For today, it’s the answer to a question; “What about negative ECL templates?”.
The Negative ECL Template or Race is an idea that pops up fairly regularly, if not so often as it used to. Sadly, it’s not really a good one in basic d20 games.
In standard d20 the problem is pretty simple: whatever disadvantages you may attach to a particular race or template, there’s always some way to negate them.
Take a race with no notable modifiers except – say – a (-14) to Constitution. That is kind of bad. If you don’t assign at least a 15 to Constitution, you can be assumed to have been stillborn.
Now, a +14 Con would usually be assumed to be worth a +2 ECL or so by itself. After all, +7 hit points per die and +7 to fortitude saves can be pretty handy. Ergo, (-14) should be worth at least a -1 ECL, and possibly a -2.
Of course, as soon as you stack – say – being undead on top of that, that bothersome constitution penalty vanishes completely. Throw in templates or races with negative ECL modifiers, and you can wind up with massive powers with no effective cost.
Stacking templates causes enough trouble in standard d20. Adding negative ECL templates into the mix just opens things up to more abuse.
You can do it in Eclipse of course – but in Eclipse you buy abilities and modifiers, and parts of templates can and do cancel out or disqualify other parts. Thus, while a (-14) attribute modifier on your constitution would indeed be worth (-42) points, taking “no constitution” would wipe out that credit – after all, you can’t put a modifier on something that doesn’t exist – leaving quite a hole in the accounting to be made up in some other way. Secondarily, of course, buying attribute bonuses in Eclipse costs twice what you get for taking penalties, which helps keep things under control.
That still leaves the somewhat more subtle problem of taking penalties in areas which won’t much affect a character much.
That, of course, goes right back to the earliest games, long before d20 came along. Playing early-edition Runequest and making a warrior? Well, your Power score can be built up later. Playing a wizard out of the early Dungeons and Dragons pamplet where they only gave spells of up to level two because it’d take ages to need anything higher? Who needs Strength or Charisma?
If you’re playing a tiny character who sits in a turret on the burly warriors helmet and throws spells through the peepholes, you may not care in the least about a massive strength penalty.
At the basic level there’s no cure for that sort of thing – and you don’t really want one. Having a mix of characters with differing strengths and weaknesses, and differing strategies, is a large part of what makes a game interesting. If all you have are a batch of minor variants on the same approach, or a bunch of generic characters who are equally good at everything, a game will get dull very fast indeed.
It gets a bit out of control when characters become so over-optimized for a particular role or strategy as to be overwhelming in their field and useless otherwise – but that’s a game mastering problem. Such characters won’t work for long in games where the obstacles call for a wide range of approaches.
The middle range is always a bit iffy; how much optimizing is acceptable varies from game to game and game master to game master – which is why there’s no hard-and-fast rule for it.
For an example, we had Amilko Moonshadow – a very young elf who was transformed into a squirrel.
The elven modifiers in that world were:
+4 Int, +4 Wis, +2 Chr, -4 Str and -2 Con. Buying that’s a bit expensive. It requires three levels of Attribute Shift, costing 18 CP, and another +4 bonus to the character’s attributes – another 24 CP even as part of a racial template.
+2 on Saves versus Enchantment Spells and Effects. That’s one level of Resist (3 CP).
Infravision. That’s Occult Sense/Infravision (6 CP).
Immunity to Magical Sleep Effects (Uncommon, Major, Major, for 6 CP).
Several – three – extra languages (3 CP).
That’s 60 CP – a +1 ECL Race. Of course, all the other races were pretty similar; a +1 ECL race was pretty much assumed as a part of the world laws.
Now, the transformation into a squirrel (in fact, the Destined Herald of the Age of Chaos) was accomplished by a major artifact of Chaos. It included…
Two levels of Shrinking. This included -4 Strength, +4 Dexterity, -2 Constitution, having no Reach, a +2 AC and Attack Modifier, and a +8 bonus to Balance, Climb, Hide, and Move Silently thanks to his minuscule weight. This was Specialized and Corrupted: while it did let him use his Dexterity for Climb and Jump checks instead of his strength (due to his small size), he could not use weapons and armor – or, indeed, most other gear, including most magical devices – unless it had been specially scaled down, was obviously a unique entity, and gave him all the problems of being a small animal (like hawks and cats). That reduced the cost to 8 CP.
An additional -4 Strength and +2 Constitution (6 CP for one level of Attribute Shift and -6 CP for -2 Strength, for a net cost of 0 CP).
Mystical Duties as a Bringer of Chaos (providing 2 CP per level).
Incompetence (a -5 penalty) on Intimidation, Heal, and Craft (-10 CP). Like it or not, he was just too small to manage that sort of thing.
A +4 Bonus at Balance and Jump. Of course, this was Specialized – leaving the character pretty much incapable of using Disguise, Forgery, Handle Animal, and Use Rope and reducing the cost to 4 CP.
That template has a net cost of two character points, or zero if you count the points from duties against the cost – leaving Amilko just where he was, for a +1 ECL race-and-template combination. Naturally enough, Amilko relied rather extensively on magic – which meant that Strength 3 (after the -12 penalty) didn’t have too much impact on him. He rode around on the other character’s shoulders and hid behind them a lot. That meant he was getting a fair selection of bonuses for a rather small cost.
Was Amilko over-optimized? He fit into that game quite well, and was a lot of fun – but there are a lot of games it wouldn’t fit into at all.
That’s why Eclipse leaves it up to the game master to decide on whether or not a character is acceptable in a particular game.