Eclipse and Skills – Paths and Powers II

Alzrius wrote an excellent – and very lengthy – article on Eclipse and Skills, which got a similarly lengthy response. Given how awkward that is to read, Alzrius has kindly given permission to republish his original article and the responses broken up into more manageable bits – and here’s the last one. Given the quality of writing that’s really too bad!

Ritual Magic: The first of the oft-mentioned skill-based magic systems, Ritual Magic is the simplest, requiring only a single page to denote. As the name suggests, this isn’t “spellcasting” per se, as the text allows for a Spellcraft check to be made to enact a major magical ritual. The key here is that the DC is meant to be astronomical to the point of near-impossibility…unless the PCs can acquire the various special components (which might be rare or even unique) to gain sufficient bonuses. Otherwise, they can try the ritual on their own, but there are penalties for failure (and even side effects on bare-success results), so it’s more likely that they’ll need to go and track down at least some of the ritual components

A subtle extension of this idea is that you can perform minor rituals as well. For these, there’s no real issue of side effects, mostly because the rituals being enacted are too trifling to warrant them (e.g. they have extremely minor game effects). This variability tracks fairly well, albeit not completely perfectly, with the rituals in Legends of High Fantasy.

Eclipse-Style Ritual Magic is a little strange in classical d20 terms, simply because it’s a way to get the players to help design their next series of adventures – so here’s an article on game-mastering them.

Rune Magic: One thing that needs to be made immediately clear is that, despite the name, this magic system has nothing to do with runes per se. Rather, the name is an artifact from this magic system’s original presentation. (Typically, the theme replaces “rune” in the name of the associated skills; so someone taking Rune Magic for healing would list the skills as Healing Casting and Healing Mastery.)

My favorite of the book’s skill-based magic systems, Rune Magic offers an approach to spellcasting that’s not only low-powered, but also limited by theme instead of being “catch-all” the way standard d20 spellcasting is. While it is possible to cast extremely powerful spells via Rune Magic, it’s fairly difficult, as you not only need to have Mana to burn, but you’ll need to have raised your [Rune] Casting and [Rune] Mastery skill bonuses exceptionally high.

Doing so can be rather difficult, since this magic system flat-out disallows skill bonuses from spells, and bonuses from magic items are only at half-effectiveness. There’s a minor point of confusion with that latter rule, however; if a magic item only grants an indirect bonus – e.g. it provides a boost to an ability score, which indirectly bumps up associated skill bonuses – you’ll need to decide if that applies to a Rune skill’s bonus at full value or half-value.

With the possible exceptions of Ritual Magic (q.v.) and Witchcraft (q.v.), this is the go-to for martial characters that just want to “dip” into a magic system. That’s because Rune Magic’s limitations make it relatively cheap to buy up; you just need to raise the bonuses for two skills, and buy some Mana, and you’re set. Even modest cost-cutting measures for those will make it relatively easy to keep a single area of magic – maybe even two – at a level where it can still make a vital role, whether it’s for healing magic, defensive magic, personal enhancement magic, etc.

Rune Magic does get the benefit of indirect bonuses; if your casting is intelligence-based, and you boost your intelligence, that works fine. The theory, of course, is that directly magically boosting the skill(s) you’re using to manipulate magic is likely to “contaminate” the energies you’re working with – making them harder to control. The more powerful your boost, the more trouble it will give you. Thus the rule that direct magical skill boosts don’t work since they’re essentially self-defeating.

The fact that this serves to limit things to avoid having easy temporary boosts or custom items driving Rune Magic through the roof is purely coincidental, trust me on that.

Spell Storing: An expanded set of options for crafting spell completion and spell trigger magic items, Spell Storing offers only a few instances of direct intersection with skills. Interestingly, there’s nothing here about Use Magic Device, which you’d expect to be a large point of notation – presumably that skill already covers all of the basic interactions one could have with items that store spells.

Magical Lore is an upgrade option that’s rather odd, as it builds in the possibility of activating items via a Spellcraft check. I call that odd because, as noted, Use Magic Device already does exactly that. The major benefit here seems to be that Spellcraft is a more common skill, and that the DC is [10 + (2 x spell level)], which is easier than with UMD (usually; a wand with a high-level spell that uses this modifier could conceivably have a higher DC than UMD’s flat DC 20 to activate).

Minor Ritual is the next option after Magical Lore, and requires that a multi-round ritual be enacted to make use of a stored spell. The text notes that this could require “even a skill check” to do. This will require some weighing on the part of the GM to judge exactly what the DC should be, since canny players will be weighing this against the DC of Magical Lore and Use Magic Device. Given the nature of this ritual, the DC will typically be lower – and will very often be for an odd skill, such as Perform (sing) or Sleight of Hand – but will need to be successfully made over several rounds in order to activate.

With Spell Storing the Magical Lore option is there to represent items that anyone with a smattering of magical knowledge can activate, It’s an upgrade for spell storing because it adds a third way to activate an item – and for completeness sake. Basically “can be operated by a spellcaster of a particular type or by someone with specialized skills in working with magical devices”, “and by anyone who knows a fair amount about magic”, “and by anyone who knows the proper little ritual”, and so on up until the point where “it can activate itself according to it’s instructions”.

That’s also why they’re cheap; that allowed some intermediate options to be inserted between the old one-feat-each steps.

Most adventurers are perfectly capable of activating their devices the old-fashioned way, but self-activating stuff can be pretty handy – and the options along the way open up the potential for pretty much anyone – perhaps the local kids? – to meddle with devices that they do not understand and cannot control.

Thaumaturgy/Dweomer: Eclipse describes this as being the form of magic that was used before Vancian-style spellcasting – and psionics – were invented, which is the sort of in-world characterization that fires the imagination. It’s also noted as a rather complicated system for advanced players, which it is; it’s not coincidental that this skill-based magic system has notes at the end outlining the best way to utilize it.

The most difficult aspect of Thaumaturgy/Dweomer is coming up with eight skills (or more, but almost never less) that define different aspects of the chosen theme. Whether that theme is based on the effects or the method by which those effects are enacted is the main difference between thaumaturgy and dweomer, respectively, but that typically makes it no less challenging to invent eight new interrelated skills. Moreover, as the book notes, there should be a careful balance between skills that lend themselves to in-combat uses and out-of-combat uses.

While it’s entirely possible to go in as a dedicated user of Thaumaturgy or Dweomer, GMs can expect some players to try to dabble. Somewhat amusingly, this tends to work better with characters that are already high-end spellcasters, due to it being comparatively cheaper to diversify their existing spellcasting abilities. Since they’ll typically have caster levels that have been specialized in their main progression, it costs only 1 CP per caster level to change that to being corrupted for their main progression and a chosen Thaumaturgy/Dweomer area. They’ll also need to fuel magic used in this way, but – if it’s allowed – that’s often no more expensive than buying Unity, so that they can substitute either spell levels or power (rather than having to use both). And, of course, they’ll need to spend some skill points toward the area in which they’ll be dabbling.

Put all together, that’s not going to be cheap. But presuming that they’re only looking to seriously invest in one or two of the eight areas in a given Thaumaturgy/Dweomer field, it can let them gain some notable versatility to augment their standard spellcasting abilities. Moreover, since it will be drawing from the same source of power as their primary spellcasting (i.e. using spell slots from that progression), it will tend to be self-limiting in terms of how often it’s used.

It is interesting to note that this magic system has proven quite attractive to the engineers and technical types in the local groups; they tend to like the “I have a list of general abilities and effects. What combination can I come up with that will work in this situation?” aspect of it.

Theurgy: The major limitation of Theurgy is the multiplicity of skills involved. While buying up the verbs is not unduly difficult, the sheer number of nouns means that anyone who wants to use this skill-based magic system is going to be forced fairly sharply between being a powerful-but-limited specialist or a (relatively-)weak-but-variable generalist.

The point that most Theurgy-users will quickly fixate on is that, when using complicated spell effects, they can only use their worst noun and verb skills involved. Essentially, that the magical chain of effects they’re weaving together is only as strong as the weakest link. As such, they’ll tend to look for magical effects that are limited to their strongest areas, diversifying their skills only to a certain degree.

To that end, GMs should be wary of players trying to skirt Theurgy’s limitations. While skill boosters or Luck (q.v.) won’t be a problem, attempts to apply Jack-of-All-Trades (q.v.) or Mastery (q.v.) to Theurgy skills should be carefully reviewed. An attempt to buy an Immunity (q.v.) to the inability to apply ability score modifiers to Theurgy skills should virtually never be granted.

Theurgy has – as was somewhat expected – been used by a number of specialists, but the “chaos magic” option has (surprisingly enough) proven fairly popular as well. It has also proven very popular in low-magic settings, where – since you’re never going to have vast power or need to build up your skills to handle high-level spells – versatility is all-important. Of course even a modest chance of spell failure can really (and very literally) hurt when it comes to an adventurers lifestyle – so most Theurgists will want to invest in various boosters. I actually prefer to see Theurgists taking Mastery over Luck; Mastery doesn’t boost your effective upper limits like Luck does; it just makes the stuff that was almost reliable entirely reliable.

It’s actually fairly common in my games for Theurgists to purchase “Augmented Bonus” to add a relevant attribute score to their Theurgy skills. But then I must admit that my games tend to derive a good deal of amusement from freeform spellcasters meddling with things that they are mostly guessing about and unleashing total insanity. How else would one PC manage to short together two vast, opposing, cosmic forces and unleash a blast that transformed his familiars and a random assortment of wild animals into Kaiju (with far too many hit dice to be familiars any longer), entrap everyone in a pocket dimension, turn most of the island they lived on into a magical Chernobyl, and wind up accidentally taking a local kid as a familiar (which was very messy).

OK, he was using Thaumaturgy rather than Theurgy – but trust me, you can screw up just as badly with any kind of freeform magic.

Witchcraft: The low-level versatility of Witchcraft extends to skills as it does to most other areas. Among the twelve basic Witchcraft powers, several grant skill bonuses or penalties directly, typically to those skills that are most directly related to what they can affect.

Witchcraft is, in many ways, my favorite magical system. It’s easily – and to some extent automatically – personalized, relatively subtle and low-powered (unless you create rather narrow specialists), very versatile, has limited range, divides the advanced abilities into individual areas of study, and encourages dabbling since its best used to augment a characters capabilities rather than being the solution to every problem.

I always did prefer the stories of the Gray Mouser, the Mythadventures series, Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, or the “Witch World” books to tales of Doctor Fate or archmagi with vast raw power who made everyone else irrelevant. A handful of known powers used cleverly to solve a problem is – at least to me – more impressive than pulling yet another vastly-powerful high level spell out of a lost spellbook or “the research I did when I last leveled up” to trump said problem with raw magical power.

Elfshot is roughly equivalent to bestow curse for what it can do, including slapping a -6 penalty on a skill check. While the power is cheap to use, it’s rarely worth extending its duration for extra power. That’s because most anti-curse measures (typically remove curse) can overcome it easily. Outside of exceptional circumstances, this is best used for very short-term goals, most typically weakening an enemy in a direct encounter.

Elfshot is actually a great deal less powerful than Bestow Curse – but it’s much more finely focused and it has a bit of range. It can decrease an Attribute by 2 (Bestow Curse can reduce one by 6), penalize a group of checks – perhaps “dexterity based skills” or “attacks” by -6 (Bestow Curse can put a -4 on attack rolls, saves, ability checks, and skill checks all at once – or, since it lets you create your own curse as long as it’s “of similar power”, presumably lets you impose larger penalties on one thing at a time), or “Hinder Activity” (Bestow Curse can simply leave you with only a 50% chance of getting to act each turn). All in all… a well-timed “your horse bolts” can be just as effective as a much more powerful curse if your timing is good.

Glamour allows for a +6 bonus to social skill rolls, and level 0 or level 1 spell effects related to mental manipulation and similar effects. While the text says that you can buy this up to use higher-level spell effects, it doesn’t say that this increases the skill bonus involved. I’d recommend allowing that, since it certainly falls within the scope of what this power allows, probably to +12. But by that same token, I’d also suggest that defenses against mental manipulation negate this bonus.

In general, the skill boosting effects of Witchcraft can be upgraded if you buy access to an upgraded version of the ability that provides them, but that also generally means generating an active effect – the equivalent of more specific boosting spell – rather than just relying on general intent to focus your abilities. That’s still cheap, but tends to be a bit more focused than the general boosts.

Healing grants a +5 bonus on relevant Heal checks when used to gain a day’s worth of healing over the course of one hour. That’s a lesser effect compared to this power’s ability to “throw off the effects of drugs and intoxicants with a flat duration,” but still notable for listed examples such as diseases or toxins. One thing that needs to be kept in mind is that, while it’s easy to assume that this power is limited to the user only, that doesn’t necessarily need to be the case, though that might call for a GM ruling.

Healing is not generally restricted to the Witch – although you could specialize it if you wanted it to be so restricted. And thanks to the power depletion rules for Witchcraft, it’s one of the few healing effects that can exhaust the user, which is a nicely classic feature for low fantasy games.

It can also instantly remove hangovers, which is also a pleasant feature. Who wants to outdrink the barbarian warlord, conclude a treaty while he is drunk but you are not, and suffer no hangover the next day?

The Inner Eye provides a +6 bonus on sensory-perception checks, including for detecting what someone else is thinking or feeling. While a bonus to Sense Motive seems less notable than reading surface thoughts or sharing senses – which the power also says that it can do – the skill bonuses are still a worthwhile boost, since they last for 10 minutes per 1 power spent. They’re essentially the “radar sweep” for thoughts in the area, rather than zeroing in on a single target’s psyche. But make sure not to grant this to everything; enemies with no minds – such as undead, vermin, traps, etc. won’t receive this bonus.

With The Inner Eye… well, that’s why it’s “relevant” checks only. It is well worth noting though; a lot of player tends to just pile all the conditional bonuses together.

Shadowweave plays with light and shadow to grant a +6 bonus to disguise- and stealth-related rolls. That said, be aware that this won’t help you versus non-visual detection. As with Glamour, consider allowing this bonus to be increased if the player buys the advanced version of this ability.

Witchsight grants a +6 bonus to sensory-perception checks, but unlike The Inner Eye it does so by boosting the user’s own senses, and so can work against things like detecting poison by smell or hearing an incoming arrow. Remember that this only affects one sense at a time, however; if you use a skill system that has a consolidated list of sensory skills (e.g. Pathfinder’s Perception skill), then this bonus will only apply to certain rolls, based on how something is being perceived.

Seize the Wandering Soul grants a +6 bonus to Intimidate checks, but only against spirits that you’ve captured. At that point, the bonus to a skill check is minimal compared to the gravity of having imprisoned a bodyless entity! The main use of that will be to better extract short-term bonuses from them, similar to the powers mentioned under the Summoning ability.

Voice of the Dead suffers from much the same conceptual problems as the Channeling (q.v.) power Dark Awakening. While it doesn’t allow for undead to be animated, it does allow for communication with any undead, rather than just ones that you’ve created. The basic issue remains, however; other than mindless undead (which tend to be the weakest), you can communicate with most undead normally anyway. This power says that you can do so “without penalty,” noting that undead have a base attitude of neutral (as per Diplomacy) towards such attempts. Basically, this power means that the undead don’t automatically hate you for being alive.

Voice of the Dead is pretty limited, to the point of near-uselessness (all you really get is the base attitude adjustment), if the game master doesn’t subscribe to one of the various “social skills don’t work on the undead” theories discussed in the previous article under Channeling – but the Advanced Witchcraft abilities are not feat chains, and may be taken in any order. Thus if the game master doesn’t limit the use of social skills against the undead you can simply skip this one. If he or she does, and you want to be able to socialize with the dead… well, there you go.

Personally, I tend to mix things. Being powered by negative energy mindless undead default to “implacable hostility” unless given other orders, Wights and Shadows and such tend towards the “automation with a list of objectives” side of things, Ghosts tend to be like reasoning with some of the more extreme mental patients (no matter what you’re talking about, or how reasonable they seem… as soon as you depart from their list of priorities, they will loop right back to where they started – which is why they’re ghosts in the first place). Vampires are clever predators and can mask it, but their only real major goal is to obtain blood – and they tend to lose control when confronted with a chance to eat someone or anything else that brings up their “instincts”. Liches tend to be obsessed with whatever goal they had in transcending death in the first place, commonly with a side-order attitude of “go away and bother someone else”.

Of course, that’s just me. I can’t even claim that that’s a standard for Eclipse, and even in my personal games it varies with the setting.

Kinetic Master is essentially the same as the Path of the Dragon (q.v.) power of the same name, save for costing power.

Sadly, the difference between drawing on ambient magic and using your own personal power to do something.

Whisper Step adds a +5 bonus to various movement-based skill checks, due to the use of subconscious minor telekinesis. Consider specializing this power for double effect related to certain circumstances, such as only to negate armor check penalties. If you want to use heavy armor (and don’t care about the speed reduction or the arcane spell failure chance), this is a lot cheaper than buying the Smooth modifier (admittedly, you’ll need to have bought at least 12 CP of Witchcraft powers before you can buy this, but you’re getting something for those).

Weathermonger allows for the weather to be foreseen and manipulated, noting that this grants a +5 to relevant checks. While Survival seems like the obvious skill this would apply to, the text notes that it could apply to something like piloting a ship through a storm. Other options would be “reading the wind” to gain a bonus to Fly checks, though this probably shouldn’t provide a bonus to attacks with ranged weapons.

Weathermonger can certainly be used for Fly checks, and for Profession/Farmer, piloting sailing ships, operating air vehicles, and locating any air leaks that happen to pop up on a space station. You might even be able to counter penalties for making ranged attacks under high wind conditions – but actually getting bonuses would call for spending some power on active manipulations; passive effects can only counter penalties. There’s no reason why you couldn’t extend your range with a tailwind or try to correct the course of a long shot though.

Incidentally the Changes TrilogyThe Devil’s Children, Heartsease, and The Weathermonger by Peter Dickinson – are generally classified as “young adult” novels, but do present an interesting vision of a modern nation abruptly abandoning technology to return to a slightly magical version of the middle ages.

That really isn’t too relevant, but it IS why this ability is called “Weathermonger”, just in case anyone was wondering.

Darksense allows the user to “see” the air around him, albeit only in terms of disturbances. This essentially presents problems similar to Blind-Fight’s (q.v.) Sense of Perception modifier. Since this one is explicitly based around sensing the movement of the air, creatures might still make a Hide check to be able to defeat it via staying extremely still (gargoyles are especially famous for this).

Darksense is MUCH more limited than the Sense of Perception – which is not as important as it might be in a comparison because it cuts down on the information-overload problem. It’s very good in combat though.

Aegis allows for a character to be recover as though under the care of someone with 10 ranks in the Heal skill. If you want to be notable for quickly recovering from a particular condition, this is easily specialized to only apply to something like poison or disease. Since this power can be used even while unconscious, it’s a great excuse for why characters who manage to escape with terrible wounds might survive and come back later…of course, that’s not usually a problem anyway in worlds with healing and resurrection magic.

Aegis, of course, is a general palliative – and a fairly high-end protection against Poisons and Disease since you effectively get a second save at +10 to resist such things – and can simply pay to be rid of it if both the save and the check fail. Like many Witchcraft abilities, it’s subtle, but really quite effective. In low magic settings it can even be impressively powerful, with an 80% chance each round to provide First Aid, an 80% chance every ten minutes to remove movement penalties for foot injuries, an 80% daily chance to gain the benefits of long-term care,and  a near-certainty of getting some extra daily healing if you fight very often via “treat deadly wounds”.

Sure, a good physician can provide those benefits too, and magical or psionic healing is far more powerful if it’s available – but there is something to be said for “automatic, all the time”.

Conclusion

As noted at the beginning of this article, these are only some limited examples of how Eclipse can revitalize skills in your d20 game. The plethora of options available via variations, specializing and/or corrupting, spell options that produce skill-based effects, and the Immunity (q.v.) power are just a few of the ways that you can come up with virtually anything else you can imagine, albeit subject to the GM’s oversight.

Skills should be more than just an afterthought for your characters, and with Eclipse they can be.

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks for reposting this here, and for the additional insight and commentary!

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