Complete Control versus Eclipse

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D&D Scout (Photo credit: borkweb)

And for today, since I’ve found a copy of “Complete Control” to base the comparison on, it’s part one of an answer for Alzrius, who wanted to know how it – as another classless d20 system – compared to Eclipse (among other things). Ergo, it’s time for a stroll through the realms of Complete Control…

Complete Control (Dreamscarred Press) is a classless system for d20. The version I’ve borrowed is from 2008, and covers 3.0 (Complete Control was apparently last updated in 2009, and was still 3.0 at that point). Fundamentally the book provides a set of formulas / charts for assigning experience point costs to abilities – primarily based on what level they appear at, secondarily on if they progress with level and how often they can be used. Characters then spend their experience points to buy the abilities they want directly, at the levels they want. Abilities like base attack bonus are bought up at steadily-increasing prices. +1 costs 110, +2 costs another 215, +3 costs another 430, and so on.

Buying abilities directly with experience is really nothing new of course. The Hero System has been doing it since 1981 (when Champions came out) and has always been entirely “classless”. Classless buy-with-experience is actually quite normal in RPG design.

“But the principle that must be understood is that this system frees characters from the concept of having a class or a prestige class. A character can have class, but a character no longer has a class. Let that thought sink into the mind for a little bit. How much of current role-playing is centered on this concept of class?… What if – like in some top grade spoof that combined The Matrix with role-playing – Morpheus was sitting before you holding out two pills? One of them was red and the other was blue. And you are told, “Take the one pill, and life goes back the way it was. You go back to gaming, close this document, and make characters based on class like you’re familiar with doing. But, if you take the other pill, your eyes will be opened and your mind will be freed. Character design will know only the boundaries of your Game Master and your imagination. The choice is yours… The mind-shattering fundamental principle that absolutely cannot be overlooked is that role-playing done through spending earned experience is most free when it is classless. Yes, that’s right – without class altogether.

-Complete Control

Actually the answer to “how much of current role-playing is centered on the concept of class” is “not all that much”. Class is a big thing in most d20 games, but it doesn’t even exist in a lot of others. The fact that the writers for Complete Control apparently thought that a classless system was innovative is not promising. A broad knowledge of game systems is very helpful when you start writing stuff for them.

So… how do characters justify their gains in ability under this system? There’s a segment on that, which offers general advice and pretty much winds up with “ask your GM”.

How much experience should characters get to start with to approximate the abilities given to first level characters? Complete Control recommends starting characters with 1500 to 2000 points, but there are no breakdowns of how to build the standard classes. Given that “Domain Powers” are listed as costing 2700 XP – which is probably a typo (with the correct number being 270, although I can’t find any errata for the book) – clerics, at least, are kind of awkward.

How reliable are the prices for various abilities? Lets look at some of the ones that are given in the book (a selection limited to some of the basic classes from the SRD and the publishers own primarily psionics-oriented material). A Paladin’s ability to add his or her (Cha Mod) to all saves costs – along with it’s prerequisites of Aura of Good and Detect Evil – a total of 815 XP. A Monk’s rather useless Timeless Body ability (which prevents aging, although it doesn’t extend your life) costs 4050 XP. Guess which one I’m buying if I have any Charisma bonus at all? Saves are major problems a LOT more often in most games than aging is.

Similarly, buying a d12 hit die to start off with costs 90 XP (Buying two costs 180 XP and buying three costs 360 XP). Buying a d4 costs 30 XP. Buying Nature Sense costs 270 XP and buying +1 BAB costs 110 XP. Yes… I think I’ll skip Nature Sense and start off with 3d12 hit points. Proficiency with all Simple and Martial Weapons only costs 75 XP, so I think I’ll take that too. That will help a lot with those early adventures!

The trouble is, rating abilities cost according to the level at which they appear, rather than according to what they actually do, really doesn’t work very well.

Does Complete Control replace other books or actually provide all the rules you need to make a character? Sadly, no. It doesn’t actually include rules for any of the abilities it mentions, or cover feats at all except for how many you can get – so you still have to buy, and go through, piles of other sourcebooks to make your character.

There’s a rather lengthy section on how the math was worked out. Unfortunately it starts with a set of fairly arbitrary approximations of how much experience “goes into” each aspect of a hypothetical “average character” – set at Hit Die 12%, Base Attack Bonus 12%, Saves 12%, Proficiencies < 1%, Ability Increases 6%, Skills 12%, and Feats 12%. Apparently the author couldn’t set up and solve the system of simultaneous equations for each class – a task that was, admittedly, made unnecessarily difficult by the desire to use experience in a non-linear progression directly instead of assigning fixed totals. Given that those percentages are suspect… all the math based on them is equally suspect, no matter how well explained it is.

Rather more importantly, in d20 terms that non-linear progression leads to some rather disastrous balance issues. You don’t see why? To look at the issue of “Balance” in Complete Control lets take two high-level sorcerers specializing in Conjuration. I’ll presume that Complete Control can come close enough to building a standard SRD class – and if not, it doesn’t matter much; we’re only interested in the differences between these two characters. They’ll have identical base stats (and a +4 Belt of Magnificence at 100,000 GP to be simple and convenient) and almost identical builds – except that one has purchased a +10 BAB to be bog-standard, and the other has only purchased a +7 and has spent the 4945 points that saves him on some other stuff.

So: Stats: Str 10 (14), Int 12 (16), Wis 11 (15), Con 12 (16), Dex 11 (15), Cha 18 (29) (+2 Race, +5 Level, +4 Belt).

So what has our +7 BAB sorcerer spent his saved points on?

  • +1 to Wis and Dex (720 XP). (If this guy was really optimizing… all his base stats but Charisma would start odd, and this total would be 1800 – but then our base starting attributes would differ). Still, that’s an extra +1 to AC and Will there.
  • 4d12 HP to start instead of 4d4 (360 XP more than 4d4). Extra hits to start with are always good! Buy them at level one and you’re MUCH more likely to live through getting to higher levels.
  • Proficiency with All Simple and Martial Weapons (75 XP total, but only 50 above All Simple Weapons like the basic Sorcerer). Could be useful.
  • Proficiency with All Shields (50 XP). Hey, why not?
  • Proficiency with all Light, Medium, and Heavy Armor (150 XP). Why learning to wear heavier and lighter armor is harder than learning how to use hundreds of different weapons is a good question, but so be it!
  • Aura of Alignment (Neutral Good) (270 XP). An ability which does not actually do anything – but it’s a prerequisite for Divine Grace, which is what we REALLY want.
  • Detect Alignment (45 XP). Why you’d progress this I don’t see, but our sorcerer doesn’t need to. Handy sometimes, but mostly another prerequisite for Divine Grace.
  • Divine Grace (540 XP). Oh yeah. Now we’re talking. Add +9 (his Cha Mod) to all saves. Even at low levels, where the bonus will only be +5 that’s VERY handy.
  • Monks Wisdom: (Add Wis Mod to AC) (270 XP). +3 AC never hurts.
  • Animal Companion III (135 XP). OK, you’re only getting this as a level three character would, but this is quite helpful at low levels, a fair diversion at high ones, and a good pet. What more could you ask?
  • Lay on Hands (75 XP). Ok, this is only working at level one, but nine times a day you can just touch someone and stabilize them. Could be handy. It could be doubled up for another sixty XP, but that isn’t really required for anything.
  • Rage twice/day: (540 XP). You only get the basic ability, but this could still come in useful at times!
  • Smite Evil: 45 XP for L1 (+Cha/+1), 30+60+90+120 for four uses = (345 XP). When you do need to hit something – and rather a LOT of opponents in most d20 games are evil – an extra +9 to hit is just the ticket – and four uses a day is cheap enough!
  • Manifester Level III (135 XP x8) with Limited Access to first level abilities (25 XP x8). We’ll buy this six times for the six varieties of Psion, once for Psychic Warrior, and once for Wilder. That provides a total of 41 power (entirely from attribute bonuses) and 36 first-level Psion powers, 3 first level Psychic Warrior powers, and 2 first level Wilder Powers. That won’t be anything too big of course, but the total cost of 1280 XP really isn’t too big either – and there’s a LOT of convenient first-level stuff. The character won’t have so much Power before boosting his characteristics of course – but even to start with it will be pretty handy.
  • Caster Level III: (135 XP), Limited Access to L0 (5 XP) and L1 Spells (25 XP). OK, for the Clerical spells we’ll go with Favored Soul style – relying on Charisma and bonus spell slots (3 first, and 2 second level that can be used for first level spells). Not too big a deal, but five first level clerical spells can be handy. We’ll do the same thing again for a Shamanic type – a Charisma-based druidical spellcaster. That’s a total of (330 XP) – and pretty much means that we’re NEVER going to need to buy Use Magic Device (or Use Psionic Device either).
  • What the heck, lets throw in Spontaneous Conversion/Cure (270 XP). Sure, we’ve only got five first level spells to convert, but a little extra cheap healing never hurt a party.

Oops. We’re 40 XP over the top there – we’ve spend 4985 rather than 4945 – but we could drop some of the armor proficiencies without hurting anything; the character is only going to be using armor for the first few levels where the heavy stuff is a big expense anyway.

Personally I’d drop something else – in this system a single higher-level spell slot is quite expensive – and pick up a couple of Minor Marshal’s Auras (from the Miniatures Handbook). As first-level fixed abilities they’re going for 270 XP apiece – and I’m sure your party will be happy with an extra +9 to overcome Spell Resistance and on Dexterity checks, Dexterity-based skill checks, and Initiative checks. Perhaps a minor Warlock power would be convenient too…

This… is not working properly. Is giving up +3 BAB for a spellcaster who specializes in summoning creatures to do the fighting REALLY worth all of that stuff? Won’t a lot of the characters in your game start looking a lot alike once everyone realizes that they pretty much have to grab a pile of the convenient low-level stuff just to stay competitive?

Yes, this example is a bit forced – several of those abilities won’t do much without the emphasis on Charisma – but it didn’t take two hours from first opening the book. Worse… with every sourcebook mined for abilities the problem is going to become bigger and bigger as more and more convenient low-level abilities turn up. That’s a basic problem with the “level twenty powers cost nineteen times as much as level one powers” principle. It means that – instead of taking a level twenty ability (such as taking your base attack bonus from +19 to +20) – you can pretty much effectively take all the convenient low-level powers of BUNCH of other classes.

Finally, of course, Complete Control doesn’t really handle Races at all, and pays very little attention to Templates. There is a later point-buy system (well, more of a pamphlet) called Complete Races from the same company, but it uses an entirely different system, includes no way of advancing or improving on racial abilities, and doesn’t interface with Compete Control at all. That’s… somewhat disappointing, although I may take a more detailed look at it later.

Now Eclipse certainly isn’t perfect – it’s FAR more complex than Complete Control, and most of the examples got shoved into Eclipse II (although that does come free with the paid PDF version) to keep the page count down to something manageable – but it is free to try and it does provide the rules for the various abilities, it uses linear pricing to avoid the “cheap low level powers” syndrome, it allows the use of varying feat and experience point progressions, it is fully compatible with d20 3.0, 3.5, Modern, Future, and with products that came out long after it did – including Pathfinder, Iron Heroes, and others – it can get along with or without magic items in several different ways, it handles races and templates and lets you vary and build on those abilities, it tries to keep the math easy, it covers designing feats, it provides multiple new magic systems, and it allows you to build pretty much any ability that any player has ever asked for yet short of the various variants on the “I Win!” button (such as Pun-Pun). It pretty much replaces all classes, all prestige classes, all lists of feats, all lists of special abilities, flaws, skill tricks, all templates, and all races. That was a lot of the point – to fix it so that you only needed one book to build whatever character you wanted. Admittedly you’ll still want the System Reference Document or some other setting book for spell lists – but I wasn’t changing the spells, so there was no need to include them other than the extended above-ninth-level spell list to expand the list of benchmark effects available.

Unfortunately, Eclipse provides a toolbox for building things, rather than a box full of precut parts – which makes it complicated to explain and use. I can’t deny that it can be abused as well – I’ve presented a list of examples of abusive builds on the site so that user’s know what to watch out for – but that’s what the page on keeping characters under control is all about.

Overall… I don’t think I personally have any real use for Complete Control. All it really presents is it’s formulas, so there really isn’t even much in the way of character ideas to mine. I’m quite used to the complexity, so for my purposes Eclipse works a great deal better.

Personally, I’d say that Complete Control would work a LOT better if the authors had simply discarded the existing experience point chart, and said something like:

OK: It’s 2000 XP per “level” for accounting purposes. Experience Point Awards are 5/50/100/150/300 per character for Trivial/Easy/Average/Hard/Atrocious encounters (do not adjust this is an encounter is unexpectedly easy due to some bit of player cleverness), add up to +50 per character per session for good roleplaying and similar things. If the characters are of differing levels, award experience individually, based on the encounter difficulty for the character in question.

-Thoth

Then the system could have used fixed costs – and eliminated the basic balance issue and most of the complicated formulas along the way.

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4 Responses

  1. Thanks for the review! There are a few points I wanted to address.

    Insofar as Complete Control uses 3.0, this seems to be due to its OGL Section 15 citation; the book’s mechanics are (I think) based around 3.5 (inasmuch as that can be determined, based on the mechanics it presents).

    Also, in the ninth paragraph here, you have “CP” twice where you mean “XP.”

    I also suspect that the quoted paragraph was written with the understanding that it was in reference to d20 System games only, for which a point-buy classless system was (notwithstanding BESM d20 and Buy the Numbers) a fairly radical idea. It’s certainly true that that’s not the case if you look at the wider selection of role-playing games, but surely you don’t need a broad background among many different RPGs to write for RPG X if you know X very well and have used it for a long time?

    That said, I agree with pretty much everything else you wrote (which makes it somewhat funny, in an awkward way, that Complete Control’s predecessor, Buy the Numbers, was so lauded when it was released).

    • Ah well. Since I didn’t have the latest edition, I just went by it’s listing on RPGNow. The version I’ve got has some ability prices that look like they were derived from 3.5 – but it has some that look like 3.0, so I took their blurbs word for it. After all, presumably if they’d fully updated to 3.5 their blurb would say so; they do, after all, want sales.

      I’m too used to writing “CP” aren’t I? Well, that’s easily fixed.

      The quoted paragraph… well, actually that’s why it has those “…” bits in it; the actual product goes on for quite a lot longer on the topic and it really does look to me like they considered “classless” to be some sort of radical innovation in gaming.

      You don’t need a broad background amongst many different RPG’s to write for one – but it definitely helps. After all, if the writers for Complete Control had played GURPS (1986), or World Tree (2000) or Runequest (1978) they’d have been quite familiar with the effects that sliding experience point scales (and various methods of doing setting them up) have on character development. Nephelim (1994) wonderfully illustrated the problems with adding to abilities in block percentages. Tales From The Floating Vagabond (1991) used a direct spend-experience-to-buy sliding-scale system for everything, including attributes, and made it work quite well by simply keeping things within a reasonably normal range – something Complete Control might have emulated by limiting everything to a maximum level of four. If the writers had played Champions (1981), they’d have known at least one solution to their sliding-scale pluck-the-low-hanging-fruit problem. In fact, there’s already a discussion of this sort of thing on the site – it’s over here http://ruscumag.wordpress.com/2009/09/15/rpg-design-skill-systems/ – although you’d have to scroll down to the “Skill Acquisition” section.

      I suspect that not recognizing and fixing those problems speaks of insufficient playtesting (by definition) as well, but there’s no way of really checking that.

  2. Actually, there were class-less systems well back in the day, though they weren’t ability based.

    • Ah, the good old days, when no one had any idea what worked, and systems that no one would EVER try today were in vogue… I wonder if I could still find the sheet with the one-page system on it? It simply had a small chart of “If your attribute is “X” pick “Y” skills from the list for that attribute” and a list of abilities for each attribute.

      Get lucky enough with your attribute rolls and you could afford to cover several areas, instead of specializing.

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