Eclipse – Reviews, Blocks, and Balance

For today it’s basically explaining some bits of Eclipse’s design – thanks to a question/objection brought up in this review (my thanks to the reviewer by the way). That’s most obliging of the reviewer actually; getting to a chance to explain why some of the design decisions in Eclipse were made is always interesting (That’s what the “d20 Failure Modes” series was all about really). That’s why, if there’s anything else which looks strange, I’ll be glad to explain why it’s in there.

In this case I’ve been given a chance to take a detailed look at the “Block” ability and at “Balance”.

First up it’s the Block ability, how it stacks up against other defenses and why it was designed the way it was.

Given that Eclipse is a point-buy system, the first thing to consider is the cost. Block – at low levels and at it’s base cost – is cheap but rather unreliable, can only be used against one attack a round, uses up the blocking characters attack of opportunity, and has upper limits of effect since it only provides “Great Immunity” (page 34) to an attack. In low level play, however, Great Immunity will generally suffice to stop any single attack. Thus at low levels Block is generally seen combined with Luck. The basic Block functions as a way to somewhat reduce the average damage taken (like AC, although the actual amount of protection is inferior to raising your AC to start with) and – with the use of the Luck ability – as a way to escape occasional overwhelming attacks.

At higher levels relying on Block as a regular defense is possible – but it is resource intensive; you’ll need to get more attacks of opportunity per round, to obtain a high reflex save, and to spend rather a lot on Block; you’ll want to take it for both Melee and Missile attacks, to improve the roll for each, and to get more uses (at least three per round) for each – for a total of 48 CP (or eight feats) – not counting what you spend on getting the extra attacks of opportunity and the high reflex save. This will, however, make you pretty hard to hurt with most attacks – barring rolling a “1” of course, which automatically fails saves.

Of course, investing that kind of resources in Armor Class will get you up to the point where anything that has a 10% or better chance of missing anyone else in the party will need a twenty to hit you. Investing those resources in Damage Reduction can get you up around 20/- against both physical attacks and energy.

At this point we need to consider various basic attack strategies against those defenses: While “Rely on a high BAB and moderately enhanced damage” is the standard attack mode at lower levels, at higher levels an assortment of variants enter play. Major attack modes to consider include:

  • Relying on a high BAB and moderately enhanced damage. This is, as noted above, the generic default option – and is reasonably effective against an AC defense, reasonably effective against a block defense (via the option to give up points from BAB to increase the DC of the the block check), and inflicts enough damage to be reasonably effective against a damage reduction defense.
  • Inflicting massive damage with a single attack. This fails versus an AC defense, can penetrate a Block defense with greatly reduced effect, and can easily overcome a Damage Reduction defense.
  • Making a large number of weaker attacks – possibly deploying companions or conjurations (an option open to melee builds in Eclipse). This fails versus a Damage Reduction defense, can penetrate an AC defense with greatly reduced effect, and can easily overcome a Block defense.

If a character has spent the points to learn to block magical attacks, we can consider two more possibilities – although this makes relying on Block more expensive again.

  • Use individually-targeted magical attacks, such as Magic Missile. These fail versus a Block defense (at least until you reach very high level attack spells, which will automatically overcome Blocks – although the user will still get a save bonus), can penetrate a Damage Reduction (“Energy resistance” – in Eclipse unrestricted Damage Reduction or some level of Immunity) defense with greatly reduced effect, and generally (magic does vary a lot) easily overcome an AC defense.
  • Use area effects: These are usually limited use and do intermediate amounts of damage – and generally bypass AC, Blocks, and most affordable Damage Reduction. Against these you’ll want other defenses.

As levels increase, AC differentials increase, Damage Reduction rises, and Blocks become more reliable – barring rolling a “1” of course, which automatically fails (comparable to the way that an AC defense always fails against a 20). Of course, Armor Class becomes more reliable as the spread of AC’s in the party expands – and Damage Reduction is inherently reliable to start with.

To avoid adding another level of calculations to combat Block has a fixed effect. It has a fixed DC specifically to make it activate unreliably at lower levels (and thus be comparable in average effect to a relatively low differential in AC or a modest amount of damage reduction) and to make it activate reliably at higher levels when other defenses are more substantial and there are more ways around it.

And that is why Block is designed the way it is. There may, of course, be more elegant ways – but this one did what I wanted without introducing any major new systems.

As far as balance issues go… there are always four factors there, one of which was also a major feature for ease-of-use.

  • First up (and perhaps most importantly), Eclipse was designed to be back-compatible with multiple versions of d20 – including 3.0, 3.5, Modern and Future – as well as being forward-compatible with anything else based on the d20 SRD. That allows players and game masters to use Eclipse while continuing to use conventional classes, sourcebooks, and creatures as desired. That’s why it isn’t really necessary to convert anything to Eclipse – although page 191 does include a rule for applying a quick veneer of customization to standard monsters and characters if Eclipse is in play.

Thus there’s actually no need to “break down” anything in Pathfinder for Eclipse; you can freely mix Eclipse and Pathfinder characters and creatures, or allow Pathfinder characters to build their own bonus feats with Eclipse, or use standard Pathfinder builds up to a point and give the players the option to build their levels from then on with Eclipse. I only bother breaking down Pathfinder or third-party material because it’s requested – and because I find it somewhat gratifying that Eclipse can reproduce classes and races published long after it was.

Unfortunately, back-compatibility meant accepting a selection of “balance” problems inherited from the source material – whether from the SRD classes, races, and creatures, or from the need to be able to reproduce various “broken” builds and classes since there’s no universal agreement on what those are (except, perhaps, for Pun-Pun).

  • Secondarily, balance depends strongly on the setting; a thieving character with an inherent ability to become invisible for a short time twice a day and to use Knock twice a day has a fairly minor power in a mid-level fantasy game. In a d20 modern setting that’s normally no-magic he’d have a pair of astounding super powers. A character with a major army and set of fortifications at his or her command would be grossly unbalanced in most games – but is just fine for a Birthright-style game.

Thus in the Manifold setting characters are encouraged to take a variety of “abusive” options. After all, in a setting where battles are often between star fleets and a first level warrior type can have his own personal mecha and equip it with microfusion missiles, less militant characters can have a hard time competing. Even taking Godhood won’t necessarily do it (and we’ve had several player-character gods using the Eclipse rules for godhood in various games; it seems to work fine).

Since Eclipse is setting-independent, this sort of problem is inevitable – but it’s what the Campaign Options checklist and the stress on game master control is for; to eliminate the options that won’t work right in your setting (it really has nothing to do with the narrative of the game). It does call for looking over the list carefully though; if you’re running a “no magic” game you need to remember to check off “Inherent Spell” and similar options as well as magic levels.

  • Third is some intentional tweaking of the d20 power curves – and not just by flattening them a bit. For example, Witchcraft peaks in usefulness relatively early – and is far more useful later on to combative or stealthy characters than it is to magic-using characters. A martially-themed character who augments his or her abilities with a little Witchcraft will have a much wider range of options, and will remain competitive much longer, than a character who does not – and that is encouraged by the system by making Witchcraft quite cheap. A Rogue-type who spends some points on Witchcraft effectively loses a lot less than a Wizard-type who does the same; Rogues and Warrior-types tend more towards individual abilities than the sequential abilities of a Wizard-type – and so they miss individual abilities a lot less.

If you don’t want to do those things, the Campaign Options checklist is once again your friend. You simply ban the options that don’t fit your game – just as the original Dragonlance setting banned clerical magic.

  • Fourth, a certain amount of “game balance” is always subjective. Things that strike one game master as being “balanced” will strike others as being “unbalanced” – and there’s no game-mechanical cure for that, just as there’s no game-mechanical solution to players who insist on making inappropriate characters or keep trying to spoil the game for everyone else.

That’s why there’s an afterword on the topic in Eclipse – mostly with the observation that it’s hard to find much more perfect balance than “everyone uses the same list of abilities and the same costs”.

I appreciate “broken” characters too; there’s a page about optimized and broken builds as a resource; with any luck the reviewer will let me know what builds broke easily so that I can add any new ones to what’s already there. If anyone is interested, here’s a reasonably up-to-date index page for Eclipse races, templates, and characters.

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