(3.5/PF1) Playing a Utility Mage, Introduction and Part I: Spell Categories

November 28, 2022

My current campaign, where I’m playing a magic-hating slayer (a PF1 class) with the witch killer archetype, is moving toward its conclusion. As a result, I’ve started to think about my next character, with a wizard being an appealing prospect. To that end, here are some general thoughts I’ve had on how to get the most out of a wizard PC who has an out-of-combat focus.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that character classes lend themselves to certain roles. While various builds, alternate class features, and Pathfinder-style archetypes can tweak what each class does best, the base versions have particular areas of focus where they tend to be most effective. For wizards, one such area is what I call “utility magic.”

To be sure, their broad selection of spells allows for wizards to fulfill a wide variety of specialties. Blaster mages, battlefield controllers, summoners, and many more are areas where wizards can excel, or at least serve as above-average practitioners (even if several of those areas have their own specialty classes with a tighter focus). But utility magic is an area where wizards truly shine.

But rather than jump the wand, let’s start off with a simple definition of exactly what utility magic – or rather, a “utility mage” – is:

A utility mage is a wizard who primarily uses their spells to solve out-of-combat problems that the party faces.

Now, that’s a fairly broad and unnuanced statement, and so requires clarification. For one thing, this doesn’t mean that a utility mage has no part to play when combat breaks out. They absolutely do! But it’s not their specialty, which means that they’re not going to be an unstoppable force of destruction on the battlefield. Taking huge chunks out of an enemy’s hit points is something best left to fighters, rogues, sorcerers, and similar classes; utility mages do their part, but they truly shine when the problem facing the group is one that can’t simply be cut down.

With that said, let’s take a look at how a utility mage can best prepare their spells for the challenges they’ll face.

SPELL CATEGORIES

Before we talk about how a utility mage should prepare their spells, it should be stressed that what’s below are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. If you have a good idea of what your party will be facing in the near future, make sure to keep that in mind when readying your magical loadout for the day, adjusting the recommendations below as necessary. Flexibility is a utility mage’s greatest assets, so be sure to use it maximum effect when you know what you’ll be up against ahead of time.

Taking that into account, here are a few categories for how you should ready your spells each day:

Spells to Prepare: It’s self-evident that the spells you’ll want to actually prepare in your available spell slots are the ones you think there’s a high likelihood of needing to cast sometime over the next day. But you only have so many slots, which means getting the most you can out of the spells you’ve readied.

To that end, one of the most salient factors worth considering is the duration of a particular spell. Mage armor is an excellent choice here, because its hour-per-level duration means that once you have a few levels under your belt, it’s practically guaranteed to last for an entire adventuring day. Shield, by contrast, is much less likely to last as long as you need.

As a rule of thumb, any spell with a duration of 10 minutes per level should be considered here (taking into account the usefulness of the spell in question; if you’re adventuring in a temperate climate during the summer months, an endure elements spell won’t be very helpful, even if it does last for a long time). False life, resist energy, see invisibility; all are excellent choices that have the potential to last through the active part of an adventuring day, especially if you happen to have an Extend Spell metamagic rod handy.

There’s a second category of spells that you’ll also want to consider preparing here, but based on casting time rather than duration. Specifically, any spell which requires an immediate action to cast is something you’ll want to prepare, simply because there’s no other way to cast them in a timely manner. Feather fall, along with spells such as avoid planar effects (3.5), emergency force sphere (PF1), liberating command (PF1), or nerveskitter (3.5) are all spells you can’t put to their fullest use if you need to spend a move action drawing a scroll. Dedicate a spell slot to them so that you won’t wish you had later.

Spells to Leave a Slot Open For: A quirk of the d20 rules is that, if a preparatory spellcaster chooses to leave a spell slot open when preparing their spells for the day, they can fill it with a particular spell after fifteen minutes of study. You’ll want to take advantage of this for when an unexpected situation happens that requires a spell you haven’t prepped.

The general guideline here is to leave a single slot open at each spell level; if that’s too much, leave open a slot of the highest spell level you can cast, and one at every other level below that (remember, you can prepare a spell in a higher-level slot). That way, if it turns out that you need control water or stone shape, you can prepare them without having to wait an entire day.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with waiting an entire day if the party is in no rush. It won’t be that often that you’ll have fifteen minutes free to prepare a spell, but won’t be able to wait until tomorrow’s round of spell preparation. Even so, there are times when losing a day might make a difference; if the enemy army marches out the next morning, you won’t be able to wait a day to send an arcane eye into the commander’s tent to look over their plans.

While spells with niche effects are the go-to for this particular category, note that spells with long casting times also fit this designation very well. If you have ten minutes free to cast sending, then an extra fifteen minutes to prepare it usually won’t make that much of a difference. Ditto for fire trap, hallucinatory terrain, and major creation, among other spells.

Spells to Put in a Scroll: You know how wizards get Scribe Scroll for free? There’s a reason for that! Even if you trade that free feat away via an archetype or alternate class feature, make sure to take it via a feat slot as soon as you can; it’s that important!

Remember those niche spells we said probably weren’t worth preparing in a slot ahead of time? This is where they go! Something like water breathing doesn’t seem worth preparing at all when you’re about to venture down into a dungeon. But when the back room of the place turns out to open into a cavern with an underground lake, and some tentacled horror lurking in the water grabs the paladin and pulls him under, all of a sudden it’s one of the most important spells in your arsenal…and you can bet that he’s not going to be able to wait fifteen minutes for you to prep it in an open slot.

That’s really the perfect example for this category, because it encompasses spells which won’t be necessary ninety-nine percent of the time, but when they are needed, they’re needed right now! When your fighter fails his save against a medusa’s petrifying gaze, you need him back in the fight immediately, which is when it’s time to break out that scroll of stone to flesh you’ve been carrying around. The same can be said for using that scroll of remove curse you’ve been saving (since the cleric doesn’t usually prepare that spell) when the aboleth you’re fighting dominates the party’s barbarian.

That combination – immediacy and eccentric effect – is also why you shouldn’t bother putting spells with unusually short or notably long casting times on scrolls. The former (as noted previously) aren’t useful if you need to spend an action retrieving a scroll, while the latter can just be prepped into an open slot (since you already have the free time to cast them). That doesn’t even take into account that the PF1 rules specify that activating a scroll takes a standard action or the spell’s full casting time, whichever is longer, to boot. Since each scroll is a monetary investment on your part, make sure you’re putting your gp where it’ll do the most good.

Spells to Cast from a Wand or Staff: Remember that bit about a utility mage having a role to play in combat, even if it wasn’t where they excelled? This is what that was in reference to.

As exciting as it can be to imagine busting out a little-known spell that turns things around, there are going to be times when a fight is just a matter of wearing down the bad guys’ hit points before they wear down yours. To that end, you’ll want one or two good attack spells, an equal number of defensive spells, and a buff spell or two (all 4th-level or below), all of which will be your go-to magic for when a fight breaks out. Those are what you’ll want to go into wands, or ideally a staff.

If that sounds boring, remember that these are your fallback options for when there’s nothing else you can do to contribute. Solving out-of-combat problems is important, but when a fight does break out, you don’t want to be the guy sitting there doing nothing because he prepped for all sorts of unusual contingencies but has nothing to do in a straightforward battle. Better a staff/small group of wands than using a sling or a light crossbow.

This might seem like a less-than-ideal proposition, given that wands tend to have poor caster levels and worse save DCs. A wand of fireball, for instance, is caster level 5; that means it only deals 5d6 damage, which is 17 points on average, and 8 if the bad guys make their Reflex saves…which they likely will, since the save DC is only 14.

The thing to remember here is that’s what “not being optimized for combat” looks like. Reliably dealing a small amount of damage each round, ideally to multiple enemies at once, is a respectable role to play, even if it’s not one that warrants the spotlight. If you do want to stand out a little more, however, consider asking the GM if you can pay to improve a wand’s caster level (as per the “adding new abilities” clause for creating magic items). The difference in cost of upgrading a CL 5 wand of fireball to, for instance, a CL 10 wand of fireball is easy to calculate (it simply doubles the price from 11,250 gp to 22,500 gp), and while that won’t change the save DC, it ups the damage dice and helps to deal with spell resistance. If you can’t upgrade an existing wand, then make sure your next one is built that way to begin with.

A final note with regard to wands with attack spells: you’ll want to have at least two, just in case you run into an enemy who’s immune to one damage type. You can’t hurt devils with a wand of fireball, for instance, so you’ll want to have a wand of lightning bolt just in case.

For defensive and buffing wands, you’ll either want to choose spells that are personal-only (such as shield) or affect multiple creatures (such as haste). Spells which can be cast on others, but only affect one person per casting (such as cat’s grace), are likely to be depleted in very short order if everyone wants those used on them before every fight. While wands are made to be used, burning through them faster than you can fund buying/making new ones is something you want to avoid. Even for spells with long durations (such as protection from energy), you’ll still expend a number of charges equal to the entire party at the beginning of the adventuring day, which can add up faster than you might think; better to prepare those long-duration spells in your slots, even if you need to do so multiple times over.

One trick that help with a defensive/buffing wand’s lifespan is to buy or make them with the Extend Spell metamagic feat built-in. That this can be done is established in Pathfinder via riffle scrolls (which are just normal scrolls whose spells have been modified by Silent Spell), and there shouldn’t be a problem with it in 3.5 either. Using Extend Spell in this way is often a money-saver.

For instance, a typical wand of haste is 11,250 gp, since its construction cost is 5 (caster level) x 3 (spell level) x 750 gp. A wand of extended haste (CL 7 x spell level 4 x 750 gp) is 21,000 gp. And yet the latter lasts for 14 rounds compare to the former’s 5, being almost triple the duration for less than double the price. It also affects seven characters instead of five, in case you have a larger party. For more savings, ask if the GM will let you upgrade a former into the latter (though you’ll either need to have taken Extend Spell or have a metamagic rod for that).

Now, the advantage of a staff is that you can combine all of these functions into one (if you’re worried about the theme of the staff, just say that it’s “battle”). Doing so has numerous advantages, the largest of which is that it saves on money. Consider the following example (for 3.5):

Morios, a utility mage, has a CL10 wand of fireball (22,500 gp), a CL 10 wand of lightning bolt (22,500 gp), a CL 7 wand of extended haste (21,000 gp), and a CL 3 wand of extended shield (4,500 gp). His total expenditures add up to 70,500 gp. Even if he crafts all of those himself, halving the prices, that’s still expensive! To cut down on costs, Morios decides to commission the crafting of a custom staff that has all of those spells.

Because staves can’t be crafted with a caster level of less than 8 (and there’s no reason to go higher, since they always function at their wielder’s caster level), and because Morios doesn’t want to have to expend two charges for any particular function, the costs are as follows:

  • The extended haste (being a 4th-level effect) costs 12,000 gp (caster level x spell level x 375 gp).
  • The next-highest effect can be either of the 3rd-level spells, so fireball is arbitrarily chosen, costing 6,750 gp (caster level x spell level x 281.25 gp).
  • The remaining 3rd-level spell, lightning bolt, only costs 4,500 gp (caster level x spell level x 187.5 gp).
  • The final spell effect, a 2nd-level extended shield, costs 3,000 gp (caster level x spell level x 187.5 gp).

That comes out to a grand total of 26,250 gp, barely more than the cost of single his most-expensive wand! Throw in that there’s no more wasting actions drawing and switching between wands, and that his staff will automatically use his caster level and ability score modifier to save DCs, and this is a much better option all around…or is it?

One thing to keep in mind here is that, as attractive as staves are, they have some hidden drawbacks. The big one being that you’re now drawing on a communal pool of charges for your spells. Before, Morios’s four wands had two hundred charges between them, with an average cost of 352.5 gp per charge. For his staff, he’s paying 525 gp per charge. Whether or not that’s worthwhile is a toss-up (you can’t assign a gp value to saving actions switching between wands, nor the ability to use your own caster level and ability score modifier for save DCs), but purely in terms of cost it’s a net loss, particularly since the charges will run out that much sooner.

And it’s worse for PF1-style staves. Their cost to create is higher, albeit only barely (the example staff listed above would cost 28,000 gp to purchase in PF1), but while their ability to be perpetually recharged for no monetary expenditure means that you save gp in the long run, their miniscule pool of only ten charges – and inability to regain more than one charge per day – means that you’ll expend them almost immediately if you use them as your go-to in battle, and then be stuck waiting for days to fully recharge them.

If you’re playing Pathfinder 1st edition, and want to follow these guidelines for playing a utility mage, it’s probably better to eschew staves altogether in favor of wands.

Next time: Spells are a utility mage’s bread and butter, but they don’t get all that many for free, so we’ll look at various methods of spell acquisition.

Eclipse, Ardlings, and Backgrounds

September 10, 2022

The announcement of a revised Fifth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons – called “One D&D,” though I find myself doubting that will be its final name, similar to what happened to “D&D Next” when Fifth Edition formally debuted – has been impossible to miss.

But while most other gaming-related outlets, both personal and professional, are interested in examining One D&D unto itself, or rather the initial playtest packet that released following the announcement (and which may or may not resemble what the final product looks like), I’m going to take a narrower focus, at least here. Rather than examining the playtest holistically, I’m instead going to focus on the new race introduced there, called ardlings.

And, of course, I’m going to see what their stats look like translated back to the d20 System, specifically via Eclipse: The Codex Persona.

All About Ardlings

Ardlings, as presented, seem designed to fill two particular niches. The first is that they’re a celestial counterpart to tieflings, which is rather strange since D&D has traditionally had aasimars for that (maybe One D&D’s designers didn’t like their name?). The second is that ardlings are a theriocephalic race, having animal heads atop humanoid bodies, though the flavor text makes it clear that they can be more generally anthropomorphic in nature, such as having fur covering the rest of their skin.

More notable is that ardlings have three distinct subcategories, which play (admittedly minor) roles in both their appearance and powers:

Exalted ardlings can trace their celestial heritage back to one of the Chaotic Good outer planes (Arborea, Ysgard, or the Beastlands), and typically have cat, eagle, goat, or mule heads.

Heavenly ardlings have ties to one of the Lawful Good outer planes (Mt. Celestia, Arcadia, or Bytopia), and usually have elephant, owl, pig, or stork heads.

Idyllic ardlings have ancestry tracing back to one of the Neutral Good outer planes (Elysium, Bytopia, or the Beastlands), and mostly have bear, dog, raven, or toad heads.

Of course, the animal suggestions connected to each “celestial legacy” (as the playtest packet calls them) isn’t rigidly enforced; much like how the degree to which their animal features manifest is variable, the listings above are suggestions rather than hard-and-fast rules.

The rules that are hard and fast, however, are listed below, along with how they’d be recreated for a d20 System character using Eclipse.

  • Humanoid creature type

While this seems to fly in the face of the flavor text for ardlings, which describes them as being “either born on the Upper Planes or have one or more ancestors who originated there,” the rules are unambiguous as to their being Humanoids. Since this is the default assumption for characters under the d20 System game mechanics, it costs 0 Character Points.

  • Either Medium or Small size (player’s choice, made at character creation; cannot be changed thereafter)

Much like Paizo did with tieflings and aasimars in their respective racial supplements, this presumably refers to whether or not an ardlings mortal heritage belonged to a particular size category. While Medium size is also the presumed default for characters under the d20 System rules, and so costs 0 CP, the Small entry here is a bit more difficult to approximate.

D&D Fifth Edition, and apparently One D&D as well, assign far fewer mechanics to Small characters. There’s no inherent modification to ability scores based on size, for instance (at least, not for PCs), nor does it alter their attack rolls, Armor Class, grapple checks, Stealth skill rolls, etc.

The only mechanical differences that a Small character has from a Medium one under the 5E/1D&D rules are A) they use smaller weapons accordingly, B) are only able to grapple creatures of Medium size or smaller, rather than Large size or smaller, and C) can fit through slightly smaller spaces as per the squeezing rules.

While the third listing is slight benefit, it’s overshadowed in both intensity and frequency (how often do you use the squeezing rules in the course of play) by the first two: having to use smaller weapon damage dice, and having a modestly narrower range of creatures you can grapple are drawbacks with virtually nothing to offset them. While these aren’t a big deal for a spellcaster, they’re still penalties.

Given that, rather than using the normal Eclipse rules for a Small size character (i.e. the Shrinking modifier on page 62), we’ll call this a variation of the Incompetent disadvantage (call it something like “stunted” to represent the character’s reduced stature) and if taken it’s worth -3 CP to the overall racial cost.

  • 30-foot speed

Another standard entry for most characters, requiring no alterations to bring over to the d20 System. 0 CP here again.

  • A two hundred-year lifespan on average

This is roughly double how long a human character will live after rolling on the d20 System’s aging tables. As such, we can say that this is an Immunity to aging (uncommon/minor/trivial), costing only 1 CP. There aren’t any listings for when the middle/old/venerable aging modifiers kick in, but I’d recommend doubling the human values and tweaking things accordingly; it’s not like those come up in most campaigns anyway.

  • As a bonus action, manifest spectral wings long enough to let you fly a number of feet equal to your speed. These can be manifested a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus, and are renewed after a long rest.

Okay, so this is basically a fly spell with the movement rate capped at 30 feet and which is only usable on yourself. Activating the spectral wings is essentially a swift action, they can be used (at most) six times per day, and those uses refresh each day after resting.

Let’s call this an Inherent Spell (level 1 variant of fly that’s self-only and has a 30-foot movement rate), with +5 Bonus Uses. That’s 14 CP normally, but is specialized and corrupted for one-third cost/no other Inherent Spell granted (you usually get two level 1 spells), uses per day is limited to one-third character level (minimum twice, up to a maximum of six times per day). Rounding the fraction down brings that to 4 CP.

We’ll also add in Reflex Training/only to manifest these wings, specialized for one-half cost/this uses up your swift action for the round, bringing the total down to 3 CP.

  • Gains a single 0-level, 1st-level, and 2nd-level spell according to their celestial legacy (thaumaturgy, divine favor, and lesser restoration for exalted ardlings; light, cure light wounds, and zone of truth for heavenly ardlings; guidance, healing word, and animal messenger for idyllic ardlngs) each usable once per day. These are also added to an ardling’s spell list (if any)

Okay, that looks like Improved Occult Talent, specialized for increased effect/a single 2nd-level spell, but only one 1st-level and one 0-level spell (12 CP). These are also treated as being part of a Domain, specialized and corrupted for one-third cost/only for the three spells indicated in your celestial legacy (2 CP).

We’re overlooking the level restrictions built into these in the playtest document, where an ardling needs to be 3rd level to use the 1st-level spell, and 5th-level to use the 2nd-level spell. That’s due to two factors: the first is that this requirement, while technically greater than what those spells would normally require in order to cast, is so minor as to not be worth a price break. The second reason is that none of those spells are likely to break the game, given how modest their effects are.

Healing word functions as per cure light wounds, except as follows: it has a casting time of 1 swift action, its range is 60 feet, it restores (1d4 + casting stat modifier) hit points, and it can’t be used to damage the undead (or other creatures harmed by positive energy). If cast in a higher-level spell slot, the base die increases to match the spell level (e.g. if cast as a 3rd-level spell, it heals 3d4 + casting stat modifier hit points). Likewise, thaumaturgy is prestidigitation by another name.

  • Resistance to radiant damage

This…is a bit awkward. “Radiant” isn’t a damage type in the d20 System, and “resistance” cuts damage in half, which runs counter to how damage reduction and energy resistance use static rather than fractional values.

With regard to damage type, it simply has to be changed to something more conventional. I’d recommend dividing it up via celestial legacy as follows: exalted ardlings gain fire resistance, heavenly ardlings gain electricity resistance, and idyllic ardlings gain cold resistance. These broadly map to the major creature types of those planar regions (i.e. eladrins, archons, and guardinals).

As for the actual value of the resistance, we’ll call it an Immunity to that particular energy type (common/major/great), specialized for one-half cost/cannot reduce damage below one-half of its original value. That comes out to 9 CP, and protects against up to 60 points of damage (though only if you’re taking at least 120 points of damage to begin with).

Altogether, these racial features come out to 31 CP, or 28 CP if you decide to make them Small. That’s just within the limit for an ECL +0 race.

Background Information

One thing that’s notable in the ardling breakdown is what’s not there. Unlike standard d20 System races, ardlings have no ability score modifiers, no starting languages, no weapon proficiencies, etc. That’s because One D&D moves these to Backgrounds, which are a separate consideration when making a character, akin to race and class.

Essentially functioning as templates, Backgrounds describe a character’s pre-adventuring life. They come with a standard suite of abilities, and the playtest document allows for characters to use a pre-made Background, build their own, or modify an existing Background as they like.

Since ardling characters, as outlined above, are meant to be played in conjunction with a Background, we’ll take a look at how those work as well. An Eclipse conversion of the standard Background formula is as follows:

  • +3 total ability score modifiers

Since these are requires to be split up as +2 to one score and +1 to another, or alternatively as +1 to three separate scores, rather than assigning them all to a single ability score, this is three instances of Improved Self-Development, corrupted for two-thirds cost/must split these up across at least two ability scores, bringing the cost to 24 CP.

Since Backgrounds are essentially templates, we’ll go ahead and apply the half-cost rule here as well. Since the full template structure is relatively inflexible in how its Character Points are allocated, the break in cost applies here, even if PCs are sure to structure their ability score modifiers in the way that’s most beneficial to their build. Hence, the final cost is 12 CP.

  • Choose two skills to gain proficiency in

This is another awkward ability to translate, since bonuses to skills are very different in 5E/1D&D than they are under the d20 System. The best we can do here is to say that this makes two skills class skills, but Eclipse allows players to take as many class skills as fits their character concept. Hence, this doesn’t really do anything, and has no CP cost associated with it.

  • Gain proficiency with one tool

In 5E/1D&D, this allows a character to add their proficiency bonus to an ability check (of which skill checks are a subset) that involves using a particular tool. That’s hard to translate back to the d20 System, where particular tools are either necessary to perform a task in the first place (e.g. you need some sort of lockpick in order to use the Open Lock skill), or they simply add a modest bonus if they’re masterwork.

However, there’s a small clause in the One D&D rules that we can make use of instead. If a character is using their tool proficiency as part of a skill check in a skill with which they’re proficient, they have Advantage (i.e. roll 2d20 and take whichever result is higher) on the check. So for this, we’ll take Luck with +8 Bonus Uses, specialized and corrupted for one-third cost/only to re-roll a skill check made when using a particular tool, costing a grand total of 6 CP.

As outlined in the playtest pack, tools are considered to be things such as a specific musical instrument, thieves’ tools, crafting tools, a disguise kit, a healer’s kit, etc. Given that they’re essentially tied to a single skill already, it’s unlikely that a PC would use a tool which corresponds to a skill that they haven’t already put considerable skill points toward. Hence why we’re ignoring the proficiency bonus that would be added when using a tool in a way that doesn’t correspond to a skill the PC is proficient with.

  • One “rare” language

This is easy enough, since Eclipse keeps the standard d20 System cost of a language costing one skill point, which corresponds to one Character Point.

Strangely, the playtest rules also allow a player to pick a “standard” language that their character knows as well (in addition to Common, which all characters get for free), but doesn’t consider this part of the Background each PC has. Since that still has a cost associated with it under Eclipse, however, we’ll go ahead and fold that in here. Hence, PCs pick two additional languages for a total cost of 2 CP.

“Standard” languages are presumed to be Elvish, Dwarvish, and other demihuman/humanoid tongues. “Rare” languages are all others.

  • Gain one feat of your choice

This is another tricky one to price. Feats in 5E/1D&D are more powerful than their d20 System counterparts. Likewise, even in Eclipse all of the standard d20 System feats don’t necessarily have the same cost, something which is also true in 5E/1D&D. For instance, the Skilled feat simply makes three skills into class skills for you (which, as noted above, costs no Character Points), whereas the Tough feat grants you +2 hit points per character level (four instances of Self-Development/Constitution, only for calculating hit points, 24 CP).

Given that variability in cost, the best we can do is split the difference. As 5E/1D&D feats are more generally powerful than d20 System feats, we’ll make this a 12 CP allocation.

  • 50 gp worth of equipment/coinage

This isn’t an ability at all, as every character has always had some amount of starting gold to spend. Hence, this has no CP cost associated with it either.

This brings the total cost of a Background to 32 CP, neatly making it a +1 ECL template.

Conclusion

It’s interesting to consider that, while One D&D is doubtlessly going to try and continue the “bounded accuracy” of Fifth Edition, starting characters now seem more powerful than ever.

Looking back, standard Fifth Edition races were solidly in +1 ECL territory, brought down only by applying a corruption to the final cost by way of stereotypical racial attitudes (particularly in terms of what other races thought of them). The playtest for One D&D, by contrast, seems to be pursuing a different paradigm. Now that Backgrounds have essentially outsourced the “upbringing” part of a character’s heritage – moving them over to a template that’s worth a character level unto itself – their racial abilities have expanded accordingly to fill the vacated design space. The ardling stops just short of being worth another level, and I suspect that the other races in the playtest packet would have similar Character Point costs if converted over.

While playtest information for character classes hasn’t been released yet, it’ll be interesting to see if their design philosophy is similarly tweaked.

Breakfast at Ninjara’s

May 18, 2022

And I hate when things are over/When so much is left undone.

Deep Blue Something, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

During a recent bout of spring cleaning, I stumbled across some issues of the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic series from Archie. Naturally, finding these twenty-five year old comics sent me down a rabbit hole of nostalgia, resulting in a deep-dive on how the series had turned out. Thankfully, sites like Turtlepedia and TMNT Entity made that pretty easy to do (though, of course, it still took enough time that the cleaning needed to be postponed).

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the Archie Comics run of TMNT petered out, as all too many smaller comic series tend to do. In the case of this one, however, part of the reason was apparently that the writers kept clashing with the editors over the tenor of the stories, with the editors wanting to keep things light and kid-friendly while the writers wanted to explore more mature themes. Case in point, around the middle of the series’ run there was a backup group of mutants called the Mighty Mutanimals. When their spin-off series failed to catch on, the writers elected to kill them all off in a hail of machine gun fire. Dark stuff indeed!

But there was one character who never got that level of closure during the series, that being Raphael’s vulpine girlfriend, Ninjara.

Originally appearing as the minion of a minor antagonist, Ninjara (whose real name is Umeko) was largely a supporting character, bringing very little to the overall story. While her background (being part of a race of fox-people who lived on a mist-shrouded island off the coast of Japan, rather than a mutant) was used for the occasional plot-hook, for the most part she didn’t contribute much to the series. It was only near the end of the comic’s run, in the “Moon Eyes Saga,” that she started to develop as a character, breaking up with Raphael in favor of a widower named Mokoshan, a member of a tribe of wolf-people living in Alaska.

But while the Archie run of T.M.N.T. ended shortly thereafter, Ninjara’s story didn’t.

Her creators, still owning the rights to her character, briefly brought her back in a new story in the pages of Furrlough, a furry magazine of all things. It didn’t last very long, with her appearing only in three issues (which, being an anthology of stories, only added up to about one issue’s worth of content), which turned out to be a shame since it featured the best characterization she’d received to date.

In this new comic, Ninjara is roughly ten years older, trying to balance searching for Mokoshan’s killer while taking care of their daughter, Moka. To that end, she accepts a job to retrieve the seed of a rare plant, only to realize that it’s guarded much too heavily to be the mere collectible she was told it was…

That, unfortunately, is where the comic ended. Given that the rights to Ninjara’s character were subsequently sold to Viacom (now Paramount), the odds of the creators ever going back to finish her story are non-existent, which is a shame. As the song goes, I hate when things are over when so much is left undone.

To that end, I’ve written up Ninjara’s stats using the d20 System rules via Eclipse: The Codex Persona. She might not get any official resolution, but this is my way of paying tribute to her character.

This is also my excuse to not only write up another Eclipse character, something I haven’t done in far too long, but also test out posting character sheets under WordPress’s new block editor format.

Ninjara, ECL 6 shinobimusha

Available Character Points: 144 (level 5 base) + 12 (levels 1 and 3 feats) + 10 (disadvantages) + 10 (duties) + 10 (restrictions) = 186 CP.

Ninjara’s disadvantages are Broke (between raising her daughter and looking into her husband’s murder, money is tight), History (her adventures in the TMNT Archie comics), and Obligations (finding out who killed her husband, Mokoshan).

Ninjara’s duties are to her daughter, Moka.

Ninjara’s restrictions are against wearing armor and against using firearms.

Ability Scores (28-point buy): Str 10 (2 points), Dex 16 (10 points) +4 racial = 20, Con 10 (2 points) +4 racial = 14, Int 12 (4 points), Wis 13 (5 points), Cha 13 (5 points) +1 4th-level ability adjustment = 14.

Ninjara’s build adheres to 3.5 standards rather than Pathfinder, meaning that she uses the point-buy values from the DMG, only gains a feat every third level, etc. However, to reflect the modern setting she appears in, her skills are taken from d20 Modern.

Kitsujin (63 CP/+1 ECL race)

  • Improved Self-Development/+4 Dex (24 CP)
  • Improved Self-Development/+4 Con (24 CP)
  • Occult Sense/low-light vision (6 CP)
  • Celerity, specialized for one-half cost/only with light armor or no armor, and carrying no more than a light load (3 CP)
  • Adept/Hide, Listen, Move Silently, and Spot (6 CP)
  • Favors/followers of animism-based religions (3 CP)
  • Disadvantage/Outcast (ordinary people don’t know about/fear non-humans) (-3 CP)

While never formally named as such in the comic, “kitsujin” is the name we’ll use for Ninjara’s race here.

Basic Abilities (130 CP)

  • Proficient with all simple and ninja weapons (9 CP)
  • 1d12 Hit Die at 1st level (8 CP) and four d10 Hit Dice at levels 2-5 (24 CP)
  • +5 BAB (30 CP)
  • Fort +4, Ref +4, Will +1 (27 CP)
  • 32 skill points (32 CP)

“Ninja weapons” includes the katana and wakizashi, despite those actually being used by samurai, as well as shuriken, kunai, tekko-kagi, and similar weapons. Like most of T.M.N.T., Ninjara’s presentation as a ninja has little to do with historical accuracy.

Graceful Fighter (13 CP)

  • Finesse/use Dexterity modifier for melee attack rolls, specialized for one-half cost/only for weapons she’s proficient with (3 CP)
  • Finesse/use Dexterity modifier for melee and thrown weapon damage rolls, specialized for one-half cost/only for weapons she’s proficient with (3 CP)
  • Fortune/evasion, corrupted for two-thirds cost/only when wearing light armor or no armor, and carrying no more than a light load (4 CP)
  • +1/BAB, specialized for one-half cost/only for katana (3 CP)

Note that the additional +1 BAB for attacks made with her katana count for purposes of earning iterative attacks.

Ninja Training (19 CP)

  • Martial Arts (3 CP)
  • Bonus Attack/shuriken (6 CP)
  • Bonus Attack/fighting with two weapons, corrupted for two-thirds cost/must be proficient with both weapons (4 CP)
  • Defender/deflection, specialized for double effect/only when wielding a melee weapon which she’s proficient with, corrupted for increased effect/only when wearing light armor or no armor, and carrying no more than a light load (6 CP)

While we rarely see her fight with two blades at once in the comic, Ninjara is often shown to carry a daisho (i.e. a katana and wakizashi together). Given that there are one or two images of her wielding both at once, she’s been given the equivalent of Two-Weapon Fighting here.

Exceptional Prowess (20 CP)

  • Fast Learner, specialized for double effect/only for skills, corrupted for two-thirds cost/only for Adept skills (4 CP)
  • Adept/Balance, Climb, Jump, Tumble (6 CP)
  • Acrobatics, corrupted for two-thirds cost/only when wearing light armor or no armor, and carrying no more than a light load (4 CP)
  • Luck with +4 Bonus Uses, specialized for one-half cost/only for saving throws (6 CP)

While some of this could be attributed to her race, that’s a fairly iffy presentation. The few other fox-people that we meet in the comic, such as Ninjara’s grandmother or her younger brother Naga, don’t seem to be particularly athletic compared to what humans can do.

Underworld Connections (4 CP)

  • Contacts x4/a fence, an information broker, an unlicensed doctor, and a weapons dealer (4 CP)

Given that Ninjara calls herself “the best thief in Japan,” some level of underworld connections seem necessary, particularly since this is how she’s funding her hunt for Mokoshan’s killer (her only clue being an emblem with 告罪, the kanji for “tsugezai” (“condemnation”), on it).

SkillsRanks (points spent)Ability ModifierTotal
Balance8 (4 points)+5 Dex+13
Bluff1 (1 point)+2 Cha+3
Climb8 (4 points)+0 Str+8
Diplomacy1 (1 point)+2 Cha+3
Disguise8 (8 points)+2 Cha+10
Hide8 (4 points)+5 Dex+13
Intimidate1 (1 point)+2 Cha+3
Jump8 (4 points)+0 Str+8
Knowledge (streetwise)1 (1 point)+1 Int+2
Listen8 (4 points)+1 Wis+9
Move Silently8 (4 points)+5 Dex+13
Search8 (8 points)+1 Int+9
Sense Motive1 (1 point)+1 Wis+2
Sleight of Hand1 (1 point)+5 Dex+6
Spot8 (4 points)+1 Wis+9
Swim2 (2 points)+0 Str+2
Tumble8 (4 points)+5 Dex+13

All of the above skills are considered to be relevant skills (i.e. class skills) for Ninjara. Additionally, her Intelligence score lets her speak, read, and write English fluently, in addition to her native Japanese.

Basic Ninjutsu (Dex)

This is the entry-level form of contemporary “ninja”-style combat, possessing no mystical capabilities or esoteric techniques. Having no real resemblance to its namesake’s classical techniques (i.e. spying and assassination), this fighting style focuses on the effective use of weapons that have become associated with modern-day ninjas.

  • Requires: Weapon focus/katana (or equivalent)
  • Basic Abilities: Attack 2, Defenses 2, Power 1, Strike, Synergy (Hide), Synergy (Move Silently)
  • Advanced/Master Techniques: Breaking, Combat Reflexes, Weapon Kata (shuriken), Weapon Kata (wakizashi)
  • Known: Attack 1, Defenses 1, Power 1, Strike, Combat Reflexes, Weapon Kata (shuriken), Weapon Kata (wakizashi)

Derived Stats

  • Hit points: 12 (d12; 1st level) + 18 (4d8) + 10 (Con bonus) = 40 hp.
  • Speed: 30 feet (base) + 10 (Celerity) = 40 ft.
  • Armor Class: 10 (base) + 5 (Dex bonus) + 3 deflection (Defender) + 1 (martial arts) = AC 19, touch 19, flat-footed 14.
  • Fortitude: +4 (base) + 2 (Con bonus) = +6
  • Reflex: +4 (base) + 5 (Dex bonus) = +9
  • Will: +1 (base) + 1 (Wis bonus) = +2
  • Katana +5 (BAB) + 5 (Dex bonus) + 1 (Weapon Focus) + 1 (martial arts) – 2 (two-weapon fighting) and wakizashi +5 (BAB) + 5 (Dex bonus) + 1 (martial arts) – 2 (two-weapon fighting) = katana +10/+5 (1d10+5/18-20) and wakizashi +9 (1d8+2/18-20)
  • Unarmed Strike +5 (BAB) + 5 (Dex bonus) + 1 (martial arts) = unarmed strike +11 (1d4+6)
  • Shuriken +5 (BAB) + 5 (Dex bonus) + 1 (martial arts) – 2 (bonus attack) = shuriken +9/+9 (1d3+5)

And, as a bonus entry, here’s a character sheet for Ninjara’s daughter.

Moka, ECL 1 hybrid child

Available Character Points: 24 (level 0 base) + 10 (disadvantages) = 34 CPs.

Moka’s disadvantages are History (in that her mother is a figure of some note), Hunted (people who want her hybrid DNA), and Outcast (among pureblood anthropomorphs). Note that these last two aren’t presented in the comics; we’re presuming them here because they provide a basis for why Ninjara would keep Moka so close, rather than sending her to live in safety with her family on the misty island that she comes from.

Ability Scores (28-point buy): Str 11 (3 points) -3 age, +2 racial = 10, Dex 15 (8 points) -1 age, +2 racial = 16, Con 14 (6 points) -3 age, +4 racial = 15, Int 10 (2 points) -1 age = 9, Wis 13 (5 points) -1 age = 12, Cha 12 (4 points) -1 age = 11.

The child age modifiers used here are taken from the d20 Modern SRD. While Moka has a great deal of raw potential, she’s too young to put most of it to good use yet.

Kitsujin/Amagok hybrid (63 CP/+1 ECL race)

  • Improved Self-Development/+2 Str (12 CP)
  • Improved Self-Development/+2 Dex (12 CP)
  • Improved Self-Development/+4 Con (24 CP)
  • Occult Sense/low-light vision (6 CP)
  • Immunity to environmental hazards (common/minor/major) (4 CP)
  • Immunity to encumbrance penalties (common/minor/trivial) (2 CP)
  • Adept/Listen, Search, Spot, and Survival (6 CP)
  • Disadvantage/Outcast (ordinary people don’t know about/fear non-humans) (-3 CP)

As with her mother’s “kitsujin” heritage, we’ll use “amagok” to represent the Alaskan wolf-people that Moka’s father came from. Note that the “immunity to environmental hazards” listing is an approximation of the Endurance feat.

Basic Abilities (12 CP)

  • No weapon or armor proficiencies (0 CP)
  • No Hit Dice (0 CP)
  • +0 BAB (0 CP)
  • Fort +0, Ref +0, Will +0 (0 CP)
  • 12 skill points (12 CP)

While Moka’s ability score modifiers for being a child come from d20 Modern, the rest of her stat adjustments are from Eclipse. Specifically, that she has 3 + her Constitution modifier hit points (since as a level 0 character she hasn’t received any Hit Dice yet).

Dutiful Daughter (14 CP)

  • Luck with +4 Bonus Uses, specialized for one-half cost/only for saving throws (6 CP)
  • Fortune/evasion, corrupted for two-thirds cost/only when wearing light armor or no armor, and carrying no more than a light load (4 CP)
  • Acrobatics, corrupted for two-thirds cost/only when wearing light armor or no armor, and carrying no more than a light load (4 CP)

Despite Ninjara not wanting her daughter to take after her, the comics show Moka idolizing her mother. To that end, the above assumes that she’s been attempting to train herself up in secret.

Diligent Student (8 CP)

  • Adept/Balance, Climb, Hide, Move Silently (6 CP)
  • 1 skill rank each in Speak Language (Japanese) and Read/Write Language (Japanese) (2 CP)

What few skills Ninjara has taught her daughter include not only how to avoid/run away from danger, but also how to understand the language of her Japanese heritage (since Moka’s native language is English).

SkillsRanks (points spent)Ability ModifierTotal
Balance3 (1.5 points spent)+3 Dex+6
Climb3 (1.5 points spent)+0 Str+3
Hide3 (1.5 points spent)+3 Dex+6
Listen3 (1.5 points spent)+1 Wis+4
Move Silently3 (1.5 points spent)+3 Dex+6
Search3 (1.5 points spent)-1 Int+2
Spot3 (1.5 points spent)+1 Wis+4
Survival3 (1.5 points spent)+1 Wis+4

The above skills are all Moka’s relevant (i.e. class) skills. While characters aren’t technically allowed to spend half a skill point on relevant skills (even though they can on irrelevant, i.e. cross-class, skills), we’re overlooking that restriction here, since it comes out to the same total either way.

Given that she has no real combat training, special abilities, or even modifiers for most of her statistics, there’s no need to post a Derived Stats listing for Moka.

Further Development

Having already reached the limit for what a “badass normal” is capable of, Ninjara’s growth is probably going to be limited by genre conventions. While there are no hard-and-fast rules for the Teenage Mutant Nina Turtles setting (at least in a d20 context), it’s likely that there’s a level cap that she’s nearing, or possibly that there’s a multiplier for how much XP is required to gain more levels. Throw in that magic, psychic abilities, and similar supernatural powers are de-emphasized (though still present) in the setting, and it’s hard to see where Ninjara can go from here.

She does still have several options, however. If she can get her Broke disadvantage removed, she might be able to afford some super-science gadgets in addition to better mundane gear. She could also potentially undergo a mutation of her own, gaining power that way, though precisely what and how much depend on the nature and function of how she transformed. Alternately, she could put more emphasis on social expansion, perhaps turning her role as a thief into an underworld empire.

As for Moka, it’s too soon to tell which direction she’ll take, but her mother is likely to push her away from anything dangerous. Of course, children rarely follow the path their parents lay out for them, so who can say what she’ll become as she grows up?

Random Thought Encounter: Accidental Undead Creation

April 2, 2022

There’s an interesting dichotomy I’ve noticed when it comes to creating the undead in most games. If you’re inflicting that condition on someone else, it’s virtually always a deliberate act, typically via spells such as animate dead or create undead (often with extra effort required on the part of the spellcaster to create more powerful undead). Likewise, most undead that have the ability to make more of their kind aren’t typically doing it unintentionally (unless they’re so far removed from rationality that they’re unaware of what they’re doing, making them a sort of social virus).

But when undeath is self-inflicted, it’s almost always unintentional; from ghosts coming about because someone couldn’t rest easily to revenants who come back from the grave to take revenge on their killers, these aren’t circumstances where someone deliberately decided “I think I’ll turn into an unliving monster” and made steps to that effect. It’s just that they were so distraught that they happened to come back from the grave.

Now, obviously, exceptions exist. Liches, for instance, are a form of self-inflicted undeath which require a great deal of preparation on the spellcaster’s part.

But insofar as the intent/target dichotomy goes, we’ve still covered only three of the four combinations. Spells used on corpses are deliberate/other, people who find themselves unable to rest easy are accidental/self, and even the lich (and similar undead) are deliberate/self. But notwithstanding the aforementioned undead who have the “create spawn” power and are completely insane, the fourth option – accidental/other – isn’t really present.

So what would it look like if it was?

My guess would be that spells which use negative energy as attack vectors, such as the various inflict wounds spells, chill touch, harm, etc. – as well as spells with the [death] descriptor, such as slay living, circle of death, and similar magicks – would have a chance of causing those slain by them to rise as undead creatures, regardless of the caster’s intent.

Exactly how the mechanics of this would work is something I haven’t worked out yet, mostly because the specifics will inform a lot about how these spells are used in a campaign setting. Do these spells have to deliver the killing blow, or is it enough that they inflicted hit point damage in the rounds before something else killed the victim? Since these spells only have a chance of reanimating someone, how is that chance measured (personally, I like a percentage equal to the caster’s level, but that’s just off the top of my head)? What type of undead does the victim come back as?

Similarly, in any setting that uses this idea, there should be relatively accessible options for defeating this chance also. This evokes the idea that clerics, paladins, and other servants of good deities would have funerary methods that negated these chances. But again, the issue is determining exactly how this is done. While there needs to be some sort of control mechanism (otherwise the entire issue with having accidental undead can be avoided so long as there’s a priest character on hand), what that mechanism is changes how the setting deals with this.

Is a single application of positive energy enough to negate the chance (making Pathfinder’s “burst channel” very useful in that regard) of someone rising as an unquiet dead? Or does a person slain by negative energy need to be buried in a hallowed area? Or can a good-aligned priest sanctify one corpse per day per rank in Knowledge (religion)? Each option (or a different one) will change the campaign’s presentation around this issue.

It’s an interesting premise however you slice it, and hopefully the “accidental undead” give you some ideas for your next campaign.

Third-Party Support: Capers

March 29, 2022

It’s an open secret among fans of D&D 3.X/Pathfinder 1st Edition that the Wealth-By-Level guidelines for PCs are just that: guidelines. Overlooking the Pirates of the Caribbean jokes that brings to mind, I doubt anyone would be too surprised to find that most GMs running campaigns using those systems don’t periodically audit the PCs to make sure their gear adheres to what it’s “supposed” to be for their level.

While that seems obvious, the idea that the WBL tables are carefully calibrated, and that deviating from them can bring a campaign crashing down, is one that still makes the rounds every so often. A particularly prominent example that I recall (for Pathfinder 1E) was that full plate armor was deliberately priced out of what a 1st-level character could afford (1,500 gp), since that would make their Armor Class too high for level-appropriate enemies to hit…which is a little awkward to consider when you realize you can just take the Rich Parents trait, buy half-plate (600 gp) and a tower shield (30 gp), and your AC is not only better than what full plate would give you, but you still have a few hundred gold pieces left over.

Plus that whole section in Ultimate Campaign which flat-out said that spellcasting characters with crafting feats can have +25%, or even +50%, of their WBL guidelines with regard to magic items that they can make.

If it’s okay for some of the most versatile classes in the game to earn bonus gold in exchange for some small character investments, then what about non-spellcasters? Particularly those who are known for having a lot of utility items, are often portrayed as being tricky and clever, and are classically depicted as having an acquisitive slant?

Which brings us to the subject of this post: Fat Goblin Games’ The Rogue’s Guide to Capers.

Originally put out by Tricky Owlbear Publishing, this book is based on two premises: the first is that the rogue class is underpowered compared to its counterparts (which it is); the second is, in the book’s own words, “The rogue class can be saved with gold.”

In only four pages, it sets out to do just that, but outlining what’s essentially a skill challenge (though it never uses that term) whereby rogues, when in a municipality of some sort, can pull off a caper to earn some extra cash.

The way capers are put forward here is simple, but still elegant in what it allows for. The potential gold earned depends on the size of the local settlement, and whether the rogue wants to pull off an easy, medium, or difficult job. They then make skill checks to determine the success of each of the caper’s three stages: planning (though this one can be skipped, which makes the subsequent checks harder), execution, and getaway.

I call this elegant because at no point does the system simply shut things down if a check is failed. A botched getaway check, for instance, doesn’t mean that your character is necessarily captured or killed. Rather, it means that you now have someone chasing you, which has its own rules. For that matter, the skills involved in each stage of the caper vary according to what kind of heist you’re pulling, so if one particular job doesn’t seem likely for you, the GM can simply lay down another. Right away, you can see a choice between “easy job, low payout” and “high risk, high reward” being laid out.

One thing to note here is that, while this is written for Pathfinder 1E, the actual caper rules themselves aren’t part of Pathfinder’s downtime system. That makes it especially easy to convert this over to rules such as D&D 5E; you’ll need to tweak the DCs, and the skills used will be different, but overall this borders on being system-agnostic in what it offers.

Of course, in Pathfinder the rogue can spend the ill-gotten gold their capers earn them on a plethora of magic potions, alchemical items, spell scrolls, and cheap wondrous items that most other characters overlook (feather tokens, anyone?), all the better to give them Batman-levels of magical problem-solving gizmos. If you port this system over to D&D 5E, you’ll need to figure out what they can put all of that money toward; getting rich through larceny is one thing, but not being able to buy anything with it? Now that’s a crime.

Tweaking the Improved Familiar feat for Pathfinder 1E

January 25, 2022

The Improved Familiar feat is almost a microcosm of the evolution of d20 System options across its most notable RPGs.

In D&D 3.0, the feat didn’t exist under the Core Rules, premiering in the Tome and Blood supplement. D&D 3.5 saw it added to the Player’s Handbook (as well as the SRD), and while it had a few expansions here and there (such as in Dragon #331, which allowed a PC to take the feat and gain an additional ability in exchange for keeping their existing familiar), Pathfinder 1E made its expanded list of improved familiars Open Game Content (just like the rest of the system), making its options much easier to collate.

One thing that’s worth noting, however, is that the Improved Familiar feat doesn’t always require you to take a new familiar in place of your old one. It’s entirely possible for you to take a standard familiar with a template (originally that was only celestial or fiendish, but more possibilities were added over time). While that can be a different creature altogether, there’s no reason to think that this can’t be the same familiar you’ve had up until now, imbued with planar energies that “upgrade” it to a planar being.

Taking that idea further, why not allow for the Improved Familiar feat to augment your familiar in other ways as well? Likewise, why do those template require such strict alignments on behalf of the familiar’s master? It makes sense that you need to be good-aligned to have a familiar with the celestial template, but limiting it to Neutral Good feels too restrictive. Clearly, some tweaking is needed.

To that end, here are my suggestions for alternative options (in addition to simply selecting a more powerful creature) for what Improved Familiar can do:

Upon taking the Improved Familiar feat, if you are at least 3rd level or higher in the class that grants a familiar, you may apply one of the following templates to it (with your alignment requirements as noted):

Advanced, aerial, aqueous, celestial (any good), counterpoised (any neutral), cthonic, dark, entropic (any chaotic), fey-touched, fiendish (any evil), fiery, giant, primordial, resolute (any lawful).

Any abilities which are dependent on Hit Dice use either the familiar’s Hit Dice, or your levels in the class that grants you a familiar, whichever is higher.

Special: If you have a subtype corresponding to a particular template noted above (e.g. the Good subtype for the celestial template, the Aquatic or Water subtype for the aqueous template, etc.), have a familiar, and have at least 3 or more Hit Dice, you receive Improved Familiar as a bonus feat, but only to grant the corresponding template. If you have more than one subtype, you may pick which corresponding template to apply to your familiar; once made, this choice cannot be changed.

At the GM’s option, a template with a Challenge Rating adjustment of +1 or less other than the ones above may be granted to your familiar upon taking this feat.

This allows for a much greater degree of customization, along with a greater range of who can select the various aligned templates for their familiar. Likewise, the special notation allows for characters from alien realms to have a templated familiar without costing them a feat (since otherwise it would be odd to consider, for instance, an efreeti wizard might have to carefully protect a non-elemental familiar on the Plane of Fire until he could earn another feat slot). We’ve also left the possibility open for a different template to be applied if there’s one that’s not on this list but would otherwise be appropriate.

Hopefully this makes your familiar feel a little more new.

Random Thought Encounter: Giants and Rock Catching

January 10, 2022

One of the stranger monster abilities you’ll see throughout various editions of Dungeons & Dragons is the ability for giants to catch rocks.

Now, giants being able to throw rocks makes perfect sense. Giants are big, rocks are plentiful, and it saves them from having to spend resources on ranged weapons, which are typically disposable and would require more materials to be spent scaling them to giant-size. If there’s only so much steel to go around, do you want to waste it on huge-sized arrowheads or on a sturdy suit of armor?

But catching rocks as a special ability for giants makes a lot less sense to me. At least from a game design standpoint. This simply isn’t something I see coming up at most game tables. PCs tend to be human-sized characters who, when making ranged attacks, resort either to more sophisticated weapons (typically projectiles of some sort, e.g. crossbows) or spells. The only ones likely to be throwing rocks at giants are other giants.

Now, that could still come up in the course of play. A PC magic-user might polymorph into a giant, or the fighter might drink a potion of giant control, or the bard might convince a clan of friendly giants to help them attack a rival clan who’s been attacking human lands. But overall, that’s not much of a case for introducing a specialized ability into giant stat blocks.

For that matter, this particular quirk isn’t universal to giants in D&D. The original Chainmail game (1971) has giants being able to attack as with rocks per catapults, but there’s nothing in there about them catching them. Nor is there in Original Dungeons & Dragons (1974), Holmes Basic (1977), or B/X (1981); giants in the Rules Cyclopedia (1991), which collects the first four sets of the BECMI iteration of D&D, lack this ability as well, as do giants in D&D 4th Edition.

Rock catching, as it turns out, only appears in AD&D 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, D&D 3.X, and 5E…and even 5E only keeps it for stone giants, whereas the earlier versions of the game assign it to most giants in some form or another. (Giants in Pathfinder 1st Edition, I’ll note, also carries this over from 3.X, and Pathfinder 2nd Edition has them retain it.)

So where does this ability come from in the first place? While it apparently started in AD&D 1E, what inspired Gary Gygax to write this particular ability into the monster entries for the giants in the 1977 Monster Manual? After some Googling, the best hypothesis I can find is that he wanted to mechanically represent what happens in this passage:

“Bilbo … saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang … they could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides.”

The Hobbit, Chapter IV: Over Hill and Under Hill

Of course, it’s worth noting that AD&D 1st Edition also introduced a few instances where the players might very well be hurling rocks. For instance, the potion of giant strength on page 126 of the Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) directly references doing so, as does the girdle of giant strength (p. 145). Not to mention the possibility that the PCs might, under certain circumstances, make use of catapults themselves (e.g. defending a settlement against a besieging army of humanoids, among whom giants might be found).

Interestingly, the mechanics behind rock catching also changed across the editions. While 1E and 2E gave giants percentage chances (which varied among giant types) of successfully catching rocks thrown at them, 3.X let them make a Reflex save once per round to do so, with the DC varying depending on the size of the rock. Given that Reflex is a bad save for creatures of the Giant type, and most giants had terrible Dexterity scores, this meant that even on the few occasions that giants in 3.X were called on to catch a rock, they likely wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

5th Edition, it should be noted, was a bit more generous in this regard. Although only stone giants can catch rocks now, as noted previously, they need only make a DC 10 Dexterity save to do so (and be able to use their reaction for the round). Since they have a +5 bonus to Dexterity saves to begin with, that makes them very likely to successfully catch any rock that comes their way, albeit not quite as certain as back in 1E and 2E (where stone giants had a 90% chance of catching a rock).

While I doubt that many players have anecdotes about this particular ability, I can’t help but wonder how this might have come up during play. If you have a tale about giants catching rocks in your game, please feel free to share it in the comments below!

Changes, Tweaks, and Other House Rules

November 13, 2021

One of the primary features of tabletop RPG games is that they’re inherently “hackable.” While house rules predate RPGs by a very long time – just look at various twists people have come up with for Monopoly, or even simple poker for that matter – the expansive (and quite often rules-heavy) nature of role-playing games means that there’s a greater variety of areas where players can alter things to better suit their tastes. While I’m sure there are some tables out there which keep everything by-the-book standard, my guess is that they’re in the minority by far.

To that end, here are five house rules (albeit comparatively modest ones) that my current group has introduced for our Pathfinder 1E campaign.

#1: Multiplying damage on a critical hit

We’d instituted this house rule before we even knew it was a house rule. You see, if you look at the various weapon tables, you’ll see that under the “Critical” column, they all have a multiplier listed; either x2, x3, or rarely, x4. So we took those literally, deciding that upon a successful critical hit, you totaled your damage (minus sources that used their own dice, such as sneak attack) and multiplied them by the listed amount. So if you dealt 12 damage with your greataxe on a critical, you inflicted 36 points of damage on an enemy. Seems obvious, right?

Except, as it turns out, that’s not how it works.

If you read the actual text regarding critical hits, it says “A critical hit means that you roll your damage more than once, with all your usual bonuses, and add the rolls together.” While it describes that as being a “multiplier” in the very next sentence, this is clearly a form of shorthand, much like the x2, x3 and x4 notations in the weapon tables’ Critical columns. So confirming a critical with a greataxe means rolling that d12 three times, adding your damage bonuses to each roll, and then totaling them up.

Given how this adds extra rolls to the process, slowing things down (e.g. the person playing the greataxe-wielding character probably doesn’t have 3d12 on hand in case of a critical), we weren’t too keen on it. There was also the fact that the official method made criticals less exciting. Once a critical hit is confirmed, the possibility of rolling the maximum value on the die is one that makes us all hold our breaths; that possibility is distinctly minimized when multiple dice are rolled, and the decrease in tension is one we were all very keenly aware of. For those reasons, we decided to keep doing it the way we had been, and we’ve yet to look back.

#2: Draw anything when moving (even just 5 feet)

The clause about drawing a weapon as a free action while moving (albeit only if you have at least a +1 Base Attack Bonus, which all martial characters had as of 1st level, and everyone else did after that) is one that we all found fairly easy to keep in mind from the get-go.

What we tended to overlook, however, was that this only worked with regard to a “regular move.” While not rigorously clarified, that phrase probably means “taking a move action to actually move” across the battlemat, as opposed to charging, running, or taking a 5-foot step. But my group overlooked this fairly early on, and so it quickly became a regular feature where we’d draw weapons while doing any of those things.

But while that was an unintentional reinterpretation of the rule on our part, we were far more deliberate about expanding what could be drawn beyond weapons. Simply put, the fact that you could draw a weapon – any kind of weapon, from a dagger sized for a halfling to a greataxe larger than your half-orc barbarian – as a free action while moving, but not any other kind of item, damaged our sense of verisimilitude. Was a wand really that much harder to draw than a shortsword? Is a potion more difficult to manipulate than a whip?

Ultimately, we couldn’t countenance such an artificial distinction, particularly when it was so punishing with regard to the game’s action economy. So now, moving any distance for any reason (unless the movement is involuntary, such as if you’re being bull rushed), allows you to draw an item kept on your person.

#3: No more Heighten Spell feat

Heighten Spell is a feat that we’ve done away with completely in our game. The reason for doing so isn’t because we don’t care for what it does, but because what it does shouldn’t be locked behind a feat to begin with. If you’re casting a spell via a slot that’s higher than the spell’s actual level, you’re already taking a drawback (since there are presumably spells appropriate to the slot being expended that would be more powerful/useful). So allowing for the spell’s DC to be adjusted according to the new slot, without requiring a feat to make that happen, seems like the least that can be done.

There are several other reasons for this change, most of which are comparatively minor in scope, but collectively make for a compelling point. For instance, Heighten Spell is a metamagic feat, which means that whenever a spontaneous spellcaster uses it to cast a spell with a casting time of 1 standard action now has to take a full-round action, punishing them further. It’s not like they can avoid this with a magic item either, since there is no metamagic rod of Heighten Spell. And of course, having the spell function as per the slot used to cast it without requiring Heighten Spell makes it a little easier to get through a globe of invulnerability, keeping spellcasters a little more relevant when that spell comes into play.

#4: Activating (most) magic weapon properties is a free action

If you take a look at the “Activation” entry in the overview for magic weapons, you’ll see that those weapons with properties that need to be deliberately initiated (as opposed to providing a passive bonus of some sort) require a standard action on their wielder’s part to do so.

This is far, far too high of a cost under the game’s action economy.

Since you only get one standard action in a combat round, and making a single attack is itself a standard action, this means you’re essentially losing an attack in order to activate your weapon’s flaming property. And if your weapon has the shock property in addition to being flaming, you’re now using TWO standard actions – essentially, giving up two combat rounds – in order to get the benefit of both properties. And if you’re dual-wielding a pair of flaming shock weapons, well…you might as well not even bother entering combat.

The above is why we’ve house ruled all such weapons to need only a free action to activate or deactivate. Doing so stops punishing characters for choosing particular properties (and also eliminates instances of people leaving their weapon properties active in perpetuity, claiming that just because they’re magic they won’t set anything on fire when put in a sheathe or laid down across a bedroll; I really hate that entire idea).

That said, this rule isn’t completely universal. If a weapon property grants the weapon the ability to act on its own (such as dancing weapons), then activating it still requires a standard action, since otherwise it’s essentially granting the wielder an extra action when invoked, as opposed to not wasting the single action they would otherwise have put to better use.

#5: Certain magical properties don’t cost extra when added to existing magic items

This one’s a little arcane (pun intended), so bear with me.

If you recall the 3.5 Magic Item Compendium, you might remember that there was a small-but-significant adjustment to the rules for creating magic items at the end of the book’s sixth chapter. While written in a fairly discursive manner, it dealt with the little-known rule for adding new abilities to extant magic items, quietly eliminating the x1.5 multiplier for certain “common effects.”

Most (but not all) of these effects were related to the “Big Six” of magic items; specifically, there was no longer a cost multiplier associated with adding armor, deflection, or natural armor bonuses to AC, resistance bonuses to saving throws, enhancement bonuses to ability scores, or energy resistance onto an existing magic item. This freed up a few thousand gp here and there for PCs to be able to afford magic items that were less mechanically helpful but were far more evocative in what they did. (From a narrative standpoint, I like to think that these effects simply “take” to being built into items easier than others, and that explains why they don’t cost as much to add into existing magic items.)

Unfortunately, coming so late in the life-cycle of 3.5, this rule never got added to the SRD, and so was never incorporated into Pathfinder 1E. But since it’s so easy to institute, we had no trouble implementing it anyway, and found that it helped to diversify our magic items in a way that the MiC’s designers no doubt hoped.

What house rules have you added to your tabletop RPG campaigns? Sound off in the comments below!

Variations on a Theme

October 6, 2021

One of the more notable aspects of the d20 System (i.e. D&D 3.X and Pathfinder 1E) is how much magic item creation is not only formularized, but put into the hands of the PCs.

Earlier editions still allowed PCs to make magic items, of course, but the process was not only much more arduous in terms of what was required, but the actual ingredients involved were left up to the GM to determine. So if you wanted to create a wand of fire, the GM would come up with whatever list of fire-themed materials they felt was appropriate, at which point it was then up to the PCs to track down, purchase, steal, or otherwise acquire the necessary components, at which point the spellcaster(s) would need to undergo the lengthy process of constructing the item they wanted. And even then, there was no guarantee that it would turn out precisely the way they’d envisioned.

In the d20 System, once you take the relevant item creation feats, it’s simply a matter of expending the necessary time and money (and XP in D&D 3.X), along with an (easily-passed) skill check or two. In fact, in Pathfinder you don’t even need the prerequisite spells to make (most) magic items, simply raising the skill DC for each one missing instead! Doing so allows characters to not only tailor their gear to an unprecedented degree, but also allows for potentially unlimited variations on a theme.

To that end, here are a few variant magic items that take advantage of this flexibility to fill a few gaps among the magic items found in the Core Rules.

BRACERS OF MARKSMANSHIP, GREATER

Aura moderate transmutation; CL 8th

Slot wrists; Price 25,000 gp; Weight 1 lb.

DESCRIPTION

These wristbands function as greater bracers of archery, but with crossbows (including wrist launchers, but not ballista or other siege weapons) instead of bows.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, Craft Magic Arms and Armor, crafter must be proficient with a crossbow; Cost 12,500 gp

BRACERS OF MARKSMANSHIP, LESSER

Aura faint transmutation; CL 4th

Slot wrists; Price 5,000 gp; Weight 1 lb.

DESCRIPTION

These wristbands function as lesser bracers of archery, but with crossbows (including wrist launchers, but not ballista or other siege weapons) instead of bows.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, Craft Magic Arms and Armor, crafter must be proficient with a crossbow; Cost 2,500 gp

BRACERS OF SHARPSHOOTING, GREATER

Aura moderate transmutation; CL 8th

Slot wrists; Price 25,000 gp; Weight 1 lb.

DESCRIPTION

These wristbands function as greater bracers of archery, but with firearms (not including cannons or other siege weapons) instead of bows.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, Craft Magic Arms and Armor, crafter must be proficient with firearms; Cost 12,500 gp

BRACERS OF SHARPSHOOTING, LESSER

Aura faint transmutation; CL 4th

Slot wrists; Price 5,000 gp; Weight 1 lb.

DESCRIPTION

These wristbands function as lesser bracers of archery, but with firearms (not including cannons or other siege weapons) instead of bows.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, Craft Magic Arms and Armor, crafter must be proficient with firearms; Cost 2,500 gp

Given that bows are already the optimal ranged weapons in most games, there’s no reason why a magic item that makes them even more potent can’t be reskinned in service to less-common choices of distance-fighting weaponry.

ELIXIR OF CLIMBING

Aura faint transmutation; CL 5th

Slot none; Price 250 gp; Weight ––

DESCRIPTION

Imbibing this liquid grants the drinker an uncanny knack for scaling difficult surfaces (+10 competence bonus on Climb checks for 1 hour).

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, spider climb; Cost 125 gp

Given that there are elixirs that provide an hour-long +10 competence bonus for all of the other physical skills, such as Acrobatics, Perception, Stealth, and Swim, this one rounds out the gap in coverage.

GLOVES OF NIMBLENESS

Aura faint transmutation; CL 5th

Slot hands; Price 4,500 gp; Weight ––

DESCRIPTION

These leather gloves grant the wearer a +3 competence bonus on Dexterity-based checks. Both gloves must be worn for the magic to be effective.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, cat’s grace; Cost 2,250 gp

This is essentially a circlet of persuasion, except keyed to a different ability score and set in a different body slot. The choice of Dexterity for this item was because of the number of skills that ability affects, which (under the Pathfinder rules) is seven: Acrobatics, Disable Device, Escape Artist, Fly, Ride, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth. Charisma affects the same number – Bluff, Diplomacy, Disguise, Handle Animal, Intimidate, Perform, and Use Magic Device – so long as you count Perform as only being one skill.

HELPFUL HAVERSACK

Aura moderate conjuration; CL 9th

Slot none; Price 6,000 gp; Weight 20 lbs.

DESCRIPTION

This backpack functions as per a handy haversack, save that its side pouches each have the storage capacity of a minor bag of holding and the central portion can hold as much as a type I bag of holding. Regardless of how much is stored in it, the backpack only ever weighs 20 pounds.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, secret chest; Cost 3,000 gp

The benefit of a handy haversack isn’t that you can retrieve items faster than you could from a bag of holding (which is more spacious in what it can contain), but that it allows you to do so without drawing an attack of opportunity. Given how that’s far more important to most players than staying under their encumbrance limit (when they pay attention to that limit at all), it’s something of a surprise that improved haversacks like the one above aren’t more common.

INCENSE OF REFLECTION

Aura faint enchantment; CL 5th

Slot none; Price 3,200 gp; Weight 1 lb.

DESCRIPTION

This small rectangular block of sweet-smelling incense is visually indistinguishable from nonmagical incense until lit. When it is burned, the special fragrance and pearly hued smoke of this special incense are recognizable by anyone making a DC 15 Spellcraft check.

When a divine spellcaster lights a block of incense of reflection and then spends 8 hours praying and meditating nearby, the incense enables him to either prepare all his spells (if a preparatory spellcaster), or use each of his spell slots (if a spontaneous spellcaster), as though affected by the Empower Spell feat. However, all the spells prepared in this way are at their normal level, not at two levels higher (as with the regular metamagic feat).

Divine spellcasters who are able to use other types of spellcasting do not gain any benefit for their non-divine spells from incense of reflection.

Each block of incense burns for 8 hours, and the effects persist for 24 hours.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, Empower Spell, bless; Cost 1,600 gp.

A scaled-back version of incense of meditation, this item has some additional text added to cover gaps and ambiguities that the original item doesn’t address, such as spontaneous divine casters and multiclass characters.

IRONGLAZE

Aura faint transmutation; CL 5th

Slot none; Price 250 gp; Weight ––

DESCRIPTION

This gummy substance is a deep red in color, and can be applied to a weapon as a standard action. It gives the weapon the properties of cold iron for 1 hour, replacing the properties of any other special material it might have. One vial coats a single melee weapon or 20 units of ammunition.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item; Cost 125 gp

While various types of weapon blanch have become the go-to for most groups that need a quick way to overcome material-based damage reduction, silversheen remains viable, despite being more expensive, thanks to its longer duration. As such, there’s no real reason why there couldn’t be a cold iron version as well (whereas an adamantine version could potentially bring up issues of bypassing the hardness of other objects).

These are just a few potential variants; even overlooking the possibility of completely original items (or simply combining the properties of various items), there are many more possibilities. A horn of law/chaos really isn’t that different from a horn of goodness/evil. Neither is a cube of heat resistance much of a change from a cube of frost resistance. Or scale up your boots of teleportation to boots of greater teleportation.

When it comes to magic, there’s no reason to stick to the standard stuff.

D&D Did You Know’s: The Witch Spell List (D&D 3E)

May 29, 2021

As a character class, the witch has had a hard time getting off the metaphorical ground in Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, it’s notable that the most famous instances of a witch class come from various third parties, such as Mayfair Games and Paizo Publishing.

But, in a bit of sleight of hand that a lot of people overlooked (helped by it never getting included in the SRD), D&D slipped a witch class into its Third Edition, right there on pages 26-27 of the 3.0 Dungeon Master’s Guide and page 175 of the 3.5 DMG (the latter of which is depicted below).

Okay, so that’s just a spell list rather than a full class presentation. Indeed, this is the example that’s presented as what a customized spell list could look like; the section on developing entirely new classes (though it largely discusses this in terms of variations of an existing class) is actually the one right after that. Still, the text accompanying the witch spell list says that a witch “[…] casts spells as a sorcerer, using the sorcerer’s Spells per Day table […] and her spells are based on Charisma.” From there, it’s not hard to make the leap that in 3.5, a witch character uses the sorcerer class in all ways, save for using the above spell list instead of the standard sorcerer/wizard one in the Player’s Handbook.

It might have been a bit of a bait-and-switch, but the witch found her niche.

The 3.0 Witch Spell List

One thing that’s interesting to consider is how the witch spell list in 3.0 differed from its 3.5 counterpart. For the most part they’re identical (or at least, they are after you apply the errata). However, there are a few differences between them, which you can reintroduce if you want a witch character to feel slightly more different from her spellcasting counterparts.

Make speak with animals a 2nd-level spell.

Make baleful polymorph a 4th-level spell.

Add animal growth to the witch’s 5th-level spells.

Make greater scrying a 5th-level spell.

Finally, consider deleting the spells crushing despair (4th), good hope (4th), and rage (3rd), instead replacing them with emotion as a 4th-level spell. Emotion was removed from the 3.5 version of the game (with several of its effects becoming their own spells), but bringing it back just for the witch can be a good way to make the class a little more unique.

For pricing the witch spell list as a magic progression in Eclipse: The Codex Persona (page 11), I’d recommend making it equal in cost to the bard, cleric (no package), and druid progressions.