Echelon Basics

Echelon is derived from D&D 3.x and tries to address problems experienced or described with that edition. Some elements are drawn from D&D 4e, but this game is an evolution of 3.x. The rules of play are much as they were, unless specifically changed, and the same ability scores and saving throws are still present and mean the same as they do now.

Strict compatibility is not a critical design goal. It will be nice if game elements from D&D 3.x can be readily imported into Echelon, but I suspect the desired elements would need to be reimplemented. In many cases this should be straightforward and easy.

Given that many of the flaws I am trying to correct are systemic in the design of D&D 3.x, it perhaps should be expected that the game elements cannot be directly imported. On the other hand, perhaps the balance points will be close enough that a direct import could be used.

Echelon Tiers

The tiers used for non-epic play were presented in my last article, but I will recap them here.

Basic Tier (level 0)

This is where the bulk of the population can be found. They go about their lives and can be competent at what they do, but are usually not notably capable. Your typical farmer, master smith, or soldier is likely to be here.

Expert Tier (levels 1-4)

These are the people notable for their skill and ability. They stand out from the crowd. They are still within the realm of normal human ability (barring things like magic) but are often the best in the area at what they do. You would likely find the ‘best smith in the guild’ or ‘best fighter in the company’ (and probably the cadre and officers) in this range.

Adventures at this tier often have only local effect. You save (or destroy) a village, you don’t lay waste to the countryside to avenge your family.

Heroic Tier (levels 5-8)

These people can do more than almost anyone normal. Where experts are notably skilled, these people go beyond that. You might find Olympic-grade athletes at the bottom end of this tier.

Adventures at this tier may be notable in the ‘sub-kingdom’ (duchy, county, barony, whatever suits the setting). The consequences of an heroic adventure may well bring you to the attention of the movers and shakers of the kingdom, but you probably only directly affect them if they are actually involved.

Master Tier (levels 9-12)

Now we’re clearly beyond human capability in our world. Wizards can teleport, traveling instantly between locations without having to exist in the points between, while clerics can literally bring the dead back to life.

Noncasters… not so much, but they should be able to do fantastic things too. I’ll work on that.

Adventures at this tier often have effects spanning a kingdom or the like, perhaps very directly (such as conquering a kingdom to use for a base of operations).

Champion Tier (levels 13-16)

How do I say ‘beyond beyond human capability’ without it sounding silly? At this point characters (especially wizards with limited wish) can start bending reality around them.

Adventures at this tier may have effects spanning multiple kingdoms (a continent, an empire, or the like).

Legendary Tier (levels 17-20)

Characters are walking legends at this point. Tales of their exploits have carried to the far edges of their world, and they can somewhat accurately be described as being nearly gods.

Adventures at this tier often have world-affecting consequences

Epic and Beyond (levels 21+)

I’m frankly not thinking very hard about this yet. I sometimes have difficulty wrapping my head around things past Master.

Tier Advancement

Level advancement is much the same in Echelon as it in D&D 3.x. Face challenges and gain experience, gradually becoming more capable until you are measurably better and gain a level.

I think I will try to arrange adventures such that each adventure in a story arc amounts to one character level advancement, with a capstone adventure every four levels that takes you to the next tier. This seems a little regular and predictable, but I suspect it will give some nice shape to things and help make the transitions more clear. This is entirely a setting and campaign design decision and so not part of Echelon proper, but I mention it here because it does affect my decisions later.

Benefits of Gaining Levels

The benefits of gaining levels are consistent across all tiers, though they change from level to level within a tier as shown in the table below.

Tier Level Talent Slots Gained Other Gains

1

2 tier slots

2

2 tier slots

+1 level bonus

3

3 tier slots

4

3 tier slots

+1 level bonus, +1 to all ability scores

‘Tier level 1’ is the first level in a tier. When you reach a new tier you get two talent slots for that tier, so at fifth level you gain two Heroic talent slots. These slots may be used to buy any talent you are eligible for. If you upgrade a talent you already have you may fill the upgraded slot with another talent. For instance, a fifth-level character is now eligible to take Heroic Combat Training. If he already has Expert Combat Training he is upgrading the talent and may therefore fill the now-empty Expert slot with an Expert talent.

Basic Tier

Every character starts with ten Basic tier slots. Adventurers and the like usually spend all of them, but many basic – 0 level – characters might not. These provide access to basic abilities such as weapon and armor proficiency, skill focus, and so on.

Variant Rule – Limited Slots

At high levels a character can end up with a lot of slots (a 20th-level character has fifty of them), many of which are not particular relevant any more. I am considering setting a cap of twenty or thirty slots. Older talents that don’t get upgraded to be in the level cap go away – skill decay due to lack of use. Given that prerequisites actually work from the top down, rather than the bottom up, it should not be arduous to maintain because you don’t have to worry about invalidating your character.

I’m not entirely happy with the idea of character abilities going away, but a twenty-talent cap means you’re looking at not maintaining or upgrading a talent for at least four levels and up to eight… and if you later change your mind you can reclaim the talents at a higher tier, so there’s no net loss if you keep to a reasonably narrow build.

This was a new thought to me tonight, but I’m starting to like it.

Level Bonus and Training Bonus

The Level Bonus and Training Bonus are important to characters.

Each character has a Level Bonus that is equal to one-half his level, rounded down, that gets applied to most checks. This represents general competence and capability – a character who survives a long and dangerous career can be expected to learn elements of skill and tricks that can be applied in a broad range of circumstances.

Each character can also have numerous Training Bonuses that apply to specific areas of endeavour and action, such as combat or spellcasting. There are typically two talents available at each tier to improve a character’s training bonus in a facet. The Training Bonus may not exceed one-half the character’s level, rounded up.

This allows us to model, for example, the Base Attack Bonus from D&D 3.x. The first four levels of advancement at full rate could look like

Level

Training Bonus

Level Bonus

Total Bonus

Talent

0

+0

+0

+0

1

+1

+0

+1

Expert Combat Training

2

+1

+1

+2

3

+2

+1

+3

Improved Expert Combat Training

4

+2

+2

+4

This costs the character two Expert talent slots, leaving eight for other development. A character who advances Base Attack Bonus at the medium progression (such as a rogue or cleric) could look like

Level

Training Bonus

Level Bonus

Total Bonus

Talent

0

+0

+0

+0

1

+0

+0

+0

2

+0

+1

+1

3

+1

+1

+2

Expert Combat Training

4

+1

+2

+3

Unlike D&D 3.x, though, if he later shifts character focus he has the option of buying up his combat bonus by spending another talent slot on it.

This progression is typically applied to major character facets such as combat and spellcasting. As described in my previous post about Echelon prerequisites are greatly reduced in Echelon but still present; the training talents are a common prerequisite.

Skills

Before D&D 4e came out I saw the argument that it seems odd that a high-level character should be an expert in, say, ballroom dancing, despite being an unlettered, uncultured, but very experienced barbarian. I had a lot of sympathy for this position until I realized that as long as a lower-level character specifically trained in the skill can get better results, the actual bonus to the roll might not be important.

In Echelon, skill ranks are no longer tracked nor applied. Instead, a character trained in a skill (as by taking the Basic talent ‘Skill Focus’ gets a +5 competence bonus to all checks involving the skill and can achieve results not possible without the training. For instance, a master smith (0-level character with Skill Focus: Smithing) has a +5 competence bonus with smithing checks and has the ability to make masterwork items. A 10th-level warrior with a +5 Level Bonus can apply his Level Bonus to smithing checks and can forge a passable sword (he’s used and maintained more than a couple in his career) but is not capable of making a masterwork sword.

As long as similar distinctions can be made for other skills, I’m satisfied.

How are D&D 3.x Elements Modeled?

This is as good a time as any to describe how various D&D 3.x elements (feats, classes, and so on) are modeled, at least in the abstract. If I had them all done, then I’d be rather further along with this project than I am. Taking the elements more or less in the order presented in this copy of the RSRD:

Ability scores are basically unchanged.

Races are a collection of talents, probably some mandatory and some optional. There may be adjustments outside that that may cost a talent slot or two if I consider them not quite neutrally-balanced, such as net positive ability score bonuses more than +2 or so. As described in my previous article, level adjustments are gone – if a race is too good for first level it will likely either need a bunch of talent slots to take or will require higher-tier talent slots, but either way you will be able to play the race if you are a suitable level and not before, without sacrificing expensive Hit Dice.

Classes are gone. The character niches they try to describe can be similarly met with a selection of talents, so it should be possible to emulate them reasonably closely, but the physical construct ‘class’ no longer exists.

Skills are still present but how they are developed is somewhat different. There are no longer skill ranks or skill points to keep track of or apply. Instead, for each skill there are one or more talents that develop how you can use it. The Basic Skill Focus talent gives you a +5 competence bonus (if you have two talents relating to a skill they don’t stack) and lets you achieve a result that cannot be achieved with just higher bonuses. At higher tiers skills often give you the benefit of 3.x-style feats, or may give you some other combat benefit.

Feats go away as a construct, but their effects remain. There is no mechanism for gaining or taking feats, but talents often give the benefits of existing feats.

Spells will continue in their existing format, at least until I have an opportunity to review and revise how magic works. After that they may change, but since the spellcasting subsystem should be largely decoupled from the rest (as the others are – if you really want it should be possible to devise a different talent set for handling skills) this should be a reasonably easy change to apply.

Equipment is much the same and I don’t see that changing much. The designations for various weapons (simple, martial, exotic) is expected to be replaced with one based on usage rather than difficulty, but other than that a sword is still a sword. Magic items may get redefined to some degree but I’ll get into that later, I don’t know enough about it yet.

Psionics I haven’t even considered, but I expect they can be present and that the mechanisms would be distinct from spellcasting. This is later work.

Monsters will of course be present, and defined using the talent system. Some elements and constructs may need to be developed beyond those needed to model existing character elements, but the same framework will be applied. It may be necessary to restrict or limit access to certain talents for monster use because they would unbalance player characters, but I’d really like to avoid that if possible.

Epic rules will likely be an extension of the non-epic rules, things just get awesomer. Epic play is outside the scope of Echelon at this point. The framework should be prepared for it, but the details (what does epic Climb look like?) are beyond me right now.

Templates are modifications to creatures (monsters or characters). Rather than adjusting the Challenge Rating or Level Adjustment, though, they just add (or make mandatory) certain talents. For instance, the half-demon template requires the modified creature to have a mix of Expert and Heroic talents (and at higher levels allows or requires some others). These come from the talents normally available, so instead of taking vertical power to pay for the template the creature uses ‘horizontal power’ (flexibility). A half-demon warrior will probably be stronger and tougher than normal, with a few minor demonic abilities, and half less character resources available for other facets.

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