Eclipse – Birthrights And The Harrowed Gate

“Birthrights” – power packages based on where or when a character was born – and especially the more exotic ones that have a major impact on how a character is played and develops – have become a fairly major feature of our local d20 games over the years.

Now being a little more powerful is often handy, but if that was all that was wanted, we could just start everyone off a level up. What we’re really after is making characters very different from the very beginning and making their origin important throughout their career.

That’s partially because Dungeons and Dragons has moved away from that idea.

At one point Dwarves simply could not be magic-users (and were limited as clerics), thanks to their powerful anti-magical nature. On the other hand, that made them quite resistant to magical attacks. In some versions of the rules, “Dwarf” was a character class.

But then people with ideas about Dwarves from other sources wanted to make dwarven mages, or seafarers, or whatever – and they didn’t like being told “No”. They also didn’t like finding out that their shiny new dwarven mage was at a disadvantage later compared to some other “race”. They started equating fantasy species being good at differing things with real-world racism.

That was understandable, if only because so many sources made aliens and fantasy races into “humans with funny hats”. That’s why you can find arguments that Tolkien’s “Orcs” are just racist metaphors instead of corrupted supernatural monsters. But really, that never actually made much sense. Fantasy species simply aren’t the equivalent of human “races”. If you want a real world comparison… there is no reason why fantasy races should be any more similar than Dolphins, Elephants, and Humans are. All three of those species are quite intelligent, all have some ability to pass on information – “culture” – to their offspring, and all three have some form of communication. Still, if they were on an adventure together… even if the group could all talk with each other freely who would you turn to if you wanted a tree uprooted? Or an item retrieved from the bottom of a body of water? Or a fire built?

And those species are all earthly mammals. Fictional species don’t need to be anywhere NEAR that similar.

Birthrights bring that sort of thing back.

Do you have the the Anomalies Tindalos Birthright? You can call forth Lovecraftian Horrors and terrible spells, even if your ability to control them is limited. If you survive childhood and opt to focus on magic… your path will be very, VERY, different from the Elemental Powers of a native of Atheria’s HuSung – and those will differ in turn from the immediate powers of the Absolute Command Birthright. If you want to be edgy… Perhaps you want the Darkness or Blood Birthrights to be found in Chelm. Other people may not react well to you – but that’s not “racial prejudice”, that’s a sane reaction to a set of powers that grants wealth and power in return for sacrificing people and enslaving their souls. Would you object to treating Cobra’s with caution?

Cultures are similarly affected. A native of HuSung will grow up drinking boiling liquids, ignoring winter temperatures because they do not matter, and accepting that many of their children will die very young due to miscast spells. After all, not a few of their childhood friends died that way. They openly carry weapons into courtrooms and at parties, since they have grown up knowing that no one can really be disarmed; they will always have their elemental powers to use anyway. They know that most “work days” are ten minutes long, since – once you use up your relevant spellcasting abilities – you might as well go home; spells are so much more efficient that actually working physically isn’t particularly worthwhile. Their culture is nothing at all like that of the people just across their northern border who get the far subtler Divination Birthright.

Here, for example, is a Birthright loosely inspired by the original Deadlands rules, by tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, by the Pulps, and by the Pathfinder’s Mythic rules.

Childe’ Of The Harrowed Gate

In the Hour of the Dead, When the Day too Dies,
Shall the Youngest open the Ancient Crypts.
Pass the Doors of the Night, when the Light Fails.
There Nightmare shall rise from the Wild Dead.
In Dark Crypts moldering Sleepers lie,
On the Way of Skulls where Night-Gaunts call.

Though Grim the Path and Bleak the Way;
The Guardian Stands within the Gate.
Gathering Shards of Fallen Might.
The Spirits rise, the Youngest Holds.
The Serpent-Fire burns Dark and Cold.
The Cycle Turns, the Spirits Sleep.
The Balance of the Realms to keep.

There is hidden greenery in the badlands. Rivers rise in the hills and flow down narrow valleys before vanishing into the sands, supporting narrow strips of life along their path, the occasional oasis lurks around pools and springs fed by underground streams, and even some caverns boast greenery – but little can be wrested from such limited resources by even the most talented farmers. If it was not for the mineral wealth hidden in the hills, the occasional treasures left from the rumored cities (and definite crypts) of the sun-loving, food-conserving, Serpent Folk that lie hidden in the sands, and the occasional place of power, few would come to the badlands at all.

And in that there is a hidden wisdom. The powers of death, and the underworld, and of warring prehuman empires now long forgotten, all lie dormant beneath the desolate sands and barren hills. Here there really are lost voices in the howling of the wind and things walk that should be long moldering in the tomb.

Yet occasionally, a woman will give birth in some over – optimistic farmers household or in some tiny mining settlement Even more rarely – every few generations – one will give birth at the precise moment a nearby flaw in time, or in the barriers between life and death, stands ajar – and it is to THAT power that the new soul bonds. Once that child matures enough to bear the burden… as long as it lives the gate will remain open.Things that should not be will pass into reality. One or the other – Child or Abomination – will eventually be drawn together in opposition. Should the Abomination prevail, there will come a time of darkness – but the flaw will soon seal itself once again, and the night will pass. Should the Child prevail a portion of the power of the banished Abomination will pass into it – but soon enough another challenger will arise, for the stronger the Child, the greater the Abominations that may pass through the gate.

The Harrowed Gate Birthright (31 CP / +0 ECL):

A child born in the badlands as the sun crosses the horizon on the last day of the ancient year is linked to those briefly resurgent ancient powers rather than to the closest power-nexus as usual; born with access to the powers that normally lie hidden beneath the sands.

Whatever course they may take… their lives will be filled with events of interest, for through them much which is normally hidden will attempt to crawl forth. Those rare individuals with this birthright gain access to:

  • Six Occult Skills (the Equipment Skills of the Shadowed Galaxy) purchased at normal prices, Specialized and Corrupted / such skills may only be bought up to represent powers and abilities absorbed from major opponents that you’ve killed (or at least have helped kill) or banished from the material plane (12 CP)
  • Immunity / having items of Equipment taken away (Common, Minor, Minor, Specialized and Corrupted / only applies to the six Occult Equipment Skills above (2 CP).
  • Fast Learner, Specialized and Corrupted for 3 SP/Level / only for Skills, only for the six Occult Skills given above (6 CP).
  • Adept, Corrupted for Increased Effect (Covers the six Occult Skills above) and Specialized for Reduced Cost / as above, plus no one defeated opponent short of an archdemon or similar foe can provide more than three points worth of enhancements in total (3 CP).
  • Create Relic, Specialized and Corrupted / only to create relics related to the powers or nature of a slain foe from the remains of that fallen foe, only for use with points from Enthusiast (2 CP)
  • Double Enthusiast, Specialized for Increased Effect and Corrupted for Reduced Cost, the points may only be used to create relics. relics must be created from the remains of a fallen foe and can only provide powers related to that foes nature (4 CP).
  • +1 to Speak Language (The Serpent Tongue of the Underworld, 1 CP).
  • Grant of Aid, Specialized in Hit Points Only (3 CP)
  • Action Hero (Stunts), Corrupted for Reduced Cost/Only to channel the powers of the Spirit World (4 CP).
  • Accursed: Many opponents will gain Occult Powers (-3 CP).
  • Hunted: The Dark Powers of the Underworld (-3 CP).

Dirty Trick Masters in Eclipse d20

Through the ages combatants have resorted to “dirty tricks” – kicking dirt (or spraying blood) into an opponents eyes, suddenly tossing a hidden weapon at them, “striking below the belt”, stomping on their feet, reflecting the sun into their eyes, and dozens of other unexpected maneuvers. Such things can be a great equalizer, suddenly tipping the balance of a fight against a far superior opponent!

So why does anyone BOTHER investing a lot of time and effort in becoming a far superior opponent if the tables can be turned so easily? Why are such tricks generally considered dishonorable stunts, reserved for the desperate and outmatched instead of being a standard tactic?

It’s because – in real fights – they hardly ever actually work. They’re “cheap” because – very, VERY, rarely – they allow someone who had no business winning to come out on top. They’re also “cheap” because – if you’re up against a skilled opponent – attempting such as trick is very likely to result in your death, giving said opponent a cheap and easy victory as someone who’s already overmatched diverts their attention to attempting some unlikely-to-succeed trick and leaves extra holes in whatever defense they’ve been able to muster.

They aren’t usually a big thing in games because fights in games are for dramatic purposes. The player characters are expected to survive a LOT of them, and giving anyone they face a small – but still worth checking – chance of an unexpected victory will shortly result in dead PCs. Just as importantly, unless you give them an unrealistically large chance of working nobody will ever bother with them. Player characters usually don’t face a lot of battles where their chance of survival is so low that they’ll have better odds gambling on doing something stupid in hopes of a near-miraculous upset. Games that do feature many such battles rarely last very long after the total party kill or inescapable railroading causes everyone to loose interest.

So a great many games – rather than wasting time on rules that would almost never get used – just left it up to the game master to judge the results when someone tried a desperate trick. There was a good deal of bias in those decisions of course, simply because people who come to play games generally want to play. Killing off characters tends to disrupt play. So game masters tended to vastly over-rate the chances of a desperate character’s ridiculous trick succeeding. As a plus, that tended to make games more cinematic (which is usually fun) – but the downside was spreading some pretty unrealistic ideas among the players about how likely it was for a “Dirty Trick” to actually work.

First Edition Pathfinder continued the slow drift away for simulationist RPGs and tried to compromise: it added actual rules for Dirty Tricks, but made them a standard action that replaced your attacks, left the outcome up to the GM, made most of the effects only a mild hindrance (and none of them particularly damaging), had them provoke attacks of opportunity, kept the durations quite short, made it easy for an opponent negate those effects (at base with a move action), and based them on Combat Maneuver Bonus versus Combat Maneuver Defense – while defining Combat Maneuver Defense as being generally equal to your Combat Maneuver Bonus plus your Dexterity Modifier and giving most creatures very high Combat Maneuver Defenses. For a quick random example or two… A CR 3 Centaur has “Base Atk +4; CMB +7; CMD 19 (23 vs. trip)”. A CR 8 Ogre Mage has “Base Atk +8; CMB +16; CMD 29”. Now that’s a bit deceptive, since it’s 1d20+CMB against CMD – but it’s enough to show that even in Pathfinder I only full BAB classes or those with applicable special bonuses made worthwhile dirty tricksters, and even they find Dirty Tricks only moderately effective. Sure, Pathfinders Dirty Tricks are versatile, can used against almost anything, and can stack different conditions – but removing enough of the limitations to make Pathfinder Dirty Tricks even reasonably effective costs a lot of Feats. The goal of a Pathfinder Dirty Trickster is basically to make an opponent either waste actions dealing with their dirty tricks or to hinder it’s ability to fight back while the rest of the party beat it down.

So how to build Dirty Tricks in Eclipse?

The quickest way is not to bother. That’s what THIS article was all about – the classic tradition of simply asking the GM to assign an ad-hoc modifier for pulling off some special trick. Use those two paragraphs of rules – if necessary taking a small Immunity to being unable to cause special effects by taking attack penalties (Call it Battle Cunning – Very Common, Minor, Trivial, 4 CP) – and there you are.

Personally I don’t think that should be necessary, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to require it either. After all, d20 also tells you that you need a special ability to ignore your defenses in favor of launching an all-out attack (which many small children throwing tantrums seem to be able to manage) – and that rule does effectively include the equivalent of Pathfinders Improved Dirty Trick (you do not provoke Attacks of Opportunity for attempting a Dirty Trick) and Quick (you can attempt a dirty trick in place of a normal iterative attack) feats.

So what do you do if you want to be GOOD at Dirty Tricks?

Well, the standard Eclipse path for becoming particularly skilled with a particular style of combat is a Martial Arts Style. So let’s build one.

Dirty Trickster Style (Dex):

This style focuses entirely on spotting opportunities to make cheap shots – sacrificing raw power, speed, and other advanced combat techniques in favor of focusing on vulnerable points and, if necessary, taking a blow to get in a possibly conflict-ending strike.

  • Requires: Either Battle Cunning (as above) or – if the game master does not require“Battle Cunning” is not required to attempt Dirty Tricks – a +5 Base Attack Bonus (since without Battle Cunning you probably need to have a good idea of what you’re doing before you can attempt to reliably pull off special tricks).

Basic Techniques:

  • Baleful Opportunist: Attack IV, Specialized for Double Effect / only to make up for the penalties for making Called Shots. Optionally, you can also Corrupt this to increase it to triple effect by treating the resulting bonus as a “Dirty Tricks Pool” that only refreshes itself once per round.
  • The Evil Eye: Power III, Corrupted for Increased Effect / only to be traded in via Expertise for bonuses to Called Shot attempts (Base of +2/+3/+5 base at Levels I/II/III). As with Attack this can also be Specialized for Increased Effect (totaling +3/+6/+9) to act as a “Dirty Tricks Pool” that only refreshes itself once per round.
  • Rolling With The Punch: Toughness III. Like it or not, if you’re going to keep trying to make called shots in actual combat conditions, you’re going to open yourself up to incoming attacks. This ability says that you’ve practiced enough to roll with, and minimize, the resulting injuries.
  • Stunning Strike: Strike. Those practiced in Dirty Tricks may choose to inflict nonlethal damage when performing such a trick without penalty.

Advanced And Master Techniques:

  • Coyote’s Strike: Expertise, Specialized for Increased Effect / Only to transfer Damage from Power to Attack Bonus, Only to make up for penalties for Called Shots.
  • Web Of Anansi: Luck with +4 Bonus Uses (5 Total), Specialized only for making Called Shots.
  • Loki’s Venom: Trick. The user may take a shot at -30 that causes an effect of up to third level provided that the user can describe how the effect is being generated. You might be able to get a Fireball effect out of a barrel of oil or shooting a firebreathing creature in the throat, but getting a fireball out of a Glacial Wyrm is probably not in the cards.
  • Holdout: Immunity to running out of Weapons (Uncommon, Major, Major). A character with this ability can always pull out another weapon, up to a total value of 500 GP per fight scene. Unfortunately, such weapons can never be found after the battle, having been either destroyed in the conflict (such as ammunition) or returned to their hiding places. (Yes, this does allow for a couple of fairly basic magic arrows, bolts, or shuriken per fight if you so desire, but that’s rarely a particularly efficient use of this ability).

Alternative Master Techniques:

  • Serpentine Strike: Opportunist. You may use an Attack Of Opportunity to make a Called Shot.
  • Trickster Spirit: Reflex Training with +8 Bonus Uses, Specialized and Corrupted for Reduced Cost / only to make an extra Called Shot as a part of a Full Attack or Attack Of Opportunity.
  • Thunderbolt Strike: Enhanced Strike (Hurling). The user may hurl an unsuitable weapon, causing double damage and making a called shot – but only once every minute.
  • Repertoire: Favored Enemy or Foe (Variant; for particular Dirty Tricks).

Occult Techniques:

  • Inner Strength II, Light Foot, and Paralyze. These, at least, are quite conventional – although I’d probably be open to a character taking some of the Alternative Master Techniques in place of Occult Techniques.

This isn’t a particularly powerful combat style although it improves notably if you allow trading the occult techniques for some of the alternative advanced abilities. There are plenty of ways for a combatant to inflict massive damage, cripple an opponent, or otherwise swing a battle without investing a lot of effort in fooling around with called shots. Rather more importantly, in a world focused on hit points, mighty spells, and incredible attacks – and full of opponents who can readily withstand those incredible attacks – Dirty Tricks are simply relatively low-end things. On the other hand, they do offer a great deal of flexibility, allow for all kinds of creative stunts in combat, and will tend to make each battle unique. That alone is probably well worth having a combatant character spend a few skill points picking up this style.

Well, what with working in the medical field there hasn’t been any time for blogging for months and there still isn’t much. On the other hand, I would very much like to get back to regular posting and responding to questions and comments. Ergo, I’m going to backfill a post or two per month to try and get back into the rhythm of regular posting and I’ll see where it goes from there if and when I catch up to the present.

Also, it looks like WordPress has killed my tag list in going to a block editor; I’ll see if I can’t salvage them later.