Friday, September 3, 2010

Six-Level Steampunk, part 1

Well, that was a lovely summer vacation. And now that I’m back, I really should write something.

Okay, seriously, when was my last blog post? April? Holy Einstein, that’s quite a dry spell. I can’t believe I’ve slacked off on this for literally months on end. Well, c’est la vie, I guess. Or c’est la guerre, as I’ve always liked to hear it. Same difference, really.

For the last couple of months, I’ve been… well, never mind, that’s not important. What matters here is that I’ve been quite out of commission when it comes to writing anything. I haven’t posted to this blog; I haven’t done any work on my RPG; I haven’t even written any frelling fan-fiction. It’s a shame, really, but there you are. I’m a lazy, bummy, schlubby, lazy bum.

I did finish reffing a campaign last month, one that successfully combined Engines & Empires with the Epic Six conceit. I’ve learned enough from the experience, too, that I think I can now confidently codify a set of rules for this style of campaign. And it will definitely be going into my E&E Supplement I.

So, without further ado…

Six-Level Steampunk

This is a hack for Engines & Empires which limits character advancement to 6th level (rather than the usual 36th level). Gamers who are used to high-level play and take its inevitability for granted might find this unduly strict, but 6th level is the perfect place to limit the game if the referee should wish for a given campaign to feel reasonably realistic, in terms of character ability. Magic, monsters, and super-science notwithstanding, it’s important to remember that in terms of the original game, a 4th level fighting man was a “hero”, while an 8th level fighting man was a “super-hero”. By limiting the game to 6th level, therefore, the scope of the campaign sits just a hair above “heroic fantasy”. Players can feel like action stars, but they’ll never feel like comic book or wire-fu characters. In short, no super-heroes. You can have Indiana Jones, Aragorn, Luke Skywalker, or Jon McLane; but you will never be Kal-El, Li Mu Bai, Hercules, or Son Goku.

This kind of fantasy is gritty, but not unduly grimdark. Because, going hand-in-hand with the notion that there are no player characters above 6th level, neither are there any NPCs beyond that level. It’s a hard limit. (So kings, emperors, and high level player characters, while always vulnerable to assassination, can at least rest assured that they’re fairly well-protected by an ordinary retinue of bodyguards and a castle. There are no polymoprhing, teleporting, wish-happy arch-mages to threaten the status quo.) Likewise, monsters with more than six hit dice or so are presumed to be rare, and monsters with more than a dozen or so hit dice are all but unheard of. In short, use “Basic” and “Expert” monsters, but pretend that “Companion” and “Master” monsters just don’t exist. The biggest dragon ever is the 11-HD gold dragon, the nastiest of undead is the 9-HD spell-casting vampire, and the 15-HD purple worm is the closest thing to a nameless Lovecraftian horror that the PCs will ever encounter. Slaying Dracula in a six-level campaign can’t help but be a Big Freaking Deal™.

Game Rule Information (Table 1.1)

In a six-level campaign, the pace of character advancement remains the same as in standard Engines & Empires. Assuming that, on average, two achievement points are awarded to each character per successful game session, human characters will gain a level every four sessions and faerie characters will level up every five. The underlying assumption for a six-level campaign is that player characters are able to prove their mettle (but also reach their peak) relatively quickly, but after that, the advancement curve takes a sharp turn and becomes a plateau.

Fighting Ability and Saving Throw numbers are given on the table above. Note first of all that these progressions are slightly faster than in standard E&E; and note secondly that the base statistics for player characters stop advancing at 6th level. (This ought not to be the case for monsters, which can have more than six hit dice. Monsters, I think, can have their statistics reduced to a very simple formula, e.g. a monster’s Fighting Ability is simply equal to its hit dice plus one, with the usual caveat that any monster with a hit point bonus counts as the next highest hit die; and a monster’s saving throw number is equal to six plus two-thirds its hit dice if it’s intelligent, or one-third its hit dice if it has animal intelligence.)

Level benefits require a somewhat more drastic re-tooling, to account for the compacted nature of character advancement—and in particular, skills as written in the E&E game cannot work in a six-level campaign, since they are predicated on having many levels with which to build up skill ranks. So instead of basing skills on ranks, a skill is either known (“trained”) or not (“untrained”). Out of the twelve skills in the game (Athletics, Civics, Craft, Diplomacy, Entertain, Knowledge, Medicine, Outdoors, Perception, Pilot, Stealth, and Trade), most characters start the game trained in 3 + Int mod skills. Experts, halflings, and fauns, being the skill specialists that they are, know three bonus skills at the start of the game (i.e. 6 + Int mod trained skills). The chance to pass an untrained skill check is 1-in-6, like before. The chance to pass a trained skill check is now keyed to the character's level: 2-in-6 for 1st and 2nd level characters, 3-in-6 for 3rd and 4th level characters, and 4-in-6 for 5th and 6th level characters.

The bonus skill rank usually awarded to faerie characters now simply becomes a bonus trained skill. Elves get Perception for free, Dwarves get Craft for free, Halflings get Stealth for free, and so on. After the start of the game, characters can only acquire new skills in a very limited way. (1) All characters receive one extra skill at 3rd level, and one extra skill at 5th level. Expert-type characters do not get any more additional skills than others after 1st level. (2) Whenever a character raises his Intelligence to the point where the modifier goes up, the character immediately acquires a new trained skill.

1st level characters also enjoy the usual benefit of a maximized first hit die. Fighters and boxers start with 8 hp, scholars and experts with 6 hp, and mages and techs with 4 hp. Hit dice are thereafter rolled normally, until 6th level.

2nd level characters may select a particular weapon to be their “favored weapon”. Characters attacking with their favored weapon add a damage bonus equal to one-half their Fighting Ability, rounded down (thus, the maximum possible bonus is +1 for mages, +2 for scholars, and +3 for fighters). All fighter-type classes (fighters, boxers, dwarves, centaurs, and sylphs) get to pick a second favored weapon upon reaching 6th level.

4th level characters get to select one of their ability scores and raise it by one point.

6th level is the peak of normal character advancement. At 6th level, characters roll their last hit die, and they have reached their maximum Fighting Ability and best Saving Throw number. No more class abilities or spell slots are gained after 6th level. Also, as soon as a character reaches 6th level, that character may being questing for a name title (i.e. class promotion). Fighters can start working to become Lords, mages can start questing to become Sorcerers, etc. The benefits that come with a class promotion are somewhat reduced, though, to accord with the lower power levels expected in a six-level campaign.

Characters can still keep advancing after passing 6th level, but further levels grant mere token benefits. The first of these is increased hit points: characters above 6th level gain a small hit point bonus, but only until they reach the maximum possible number rolled on their own hit dice. That is, discounting Constitution modifiers, a fighter will gain +2 hp per level above the sixth until he reaches 48 hp (the maximum possible roll on 6d8). Scholars will gain +1d2 hp until they reach a ceiling of 36 hp. Mages gain +1 hp until they reach their maximum possible base of 24 hp. The second benefit is an ability increase: for each “epic level” gained above the 6th, a character can raise one of his ability scores by one point. Ability scores can be raised as high as 20 in this fashion.

Speaking of ability scores, a six-level campaign works best when ability modifiers are de-emphasized, reducing the “weight” that scores bring to bear on the game mechanics. Thus, table 1.2:

Having a maximum ability bonus of +2 produces several pleasing symmetries. It means that the maximum possible hit points that a character might have is 60 (a fighter-type with Con 17+ and maximum hit die rolls). It also means that if the mightiest magical weapons are +3 weapons, a character will rarely ever have more than a +5 in extra bonuses to hit (although the damage bonus could get up to +8 in the case of a fighter-type with a favored weapon).

Okay, that sums up the basic rules for a six-level steampunk campaign. Next post, I’ll go into detail about how these rules affect the fifteen Engines & Empires character classes, and I’ll offer a few suggestions about how one would go about using the six-level campaign mode to best effect.

With that, it’s time at last to renew my customary quoting of Farscape:

: Uh-oh. Eyes.
: Eyes?
: Yeah, like a cave scene in a Yosemite Sam cartoon.
—Episode 1.10, “They’ve
Got a Secret”

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