Gaming Harry Potter III – Blood And Fire

For today, it’s an offline question, summarized as “are there any more really problematic pieces of magic in the Potterverse outside of the “Deathly Hallows” themselves?”

Yes indeed, there is at least one more really major problematic magical effect or spell in the Harry Potter universe – but I didn’t see much point in addressing it the last time around since you have to replace it to make the story work. The series just… kind of falls apart without it. Now I’m hardly the first to point it out, and there are doubtless some in-depth analysis of the problem out there – but here we go anyway.

The problem lies in the (nameless) blood protection effect that protects Harry through his childhood and which and forces him to keep going back to the Dursleys.

“While you can still call home the place where your mother’s blood dwells, there you cannot be touched or harmed by Voldemort. He shed her blood, but it lives on in you and her sister. Her blood became your refuge. You need return there only once a year, but as long as you can still call it home, there he cannot hurt you. Your aunt knows this. I explained what I had done in the letter I left, with you, on her doorstep. She knows that allowing you houseroom may well have kept you alive for the past fifteen years.”

-Dumbledore, in The Order Of The Pheonix.

It is this mysterious force that keeps Harry Potter safe as long as he lives with Petunia occasionally.

What’s problematic there?

Well… do those forces keep the rest of the household safe when they’re away from home? If not… why not just eliminate Vernon, Petunia, and Dudley? They go to work, shopping, and school don’t they? Kill them – or even just Petunia – and the protection soon ends. It’s not like Harry’s location, or the existence of the Dursleys, is a well-protected secret either. The sheer number of people who were hanging around when Harry was brought to the Dursleys tells us that.

They definitely don’t stop muggle aggression or non-magical forces or monsters. Otherwise other kids couldn’t join Dudley in “Harry Hunting”, the Dementor couldn’t have attacked, and Harry would be immune to household accidents (and to Dudley repeatedly punching him in the nose). So why not hire a muggle hit squad, or load a truck with something explosive and blow up the entire block, or drop a plane on the house, or send some monsters, or any of a million other ploys?

There are supposed to be LOTS of magical families which fell victim to the war. Was Harry’s mother the ONLY parent or grandparent or other relative who sacrificed themselves to try to save someone when they could have escaped? Why isn’t this kind of protection a reasonably common thing? Even if the activation spell Dumbledore used was rare (acceptance by a relative is not going to be all that hard to come by), why aren’t there plenty of related charms? Since reflecting the Killing Curse (and apparently a variety of lesser curses) and destroying the user didn’t call for anything but the sacrifice… why isn’t the death curse known for occasionally backfiring?

What kind of relationship is sufficiently close for the general protection spell anyway? Isn’t everyone in the world related? Why wasn’t a blood relationship and an activating spell and acceptance into a household required when Harry made a personal sacrifice to protect the other students at Hogwarts? After all, that apparently worked just fine and he didn’t even have to actually die. He just had to offer himself.

These mysterious forces suddenly stop working when Harry “comes of age”. But isn’t “coming of age” a legal fiction that varies between cultures and times? Why does the magic of love and sacrifice pay down-to-the-minute attention to a technicality?

According to some sources, the effect only protects Harry, and only while he’s actually at the house. That just makes it worse. Harry went to school before Hogwarts and surely spent as much time as possible away from the Dursleys. Of what use was this much-vaunted protection then? Why was having it worth a childhood full of abuse if there were other ways to provide a safehouse?

If visiting “home” briefly once a year is enough to recharge these mysterious forces… why not board Harry at Hogwarts for most of the year much earlier? After all, acceptance letters came addressed to the “Cupboard Under The Stairs” so they KNEW that Harry was being mistreated and – at the least – had intentionally avoided looking into it. What makes “growing up famous” more problematic than growing up “being physically (at the least we have in-book confirmation for Dudley beating him, pretty much necessarily with Vernon and Petunias approval – and abuse from them is very strongly implied) and emotionally abused and being chronically malnourished?” Why not at least pay the Dursleys to treat Harry better? Are they incorruptibly above bribes but not above mistreating a child?

Of course, this also allows Harry to unquestioningly turn his back on the “muggle” world – allowing him to (among many similar items) ignore the moral problems of actively erasing awareness of magic among muggles – thus preventing them from taking any measures to protect themselves against magical conflicts and monsters, treating them as second-class citizens at best (and as chattel at worst), and condemning people to death rather than sharing those fabulous magical cures with them – without bringing his “noble good guy” status into question.

Like it or not, those mysterious forces are a pretty basic part of the series setup and drive a number of major plot points down the line – and they don’t make a lot of sense. While the target audience will probably never notice the problem, gamers tend to want a lot more detail. Unfortunately, given that this bit of magic reeks of “poorly thought out plot device” there really isn’t one to give them.

Is there anything which works better?

Perhaps. Let us start from the beginning. We’re outright told that no one knows what happened the night that Harry’s parents died. Even Voldemort apparently didn’t fully understand and he didn’t seem all that interested in explaining what he did know anyway – and there were no other witnesses who were willing to talk about it. (Voldemort might have had an aide or something along – but if he did, and Harry was actually the target, then disposing of an injured baby doesn’t call for magic. Babies are fragile).

What was known to the magical authorities of the time was that Voldemort personally attacked two other high-powered magic users and – at the end – a baby who was in the house had suffered a non-lethal magical injury and all three of the people fighting were apparently dead.

So… like it or not, the “innocent baby survives a terrible magical attack and defeats the dark lord!” story was invented for public consumption, whether by the magical authorities or by someone at the Daily Prophet. The fact that authorial fiat made that story turn out to be more or less correct doesn’t change the fact that it was invented out of whole cloth.

Given the evidence they actually had… any sane investigator would have concluded that “Voldemort and the Potters took each other out and the baby was bloody lucky that he only got grazed by some nasty magic – likely a rebounding spell, corona effect, something that got interrupted during casting, or a part of a disrupted spell – instead of being killed”.

After all, “the power of love” would have done !@#$ all against the ceiling falling in, or the house burning down, or some such.

So why didn’t the surviving Death Eaters go after Harry as a small child?

Because the surviving Death Eaters were not outrageously stupid (that sort of goes along with “surviving” part) and were not inclined to accept the statements of the authorities or the newspapers at face value or they wouldn’t have been Death Eaters in the first place. They looked at the actual evidence… and concluded that the baby was a completely unimportant bystander, and had possibly been set up as a trap. Sure, killing the kid might have been satisfying – but they didn’t know that Voldemort would be coming back or that he would care.

Letting the public have their charming little story cost them nothing at all. It might even benefit them; having the public put their faith in miraculous child-saviors meant fewer calls for actual effective investigations and precautions.

And so they did not give a damn about Harry until Voldemort returned and started issuing orders again.

Oh, the prophecy?

Well, first up… Prophecies are kept secret. So nobody except a few individuals with high ranks in the government and an interest are going to know about it. Secondarily, that “prophecy”… is pretty vague.

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches. Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies. And the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not. And either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.

Couldn’t anyone vanquish a Dark Lord if they just got REALLY lucky? Which Dark Lord? Approaches in time, in space, or from another dimension? What does it take to defy him? What calendar? What kind of mark? Maybe on a magic test? What power? Is “the other” a third party? Why not? Neither can live while the other survives? Doesn’t that let out anyone who is alive?

So… Dumbledore, with a war to finish, a country to rebuild, Death Eaters to catch, a school and a government to run, and a thousand other tasks… schluffed off Harry on his relatives (as he was probably legally required to do anyway) using “otherwise he will die!” as a reason to get them to take the unwanted kid. The Death Eaters stayed away because there was no reason for them to bother – and if there WAS, the prophecy implied that they’d be unable to do anything anyway, as it wasn’t their destiny. And so Harry was neglected, and fell through the cracks, and the story could pretty much proceed as written whether those mysterious forces beyond his Mothers blessing ever actually existed or not.

Explaining “He turned seventeen and was suddenly attacked”? Well… Voldemort was back and “The Order got wind of an upcoming attack and decided to move him” actually covers that well enough.

If I ever run a Potterverse game… I think that I’ll just go with that. It will make things SO much simpler.


D20 Terminators

And for today, it’s a question:

I admit I’m curious about Apocalypse after you mentioned him in your write-up for Cable, but really…while I know you meant with regards to the New Mutants (or similar groups), reading these over has reminded me of another action series that started in the 80’s and is still going today: The Terminator. While not quite the same, it deals with a lot of the subjects (killer robots, time travel, and advanced weaponry), so it strikes me as being in the same vein. More specifically, I’d love to see your take on the following:

  • The T-800 (and the T-850 variant),
  • The T-1000
  • The T-X
  • The T-3000

I think those would be a lot of fun.


Well, why not? There’s already a fairly good book on this topic on the net, but – of course – it’s not as if I agree with everything in it.

Thanks to an incredibly tangled mess of alternate timelines, there are dozens of different “Terminators”, many of them mutually exclusive – and the movies aren’t too consistent about which ones are better or what they can do. That actually isn’t the big problem. Converting the Terminators to d20 is awkward for one major reason:

Terminators are designed to deal with reasonably realistic normal humans using personal weapons. In d20 terms that’s basically NPC classes and – at the top end – second level Fighters and Rogues with small arms.

For example, the classic T-800 is highly resistant to small arms. (generally up to 2d8). Only a lucky shot that hits a joint or exposed component was likely to do any actual damage. Yet small arms fire could take one down. It just took a LOT – or rather less armor-piercing stuff. And they certianly weren’t hard to hit, which let out armor class.

They seemed to be fairly resistant to energy too. The T-800 was able to handle lots and lots of being on fire (generally 1d6 to 3d6) but was unable to handle molten metal or magma (up to 20d6 on immersion).

Yet a pipe bomb (4d6 if you’re being generous) blew one in half. Admittedly that didn’t stop it, but it would be pretty hard to deny that eliminating the lower half is – by definition – probably about 50% damage. Even if we assume that Kyle Reese had some bonuses against Terminators (he can’t have too much though, since his small arms don’t work; perhaps about +1d6 with small arms, +2d6 with explosives?), that he got a good roll, and that the thing already had a little actual damage on it (as opposed to its disguise being ruined)… a Terminator can’t have more than twenty-five to thirty-five hit points. After all, we also know that anti-tank weapons – 8d6 to 10d6 – can damage them easily, and a solid hit (a good damage roll) can take them out in a single shot.

So, since we’re looking at Constructs here… we’re looking at Hardness of between 8 and 12. The standard for “Metal” is 10, so we’;; go with that.

Strength? Well… t-800 variants have been shown bracing a bus to keep it from falling off a bridge, stopping some enormous blast doors from closing, smashing down a large security door, punching through sheet metal, and smashing through cinder block walls.

Still… vehicles can hang partially over drops on their own, so that doesn’t tell us much. The blast doors… well, they were much bigger than the crusher which eliminated the first T-800. So why didn’t they crush the T-800? Perhaps they worked like elevator doors and stopped when firm resistance was registered? The shot didn’t seem to be show any strain or anything.

The large door… came down in one piece and wasn’t much damaged. Evidently the hinges broke. So that’s “break down strong door” (DC 23). Punching through sheet metal… I can poke an awl through sheet metal and hailstones can dent the sheet metal of my car. Sheet metal is simply not a major obstacle to something made of metal. Really, the cinder block walls are probably the most impressive item on this list.

d20 Modern (lifting from the fantasy SRD) lists the “burst” DC for a Cinder block Wall as 35 (Hardness 8, HP 90) – but that’s the same as a one-foot thick masonry wall and that, to put it bluntly, is baloney; I’ve worked with cinder blocks. Once we subtract the hollow part… Hardness 4, HP 20, and a burst DC of 24 is more like it. It might be less; I’ve had cinder blocks break when dropped a couple of feet.

The first movie didn’t show the Terminators as being especially good marksmen, or very stealthy, or extremely clever, or even all that fast. They WERE decent shots (especially when shooting unprotected people at point blank range while they were standing still – or when using a minigun to hose down parked cars with a stream of lead), had basic human level intelligence, were somewhat faster and considerably stronger than a normal human, were capable of using humanities clever machines against us, and they were very, very, determined.

Humans are Persistence Hunters. And the Terminators… are better at it. Plus, they were walking skeletons, classical images of death. They were humans plus, and they were bringing the same kind of death to humanity that humanity had brought to everything that stood in its way. They were stronger, and better adapted to humanities ecological niche, and they wanted us dead. They tapped into the same kind of fear that Godzilla – an avatar of natures uncontrollable wrath and atomic devastation – did.

S0… at a quick approximation: Medium Sized (which goes up to eight feet tall and 500 Lbs), Hardness 10, 30 HP, AC 15, Move 30, Darkvision and Low-Light Vision, Construct, BAB of somewhere between +1 and +4, basic Intelligence. can be temporarily “stunned” by damage. Str 20, considered “Large” for purposes of encumbrance, breaking things, and grappling. Dex 14 (they’re fairly fast and accurate, but they are not Jackie Chan), Int 10 (effectively anyway), Wis… had to say, but likely low, Con — (Construct), and Chr… probably 1 – although those that go rogue and develop personalities of some sort get normal rolls.

We can add a bunch of minor boosts and systems, but that’s our basic T-800 Framework – and the T-800 is a mainstay of the entire franchise.

The quick way to convert a Terminator into Eclipse is not to bother: Pathfinders standard Robot, Machine Soldier is pretty much an exact match (and may well have been meant to be). A T-800 has just been fitted with a high-quality disguise, has access to better weapons, and varies its tactics more.

And that’s a problem, because – while that’s capable of wading through first level Aristocrats, Experts, and Warriors (and even Fighters and Rogues) by the swarm – we want them to be formidable opponents. And many specialized or higher-level d20 characters are quite capable of taking and inflicting a lot more damage than that. It’s downright embarrassing when a mid-level barbarian takes a Terminators heavy weapons shot to the chest and shrugs it off before cutting the thing in half with his axe.

If you want to get sophisticated… drop the Machine Soldiers Two-Weapon Fighting and Weapon focus feats in favor of 12 CP worth of Innate Enchantment and start adding functions in search of 11,000 GP. As a partial Eclipse adaption, it’s probably best to upgrade the CR to 5.

  • Advanced Military Programming: +3 Competence Bonus to Heal, Intimidate, Perception, and Knowledge (History, the Military and Weapons in particular) (1400 GP).
  • Armored Framework: Enhance Structure: +12 + 2 x Str Mod Temporary HP to a construct, x.5 (only to a Construct, only to remain repairable after being reduced to 0 HP (700 GP).
  • Emergency Power: Enhance Attribute: +2 Enhancement Bonus to Strength (1400 GP).
  • Enhanced Servomotors: Boost Armor: Reduced Defense VII (+0 AC, -14 DC), Segmented III (+6 DC, no non-proficiency penalty), Max Dex +4 (-), Speed +10, +4 Str, +2 Reflex Saves (Net purchase DC 10 = 120 Credits or 6 GP). (This is a very cheap trick, but so be it).
  • Hyperalloy Endoskeleton: Crystal of Adamant Armor, Least (+2 Hardness) (300 GP). This increases the units hardness to 12.
  • Iron Strike: The user’s hands are treated as +2 Hand Axes (1400 GP).
  • Large and Heavy: Enlarge Person: Only to be considered Large for the purpose of breaking doors and other objects, grappling, and carrying things (x.5) (700 GP).
  • Reroute Systems: Repair Light Damage (3 uses x .6, recovers only when refurbished x.4, Self-Only x.7, requires 1d6 rounds to trigger after being reduced to 0 HP (ignoring Enhance Structure) x.5, if the first use is insufficient to get the unit up, further uses must be externally triggered by attempts at repair or an application of Mimetic Polyalloy (168 GP).
  • Self-Repair: Repair Light Damage (3 uses x .6, recovers only when refurbished x.4, Self-Only x.7, requires at least one minute of work (x.5) (168 GP).
  • Targeting System: +2 to BAB with Small Arms (1400 GP).
  • Weapons Catalog: Masters Touch, x.7 Weapons Only (1400 GP).
  • Secondary Equipment: Advanced Smartphone (10 GP), GPS (20 GP), Radio Scanner (10 GP), Lock Release Gun (10 GP), Rangefinding Binoculars (25 GP), Compass (2 CP), Flash Goggles (25 GP), HUD (3 GP), Military Transceiver (20 GP), Vocalizer (Voice Imitation, 50 GP), Power Backpack (5 GP), Multipurpose Tool (4 GP), and Remote Surveillance Module (20 GP). Net total: 200 GP.

That’s a total of 9250 GP worth of Innate Enchantment. It’s also significantly stronger and tougher than is really justified for a T-800 – but that’s all right given that quite a few of the variant models are supposed to be slightly stronger, or faster, or otherwise better – although there’s rarely any actual evidence of this. It also leaves 1750 GP worth of innate enchantment (up to 2250 GP if taking advantage of rounding) to add model details.


  • The earliest “humanoid” Terminator, the major point of this model was to go into all the places that humans could – wading through water, crawling though holes and pipes, and otherwise getting into their hiding places. It had Tracking (even if it wasn’t all that good at it) instead of one of the Innate Enchantment feats, and so only has 5000 GP worth of boosts. Unfortunately, there really isn’t much information as to what – so you’ll just have to pick your own package.


  • This model was apparently an experimental one, and is a bit less durable than the T-800. It has no Hyperalloy Endoskeleton, and so only has Hardness 10. It may have other limitations as well (possibly including the T-600’s tracking feat instead of other benefits), but there’s not a lot of information on them. It was often outfitted with good, but nowhere near perfect, disguises.


  • This upgraded T-700 simply has heavier armor. To represent this, upgrade the Enhanced Servomotors entry to actually provide an armor bonus (variable cost) and – presumably – add some built-in weapons. As such, it cannot be effectively disguised. Unfortunately, it’s far more practical to simply deploy armed drones if you can’t disguise your units anyway, so T-720’s are rare, having mostly been upgraded from surviving T-700’s.


  • These are basically identical to the T-800, but – not yet being standardized – were more expensive. Few were produced.


  • For game purposes this is the basic model. Interestingly, quite a number of “rogue” T-800 units have added various upgrades to themselves – presumably making use of that 1750 GP worth of additional allowable improvements. If nothing else comes to mind… give them a +1 Resistance Bonus to Saving Throws (700 GP) and an Internal Inertial Compass that always lets them know True North (700 GP).


  • Add Data Archive (+4 to all Knowledge Skills, all skills are treated as class skills, 750 GP).
  • Upgrade Armor Crystal to a Lesser Version (+5 Hardness, for a total of 15, 1000 GP).
  • Add Morphic Disguise Kit (10 GP). With an extra +6 bonus – and Taking 20 – a T-850 can slowly repair / regrow its human disguise.


  • Add Expeditious Retreat (1400 GP).
  • A +3 Bonus to Disguise (Thanks to a knowledge of human psychology, 700 GP).
  • Add Built-in Katanas (20 GP).
  • Another 30 GP worth of weapons is likely, but never demonstrated.

The T-900 and T-950 are supposed to be improved somehow, but seemed notably inferior to the 850 models in actual combat. I’d presume that while they are, in fact, somewhat inferior, they are also more stable and far less expensive to produce – a very worthwhile upgrade indeed during wartime, but not something that costs points.


  • Add Built-In Weaponry: Plasma Rifle (75 GP), Flamethrower (45 GP), Twin Thunder Machine Gun (175 GP), High Frequency Sword (25 GP), Grenade Launcher (100 GP), Laser Sniper Rifle (140 GP), Taser (3 GP), Katana (10 GP), Chain Saw (12.5 GP), minor melee weapons, for a net total of 600 GP.
  • Add Holodisguise (25 GP), since a T-X can perform minor modifications, but cannot change its basic internal structure.
  • Add a Wireless “Neural” Jack (20 GP) and a Neural Computer Link (450 GP), used to override other systems and control them remotely.
  • If it matters, the remaining 650 GP represents the units munitions stockpile; the weapons that require ammo can only be used until the units ammunition reserves are exhausted, whereupon it must restock.


  • Drop the Emergency Power (1400 GP), Hyperalloy Endoskeleton (300 GP), Iron Strike (1400 GP), Armored Framework (700 GP), Large and Heavy (700 GP), and Reroute Systems (168 GP), saving 4368 GP.
  • Add Disguise Self (2000 GP), Reduce Person (x.5, only to fit into and through small places, 700 GP), Summon Weapon (1400 GP), a selection of melee weapons (160 GP), and Reforming (Enhance Structure: +12 + 2 x Str Mod Temporary HP to a construct, reduces the base Hardness by 20% x.8 Personal Only x .7 = 1120 GP) at a cost of 5380 GP.
  • This effectively negates the first twenty-odd points worth of damage that a T-1000 takes each round, but reduces its Hardness to 8 and limits some of its other functions. In theory it leaves about 700 GP worth of Innate Enchantments to go, but I can’t think of anything at the moment. Perhaps a +1 resistance bonus to saving throws (700 GP)?
  • The T-1000 model is very difficult to physically damage, but lacks a solid internal structure to give it shape, strength, and support things like a concentrated energy source, computation, sensor systems, and more. All of those functions have to be distributed across every one of the nanites that makes it up – and it can only be as tough as the links between its nanites. Nanites that have to be able to do everything are always going to have a hard time matching dedicated systems. Unfortunately, it is also extremely resource-expensive to produce and the nanite swarm is highly unstable – making the system extremely vulnerable to program corruption. It may at any point malfunction, change its priorities and goals, subdivide, or even decide that it needs to replace Skynet, That’s why Skynet only deployed wholly-polymetal based Terminators as a last resort.

The T-1000 is also where the franchise makes the transition into complete fantasy; there are an awful lot of physics-related problems with the T-1000, even making allowances for future tech and nanites. Fortunately for Skynet, the Terminators get to run on movie physics instead of the real stuff.


  • The T-3000 does have many of the same abilities as the earlier Terminator models, but it is – quite blatantly – an acquired template, rather than an independent creation. I’ll be covering that template – and making the earlier models playable – next time around.

Linear Fighter, Assistant Wizard

For today, we have a retrospective question about just when “wizards got so overpowered!”.

For the quick answer, is 3.0. For the long answer…

Originally, back in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (First and Second Edition), if you played the game as written… spellcasting didn’t really dominate the game. Over more than a decade of play with several different groups it soon became pretty obvious that Fighters did. Paladins, Rangers and Monks were all good – but the entry requirements kept them rare. Thieves helped with scouting and traps and taking out bosses with carefully set up backstabbing, but the main drive against the enemy was always the fighters.

And that was about right. In a very large proportion of legends, myths, and fantasy stories… wizards were either enemies or they were assistants to the heroic warriors who were the real stars. They had many interesting powers, and their spells might turn the tide at a dramatic moment, enable visits to strange locations of adventure, and trick overwhelming foes – but they were still secondary. Swords, bows, secondary weapons, and (sometimes) martial arts still did the main work.

But wait! Magic-Users had all those incredibly powerful spells! Almost as many as Wizards and Sorcerers do in 3.5 or Pathfinder!

Yes, they did. And they had segmented casting times at ten segments to the round and usually at least one segment per spell level. It was often more; looking back at my first edition books, many first level spells required three or four segments. Hold Person, at level two, required five segments – in a system where you determined initiative with opposing d6 rolls and any interruption ruined the spell. There were no “concentration” checks, saving throws were fixed numbers, spellcasters couldn’t evade attacks while casting, only got to know a limited number of spells, often couldn’t learn spells they wanted, some of them couldn’t use armor at all, and might take many days of rest and study (or prayer) to prepare all their spells.

Thus the Dungeon Masters Guide told us

Because spell casting will be so difficult, most magic-users and clerics will opt to use magical devices whenever possible in melee, if they are wise.

For that matter… it took a lot longer to go up in level. For example… killing an Orc was worth an average of 14.5 XP. Getting to level three as a Magic User required 4501 XP. That meant that your party of four needed to kill off 1242 orcs to reach level three through combat experience if no one died (if someone died the doubling experience point tables let a new character catch up very quickly, which was good because older edition characters died a lot). Even with experience for treasure… a party usually only gained 3-6 levels per year of play – 50-odd sessions.

So what would those spellcasting limitations look like if you imported them into a current d20 game? Well, at least in Eclipse, such “Old School” magic levels are blatantly Specialized and Corrupted for one-third cost (or possibly even double-specialized given the number and severity of limitations here).

Basic Spellcasting Limitations:

Casting Spells takes more time. If the base casting time is:

  • One Standard Action the spell requires three initiative counts per spell level including metamagic other than “Quicken”).
  • One Full Round the spell requires sixty initiative counts.
  • More Than One Round the spell requires ten times as long to cast.
  • A Free Action the spell requires one initiative count.
  • A Swift or Immediate Action the spell requires two initiative counts.
  • Scrolls require the normal casting time, and are subject to the same limitations as direct casting. Wands and Rods only require three counts to activate, while Staves require six. Unfortunately, the save DC for wands, rods, and staves is only 14.
  • If such an action would not be completed before “0”, the countdown continues into the next round.

There is no such thing as a concentration check. Any damage or distraction that would normally call for a concentration check causes your spell to fail automatically, and be lost.

Spellcasting does not invoke attacks of opportunity, but the spellcaster cannot apply Dodge or Dexterity bonuses to his or her AC while spellcasting without losing the spell.

You may only prepare spells after a period of uninterrupted rest or meditation.

  • 1’st and 2’nd level spells require four hours.
  • 3’rd and 4’th level spells require six hours.
  • 5’th and 6’th level spells require eight hours.
  • 7’th and 8’th level spells require ten hours.
  • 9’th level spells require twelve hours.

It takes fifteen minutes per level of the spell per spell to prepare a spell. Thus preparing a third-level spell requires forty-five minutes. If you then go on to prepare a fifth level spell, that’s an hour and fifteen minutes – for a total of two hours to prepare two spells.

You cannot spend more than eight hours preparing spells before you will need to rest again to prepare more.

There is no such thing as spontaneous spellcasting. All spells must be prepared.

The spell charts are not “spells per day”. The spell chars show the maximum number of spells a spellcaster may have prepared. A powerful spellcaster may need many days to prepare all of his or her spells.

This means that a spellcasters daily “spell budget” is basically sixteen to thirty-two levels of spells. At the low end that might be four first, three second, and two third level spells. It would take a seventh level magic user five hours to memorize his or her selection of 4/3/2/1 (twenty spell levels in total) spells after at least six hours of uninterrupted rest. A ninth level magic user with the capacity to store 4/4/3/2/1 spells needs eight hours of rest and eight and a quarter hours to prepare spells – and if he or she tried to cast them in a fight, a fair chunk of those would probably be disrupted and lost.

The DC of saving against a spell is fixed at 16. Yes, this means that high-level targets will almost always make their saving throws.

Counterspelling is possible, but usually pointless. If you have time to hold an action for a counterspell, why aren’t you tossing off a quick Magic Missile or something and stopping your opponent from casting a spell in the first place?

Additional Arcane Caster Limitations Include:

  • Arcane Casters may only learn (Int/2) spells of each level they can cast. Read Magic is automatically one of them. They normally begin with another three first level spells – one offensive, one defensive, and one utility, selected at random.
  • Arcane Casters must record the spells they gain access to along with the results of a roll of (1d20 + Spell Level). If that is under their current intelligence, they can comprehend the spell and may choose to add it to their spells known.
    • For an example, Tim the Intelligence 14 Magic User has gotten ahold of scrolls or spell formulas for Color Spray (19), Burning Hands (3), Glitterdust (15), Pyrotechnics (12), Fireball (9), and Fly (16). With a maximum spell list of seven spells of each level he can cast, he may opt to learn Burning Hands, Pyrotechnics, and Fireball. If he gets his Int up to 15 he could opt to learn Glitterdust, and at 16 he could opt to learn Fly. Sadly, Color Spray is likely to remain far out of reach at any level where it might be useful – unless Tim saves a first level slot and opts to research (say) Tim’s Scintillating Butterflies, which is a different spell with the same basic effect. Note that, if you successfully research a spell you still roll – but the maximum result is equal to your current intelligence.
  • Arcane Casters only automatically gain one spell formula from among those they could potentially cast each level (although they may seek out or buy more if the game master allows it or they capture a spellbook or something). They may check (and record) their spell comprehension for desired spells until they find one that they can currently comprehend to add to their spellbooks. They may add a spell that they cannot currently cast to their books if they so desire, but usually have no reason to do so.
    • For example, Tim has made level seven, and wants a fourth level spell – in his case he wants Wall of Fire. Unfortunately, the check results in a roll of 23 – far beyond his intelligence! He doesn’t pick that one. Dimension Door turns up a 15. That’s tempting – next level he’ll get his Int up to 15 and be able to use it – but why not choose it next level? Next up, his third choice of Lesser Globe Of Invulnerability comes up a “7” – and so Lesser Globe Of Invulnerability goes into his book and onto his list of learned spells.
  • Arcane Casters will find that any armor or shield that would normally produce a 5% or more chance of arcane spell failure causes automatic arcane spell failure.
  • As a note, spellbooks do NOT have plot immunity. They may be stolen, destroyed by area-effect spells and attacks, and so on. It is VERY WISE to use backup spell books and traveling spell books!

Additional Divine Caster Limitations Include:

  • Divine spellcasters may only pray for a limited list (Wis/2) of spells of each level they can cast. “Consecrate Holy Symbol” (L1) is always one of them.
  • Divine spellcasters may only select spells for their list that are appropriate to their god. For a quick example, Odin does not grant Sanctuary and Poseidon does not grant Flame Strike. If the game master has the time, and wishes to make the effort, gods may also offer access to unique spells related to their particular specialties.
  • Divine spellcasters gain spells beyond level three from spiritual servants of their god and gain spells of level seven or above directly from their god at the discretion of those entities. They may be denied spells, granted spells other than what they prayed for, be assigned missions or quests, or be asked to attone for misdeeds at the whim of those entities.
  • Divine spellcasters who change gods must prove themselves worthy followers of their new god with mighty oaths, quests, and deeds in the service of their new god. If they attempt to leave the service of their new god, those same oaths will utterly destroy them.
  • As a rule, Clerics will be asked to spend time preaching, to refuse missions that their god does not approve of and to undertake ones that he or she does approve of without further reward, to use weapons and armor only as approved of by their god, to build and maintain temples, and so on.

Spellcasters operating under those restrictions will be roughly back to where they were in first and second edition; they may have some useful noncombat effects that they may use for special circumstances and they will have a very limited range of combat spells and game-changing effects that they can cast once in a while during fights IF a bunch of other characters protect them while they do it. Their spells, however, often will not work against high-end opponents, who can be counted on to make their saving throws. Magic will become, once again, a very limited special resource, to be husbanded carefully and deployed with planning – or in extreme emergencies.

Of course, in Eclipse, all this reduces the cost of your magic levels to the point where you can easily afford to add some weapons skills, a better BAB, a few more hit points, and other bennies – resulting in the modern equivalent of an old-style multi-classed character without any major complications or sacrifices.

Looking at all this also helps explain why so many players made Elven Fighter/Magic-Users in first and second edition days despite the 7/11 level limitation. After all… level eleven was well past the point where you could prepare all your spells each day. Were you on a long adventure? You’d have just as many spells each day as a higher-level human mage. They’d be weaker spells (at least in some cases), but YOU could wear armor. Not only did you have a better chance of getting your spells cast because you were harder to hit, but you weren’t an obvious target like that unarmored guy. If you started from level one, a human magic-user wouldn’t really have much of a magical edge on you for nearly two hundred sessions. Even better, the high-end magical gear worked for you just as well as it did for a higher-level wizard – reducing the gap even more. I, personally, played a maxed-out elven fighter/magic-user for a couple of years in a game that went up past level eighteen (for the human wizard, characters with easier advancement tables had higher levels) and it worked just fine. I even got some better items than the higher-level mage because they were used more often, and so did more good for the party, in the hands of someone who didn’t have so many other high-level spell options. And best of all… you could reasonably play your fighter/magic-user through the fifty-odd lower-level sessions before adding a human wizard to the party became really viable.


Underlying The Rules Part VI: Discussion and Development

And for today it’s an answer to a question again…

So I’ve recently been reading Dave Arneson’s True Genius, and it’s really been making me think of Eclipse. The first essay in particular, regarding how Original D&D utilized a melding of open system and closed system designs to establish a new paradigm of game design (and play) that went beyond what either could accomplish alone – and how this was largely lost with the release of AD&D and its rejection of the open system principles therein in favor of standardization – is an excellent summary of why I love what Eclipse has done with regards to (as I see it) trying to reintroduce those principles back into Third Edition (at least somewhat) via the mutability of game rules (a la corruption and specialization for abilities, world templates, a stronger focus on modularity with what’s used and what’s not, etc.).

In that light, this article takes on a new dimension, as it honestly looks like KrackoThunder is trying to leverage the closed system principles of Third Edition (e.g. the immutability of the “implied setting,” the invariability of the rules, and their extrapolation with regard to “how things work”) to achieve the results that you’d get from an open system, wherein those things are defined as part of the act of creating the setting (or, at a slightly higher level, using the rules as ur-tools to effectively build a game – along with a setting – unto itself) and so more easily allow for that level of alteration with regards to players tinkering with what is and is not allowable within the scope of the game.

Of course, as you noted here, that doesn’t really work; it’s like trying to “rob the bank” in Monopoly. Of course, the same is true in reverse as well, which is why I roll my eyes whenever I see someone unironically utilizing Eclipse to make what you called an “atrocity build.”


Breakthroughs are often very simple insights; the genius lies in picking out something that no one else saw.

Test your hypothesis. Only survivors breed. “Particles” are waves. Motion is relative.

Those are the key insights that led the the scientific method, to the theory of evolution, to quantum mechanics, and to relativity in three words each. Each explained things – why philosophical theorizing rarely led directly to practical advances, why animals and illnesses were so well adapted to their environments, why electrons didn’t spiral into nuclei, how Maxwell’s equations could work when things were moving.

Exploring the consequences of those simple ideas is still underway – in some cases after many centuries.

Personally, I’ve always seen the stroke of genius fundamental to role-playing games as a bit of psychological insight; Adult “Let’s Pretend” needs rules. And while that phrasing does evoke safewords and agreed-on limits rather than RPG’s… that’s fair enough, since that’s where the notion appeared first – even if that’s arguably an independent line of development.

But when it comes to games and “let’s pretend”… Unlike kids adults won’t be happy with Robbie the Dinosaur, Spaceman Spiff, the Wicked Witch of the East, and Megatron.

  • Adults are competitive; they don’t like to be overshadowed – and so every role needs to be unique and important. They need some rules on creating tolerably “balanced” characters and some expectations on what kinds of characters are appropriate.
  • Adults have firm opinions. Since they won’t give in easily they need rules to resolve what happens when they don’t agree on an outcome.
  • Adults want “fair” rewards and consequences for their decisions. They need a rules system for that or they’ll always suspect bias.
  • Adults want details – a more complicated plot with surprise twists and turns. They need a game master.

All of that flows from “Adults need rules”. They aren’t going to be happy with the vague “everyone imagines their own thing” that little kids are. For them… it’s not much fun without acknowledgement by others and a certain level of participation. That’s why a player who’s sulking, or busy reading a book, or getting drunk instead of playing is such a downer in a group.

And the practitioners of this new hobby looked upon it, and it was pretty good – but, unlike the works of a divine creator, it was equally obvious that it could be BETTER.

But, the hobbyists being human, and each having their own personal inner description of the perfect game, they didn’t quite agree on what would improve it.

  • Inevitably there were a lot of things that the original, simple, pioneering, rules did not cover – and so there was pressure for more rules, more tables, and more systems. They had a point. When there were no clear rules on a topic disagreements soon broke out.
    • Of course, more rules complicated everything. The people who wanted to play casually didn’t like that.
  • There was the push for more coherent and simpler rules. They had a point. All those tables and different systems for resolving various tasks were complicated and messy to deal with.
    • Of course, that meant that a lot of factors that affected specific tasks didn’t get included. The simulationists didn’t like that.
  • There were players who wanted pure role-playing and who didn’t like being restrained by rules at all – and wanted more options if there had to be rules. They had a point. More options meant more interesting and distinctive characters.
    • Of course, that complicated the rules in proportion to the number of options added. The people running the games didn’t like that.
  • There were the wargamers, who wanted to just relabel tanks, infantry platoons, and artillery units as “Knights”, “Men At Arms”, and “Wizards” and so on. They had a point. They were experts at turning limited sets of rules interactions into exciting scenarios.
    • Of course, the people who wanted more “realistic:, normal-human-scale characters didn’t like that.
  • The competitive players wanted clear methods of “winning” and – since that really didn’t work in a social game – at least wanted a way to keep score, whether that was accumulated gold, experience, reaching “name” levels, or access to better toys.
    • Of course, the people who liked to try new characters all the time didn’t like that.
  • The world-builders wanted a coherent underlying description of the way things worked so that they could explore the worlds and social systems that would result from such things, instead of just presuming a vaguely-medieval world.
    • Of course, the people who wanted to search the rules for exploits that were being overruled in the name of “the way the setting works” didn’t like that.
  • The deep-immersion players wanted death to be the result of heroic sacrifice, or a dramatic climax, or something. Wounds, disabilities illnesses… what fun were they?
    • Of course, the people who liked really big weapons and “realistic” battles didn’t like that.

And so compromises were made. Gaming groups filled with house rules, each group worked under different assumptions, and gaming fragmented.

And there were many other, albeit mostly more specific, fault lines and opposing forces for each.

And the publishers looked upon their sales figures, and this was bad.

To try and fix things there was compromise on the writers and publishers side. It was weighted towards new rules of course, simply because the publishers needed to keep selling stuff – but for quite some time gestures could be made towards almost everyone’s priorities because early game systems weren’t very sophisticated.

And so.,,

  • There were more rules, but there were attempts to keep a lot of them unobtrusive, on the game masters side, optional, or limited to particular situations.
  • There were premade characters, and quick-generation options, and ways to try to get people playing as quickly as possible.
  • There were attempts to streamline and unify the mechanics with things like single-mechanic skill systems instead of a mess of specific formulas and tables.
  • Compiled lists of special modifiers were (not unreasonably) pushed over to the game master to just assign some modifiers.
  • Options were added.
  • Characters did get to be the equivalent of military units (and superheroes and possibly even gods) later on, but they started off weak.
  • All sorts of character milestones were set up.
  • Character advancement was greatly accelerated, and the gap between old and new characters was (sometimes, since this annoyed the people with old characters) reduced.
  • The rules attempted to imply dangerous combat, deadly wounds, and long-term consequences – but were rewritten to make actual consequences vanishingly rare.
  • Some coherent information on “the way things worked” was added – but it was always a side-bar thing since the marketing department wanted every customer to buy everything.
  • Exploits were plugged, but mostly in obscure errata that only the people who were really annoyed by the exploits bothered to find.

That didn’t all happen in every game of course. Some games – those designed after the first rush – started off with some of it in place. Champions / Hero System, for example, started off with a well-chosen bell-curve generic resolution system, lots of options, and military-unit characters, but is still struggling with complexity, a lack of character milestones, “the way things work”, and various exploits. Rifts – thanks to creator decisions – has never really updated much of anything past the first few “different from AD&D” reforms. Basic Dungeons and Dragons went the minimalist route – and soon ran into the nothing much left to publish” barrier.

Eclipse, of course, is a compromise just like everything else – and, not too surprisingly, leans towards my biases.

  • Complexity? I can easily deal with that. Bring on the complexity!
  • Casual play? Grab a pre-build (although I’ve put out a lot of those for various settings). I’m not giving up my options!
  • Coherence? Well, using d20 as a base took care of THAT. If anything it had gone too far – and thus my support for a 3d6 skill mechanic. Roll 3d6 instead of 1d20 sometimes seems reasonable enough to me.
  • Modifiers? I can think of thousands for everything. This is hopeless, so the game master will have to handle it.
  • Realistic characters? A bit at first – but I can be a realistic person every day. I want my larger-than-life impossible feats of heroism!
  • Disparity between old and new characters? Eclipse offers several ways to play with the power curve. For this… new characters can be made powerful, but very focused – becoming more versatile as their association with older characters drags them along to higher levels more rapidly fast enough to add new abilities as they finish exploring old ones.
  • Deadly combat? I tend to prefer role-playing, so defenses are fairly cheap and plentiful – if sometimes (such as Action Hero/Stunts) limited use to ensure that there’s some longer-term cost to losing.

Perhaps most importantly… Eclipse restricts itself to pure mechanics, with little to no “setting” material – but directly tells the game master to restrict, modify, or ban any options that do not fit into his or her setting. In Eclipse, “The way things work” explicitly overrides “but the rules say”.

Not surprisingly, Eclipse appeals most to those with similar biases – although there is a substantial secondary appeal of “everything you need to make an optimized or exotic character is in the basic book”.

When it comes to KrackoThunder, I could be wrong, but I suspect that he or she sees the games as fairly adversarial things in which the game master has arbitrary power and it’s up to the players to try to “win” by coming up with rules-combinations that trump various game master ploys (or, occasionally, each other). Thus the questions about making your minions absolutely loyal, making spells totally unbreakable, using Channeling (Conversion) to gain limitless use of Wish or Miracle, laying mega-powerfed curses, and so on.

Unfortunately, from that point of view, suggesting that the setting and the social requirements of the game override rules, exploits, and gambits like the classic “introducing gunpowder” routine amounts to arbitrarily declaring that the players are not allowed to win and that there is no point in playing.

Still, while a few games (and MMORPGs) are run that way, tabletop RPG’s were never really designed to be adversarial at all – and “winning” generally consists of having a good time, being creative, and winding up with good stories rather than dominating clashes of rules. To the best of my knowledge, only World Of Synnibar has attempted to put in a rule which says that if anyone can identify a spot where the game master failed to follow the rules exactly as written during a session then the entire session is null and void.

I hope that KrakoThunder and his or her friends are having a good time with their games – but given that all the stuff I write ultimately comes with the caveat “See how your game master thinks this works in the setting” I just don’t see how I can contribute. to an adversarial game. Writing a few books doesn’t give me magical powers of overriding local game masters.

Still, I hope this little retrospective has been interesting!


My Little Pony Index II

Ponies have continued to be a fairly popular topic – so here’s an updated subindex for pony-related material. There’s a fair amount of background and three major categories of ponies in the herd though – d20 ponies built using the Supheroic World Template (everyone gets free Mana equal to their Con Mod each round), Ponies built to Alzrius’s standards (compatible with 3.5, Pathfinder, and Ponyfinder), and Hero System Ponies (we use 4’th edition, but it’s not like NPC’s need a lot of updating).

Eclipse d20 Ponies (My Versions):

Background Material:

Building Pony Characters / Examples:

Hero System Ponies:

Thanks to terribly bad luck and some summonings, some ponies from the (normally imaginary) magical land or Equestria are running about in the current Champions game. Oh well. Superheroic Mages have turned lose much sillier and more destructive things.

  • Prince Blueblood and the Cartoon Powers Package: Prince Blueblood the Navigator, standard “Toon” powers, and why Celestia tolerates him.
  • Apple Bloom: Alchemist, trap-maker, and (very) minor earth-mage. For when you want to film “home alone” in Equestria.
  • Scootaloo: Scout, weathermage, and junior speedster. Note that – since normal humans with no wings at all can learn flight magic in the setting, this version of Scootaloo CAN fly. She just can’t steer too well yet…
  • Sweetie Belle: Junior sorceress, singer, and just too cute to stop. For all the Cutie Mark Crusaders “Awwww… We’re not in trouble are we?” moments.
  • Trixie Lulamoon and the Alicorn Amulet:  Trixie the Minor Sorceress, a discussion of Traveling Performers – and the power of the Alicorn Amulet.
  • Apex – Prince Blueblood Escapes From My Little Pony: An upgraded Prince Blueblood as a hero of the Apex setting. The role of the nobility in the government of Equestria. Blueblood finds his purpose – and it’s being an arrogant ass.

Alzrius’s Eclipse d20 Ponies:

Alzrius built his ponies so as to fit into “standard” d20 games – whereas I used the “Superheroic” world template because it would allow my builds to reproduce the things that the ponies did on the show. Of course, that means that my builds will only work well in games based on the assumptions of Equestria; they won’t do so well in basic games. For those, courtesy of Alzrius, we have…

  • The Pony Races:  Earth Ponies, Pegasi, and Unicorns.
  • The Elements of Harmony:  Built as Eclipse Relics.
  • Rarity:  Starting off the series at level one! Commentary: Using the Elements of Harmony to cover the characters occasional incredible stunts.
  • Princess Celestia: As she generally appears on the show – as a ninth-level mentor-type who explains why she can’t handle things.
  • Adagio of the Sirens: Unreformed, still at large, and needing only an enchanted gem to make a comeback.
  • Lex Legis (And his Picture): Alzrius’s original character – and a very “gray” potential opponent. He has an upgrade here: The Dark Side of the Horse
  • Notes on Zecora: A discussion of just how much power – or lack thereof – is needed to build Zecora. Comments: My take on Zebras.
  • The Journal of the Two Sisters – and lapses in logic therein. Comments: Unicorn populations and birthrates, basic demographics – and why the “Unicorns losing their magic” story makes no sense in any terms.
  • Iliana, the Ponyfinder Queen: An examination of how to use Eclipse to customize – and slightly upgrade – a Ponyfinder queen to fit her history.
  • Lashtada, Ponyfinder Goddess:  As set up using The Primal Order for second edition.
  • Sonata Dusk: As appearing in his Fanfiction.
  • A Magical Medieval Society: Equestria: Building equestrian society using “A Magical Medieval Society”.
  • Baby Got Backlash: Flurry Heart and Magical Surges
  • Tempest Shadow: The movie antagonist escapes into d20, rather than remaining to face the friendship…

My Alzrius-Styled Eclipse Ponies:

Alzrius Pony Notes:

If and when additional pony-related material gets posted on this blog or Alzrius’s blog, I’ll try to link it here.

Eclipse: The Codex Persona is available in a Freeware PDF Version, in Print, and in a Paid PDF Version that includes Eclipse II (245 pages of Eclipse races, character and power builds, items, relics, martial arts, and other material) and the web expansion. Here’s a Featured Review of it and another Independent Review.

The Practical Enchanter can be found in a Print Edition (Lulu), an Electronic Edition(RPGNow), and a Shareware Edition (RPGNow).  There’s an RPGNow Staff Review too.


Underlying The Rules Part V – Questions And Answers

And now that I have a few minutes to start catching up on comments again, this particular comment from KrakoThunder brings up some interesting points about the d20 system and what happened to it. Admittedly, that’s starting to drift away from generic social expectations applicable to all gaming – but the difference in perception comes up quite a lot.

  • Part One in this series – The Social Contract – can be found HERE.
  • Part Two – Adjusting The Spotlight – can be found HERE.
  • Part Three – Making A Group Effort – can be found HERE.
  • Part Four – Setting Over Rules (The part that this comment was addressed to) – can be found HERE.

…Personally I feel that Setting, at least in 3.5 or pathfinder, isn’t actually that relevant…

That’s an excellent illustration of a fairly subtle point – a division in social expectations between people who are used to d20 style games and most other systems that goes back to an old marketing decision. Wizards of the Coast wanted to sell as many copies of each book as possible – and so they did something fairly innovative.

They had a reasonably universal system and so they quietly decoupled their mechanics-laden sourcebooks from specific settings and included hints in the books and online on how to squeeze the new material from each such sourcebook into their existing settings.

That was subtle, but big. There had been plenty of semi-universal systems before, but no one had ever really tried that. Chaosium’s Basic Role Playing covered a lot of things – but they never tried to make the stuff they published for Runequest fit into Nephilim or Nephilim stuff fit into Superworld. Similarly, a Hero System “Galactic Guardians” sourcebook was never meant to be compatible with a Justice Inc. game – and there was no attempt to make it so. GURPS put out world sourcebooks with no intent that their Lensman sourcebook would ever be coupled with one of their WWII sourcebooks.

Other games were less successful at it. For example, the One Roll Engine system was used for Godlike – a WWII game featuring superheroes with relatively minor powers who didn’t have too big an effect on history. But, while the setting was quite good… the One Roll Engine mechanics didn’t actually support the “relatively minor powers” or “not too big an effect on history” part. It wasn’t at all hard to build characters who broke the game, often even if you didn’t mean to do so. There are several such characters on the blog here simply because I found it amusing to make them.

Quite a lot of games weren’t that ambitious. They wrote tight systems that were deeply integrated with specific settings. Games like World Tree or Army Ants or Bunnies and Burrows could be very, VERY, good games – but you weren’t going to be able to use their systems to run a Starship Troopers game or a cold war espionage game.

But that limited sales – and so Wizards Of The Coast quietly de-emphasized “Setting”, suggesting that it was essentially unfair of game masters to disallow the use of whatever nifty new sourcebook a player had purchased and become enamored of.

This, however, turned something that had previously been a very minor problem into a major one. Sourcebooks aren’t written by an omniscient collective, and editors really can’t keep complete track of thousands of pages of rules. So if a “Voodoo Pirates” sourcebook included a “Loa Bound” ability which let each character bind with a single Loa to gain a package of distinctive magical pirate powers that they could use all they wished… well, that worked just fine in a Voodoo Pirates game. Everyone got one highly distinctive power package.

But if a player took “Loa Bound” and then (say) pulled a “Celestial Radiance” ability from some other sourcebook – perhaps a “High Gods” book of religious powers – which let a character convert innate magical effects into shields and blasts of light and combined it with a “Surging Birthright” ability from a “Mystic Talents” sourcebook that boosted innate magical powers (and was meant to be used with the relatively minor powers from that book), then suddenly the game master found himself or herself dealing with the equivalent of Marvel’s Dark Phoenix running around blasting things in his secret supernatural psychic detectives setting.

That’s an exploit. Things that were never meant to be used that way being used to break the game. Now those particular books don’t actually exist (although books along those lines with staff that breaks the game if used elsewhere certainly do) – but the pattern should be recognizable to any d20 gamer. The fact that no one can agree on just where the line between “good character design” and “abusive exploits” lies just complicates the problem.

Exploits hadn’t been a big problem before. There had been a lot of games – Brave New World, World of Synnibar, and too many more to count – who’s rules just didn’t work properly. There were plenty of games where the rules were a poor match for the intended setting too – but sourcebooks intended for particular settings had always tended to be light on mechanics, heavy on setting information, and had a much more limited range of other sourcebooks to interact with. They also were usually written by individuals or small, cooperative, groups, came out far less often, and had groups of playtesters who played in that particular setting and so were familiar with all the information for it. Most exploits got edited out well before such books were published. Most of what got through were typos or stuff that was simply ambiguously phrased if you didn’t already know what it was supposed to mean.

That meant that, up until this point, most exploits had been of individual rules that were poorly written. For example, early editions of Champions / Hero System had “Endurance Batteries” which, when combined with other flaws such as “increased endurance cost”, could make powers free to use and much cheaper at the same time. That kind of thing was easily errataed though. Endurance batteries were changed into the Endurance Reserve power, and how they worked was modified – and the exploit went away.

But changing how “Loa Bound” worked would mean rewriting the entire Voodoo Pirates sourcebook. The same might go for the Celestial Radiance from the High Gods sourcebook, while removing Surging Birthright from the “Mystic Talents” book would make half of the rest of the book useless.

And so many “optimized” d20 characters wind up taking one level each in a bunch of different prestige classes, and combining stuff from half a dozen different sourcebooks that their authors never meant to be used together no matter what the marketing department said. Unfortunately, confessing that the books were incompatible would undermine the marketing strategy and reduce profits. That was out of the question. Ergo exploits were sometimes dealt with with special rules or online errata, but were mostly left to individual game masters to deal with. This led to the era of “Handbooks”, “Optimization Boards”, and Pun-Pun. Sure, you can find some optimization advice for GURPS and such – but it tends to be fairly general and minor, or rely on specific tricks that no game master in their right mind will allow, rather than on combining stuff from fifteen different sourcebooks in a detailed twenty-level build. For d20 there are massive works covering optimization for pretty much every character class.

The problem carried over into Pathfinder as well – and Pathfinder has become even more of a “throw in anything and everything” system than 3.5 was, simply because it picked up where 3.5 left off. Ultimately however… this path is a dead end. Gaming is a social activity, and focusing on the mechanics may fill your time when you’ve got no one to play with, but trying to actually use exploits eventually reaches the point where it’s disrupting the actual game – and that really doesn’t get you much of any extra fun.

That’s one reason why Eclipse includes a checklist for deciding what abilities will fit into your setting, advice on handling over-optimized characters, systems for character personalities and motives, and no setting at all. It’s also why it hasn’t really got any “expansion” books beyond a free web supplement that covers a few items that could not legally be included in Eclipse under the intial d20 license and a few typo corrections. Eclipse II includes one additional note (that you only get half “value” for negative attribute modifiers) and a lot of “how to use Eclipse to build what you want” segments. That’s to avoid the partially-compatible sourcebooks problem, to make sure that everyone has the same list of stuff to choose from to “optimize” their characters, and to limit the time and expense of running the game.

A strong setting is needed for serious roleplaying, to hold down on rules exploits, and to give a campaign it’s own identity. A really GOOD d20 campaign… is usually much more narrowly focused than the “you can use everything!” approach allows.

…Want a spaceship? Mind Flayers had spaceships, so spaceships obviously are a thing, and given infinite universes that are all connected via Far Realm, there’s a good chance somewhere there’ll be someone who fits the criteria. You probably can’t refuel it and you won’t find much out there, but you can have it….

Well, even if Mind Flayers exist in a given d20 setting (not being OGL material they often don’t) they may or may not have spaceships or bear any resemblance to “standard” Mind Flayers. As for the example of the “Predator” character and his spaceship and support staff and why he would not work in The Forgotten Realms… we’ll have to go into some history and look at the implications of allowing such a thing.

The Forgotten Realms existed as a literary setting long before Dungeons and Dragons came along – whereupon it became the setting for a personal campaign. Other gamers got little glimpses into that setting starting in Dragon #30 in 1979 – and then TSR produced the first edition set, wherein most of the space went to description and background, rather than first editions (rather slim) mechanics. We also got Kara-Tur, Moonshae, Waterdeep, an assortment of novels, and more – but, unlike Greyhawk, there really weren’t any major sci-fi elements.

Second edition stuff for the Forgotten Realms came along in 1990 – and brought us the quasi-mesoamerican Maztica subsetting as a bonus.

The Far Realms were introduced in 1996, in The Gates Of Firestorm Peak – (written for use with the Players Option series and nothing to do with the Forgotten Realms) – and didn’t really get tacked on to most of Wizards of the Coasts other settings until 3.0 (2000) and 3.5, when the idea that “every source should be potentially usable in any game” set in.

Now, as noted, the “predator” character was proposed not long after “Predator” first came out in 1987 – years before second edition came along, almost a decade before the Far Realms were introduced, and even longer before the option to use The Far Realms was shoehorned into The Forgotten Realms. That was back in first edition days, when the Forgotten Realms were pretty much pure sword-and-sorcery on an alternate earth.

Secondarily, as also noted, “Ri’al The Huntsman” came with a starship and a support staff. That isn’t like acquiring a flying carpet. That means access to a competent starship crew – to engineers with a through understanding of power systems and weaponry up through fusion devices and starship drives, to an armory, to multiple suits of powered battle armor, to planetary survey equipment, to radio communications, to an electronic library, to scientific specialists, and (of course) to an interstellar civilization to come from. All of which had to work. That’s kind of built in to playing a predator-type; if their technology doesn’t work all you have is a funny looking fighter with an attitude.

A functioning spacecraft doesn’t just mean “access to a lot of vacuum”. It means access to enormous amounts of technology, information, and possibly weaponry.

Of course, if that stuff worked… why hadn’t the gods of artifice and world-jumpers introduced it? The Forgotten Realms don’t support slow-and-steady scientific progress. It’s a world of superhuman intellects, skills far beyond what any human has ever had, divination, dimensional travel, and gods for every topic. If it’s not being used… it probably will not work.

…How unlikely is it for heroes to be the first one to find an exploit REALLY? I mean, someone simply has to be the first. The History of Humanity has always included the very same elements that make up the computer I’m typing this on (as refined etc. as they are)… And yet, computers sure didn’t exist at the dawn of humanity…

How unlikely is it for the player characters to be the first ones to find an exploit?

  • Does the setting include entities (whether Gods, Elder Races, Dimensional Travelers, Experienced Elder Characters) who know more, or have better sources of information than the player characters do? Why have all of them missed whatever-it-is?
  • Does the setting have a long history or is it very large? (For example, in many sci-fi games… quadrillions of Galaxies, each with many races which may be billions of years old?). Even just a few thousand years generally means that a LOT of similar characters have existed before.
  • Does it have a established list of developed spells, abilities, and technologies beyond what the characters have already mastered or longer than the characters contributions and developments? Then other characters have done more research and development than they have.
  • Have there been elder civilizations or races that reached peaks beyond the current state of the art?
  • Are the Player Characters devoting their time to adventuring rather than to doing research and development? The PLAYER reading about something on an optimization board or paging through the rulebook won’t help the CHARACTER come up with it.

If ANY of those apply… then it is vanishingly unlikely that the player characters will stumble across even a single major breakthrough or “exploit” that has been missed up until now.

Someone does indeed need to be first. For computers – which are not, by the way, “exploits” (those tend to be unexpected interactions, editing failures, misreadings, and game master errors) – there were many centuries of development by tens of thousands of people making incremental advancements. I really doubt that anyone wants to play out that process. Now if they wish to be fantasy innovaters… that’s what a “Founders” campaign is about. Otherwise… making even one original discovery is kind of unlikely. More than that becomes increasingly implausible.

I do tend to make exceptions for those players and characters who possess exceptional intelligence, knowledge, skill, and power and who then use them to attempt some experiment so insanely reckless that no one in their right mind would try it in a million years – but in that case I’m assuming that the few NPC’s who achieved the power to attempt such insanity knew better than to do it. If the character survives the resulting risk of death and (un-)healthy dose of catastrophe… well, they’ve earned some new knowledge. Still, that’s just me keeping the game exciting and rewarding in-character effort and player thought about the setting – not rewarding a player who’s been poring over the rulebooks and looking on the internet.

…Eh, I can get behind most of that… At least as long as the DM allows character rerolls. There is killing off a character you don’t like (which already sucks) and then there is making a player stick with a character that sucks because you made him magically out-of-nowhere suck…

Well, we are sort of before picking a particular system in these articles; that’s why the examples are from many different games. For that matter… while there are some settings – like the aforementioned World Tree – that are tied to their rules systems so tightly that they’d be quite hard to run otherwise – the Forgotten Realms really isn’t one of them. You could use the Forgotten Realms setting just fine without using AD&D or d20. You could use Baba Yaga, or GURPS, or ACE, or any of dozens of other systems since the setting itself doesn’t really rely on a specific set of rules.

As far as “allowing character rerolls” goes. I’m assuming that you mean making a new character if you’re not happy with the old one.

Really, as I’ve already noted, the players generally have more power over the game than the game master does. If you’re not having fun with the game, why play? The game master cannot make you play at all, much less make you play a character you’re not happy with. I’ve walked out of quite a few games that were boring or nonsensical when the game master refused to address those problems. On more than onc occasion the rest of the players have followed me. For an example of that… I was one of a group of players who concluded that one game masters current extra-dimensional adventure was neither interesting, coherent, or enjoyable – and the game master was refusing to reconsider any part of it or offer any alternative. Ergo the player group announced that our characters were now having a drink at the bar in their home town, talking about how lucky they’d been to find a handy gate out of that trap-dimension, and looking for another adventure to go on – and would be doing so regardless of what the game master said was happening until an adventure that we were interested in came up.

Some game masters will accept that no one is interested and go on to something else. Others will not. In this case… that particular game master stormed out. We simply took the existing characters, picked a new game master, and started another game.

He came back a few weeks later and joined the new game as a player.

No one can game master without players – but the players can always find or pick a new game master, rotate the task, or even play without one for quite some time.

…I feel like a lot of it is a nonissue unless someone is entirely uncooperative…

Very true. Unfortunately, however, a LOT of players can be entirely uncooperative on occasion – especially if they’ve got some idea in mind.

and finally:

…(btw, are you sure he didn’t mean Top Cow from Image Comics?).

Presumably this is in reference to Ballistic (from back in 2004, 4’th edition Hero System). Since I never did actually see any of the player’s source materials I really couldn’t say.

Of course, the major problem was that Ballistic apparently came from a fairly grim-and-gritty world, where powers were rare, people might spend months in agony in hospital burn wards, thousands of people could easily be murdered and disappear without a trace, and so on. Unfortunately, she was being imported into the Emergence setting, which stated that college degrees in magic were quite normal and most professionals used at least small spells (classical hedge magic and commercially available talismans ran up to ten active points, characters with talent or professional training could hit twenty, and rituals or those with magical ancestry could go even higher), that ghosts were common and could testify in court, and so on.

This meant that pretty much any injury or normal disease could be healed in a few minutes (It did take a ritual and a few hours to restore missing limbs and such), that the ghosts of murder victims commonly went to the police to complain about their deaths, that many kids could fly, that the weak and elderly often used telekinesis spells to handle tasks, that high-rise construction workers usually carried safe-fall charms, that long-term care (and hospitals) were pretty much nonexistent, and so on. The setting simply was not grim and gritty.

The player insisted on Ballistic being pursued by an evil corporation that was secretly murdering thousands of people and successfully covering it up in pursuit of researching things that had been commonly available via magic for centuries, on having enemies who were hunting his character because he’d put them in the hospital in agony for months (despite the lack of hospitals and long-term injuries once you reached an EMT or competent tribal shaman), and on lots of other details that simply were not consistent with the setting. He never did accept the fact that the setting simply did not match up with the setting of the comic book that he wanted to emulate or that – as a consequence – many of his characters “enemies” and most of her “history” didn’t actually exist.

That, of course, was what made the player and Ballistic a good bad example. He played… but he never really caught on to the fact that the rest of the characters considered his character an occasionally-useful madwoman.

And, for those who have gotten this far… hopefully that’s been at least thought-provoking!


Eclipse d20 – Playing With The Pulps Part I: The Pulp Hero and Advanced Pulp Hero Templates

They have flashing fists, blazing guns, and personal magnetism. They are stronger and faster than you are. They wrestle lions, solve mysteries, and shrug off bullets. They heal with incredible speed. They are secret agents, and pilots, and detectives. They draw paramours like magnets. They have amazing skills – and they hang out in jungle huts, cheap offices, and seedy tenements because they aren’t any BETTER than YOU, even if they are blatantly superior to you in ten thousand different ways.

Hercules, Hiawatha, Conan, and the Count Of Monte Cristo led the way, and Zorro, John Carter of Mars, The Lone Ranger, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Tarzan all followed in their path. They reached their full flower in The Shadow, Doc Savage, Sheena Queen of the Jungle, The Spider, Mata Hari (at least in legend), The Golden Amazon, The Phantom, Lady Luck, The Green Hornet, Olga Mesmer, Darkman, Indiana Jones, Remo Williams… there are swarms of them, romping through the golden age of the Pulps.

But they don’t throw lightning bolts, or lift aircraft carriers, or invoke the power of gods to heal. They may vanish into the shadows, but they don’t teleport through them, or sing like Orpheus, or fly through the air without a plane. At their best, their powers things like building up a tolerance to poisons, influencing animals, perhaps a trace of psychic abilities, and being stronger, tougher, and faster than any normal man – but only by a modest margin.

They are Pulp Heroes, not Superheroes.

The Basic Pulp Hero (32 CP / +1 ECL Acquired Template)

  • Pulp Powers/Witchcraft III (18 CP): Provides (Str + Dex + Con)/3 Power. If they drain their power pool below 5 points they become Fatigued. At 0 points they become Exhausted. This provides them with the following seven powers, all them are at least Specialized: instead of the usual wide-ranging suite of abilities that Witchcraft provides, most of their abilities are far more restricted.
    • Only A Flesh Wound/Healing: Specialized for Double Effect, only works on the user. A pulp hero can shrug off injuries and recover from poisons, diseases, and other injuries with amazing speed.
    • Crossbow Barrage/Hand of Shadows: Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect: Any crossbow the user uses acts as a fully automatic weapon; recocking and reloading itself with whatever ammunition the user has available and elects to load with each squeeze of the trigger. The user gains two bonus attacks at his or her highest attack bonus and may spend 2 Power to add his or her (Int Mod) to the attack checks and damage for each bolt for the next three minutes. All other modifiers apply normally.
      • Many Pulp Heroes in settings lacking firearms often settle on Dwarven Springbows, which have exactly the same game statistics as Crossbows, but use very powerful springs in tubes to propel the bolts. Yes, they look like guns. They are, however, quiet enough for everyone to hear all the clever dialogue and snappy one-liners over no matter how fast they’re fired.
    • Man Of Bronze/Hyloka: Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect / The user may spend 1 power to gain (Universal) Energy Resistance 8, Damage Reduction 4/-, and 2 points off any attribute drain or damage taken for one hour. An additional 2 Power will double those benefits, but only for ten minutes.
    • Trained By Mystic Monks/The Adamant Will. Pulp heroes have incredible poker faces and are almost impossible to mind control.
    • Unaccountable Magnetism/Glamour: Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect/Pulp heroes attract the attention of dangerous and inappropriate would-be partners, find old girlfriends, offspring, and other obligations all over the place, and upset possible rivals. They attract helpful sidekicks who often require rescuing or lead trouble to them. This has no cost, cannot be turned off, and provides a +12 bonus on any relevant romantic, seductive, or sensual rolls.
    • Canny Strike/Elfshot: Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect/You may spend 1 Power as a part of an attack action to force those you hit this round to make a DC (16 + Cha Mod) Will save or suffer one of the following effects of your choice:
      • Disarmed, Mortally Wounded, or Tripped.
      • Knocked Back (1d4 x 5) Feet. This movement does provoke AOO.
      • Blinded, Dazed, or Sickened for 1d3 rounds.
      • Deafened, Entangled, or Shaken for 1d4+1 rounds.
        • Mortally Wounded characters have +10 damage for purposes of determining when they are Disabled, Dying, or Dead – although, unless actually driven below -10 they will get 1d4+1 rounds after becoming technically Dead to gasp out final words or take a single dying action, although there’s no way to save them at this point short of something that can raise the dead. Mortal Wounds go away after magical healing, a DC 20 Heal Check, or if the victim is still alive in five minutes.
    • Danger Sense/Witchsight. Once per round the user may spend one power to come on guard (negating surprise) and/or take a 5′ step. This does not count as an action and may be done at any time. If the user chooses to spend 2 power he or she can also provide sufficient warning of an incoming attack or a trap triggering to allow any companions within 20′ to take a 5′ step as well. For 3 Power the user can negate surprise for his or her companions within that same radius. Sadly, no single character can be aided by Danger Sense – whether their own or someone else’s – more than once per round.
  • Advanced Witchcraft:
    • Explosive Fists/Wrath Of The Sea: Specialized in Unarmed Attacks (1 power to gain +6 to Attacks and Damage for ten minutes).
    • Crack Shot/Dance Of Flames: Specialized in Ranged Combat (1 Power to gain a +6 bonus to your Dexterity Modifier with respect to ranged combat for ten minutes).
  • Pacts: These are up to the individual hero but are normally drawn from the Service and Vows lists. The Sacrifice, Infusion, and Energy pact lists are usually reserved for pulp villains; they simply aren’t very heroic. They need to take two of them in any case, since they pay for the Advanced Witchcraft abilities, above.
  • Unbowed Hero/Innate Enchantment (11,000 GP Value, 12 CP):
    • Gravity Bow: Pathfinder, bolts cause 2d6 base damage (2000 GP).
    • Weapon Mastery (The Practical Enchanter): +4 Competence Bonus to BAB with Crossbows (Personal Only, 1400 GP). Yes, this does increase iterative attacks. Alternatively, a Pulp Hero may opt to apply this bonus to unarmed combat as well.
    • Immortal Vigor I: The Practical Enchanter, provides +(12 + 2 x Con Mod) HP (1400 GP).
    • Mage Armor (Personal Only, 1400 GP). Pulp Heroes are hard to hit even in their underwear.
    • Force Shield I (The Practical Enchanter) (Personal Only, 1400 GP)
    • Arrow Mind. This effectively lets a pulp hero engage in melee with his or her “guns” (2000 GP).
    • Resistance (Personal Only, 700 GP). This provides a +1 Resistance Bonus to their Saving Throws.
    • Ghost Sound (Background Effects Only, 700 GP). Pulp Heroes are often accompanied by snatches of background or personal theme music, ominous echoes, and other curious sound effects. This might provide a +1 bonus on occasional skill checks, but it would be unwise to count on it.
  • Bottomless Magazines: Immunity to Minor Expenses, Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect/ammunition only (Common, Minor, Trivial, may ignore the need for ammunition costing up to 15 GP/Shot, 2 CP). Note that this covers Bolts (,1 GP), Cold Iron Bolts (.2 GP), Crystalline Bolts (Ignore 1/2 Armor and Deflection Bonus, +1d6 versus objects, 5 GP), Primal Iron Bolts (.3 GP), Silver Bolts (2 GP), Adamantine Blanch Bolts (+10 GP over another material), and Silver Blanch Bolts (+.5 GP over another material)
  • Ready For Anything: Immunity/Power Activation (Very Common, Major, Minor, Specialized and Corrupted/only at the beginning of a fight. 3 CP): A Pulp Hero can pick 3 Power Points worth of enhancements – normally Man of Bronze (at the one point level), Explosive Fists, and Crack Shot – to “already” have running at the beginning of any conflict without power point cost.
  • Template Disadvantage: Select one from History (you have various old enemies and such scattered about), Hunted (one of your enemies is REALLY serious about it), Compulsive or Insane (many pulp heroes are chivalrous, or never break their words, or obsessively hunt down the criminal scum who killed their parents, or some such), or Poor Reputation (usually you’re known as a violent, murderous, vigilante-adventurer). In any case, (-3 CP).

The basic pulp hero is a one-man fire team – capable of laying down a steady stream of bolts, hard to hit, and able to absorb a great deal of damage if and when he does get hit – all very good qualities indeed if you’re going to make a habit of confronting criminal gangs, evil masterminds, and swarms of thugs pretty much on your own. Still, while they may be quite astounding, they aren’t incredible – as in; impossible to believe.

They may come pretty close though.

Still, there’s a step beyond the Basic Pulp Hero – and it’s time to take a look at that.

Advanced Pulp Hero (Additional 32 CP/+1 ECL Template, +2 ECL in total):

These borderline superheroes go just a bit beyond the average pulp hero; they are both physically AND mentally superior. They are brilliant masters of many skills, usually possess minor psychic powers, strange devices, or other gifts (or at LEAST expensive vehicles) and are invariably at least well-off and with little need to work. They are also usually either born with their potential or trained from a very early age, but the template can be acquired later.

Advanced Pulp Heroes can easily fit in with lower-end or specialized superheroes, but have a hard time on the upper end. It’s never really easy to tell what Batman is doing in the Justice League anyway.

  • A Will Of Iron: +1d6 Mana as 3d6 (10) Power, Specialized/only usable for Pulp Hero powers (3 CP).
  • The Inner Fire: Rite of Chi with +4 Bonus Uses, Specialized and Corrupted/only to restore power, only to refill the Pulp Hero Powers pool above (4 CP). +12 Bonus Uses that only automatically pay the cost of maintaining A Lens Of Brilliance, below (6 CP). Note that this more than suffices to keep A Lens Of Brilliance running constantly – so it’s bonus applies to skill points gained per level.
  • A Lens Of Brilliance/Spirit of the Sage, Specialized for Double Effect/Skill-related effects only (+6 to effective Int Mod), Corrupted/automatically reactivates itself, cannot be turned off as long as the user has Power remaining (1 Power/Ten Minutes, 4 CP). Note that, since this is always on, an Advanced Pulp Hero gains six skill points per level as well as getting a big bonus on their intelligence-based skills. Given the amount of combat Pulp Heroes see, at least one and probably two martial arts are probably in order.
  • Holmesian Expertise/Inner Light, Specialized for Double Effect/only for Skill and Attribute Checks (+6 to effective Wis Mod, 1 Power/Ten Minutes, 6 CP).
  • The Superior Man Need Never Be Broke: Minor Privilege/Wealth (3 CP):
  • One bonus Pulp Feat (6 CP). Pulp Feats include possessing Pulp Powers, having various Vehicles available, having your own ominous fortress-sanctum, gaining access to a pair of Occult Skills (the Shadowed Galaxy Action or Equipment skills are recommended), or something similar. A few just pick up Adept to pick up more skills, but that’s not a very interesting option for a Pulp Hero.

An Advanced Pulp Hero adds a genuinely frightening level of intelligence and awareness to the basic Pulp Hero framework – making him or her a true polymath and a master of the arts. They are heads of organizations, wealthy businessmen, doctors and professors, sometimes mystics, and all too often two or more of those at once. Is it really all that surprising that a good many of them decide that they ought to be the ones to rule the world? They’re so blatantly far better qualified to do so than anyone else is. Democracy? Bah! There are better ways!

Next time around on this it will be time to start going over some of those Pulp Powers.