Skin of Stone, Man of Straw; Encounters Beneath the Eclipse.

A fairly common question with point-buy systems like Eclipse is “What if something is too good for it’s cost? Or what if a character buys some massively powerful ability straight off? After all, if some starting character simply invests all his points buying super-ability “X” meant for the settings major gods he or she could just slaughter / ignore / bypass / recruit / outrun / edit out of time / whatever all appropriate opponents!

Fortunately d20 is complicated enough – unlike, say, Amber – that you can’t simply spend all of your points on “Warfare” and assume that you will automatically dominate virtually any combat situation. Still, you do need some mechanisms in place to handle this sort of problem.

The first level of trouble for any universal system is simply that what abilities are valuable will vary drastically from one campaign to another. For an example from a recent query, lets say you buy DR 5/-. That’s a relatively cheap ability (6 CP) if you limit it to physical damage only. In a campaign focusing on first level boxers, that would be a tremendous advantage. Full-contact martial arts? Still pretty useful, but martial arts opponents in Eclipse can – at equally low level – have special attacks that will bypass damage reduction, or convert their attacks to energy, or just power straight through DR 5/- depending on where they spent THEIR points. In the science-fiction Federation-Apocalypse setting, where any serious combatant character will probably start off carrying a light microfusion missile launcher that does 5d20 damage in a modest radius, Damage Reduction is so unimportant that no one pays much attention to the fact that – thanks to technical advances – the average man in the street gets DR 4/- for free from his smartclothes and basic genetic augmentations. Who cares? It doesn’t actually help – and other defenses that will are a much better deal.

Of course, in a campaign centered on mysteries, or diplomacy, or politics, combat abilities may ALL be fairly useless.

For a similar look at skills, in a realistic WWII setting where injuries are specific, infection is a serious threat, and characters die all too easily, a knowledge of basic medicine can be invaluable. In settings with easy healing magic, d20’s default rapid healing, and a lack of specific injuries it’s more dubious. In a setting with automatic nanotech first aid kits that will treat wounds far more effectively than any human physician, or where all the action takes place in a virtual reality that doesn’t affect the character’s physical bodies, it may be utterly useless.

Like it or not, the “value” of various abilities varies drastically with the setting, with the available equipment, and with the genre and style of the campaign.

Since Eclipse is setting-independent, it has mechanisms for dealing with this – primarily the Campaign Options Checklist and Character Templates. The Options Checklist lets you ban or limit the available abilities to fit the setting, while the Character Templates both allow you to limit how far a character can advance a single sequence of abilities at any given level and to require minimum expenditures in areas where any setting-appropriate character should show some ability. After all, without setting restrictions, saying “you can use Eclipse” is pretty much the same as saying “You can use any d20 book ever written, including the stuff that no one ever actually published, regardless of genre”. Fortunately, with everything in one book, it’s easy to set the restrictions that you’ll need to make your setting work.

Still, even after you’ve set up the general restrictions of your setting, won’t players try to optimize and gravitate towards the “best” abilities? Won’t some of them be better at it than others? won’t allowing a free choice of abilities lead to the players ignoring some of them entirely?

There’s always some of that. That’s why you see a lot more people in d20 games playing mighty Sorcerers than you see playing one of Peter Rabbits bunny-siblings (although there are, of course, always a few…). Fortunately, when faced with a wide variety of abilities and a (hopefully equally wide) variety of situations to use them in players often find that they have very different opinions of what is “best”.

What’s that? All of your players want to focus on small-scale tactical combat that’s been set up as “Balanced Encounters”? And that’s why the initial query focused on how “underpriced” Damage Reduction was? It looks so attractive that every character will want it? (That also brings up why Balanced Encounters are a bad idea, Combat as Sport and War, and the Fifteen Minute Adventuring Day, but those are other articles).

So lets say that all the player characters want that Damage Reduction. After all, it’s enough to protect them against quite a few minor opponents isn’t it?

Well, no – in Eclipse it certainly isn’t. The basic answer is that Eclipse offers a wide variety of exotic attacks and defenses as well as a quick-conversion rule for using standard scenarios and creatures that gives the NPC’s and creatures from other d20 sources some character points of their own to spend. The more “underpriced” (in the eyes of the players), and thus common, an ability is, the greater the number of opponents who will have invested a few of their points in ways to bypass, overcome, or neutralize it. After all, you see a lot of people who know how to change a tire on their car. The number who know how to install a new alternator is a lot smaller. Why is that? It’s because you’re far more likely to have had to change a tire yourself than you are to have had to install a new alternator yourself. People develop the skills needed to deal with the problems they face – and (surviving) monsters will tend to have developed abilities that helped them survive. Thus if the majority of adventurers have Damage Reduction then the majority of the creatures will have ways to get around it.

Just as importantly, the monsters can settle for very limited use abilities without a problem; THEY will only have to deal with occasional fights. Adventurers seek out many fights, often in rather rapid succession.

So classical DR 5/- is indeed available for 6 CP. So is +2d6 damage that only helps overcome damage reduction (Augment Attack), or increasing your base damage with a particular attack (Martial Arts), Fireball 1/day (Inherent Spell), converting your attacks into energy damage (Martial Arts again, albeit a different subsystem), getting Shocking Grasp several times per day (Inherent Spell), picking up the ability to “see” in the dark (Occult Sense), obtaining a limited-use paralyzing venom (Trick), getting low-grade spell resistance (Spell/Power Resistance), obtaining political influence or powerful allies (Action Hero/Influence, Connections, or Favors), acquiring a familiar or an animal companion (Companion), and many, many, other abilities. That’s why successful characters – and groups – in Eclipse tend to be the ones who have a wide variety of abilities. You can see the same principle at work in the real world; there are gazelles, tortoises, beavers, and thousands of other wildly diverse types of creatures roaming the earth – yet nature is a far more ruthless optimizer than any player. Why don’t you see just a few types of “optimized” animals? It’s because the real world offers a very wide variety of challenges, and thus supports a wide variety of creatures, each “optimized” in a different way. If your campaign only supports a few types of characters… it’s because you’re stuck in a rut and aren’t offering a wide enough variety of challenges.

With a few points to spend, the goblins with a touch of magic from a draconic bloodline can be a very different challenge from the goblins with political connections that will bring the wrath of the local king down on you if you harass them. Neither of those groups is a lot like the one that works for a malevolent cult and so can call on some demonic favors, or the one that raised an evil child who later became a mighty mage – but who still feels some loyalty to his childhood tribe. If you’re going to have unique characters, you’ll need to invest a little time in unique monsters too.

Finally this brings us to personal optimization – the player who finds a combination of abilities that works too well in your campaign, who just has a knack for squeezing every point until it screams, who haunts optimization boards, or who’s simply so clever about applying his or her characters abilities that they leave the other characters far behind.

To some extent this is a good thing. At least they’re putting some time and effort into the game. If it becomes a problem though… that’s when you turn to page 163. In fact, given that it would be wise to read the whole book before using it, you should already be applying pages 8, 16, 22, and 163 – all the sections on control mechanisms and limitations. That’s usually more than enough. If it’s not…

Fundamentally, players who want to disrupt, rather than play in, the game you’re running or with the group you’ve got are indulging their own egos by sabotaging everyone else’s fun. If you’re putting up with it… well, I can’t write any d20 rules that will help keep people from treating you like a rug to wipe their feet on. For that you want a self-help book or a therapist. If someone wants to build a character who does not fit the setting, you say “no”. If they want to build a character who will not work with the group, you say “no”. If they will not behave themselves during a session then you don’t invite them again. If your players don’t want to help make the game a success… it’s going to fail anyway, no matter what rules you’re using.

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One Response

  1. I’d say this about sums it up. Why more people don’t understand this is beyond me.

    The idea that Eclipse is “unbalanced” because it allows for characters who are too good at one thing (e.g. combat) at the expense of everything else always sounds, to me, like more of an indictment of the campaign being played than the book – just put some more focus on “everything else” and that problem will solve itself.

    Not that there aren’t plenty of other ways to solve the underlying issue, but you mentioned those, so no more needs to be said in that regard (until the next time the issue comes up, anyway).

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