I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Sunday, July 26, 2015

D&D Unleashed, part II: Above and Beyond Ability Limits

In most editions of D&D, the six abilities have a hard cap - a point beyond no PC can go, maybe because it is a "pinnacle of human capability" of some sort, even though D&D characters aren't restricted to human capabilities at all. D&D 5e explicitly say that "You can’t increase an ability score above 20". In some classic editions, you couldn't increase an ability score AT ALL, although nowadays many retroclones allow it.

The reason I dislike static abilities is that, as a character advances in levels, she gets tougher, better at fighting (even if she is a wizard, in most games), with more powerful spells and better saves, but for some reason not stronger or even wiser. Static abilities were fine in the original LBB D&D, where they granted little bonuses and weren't used for skills, saving throws, etc., but as they got more and more important, it seems that any real advancement should include improving abilities.

Hard caps on abilities bring similar problems, although they take longer to manifest. If you're a fighter, for example  you probably start with a good STR, and will augment it at every opportunity. Soon you hit the ceiling, and then you'll look for other abilities to improve. That, apparently, is how 5e works: you first put 15 in your main ability, then increase it with race features, ten increase it again with ability score improvements, and before level 10 you have already reached your maximum.

So your 20th level fighter will probably have a STR that is no greater than 99% of the 8th level fighters in the world, and in fact no fighter will ever be stronger than that (unless you're using feats instead of ability score improvements, of course).

But wouldn't be cool if you could make a Fighter with superhuman STR? One that was stronger than most Fighters, and probably stronger than anyone in the realm, but not necessarily the best Fighter of her level? Then you could have a match between two 15th level fighters where one has superhuman STR but the other can still prevail using speed and guile - and all  without using traits, alternate classes, or having to turn your Fighter into a Barbarian, Rogue or Swashbuckler.

Wouldn't it be cool?
Now, there is a reason for this limit. Since so much of the class traits focus on a single ability, if you leave it with no ceiling everybody would be tempted to put all their points in that ability (despite the problems it may cause), making everyone in the same class very similar.

My solution for this is: diminishing returns. Use soft caps instead of hard ones. Which means, you can have an ability greater than 20, but it will cost you.

Try this, for example (but see my notes below on how to change this table):


Now, all Fighters may benefit from a great STR - up to a point - but after a while being well-rounded might be more useful depending on the character concept. Want to create a Fighter with STR 25? Go ahead and do it! Her saves will suffer, and she might be easily fooled by someone smarter. She will probably be a great fighter, but not necessarily the best one in her level. At the same time, nobody will be better at arm-wrestling, carrying stuff or breaking doors down.

If you don't like the idea of messing around with the ability score/modifier table, you could also do this with a simple feat, instead, such as:

Exceptional Talent
One of your abilities is greater than normal human limits. Choose an ability. Increase this ability by 1, and now this ability can be raised beyond the maximum of 20, up to 22. Each time you take this feat, add 2 to this maximum.

What's the point? Adding more character concepts without adding much complexity or new traits and classes to the system.

Of course, the table above could be changed in many ways, and could go on forever. It also has MANY uses other than that (discouraging "dump stats", making that INT 8 really sting, allowing you to beat a house cat in a fight...). I use a similar version in my own game, but with more nuance. The example above are meant too keep things identical to RAW 5e in most of the cases. The whole "diminishing returns" subject is worth a post of its own - just stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

D&D Unleashed, part I: YES YOU CAN! (Classes)

Once upon a time, I got tired of OD&D/BD&D and all of its limitations, specially those regarding classes. "Wizards cannot use swords", "thieves cannot wear heavy armor", or even the (misguided) "non-thieves cannot hide", and so on. I thought this was silly. To this day, I dislike the limitations some editions of D&D try to enforce (even if they say you can take a feat to ignore it, although this makes things better), but once I better understood them, I realized that leaving D&D because of them is misguided.

Instead, I got rid of the limitations.

Of course, lots of people have done this before. Is easier than you may think. Let's see...

Can I use any skill, even if I'm not a thief? 

YES, YOU CAN. This is the easy one. In fact, this was probably the case from day one, as many have argued. Thief's skills are meant to go above and beyond a normal person's abilities. For examples, a thief can hide "in shadows" and climb "sheer surfaces", feats there are impressive for most people - but almost anyone can hide behind a curtain or climb a knotted rope. The thief's ability to "hear noises" is a bonus to what all classes can do, and there is no reason not to apply this to every skill they have.

Can I use any weapon, even if I'm not a fighter? 

YES, YOU CAN. And it won't break the game or be unfair. Fighters will still make the best of whatever weapons they get their hands on, due to better Strenght, HP, BAB, THAC0, etc. In OD&D there was a specific reason for this limitations: magical swords were the most powerful weapons around and were quite common in the random treasure tables. If this isn't the case in your game, there is probably no good reason to keep the limitation.

Now, if for some other reason the sword is simply the most powerful weapon of the game and everyone will use swords if you don't stop them, the problem is with your weapons, not with your classes - remember that older versions of D&D would sometimes use weapon speed and effectiveness against armor along with damage, so the "best" weapon was dependent on circumstances. But even if your swords do 1d8 damage while all other weapons do 1d6 and you don't use other distinctions, there should be plenty of "narrative" reasons to try other weapons: concealment, religious taboos, prohibitive laws and customs, availability, etc.

So what about armor? Can I wear any armor, too?

YES, YOU CAN. This one is a bit trickier, as armor, unlike weapons, can be equally useful to all classes. While I find unreasonable that wizards and thieves cannot wear armor, saying that armor gets in the way of magic and thievery sounds good. A penalty or a flat chance of failure due to armor sounds better than prohibition. Or you might want to use something from the next paragraph...

Anyone can read spell books...
Oh, yeah? So what about spells? Can I cast them even if I'm not a wizard?

YES, YOU CAN. And not just for scrolls, either. You can use spell books if you want. Look at thieves again: 10th level thieves can use magic scrolls with a 10% chance of the spell being reversed (if 7th level or greater), in OD&D. Yes - they are that good. Now think what would happen if someone else would try that - the chance of failure would be way greater.

For a one-line old school solution, save vs. spell to avoid the spell turning against you or causing other disastrous effects. Not old school enough? Then use the "% Chance to Know any given spell" in Supplement I. By the way, the books described in Supplement I are good examples of stuff that may happen when one reads the wrong book.

(And did you ever notice how magic-users are harmed by the Book of Exalted Deeds and not by the Book of Vile Darkness? What does this say about the nature of magic?)

Okay, now I guess you'll say I can turn undead and use cleric spells as well?

YES, YOU CAN. If you faith is strong enough, there is no reason not to. Sure, you have to respect any taboos that a particular god may enforce (avoiding particular weapons or arcane magic, for example), but a deity won't abandon its followers just because they aren't part of the clergy. Clerics can probably get more leeway, as a life of righteousness allows for a little misstep every now and then... or at least this is what they tell themselves in order to be able to sleep at night, depending on how gritty is your game.

By the way, you might need a cross to turn a vampire, depending on your GM. Better be prepared.

What about elves, dwarves, monks, barbarians, paladins, etc? Can they do anything as well?

YES, THEY CAN. Same ideas apply. Monks can wear armor although it gets in the way of their kung fu. Paladins have got it mostly right, they are just fighters that gain special powers in exchange for following some tenets. Dwarves and barbarians can cast spells, but they know it might be a bad idea, specially if they have more wisdom than intelligence... And so on.

... but results may vary.
And what about 5th edition? 
The way 5th edition works might make things a bit different, but not much. For example, BAB doesn't vary across classes (is usually equal to proficiency), but the differences in STR, HP and special traits should be enough to guarantee that a wizard with a sword won't break anything or get in the fighter's "niche". A rogue with a heavy weapon is fine too; she's probably better off with a rapier anyway. Same goes for spell-casting fighters and so on.

What's the point?
Limitations in D&D are a matter of taste, but if you have a player that wants to create a wizard with a sword, why not let him? A fighter of the same level will still beat him in a sword fight. Choices are what make RPGs so cool, and it will be fun to see what happens when the fighter wants to cast a spell, without knowing what is waiting for her...