Eclipsing Dead Levels

It used to be, when your character gained a level, that you only received a modest boost in power.

More hit points were the biggest gain, since older editions had less safeguards against character death built into them. If you were a martial-type character, you probably had your to-hit chances go up as well; for other characters, your hit chances operated in brackets, so it was uncertain if they’d go up at any particular level or not. The same was true for saving throws as well, though the brackets varied depending on which category of saves was being looked at. Later on, you also gained a proficiency slot every so many levels. And of course, spellcasters gained new spell slots, though gaining new spells to actually fill them with was something else again.

However, as time went on, we began to see level inflation. What you gained at each level was expanded upon, increasing the relative power you received over time. Hit points were always rolled instead of becoming small, flat bonuses, and everyone (not just warrior-types) got to add their full Constitution bonus to them. Iterative attacks became baked into base attack bonus progression, allowing even non-martial characters to make multiple attacks per round. Saving throws were consolidated, and the target number you rolled against was now defined externally – and so could vary wildly – rather than being set according to your level.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Skills were now codified, using points and ranks that could be freely purchased, albeit with class-based restrictions and level-based caps. Spellcasters gained a new spell or two for free each and every time they gained a level. Feats were gained every few levels, replacing (non-weapon) proficiencies. The same was true for ability points. What classes you gained levels in could be mixed-and-matched much more freely than before.

And each level of each class now granted a special ability. Indeed, it got to the point where there was eventually a term for when you gained a level but didn’t gain a special power: “dead levels.”

It eventually got to the point, in D&D Third Edition, where the game designers went back and published a few late-stage additions to classes that had dead levels on their website.

These patches weren’t very powerful, since the designers didn’t want to upset the balance of the game (such as it was) too much. So they tended to be small benefits, little more than minor supplements to what the characters could already do. Of course, that raised the question of why grant these benefits at all, if they didn’t do very much, but this was mostly ignored. The point was that characters receive some sort of special power at each and every level; what they were was secondary.

Now, if you’re playing with a point-buy character-generation system, such as Eclipse: The Codex Persona for d20 System games, then “dead levels” are a complete non-issue. You simply took what (available) powers you wanted for your character at each level. If you wanted to ignore your attack bonus and focus on buying a lot of skills and powers related to skills, you could do that. If you were a warrior who wanted to increase their focus with a specific weapon and buy up defenses against the spells that those cowardly wizards always used, you could do that. If you wanted to be a stay-at-home character who spent their time cultivating relationships with powerful people, opening merchant companies, and dabbling with politics, you could do that, even if it meant that you were likely playing a different game than the other players at the table. Point-buy systems can do a lot, but there’s no set of rules that can curb a disruptive player.

And of course, if you wanted to build characters very close to what you’d find with standard class-level builds, you could do that as well. In fact, that’s in Appendix 2 of Eclipse. But what if you also wanted to gain those dead-level additions given in the article linked to above? Well, let’s take a look at each of them and how we can build them in Eclipse. Since the monk and barbarian have no additions, due to having no dead levels in the first place, we’ll omit them, focusing on the other nine classes from the PHB:

Bard: The bard, as presented in WotC’s “Dead Levels” article, gains two abilities; one allows them to re-roll a Perform check once per day, but only with regards to using Perform to earn money, and the other gradually maximizes the subsequent rolls for exactly how much money they earn.

So overall, the effect here is to put some extra money in the bard’s pocket, but only if they spend a day putting on performances. That’s a downtime activity, and honestly not a very good one after the first few levels or so. Even presuming that they can always hit the maximum Perform result (DC 30) and get the maximum result on 3d6 gp per day, that’s only 126 additional gp per week. Given that a 20th-level character is supposed to have 760,000 gp in wealth, this means that even if they spent every day performing, they’d earn less than 1% of their total gp value over the course of a year.

That seems like a rather roundabout method of giving the bard some pocket-money.

If you want a character to earn a few extra gold pieces in Eclipse, there’s a simpler way to do it. Pick up Equipage (p. 31) for 10 gp per character level per week, specialized and corrupted for one-third cost/only to earn actual gold pieces (rather than equipment of commensurate value), and the character must spend two days each week performing in populated areas (during which time they can’t do other activities, such as crafting). That will cost you 6 CP, and now gives your character a weekend gig, one that earns them slightly more money than they would gain even with maximized Perform checks.

Cleric: The cleric gains, a bonus to Knowledge (religion) checks to “identify undead creatures during an encounter from any distance” but “gains no insight about their special powers or vulnerabilities,” which starts at +2 at 2nd level before going up by +1 each level thereafter. Now, there’s a minor ambiguity here when they say “identify undead creatures.” Do they mean simply recognizing them as undead (even through disguises, cloaking spells, etc.)? Or does it mean identifying what kind of undead they are (i.e. “that’s not just a zombie, it’s a juju zombie!”) , even if they then don’t gain that bonus on knowing much of anything about them?

Of course, it doesn’t really matter either way, since if you can’t identify its powers or weaknesses, knowing what a particular type of undead is called doesn’t matter very much, unless you plan on going and doing some research later (though that brings up the awkward question of how you know about that type of undead but don’t know anything useful about it anyway). So it’s probably better to just make this into a generic undead-detecting power, one that has some better-defined parameters regarding how it works:

Pick up Innate Enchantment (p. 34), specialized for one-half cost/only for half the normal gp value (i.e. 2,500 gp). Now buy detect undead. The total cost is 3 CP and, technically, 80 XP. Or you could buy Occult Sense (p. 38) for detect undead as well; that will cost you 6 CP, but has no XP cost. Either way, this is less ambiguous than the WotC version.

Druid: The druid gains two new abilities, both of which are slightly stronger than normal for what that article introduces, owing to not receiving them until very high level. The first extends their immunity to non-magical undergrowth to magical undergrowth. The second gives them spell resistance, but only to the spell-like abilities of fey creatures. Neither are really that useful by the time they’re received (though the latter could conceivably be, against certain high-level fey monsters), but that’s kind of the point, since all of the new abilities in this article amount to little more than lagniappe.

To make these in Eclipse, first buy Immunity (p. 34) to magically-overgrown terrain (uncommon/minor/minor) for 2 CP. Given that most magical terrain-manipulation effects (at least as far as causing undergrowth to impede travel goes) seems to top out with entangle, you might be able to reduce this to a trivial Immunity, lowering the final cost to 1 CP, but this covers you against anything of 3rd-level or less, which should be enough to defeat anything else that falls into this category. As for the other new ability, buy Spell Resistance (p. 45) with the Improved modifier, both of which are specialized and corrupted for one-third cost/only applies against fey creatures, only against their spell-like abilities, for 4 CP.

Fighter: The fighter gets eight instances of buying a +1 bonus to a particular ability check: Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution. Now, ability checks are already a comparative rarity compared to skills, but these are further limited: the Strength bonus only applies to breaking/burst an object, the Dexterity bonus only applies against falling when damaged while balancing or moving quickly across difficult surfaces, and the Constitution bonus only applies on checks to continue running or continue a forced march.

Now, this is a little awkward. While ability checks are similar to skill checks, they’re not something you usually receive bonuses on, other than the relevant attribute modifier. But that’s the beauty of using such a flexible point-buy system like Eclipse: if you want to allow ability checks to receive bonuses like skills, you can allow for that. In this case, what you’re buying is a +8 skill bonus (p. 8) and applying it to an ability check the same way you would a skill, specialized for one-half cost/only for a particular type of ability check, as listed above. That costs 4 CP, and you can distribute the bonuses between those three ability checks as you like. You might want to have ability checks for other things come up from time to time, at least for those attributes, in order to keep that specialization relevant, but honestly this is such a minor set of bonuses that it probably doesn’t really matter all that much.

Paladin: The paladin can, up to eight times, choose between gaining a +1 bonus to their Leadership score for the purposes of attracting 1st-level cohorts only, or gain a +1 bonus to Sense Motive checks only to gain a hunch.

Neither of these are very good options, and the article all but admits to that. The Leadership option only works if you’ve taken that feat (and in my experience, a lot of GMs disallow that feat for the complications it brings), and even then your Leadership score tops out at 25 anyway, unless you use the Epic Leadership table. Likewise, the “hunch” use of Sense motive has a static DC of 20, so bonuses become less and less relevant the closer you get to being able to make that automatically (plus, as the article admits, paladins have detect evil anyway). If you’ve already gotten to the point where you can hit DC 20 with Sense Motive no problem, and you don’t have Leadership, then both of these options are useless.

But let’s say you’re not concerned about that. How would you go about building these in Eclipse? Well, if you’ve already bought Leadership (p. 35), then you’re going to want the Strength in Numbers modifier for +3 CP to get a bunch of low-level servants who can fulfill the background tasks that most campaigns overlook anyway; if you actually want to gain 1st-level characters who will be moderately useful when dealing with minor problems, buy Horde (+3 CP) also. Similarly, buy Skill Emphasis (p. 44) in Sense Motive, specialized and corrupted for triple effect/only for the “hunch” application of the skill; that will only buy a +6 bonus, but for 3 CP that’s really all you’re going to need. If you do want to hit +8 (the way you could if you chose that option each time that the “Dead Levels” article allows for it), buy +1 Skill Focus (p. 44), with the same corruption and specialization; that’s an additional 2 CP for a further +3 bonus, taking you to +9 altogether.

Ranger: The upgrades given for the ranger are perhaps the most minor in the entire article. Despite receiving five different abilities, all of them are based around using the Survival skill, and the sidebar flat-out admits that all of them are so extremely minor as to be practically irrelevant. To mimic these abilities in Eclipse:

  • Buy an Immunity (p. 34) to the time needed to find (but not follow) tracks (uncommon/minor/trivial) for 1 CP. By itself, this is more than enough to get the time down from “a full-round action or longer” to “a standard action,” replacing two of the listings points in that article (specifically, perceptive tracker and instinctive tracker). I’d venture that if you kicked this up to a minor immunity (paying 1 additional CP), that would be more than enough to make this a free action; the time requirement to locate tracks tends to be such a minor issue that it honestly shouldn’t cost any more than that to remove it entirely.
  • Buy an Immunity (p. 34) to the speed reduction for engaging in outdoorsmanship (uncommon/minor/trivial) for 1 CP. Just like the previous bullet point, this will cover two different listings in the original article (woodland hunter and seasoned explorer), allowing the character to “get along in the wilderness” and make a check to gain a bonus on Fortitude saves against inclement weather without suffering an overland speed reduction.
  • Buy Mastery (p. 37), specialized and corrupted for one-third cost/only to apply to Survival checks, for 2 CP.

Rogue: Similar to the ranger, the rogue entry is dedicated to overcoming some of the restrictions with a particular skill, in this case Disable Device. The first ability removes the penalty for not using thieves’ tools with a Disable Device check, which makes it seem a little awkward that this doesn’t also apply to Open Lock checks as well, since they’re normally subject to the same restriction. The second cuts the time required to use Disable Device in half, down to turning full-round actions into standard actions.

To overcome these in Eclipse, buy a +1 skill bonus in Eclipse (p. 9) for Disable Device, specialized for double effect/only to remove the penalty for not having thieves’ tools. This only costs 1 CP, making it affordable if you want to buy another a similar bonus on Open Lock as well. For the second, buy an Immunity (p. 34) to the time required to use Disable Device (uncommon/minor/major) for 3 CP. That’s relatively cheap, since most characters aren’t trying to disable complex mechanisms while a fight is going on, making the time spent fairly unimportant from a game-play standpoint.

Sorcerer: The sorcerer’s ability is essentially the same as the one the cleric received, except that instead of being specific to the undead, they can pick a different creature type of their choice. Technically, they have to choose a creature type that has at least one monster with arcane spell-like abilities, but that’s largely a pointless restriction; rule out the animal and vermin types, and across the myriad monster books (especially if third-party ones are allowed) you’re bound to find a creature with arcane spell-like abilities somewhere. There are ogre magi for the giant type, scorpionfolk for the monstrous humanoid type, and even gnomes for the humanoid type!

As such, you can build this ability in Eclipse identically to what we did for the cleric, except that the detect ability will work just like detect undead, but for a different creature type.

Wizard: The wizard ability is similar to the ranger abilities in that, while it deals specifically with their spellbooks, the abilities in question are all ones that interact with a particular skill check, in this case Spellcraft. Pleasantly, the article actually provides some flavor for the ability: the wizard can animate the ink in their spellbook, making it move across the page (in a way that sounds similar to a news ticker). This increases the DC of two different Spellcraft checks for others who try to use their spellbook: deciphering the writing to begin with (normally DC 20 + spell level, though a read magic apparently still bypasses this) and preparing a spell from the spellbook (normally DC 15 + spell level).

The problem with this ability is that it’s actually a rather severe money-sink. You see, as written, the wizard who uses this ability increases the aforementioned DCs by their Intelligence modifier, +1 for each dead level (so by level 20, that can be up to their Int. mod. +15). They can set the DC increase below the maximum possible, and there’s a reason for that: this costs 5 gp per +1 above their Intelligence modifier per page of the spell. (And, as written, they can’t go below Int. mod. +1.) But spells take up a number of pages equal to their spell level (and even 0-level spells take up one page). So a 20th-level wizard who wants the full Int. mod. +15 increase to the Spellcraft DC for a 9th-level spell will be paying 75 gp per page for nine pages, at a total cost of 675 gp. For one spell. Presuming that they want to encrypt the full one hundred pages that come in your standard spellbook, that’s 7,500 gp in costs. Multiply that by ten if they want to encrypt every page of a blessed book.

Now, this is a fairly good security measure, but unless they want the party bard funding this via the pocket change they’re picking up with their new Perform abilities listed above, this isn’t a good use of the wizard’s money. After all, when’s the last time you had a wizard character worry about someone accessing their spellbooks without their knowledge? The most likely way you’ll see this ability use is when an NPC used this on some of the spells in their spellbook, frustrating PC attempts to copy it (though that might be useful if the GM wants them to use spells but doesn’t want the PCs to learn them, though be warned that a lot of PCs will take this as a challenge).

If you really want to do this in Eclipse, just buy the Encryption (+3 CP) modifier to the Spell Shorthand ability (p. 45). If you want that to function more like what’s here, giving modifiers rather than an absolute immunity to being deciphered by anyone else, corrupt it for two-thirds cost/only increases the Spellcraft DC to decipher and prepare spells from your spellbook by your spellcasting modifier, +1 per level. You can also specialize it if you want to remove the part about making the spell only take up a single page. Together, those get the cost down to a mere 1 CP, and don’t have any increases in gp cost for what they do.

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