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Design Diary: Creating d20 Classes (Part 4)

Last month 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’ve gone over concept, and discussed the class progression tools various games give you to fill out the mechanical roles your class might fill, and begun discussing the etiquette of the presentation of special abilities (the heart of any d20 class).

So, we need to dig into Class Features… and that’s a big topic. So this week we get a big post, that tackles some of the context and frameworks you can use when designing how a class and a character interface with class feature choices.

When looking at what special abilities to give a class, you should consider the category of each ability. Some abilities are access abilities, such as a spellcaster’s access to a spell list (and we’ll talk more about spells and spell lists in a later post) or access to a list of feats. Some are unique powers available only to that class. Some classes (and some game systems) blur that line — Pathfinder 1st edition has fighter-only feat, which some later classes can can access as their own class features. Pathfinder 2nd edition has feats for every class that are unique to that class, except that any other character can pick many of them up by taking a mutliclass dedication feat.

In addition to the access-unique spectrum, class abilities can be divided into static abilities, group abilities, and selectable abilities. Static abilities are things the class gets with no variation or choice (and least without accessing optional or advanced rules). In Starfinder, every operative gets trick attack. Group abilities are things where a player makes a choice between one group of abilities and another, but once that choice is made the abilities it grants are set. Looking at the Starfinder operative again, each operative select one specialization. That specialization has a few abilities it grants over the course of the operative’s career, but once the choice of which specialization to take is made the abilities within that choice are set. Selectable abilities are individual things that can be chosen from a list (though they might have prerequisites). The operatives exploits are a good example of this.

Some of the access choices are things every character class can take some portion of, so when designing a class you need to consider not just what access options help their role within the game and a party, but how that interacts with other classes in the game. Skills are a perfect example of this. Most classes have access to more skills than they can take (whether through a skill-point system, scaling proficiencies, or just what ability score they focus on, depending on how the game system handles classes). If you give a class access to all a game’s skill options, the chances they’ll overlap with some other class that needs a skill more for its core function increases. Even if no one character can take all the skills, adding some limits to what subset they have to choose from can help give a class focus and clarity of purpose.

There are some pseudo-choices a character can offer as well, where every member of the class has the same ability, but characters may be differentiated by which choice they make. For example, all fighters in most d20 game systems have access to all martial weapons, armors, and shields. However, most fighters select a small set of weapons to use most often. Even though two different fighters can both use a greatsword or a longsword and shield, most characters go with one or the other. While that’s a minor difference at first, as the character evolves the other choices they make are likely to reinforce one equipment selection over another.

One of the less-obvious consequences of how you allow ca class to access its abilities is complexity. A character that has access to a wide range of spell choices, for example, is less likely to have lots of selectable abilities. The need to read through and pick spells is already a lot of footwork to ask of a player. (Even if a character ends up with only a small number of spells, the need to pick them from a large list slows and complicates character creation). If you are designing a class to add to an existing game you likely can afford to make the design more complex overall–players who don’t like more work to make their character can stick to existing class options. But if you are designing all the classes designed to be used in a campaign (such as if you are creating new classes that are all that is expected to be available for a campaign setting), you should consider having at least one class that is simpler and has fewer choices, to allow players who prefer simple design an easy entry point.

That’s not universal, of course. Many players prefer highly customizable characters with lots of options. Many just enjoy being able to build a character closer to their pre-existing concept, while others want to have enough flexibility that if another player chooses the same class their two characters act and play differently from one another.

However that plays off another important fact, which we need to discuss before we move on to ability balance–the more selectable options a character class has at a given level, the more potential for min/maxing exists. Even if the options are tied to a set of options that are (theoretically) all at the same power level, the wider the set of options you give access to the more powerful a character can become. For example, if you give a class access to a single specific feat at 5th level, that’s a typical and easily balanced level of power. If you give the character their choice of one of 6 feats, that is slightly more powerful, even if all those feats are perfectly balanced against one another. If you allow a character to take any feat they meet the prerequisites for that is much more powerful, even if you assume every feat in the game is perfectly balanced.

This is because players who achieve a high-degree of system mastery can use synergy between options to make a character that can do more than an off-the-rack build. Especially in games with growing rules additions (which are most games that are seen as “well-supported”), every adjustable class feature is a chance to find some combination that works better than a typical combo. Even if none of the new options are built into you class’s features (a character who has a set of 7 specific feats they can choose from doesn’t have that list automatically expand just because new feats are added to the game, unlike a character with access to all of a type of feat–or one with access to all of one set of spells), a synergy could develop between an old choice and new options any character can access.

There’s no right or wrong choices with these elements, to be clear. They are just things to consider when looking at the ways you can organize and hand out class features.

With all that in mind, we can look at power level of class features and appropriate choices by character level… next time! (Maybe in a week… maybe in 2-3… )

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. I was thrilled to be able to really take some time to write and develop this particular entry over a few weeks, thanks to your kind support! If you want to help me keep producing these Design Diaries, 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.

Design Diary: Creating d20 Classes (Part 3)

Last month 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’ve gone over concept, and discussed the class progression tools various games give you to fill out the mechanical roles your class might fill. Now, it’s time to begin discussing the heart of what makes a class fun and unique–special abilities.

Of course there are lots of elements to good special abilities. Balanced numerical considerations. Well-worded rules. But also, matching (or intentionally breaking from) the game system’s class organization etiquette.

Yep. Etiquette.

Each d20-based game system has an etiquette on how classes are presented, which you need to understand on order to build a set of class features players will find satisfying and relatable. Yes, you can challenge it, but you need to know why it’s there and understand how GMs and players may react to a class that doesn’t follow the system’s rules of class presentation etiquette.

Since we haven’t talked much about special abilities yet, let me use a progression bonus example to explain what i mean/

If you were making a Chaos Adept class for Starfinder, you could perfectly well decide it has a +2 base Will bonus at 1st level, +0 at 2nd level, +3 at 3rd and 4th, +1 at 5th, and +4 at 6th. Done properly, that can be balanced, and match the class’s theme. None of those numbers are out of whack for balance purposes at the levels they are presented, so the class is not in that regard unbalanced.

But it breaks etiquette in a big way. A lot of GMs will flip out. It LOOKS wrong, since every other class in Starfinder uses one of just two progressions, which all march slowly upward at a regular pace. It also makes it really hard to a player to know if the class is one that in general is “good” at Will saves. If they want to be more mentally resilient than ususal should they invest in Iron Will or similar save-boosting options? Most players won;t have a clue.

Further, the class if going to give different end result feels at different levels. Sometimes it’ll feel very mentally resilient, while on other occasions it will seem weak for entire levels of gameplay at a time. That can be chaotic, of course, but it puts a lot of mystery into how the class is going to act, forcing the player to guess or do a fair amount of analysis before discovering what to expect from the class.

Is that worth the chaos-themed-feel? You can’t answer that questions until and unless you understand why the etiquette existed to begin with.

Different games handle how the class gains bonuses to basic tasks and game functions differently. Proficiency values are fixed in 5e, it’s what you apply them to that varies. Proficiency tiers are given as specific levels in PF2 and have set values. No one ever gets a d11 hit die in any of these games, even though d11s are easily available.

Using a specific set of tools and presentation makes it much clearer to players and GMs what a class is good at and should be able to do. Breaking those norms has consequences, and you need to grasp what those are before you can decide if your off-the-wall design is worth it.

There’s also some Picasso at work here.

If your choices appear entirely random and disconnected from how the game you are designing for builds a class, players and GMs have little reason to trust you know what you are doing as a designer. Suspicion and confusion can very quickly lead to gamers spending more time picking about the game design than playing the game, and that is unlikely to lead them to feel they got good value out of what your spend so much time and hard work creating.

On the other hand, if your class design is familiar in how most of it is presented, the places you do deviate from the norm are more likely to be accepted as mindful, intentional efforts to make something new and innovative. Like a work of Picasso, at least some people are going to evaluate something that breaks the normal conventions in the context of knowing the creator has proven to have mastered the normal rules of that art form first. Picasso mastered the conventional styles of art in his field, and was then able to change the rules from a place of understanding what they were and how to use them.

So, analyze how the existing classes in the game present everything from bonuses to proficiencies to class features. In Starfinder, every class has beginning armor and weapon proficiencies, class skilsl and skill points/level (and in general twice as many class skills as the number of skill points it gets per level), Weapon Specialization at exactly third level, and most have a few set core abilities every few levels and one or two different sets of tiered ability choices with level prerequisites.

By contract, 5e classes all have a proficiency bonus that increases by level (at exactly the same rate for every class), fixed abilities at most levels (generally with one kind of choice at 1st or 2nd), and one or two points where the player picks a specialization. Classes don’t have special class abilities that are picked every few levels in 5e, though things like feats and spell selection still have an element of that.

So if you want to introduce a whole new mechanic of player (say, a system of runes that don’t work like any existing class feature as I have in the runecaster class now available through the 52-in-52 program), you want for everything else in the class presentation to follow the normal class etiquette. Not only does that show you knew what you were doing, it lets gamers who look at your design focus on learning the new rules you are presenting, without having to also grasp a totally different presentation of information.

You CAN change anything you want as a designer. Just make sure you only do so when the result is worth the cognitive load on your customers.

Next week, for sure, we’ll talk about fixed abilities versus customizable abilities. 🙂

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.

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.

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.

d20 Design Diary: Feat Prerequisites

One of the things I have mentioned several times in my ongoing series of articles converting Pathfinder Core Rulebook feats to Starfinder, is that Starfinder tends to have much less restrictive, less extensive feat prerequisites. What I haven’t done is go into any particular details about WHY that is the case, or how it impacts gameplay, or why Starfinder has any feat prerequisites at all.

To understand the answers to those questions, you need to understand why any feat has prerequisites, and what the different game function of various categories of prerequisites are. Since the core concepts here tend to apply to a broad range of d20 games, they seemed deserving of their own Design Diary (which, if popular, may be the first in a series of such posts looking at the unwritten logic behind various elements of d20 game design).

There are basically three kinds of feat prerequisites.

The first are balancing prerequisites, designed to limit which characters can take a feat based on character build. These include things like ability score minimum (so feats that make a character seem strong are limited to characters who have some minimum level of Strength), level minimums (so you can’t get the benefit until a certain level of options have entered the game in the form of class features, spells, and items tied to that level), and base attack bonus minimums (which ensure lower-level characters can’t get the feat immediately, and that full attack-bonus classes have access to them earlier and therefore can also get more of them). These tend not to be things players have to plan for–eventually a character hits these values, or doesn’t.

(A quick aside — Ability scores are slightly different, in that they can be a case where you can plan to gain the needed score to pick up a feat eventually. This is one of the reasons Starfinder and Pathfinder 2e grant you boosts to more than just one ability score when you hit the appropriate level–to allow characters to pick up feats they didn’t original qualify for due to a secondary or tertiary ability score without requiring the character give up boosting their primary ability score. It’s also why ability score prerequisites are always an odd numerical value–since ability bonuses are tied to even scores, having feats have odd scores as prerequisites can be the only gem mechanical difference between a 12 and 13 Intelligence, for example. In turn, this is why themes grant a +1 ability bonus in Starfinder. The design is intended to ensure any character build can work with any theme, since the theme does not change what your ability score modifiers are. But since they do cause one of your ability scores to have an odd value, taking the mercenary theme can be the difference between qualifying for Heavy Armor Proficiency, or not.)

The second type of prerequisites are those where just by the nature of the rules for someone to be able to do what a feat grants, they much have some previous ability. This is a like our Starfinder version of the Extra Rage feat, which gives you a benefit with a specific soldier fighting style–obviously if you don’t have that style, the feat is useless, so the style becomes a prerequisite. Often these are things a character is going to have as part of their core concept, or not. It’s less common for a character to evolve to gain these things, except as level locks (a feat that requires 7 ranks in a skill is level locked in that you can’t get it before 7th level, but most characters won’t pick up those ranks just to access the feat).

A subtype of this are prerequisites that are just a good idea for a character to have to make things effective–for example combat maneuvers in Starfinder are difficult to succeed at, so we are adding Improved Combat Maneuver with the appropriate maneuver as a prerequisite for each of our Greater combat maneuver feats. You don’t have to be good at disarming things game mechanically to theoretically benefit at the additional benefits for Greater Disarm, but it makes sense to avoid having frustrated players who end up with extra options for a combat maneuver they rarely succeed with by requiring them to be fairly good at the basic option before taking an advanced option.

The third type of feat prerequisites are conceptual ones, where it makes sense within the setting for you to have to be able to do something before you can gain a feat’s benefit, but they aren’t directly tied together. This includes things like not being able to use a skill for some advanced task unless you have ranks in it as a prerequisite, or needing a simple improvement before you get a complex improvement. This is where Pathfinder feats often have long chains of prerequisites which may have nothing to do with the game mechanics of a feat, they exist purely because it was considered logical by the designer. For example, you can’t get Greater Disarm in Pathfinder without Combat Expertise, since obviously disarming someone is an expert combat maneuver. But that also means you can’t get it without a 13 Intelligence, and that you must pick up the purely-defensive Combat Expertise feat before you can get the unrelated offensive combat maneuver-boosting Greater feat.

One effect of this is that it tends to create niche protection for what characters can gain what abilities. In Pathfinder if you have a fighter and a rogue in the group, and only the rogue has a 13 Intelligence, the rogue is more likely to be the only character with Greater Disarm because the fighter likely won’t be motivated to get the 13 Int AND Combat Expertise just to pick it up. However, this niche protection is haphazard–the Pathfinder fighter may have a much higher Combat maneuver Bonus and thus still be better at disarm than the rogue even with no resources dedicated to the idea–and it can create frustrations where a player finds some feat that feels thematically appropriate, but the feat has a chain of 7 prior feats they must have to take it, requiring the character be dedicated to that one concept for many levels of game play.

This category is where Starfinder has cut out a lot of prerequisites, so characters are less likely to be required to access unrelated feats to qualify for the things that interest them. As much as possible, the game is designed to allow any character of an appropriate level, who has the basic concepts to support a new feat option, to be able to select that feat option.

Long feat chains can also be designed in an effort to enforce game balance, in two different ways. First, if a feat is under-powered on its own, having it serve as the prerequisite for a more-powerful-than-average feat can, theoretically, lead to characters being more balanced overall. However, this means a player must choose the under-powered feat first, and live with its underwhelming performance until the more advanced feat can be gained. Second, if a feat has a huge list of prerequisites it obviously won’t be taken by low-level characters who don’t have that many feat slots. However if the feat is powerful enough, players will constantly seek ways to gain the prerequisites through other means, and may end up picking it up earlier than its designer intended. If a feat shouldn’t enter the game until 7th level, it’s simpler to just make being 7th level a prerequisite.

HUGE THANKS TO MY PATRONS

This post almost didn’t happen today, because my Patreon had fallen below the support level where I post 5 times a week. So I held it back, in the hopes I could post it later in the week if the Patreon support went up. But within a few hours of that becoming common knowledge the Patreon surged back up, so we’re back to 5 posts a week!

The patreon support really is critical to my being able to spend time making these posts, so if you enjoyed this or found it useful, please considering adding your support.

 

Centaur PC Race for Starfinder… and more.

CENTAURS IN STARFINDER
I have always loved the idea of centaur player characters. I suspect my love started with “Bridge of Sorrows” by Denis Beauvais, which was the cover of Dragon Magazine #92 (TSR, December 1984). Or maybe to goes back a tad earlier, to the Xanth novel Centaur Aisle, which I read in 1982, the same year I first encountered D&D, and RPGs in general.

I definitely want centaur PCs for my Really Wild West setting hack, which means I need rules for playing them as PCs in the Starfinder Roleplaying Game.

Ability Adjustments
Centaurs are powerfully built and in tune with their surroundings, but their hybrid form does come with drawbacks. Some centaurs are slightly awkward, having the brain of a biped, but the body of a quadruped. Others are delicate, their thin ankles and strange doubled internal organs leaving them prone to injury and ailments. A few are impatient and have little taste for complex calculations, preferring direct action and simple solutions whenever possible.
+2 Strength, +2 Wisdom, -2 to Dexterity, Constitution, or Intelligence.

Size and Type
Centaurs are monstrous humanoids.Centaurs vary in size from halfling-scale torsos on pony equine bodies, to mighty human or even ogrelike torsos on mighty warhorse equine bodies. At character creation, a centaur PC decided if they are Medium or large. They use equipment as Medium characters in either case.

Hit Points
6

Darkvision
Centaurs have darkvision with a range of 60 feet.

Humanoidlike
Centaurs are close enough to nonmonstrous humanoids that they can be affected by spells and abilities that affect humanoids, but do not affect monstrous humanoids. Centaurs gain a +4 racial bonus to saving throws (if any) against such effects.

Gallop
Centaurs have a land speed of 40 feet, but treat it as a speed of 20 feet when determining their movement using Athletics to climb or swim. A centaur gains a +2 bonus to AC when charging (which normally just offsets the -2 penalty to AC for charging). When a centaur succeeds at a bull rush combat maneuver, they can move their target 5 feet farther than normal.

Natural Weapons
Centaurs are always considered armed. They can deal 1d3 lethal damage with unarmed strikes and the attack doesn’t count as archaic. Centaurs gain a unique weapon specialization with their natural weapons at 3rd level, allowing them to add 1–1/2 × their character level to their damage rolls for their natural weapons (instead of just adding their character level, as usual).

Quadruped
Centaurs are quadrupeds, which gives them some advantages and a few drawbacks. They take -2 penalties to Acrobatics checks to tumble and Athletics checks to climb. When determining their bulk limits, centaurs add half their Constitution score to their Strength. Centaurs gain a +2 racial bonus to their KAC against bull rush and reposition combat maneuvers. A centaur can carry one creature of its own size, or two of at least one size smaller, without counting them against the centaur’s bulk limit.

RWW-Centaurs-background-01

CENTAURS IN THE REALLY WILD WEST
In the pulp-scifi-western-fantasy-world of the Really Wild West, centaurs appear in most ancient civilizations of western Asia, northern Africa, and eastern Europe. They often appear as separate tribes, no less advanced or civilized than the other species around them, and often seen as wiser and more scientifically advanced than the ancient cultures that wrote about them. They are an accepted part of the history of those places, and have become common throughout Africa, Europe and northern Asia.

However, centaurs are not generally huge fans of sea travel. This dislike is not pathological, but practical. Centaurs are excellent overland travelers, but at best mediocre swimmers, and many are large enough to make building ships to accommodate them problematic. In previous centuries, they simply used Roman roads and Asian trade routes to spread their kingdoms far and wide, often as the most feared and effective of cavalry. But the rise of sea travel in empire-building has left most centaur nations shrinking, and often joining larger bipedal nations in mostly-friendly alliances and unifications.

As a consequence, centaurs are not particularly common in the Americas, as their lack of a tradition of sea travel simply has centaur businesses and families less interested in the kinds of roles that have brought people from other nations to American shores. This in turn has caused most major North and South American to develop without taking centaur needs into account. Buildings are not designed to be accessed by hooved people up to seven feet tall, and even centaurs small enough to fit in American buildings find themselves with few places to stand in settings where everyone else sits.

Most centaurs in the Americas find they are just more comfortable in frontier towns or pure wilderness. So while there are not many centaurs on the continents in general, a disproportionate number of those who are present take to Wild West living, where their speed and carrying capacity, and long tradition of dedication and excellence, are seen as more than enough to justify making a few changes to the local saloon, or having on or two of the hotel’s stable stalls be well-appointed rooms, as well.

CENTAURS PF2
So, PF1 already has solid rules for centaur PCs, but what if you wanted to play a centaur PC in PF2, or 5e?

Hit Points
10

Size
Medium

Speed
30 feet

Ability Boosts
Strength
Wisdom
Free

Ability Flaw
Dexterity

Languages
Common
Sylvan
Additional languages equal to your Intelligence modifier (if it’s positive). Choose from Aklo, Elvish, Gnomish, Goblin, Jotun, Orcish, and any other languages to which you have access (such as the languages prevent to your region).

Traits
Centaur
Humanoid

Darkvision
You can see in darkness and dim light just as well as you can see in bright light. though your vision in darkness is black and white.

Centaur Heritages
Centaurs have a vast number of ethnic differences, but also can trace their linneage back to a few early tribes that still often produce very different

Kentoroi
You are Large, rather than medium, and have a thick, sturdy appearance. You may have small tusks, or pointed ears. You gain the orc trait and your bulk limits are increased by +6. You can select orc feats whenever you gain an ancestry feat.

Lapith
Your head, arms and torso are extremely humanlike. You gain the human trait and are trained in one skill of your choice. You can select human feats whenever you gain an ancestry feat.

While for a full suppliment we’d obviously want some cool centaur-specific ancestry feats, doing things this way ensures that as the PF2 game adds new options for humans and orcs, our centaur PCs will automatically gain expanded options as well.

WANT MORE?
Got questions about specific kinds of development or game rule issues? Want to suggest some other topic for me to tackle in-depth? Join my Patreon for just a few dollars a month, and give me feedback on the kind of content you want to see!

 

Shield Traits for Pathfinder 2e

One of the unified systems in the second edition of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is a set of weapon traits that make specific fighting styles work differently from one another without having to depend on special class features or unique rules that apply to only a single weapon.

That same idea can easily be applied to shields, allowing all the common shield types and options to apply to some of the specific kinds of shields that evolved in the real word to meet specific fighting styles’ needs.

For example here are to Applied Kite Traits, designed to be applied to several different types of shields, allowing specific shields used by cavalry forces in the real word to function without special class features or skill uses.

A shield can only have one Applied Kite Trait, and that trait must be selected when the shield is crafted.

Bouche: A bouche shield has a series of ridges and notches along the top and one side that allow a mounted wielder to brace a lance on the shield. While wielding a bouche shield, you gain access to the set lance action.

A buckler, wooden or steel shield can have the bouche trait. This increases the cost by 1 gp, and reduces hardness by 1.

Set Lance [1 Action]: The next attack you make with a lance before the end of your turn does damage dice as if you were holding the lance 2-handed. You must be mounted and be wielding a lance in one hand to take this action.

Shield Bouche Bouch Shield

Kite: A kite shield has a wide, rounded top and tappers down to a point. It is a long shield, normally running 3/4 to 4/5 the height of the user.

When you take the Raise a Shield action with a kite shield while mounted, your mount also benefits from the increase to AC. If you have access to the Shield Block reaction, you can use it to defend your mount from a physical attack, rather than only when you would take damage from a physical attack.

A wooden, steel, or tower shield can have the kite trait. This increases the cost by 1 gp, and increases the bulk by 1.

Kite Shield Kite Shield

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? Join my Patreon and let me know what you want to see!

Heightened Spellbook: New Spell Options for PF2

One of the interesting things Pathfinder second edition has done is have a uniform set of rules for casting spells at higher spell levels. Many spells end up taking niches similar to lesser- and greater- versions from the first edition by having a set of effects that get better as you access higher-level versions of the spell.

Of course not every Pathfinder Second Edition spell has heightened benefits… but they all COULD.

So, I’m beginning to look at ways to add heightened effects to PF2 spells that currently don’t have them. For the moment, I’m starting at the beginning of the alphabet and just seeing how far I get, doing just a few each day.

Later these may all get compiled into a pdf, and backers of my Patreon at every level will certainly have compiled access to them eventually, as well as having the similar rules for focus spells I am posting exclusively on my Patreon pages.

I don’t want to duplicate the fine work other people have done compiling the base rules online (such as the PF2 SRD and the Archives of Nethys), so I’ll just list the spell, and it’s new heightened rules.

So, let’s get started with the Heightened Spellbook!

ABYSSAL PLAGUE     Spell 5
Heightened (+2) Targets increases to +1 additional creature adjacent to the touched creature; disease level increases by +2.

AIR BUBBLE     Spell 1
Heightened (+1) Targets increases by +1; duration is doubled (x2 at 2nd level, x4 at 3rd level, etc.)

AIR WALK     Spell 4
Heightened (+2) Targets increases to +1 additional creature adjacent to the touched creature; duration is doubled (x2 at 6th level, x4 at 8th level, etc.)

ALTER REALITY     Spell 10
Heightened (+1) Level of spells you can duplicate in each category increases by +1.
(Note: You’ll need some rules for 11th level spells to use this one, but if you’re using spells from some rando’s blog, who knows what other optional spells you’ve adopted?)

ANIMAL MESSENGER     Spell 2
Heightened (2nd) Animal messenger will bring a message or light Bulk item back to you, as if the recipient has also cast this spell.
Heightened (+1)
 Range and duration is doubled for each time you add this heightened effect.

00 Dragon and Wizard - RetroPunk

Art (c) RetroPunk, used under license

Like with all my blog posts, this is brought to you by the wonderful patrons of my Patreon!

This is specifically supported by the Open Gaming Store, which currently has a HUGE mega-bundle sale going on if you want lots of material for only a few gp!

My Patreon: The Silver Lining

Well, you crazy folks did it. You pushed my Patreon over the $714 mark, my first monthly GOAL, which I have had since 2016, and never gotten closer than halfway before now.

So, I can now (starting today), “budget a guaranteed amount of time into my freelance schedule, allowing me to post at least one 750-word or longer piece of setting or fiction material every Monday, and 2 microrules (Microfeats, Spell Tweets, or similar very-short RPG rule ideas) every Tuesday-Friday.”

I also need to figure out my next goals. Sure, bringing in $1500/month to support my random writings seems impossible–but then $714 always felt like a stretch as well. More news on that soon.

Obviously I am extremely grateful to my backers, new and pre-existing, and everyone who has boosted, linked, promoted, and generally made a big deal of the fact I write things and people can help fund that directly. Since the job that my wife Lj and I moved to Indiana for has dried up many friends and fans have told me they wished they could do more. But it is clear that the efforts people have made on our behalf is what’s lead to this point, where my Patreon is a noteworthy part of my freelance income.

So what is the money going towards? Right now the time I am carving out for Patreon-supported writing is paid for by this income, which is going to go directly to finding a stable health insurance solution for my family.

And now, of course, what you are all paying me for– Game Content! Keeping with the theme of today I have written up a Silver Lining feat. Or, rather, since Silver Linings come in lots of different forms, I have written three different versions of it, for three of my favorite different RPGs.

Silver Lining (Pathfinder 1st Ed)
When things look bad, something else always works out for you.
Benefits: When you roll a natural 1 on an attack roll or a saving throw in circumstances where a typical character could not take 10 on a skill check, you gain 1 resolve point. As a reaction when you next fail an attack roll or saving throw you may spent this resolve point for an immediate reroll without taking an action. If the d20 die result of the reroll is 1-10, add 10 to your total result. You can only have 1 resolve point at a time, and if not used it goes away when you next qualify to regain uses of daily abilities (even if you do not actually have daily abilities to regain).\

Silver Lining (Pathfinder 2nd Ed)
When things look bad, something else always works out for you.
Benefits: When you suffer a critical failure on an attack roll or saving throw, as a reaction you may choose to either heal a number of HP equal to your level, or regain one Focus Point.

Silver Lining (Starfinder)
When things look bad, something else always works out for you.
Benefits: When you roll a natural 1 on an attack roll against a significant foe, or on a saving throws against a significant foe, as a reaction you may spent 1 Resolve Point to regain a number of Hit Points and a number of Stamina Points equal to your level. You cannot regain more of either than you are currently missing.

Silver Lining for Fantasy AGE

I am also now the Fantasy AGE developer for Green Ronin, so I’m posting this *very* rough, *very* unofficial version of Silver Lining as a Talent for that game system.

SILVER LINING
Classes: Mage, Rogue, and Warrior
Requirement: None
When things go badly for you, it’s usually a sign that something good is also about to happen.
Novice: When a foe using a stunt with a SP cost of 3 or more against you, the next time you gain SP, you gain 1 more than usual. You never gain more than 1 extra SP from Silver Lining.
Journeyman: Silver Lining now functions when a foe using a stunt with a SP cost of 2 or more against you.
Master: Silver Lining now functions whenever a foe uses a stunt against you.

Want to help with my Silver Lining?
I’m back to being a full-time freelancer, which means arranging for stability, health insurance, retirement options, and so on, is extremely difficult.

So if you found any of this useful or entertaining and you’d like to join the growing community of folks supporting the creation of more such content, check out my Patreon!

Just a couple of dollars a month from each of you will make a huge difference.

Shield Feats for PF 2E

Okay I’m at Gen Con, but I can’t help but want to play with some of the most interesting new rules of the  Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook. Shields!

Here are some new shield-focused feats. I am still trying to decide how I want to present some of the new information PF2 feats need in my blog format, so here’s a first try.

Angle Shield[General][Feat 1]

Prerequisites Shield Block
You can angle your shield to deflect part of the force of a powerful blow. When you use the Shield Block feat, your shield takes 5 points less damage than normal (minimum 0).

Duck Down[General][Feat 3]

[Reaction]
Trigger: When you have your shield raised and are forced to make a saving throw.
You can duck down behind your shield, making it more difficult for spells and special abilities to target and effect you. You gain a +1 bonus to the triggering saving throw. You are no longer considered to have your shield raised.

Knock Aside [General][Feat 1]

When you are wielding a shield, you gain a +2 bonus to the Disarm, Force Open, Shove, and Trip actions of Athletics.

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