Eclipse and Magical Schools Part II – Making them Work

The basic problem with Schools in d20 is built into the system.

  • In the real world, being trained in something is about the most effective way available to develop new skills, improve old skills, and learn new tricks that’s relatively safe – at least up until the point where there’s no one left who can teach you much, and you have to rely on risky experience and self-development. Training, however, requires lots of time (in ever shorter supply for adults with responsibilities – and who have to spend ever-increasing amounts of time on keeping their current skills from getting rusty), enough dedication to resist the temptation to take a break, and resources (including skilled trainers). Even then… you expend more and more time and work for smaller and smaller returns. Realistic training is slow, and hard, and expensive.
  • In basic d20, training by itself generally accomplishes nothing at all. Characters are automatically assumed to be training for their next level all through their current one. Even if the player doesn’t make up his or her mind about what it’s going to be until they’ve gotten the experience points and it’s time to update their character sheet it’s assumed that the Character knew what he or she was working towards. After all, learning new skills and abilities, increasing your net worth, building up your mind or muscles, and more is all tied to gaining levels, not to any particular training program.

As an example, a real person thrown into heavy combat for a week is likely to pick up a few basic combat moves and (generally inappropriate out of combat) nervous responses (such as diving for cover whenever there is a loud bang), skin trouble, a few likely-infected wounds and blisters, plenty of bruises, possibly some fractures, some nasty mental traumas and physical scars, and a tremendous need for sleep and food – presuming that they aren’t dead or crippled for life.

Do the same with a d20 character… and they’ll probably have picked up a couple of levels, maybe a new language and some improvements in playing keyboards and acrobatics or the ability to project laser beams from their eyes and heal wounds by force of will, they’ll be tougher and harder to kill, and they’re quite likely to have picked up some new-and-improved gear. Or they may have become a vampire-werewolf abomination. They almost certainly will not be dead, crippled, or weakened – and any injuries they may have will be cleanly healed in a day or so at most.

If you take two identical twin d20 martial artists and have one spend five years training while the other spends five years adventuring and then compare the results… The adventurer will be able to show off his Divine Might Global Extinction Event World Shattering Palm technique while the fellow who spent his time training will probably be able to break several boards at the same time instead of one. Sure, the adventurer might have gotten killed without being brought back – but his payoff is incredible wealth, vast personal power, and potential godhood. The payoff for training hard is a colorful belt and (just maybe) an assistant teaching position at the local dojo.

OK, maybe the game master will throw in some experience point awards for going out of your way to get training, but that rapidly becomes a choice between “everybody gets some” or “half the players sit around and wait while a few try to get story awards for training”. You could go back to first edition and try some variant on “trade gold pieces for experience points” on the theory that you’re buying effective “training” – but allowing that will have some pretty massive effects on the world. Merchants and government-funded groups and such are going to edge more traditional adventurers out of the running and finding any kind of balance across levels is going to be pretty hard. Plus, of course, speaking as a high-level character… all of MY kids are going to be starting off their careers with some levels on them. Rising from the peasantry is no longer much of an option and having rich parents really DOES make you better.

You can throw in a bit of “school as a characterization detail” with little trouble – but that, once again, usually relegates it to the characters backstory. Still, “School as a background detail” works better in Eclipse than in classical d20 simply because Eclipse characters usually buy the basics of what they want early on and build on it – rather than abruptly picking up huge chunks of knowledge and abilities when they multiclass. So there’s no more of “there are six academies that teach the arts of wizardry… what do you mean that your barbarian just took a level of wizard while resting in an igloo?”.

Master Mage Latian attended The Eleri Academy of Magic – as can be easily seen, since he always wears the Eleri’s Azure and Crimson school sash, practices the Eight Calming Breaths and Mudras taught by the school when confronted by yet ANOTHER royal councilor who has no idea of what non-epic magic can and cannot do, bears the medallion and tassel that signifies his status as a master mage, still sneers at the graduates of Handeti University (Eleri’s principle rival), always attends (and often acts as a judge) for the schools yearly magic competition, and adheres to Eleri’s strictures against dealing with the Chaos Lords on the grounds that it is far too dangerous for what you can get.

You can add a little bit of mechanics to this without creating any real problem. Perhaps the sash is a free Masterwork Potions Bandolier, Eleri graduates gain a +1 bonus to overcome the spell resistance of creatures of chaos, and the school allows alumni in good standing to freely copy more advanced anti-chaos spells from the school archives. You will need to allow similar little bennies for non-magical characters though. Wizards don’t usually need more advantages over everyone else.

You can also use the “Feat Full of Tricks” articles (Clerics, Fighters and Wizards, Rogues, Monks) – although those, once again, put “school” firmly in the character’s past. They do mean that a characters early training will continue to have an impact on their abilities even quite late in their careers.

The next step up in classical d20 was a prestige class. Of course, this was a considerable pain, called for inventing more special advantages, and wound up with a prestige classes so obscure that there might not be any other members of them on the continent. After all, if there’s a special class for Guild Wizards of Waterdeep, shouldn’t a lot of other cities have their own variants? Among hundreds of other regional variants for everything else? Even worse… Evereska has some 22,000 people. To be an Evereskan Tomb Guardian you need a BAB of +4, the ability to cast second level arcane spells, Alertness, Track, and 24 levels worth of various skills. How many people out of a total population of 22,000 – the vast majority non-adventurers – are going to qualify, much less be interested? Are there really likely to be ANY Evereskan Tomb Guardians?

There are various house and optional rules calling for training when going up in level, usually stating that it’s “more realistic”. Of course, this flies in the face of both the rules (characters are always “training”; when they go up in level is simply the moment when it all comes together) and sanity (are you REALLY trying to use “realism” as an excuse in a game full of wizards throwing lighting bolts?). If you really want to be “realistic” in terms of how the system and d20 settings actually work… then treat “Experience Points” as a mysterious magical force that builds up in creatures and objects until it transforms them, granting them new powers and abilities.

If a game master wishes to stretch a point, he or she use an existing mechanic – the Circumstance Bonus – by stating that practical experience and/or training will provide modest bonuses (perhaps +1, +2, and +3 for basic, advanced, and truly extensive experience and training) on particular skills – or twice that on specialized sub-aspects of skills. You could even count that as a part of an adventures treasure-reward if you wanted, although the value would be sharply reduced by the fact that they couldn’t be transferred or traded in for better bonuses. After all… if the players spend six weeks adventuring in the city of Rilkieth picking up a free +2 bonus in Knowledge (Local) Rilkieth is only to be expected. It certainly doesn’t increase their power much though. Is it really worth more than a 5 GP local guidebook?

In one mystery-heavy campaign the players each kept a special record sheet recording the (many) small specialty knowledge skills they’d picked up – and had a good deal of fun looking for ways to use them.

Still, that’s a rather thin – if entertaining – patch.

So there’s our problem; in baseline d20 “training” takes immense amounts of boring downtime and accomplishes very little, while “adventuring” is exciting, not at all risky to the player, and provides enormous benefits very quickly indeed. Under the d20 rules no reasonable school can compete with adventuring.

So how about a school that’s not so reasonable?

Courland Castle RiftWard and School of Magic

As of last week it was two hundred and thirty-seven years ago. The rifts were small at first, and the incursions minor – but there was death and terror. There were things that no weapon known to man would touch, which moved through the earth to drag men down into the depths, or which stalked unseen. For three years horrors from beyond occasionally erupted across the world.

And then, in Mitau (now Jelgava), Latvia, near the Mitau Rift, a swarm of spectral horrors, haunters of the dark, attacked – pouring through cracks and into houses, stripping flesh from bone even as the victims tried to hide or flee. For a few moments there were screams, and panic, and the knowledge that death had come for a hundred families.

But the sun came to Earth. Inese Balodis, aged eleven – now known as Burve Sargs, First Earthwarden, Mistress of the Astral Fire, and the Founder of the Courland Castle RiftWard (among other titles) – spontaneously tapped into the power of the rift in defense of her mother and siblings.

And an astral firestorm passed through wood, and brick, and people, and beasts, alike, doing no harm to them at all – but burning the horrors of the swarm to less than ashes.

Even today, no one really knows why – but a few, talented, children who spend time near a rift will develop the ability to tap into it’s cascade of primal magical energies – allowing them to fight against the horrors on near-equal terms and to command an immense variety of spells and powers. Even more importantly… the presence of large groups of such children moderates the flow of magic out into the world, reducing random daily disasters to occasional difficulties – although this effect wanes as they age.

Children with that potential have little real choice; they WILL be sent to one of the RiftWards, and there they WILL develop their gifts (whether for actual spellcasting or for personalized magical enhancements) as Earthwardens – or they will die. The schools are excellent, the facilities are lavish, all “expenses” are paid, what personal equipment (or at least what can be mass-produced in factories) has proven helpful is made available, and both personal power and influential and well-paid positions await the (few) surviving graduates – but the RiftWard “Schools” are still filled with wild magic and subject to regular monstrous incursions. There are benefits – but the Earth’s leaders  are still deploying kids as their first line of defense, paying a grim price for humanities survival.

So; the school IS a place of endless adventure, graduates who move away from it will have a lot less power to work with, magical kids get to face horrors with little or no effective adult help, and the authorities will make sure that there are plenty of new kids starting classes to replace any casualties. Since rift incursions only occur when the game master feels like it, he or she can control the pace of level gain – making time for classical training and non-combat events – by simply making incursions more or less common. Are some of the kids acting up? “Detention” is likely on the front lines in the most dangerous areas. When their odds of living to grow up are poor anyway, what else is going to mean anything?

Variations abound of course. Castle Perilous (John DeChancie) scoops up people from 144,000 different universes (apparently at random), infuses them with various minor magical powers, and lets them interact with each other and with a constantly shifting array of realms. Every time the creatures inhabiting the vast multilayered dungeon beneath Castle Greyhawk started to come up to the surface the local lord hired groups of adventurers to keep them down, with the place serving as a sort of adventurer’s university (at least in one of the odder modules). Camp Half Blood? Miskatonic University? Sunnydale High? Between books and anime alone there are hundreds of variations.

The trouble with this is that the “school” part is now little more than flavor text and the training is still pretty much irrelevant. Instead of working out of a castle, or country estate, or the local tavern, these adventurers to work out of a dungeon that happens to have a dorm, a few classrooms, and (if anyone involved has any sense at all) a well-protected infirmary. That’s even more convenient than the town by the dungeon entrance in some ways, even if it DOES mean that the wandering monsters can camp right outside your bedroom door.

To do much more than that – and to make “training” really mean something – we’ll have to go a bit beyond baseline d20. Fortunately, Eclipse has a lot of ways to do that.

The Ancient Master, secret academy, mysterious scroll, or weird entity, who teaches powerful secret techniques is thoroughly traditional. The trouble here is that while d20 in general offers some support for secret techniques (via putting entrance requirements on prestige classes with special powers), this mechanic leads to exploits for poorly thought out abilities, level-dipping, planning out your build long in advance (and regardless of what happens in the campaign) to qualify for the items you want, and so on – and each prestige class which is available (even if no one ever takes it) brings a bunch of background material with it which must be fitted into the campaign (at least if you care about world background).

Eclipse and The Practical Enchanter cover this in several different ways.

Ancient Masters (and other expert teachers) can…

  • Act as Mentors, and so provide a boost to the students experience point total. Of course this usually calls for regularly going back for advanced training.
  • Teach Occult Skills that they happen to know without the usual surcharge. Once you have a skill, you don’t usually need to go back for more training to improve it – but the game master is free to say that that only applies to skills that are common in the setting, or might even be persuaded to allow a price break for such a limitation.
  • Teach Martial Arts Skills that allow the addition of Attribute Modifiers, as making up your own art does not.
  • Use Mystic Artist powers to bestow small amounts of Experience Points on students. This is slow and expensive – but does allow wealthy nobles, rulers, and benevolet traveling bards to give low-level types a boost.
  • Use Leadership to simply bestow levels on characters. Of course, this method makes adventuring pretty much irrelevant; only the leaders abilities and the number of levels which he or she wishes to invest in the characters matters. This may even require training as a limitation – and could thus account for child-heroes who would normally be considered too young for level one or for a variation on the Children’s Crusade setting. It also quite neatly explains why the focus is always on a small groups of students (they’re the only ones who are getting handed free levels) and why – if there are any permanent casualties or departures – it’s so easy to find a replacement; the Leaders simply invests those “lost” levels in another follower and they join the group. .
  • Use Blessing and Adept to make it easier for students to learn a particular set of skills – reducing them to half the usual cost. It would be wise to remember that any teacher with that talent will be very much in demand. They’re also a convenient way to shape the campaign; if you want a heavy martial-arts game, or lots of knowledge skills, or action skills, or some such… then reducing the cost of characters getting the appropriate skills is a good way to (more or less) subtly guide the players.
  • Use Blessing to loan out some of their skills to their students so as to meet more dangerous foes. This should, however, be a rare and special thing.
  • Provide Unique Training – although it is important to note that the points from unique training go to where the game master thinks that they should according to the nature of the teacher and the training, not to wherever the player has in mind.

Now most of those benefits (other than using leadership, which is usually for recruiting NPC’s to follow you) are rather limited since they’re set up to provide modest bennies for the characters, rather than to break the idea of levels. Still, using a few of those techniques can easily give a school enough attractions to keep the characters coming back and supporting it.

  • A Ward Major (the Practical Enchanter) can allow “residents” (however it defines them) to acquire some special abilities and boosts on a more or less permanent basis – and nothing says that tests, training, and study requirements can’t be applied to getting those powers.
  • A Heartstone (also from the Practical Enchanter) can hand out it’s abilities on whatever basis suits it once a character is attuned to it – and so makes a good basis for a school or guild. Using the powers of a Heartstone does require spending a feat though, so it won’t do most small children a lot of good.

The trouble here is that this – once again – using ANY of these techniques creates issues if you don’t make similar advantages available to every character. Wizardly types may be bigger on studying and “school” than anyone else, but they’re also among the character types least in need of another boost.

  • As an organization, a school can provide access to one or more Package Deals. If you want to go to the trouble (and to keep the characters involved with the school) it can even be a graduated package deal like the House of Roses uses. If a school is really important (again, like the House of Roses) and is run by someone with Dominion, their package deal can even be augmented by an Office as the students graduate and (presumably) move into faculty jobs themselves. It will, however, have to be either a pretty generic package which everyone can use or you’ll have to make up multiple packages and / or schools for each general type of character. That’s a lot of work for the game master though.
  • If you want the school to teach a lot of abilities and techniques independent of adventuring levels you’ll wand to go the “Mythic” (Mundane?) route – treating training, in-school story awards, and testing “challenges” as an independent, and not directly cumulative, source of power – essentially giving the characters a second experience point total for “school levels” at the cost of a +1 ECL adjustment. Anyone who opts to be unschooled (or simply is not paying attention in class) gets a free level on the other characters and gets to apply any story awards to his or her basic experience point pool – possibly picking up several more levels on his or her scholarly friends eventually. If you want to adjust the ratio of “school levels” to standard ones, you can either simply adjust the story and testing rewards to suit or have the two totals run on different experience point charts. In either case… “school” levels should spend most of their points on things that could reasonably be learned in a school.

As a final alternative, you can go way outside the usual boundaries of the d20 system, and dump experience points. Characters may pick up some pointers in the field, but they generally get better as they take more classes and develop their own particular talents. There’s no actual requirement to adventure at all in order to gain levels and power. On the other hand… students may be thrust into adventures, or need money and magical items, or be undertaking practical exams, or be having to deal with wealthy idiots who acquired power through intensive tutoring with no self-discipline and little control, or be doing favors for an instructor – in which case risking their necks is the price they pay for advanced training – which is how they GET power.

If you then limit characters to relatively low level, and possibly eliminate some more of the more over-the-top powers, you will wind up with something which many people would consider fairly “realistic” – but it won’t really resemble standard d20 very much at all.

And that’s really about it; while Eclipse offers ways to cram them into any given setting, schools beyond the grade-school level that get kids to level one really are not a natural fit with d20 worlds.

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