Just the Rules: Making Paths

When last I looked at my Just the Rules series (i.e. April last year, almost nine months ago), I’d reached a point where I had the general shape of what I wanted, without being able to fill it in.

I know what I want the level progression to look like. Unlike Echelon, which is a classless system, this project (which needs a name someday) still has ‘paths’ that are similar in nature to classes. Unlike most class/level-based games though, you are neither constrained to a single class, nor can you freely multiclass. Instead, I’m taking an idea from Robert Schwalb’s Shadow of the Demon Lord game: you start with one ‘path’ (class, basically), and at certain levels you can (and must) add other paths. A character might start with the ‘warrior’ basic path, then add the ‘knight’ expert path, and finally the ‘paladin’ master path. Another character might start as an ‘adept’, then become a ‘wizard’, and then a ‘necromancer’. Or start as an ‘adept’, become a ‘cleric’, and then a ‘paladin’.

That’s right, there are really no strict rules governing the path selections. You could be an expert (skill monkey), then become a knight, then a necromancer. It might not be as efficient and probably not as powerful overall, but it’s going to be pretty flexible.

However, I like having a full twenty-level progression, so I can’t quite use the Shadow of the Demon Lord ten-level progression. I have devised a twenty-level progression that is similar in nature and style, but I had to introduce a fourth path to make it work. I’m pretty okay with that, though.

Level Advancement

Shadow of the Demon Lord   Just the Rules
Level Basic Expert Master   Level Basic Expert Master Paragon
1 Basic 1       1 Basic 1      
2 Basic 2       2 Basic 2      
3   Expert 1     3   Expert 1    
4 (Race)       4 Basic 3      
5 Basic 3       5 Basic 4      
6   Expert 2     6   Expert 2    
7     Master 1   7 Basic 5      
8 Basic 4       8 Basic 6      
9   Expert 3     9   Expert 3    
10     Master 2   10     Master 1  
          11 Basic 7      
          12   Expert 4    
          13     Master 2  
          14       Paragon 1
          15   Expert 5    
          16     Master 3  
          17       Paragon 2
          18   Expert 6    
          19     Master 4  
          20       Paragon 3

In both games, the basic paths are fairly generic, expert are more specific, and master are specialized. In Just the Rules I’m adding Paragon paths that are ‘achievements’ of a sort and should be more or less unique. That the character gains levels in a path several character levels apart gives a sense of time between advancements: even if each level in an expert path improves the same thing, they don’t feel as rushed as they might in a prestige class in D&D… and that the paths are on set schedules makes it easier to ensure the abilities are level-appropriate.

Where I ran into trouble last April was in devising the paths. I have lots of research material available — that’s where the Echelon Reference Series got its start, after all — but getting things aligned the way I wanted was proving difficult.

Enter True 20.

Path Development

I recently, finally, got hold of a copy of the True 20 Adept’s Handbook, which prompted me to review the other True 20 books.

I don’t remember see it declared outright, but I’m pretty sure True 20 is based on the ‘generic classes’ rules from the D&D 3.x Unearthed Arcana. Three base classes, class features come from feats rather than being built into each class. For that matter I’m pretty sure “let’s streamline True 20 some more” was what led to AGE System.

The True 20 roles (classes) are very generic, but combined with feats there’s a lot of capacity for a large range of characters. The framework is very straightforward to work with, and I stumbled on the ‘role creation’ section of the book that describes how to build new roles (classes). I’m pretty sure it’s intended to be used for base roles that you can take at first level, because the mention the ‘core abilities’ of each role, the extra bit you get for taking the role at first level.

This gives me a tool I can use to fill in my previous gap: devising new paths. If I take the rules for building new roles and bend them a bit, I confident can start creating paths that will meet my needs.

To help with this, last night I put together an Excel workbook that contains the various progressions (combat, powers, saves, bonus feats, and abilities) so I can select the setting for each one, verify the point totals, and see the level progression.

(The colors indicate the level ranges applied. A basic path has levels 1..7 and gives an extra benefit for being the first path (the ‘level 0’ line applies only when a basic path, not with the others). An expert path has levels 1..6, master has levels 1..4, and paragon has levels 1..3. Rows with the contents greyed out are outside the range of levels for the selected path type. I show all 20 levels for completeness, and because I do have an ‘All’ path that includes levels 1..20 and level 0.)

Each of the yellowish cells contains a setting where I can pick a value I want and everything gets updated. If I change the ‘Secondary Combat Progression’ to ‘Medium’ (+3/4 per level instead of +1/level) the combat progression will go from “+1..+20” to “+1/+0..+20/+15”, and the cost will be reduced from 4 points to 3.5 points (something like this might be used for a monk-style character that has fast combat progression for unarmed combat and medium for everything else). However, because the point total is now a bit low, the worksheet highlights things so I can see where I might adjust the progressions.

This being a basic path, I can have 5 points of mojo. I’m now half a point low, so… I could increase a saving throw from ‘Normal’ to ‘Good’ (or two from ‘Normal’ to ‘Medium’), gain ‘very slow’ power progression (which allows me to trade feats for powers, but I’m never going to be great at them), increase the number of skills I gain (go from four skills at first level — 2+2 — to 6, 3+3), take some bonus feats (in addition to the four feats I get at first level and one more per level after, I can get an additional feat every even level), and so on.

Basic paths are likely to stay very generic.

Expert, Master, and Paragon paths, on the other hand, become more specific. Each path will likely mandate specific decisions. As a result, I increase the number of points allowed for the path, so there can still be some customization available and to accommodate the shorter paths. When you have only three or four levels in a path, the difference between some of the progressions is lost, and we need to use higher progressions to see the differences. For instance, ‘medium save’ and ‘normal save’ look exactly the same when you have only three or four levels, so ‘Good’ and ‘Normal’ are the only meaningful distinction.

Point Totals by Path Type

Each path type allows a different number of points, as shown in the table below.

Path TypeLevel RangePoints

‘Basic’ and ‘All’ paths are essentially the same, except that a character is expected to start with a basic path and switch to an expert or better path at the appropriate level. There’s really no reason a character couldn’t take a basic path, or stick with an ‘all’ path until level 14 and then take a paragon path, but it would be more efficient to take expert and master paths that fit the character theme better and give more ability.

So, back to the cavalier from my earlier Just The Rules post, I can see it would likely be a fast combat, normal skills, slow bonus feats path. Basically the same as the warrior basic path but with a few extra feats over the six levels of the path, but some of the nine feats gained overall would be spent on cavalier-specific abilities. There would likely be a few left over, but not the full freedom of the basic path. Also, two new skills are gained, but they could be mandated by the path (Ride most likely, and one related to the cavalier’s order).

Any time a path mandates a skill or feat choice, and all available choices have already been taken, the character can choose any available skill or choice.

Closing Comments

It looks like True 20 has character build options at a granularity that suits my purposes here quite well. With the worksheet I’ve created I can quickly put together paths of all grades with some confidence, and a framework that will guide me into the next step for each.

The ‘feats’ are likely to get a workout, being a placeholder for other abilities. Not all path abilities will be feats, but “about a feat worth of benefit” is not a hard unit of measurement to work with. If I find a path needs too many feats to pay for its abilities, I can know I need to examine a little more closely — maybe I’m defining things as feat-sized that shouldn’t be, or maybe I’m trying to load too much into the class. A path that doesn’t consume enough feat slots might actually not be worth making a path.

I feel better about this than I did a week ago, before I started looking into this.

Let’s see where it goes from here.


  1. Nathan E Irving

    I got into True20 back when it came out, and yes, I agree with both of your suppositions. I haven’t gotten into AGE, but I did pick up the new Blue Rose (which uses AGE) and it’s a True20 with a few more serial numbers filed off.

    I actually played around with roles and modular classes quite a bit as well, but those notes are all 12+ years old. It’s cool to see someone following the same path, though. The Handbooks are definitely where the awesome toolbox material is, but there’s stuff to swipe from all the True20 products.

    • I saw True20 when it came out, I picked up most of the books when Green Ronin had a $5/book ‘cleaning our warehouse’ sale (but missed the Adept’s Handbook at that time). I never really looked closely at it… it was on my list to do and I never quite got to it.

      When I realized I missed the Adepts book I ordered it online, and while reading it discovered this’ll probably solve the ‘build many paths’ problem I was facing.

      I’ll have to follow up with some test cases, probably starting soon.

      Though I admit I’m tempted to give it the Echelon Reference Series treatment (i.e. rip the text and put it all into one document for my convenience) before I really dig into it, simply so I don’t have to flip through so many books/files to find stuff.

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