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Fallback Feats for 5e, PF1, PF2, and Starfinder

Tuesday’s Fallback feats were a bit hit. Sadly, circumstances prevented me from posting two new rules-elements worth of content Wednesday.

So, today not only am I giving your four new Fallback feats, they all work in four game systems — 5e, PF1, PF2, and Starfinder. Though these these feats are written using Pathfinder 1e/Starfinder terminology and formatting (I didn’t take the time to write 4 slightly different versions of each), the actual feats and rules themselves work in all 4 game systems.

These feats all fallow the normal Fallback Feat rules.

ELDRITCH BACKLASH [Fallback]
Your magic harms those that ignore it.
Benefit: When you cast a 1st level or higher spell that does not affect any creatures or significant objects you target or that are in the area, one target of your choice with an AC no greater than 15 + your caster level takes damage equal to one weapon in your possession with which you are proficient (without adding any bonus damage from ability scores, feats, or special abilities), or 5 HP per level of the spell, whichever is greater.

LEARN FROM FAILURE [Fallback]
You are constantly analyzing your efforts, and even when you do not succeed, you may learn something useful from your failure.
Benefit: When you fail at an attack roll or an ability check or skill check to identify, recall lore about, disarm, disable, or bypass a creature, trap, or hazard, or survive or get along in the wilderness, you may immediately make an appropriate ability or skill check to learn one new relevant fact about the creature, object, or region involved at the normal skill DC to learn information or recall knowledge. Multiple failed checks can reveal multiple new pieces of information without the DC increasing.

Fallback Entangled
(Art by GrandFailure)

SIMMERING RAGE [Fallback]
Even when a foe incapacitates you, your anger at being sidelined grows.
Benefit: When you are unwillingly bound, charmed, enchanted, entangled, grabbed, grappled, held, paralyzed, petrified, or magically slept by a foe (or foe’s trap or hazard) during a combat encounter in such a way that you cannot take any effective actions, you gain a +1 bonus to saving throws, rolls, or checks to end the situation incapacitating you (if any), which is cumulative if you are incapacitated for multiple rounds.
Additionally when you stop being incapacitating, you gain a +4 bonus to any attack roll or skill check you make in your first full around, and tot he save DC of any spell or ability you use that round.

STREAKBREAKER [Fallback]
Your bad luck doesn’t last forever.
Benefit: When you fail an attack roll or skill check roll (not including taking 10 or taking 20) and your d20 result for the check was 11 or worse, you gain a +1 luck bonus to all attack rolls and skill checks where you make a d20 roll until you succeed at one. If you already have a luck bonus active from this feat when you qualify for it again, you luck bonus increased by 1 until you succeed at a skill check or attack roll.

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Dash Cantrip, in Four Game Systems

Cantrips are interesting, in all 4 of the d20 game systems I work in regularly (PF1, PF2, StF, and 5e). You get unlimited uses of them, so they need to be useful enough to be worth tracking (even at mid- to high-levels), but can’t be so good that casting them endlessly can ruin a game.

And almost none of them impact movement.

Which lead me to wonder, CAN I design a cantrip that impacts movement? Something to give you a little edge when what you need to do is reposition yourself and just a double move (or dash, or triple move, or whatever the game’s equivalent is) won’t do.

Can I do in in four game systems?

Behold, the dash cantrip.

Pathfinder, 1e

Dash
School transmutation; Level Bard 0, Cleric 0, Druid 0, Inquisitor 0, Magus 0, Mesmerist 0, Psychic 0, Shaman 0, Witch 0, Sorcerer/Wizard 0]
Casting Time 1 standard action
Range personal
Target you
Duration 1 round

Your movement rate increases by an enhancement bonus equal to your current movement rate, +20 feet.

Pathfinder, 2e

Dash [Cantrip 1]
Traditions Arcane, Divine, Primal
Cast [three actions] Verbal
Duration until the start of your next turn

You move a distance equal to triple your speed +30 feet.

Starfinder

Dash  [Mystic 0, Witchwarper 0]
School transmutation
Casting Time 1 standard action
Range personal
Duration 1 round

You gain a +10 foot increase to your land speed until the beginning of your next turn. As part of casting this spell, you can move up to your land speed.

5e

Dash
Transmutation cantrip
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Self
Components: V
Duration: 1 round

You can move a number of feet this round equal to double your move, +20 feet.

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Gamifying Friday the 13th in 4 Game Systems

It’s Friday the 13th, a day long associated with misfortune and evil spirits… and urban legends.

So, what would such a day look like in an RPG? Let’s examine 4 different ideas, in 4 different game systems–Pathfinder 1st and 2nd edition, Starfinder, and 5e.

PF1

Blood Night

On blood night, the moon takes on a dull reddish hue that lasts through the night. Blood night is always in autumn, but exactly what night it occurs is based on a complex set of rules only heirophants really seem to understand. What is known is that when a blood night occurs on the night of a full moon, the bad luck is far worse.

From sundown to sunup, any attack that normally only threatens a critical hit on a natural 20, or 19-20, instead threatens one on an 18-20. Additionally, attack rolls made to confirm critical hits gain a +8 circumstance bonus

PF2

Minotaur’s Moon

When the ancient Cyclops Calendar begins the month of Maze on the week of a new moon, that is the day of the Minotaur’s Moon, when the Bull Man works to kill the small and weak. Goblins, in particular, greatly fear this.

On the Minotaur’s Moon, everyone has Doomed 2.

Starfinder

Which Weird

The kasatha and shobad calendars do not normally line up, being from different worlds with different year durations. But both have a “wyrd” day that is observed in grim reserve, and every few years those days happen to overlap by a period of 11 to 17.5 hours.

During that “which weird,” all Reflex saving throws take a -4 penalty.

5e

Lichgate

When the Imperial Calendar gets a full day off from the Seasonal Calendar, a day must be added to adjust the beginning of Spring. This day is seen as a gate through which evil dead spirits can speak into the world to so discord for one say, and weaken the resolve of heroes, and is known as Lichgate.

On Lichgate, when making a Wisdom saving throw, you roll twice and use the lower result as if you had disadvantage. However, if your unused result is enough to resist the effect, you only suffer the consequences of the failed saving throw for 1 round. After that you shake off the evil spirits that weakened you, and are no longer effected. But if both die rolls are failures, the effect’s duration upon you is doubled.

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Animated branded with an Unholy Sign cover 1

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What The Heck is “ShadowFinders?”

So, I happened to mention a “ShadowFinders” campaign on social media a few times in the past few weeks, leading a number of people to ask “What the heck is ShadowFinders, and when does it come out?”

Cyberpunk katana

And now I’ll have a place to point them to, at least for the moment. And the answers are… “A theoretical modern Pathfinder campaign I have been noodling and, as far as I know, never.”

I know, not very satisfying.

The thing it, I already have TWO campaign settings mulling about that I work on when I get what I laughingly refer to as “Space Time.” I’ve been working on-and-off on the Really Wild West (a campaign hack for Starfinder), and more recently Sorcerers & Speakeasies (a campaign setting for 5e). Those are both mix-modern-and-fantasy settings, with Really Wild West having a great deal more material done for it (having begun working on it more than 2 years ago), and Sorcerers & Speakeasies currently having an actual for-sale product currently being designed by a freelancer.

So, clearly, I already have my hands full with modern fantasy pastiche ideas for two game systems that I don;t have time to move forward at full speed as it is. So why would I add another?

To some extend, I can’t help it.

I didn’t become an RPG game designer because that was my life goal. I slid into it sideways, by loving games (especially RPGs), and making up stuff for my own home games (mostly RPGs), and wanting to turn my hobby into a revenue-neutral pastime that paid for itself. (You can read more detailed accounts of my nearly-accidental entry into my 20+ year RPG design career at “From the Freelancing Frontline,” in a series of articles at EN World.)

And, it’s still one of my primary hobbies. Which means, I am still having ideas about things I’d like to run as games, or add to games, or even play in games. Now, a lot of that content ends up in products I write or develop–I find it easiest to work on a game system if I am playing that system. (I know some rpg designers prefer not to be frequently playing the game they are working on, and given how great many of those designers are I have to say that works for them. I don’t think it would work well for me.)

But a lot of it DOESN’T end up in my professional writing. Now, some of that is for legal reasons (yes I have thoughts on Jedi in Starfinder, but unless I create a totally different Owen-as-fan-only space, I’m never going to share them). Some of it is because it’s material I’d only want to use in a context where I knew the people involved and could tailor it to match their preferences and playstyles. But some of it is just because there hasn’t been a good match yet, and/or because I haven’t had the time.

And that last category is the weird limbo where ShadowFinders exists.

Cyberpunk Gun

I have several solid ideas for ShadowFinders, as a modern supplement for Pathfinder 2nd Edition. Essentially a smaller stand-alone hardback book that is a complete RPG and 100% compatible with the Core Rulebook, but focuses on a modern, urban fantasy game. I have ideas on how I’d save space (many fewer ancestries and classes, likely only occult and primal magic), how to link it to existing cosmology (some primal magic comes from Egypt, which once had strange portals to another Egypt-like land in another world, but most magic is occult material that entered the world in through strange events involving Rasputin), and how it would work with the existing rules (as a modern supplement, with material you could use in a 100% fantasy setting, or could add to a fantasy setting that happened to already have alien spaceships and guns in it in limited locations).

But that approach works best if it’s a book Paizo publishes… and that is both unlikely (I have some idea how hard it is for Paizo to manage to both maintain its currently offers AND produce a new core rulebook with a new setting), and if it did happen would  most likely not involve me in any major capacity. I have thoughts on that too, of course (involving Paizo deciding to outsource creation of a SahdowFinders rpg to keep costs and down and experiment with freelance production and development), but that’s not particularly likely either. (Never say never, but be realistic with your planning.)

So, that leaves me with a name and idea I like but that would work best in production circumstances that aren’t going to happen soon if ever, no spare time, two more similar projects already further along… and tons of ideas for a thing I can’t take time to move forward on right now.

So is ShadowFinders dead? No, definitely not. But it is in a holding pattern, neither being given up on nor getting any resources to speak of at the moment. One of the few things I know is that I never know what I’ll be working on in 3 years, and often have no idea what I’ll be working on in 1 year.

It PROBABLY won’t be any version of ShadowFinders…

Cyberpunk Butterfly

Unless, of course, it gets a huge positive response from a Patreon crowd that grows large enough to support even more of my time going to working on such things. 🙂

One Feat: Four Systems (Allied Spellcaster)

So, obviously, I’ve been working in a lot of different game systems recently. With the 52-in-52 program, I’m developing the same game content for Pathfinder 1st ed, Pathfinder 2nd ed, Starfinder, and 5e.

It’s been a fascinating view of how the different game systems look at game elements that have the same name, but different functions.

For example, feats.

In Pathfinder 1e and Starfinder, feats are cross-character goodies that are generally designed to be optional, and sometimes tie into class design (such as for the fighter and soldier), but not always.

For Pathfinder 2e, feats are the quintessential character ability, and different kinds of feats are crucial to your ancestry, class, and any archetype you take.

For 5e, feats are entirely optional, and if taken come in place of ability score advancements. Each feat is more potent in many ways, but you can make a character with a single feat, or no feats, and no class depends on feats for any part of its core functions.

As an example, we’re going to take a PF1 teamwork feat, and present it (as a non-teamwork feat) in different versions, one for each of the four game systems.

Here’s the original, a PF1 Teamwork feat

Allied Spellcaster (Teamwork)
With the aid of an ally, you are skilled at piercing the protections of other creatures with your spells.
Prerequisite: Caster level 1st.
Benefit: Whenever you are adjacent to an ally who also has this feat, you receive a +2 competence bonus on level checks made to overcome spell resistance. If your ally has the same spell prepared (or known with a slot available if they are spontaneous spellcasters), this bonus increases to +4 and you receive a +1 bonus to the caster level for all level-dependent variables, such as duration, range, and effect.

Here’s a new PF1 version, that isn’t a teamwork feat

ALLIED SPELLCASTER
You can aid an allied spellcaster, adding your magic power to their own.
Prerequisite: Caster level 1st.
Benefit: Whenever you are adjacent to an ally who can cast spells, as a standard action you can expend a spell slot or prepared spell of 1st level or higher to attempt to boost their spellcasting ability. This requires a Spellcraft check, DC 10 + double the level of the spell slot expended. On a successful check, you increase their caster level for the next spell they cast before the beginning of your next round by an amount equal to the level of the spell or spell slot expended.

You can also take eldritch power from a willing adjacent spellcaster to boost the power of your own spells. The allied spellcaster must ready to grant you a spell slot or prepared spell of 1st level of 1st level or higher on your turn. If they do so, you make the same Spellcraft check as a swift action and, if successful, for the next spell you cast this round your caster level is increased by an amount equal to the spell level your ally expended.

*So, that plays with both action economy and resource management, but it lets you play the spellcaster who can work in a group without anyone else having to also have the feat in question.

Here’s the same spell for Starfinder.

ALLIED SPELLCASTER
You can aid an allied spellcaster, adding your magic power to their own.
Prerequisite: Caster level 1st.
Benefit: Whenever you are adjacent to an ally who can cast spells, as a standard action you can expend a spell slot of 1st level or higher to attempt to boost their spellcasting ability. This requires a Mysticism check, DC 10 + triple the level of the spell slot expended. On a successful check, you increase their caster level for the next spell they cast before the beginning of your next round by an amount equal to the level of the spell or spell slot expended. If the spell does damage and does not have a duration, area, or damage calculation based on level, you can instead grant +3 damage per level of spell you expended.

You can also take eldritch power from a willing adjacent spellcaster to boost the power of your own spells. The allied spellcaster takes a standard action to imbue you with energy by expending  a spell slot of 1st level or higher on your turn. If they do so, on your turn you can make the same Mysticism check as part of the action to cast your next spell and, if successful, gain the benefits listed above. If you do not cast a spell within 1 round of being imbued, the additional spell energy is lost.

*That’s very similar, though it makes an adjustment for the fact that Starfinder doesn’t generally have damage affected by caster level and readied actions work differently caused us to make some adjustments.

Here’s a version for 5e.

ALLIED SPELLCASTER
Prerequisite: Caster level 1st or higher
You are skilled at magic manipulatipons. Increase your Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma score by 1.
You can cast a spell to boost the effectiveness of an allied spellcaster within 60 feet, rather than its normal effect. If allied spellcaster casts a spell of their own that is no more than one spell level higher on their next turn, they have advantage on any attack roll the spell requires, or one target of their choice has disadvantage on any saving throw the spell requires.
An ally can cast a spell to boost your effectiveness rather than the spell’s normal effect, giving you the same benefit on your next turn.

*Things in 5e are simpler. Like, way simpler. Advantage or disadvantage is 75% of how the game handles things. And they are pretty big bonuses (work out to about a +4 bonus on a d20), so it’s okay that this only applies to spells of a level close to the level you expend.

That said, weaker feats in 5e also give you a +1 to one ability score (since you gave up a +2 to get the feat), which applies here given how circumstantial this is.

Here’s the same feat for PF2

ALLIED SPELLCASTER     FEAT 2
General Skill
Prerequisites: Expert in Arcana, Nature, Occultism or Religion
You can use the aid reaction to assist an adjacent ally when they cast a spell. This requires a successful Arcana, Nature, Occultism or Religion check (you must be expert in the selected skill) with a DC of 20 + double the level of spell the ally is casting. You must expend a spell slot of 1st level or higher, and you gain a bonus to your skill check equal to the level of the spell expended. You grant the ally a +2 circumstance bonus to their attack roll, or a +1 bonus to the save DC of their spell.
An adjacent allied spellcaster can attempt to use the aid reaction when you cast a spell. This works the same way, except you must make the Arcana, Nature, Occultism or Religion check.

*Pf2 uses a universal proficiency system for everything, so a +2 bonus matters as much at 15th level as it does at 5th level. There’s already an aid action which might be usable if a spell required an attack roll, but it’s not clear how it would apply and it certainly won’t boost save DCs. This cut through that, and is a skill feat spellcasters might really appreciate.

PATREON
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d20 Design Diary (Part 6)

This is the sixth in my series of class-focused d20 Design Diaries. I suspect I only have a couple more posts to go on this topic, but we’ll see how the topics actually shake out (and what kind of feedback I get).

If you followed class design steps in the order I have written about them, we’ve settled on an appropriate and interesting class concept, set up the right class progression tools, made sure we are following (or at least only breaking by intent rather than by accident) the game’s style and etiquette, looked at how many options you want for each level of your class and how that impacts complexity, and discussed spell access and progression.

But we still need to talk about spell lists. Specifically, do you give your new class access to one (or more) existing spell lists, or make a brand-new spell list? And, it turns out, that.s a pretty complex question that depends very much on the game system you are using.

So, you know, let’s start by saying studying what that system does and how it handles those questions.

Also, it’s very important to know if you are building expansions classes that are in addition to a *core* set of pre-existing classes or are building a whole set of classes from scratch. Most of the advice here is directed at the former case. If you are in the latter situation, there may not even be pre-existing spell lists for you to borrow from. In that case you’ll need to make decisions about how many class lists to build from scratch, and the following advice may still be applicable to that decision.

Certainly the more you want a spell list to have a very strong theme tied to the class’s concept, the more you should consider a unique class spell list. The more you want the spell list to interact and grow well with other publisher’s content, the more you should consider using an existing class list.

In Pathfinder 1st edition, classes have access to a hodgepodge of class-specific lists, sharing class lists, and mixing class lists. The bard has its own spell list for example (though the skald later gains access to it as well), while the warpriest just has access to the cleric list (though it gets most spell levels later in its own level progression, when they are less powerful compared to the challenges being faced). Both sorcerers and wizards use the sorcerer/wizard spell list, though it has specific spells only one of the classes can take. Hunters get both druid and ranger spells (and gain access to ranger spells much earlier than rangers do, potentially making them more powerful compared to the challenges faced when you first access them), but inquisitors have a unique spell list.

Counting only official classes, no alternate classes, and only actual spell lists (as opposed to formula lists for alchemists and investigators), by the end of its run Pathfinder 1st d had 16 separate spell classes. On top of that, all of the class spell lists are defined as being arcane, divine, or occult.

In that environment, it seems insane to create a brand new unique class list. First, there are tons of lists with different themes already. Second, each of those lists has been expanded by so many supplements (official and otherwise) that any new lists is either going to fill a small book on its own, or have many fewer options than the 16 existing lists. Further, if someone is adding content from other publishers, those 3pp spells won’t even know to suggest what new spells should be on your unique class spell list.

By the same token, by the time a game has 16 unique spell lists, it’s hard to claim a 17th will be the bridge too far for design weight.

Pathfinder 2nd edition, as a counterexample, has only 4 spell lists. Absolutely every class has access to the arcane, divine, occult, or primal spell list. Some classes can pick what spell list they access based on other class features (such as the sorcerer), and many classes have access to a very small number of “focus spells” unique to their class. This includes both classes with access to a traditional spell list (such as the bards and their occult spells), and classes with no other spell access (such as champions). While it would be possible to build a whole 5th spell list (akashic magic, perhaps, or runic magic), this would likely only make sense if designing multiple classes that accessed it, or perhaps writing class variants of existing classes that accessed your new magic type. However, adding a small number of focus spells to any new spellcasting class, but otherwise tying them to one or more of the 4 existing lists, seems an excellent way to both benefit from that class having unique and flavorful spells of its own (new focus spells) and benefiting from ties to a growing standard spell list that other books and companies can expand. Pathfinfer 2nd ed also has things such as spell rarity which could be used to create “new” spell list options (such as creating a magister class that has access to common spells for multiple lists, but can never gain uncommon or rare spells).

By contrast Starfinder goes the opposite route, and give every spellcaster their own unique spell list.

Starfinder only has 3 official spellcasting classes so far of course, and each also has the same level of spell access and spells/day. That certainly sets an expectation for players that a class focused on spellcasting would likely follow the same path. There are many potential reasons to not go that route (if creating a mechanic/technomancer hybrid class, the Dronemancer, that only had access up to 3rd level spells, it might well make sense for it to have the technomancer spell list), but again the key point is to know what tools are at your disposal, and study how the core game (or similar games, if you are starting from scratch) use them.

Dungeons & Dragons 5th ed also gives each class its own spell list (at least in the Player’s handbook), including the sorcerer and wizard, who shared a spell list when the sorcerer was first introduced in 3rd edition. There is greater variety in both spell access (paladins and rangers only get up to 5th level spells), and how the class uses spells (warlocks and wizards have very different game mechanics dictation how they interact with and use their spells). The larger number of lists makes it more likely that you can match a specific class’s theme with an existing class list or combination of lists, but it also drives home player expectation in much the same way Starfinder does.

As a final note, it’s worth mentioning that whether a game has dozens of class spell lists or just three, d20 games almost always have some basic spells that appear on multiple (or even all) spell lists. the most flavorless and utilitarian spells are often there, from detect magic to light. By the same token, most such games have at least a few types of spells that are kept off specific spell lists, in the tradition of “clerics don’t cast magic missile, wizards don’t heal.”

But honestly, that’s another whole blog post worth of commentary.

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 (Part 5)

This is the fifth in my series of class-focused d20 Design Diaries. I suspect I only have a couple more posts to go on this topic, but we’ll see how the topics actually shake out (and what kind of feedback I get).

If you followed class design steps in the order I have written about them, there’s one big step left to actually creating your class, even after you settle on an appropriate and interesting concept, set up the right class progression tools, made sure you are following (or at least only breaking by intent rather than by accident) the game’s style and etiquette, and looked at how many options you want for each level of your class and how that impacts complexity.

You still need to design the actual class features, the special abilities you class gets that (at least mostly) others don’t.

I mean, technically you don’t HAVE to give a class features beyond it’s progressions. If you gave a Starfinder class 10 SP and HP/level, all good saving throws, 12 skill points + Int/level, any key ability score, all class skills and weapon and armor proficiencies (and Weapon Specialization as appropriate), and a full attack bonus, it would honestly probably be pretty balanced with no other class features at all.

It would also be boring and flavorless as heck. And I have no idea what concept you’d start with that would lead you to that design. but yes, it COULD be done.

And that does touch on an important element of designing interesting and balanced classes — the more useful things the class gets outside its class features, the less room you have to make its class features useful without making the class overpowered. A 5e barbarian has d12 hit dice, and 2 skill proficiencies (selecting from 6 options) and 5 weapon and armor proficiencies. A fighter has d10 hit dice, and 2 skill proficiencies (selecting from 8 options) and 6 weapon and armor proficiencies. A rogue has d8 hit dice, and 4 skill proficiencies (selecting from 11 options), one tool proficiency, and 2.5 weapon and armor proficiencies. It’s not hard to see that while their proficinecy starting points are different, when combined with their hit dice they all come out on a fairly even playing field, allowing their classes to have equally-useful class features.

One of the biggest and most impactful potential class features is spellcasting. Assuming you are building classes for a game that already has a full set of classes you can use as examples, it’s normally best to stick to the spell progression and acquisition schemes that already exist, unless you feel it’s a severely underdeveloped design space. (Classes with some number of spell-like abilities are a different matter than the spellcasting class feature we are discussing in this article.)

For example, first edition Pathfinder has both spontaneous and prepared spellcasting acquisition, as well as spell lists that go from 1st-4th level, 0-4th level, 0-6th level, and 0-9th level. However, every spontaneous class in Pathfinder with access to a 0-6th level spell list has the same base access to spells known and spell slots per day (though OTHER class features, such as domains or archetypes, can vary their total beyond the simple base). Starfinder, on the other hand, *only* has spontaneous spellcasters with access to 0-6th level spells. While adding a whole new spell progression or access to Pathfinder would likely muddle a crowded field, there’s easily room in Starfinder for class with reduced spell access (perhaps level 0-3 spells).

Wizard with Green Disk Spell

The more spell power a class has, the less room it has for any other options. For example, in all the most popular d20 games classes with the greatest spell access never have the highest Hit Point/health value of classes, or beginning proficiency with all types of armor. This has two significant impacts on their design. First, it means that they generally need to use some of their spell power to bring their defenses up to their best level and, even at that level, it’s generally not as good as the best defenses of the most defense-focused class. Secondly, it means they aren’t as durable without depending on their spells (and even then some classes with major spell access have very little in the way of healing or damage mitigation spells — a 1st edition Pathfinder cleric can heal themselves much more easily than a wizard).

Again, using other classes as benchmarks can be extremely useful for making your first stab at granting spellcasting to a class. In 5th edition D&D, paladins and rangers gain up to 5th level spells, clerics and wizards gain up to 10th level spells, and specific specializations of fighters and rogues get up to 4th level spells. Those benchmarks make it pretty easy to see what kinds of class features, both in terms of scope and utility, a class with each of those options can gain. For example, a great deal of the class features of sorcerers and wizards are focused on their spells–allowing them to be more flexible, used more often, or even just boosted in power. Paladins and rangers however, have very few spell-focused class features, with their class features more likely to actually give them entirely new abilities.

Even once you know how your spellcasting class is going to acquire spells and to what degree, there still another crucial question–what spell list do they use?

We’ll tackle that one 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 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.