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.

2 Responses

  1. It’s great to see you posting again! I always enjoy what you write, so it was a pleasant surprise to see a new article.

    I noticed the issue with WordPress’s new editor and tags also. It took me a solid ten minutes of fiddling with it to make it do what I wanted; if I recall correctly, I had to edit the tags – not on the post itself – but on the list of posts on the overview page for my blog. Even then it wasn’t a straightforward process.

    • I have to agree; just finding a way of getting the “blocks” to go away so that I could format lists and such the way I wanted them took a good deal of poking around, since their “help” section was (as usual) utterly useless at anything except what “the majority of our casual bloggers want”.

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