Eclipse and Magical Schools Part I: Historical Notions

And for today, it’s trying to catch up on questions.

Looking over your (excellent) series of articles about how d20 magic would shape the nature and growth of cities, I’m moved to ask: what would “wizard schools” look like if you applied the same logic to such a concept?

I ask because the idea of magic colleges is a popular one, ranging from the Scholomance to Hogwarts (to, as we saw in the recent write-up for Trixie, Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns), and yet d20 doesn’t really seem to support the concept, or at least not incentivize it; the only downside or difficulty to being a spellcaster is the advanced “starting age” tables for spellcasters, and the idea that a wizard’s starting spellbook must have been paid for by someone else. Other than that, anyone with the requisite mental ability score of 10+ (to cast cantrips) has no problems learning magic just as easily on their own as they do in a scholastic setting. Especially if you’re using Eclipse.

To what extent do magical colleges make sense in a d20 setting?


Schools which teach magic are quite popular in fiction. That’s not too surprising; they’re quite popular in reality where they don’t even work. After all, there are few more direct wish-fulfillment fantasies than getting magical powers – and “training” is how you acquired most of your more complicated skills. Ergo, “a school that teaches you how to use magic” seems at least superficially plausible – and you can find plenty of them on the internet to give your money to.

But where did that notion come from? What, underneath the various fictions, are people actually expecting from a school of magic?

The first “schools of magic” were probably shamanic traditions, being passed down in individual small tribes – informal affairs where the tribal shaman taught each generation of kids how to not anger the spirit world (most likely a mixture of practical advice intermixed with tribal myths). Judging by the cave paintings, this sort of “school” probably goes back to the origin of the species, if not to some of our ancestral species. So we’re starting off with “teach the kids how to get along in the world”.

Moving on, Martial Arts traditions date back at least five thousand years (and likely much further, but that’s when our earliest hard evidence dates to). Given a certain lack of understanding as to how things work, magical beliefs and practices were a part of almost any form of organized training at that point – and what tales we have from that period do portray their heroes with a variety of mystical powers derived from their great skill. Thus the notion of “Kung Fu” – “a discipline or skill achieved through hard work and practice”.

The first formal classes, with locations, multiple teachers, and groups of unrelated students drawn from a larger population, turned up after cities (and large, formal, permanent, organizations and structures) developed. They taught priests and record-keepers – a suddenly vital profession given the new need for organization, taxation, and keeping tabs on the population.

And those scribes DID have mysterious powers. They could “hear” the voices of the dead by examining strange talismans covered with equally strange symbols, they could remember more than any man, they could organize the construction of fabulous palaces and temples, they produced incredible remedies (often based to some extent on things that had worked, rather than on the placebo effect), they could know what was happening far away based on the delivery of a few bits of junk from that location… they were mighty wizards, who knew the powers of the hidden words. They could say and write down words which observably made impressive things happen. As far as the general population was concerned… that was magic. Observable, repeatable, WORKING magic.

Yet as the notion of writing spread, and it’s actual effects became more familiar and less impressive and mysterious… the tales of magic didn’t just vanish. Stories of mysterious and powerful secrets and knowledge never do; just ask the “Ancient Aliens” guy. Instead, those stories just pushed the mysterious powers back from general literacy to the “secret stuff” that only very select students got to learn. Hidden and powerful arts!

Not too surprisingly, that’s what “Occult” means. It’s simply a word for “hidden”.

But secret and powerful arts inevitably raise suspicions. Why are they hiding? (“because they don’t exist” has never satisfied anyone except for serious skeptics, and they’re pretty rare). Who is doing the teaching? What secret powers are there? What are they doing to you that they don’t want you to know about? What is their secret agenda?

And so scholarship became suspicious. Anti-intellectualism and the notion that knowledge was somehow unwholesome became popular. Why should another persons opinion be considered better than yours just because they knew more?

This has gotten worse now that there ARE secret (by virtue of being very difficult and time consuming to master) and powerful arts such as “Engineering” and “Medicine”. Just look at all the “they are hiding the simple answers to curing diabetes/ getting free energy / obtaining wealth / becoming more intelligent” from us!” scams on the internet. If those didn’t get a lot of money from people who believe that they’re being exploited by massive conspiracies there wouldn’t be so many of them. This is also why “Harry Potter” produced so much of a frenzy; quite a lot of people believe that that sort of thing is real.

Individual scholars gained reputations as sorcerers and mystics and tales of secret schools or “covens” spread. As education – “schooling” – started to become a normal and necessary part of life, classes grew, multiple instructors and specialized series of courses became the norm – and so the speculative secret schools reflected reality; they became institutions with physical buildings and established locations, rather than secret societies.

For practical reasons most of the literary examples (where things need a lot more logic and justification to satisfy the readers than rumors or popular myths have to have) for youngsters were boarding schools or – as in The Wall Around The World (1953) – were physically isolated. Even most conspiracy theorists have a hard time believing that a bunch of practicing magical kids would be able to keep everything secret without a LOT of help. And if it’s NOT a secret… the world is going to be a lot different than what we see.

Examples of the idea which didn’t keep it secret – such as The Wizard of Earthsea (1968), Operation Chaos (1971), or the Riddle Master Trilogy (1976) – are generally set in alternate worlds for just that reason.

And that pretty well establishes the “secret or alternate reality magical boarding school for kids” notion. The place is going to be filled with wonders and magical stuff simply because no one has ever actually seen such a thing, and therefore their imaginations run wild.

Given that this is for games where few passersby would blink at a kid practicing their magic, “secrecy” probably isn’t a big concern – but at least we’ve established a lot of the expectations and underlying assumptions.

Eclipse and Divinity: Building Gods Through The Editions

Gods have changed a lot over the various incarnations of AD&D – and not just in a mechanical fashion. The philosophy involved has changed a lot too.

For example, from Gods, Demigods, and Heroes (1976, the original Dungeons and Dragons) we have…


  • Armor Class — 2 (About equivalent to 18 now),
  • Magic Ability: (See Below)
  • Move: 12″ (30′ Now).
  • Fighter Ability: 12th Level
  • Hit Points: 225
  • Psionic Ability: Class 6 (Cannot use psionics or be targeted by psionic attacks – that’s Psionic Blast, Psychic Crush, Et Al, not actual powers).
  • Brother twin to Tefnut, this God appears as a man. His main power is the ability to wither to death anything he touches (magic saving throw applicable). He can also levitate, is not affected by any form of heat, can shapechange, create the light of day as Ra, and call forth 1-4 air elementals per day. He wears plus 5 armor made of phoenix feathers enabling him to immolate for 25 points of heat. He uses a double strength Staff of Wizardry in battle.
  • Finally, all his Attributes were considered to be “20’s” – likely equivalent to “30” now.

That was pretty impressive; Shu was as well armored as a man wearing full plate without being encumbered, had twice as many hit points as your high level fighter (even if he couldn’t fight as well), had a death touch (even if your high level fighters could save 90% or more of the time and anyone could have ways to neutralize it), and could shapehange (although that was a LOT less effective back then). A god could do some very impressive things, easily surpassing the efforts of any reasonable individual hero.

But, as was acknowledged in the front of the booklet… a really high level party could beat a god fairly readily. In fact, the authors made a point of belittling “Monty Haul” games where player characters reached such levels.

And this version of godhood was actually fairly true to many or most classical myths. A great many classical gods were basically really tough and powerful people with longevity and a handful of magical powers – often, but not always, including some ability to control an aspect of he environment and / or an awareness of what people were saying about them. Great heroes and specialists could, however, challenge them quite effectively and they generally had to go and interact – and risk heroic opposition – to actually do much.

Thus Thor could kill giants pretty readily, smack hills hard enough to make craters, and – exerting his full godly power in a single (late, and likely distorted) tale – lift a segment of the Midgard Serpent and temporarily lower the level of the local seas by several feet. Outside of the two magical flying goats, equivalents of his mythological equipment would wander into mortal hands as the Hammer of Thunderbolts, Gauntlets of Ogre Power, and Belt of Storm Giant Strength – but his personal powers outside of being really strong and tough (if not so bright), “stretching his legs to the bottom of the sea” (an immovability effect?) and (possibly) being able to influence the weather, aren’t that impressive in game terms. .

Thor also offered minor blessings of life and fertility, strength, and protection to those who invoked him. For that, use the Endowment ability and bestow something like the “Worlds of Faith” package (a good reason to be part of a pantheon; that way each member only has to contribute part of the cost) – presuming that that isn’t a natural part of such a setting to begin with.

Rather like Avalanche Press in “Ragnarok!” I wouldn’t find much of a problem in representing Thor as a Barbarian-type with a handful of magical abilities (they used a modest template), likely around level sixteen or so – by no coincidence, the point in d20 where you’ve gone past every real human being who’s ever lived (levels 1-5), past legendary heroes (6-10), through demigods (11-15), and gotten into the territory of traditional polytheistic gods (16-20).

Human beings have proven perfectly willing to worship funny looking rocks, perfectly normal animals, and similar things. In a world of normal (mostly level one or two with a maximum limit of five) people, a long-lived character of level 16+ will soon have a following unless they actively pursue a policy of “No Witnesses!”.

But what about the “Creating the Universe!” part? Well… “World Creation” is a bit of a special event. According to the myths, many gods participated in creating various versions of the world, but then never did anything even remotely comparable again. Of course, the tales of the Dreamtime and some other myths also tell tales of how fairly ordinary beasts, humans, and minor spirits helped create and shape the world without having any great power of their own. Personally, I’d say that it’s just that new worlds are both fairly easily started and very unstable and easily shaped at first – allowing anyone who’s there at the time to have an outsized level of influence on things. This is why Eclipse-style gods can easily create worlds, but changing them afterwards is not so easy.

Unfortunately, trying to basically mock the level 40+ characters into going away did not work – and so the first edition “gods book” – Deities and Demigods, or (later) Legends and Lore – upped the power level considerably. Shu, for example, now had 346 HP, another eight points of AC, a fly speed, the ability to cast spells as a 15’th level cleric and a 15’th level magic-user, and could only be harmed by a +2 or better weapon. The book also defined what his slightly-higher attributes actually did and granted all deities Teleportation, True Seeing, the ability to summon allies, and set their saves at “2” – a bit better than cross-referencing their class levels with the saving throw charts (but not too big an improvement given that first edition fighters had very VERY good saves).

Otherwise the description, and the special abilities presented, were almost identical – in fact, they were mostly a word-for-word reprint.

Writing up most of the first edition gods in Eclipse would require more levels than the gods in the original booklet – likely 25 to 35 – to get enough points to cover the special abilities they got “for free” in their descriptions. It wouldn’t be too hard though; most first edition characters didn’t get many special abilities in the first place and their magic was a lot more time-consuming and easily-disrupted – making it far cheaper to buy their class abilities. You’d have to buy the “Immortality” part and a few other boosts (or just give them one point of Godfire, specialized/they don’t get more and can’t spend it for 3 CP) – but that isn’t really a big expense.

The power boost wasn’t sufficient though. Quite a lot of games reached levels where the players started treating the gods as a collection of targets to take out – an early illustration of the idea that “If you stat it, the players will find a way to kill it”.

It kind of looks like the writers were really tired of that by the time that second edition came along – and so they threw the pendulum the other way, more towards what modern monotheists thought of as “God”. Now the gods had avatars – with statistics a lot like the ones they got in Gods, Demigods, and Heroes really – but the actual gods were immortal, untouchable by mortals, and (among several other mighty magical powers) could all use any spell of any level (without any components) at will. Greater Gods were nigh-omniscient, could take any form (including becoming astronomical objects), could create anything they wanted, could slay or raise any mortal anywhere with a thought, could speak with anyone anywhere, got an unlimited number of actions, could create many avatars, and could hand out pretty much any power they wanted to.

OK, Intermediate, Lesser, and Demi-gods got somewhat less potent divine powers, but they were still pretty ridiculous. “Any spell of any level” and “omniscience with a radius of at least one mile” covered quite a lot all by themselves.

In an awful lot of ways second edition represented the pinnacle of power for gods in Dungeons and Dragons; there was really nothing you could do about a god – and if one of them decided to target you… you were pretty well toast.

In Eclipse building Second Edition Gods is fairly simple: they have the Divine Attribute ability (6 CP – cheap because “I become a plot device until the GM sees fit to decree otherwise!” kind of goes against “I want to play!”) permanently active – and, as such, are pretty much beyond being attacked, have essentially limitless powers within their domain, and are automatically NPC’s. That’s because entities with unlimited use nigh-limitless powers are pretty unplayable, and so Eclipse automatically sidelines them.

3.0 and 3.5 tried to mix first and second edition. Gods were once more mortal, and killable (except for overdeities like Ao, for whom there were never any mechanics – or even real information – at all), but they got a LOT of levels and had “Divine Rank” – a special source of immunities and powers that characters who didn’t have Divine Rank could not counter because the descriptions of the powers said so.

Oddly enough, unlike virtually everything else in 3.0, 3.5, Pathfinder, and other d20 variants, that’s hard to duplicate in Eclipse unless you just give gods some special form of divine privilege as a world law. That’s because, in Eclipse, everyone, divine or not, draws their powers from the same basic list – which makes it impossible to build powers that can’t be countered. You can make powers that are really hard to counter, or which only allow very exotic defenses – but there’s always SOME way to block things. After all, avoiding the automatic “I Win!” buttons was among the design goals.

Still, building Divine Rank as presented in the Deities and Demigods book is simple enough. It’s a form of Mythic Power – an independent source of power that provides more character points to spend without an increase in the user’s actual level. You’d have to uncap it, but that’s not a big deal.

And you increase your Mythic Power Tier by completing mighty quests, collecting plot coupons, and qualifying for story awards – which works quite nicely as a route towards godhood.

More or less mortal heroes can usually get up to ten Mythic Tier Levels, If we take that as advancing towards godhood… well, six Mythic Tier Levels would cover buying the specialized version of the basic Divine Rank 0 Template – leaving 96 CP available to buy some other goodies and a Salient Divine Ability – putting a once-mortal among the lower-ranking divinities.

So how expensive is a Salient Divine Ability? Most of the Epic Feats that I tried building came out to around 12 CP (as expected, they varied a bit), and a lot of Salient Divine Abilities combine two epic feats – which gives us a baseline of sorts; a Salient Divine Ability should cost about 24 CP.

In particular, the original question was about the “Life and Death” Salient Divine Power.

  • Prerequisites: Divine rank 6, Gift of Life or Hand of Death salient divine ability.
  • Benefit: The deity designates any mortal and snuffs out its life. Or the deity can designate any dead mortal and restore it to life.
  • Notes: This ability works across planar boundaries and penetrates any barrier except a divine shield. However, the subject must be in a location the deity can sense, either within the deity’s sense range or in a location the deity can perceive through its remote sensing ability. If the deity cannot see the subject, the deity must unambiguously identify the subject in some fashion. If the deity chooses to kill a mortal, the ability works like the destruction spell, except that there is no material component or saving throw. The mortal cannot be raised or resurrected afterward, except by a deity of equal or higher rank using the Gift of Life or Life and Death salient divine ability.
  • If the deity restores life to a mortal, this ability works like the true resurrection spell, except that there is no material component and the amount of time the subject has been dead is irrelevant.
  • This ability cannot restore a creature to life against its will, but it can resurrect an elemental or outsider. It can resurrect a creature whose soul is trapped, provided the soul is not held by a deity of higher rank than the one using this ability.
  • This ability cannot restore life to a creature that has been slain by the Hand of Death, Life and Death, or Mass Life and Death ability of a deity with a higher rank.
  • After using either version of this ability, the deity must rest for 1 minute per level or Hit Die of the creature affected. Deities whose portfolio includes death do not have to rest after using this ability.
  • Suggested Portfolio Elements: Death, Supreme.

Now that’s an obvious gamewrecker when you can use it regularly.

My recommended Eclipse solution is to simply get the ability to toss out a bumped-up version of True Resurrection and Destruction. Use Specialized Channeling (double effect) and high-level Spell Conversion – allowing you to stack on things like “no saving throw” (Metamagical Theorem Amplify +4, equivalent to Double Effect – trading the ability to get double effect when the target fails to save for the ability to bypass the (much rarer) “Fortune” ability to take no effect on a save), “Easy” to eliminate the need for material components, and Lacing/Improved Brackish to prevent the effect from being absorbed by spells or items.

Back that with a point of Godfire to have it take effect where you want it to… and that will generally do it. It can still be stopped by the truly mighty (at least if they have the right effects), can’t be used often (due to the scarcity of Godfire), and will be expensive. It’s probably about 48 points – which is just about right since it will subsume the prerequisite Gift of Life or Hand of Death ability. That’s 30 points for conversion to ninth level effects (specialized to 18’th to cover that metamagic), 3 CP for a set of spells, and 15 CP for Channeling and some Bonus Uses. While a god won’t be using the Godfire boost often, having this available locally is handy too.

If you want to be cheesy about building the ability… you want some Metamagical Theorems, and a big stack of Streamline (both Specialized in the effects you want and Corrupted to only apply to a limited set of spells) and just stack on no-save, transdimensional range, unabsorbable, and so on until you can annihilate people on the other end of the universe with a wave of your hand. That will be a little more expensive at first, but cheaper to apply to more things – allowing supreme gods to have huge portfolios of virtually unstoppable powers.

Fourth Edition – in it’s focus on PC’s versus World-Building – quite intentionally set up it’s (evil) deities as end-game targets. Thus the Draconomican presented a detailed writeup of Tiamat the God as a L35 “Solo Brute” – and gave several options for killing her permanently.

While that ignores the question of “Why wasn’t she killed long ago by some earlier group of adventurers?” that kind of background development never really got into fourth edition.

In fourth edition gods can only be permanently killed in very specific ways (Returning), get extra actions that can only be used for a specific list of divine powers (Reflex Training) and can be weakened in various ways before a fight (invoking limitations on their powers – which is presumably where they save some points to pay for the extras). Otherwise… they are big monsters. They don’t even really provide spells for their priests any more; priests are granted the ability to tap into divine power via a ritual.

Fifth Edition seems to be following the same general philosophy (albeit apparently throwing in an Immunity to being attacked by characters of level twenty or less) with the Evil gods – who mostly seem to have cults instead of leading huge faiths – while the good gods are granted plot immunity by virtue of general vagueness and never showing up to be targets. Admittedly, I haven’t read all that much fifth edition stuff past the basics (I didn’t like fourth much and the early playtests for fifth seemed to be loaded with nods towards fourth edition and offered very little room for simulationists. That changed somewhat later – but no one around here wants to play it, leaving me with little interest beyond simply confirming that 5’th edition was Eclipse compatible, which it was) so they could have changed things radically somewhere – but that’s what I’ve got so far. Overall then, they can be written up just about as they could be for fourth edition.

Now pure Eclipse-style godhood is a lot cheaper. In Eclipse, Gods can be of quite low level – and we’ve had plenty of gods in play. What makes them playable is the cost of using their divine abilities.

  • A lot of things cost Godfire – and most player-character gods are lucky to get two points of that in a game year and will want to keep at least a FEW points in reserve to come back if they get killed or something. Godfire may be a renewable resource, but it will remain scarce.
  • Other things, like creating planes, or providing blessings for your followers, or forging mighty relics, cost character points or Feats – a permanent cost, and one that gods are rarely willing to pay for trivial reasons.

Thus divine conflicts are usually played out through mortal agents, and rarely involve direct conflict between deities. “Winning” such a battle is too often a pyrrhic victory which merely sets you up as an easy target for third parties.

This, of course, somewhat resembles the old D&D Immortals rules – although Eclipse doesn’t require that you advance to level thirty-six before you can start progressing through another thirty-six levels as an Immortal.

Eclipse and Spirits

Back in the old days it wasn’t too uncommon to have encounters with “spirits” – “creatures” who usually didn’t possess much actual power, but couldn’t be dealt with by any conventional means. Spirits were annoyances, puzzles, and talking characters who’s conversations couldn’t be interrupted by a crossbow bolt. If you had to placate an angry spirit that was haunting someone, you usually had to find a way to satisfy it; exorcisms and containments were temporary measures at best. Still, most spirits had a rather limited range from whatever was anchoring them to the material world – the site of their death, their treasured sword, or a hated foe. Quite often the simplest way to escape one was to simply leave the immediate area or dispose of the anchoring creature or item. Of course if the anchor was someone that you didn’t want to kill, or an item that you didn’t want to abandon or destroy, you had to fall back on persuasion.

Spirits could reveal secrets, offer guidance, provide warnings, or even offer very (very) minor support if you did something for them – if you took a message to their surviving relatives, rescued their friends before they too died, or found adoptive parents for their children. More importantly, you couldn’t simply use blackmail, torture, mind-probes, or other means to bypass a spirit; you either made a deal or you got along without whatever information it had to supply.

While it may be unkind to imply that the only people who can safely bargain with adventurers are the ones who are already dead, it’s often true.

In those days most characters only occasionally dealt with spirits – but there were always a few spiritualists, shamans, and other specialists who made a routine of it.

Some of them used class-based abilities, some skills, and some specialized spells that linked spirits to them.

Thus, for example, we had an Ancestor or Guardian Spirit associated with a member of the Kwin family. Ancestor spirits are generally effectively third or fourth level; no matter how powerful they are, there’s only so much they can do working through subtle psychic influences.

Yang The Invincible, also known as the Wonderful, the Incomparable, the (Censored), the Barbarian, the Magnificent, the Mass Murderer, the Pillager, the Arsonist, and so on.

Yang was something of an interloper in the clan Kwin family tree; he was a Tsongi horseman / raider instead of a citizen of the Empire. How he got involved with the family doesn’t bear mentioning, but the damage to the village was pretty massive. Yang died about 220 years ago, some ten generations back. He is short and tends to appear in crummy chainmail and stained leather, which matches his greasy hair and general aura of dirt extremely well. He always smells a bit of horses. Yang is loud, crude, and in favor of his descendants getting back to the “basics” or “Three R’s” – Raiding, Raping, and Ravaging. Pillaging, murdering, and going berserk are optional extras, but are nice if they can be managed. Yang’s advice is utterly uninhibited by any notions of being honorable and is often throughly vicious – but it also tends to be crudely practical, very direct, and occasionally quite insightful.

As an Ancestor Spirit Yang possesses several powers:

  • Limited telekinesis. He can move small objects within sixty feet of his contact. If it should matter, treat this as Str 2.
  • He grants 1d6 extra points of psychic strength to his contact.
  • He provides a +1 bonus on his contact’s defense rating (armor class) while present.
  • He can “scout” areas from the empyrean (ethereal) plane.
  • He can appear to, communicate with, and offer advice to, his contact as desired.
  • He can manifest for up to (Contacts Wis/3 + Level) rounds daily while within sixty feet of his contact.
  • He can share his senses with his contact with a range of sixty feet.
  • He may take limited possession of unresisting subjects – using their body until they either want to do something themselves or want him to leave.

Yang himself was fourth level. He was proficient with light armor and all weapons, knew a bit of unarmed combat, was a good horseman, and possessed several minor psychokinetic knacks – minor pyrokinesis (1d4 damage) and flame control, telekinetic missile control (+2/+2), and a personal force shield. Sadly, he has a psychic strength of a mere six points on his own, which is why he normally works through his contact. His other skills include some ability to evaluate the worth of common kinds of loot, power drinking, and evading pursuit. Finally, his advice on tactics is usually fairly decent. He’s picked up a bit of finesse since he died. (He was jumped by six armed men while he was in bed with someone else’s wife)

Now in first edition there was no problem with a spell that provided long-term special powers for the caster – such as being able to link up with several ancestor spirits. When mages could only learn a very limited number of spells, might never be able to learn particular spells, and obtaining new spells was difficult (making a captured spellbook a great treasure and a spellbook which had original spells in it a legendary treasure) finding a rare spell that offered special powers… worked just fine. In d20 games – where spells of all types are easily available and come in standardized levels of power – that approach doesn’t work properly. To make the same sort of resource-choice mean something we’re going to have to go with Feats – or, in Eclipse, Character points.

Ergo, to get some spirits invest in Leadership with Exotic Type (Spirits), Corrupted/Spirits ONLY and they definitely have minds of their own (6 CP).

That will get you a few spirits working for you.

So what can spirits do in d20?

Well, being nigh-indestructible is hard in d20. About the only way to manage that is not to get involved in the fight to begin with. Ergo, here’s a basic package for Spirits.

  • Sanctum/Appropriate Outer Plane (6 CP). Most of a spirits powers – or at least the ones that we’re interested in – only work on the appropriate outer plane where it can manifest itself easily.
    • While on an appropriate Outer Plane, a Spirit may maintain a link with some individual or item on the Prime Material – although this must be established through a magical summons or at the moment of death. That’s Mystic Link with Communications II (allows sensory sharing) Power Links, and Transferable, Specialized/may be temporarily disrupted or blocked by exorcisms, spirit wards, and similar effects, involves hallucinations of the character actually being present (9 CP).
    • Spirits are pretty safe on their Outer Plane, and need not worry about things like making a living. That’s Privilege/Safe Residence on Alignment Plane (3 CP).
    • Spirits are naturally psychic; it comes of being creatures of mind and magical energy – but it’s harder to tap into that when they’re on less cooperative planes. That’s +3d6 Power (6).
    • Spirits need not sleep, and are generally available most of the time. That’s Immunity/Sleep (Common, Minor, Major, 6 CP).
  • All Spirits – or at least the ones we’re interested in – possess Witchcraft II (including three basic witchcraft abilities), with the Summoning, Blessing, and Possession (Specialized for increased effect (minimal cost)/target must be and remain unresisting) advanced abilities. They are, however, bound by the Pact of Souls (they must attempt to recruit descendants for their plane of residence) and Spell Failure (their witchery will not work against characters or areas with spirit wards) (Net 18 CP)
  • Spirits can easily recognize their descendants. That’s Occult Sense/Kinfolk (6 CP).

With a net cost of 30 CP we have a +0 ECL race/+1 ECL Template. That will come out of their assigned levels of course.

That package… allows them to use witchcraft powers on their “anchor” with ease and to spend a 3 Power surcharge to use witchery in the immediate vicinity of their anchor. While each spirits powers will vary, some can lend their anchor strength and healing, others can assault targets in the vicinity with pyrokinesis, some can whisper suggestions, or use illusions to “manifest”, and so on. Their very limited psychic strength will keep them from doing too much of that sort of thing – but they can still be pretty versatile. If they specialize minor telekinetic powers properly they can even play at animating “zombies” – or at least using corpses and puppets.

Spirits can serve as mentors, training partners, or aides, can possess small, properly trained animals, consulting experts, or scouts. As their anchors power increases their effective levels will go up – and their abilities will increase.

Is this “Balanced”? It will give you access to a fair amount of Witchcraft rather cheaply and it makes your followers pretty nearly indestructible.

Of course, there are lots of ways to arrange that. If you’re willing to allow the use of Leadership, this is hardly the most abusive way to use it.

Exalted – Danyl Woodsborne, Wyld Endowed Mortal

Danyl… was a bastard of no father as far as the village was concerned, and so the rumors about his possible father flew… Demon? Raksha? Itinerant Hobo? A disgrace in any case! He grew up… on the outside looking in as far as the villagers went.

Still, at least he could visit his Father and his Father’s people even if Vriath – a wolf-beastman – could not venture into the village and would do him no good at all if he acknowledged him. The Beastmen were not popular in the border villages.

Sadly, he was isolated there as well. Already inclined towards solitude, Danyl soon showed few social graces of any kind and spent much of his time in the deep forests surrounding his mother’s small village. There, however, he blossomed as a hunter, a trapper, and a harvester of the exotic herbs and arcane components which sold so well further into the civilized lands. Soon enough his growing skill eclipsed the natural advantages of the wolf-beastmen youths – and brought him to the attention of his Great-Grandfather, Salisian, a fairly powerful Lunar Exalt. He could use an agent with respectable skills, the social isolation to be grateful for mere acknowledgment, and a fine excuse to travel regularly into more “civilized” realms.

Salisian set the boy to training with Telewin, his oldest child, aged more than three centuries thanks to his Wyld Endowment and longevity mutations. While that instruction was most profitable, it meant that Danyl was nearby when Telwin’s heart finally failed entirely – and inherited Telwin’s Endowment. In Salisian’s eyes that was even MORE useful – and an even greater obligation (or at least so Salisian sees it) on the young man.

Since then, Danyl has quietly taken up the defense of his Mother’s village; even if he doesn’t get along with them very well, he has a lot of family there.

Personal Attributes: Str 2, Dex 3, Sta 2, Cha 3, Man 2 (1), App 1, Per 1, Int 5, Wit 3

Abilities: Archery 4, Awareness 3, Craft 1, Integrity 3, Linguistics 1, Lore 4 (5, favored, 1 BP), Melee 1, Resistance 3, Ride 3, Socialize 1, and Survival 4.

Archetype: Ranger. +1 Dot each in Archery, Lore, and Survival (already included). You need a visual? Well, the Van Helsing image works tolerably well – with a touch of Ash and Indiana Jones.


  • Artifact 3 (5, 4 BP). It’s a stretch, but a character with an Endowment DOES get to use his or her choice of traits mechanically, so Artifacts as per Raksha; 15 dots, including at least five one dot artifacts and no more than one five dot artifact. For flavor, most of his minor artifacts are thaumaturgically-produced equivalents. Ergo the Sardion/Endowment ****, a Staff of the Magi ***, a Traveler’s Pouch **, and six one dot Thaumaturgic or Grace Magic Artifacts – Perfected Boots, an Ithaquan Firewand, a powerful Lucky Charm (negates three botches/story), a Resonant Chorus Bow, a Ranger’s Hat, and a Lash of Fate.
    • Ithaquan Firewand: Taking advantage of the low kick of a Firewand to use a pistol grip and an intermediate-length barrel, the base Ithaquan Double-Barrelled Firewand is Speed 5, Accuracy +1, Damage 10L, Rate 2, Range 10 (and no further), Max Strength —, Cost ***/* (Ammo), F, S.
      • The Thaumaturgically Enchanted (Artifact *) version is considered Perfect (Accuracy +2, Damage 12L, Rate 3), and can store up to a dozen extra charges of firedust, reloading with a simple flourish as long as those charges hold out. It has no attunement cost however.
    • Ranger’s Hat (Onieromancy *):
      • Assumption of Bestial Form (1): The hat has lots of leather trim.
      • Imposition of Law (3): The wearer can always communicate clearly and concisely with animals.
      • Mad God’s Mein (1): The hat is immune to Countermagic.
      • Adored By All The World (2): The user may call god-blooded or heroic sapient animals to his aid.
      • Waypoint Knife (3): When the wearer picks a campsite, he and his companions generally will not be disturbed.
    • Lash of Fate (Onieromancy *)
      • Assumption of Bestial Form (1): It’s a leather whip.
      • Veiling the God’s Eyes (2): The user may roll (Per + Occ) as Str to exert telekinetic force on whatever the whip touches.
      • Emotion Weaving Style (3): Anyone struck by the whip acquires the motivation “please the guy with the whip”.
      • Behemoth-Forging Meditation (3): Once per scene per target, when a mortal target is struck by the whip, the user may launch a free Staff-Shaping attack to try to give said mortal up to (Ess x 2) points of mutations.
      • Ordinary Object Conjuration (1): Anyone who becomes subordinate to the user through being hit by the whip gets a nice ornamental collar.

Background/Patron 2. His Grandfather Salisian is a fairly powerful Lunar Exalt – but he has a LOT of descendants. While he will give them a little backing at times he expects a fair amount of loyalty and service in return. On the upside, HIS beastmen have been created with a Mutation Manse which he uses to hand out mutations, rather then by less mentionable methods.

Background/Spies 2 (2 BP): Danyl has access to part of his Grandfather’s spy network.

Virtues: Compassion 2 (3, 1 BP), Conviction 2, Temperance 3 (4, 1 BP), Valor 2

Willpower 10 (5 BP).

Flaws: Diminished Attribute (-1 Man, -3 BP), Diminished Attribute (-1 Cha, -3 BP), Dark Secret/Half Wolf-Beastman (-1 BP), Ward/Assorted Local Villagers (-2 BP), Bastard Child (-1 BP).

Awakened Essence Abomination. Pool = (Essence x 5) + (Willpower x 2) + (Sum of Virtues) = 41 Motes. 11 Committed Motes.

Essence 2 (10 BP).

Next up – the final statistics.

Crafting Worlds: Do’s and Don’ts

Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also breeds good games

Too many games, and too many settings, run into a pair of contradictory problems which work against the setting. On the one hand, you need to make a world your players can understand. If the world and its people are important enough to matter, then obviously it has to be comprehensible to players, especially if they don’t own every sourcebook. But on the other hand nobody much likes worlds which are too familiar, too boring. This is where The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion went wrong (we’ll get to that another day), by making the game world so generic that it became flat and lifeless.

There are three things to keep in mind, and collectively they’re a huge pain:

(1) The setting must make sense as a human (or whatever) society and must be reasonably sane for the players.
(2) The setting has to be different enough for the players to be interested.
(3) It has to mesh well enough with the rules so that it passes the Sniff Test.

So it has to be different, but not too different, and not get crossed up with the actual game, and nobody’s going to tell you when until they start playing with it.

Well, that just sucks.

Fortunately, you can usually boil things down to a few key principles based on your game.

First, is this is a game where the player characters and/or the major NPC’s are grossly more powerful than “normal” people? In the real life, no individual is grossly more powerful – tougher, stronger, able to do quantitatively more, than another. Even the difference between, say, specialist Olympic athletes and normal, in-decent-shape people is usually much less than a factor of 5 or so. Most jobs do not require extreme capabilities, and even fairly complicated surgical techniques are mostly things which everyday people could do if they practiced, or have good instructions. The most “powerful” members of society aren’t those who are tough, fast, strong, or even skilled, but those who put a lot of effort in persuading and influencing others.

The most dangerous people alive are probably special forces soldiers, and they need endless training, support from hundreds if not thousands of other soldiers, and many others feeding them information to be effective. And any of them could be killed by a single bullet, or one just moment of bad luck.

But game heroes, even in nominally “realistic” settings, aren’t like that. They’re often capable of taking multiple hits which would be lethal to a lesser man and a dozen (and up-Up-UP!) times more effective in their chosen specialty than a normal but skilled professional. They’re often capable of killing hundreds of normal people, and might even be capable of depopulating cities by themselves, given some time. We’ll call these people Heroes, because this tends to be more of a fantasy trope, but it is definitely NOT limited to people who are actually heroic in nature.

This consideration absolutely influences your game setting – and may be the single most important factor. If nobody has this kind of power, then you can have a relatively normal political situation. It might be complicated, but fundamentally the world follows from real life: “power” is your ability to persuade lots of people to agree with you and your ability to motivate them to get things done. Almost anyone can potentially kill anyone else.

However, if Heroes do run around, society will very likely congeal around them rather than a political or economic system, and will change as these figures die or otherwise pass on. Simply put, they *are* the armed forces as well as Kings or religious figures in their own right, and they can largely do what they like because no one can stop them. Usually in these settings, monsters or similar threats also exist that the heroes have to deal with, and these are equally capable of wrecking civilization if not stopped.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have “normal” nation or states, but those groups are going to need their own, equally effective, protection. This can and should lead you into new ideas to refine your game world. Note that we said “equally effective”, because they don’t have to have equal Heroes of their own, although there’s nothing wrong with that either.

Some quick ideas: A decentralized society that can largely ignore the deeds of Heroes. This might be a nomadic tribal nation that avoids monsters, or an agrarian people scattered over farmland that mostly handles its problem through resettlement and militias. These don’t directly challenge powerful characters, but also can’t be easily controlled by individual bullies. Or perhaps the nation is a wealthy trading power which hires mercenaries as needed to deal with problems. Or society might publicly laud selected Heroes and reward them well, gaining loyal allies through respect and praise, so that they want to protect the people from other dangers. Or society might be intensely nationalistic so that any heroes who come from it have a natural interest in defending it. Or you may have outright divine aid, or mystic balancing forces which keep any one power group from completely dominating the world. Any and all of these could appear together as well.

So from the get-go, you have a lot of options to work with. Just make sure you adapt them intelligently when adding them to the culture you want to borrow (which, let’s face it, you probably do).

Second, beg, borrow, and steal everything in sight. The most common way to build a setting large or small is the take a human civilization and build off of that. This approach has many problems, but it has one huge advantage which usually outweighs all of them: the players have some idea what the hell they’re in for.

There are few writers with enough talent for world-building to create (and then sell the hell out of) an entirely new culture. Tolkien probably did it best, in developing multiple cultures for Elves and Dwarves and Men and even some tidbits for Orcs. Even then, he borrowed many pre-existing ideas, but certainly there was immense amounts of invention. George R.R. Martin borrowed many more existing fantasy images and style to construct his world, but he also worked hard to create an original (and ridiculously complex) world with varied peoples inhabiting it.

If you’re neither of those two, you probably have to steal heavily from an existing culture.

This is not bad. Unless you’re a genius historian, linguist, architect, fashion designer, and economist all in one, you need to show your players what the gameworld is like as much as possible. In order to do that, you need to give them mental images as much as descriptive text. Consider trying to describe what Feudal Japan was like. Libraries could, and have, been written to describe it.

Now consider one – just one – picture, found in a random search for the term Feudal Japan.

We've been dead for a century and we're still more badass than you.

We’ve been dead for a century and we’re still more badass than you.

That picture is worth far more than a thousand words in describing the scene. Your players know what it means, and what it implies, even if they know little more about Japanese culture than late-night viewings of Evangelion and couple of horrible ninja movies. Give ’em five minutes and they’ll be arranging tea parties (possibly OF BLOOD AND DEATH!) and trying to quadruple-wield katanas.

While it’s not good to stereotype things, putting some cultural weight on the matter can give your players a starting point for understanding the nature and style of the setting. And it’s not like you lack for choices: a huge Empire might borrow from Rome, Persia, Mongolia, China, Russia, France, England – and that’s just mentioning a handful of real-world nations with Imperial ambitions. But you can take themes and elements from any time and place and develop it into a new idea.

Third, make sure the world doesn’t have giant obvious issues, or least give a reason as to why those issues haven’t been fixed. People are not generally stupid, and the laws of economics are flexible but they apply everywhere, even to alien species. If you have a reliable solution to a problem, then people are going to use it, unless they have a better solution. And likewise, if something doesn’t work, sooner or later people will stop using it.

This means that if you can magically produce food, then people will try to use it unless food is so cheap and reliable that it’s not worth doing. If enchanted items can give near-permanent benefits, people will eventually invest in them if there’s any way to afford such useful magic. If armies get slaughtered by individual high-level opponents, then people won’t use armies, or the military does other things than try to fight powerful enemies. In short, there’s a lot of ways to go wrong and your players will notice sooner or later.

For an example of how to do this right, consider the basic game of AD&D 2’nd Edition. This was a good approach: magic is very powerful, but also very limited and focused. Wizards have many limitations and require a lot of careful consideration. Because of this, they were able to write worlds similar to our own, with limited impact from magic. Magic mostly mattered to adventurers or similarly powerful people, and you wouldn’t see it used for for mundane purposes. Making magical items was a difficult, expensive process in terms of lifespan, questing, and wealth, and they could easily go wrong. Further, getting or researching the spells for custom magic wasn’t easy, either, so many desired effects would be quite difficult. The system matched the world, at least reasonably enough to tell the kinds of stories players and GM’s wanted to tell. Magic was (usually) rare, precious, and difficult to find, and magic items simply couldn’t be made for most ordinary purposes. Ordinary people might get their hands on the odd healing potion for emergencies, but otherwise the best they could hope for was a very low-level local cleric or wizard to help out. There was certainly no way to use magic on an industrial scale, and magic items were made so rarely that they didn’t accumulate over time.

One of the flaws of 3rd edition (which was otherwise pretty good) was that the writers often forgot to explain how the system changes affected the game worlds. Let’s state this up-front: There is nothing wrong with the 3rd edition system in making a game world. The only issue is that most of the DnD worlds were based off old 1st and 2nd edition rules and didn’t properly update to consider the impact of the new system. Forgotten Realms was a particularly hilarious example of this, because some of the new rules changes were considered to be “recent developments” owing to a big in-universe event, some were considered to have always been in effect, and most was simply ignored. One small example, continuing from the Magic Item theme mentioned above:

Items with a few per-day uses are really, really easy to make. Characters as low as 3rd level could make them quite easily, and there’s tons of low-level spells useful to all kinds of people. How many communities beyond the most incredibly poor couldn’t scrape enough enough gold to buy a magic item which used curing magic every so often. How many towns couldn’t scrape up enough gold for a water-cleansing pipe fitting, or even permanent lanterns? These minor items don’t cost very much, and yet they substantially raise quality of life for many people. Even better – they’ll outright save money in a pretty short while. With a little bit more of an investment, civilizations could eradicate dangerous diseases, provide substantial quantities of food to the poor, provide power to machinery, or even reshape the land to suit. In real history, most of these developments required, and to this day still require, the hard work of millions of people and the outlay of billions of dollars. (Trillions, adjusted for inflation and adding it all up.)

It can all be done with third level magic or lower, with items that never wear out, and require no fuel.

In the Forgotten realms, we have canon examples of individual cities with assets in the many millions of gold coins. Even granting that you can’t always tax it all, individual characters can easy have a hundred thousand in cash, and much more in tradeable goods or land they can borrow against. Charitable giving is a major function of several religions and an entire character class (the Paladin). Can you really make the case that nobody – not one person – would feel like making the small investment these tools require? Would no merchant ever have the resources or interest to try? The math is simple enough to make sense for even the most evil of evil empires, and compelling enough to attract the greediest of the greedy, and cheap enough that you don’t need spectacular wealth to get started. Sure, not every wizard would willingly give up the experience points to make these items. But a retired wizard, who doesn’t expect to go adventuring certainly might – that’s a good income and a pretty low cost per-item, allowing him or her to perform spell research. Some casters, particularly clerics and some druids, would see it as a duty to occasionally help the common folk, and what better way to do so than make a small magical item which can continue helping the common man forever?

Bear in mind that these are just the basics – the first few ideas which would occur to people. You could go far beyond this into entire arcano-industrial civilizations, or entire societies devoting themselves to magic as we do science and technology. And sure, magic takes more work to build up – but it also takes a hell of a lot less to keep running. Most magical items require no power, no maintenance, and no direction to keep working, and will continue to do so indefinitely. In fact, a major aspect of D&D is that magic items (barring one-use stuff like potions) inevitably outlive those who make it, from weapons to mythallar to spell designs. That’s why adventurers loot useful stuff from eons-old tombs and lost cities.

In short, a jump from 2nd to 3rd edition implies a lot of changes to how a setting is run. This is not a bad thing. You can tell many new stories, and look at how change affects the people who have to live with it. There’s a lot of different directions you can take this, just as industrialization caused widely varying changes in all societies affected by it. new magic will affect people in even more extreme ways, and there’s a lot of ways you can develop it. Some societies may look identical to what they used it to except with huge changes hidden away. Others may be hardly affected – at least yet. Other could be completely transformed – or split into factions, or utterly destroyed.

In short, there’s nothing wrong with the rules, but most existing game worlds wanted to avoid using them as much as possible. And that’s sad.

However, also understandable. Writing and rewriting settings takes a lot of work and a lot of thought, so it’s not always easy to explain why they change or don’t change. In the next installment, we’ll cover some ways to do end runs around common sense, and get your setting where you want it.

Combat as Sport and War

Combat Engineers

Well of COURSE I take it more seriously than Superman! He’s bulletproof!

For today, it’s another question…

So how would the (THIS) article relate to the debate regarding Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War? (I’d link to the original post on EN World, but they’re down right now.)

– Alzrius

For convenience, I’ll quote the basic definitions that that article provides:

People who want Combat as Sport want fun fights between two (at least roughly) evenly matched sides. They hate “ganking” in which one side has such an enormous advantage (because of superior numbers, levels, strategic surprise, etc.) that the fight itself is a fait accompli. They value combat tactics that could be used to overcome the enemy and fair rules adhered to by both sides rather than looking for loopholes in the rules. Terrain and the specific situation should provide spice to the combat but never turn it into a turkey shoot. They tend to prefer arena combat in which there would be a pre-set fight with (roughly) equal sides and in which no greater strategic issues impinge on the fight or unbalance it.

The other side of the debate is the Combat as War side. They like Eve-style combat in which in a lot of fights, you know who was going to win before the fight even starts and a lot of the fun comes in from using strategy and logistics to ensure that the playing field is heavily unbalanced in your favor. The greatest coup for these players isn’t to win a fair fight but to make sure that the fight never happens (the classic example would be inserting a spy or turning a traitor within the enemy’s administration and crippling their infrastructure so they can’t field a fleet) or is a complete turkey shoot. The Combat as Sport side hates this sort of thing with a passion since the actual fights are often one-sided massacres or stand-offs that take hours.


Now definitions are good, but they only really help if relate them to design decisions.

Combat as Sport only works in a character-based game if you either…

  • (A) Assume that the characters involved care little or nothing for their own lives. Look around you… baboon gangs, wolf packs, and human societies all contain a wide variety of mechanisms to settle disputes without seriously risking life and limb. Sure, they might be seeking fabulous rewards – but if they’re that good, why don’t they get their rewards and retire?
  • (B) Place the characters in a situation – such as a gladiatorial arena, or being ordered about by gods, emperors, military commanders, or other powerful figures – where they are being forced into “fair fights”.
  • (C) Ensure that the characters are very sure of surviving – or of being resurrected if they die, which amounts to the same thing.

So what are the consequences of those three options?

(A) Kills off most role-playing, leaving the characters as playing pieces who disdain pain, and personal risk, and see combat as a goal rather than a tool. Sure, the players may state that their characters are death-or-glory types who don’t care about the pain or death – but should that really apply to all of their opponents too? There’s nothing wrong with that in a tactical wargame – but once you discard realistic motives you’re no longer playing a role-playing game.

(B) Kills off player-character decision-making (and is also known as “railroading”). There’s nothing wrong with that if the railroad goes to what the players want to do and the GM is simply providing an in-character excuse for the characters to be doing it – but it’s worth noting that actual gladiators were quite creative about finding ways to “cheat”.

That leaves (C) – Which is why death is a simple temporary inconvenience in most computer and video games. I died? Who cares? Just wait a moment while I go pick up my stuff, or put in an extra token, or hit the replay button…

In most tabletop role-playing games the classic answer to “being fairly sure of survival” was a bit of GM warning of especially tough or dangerous opponents, ablative combat, scouting out the opposition, and having the characters be prepared to escape and heal themselves if things seemed to be going badly. As characters became more powerful, they tended to acquire special methods of escape – ranging from smoke pellets and skill at hiding on up to cloning systems, limited-use teleportation devices, and resurrections. Sometimes – in desperation – they would even resort to bargaining or surrendering…

The World Tree game – where even basic starting characters and ordinary folks can easily be equipped with short range teleportation powers, a small supply of “automatically heal me from death” devices, and are usually pretty tough into the bargain – is the logical end point of this progression. On the World Tree most fights against intelligent opponents are not to the death; they’re “until keeping going starts becoming seriously risky or expensive and I use an escape effect” – or they’re social or political or some such to start with.

Now World Tree can be a lot of fun – but a lot of players will find it really annoying when their opponents escape. A fair number of them hate to retreat even when they should. Worse, living through truly serious World Tree combat when it comes up, even if it is pretty rare, involves quite a lot of careful forethought, planning, and resource management.

A lot of players don’t like that – and the solution was “Balanced Encounters”.

Of course, “Balanced Encounters” are a lie.

Lets think about that. Is Chess “balanced”? It may not be entirely perfect – there is the first-move advantage – but that’s why most people choose who goes first at random, which restores perfect parity between two random players sitting down for a game.

Chess is fair and balanced – and pretty much comes down to player skill and intuition. One or the other player may win or it may wind up a draw – the equivalent of “one or the other side falls back and escapes” in a RPG – but the odds are pretty much equal.

But WOTC had a stroke of genius – and in a bit of doublespeak worthy of substituting “ethnic cleansing” for “genocide” – redefined a “balanced (combat) encounter” as “one where the player characters are expected to win quite readily – without needing to bother with scouting or special preparations or even any really complex tactics – at the cost of about 25% of their daily resources”.

Funny, I thought that “Balanced” meant “Both sides are more or less equal and have fairly equal chances”. That’s what it means in Chess – and in Monopoly, and Poker, and Scrabble, and Tennis, and Baseball, and pretty much every other game. The few where the two sides really are grossly unequal are usually played in rounds where the players switch sides – like baseball innings.

You could do that; make it a genuine test of player skill; run through your “balanced encounter” as usual – and then switch sides and replay it. To get any rewards for it, the players have to win both times.

Not going to be popular using WOTC-style “balanced encounters” is it?

Still, despite the irritating-to-me doublespeak, “Balanced Encounters” really do work perfectly well from a gaming point of view and a game using them can be lots of fun. It does, however, require throwing out any pretense that the setting makes sense on its own, rather than revolving around the player-characters. A lot of players and game masters won’t mind that – after all, it’s basically true – but it will drive others (mostly the “deep immersion” players) right up the wall.

Combat as War only works in a role-playing game that… (A) supports a fair level of world detail as opposed to mechanical detail, (B) has players who are ALL willing to invest a great deal of time and effort in both role-playing and in planning and preparation, and (C) is run as a simulation of a fantasy reality, with an emphasis on the physics of the fantasy universe – how things work instead of what they do – and the motivations of the characters (both PC and NPC) involved rather than as a “game”.

Please note that this isn’t a “pick one” situation like Combat as Sport. This is all or nothing.

(A) isn’t entirely a matter of rules; the game may help by telling you HOW things work in the setting, and even by providing a certain amount of random background (Percent in Lair, Morale Table, etc, etc, etc…), but it can be a lot of work for the game master to make sure that the background makes sense, to keep track of time, and to have intelligent opponents make sensible preparations. (B) is required – since if some of the players aren’t willing to invest a lot of time in role-playing and planning they will be horribly bored and will soon rebel. Finally, of course, (C) requires making sure that the players have a reasonable idea of how things work in the setting and are willing to restrict themselves to what their character’s know.

Either style can lead to an enjoyable game as long as the people playing are all willing to go along with the assumptions and behaviors involved – but when someone isn’t, you get problems.

Not entirely by coincidence, Chess IS about perfect as a combat-as-sport game. It’s about as rules, setting, information, and terrain equal as you can get and no one worries about the motives of the individual pieces (outside of a few short stories) – and thus it doesn’t even need a game master. Guided Freeform games are about the epitome of Combat-as-war; they rely heavily on rules that may be in the game masters head but are unknown to the players, the advantage goes to creative use and interpretation of the setting, and anything else may be wildly unequal to the point where many combats will jump straight to the foregone conclusion.

My personal observation is that combat-as-sport is better for episodic games, if players may or may not be able to make it to any given session, and for shorter campaigns. Combat-as-war tends to require greater committments and longer games. When players come and go, it can really disrupt a combat-as-war game since a single “battle” may span multiple sessions.

It’s still possible to mix the two of course. As an example the last d6 Star Wars campaign ran for a bit over a hundred sessions – and did indeed lean towards “Combat as War”. There were a few roughly “balanced” battles (The weaker, but well-prepared, Bounty Hunters have caught up with you!), and plenty of grossly unbalanced battles – but they were fun anyway when the objective on one side was “Capture” and the other was “Impress these men enough to recruit them”, or “let them escape believing that they just fought a battle with the people we are trying to frame”, or “stall them and keep the damage to an absolute minimum while our negotiators slip through to try and settle this”.

When the objective was “rescue several thousand civilians who think that half of the party are legendary villains from bioengineered flying jellyfish-monsters who’s touch induces berserker madness, get them to the spaceport, take the spaceport away from a fanatical defending force with starship weapons who also think that the party is full of legendary villains without damaging the defenders or the ships, and get everyone offworld” things got complicated – but there was a mighty string of exciting battles and tense negotiations during which very few people (there were a few civilians that the party didn’t manage to rescue from the jellyfish-things) actually got killed.

To mix combat-as-war and combat-as-sport more readily, simply ensure that…

  • (A) The players do a lot of their planning in their personal time – such as picking out and upgrading their equipment, training in their special options, and coming up with pre-planned maneuvers – rather than before fighting. The good old “Next week we’ll be dealing with these problems… you might want to plan ahead” at the end of the session works beautifully. The players who want to plan will come with plans, the ones who don’t want to bother will simply ride along with the ones who did.
  • (B) Most battles are not to the death. This cuts down ENORMOUSLY on the frantic efforts to plan for every possibility and allows a lot more spontaneity since the players can afford to lose occasionally – and may well be quite happy with a partial win if there are multiple goals (which takes us to…)
  • (C) The goals are usually more complex than “defeat the opposition”. If your goals are “Kill the enemy and take their stuff” things are a lot simpler – and more one-correct-tactic oriented – than if your goals are “capture the bandits, find the rare item we want, impress the sheriff so he’ll owe you a favor, cover up the involvement with the bandits of one character’s idiot nephew, and get some information on the guy who drove the bandits out of their usual haunts”.

Thus, over the course of several battles in that d6 Star Wars campaign the bounty hunter D’arc went from Captor (goals; escape and steal his ship!) to Menace (goals; escape, find out how he found them again, try to keep the reward on them down), to Comedy Relief (goals; knock out D’arc and his henchmen, steal D’arc’s NEW ship, and persuade the locals that the group was NOT a major menace), to Stalker / Leader of a menacing enemy team (goals; keep him from revealing their location, try and persuade him that they were currently the good guys and should be helped, rather than hindered, and recruit him) – and finally to Ally.

There are more discussions along these lines in several other articles on the site – such as Battling the Balanced Encounter and the Ridmarch series on flexible adventure design (Part I, Part II, and Part III).

Unfortunately, none of that is precisely related to the original article, which is about players who attempt to import real-world tactics into games where they don’t work (and so their characters would not be familiar with them except, perhaps, as “things that don’t work”) and then get upset about it when they fail – although there is a relationship to the article you mention.

That article does make a good illustration though: the combat-as-sport side is presented fairly – but the combat-as-war side is not.

First up, a combat-as-war group generally IS going up against targets that they cannot defeat in a straight fight (and would need to run to survive without preparations), whereas the article implies that the groups are equivalent and the combat-as-war group could win if they just jumped in. That’s rather unfair since that’s generally not how it works.

Secondarily, the combat-as-war PC’s are presented as expecting benefits from trying to use obviously silly stratagems. A couple of layers of clothing and some mud are good against ordinary bees. Against giant bees with stingers the size of short swords? Not so much; that’s just “padded armor” (which monks were not allowed to use). Similarly, the “sneak attack with a ballista in a bag of holding” example is rather blatantly chosen to look like a silly rules exploit. Now if it had been “lure them into a corridor and use Stone Shape to collapse the ceiling on them” that would pretty obviously be clever tactics – albeit just as much an exploit and just as likely to be a cheap way to end an encounter with very little fuss.

Life and Death in d20

English: A scene from a generic fighting game....

I know, I know… but it works.

This question was a followup to the one about Undead and Souls in Basic d20. In this case it’s…

How do hit points and death work in basic d20?

Hit Points in Dungeons and Dragons and d20 have been described in a lot of ways over the years – as skill in avoiding injury, as luck, as divine protection, as structural integrity, as incredible toughness, and as a lot of other things. The trouble with most of those descriptions is simply that they don’t work properly.

  • Hit points work when you’re falling into a blast furnace – and how does “skill” help with that?
  • Hit points can be restored by simple spells that work on some plants and all animals. How is a simple spell forcing the gods to provide more divine protection? How much divine protection is a toad going to be getting anyway, even if it IS someone’s familiar?
  • How much skill in avoiding injury or parrying does a tree have anyway?
  • How much incredible toughness does a ghost with no physical body have?

When the descriptive text is self-contradictory it’s time to look at the mechanics – and what the d20 game mechanics say is that there are three kinds of hit points:

  • There are hit points that are restored by positive energy healing spells. Living things have those – and cease to be living somewhere below zero.
  • There are hit points that are restored by negative energy harming spells. Undead things have those – and fall apart at zero.
  • There are hit points that are restored by mending things. Objects and Constructs have those – and fall apart at zero.

Well, undead hit points are pretty obviously a near mirror-image of the kind that living things get – and object hit points fairly clearly represent structural integrity. Ergo, all we really need to look at is the kind of hit points that living things have.

For a look at that, lets take a look at one of the odder living creatures to be found out there in the d20 lands.

Take a fire elemental – an undifferentiated mass of hot gas. It can merge with a larger fire, and reform from it, just as an earth or water or air elemental can move through their elements. It can be injured by passing a sword through it. Why is that? It’s because it has vitality or “hit points”. It can be healed by the same positive-energy summoning spells that heal humans and it can be injured just like a human by the disruption of whatever structure it has. It can move around on it’s own, despite the lack of muscles. It can PICK THINGS UP despite being made of gas. At least on the material level – where that sword exists – it’s structurally quite identical to an ordinary fire, which can be stabbed all day long without harming or disrupting it one little bit. Ask any blacksmith.

So hit points – and the ability to move about and act on things – have nothing at all to do with this “biology” stuff. We know that because elementals have the same kind of hit points that humans do, but they’re noticeably short on “biology”. Hit points have to do with positive energy – which is why they can be restored, or even increased, by adding more positive energy, either on a temporary basis (while normal healing spells won’t do, spells which augment a spirits capacity and then add more energy work just fine) or through ongoing self-development or “gaining hit dice”.

Ergo, spirits have a reserve of positive energy, and use it to hang onto bodies, and to make them to move and act. That’s how a fire elemental works, that’s why a frail-looking crone can have a twenty strength, that’s why “losing hit points” doesn’t actually weaken or hinder d20 creatures until they’re at zero hit points, why wounds are ablative and measurable by spells like Deathwatch rather than being related to actual physical injuries, and why the “heal” skill accomplishes so little. Mere damaged flesh is not, fundamentally, the problem. Flesh doesn’t really matter to a basic d20 human any more than it does to a basic d20 fire elemental – which doesn’t have any.

It doesn’t really matter whether you feel that positive energy deflects damage like a force field, makes a creature tougher than a steel statue, or compensates for and repairs damage. The net effect is the same. A single crossbow bolt to a mid-level human’s shoulder is a small disruption and a loss of a modest quantity of positive energy. A single crossbow bolt to the heart is a notably greater disruption and causes more loss of positive energy because it impacts the bodies systems over a wider area (thus allowing “sneak attacks” and “criticals”) – but it’s still no problem for a spirit that still has a good reserve of positive energy left. Such a spirit can keep its body going anyway – and once the weapon is out of whatever wound it’s created the spirit can seal it up with ease.

Simply having your metabolism stop without physical damage isn’t lethal; you can be turned to stone, spend a thousand years as a statue, and then get turned back into flesh, and be just fine. (In fact, there’s no really good reason why a spirit can’t animate a statue like a golem save for it not having magic to make it easier and not being used to it. If you want to throw in making those adjustments you’ll want a spell like Iron Body).

Of course, if a “Death Effect” snuffs out a living spirits reserve of positive energy, it will die instantly.

So what about suffocation, starvation, and thirst?

  • They’re fairly simple; a normal human (or animal or similar fleshy) body requires a careful balance of the energies of fire (which feeds on the other elements), earth, air, and water to exist. Earth is stable in itself – which is why bone endures – but the others need to be supplied. Without regular supplies of air, earth (found in food), and water the body starts to suffer damage. Too much damage – which happens very fast when it comes to air as might be expected of a fire – has exactly the same effects as any other kind of damage; death. As the imbalance of elemental energies scontinues to increase after death the body mortifies (too much water), desiccates (too little water), falls to bits (too little earth), petrifies (too much earth), burns or powders (too much fire), or freezes (too little fire). Air is more subtle, but it usually doesn’t hang around at all anyway.

What about “Massive Damage”?

  • The problem here is something better known as Cascade Failure. A complex system – whether it’s an electrical power grid, an ecology, a magical structure, or a fleshy, body – has a great many interdependent components. Every one of them has some tolerance for damage. There is always at least a little redundancy. Such systems can handle many insults, overloads, and bits of damage here and there – but sometimes, when the system is under enough stress, a very tiny nudge here or there can tip the balance. Something starts to give, the stress on associated components abruptly skyrockets, they start to give – and in a couple of seconds you go from “functioning system” to “pile of junk”. For a spirit, that’s just too much physical failure to compensate for.

What about Constitution Damage and Drain?

  • Constitution is a measure of how efficiently a body uses positive energy. That’s why changes to constitution affect hit points immediately, without having to wait for damage or healing. Thus a body at zero constitution can’t bind with positive energy any more – and it doesn’t matter how much positive energy a spirit may have left at that point; no matter how much you multiply by zero, the result is still zero.

Diseases and such are just a variant on this; a “disease” is a lot of tiny parasites that reduce the bodies ability to bind with positive energy – possibly by sucking it up themselves. Too much of THAT and – inevitably – down you go.

What about old age?

  • Death from old age isn’t a physical failure in d20. After all, learn the right disciplines or spells and you can alter your physical age as you please or even get a whole new body – and yet most of those abilities do not extend your lifespan. Similarly, you can’t Raise or Resurrect someone who has died of old age.

And you don’t even need a body at all for a Resurrection.

If it isn’t a physical failure, it must be a spiritual one. Ergo, at some point, the spirit loses the ability to channel positive energy into a physical body. In most creatures that’s a gradual process with some warning signs; first the spirit can no longer keep up with superficial, cosmetic, signs – graying hair, wrinkles, and so on – then you get stiffness, degenerative problems, slower healing, less resistance to disease, and the deeper signs of aging – and then, in the end, even if the spirit manages to evade lesser causes of death, the amount of positive energy the spirit can push into the body will no longer suffice. Irreversible natural death occurs.

Are there other possible explanations for hit points? Of course there are; they’re just a lot harder for me to fit into the d20 rules set. They mostly require either some very convoluted reasoning to make them fit the d20 mechanics or major changes to those mechanics.

Now, the d20 mechanics are hardly perfect. They have limitations, they don’t simulate “common sense” very well when it comes to things like injuries, and they’re pretty abstract in places – but they do play reasonably well and are usually fun. Sure, I could hack in some far more realistic rules about injuries and combat – but just ask any real soldier. Realistic combat is NOT FUN. Realistic injuries are NOT FUN. Playing “desperate terror, sickening adrenalin rushes, and horrible pain with a high statistical chance of death” is NOT FUN. Playing “three months in the hospital and then maimed for life” is NOT FUN.

“Fun” is why we’re playing these games. Given how much most role-playing game rely on combat to generate excitement, where realism gets in the way of fun, realism gets thrown under a bus and then buried in a shallow anonymous grave.

Thus, in some realms, injuries are hindering and complex, they often fail to heal entirely, and even a tiny injury in the right place can kill. There death is often a slow process – and chunks of your body and mind can die before others. The line is hard to draw, and that gradual fading is a mystery to most men. The nature of life there is entirely different from it’s nature in a basic d20 universe – and it’s ending is equally strange by d20 standards.

In a – far more fortunate and far more entertaining – basic d20 realm death is simple. To quote the SRD:

A character dies when his or her hit points drop to -10 or lower. A character also dies when his or her Constitution drops to 0, and certain spells or effects (such as failing a Fortitude save against massive damage) can also kill a character outright. Death causes the character’s soul to leave the body and journey to an Outer Plane. Dead characters cannot benefit from normal or magical healing, but they can be restored to life via magic. A dead body decays normally unless magically preserved, but magic that restores a dead character to life also restores the body either to full health or to its condition at the time of death (depending on the spell or device). Either way, resurrected characters need not worry about rigor mortis, decomposition, and other conditions that affect dead bodies.

When a spirit no longer has enough of a reserve of positive energy to hang onto it’s physical body, it begins slipping – moving from from “-1″ on down, much like a man losing his grip on a tree branch. Once that spirit runs out of positive energy, it falls. One billionth of a second before the fall, simple healing magic can see the victim hail and hearty in an instant. One billionth of a second afterwards, the bond of spirit and body is broken and the victim is dead. In basic d20 worlds the spirit is immediately drawn to it’s destination plane, just as a man holding onto a tree branch is drawn to the ground once he loses his grip.

Some spirits find ways to stick around – dropping to a “support” above the “ground” – using negative energy to return as an “Undead”, psychic power to persist as a free spirit, or many other methods. Such things are judged unnatural by many – and negative energy “life” is inherently malevolent and destructive of positive-energy life – but there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with doing so.

So much for life and death.

As for what comes after…

Under standard 20 rules, a spirit pretty much loses it’s individuality once deceased; it becomes a generic “petitioner” in the afterlife and can be killed again – being annihilated (if they aren’t for a long time they’ll eventually be absorbed into the structure of the plane – once again, effectively being annihilated). On the other hand, many settings state that these now entirely-generic entities are rewarded or punished for things that they did in life – even though you can’t actually tell them apart in any meaningful way and they don’t remember their mortal lives. Of course, the d20 rules also state that determined spirits can come back as revenants, that you can find and communicate with them, and so on – the usual hazards of multiple opinionated writers who aren’t consulting each other.

Most actual d20 games ignore the “petitioner” bit; what’s the point of rewarding or punishing generic blobs who have no idea of why? Why make an “afterlife” into a generic video-game extra life that will inevitably end at some point? Why seek out the ancient spirit of a long-dead king, or mighty mage, or your dead child, when all you’re going to find is a generic petitioner who knows nothing and doesn’t know you?

Fortunately, house or setting rules that change that only require changing a few sentences and have virtually no effect on the mechanics. Dead characters are usually (although hardly always) pretty much out of play in any case.

Finally, of course, we have attitudes towards death.

Now, unlike in reality, in a basic (or even setting or a house-ruled afterlife) d20 fantasy setting Death is normally no mystery. There’s no particular doubt about how it works, or the moment of death, or about personal survival in the afterlife, or anything like that. If you have serious unfinished business, or a really big grudge, or want to watch over a grandchild, or want to haunt your murderer – well, most d20 settings say that a determined spirit can find a way to do it, if only by appearing in dreams. Gods very definitely exist, and care for their followers both before and after death. People fairly often come back from death, or use astral travel to visit the planes of the dead, meet some dead relatives, and tour the place a bit.

That means that the fear of death is mostly based on anticipated regret – “there were still things I wanted to do! I’m not ready!” – rather than fear of personal extinction and the unknown, or even of punishment (gods who punish people who follow their philosophies don’t tend to get many followers). That’s also why d20 worlds tend to have gods of the dead, protectors of the dead, judges and advocates of the dead, psychopomps who guide the dead, and gods who just like to kill people – but they generally don’t have a true “god of death” or any version of a “grim reaper” any more than they have gods of “losing your grip on tree branches”. The process is simple, automatic, and has no need for personification.

This too is good; it means that heroes who spit in the face of death, face threats with valor rather than appeasement, and who sacrifice themselves for causes knowing that they are passing into the care of their divine patrons are relatively common – rather than as rare as they are in the real world.

That makes for an exciting and dramatic game – and is, given the rules of the setting the action takes place in – entirely realistic. It’s hard to ask for more out of a rules system than that.