as you are able and willing to communicate with ally and target the ability works,m even if te ally can’t communicate directly with the target).

Additionally in starship combat, you can take the role of Captain, even if the ship already has a captain. You take your action directly after the other captain, and cannot take the same action the other captain does in the same turn.

PATREON
This series of posts about my specific game writing and development process (along with concrete examples and Starfinder feats) is — like all my blog posts — is only possible if people join my Patreon, help me have the free time to write these things, and let me know what you want to see!

Developing to Spec: Part 18a –Scary Improv

This is the first section of Part Eighteen of a series of articles looking at creating a set of Starfinder feats under specific constraints.  You can read along as we convert every feat in the PF core rulebook to Starfinder (and  share my thoughts on that process, as a developer and writer)— or you can just look at the finished feats (as they are written) here.

We’re finally through the Improvised feats, and that brings us to Improvised Weapon mastery. Looking at it we see the core PF mechanic works, but we also see that Starfinder has a special rule about treating most improvised weapons as clubs. It seems most likely that this feat will be primarily used by operatives who want their spies to be able to grab a coffee mug off an interrogator’s desk and use it to kill someone, so we should look for ways to make this appealing to such characters without being overpowered. Also, even though we wrote up Catch-Off-Guard and Throw Anything, which the PF Improvised Weapon mastery uses as prerequisites, we really don’t need them here.

IMPROVISED WEAPON MASTERY (Combat)
You are a master of using unexpected weapon.
Prerequisites: Base attack +3.
Benefit: When you use an improvised weapon, you may add your Weapon Specialization damage to it. If it is a weapon you treat as a club, you may also either treat it as not being archaic, or you may treat it as an operative weapon. If it is an improvised weapon the GM determines functions as something other than a club, you do not take the normal -4 to attack rolls for it being an improvised weapon.

That brings us to Intimidating Prowess, which in PF is designed to specifically make it easier for bulky half-orcs to intimidate someone by bending a bar in half. that’s cool, but Starfinder doesn’t generally allow you to add two ability score modifiers to one check, and it has a key ability score system. Why can you only intimidate by being strong? Why not by spinning a dagger on a fingertip, or using Sherlock-like deduction to ask someone how they liked their roast slarn lunch, making them think you have had them under surveillance. Also, if you want to be good at Intimidate in Starfinder, where everyone has at least 4 skill points/level, you ought to make sure it’s a class skill before anything else.

But we can build all that into one fairly simple feat.

INTIMIDATING PROWESS
You are scary good at being scary.
Prerequisites: Intimidate as a class skill, trained in Intimidate.
Benefits: You may use your key ability score bonus to add to your Intimidate checks, in place of you Charisma bonus. Additionally, if you have fewer ranks in Intimidate than half your character level, use half your character level rather than your ranks to determine your bonus.

Tomorrow?

Leadership.

PATREON
This series of posts about my specific game writing and development process (along with concrete examples and Starfinder feats) is — like all my blog posts — is only possible if people join my Patreon, help me have the free time to write these things, and let me know what you want to see!

 

Design Diary: Creating d20 Classes (Part 2)

Last week we began a line of Design Diary entries discussing how to create a character class from scratch for a d20 class/level based game. We tackled a number of questions about the concept for you class then, and now it’s time to look at taking that concept and turning it into playable game mechanics.

And that starts with the tools d20 games give you to define the base competencies of your class, and how quickly they progress.

Class Progression Tools

The heart of a good character class is its special abilities, but you don’t have to start with those. In fact, beyond a general idea of what you want its special abilities to be able to do, as part of settling on a class concept, I prefer not to focus on special abilities until I have more of the class’s framework in place. That framework is made up of various progressions — health, skill points, class skills, beginning proficiency, base attack bonus, base saving throws, and spell progression.

In most d20 games, there are only a few progressions available for these, and they are often interconnected in non-obvious ways. For example, in 1st edition Pathfinder, a class that gets a “full” base attack bonus progression (+1 to bab per level gained) always has at least a d10 Hit Points per level (the sole non d10 full-bab class is the Barbarian, who gets the slightly-larger d12), and no one gets a d10 or higher Hit Die unless they have a full bab progression.

In general, you want to have a balance of good, moderate, and bad progressions. In some cases those progressions already come in those quality levels–in most d20 games your base attack bonus progression can be good (+1/class level, like the barbarian, cavalier, fighter, soldier, and so on, also known as a “full” bab progression), moderate (+2/3 levels, like the bard, cleric, envoy, mechanic, and so on), or poor (+1/2 class levels, such as the sorcerer, witch, and wizard–interestingly Starfinder has no classes with this progression). In these systems it’s easy to see that if you give a class a good attack progression the focus of that class is combat, if you give moderate bab progression it is going to have numerous combat options but will either need abilities to make it more effective, or must accept that combat is a secondary function, and if you give it a poor progression it’s never going to be good at combat without special abilities.

There are some built in potential problems with those progressions that show up over 20 levels of play (the gap between a fighter’s chance to hit and a wizards goes from as little as 5% at 1st level to 50% or more at 20th), which several newer d20 games have tried to solve by having very different ways of rating who is combat. pathfinder 2nd edition has a flat progression of everything from level (+1 to attacks per level for all classes), and uses five ranks of proficiency (untrained, trained, expert, master, and legendary, or U/T/E/M/L) and class features to differentiate which classes are combat-focused. Most classes are at-best trained in various weapon categories, while the fighter begins play  expert in some attack options. Similarly 5e has a flat “proficiency bonus) (ranging from +2 to +6) which classes can add to various attacks, defenses, skills, and ability score checks, and class features (the barbarian’s rage, the fighter’s fighting style) determine who is good at the raw math of combat.

The best way to begin a character class is to see how many good, moderate, and poor progressions (or whatever similar mechanics the game in question uses) a typical class gets and which classes have which progressions. Normally a class that is strong in combat has weaker skill options but more HP, and characters with strong spell abilities have weaker saving throws. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but you want to make sure every class both has strengths and weaknesses, and that it’s bonuses and game mechanics support what the description and flavor tell players the class is good at.

That last element can be tricky, of course. If you have a Combatant class (not a great name, but fine for example purposes) which you describe as the best class at combat, and a Big Boxer class which you describe as the best at unarmed combat, it’s going to be frustrating for Big Boxer players of the Combatant is better even at unarmed combat than Big Boxers are. On the other hand, you don’t want all the flavor and mechanics of a class to just be a difference on where they get their bonuses. You could have an Archer class and a Smasher class and have their only different be the Archer gets big bonuses to ranged weapons and the Smasher gets them to hammer attacks, but that gets boring and tightly locks those classes into narrow character concepts.

Spellcasting deserves a special note here, because not every class gets it, and it has a huge impact on character effectiveness. The most obvious variable in levels of spellcasting is what level spell a character gains access to–in early d20 games it’s often a question of 4-level spellcasting (such as the paladin and ranger), 6-level (such as the bard and all official Starfinder spellcasting classes), and 9-level (such as clerics, druids, and wizards). But even within that there are important distinctions such as how effective a spell list is at specific things (the wizard spell list has more and better offensive options than the cleric, for example).

Again, not every d20 game keeps this set of progressions (5e has 5-level and 9-level casting, PF2 has 10-level casting and access to specific focus spells), but each game generally has a few standards you can borrow when building the superstructure of your character class. If you don’t feel like you know what the progressions and proficiencies of the core classes of the game you are designing for are, you need to do some study and analysis before you try to write a character class for that game.

You don’t have to get all this right in your first pass–if a class initially feels like it’s going to be strong at skills and spellcasting and weak on everything else, and then analysis or playtesting reveals that limits its options too much, you can go back and beef up some other progression to give it more core competency. But handling your initial idea of progressions, proficiencies, skills, and spells up front also helps define where things like special abilities should go. If a class doesn’t gain any spellcasting (or mutations, psionics, superpowers, miracles, or whatever) in a game where such powers exist, it’s worth thinking about how that class is going to deal with things that DO have supernatural powers when writing the class’s special abilities.

Because special abilities are the heart and soul of most classes. And we’ll look at them, especially fixed abilities versus customizable abilities, next week!

PATREON

These Design Diaries are among the most popular of the things I wrote, but they are also the biggest, hardest, and most time-consuming to create. If you want to keep seeing them, I encourage you to join my Patreon. Just a few dollars a month can make the difference between me having the time to tackle these larger, in-depth design articles, and sticking to shorter, simpler topics.

‘SCRAPERS

‘Scrapers is a campaign concept, for whatever system or use interests you.

You live in Jenney Tower West. You were born here, you presume you’ll die here. The top of the tower is somewhere unseen above you, stretching like a ribbon into the sky. The bottom is equally invisible, down under the Vapor. You’ve never gone down to the Vapor levels. Jenney Tower East is visible. The middle of it anyway. A few hundred feet across the Empty. Sometimes there are crosswalks.

Which are always war zones. Easters are more than a little crazy.

You are a Scraper, one of the migrating scavengers who strips each floor of anything of value or use, and trades it to survive. As each level is, on average, roughly 4,500 square meters of floorspace, and there are 20-30 levels being Scraped at any time, you often trade to other Scraper gangs, or solo Scrapers. But more often, you depend on the Ele-Markets, hand-cranked mobile trade stalls that ratchet between the Scraper levels, the Middles in the 10-20 floors above you.

On the Middles levels, things still work… some. Warehouses haven’t been depleted of everything yet. Automated systems and assistants can still sometimes turn on and off lights, close windows, and so on. Power still comes from the walls… sometimes. The intercom is almost entirely functional, the vid-screens can run 24/7. Plumbing is mostly functional. It’s easier for Middle on the higher floors, of course. As they use up the things they prefer, those upper Middles migrate to the floors above them. The ones the Uppers left behind when they migrated upward seeking caviar and fully functional android assistants.

As the higher Middles move into new territories, the floors below them migrate up as well… as long as they can afford to. A level every month, more or less. Moving takes credit with the Ele-markets, and spare time, and manpower. Your ancestors might have been Middles, once. But they waited too long to shift up a few floors, so you’re all Scrapers now. You also move up roughly a level a month. If you run out of scavenge early, maybe you push those above you, or supplant them, a little early. You certainly don’t want to wait around too long.

You’re told there are Penters, up above even the Uppers. Just one floor of them, or maybe two. But you’re not sure you believe that. If there was just one floor worth of Penters, why wouldn’t the Uppers just rush those floors and move above them?

Below you are poorer and poorer Scrapers, groups unable to enforce claims to better scavenging grounds. You don’t have much, but at least you can still find food now and then, or trade with one of the scaffold farms hanging on the outside of the Tower, suspended from ropes that go…. up. Though honestly, what you have isn’t all that awesome. Security systems still work sometimes. Middles come down with better weapons and gear to take things they realize they left behind. THINGS come out of the vents, and ducts.

The THINGS live in the Vapor levels, but they’re climbing too. The Deep Vapor has worse creatures, but they can’t survive out of the Vapor, even for a moment. And between the lowest Scraper floor, and the highest Vapor floor?

Crazies, cults, broken machine angry at being abandoned, and the Uninsured. The Uninsured have a taint of the Vapor, be that boils, or sharp teeth and a taste for flesh, or weird mind powers. Even the lowliest Scraper can’t trust Uninsured.

You may have some Vapor taint too, but you want that to stay a secret.

Scrapers life is hard. Detritus comes down chutes, which you capture when you can. Bodies, sometimes. You can make mulch, and sell it up. Or pull up cables, carve off building materials, turn it into raw material for Middles to patch what they have. Or to sell as new things to Uppers. Uppers don’t know how to make anything. Or for Ele-markets to turn into cranks, and winches. You can gather water, from rain and from broken sewers above you. Grow a few things. And repurpose to make clothes. And tools. And barricades. And weapons.

Weapons kill a lot of Scrapers. So do traps, rogue machines, Middle mercenaries dipping down, Uninsured raiders popping up, and even other Scrapers often threaten you. Scrapers die faster than they breed, but that’s okay. Poor Middles who lost their spot become Scrapers fast enough to make up the difference. Every month, at least a dozen Middles discover their last neighbors moved on. Moved away.

Moved up.

The Vapor is moving up, too.

Faster than you are, in recent months.

PATREON
If you get use out of or enjoy any of the content on this blog, please consider adding a drop of support through my Patreon campaign!

Developing to Spec: Part 17d – Captain Akiton

This is the third section of Part Seventeen of a series of articles looking at creating a set of Starfinder feats under specific constraints.  You can read along as we convert every feat in the PF core rulebook to Starfinder (and  share my thoughts on that process, as a developer and writer)— or you can just look at the finished feats (as they are written) here.

We’re nearly through the long list of “Improved” feats, and have come to Improved Shield Bash. That would have been tricky as heck before the Character Operations Manual, but since that book added shields, and they have rules for making unarmed attacks using a shield, all we need is to find an option that is shield-specific, slam related, combat-useful, interesting, fun, and doesn’t upset any of the game’s combat math by increasing max bonuses.

Easy, right?

IMPROVED SHIELD BASH (Combat)
You are skilled at mixing offensive and defensive shield tactics in combat.
Prerequisites: Proficiency with shields.
Benefit: When you successfully hit a target with an unarmed strike from a shield, until the beginning of your next turn any increased bonus to AC the shield grants when you align it against a target apply to attacks made from the target you hit.

That brings us to Improvised Weapon Mastery, which has Catch-Off Guard and Throw Anything as prerequisites. We aren’t obligated to have them as prerequisites for our Starfinder version of Improvised Weapon Mastery, but it’s still a good idea to have them written up first and to remind ourselves what they do) We did Catch Off-Guard already, so that just leaves Throw Anything.

We COULD just copy-and-paste our Catch Off-Guard and make it for improvised thrown weapons rather than improvised melee… but no one would ever take that feat. It’s dull and corner-case at best. Besides, we JUST wrote a feat that deals with using shields in combat, so…

THROW ANYTHING (Combat)
You are adept at turning anything into a ranged weapon.
Prerequisites: Dex 13, proficiency with Advanced Melee Weapons.
Benefit: Anything held you can use to make a melee attack with, you can use as a thrown weapon without taking additional penalties for throwing it. Items you can use 1-handed have a range increment of 20 feet, those that require 2 or more hands have a range increment of 10 feet.
Additionally, items you throw in combat bounce back to you and are caught ready-for-use by you, unless something happens to them to interrupt their journey. A foe can ready an action to attempt to sunder a thrown weapon you use this feat with, and after your attack is resolved if the readied action hits, the thrown item ends up in a random space somewhere between you and your target.
If you have this feat and are proficient with shields, you can throw a shield you are wielding, and are considered to be wielding it again when it returns.

Okay, so maybe I’ve been watching too many Avengers movies, but at least this feat feels fun. 🙂  And, given the more common nature of ranged combat in Starfinder, making it easier to be a melee-weapon-using character is likely fine.

PATREON
This series of posts about my specific game writing and development process (along with concrete examples and Starfinder feats) is — like all my blog posts — is only possible if people join my Patreon, help me have the free time to write these things, and let me know what you want to see!

 

Developing to Spec: Part 17c – The UnFamiliar

This is the third section of Part Seventeen of a series of articles looking at creating a set of Starfinder feats under specific constraints.  You can read along as we convert every feat in the PF core rulebook to Starfinder (and  share my thoughts on that process, as a developer and writer)— or you can just look at the finished feats (as they are written) here.

We’re well into the long list of “Improved” feats and we’ve hit a big one — Improved Familiar. This is important in a couple of ways. First, people tend to be strongly connected to their familiars, meaning they have strong feelings about the rules that define and control them. Secondly, Starfinder doesn’t have familiars, making an Improved version of the concept difficult to implement quickly or easily.

Luckily, Starfinder does have rules for Creature companions, as of Alien Archive 3. The feat chain that allow you to control and gain actiosn with your creature companion are obviously very carefully balanced so we don’t want to impact what actions are possible, but we can add more familiar-like options without impacting that element.

We could add spellcasting ability to this feat’s prerequisites, or limit the feat to working with Tiny or smaller creatures, but honestly why? Starfinder has a more flexible feat system with fewer prerequisites and more open character concepts, so if someone wants to play a mind-blind human soldier who happens to have a laser-world familiar, let’s allow it.

IMPROVED FAMILIAR
You have a strong supernatural link to a single creature, known as your familiar.
Prerequisites: Creature Companion Adept, Survival 1 rank.
Benefit: Select a single creature companion of yours. You gain limited telepathy with this creature with a range of 60 feet and are considered to share a language with it (if you already have full telepathy, instead your creature companion gains the ability to understand and speak one language you know of your choice). You double the range at which you can control your creature companion. You also gain an empathic link with your familiar, allowing you to share general emotions with a range of up to 1 mile.

Your familiar gains evasion, as the operative special ability. If you are 7th level or higher, it gains improved evasion. If you are 3rd level or higher, a familiar can deliver touch spells for you. If you and the familiar are in contact at the time you cast a touch spell, you can designate the familiar as the spell’s “toucher.” The familiar can then deliver the touch spell just as you would. As usual, if you cast another spell before the touch is delivered, the touch spell dissipates. If you are 11th level or higher, your familiar gains spell resistance equal to your level + 5.

You can change what creature is selected as your familiar with 1 full day of quiet meditation with a new creature companion.

That brings us to Improved Precise Shot, which has the not-in-Starfinder-yet Point-Blank Shot and Precise Shot as prerequisites. So, we need to write those up first.

Point-Blank Shot would work fine in Starfinder as far as the rules are concerned… but again throwing around unlimited attack bonuses with feats the Starfinder designers could have put in the game is likely to unbalance the game’s combat math. On the other hand, ranged weapons obviously have a big advantage in combat when you use them from far away with cover. So we probably can use a Point-Blank Shot feat to give some bonuses when you sacrifice that advantage, as long as we do so cautiously. And since we are asking a player to risk an attack of opportunity, let’s add some mechanics addressing that to the feat.

POINT-BLANK SHOT (Combat)
You are an expert at the close-quarters use of ranged weapon.
Prerequisites: Dex 15+
Benefit: The first time each round you make a ranged attack against an adjacent target and it makes an attack of opportunity against you, you gain a +2 bonus to your AC against that attack. If the target cannot or does not choose to take its attack of opportunity, you instead gain a +1 bonus to your attack roll.

That means we’re free to wrap up the week with Precise Shot and Improved Precise Shot tomorrow.

PATREON
Like all my blog posts, this is brought to you by the wonderful patrons of my Patreon! Want more of this content? Want to suggest specific game systems, topics, of kinds of articles? All of that is only possible if people join my Patreon, help me have the free time to write these things, and let me know what you want to see!

Developing to Spec: Part 17b – Cut, Paste, Repeat

This is the second section of Part Seventeen of a series of articles looking at creating a set of Starfinder feats under specific constraints.  You can read along as we convert every feat in the PF core rulebook to Starfinder (and  share my thoughts on that process, as a developer and writer)— or you can just look at the finished feats (as they are written) here.

We’re into the long list of “Improved” feats and have come upon the Improved combat maneuver feats, which can use exactly the solution Improved Bull Rush did. Obviously to save time we’ll cut-and-paste the Improved Bull Rush feat… but it’s important when doing that to make sure you check ALL the places you need to make changes, like replacing “bull rush” with “sunder.”

IMPROVED SUNDER (Combat)
You are expert at making foes’ stuff break.
Prerequisites: Str 13, base attack bonus +1.
Benefit: When you take a full attack action, you can make a sunder combat maneuver in place of one or more of your attacks. The combat maneuver does not take penalties to its attack roll from being part of a full attack, though any other penalties apply normally.
Special: If you have Agile maneuvers and Improved Sunder, you can replace any melee attack you are normally allowed to make (such as an attack of opportunity) with a sunder combat maneuver.

IMPROVED TRIP (Combat)
You are expert at knocking foes down.
Prerequisites: Str 13, base attack bonus +1.
Benefit: When you take a full attack action, you can make a trip combat maneuver in place of one or more of your attacks. The combat maneuver does not take penalties to its attack roll from being part of a full attack, though any other penalties apply normally.
Special: If you have Agile maneuvers and Improved Trip, you can replace any melee attack you are normally allowed to make (such as an attack of opportunity) with a trip combat maneuver.

PATREON
Like all my blog posts, this is brought to you by the wonderful patrons of my Patreon! Want more of this content? Want to suggest specific game systems, topics, of kinds of articles? All of that is only possible if people join my Patreon, help me have the free time to write these things, and let me know what you want to see!

Developing to Spec: Part 17a – Cut-And-Paste Solutions

This is the first section of Part Seventeen of a series of articles looking at creating a set of Starfinder feats under specific constraints.  You can read along as we convert every feat in the PF core rulebook to Starfinder (and  share my thoughts on that process, as a developer and writer)— or you can just look at the finished feats (as they are written) here.

We’re into the long list of “Improved” feats and have come upon Improved Disarm, which can use exactly the solution Improved Bull Rush did. Obviously to save time we’ll cut-and-paste the Improved Bull Rush feat… but it’s important when doing that to make sure you check ALL the places you need to make changes, like replacing “bull rush” with “disarm.”

IMPROVED DISARM (Combat)
You are expert at making foes lose their stuff.
Prerequisites: Str 13, base attack bonus +1.
Benefit: When you take a full attack action, you can make a disarm combat maneuver in place of one or more of your attacks. The combat maneuver does not take penalties to its attack roll from being part of a full attack, though any other penalties apply normally.
Special: If you have Agile maneuvers and Improved Disarm, you can replace any melee attack you are normally allowed to make (such as an attack of opportunity) with a disarm combat maneuver.

In fact, while we are here, let’s tackle another of the cut-and-paste Improved feats based off a combat maneuver, Improved Grapple. Doing things like this all at once can help you note what changes need to get made so you don’t miss one.

IMPROVED GRAPPLE (Combat)
You are expert at locking foes down.
Prerequisites: Str 13, base attack bonus +1.
Benefit: When you take a full attack action, you can make a grapple combat maneuver in place of one or more of your attacks. The combat maneuver does not take penalties to its attack roll from being part of a full attack, though any other penalties apply normally.
Special: If you have Agile maneuvers and Improved Grapple, you can replace any melee attack you are normally allowed to make (such as an attack of opportunity) with a grapple combat maneuver.

We can do Improved Sunder and Improved Trip tomorrow. 🙂

PATREON
Like all my blog posts, this is brought to you by the wonderful patrons of my Patreon! Want more of this content? Want to suggest specific game systems, topics, of kinds of articles? All of that is only possible if people join my Patreon, help me have the free time to write these things, and let me know what you want to see!

 

 

Design Diary: Creating d20 Classes (Part 1)

I have designed a lot of character classes for d20 games.

Many were based on specific exiting intellectual properties, such as the classes I did for the tabletop EverQuest RPG, Star Wars Saga Edition, Wheel of Time, and Black Company. Some were inspired by such an intellectual property, but not designed to emulate it exactly such as the Dragonrider, Godling, Solarian, and Time Thief. Others were just inspired by some niche I saw that looked like a good place for an entire character concept to live, but not inspired by any specific existing work, such as the Armiger, Magister, and Templar.

I have developed a lot of character classes designed by other game writers. Many of them fall into the same kinds of broad categories, though there are also those that simply had to exist in order for a game to have a broad range of playable options, such as Starfinder’s Envoy, Operative and Soldier, and others were specifically trying to stretch a game into new design spaces and experiences, including the Character Operation Manual’s Biohacker, Vanguard, and Witchwarper.

(And, it’s worth noting, in most d20 games the name of a character class is not capitalized. I’m bucking that trend here, because it makes it clearer to me when i am talking about a fighter, as a generic term for one who fights, and a Fighter, a specific d20 character class. That said, when you do your writing, match the style your publisher uses if writing for someone else, and know what conventions you are choosing to buck if you do it differently when writing for yourself.)

Designing a character class from scratch can be a great deal more challenging than designing some smaller element that existing in an already well-defined niche. If you create a new spell for example, you can compare it to other spells available to the same classes at the same spell level, as well as comparing it to spells of higher and lower level, to get a good grasp of how impactful the spell should be. Additionally, the spell only impacts the game if it is cast in a given encounter. If it turns out to be unbalanced, you can generally exclude it from the game environment with little fallout.

A new class, on the other hand, interacts with the entire game system, is the primary way players impact every encounter, and if a player takes one every aspect of its design is constantly being tested and explored and removing it from the game is much more difficult. If it’s a class that fills a specific conceptual niche, removing it from a game can skew the entire feel of the play experience.

That said, despite its increased complexity, import, interaction, and potential complications, designing a character class is at its core still a matter of using the tools available in a game and assembling them in a way that creates a new option. I find it is also generally both extremely fulfilling as a d20 designer, and a great way to learn how the intricacies of interconnected rules work in a specific d20 game.

But it can be extremely intimidating, and it’s useful to break it down into a few discrete steps, at least until you are far enough along in the design you have a framework to hold other ideas on.

So, for the next few weeks, I’ll be doing weekly Design Diaries takign a look at the needs, tips, tricks, and pitfalls of d20 Class Design. And we’re going to start where I think all class design should — The Concept.

The Concept

I strongly believe that the first step of every class design should be to have a concept for what the class is supposed to do. This is a mix of how it should interact with the encounters you expect to be a major part of the game, what you expect it to do to help a team of adventurers overcome such encounters, what a player will expect a member of the class to be able to do, and what the class is going to look like.

Some of the “what does it do” questions are pretty obvious. Most d20 games have a heavy focus on combat, so you want to make sure the class has interesting and effective choices in combat. It doesn’t have to be the most effective combat class (in fact if the game already has classes in it, you likely don’t want to create one that’s better at combat than all of them or you’ll steal spotlight time from an older, better-established class). Most games also have at least a few noncombat challenges, which are often broken into social encounters, investigations, and physical challenges. Some games add specific other forms of encounter, such as starship combat in Starfinder.

You want to make sure you new class has something to contribute in all of these types of encounters. It can be less-good at one or more, both as a weakness to make up for being strong in other areas and as a way to help focus the class’s concept, but you never want encounters of a specific type to be no fun at all for a player. A great deal of classic d20 game class design is pretty weak in this area — most versions of the Fighter are pretty bad at social encounters, which can be more than half the game in some campaigns.

And you can’t fix a gap like that by giving a class an option to sacrifice its core function to pick up secondary competence. This is both because players are unlikely to make such a trade-off (and thus still aren’t having fun in encounters where their character class has no meaningful contribution), and because if they make the choice in too many ways to weaken their core competence, they may not be able to do what the game (and GM and other players) expect them to be able to. A Fighter who i a master negotiator and investigator and starship engineer, but who can’t *fight*, is likely to leave their party in a lurch in combat encounters.

On the other hand, you don’t want your concept to be that the character is good at everything all the time. First, that makes it difficult to have more than one class, since if all classes are good at all things they all feel the same. Second, it’s boring. Players want to have effective options in most encounters, but they also want to be challenged. Also, some players WANT to skip some encounters, or at least minimize their interaction with them, because they don;t like that kind of roleplaying. Some people choose the Fighter exactly because they want to avoid being pressed to be the voice of the party.

If your concept seems too one-note, it can be useful to look at how fictional characters of a similar trope act in various encounters. The surly warrior in fantasy shows and movies may seem not to do anything during social encounters, but if its a major character they actually normally are more impactful than you might think at first glance. That impact might be limited to telling the charismatic talker who the surly warrior does not trust, or glaring down opposing surly warriors, but those actions can easily be gamified as things a player can have their character be doing while the talking goes on, Perhaps the Fighter class should have an Aura of Confidence, which makes it more difficult for their allies to be intimidated or bluffed, but only if the Fighter has “sized up” specific NPCs. The sizing up and granting of confidence is largely invisible to an outside observer, but are still, game actions that allow the player to contribute.

Many concepts can be boiled down to being the Fighter, the Rogue, or the Spellcaster, so it’s a good idea to make your class concept broader than that (unless, like Fantasy AGE, you only want three classes in your game). Some other elements that can inform a concept are focus on a specific kind of magic or fighting (necromancers, summoners, archers, assassins, and so on), knowledge and wisdom (a form of skill expert different from the rogue), religious and spiritual elements, social skills, and unique power sources. You can flesh these out more as your design evolves, but it’s useful early on to decide your Priest has divine abilities gained from worship of a god, your Sorcerer has innate powers like a comicbook superhero, your Warlock has dark powers gained from a contract with some fel entity, and your Wizard is a learned sage who has picked up spells and incantations through pure study and dedication.

It’s also important for your concept to be one that is deserving of it’s own *class*, rather than being an option of a build within a broader class. For example, the Soldier in Starfinder has fighting styles, ranging from Arcane Assailant to Sharpshoot. The broad concept of professional fighter has lots more room to vary that way than if we had made Sniper its own class. A good test for a class concept is if you think any existing d20 class (even ones from other games) can easily have your concept as a sub-options. If yes, your concept may not be broad enough.

Also ask yourself if you can think of differing build options within your class concept which are different from build options appropriate to other classes within the same game. For example, if you wanted a Starfinder class that just controlled gravity, that feels a lot like a sub-build of Solarian, and most gravity-controlling sub-concepts are going to feel like they could be Solarian specialties. If you broaden the class concept out to be a telekinetic and telepath, that gives you much more scope to define a class and make it different and distinct from the Solarian, even if your Psychokinetic has gravity control as one of its specialties.

Once you have a rough concept, you should write it down. You can keep it flexible–it may evolve as the design progresses–but it’s worth looking at your original concept as a guiding principle if you want to course-correct later on.

Then you can begin looking at the tools the game give you to define your class and convey information about what it is supposed to do to the players and GM. But we’ll talk about that next week!

PATREON

These Design Diaries are among the most popular of the things I wrote, but they are also the biggest, hardest, and most time-consuming to create. If you want to keep seeing them, I encourage you to join my Patreon. Just a few dollars a month can make the difference between me having the time to tackle these larger, in-depth design articles, and sticking to shorter, simpler topics.

Developing to Spec: Part 16d – Something Something Insight Bonus

This is the fourth section of Part Sixteen of a series of articles looking at creating a set of Starfinder feats under specific constraints.  You can read along as we convert every feat in the PF core rulebook to Starfinder (and  share my thoughts on that process, as a developer and writer)— or you can just look at the finished feats (as they are written) here.

We’re into the long list of “Improved” feats which are going to have the same kinds of issues as the Greater feats–some are going to boost rules or features that don’t exist in Starfinder, many are going to suggest ways to break the math of the game. Lots of fun challenges! So, let’s get to it.

Improved Channel in PF boosts the save DC of a cleric’s channel powers. We don’t have those powers, but with Harm Undead in the Core Rulebook, and our additions of Alignment Channel, Channel Smite, Elemental Channel, there are powers tied to the healing channel connection power we could boost the DC of. Since Starfinder has options that boost DCs by 1 or 2, and none apply to channel, we can likely just adapt that concept directly, though it’ll take some careful writing to make sure it only boosts those options we want it to. And just to be on the safe side we’ll make these insight bonuses, so if some other option comes along that boosts them there’s a good chance it won’t stack (since an untyped bonus stacks with everything).

IMPROVED CHANNEL
Your channeled energy is hard to resist.
Prerequisites: Healing channel connection power, mystic level 1st.
Benefit: When you use an ability that requires you to expend a use of your healing channel ability and that has an effect tied to a saving throw (such as Alignment Channel, Channel Smite, Elemental Channel, or Harm Undead), the DC of the save gains a +2 insight bonus.

That was easy enough. Next is Improved Counterspell, which is trickier. Starfinder doesn’t have a universal “counterspell” rule the way PF does. It does, however, have dispel magic and greater dispel magic, which have a ‘counter” option, and that’s absed on a die roll. Since that die roll doesn’t have anything else that adds to it, we can safely give it a small boost.

IMPROVED COUNTERSPELL
You are adept at countering other’s spells.
Prerequisites: Ability to cast dispel magic or greater dispel magic.
Benefit: When you cast dispel magic or greater dispel magic using the counter option, you gain a +2 insight bonus to your dispel check to counter the other spellcaster’s spell. If the spell you are attempting to counter is of a lower spell level than the spell you are using to counter, the insight bonus increases to +4.

PATREON
Like all my blog posts, this is brought to you by the wonderful patrons of my Patreon! Want more of this content? Want to suggest specific game systems, topics, of kinds of articles? All of that is only possible if people join my Patreon, help me have the free time to write these things, and let me know what you want to see!