D20 Failure Modes, Part II – Eliminating Rocket Tag

Eclipse was intended to patch as many of the problems with d20 as I could possibly manage, It’s certainly not perfect, and (of course) has a few brand-new holes all it’s own – but I like to think that there aren’t all that many.

The way to stop Rocket Tag is to take the emphasis off of getting in the first shot (and, incidentally, to make the fights last longer). Thus we’ll be looking at Defenses in Eclipse – and how you can defend against a huge attack more cheaply than you can build one.

There are some basic ways for defenses to outperform attacks without making the characters invulnerable (and boring).

  • They can be passive and cheaper than an equivalent attack. Unfortunately, unless they’re so cheap that you can afford to have massive defenses against every type of attack, this means that a high-end attack will tend to overwhelm them. If they’re cheap enough that they can’t be readily overwhelmed by some specialized attack, were headed back to boring invulnerability. Look at the mess that is (or at least was) combat in Exalted.
  • They can be ablative. This works to a considerable extent and is, in fact, the basic philosophy behind “Hit Points”. Unfortunately, defenses like these tend to lead to exactly what hit points led to – attempts to build ever-bigger attacks to tear them down faster. Unless you’re very careful this soon takes you back to either long battles of attrition, a focus on working around the defenses, or a focus on truly massive attacks.
  • They can be effectively perfect – offering invulnerability to many effects, much as a successful save versus poison does. Of course, unless this sort of defense is limited-use, or you can only afford a perfect defense against a very limited part of the range of attack options (and the choices made vary with the character) this takes us right back to boring invulnerability.
  • They can be unreliable – only working some of the time. The trouble with this approach is quite simple; sooner or later the odds, however good, WILL catch up with you. Thus defenses like this are most effective when coupled with another defense. That turns this sort of thing into a tactical exercise – a gamble on how much of your reserves it will take to get through a situation.

Eclipse, of course, offers all of those options in various combinations to deal with a variety of threats.

  • Action Hero/Stunts (Perfect, Broad Effect, Cheap, Limited Use). This ability lets the user do things that simply should not be possible – adding very temporary special powers to his or her build. That can pretty much get you out of anything. Unfortunately, Action Points are a per-level thing – and thus are a very VERY limited resource. Just as importantly, you may prefer to save them for heroic deeds or a later crisis. Still, if you’re going to die otherwise… you use them. Even if this list wasn’t alphabetical, I might well have put Action Hero/Stunts first. It’s cheap and it can save your life. What’s not to like?
  • Augmented Bonus (Passive, Cheap, Ablative or Unreliable). This ability lets you enhance one or another game values with a second value. Thus you can use (Con Mod) plus another attribute modifier to calculate your hit points, or enhance your saves or armor class, or many other values. The trouble here is that – even if you now have many more hit points – sooner or later they’ll run out. Your saves may be good, but sooner or later you will roll badly anyway. A high armor class is nice, but you WILL still get hit. Still… if you’re a character type that would normally invest heavily in large hit dice, investing some points here will save you a lot more than it costs as your level goes up – and you can invest those points in more tricks and boosting abilities. Go ahead; learn to poke someone and drain much of their power for the day or something. After all, when you come right down to it… “I have a somewhat larger number of hit points than you!” really isn’t as big an advantage as it was thought to be in the early days of 3.0 – and it’s an assumption that carried over right into 3.5 instead of getting fixed. So here’s a patch.
  • Awareness (Passive, Perfect, Very Limited Range). This narrowly-focused ability helps you avoid being flanked, snuck up on, or being injured by traps – rendering at least some of those quite impossible (unless you narrow the ability even further to make it cheaper). That IS handy – but that’s a very narrow part of the range of possible attacks and most of the others are far more difficult to get similar defenses against. Why is that? It’s partially for back-compatibility with the SRD and other d20 systems – but it’s mostly because “Surprise! You Died!” is about the single most annoying thing that can happen to a player character. Ergo, buying some protection against that is fairly cheap.
  • Block (Unreliable) is a straightforward active defense – essentially “taking out” incoming attacks. Unfortunately, Blocks have upper limits, you can only block so many attacks, and sometimes you miss. Blocks are very useful for stretching other defenses – but you still need something to back them up with. On the other hand, there are Blocks available for all kinds of attacks, including magical ones – and that can be pretty handy.
  • Body Fuel (Specialized, Ablative) isn’t exactly a defense – but it offers the ability to make psionic and magical abilities work in areas where they shouldn’t, albeit at a rather high price. It can even make them more powerful than usual, albeit at an even higher price. That’s because about the second most annoying thing that can happen to a player character is to find that their abilities simply will not work during a major confrontation or in an entire scenario. That rarely happens to combatants or skill-based types, but it fairly often applies to spellcasters and psychics. Anti-magic, no-magic zones, wild magic zones… All ways of saying “your magic is making this too easy and/or is dominating the game, so you’re sidelined for now!”. With Body Fuel you can get around that somewhat. You won’t be using a LOT of magic under such circumstances, but those few times you can… you might as well bump it up to the point where your few spells will be spectacular and important.
  • Cloaking (Specialized, Perfect) allows a character to protect their secrets; in settings filled with divination, telepathy, and the potential to boost knowledge skill checks so high as to know personal things that even the target has forgotten, it’s really REALLY difficult to play a character with a mysterious background, or a practicing thief, or infiltrator. It’s not the third most annoying thing that can happen to a character (that would be Mind Control, and is addressed later) but it is a pain. It also only matters to a few, selected, characters – and rarely has an especially large impact. Ergo, it can have a cheap, highly specialized, perfect defense without disrupting things too much.
  • Companion (Passive, Ablative, Unreliable) is another cheap one; it lets you have a helper – whether that’s your mighty steed, a familiar, a wild beast that decides to trail along, or some odd spirit that helps you out. That’s handy – but really, at best, as a defense that’s simply something to watch your back, stand guard, and stall attackers for a bit. Still, the trope is certainly popular – and letting a group have a few reliable aides they don’t have to hire works quite well. Unlike classical d20, this isn’t limited to druidical types.
  • Costly (Passive, Broad Effect). This defense makes it just a bit harder to affect the user with some form of magic or psionic powers. By itself this isn’t particularly effective, but it’s relatively cheap and helps boost other defenses, such as Spell/Power Resistance.
  • Countermagic (Limited Use, Unreliable, Broad Effect) makes it a LOT easier for one mystic to block another one – but still requires that the countering mystic expend their powers and time on doing so. If two mystics with this ability happen to come into conflict, this may result in the classic comic-book scene of two mages exchanging and blocking spells in a magical duel, rather than just throwing attacks at each other and relying on saving throws (luck) to carry the day. It can get really annoying to other casters if you add in Spell Turning so that you can try to assume control of a nasty incoming effect and turn it back against the caster’s own side. If you want the maximum of annoyance… use a freeform magic system that allows for efficient counterspells and take some Mana to boost your counterspells with; that will allow you to turn some pretty powerful spells around on their casters – if only a few times per day.
  • Damage Reduction (Passive, Broad Effect, Scaling Cost). Damage Reduction in Eclipse is generally universal unless you specialize it’s effects – but the cost increases very rapidly as the amount you purchase increases. A small investment in Damage Reduction is very useful at lower levels, when damage levels are normally relatively low, but it’s generally insufficient at higher levels – which is where more active defenses come in.
  • Defender (Passive, Perfect, Unreliable) is another straightforward value-booster; it increases the user’s armor class as his or her level increases. Useful, quite unspectacular, and “perfect” simply because a miss generally has no effect at all. Unreliable, of course, because an attacker will not always miss.
  • Evasive (Passive, Perfect) can be purchased for a wide variety of actions – all the stuff that would normally provoke an Attack of Opportunity – to fix that little problem. It can be fairly expensive for very common actions, but is often well worth it if you happen to rely on those actions.
  • Favors (Limited Use, Expensive) – along with Action Hero/Influence – can provide a splendid political or legal defense, although (to be fair) relatively few d20 characters are subjected to that kind of attack very often. Fortunately, Favors and Influence have many other uses.
  • Fortune (Passive, Perfect, Unreliable) upgrades your saving throws to “no effect on a success”. This usually matters more for Reflex saves than for Fortitude or Will, but it can be useful – and there are a variety of additional upgrades available.
  • Grant of Aid (Passive, Ablative, Broad Effect) can provide some much-needed on-demand healing. With some of the advanced upgrades it will allow the user to regenerate lost limbs and organs and to survive (and be healable) for quite some time after he or she ought to be dead. It’s not perfect – but you can, for example, survive having a Vorpal Blade take your head off as long as someone comes along within the next (Con/2) minutes and holds it in place while your Grant of Aid kicks in or while he or she applies another healing power.
  • Imbuement (Passive, Unreliable) causes normal items of a particular type to act as magic ones in your hands – and magic ones that improve steadily with your level to boot. This is most often applied to weapons – but the Minor Variants rule allows it to be applied to armor and possibly other items as well. A combatant with a high-powered weapon and armor that he doesn’t have to pay for can spend quite a lot of money on other things.
    • Imbuement normally works by providing virtual “plusses” – but if someone wants to take a few of the abilities for his or her imbued item that simply cost gold, that’s fine too as long as he or she has the “focused” upgrade; if he could have the equivalent of a +5 sword (+50,000 GP), there’s no reason why it can’t be a +3 sword (18,000 GP) with 32,000 GP worth of gold-priced enhancements.
  • Immunity (Passive, Potentially Perfect, Expensive) is one of the universal fallbacks in Eclipse; a properly-phrased immunity can free you from all kinds of restrictions, or protect you against an immense variety of hazards – but a sufficiently high-end immunity to protect you against a really powerful attack costs rather a lot. Buying a lot of high-end immunities is prohibitive. Still, if there’s something in particular you’re worried about, or some specific ability you want to extend past it’s normal limits, Immunity will do it for you. Mind Control is a popular choice, although there’s an ability under Witchcraft for that that’s also very effective.
  • Inherent Spell (Unreliable, Limited Use) can be virtually any inherent magical or psychic power – not a few of which are useful defensively. If you really feel that you need that Freedom of Action spell, or Protection from Energy, or some such in your personal arsenal, this is one of the easiest ways to get it. The trouble with relying on spellcasting as a part of your defenses is simply that spellcasting takes time, which you’re often short of when it comes down to defenses. Still, a spell which is designed for defense is often cast as a swift or immediate action, which works just as well when it’s inherent.
  • Innate Enchantment can be used to provide a nice suite of low-level bonuses – but it can also be used to absorb magical items, making them a part of your personal suite of abilities, and thus making them impervious to being taken away and most forms of destruction. A Disjunction effect may still shut you down for a bit – but you’ll recover just fine. If your game master is fond of “you wake up with no gear” scenarios, or simply uses options like “sunder” when they’re appropriate, then this can be a wonderful way to make sure that a few especially good or vital items cannot be taken away. (For a Wizard, I’d recommend absorbing at least one Blessed Book; it’s well worth the 6 CP/one feat).
  • Luck (Perfect, Limited Use) is a marvelous survival tool; the ability to reroll a bad die roll, or simply “take 20″ on a save or attack in advance of rolling, can really save your neck. With some Luck in reserve you can afford to risk failing saves against annoyances while remaining proof against the odd save-or-die (or save-or-suck) effect – at least until your rerolls run out. It’s not as versatile as Action Hero/Stunts – but you can use your stock of rerolls every day, rather than once per level.
  • Mana (Limited Use, Ablative) offers some options that can be used to enhance counterspells or block attribute drain and damage. It’s rarely the most efficient way to block that kind of damage – unless you’re using a martial art form that drains your attributes for power and can be fueled in no other way.

For Part III the defense list will continue – but this is already quite long enough.

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One Response

  1. […] of course, is one of the big “save my neck (and Part II)” powers – whether you need a moment of Immunity to Vorpal Weapons, a […]

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