Thanks John

I’d like to thank John Reyst for taking a look over what I’ve written for Echelon d20 and providing feedback.  I’ve been doing a series of articles that does much the same for his Threshold d20 system.

This post is my response to his initial feedback.

Magic vs. Non-magic Types

I find Justin Alexander’s “D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations” essay to be very useful in capturing my thoughts on how power should work in D&D (and related games).  In short, the power curve presented in D&D 3.x is astonishingly steep, and mundane characters really fit only at the bottom end.

This is important.

Much of Echelon’s design is predicated on how characters at various levels fit on the power curve.  The former “joe-normal former soldier” should indeed fit real-world sensibilities… at low level.  As he gets out of the range of levels that suits reality, though, he really should become ‘unreal’.

At Echelon’s lowest tiers (Basic and Expert, up to level 8 – level 4 in D&D terms) characters should more or less fit realistic expectations.  Most soldiers are probably in the Basic tier, with elite troops in the Expert tier.  After that, though, you’re getting into levels of power and capability beyond what elite troops can do.

Imagine: warriors who can slap Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, and other elite military around about as easily as those other groups can do so to normal troops, often under circumstances and in ways that the elite troops are unable to do at all because they just aren’t skilled enough.  That is what ‘Heroic’ tier means.  Higher-tier characters are expected to be stronger, smarter, more skilled, and capable of things lower-tier characters can’t even attempt.

Because they are that good at what they do.

It is not a matter of ‘attack bonus’ or ‘skill ranks’.  In D&D high-level wizard has the same BAB as a fighter (about) half his level.  In core rules, there are no combat-related feats that a wizard could not learn at some point in his career (though it would be an inefficient build), save three:

  • Weapon Specialization
  • Greater Weapon Focus
  • Greater Weapon Specialization

The fighter might have more feat slots available and be able to make reasonable use of the feats, but the only thing the fighter learns that the wizard can’t gets him +1 to hit and +4 damage with a single weapon type.

In other words, fighters have no awesome, everyone can potentially learn to do what they can.  Somebody should fix this.

Power Curve and Awesome Curve

I mentioned earlier that I want to put the characters on comparable power curves, and as important is the ‘awesome curve’.  Effectiveness is not entirely a measure of attack bonus (after all, if the attack bonus gets to be ‘too far apart’ evidently people think there is problem because “the fighter can hit things the wizard can’t”… I fail to see how this is an actual problem, but whatever).  In fact, it’s not even particularly a function of attack bonus, though a higher one helps.  It comes down to options in a fight.

High attack bonus in D&D is only of marginal use unless you have magic sufficient to back it up.  Without mobility options, it’s just too easy to get past (or around, or over, or teleport… what would be the right preposition here?) and rendered useless.  Without magical protection, he gets obliterated by whatever spells he can’t save against.  Without magical attack options he is likely to have problems getting past damage reduction.

Of course, the wizard has options for all of these.  He probably shares with his poor cousin the fighter.

In order to get balance back into the game, it is necessary to spread the designer-love among the character types a little more equitably.  In fact, a lot more equitably.

There are really three ways to do this.

First, you can reduce the power curve and awesome curve of spell casters to be comparable to non-casters.  This appears to be the approach FantasyCraft has taken.  This is workable (I have to admit that I haven’t actually played FantasyCraft, but it looks about right), but leads to a power curve that doesn’t much appeal to me.  I suspect that while many would like this approach, many more would not – the power curve D&D has for casters is wicked sweet.

Second, you can increase the power curve and awesome curve of non-casters to be comparable to that of spell casters.  This doesn’t take away from casters, it gives to non-casters.  I suspect this would be a more attractive option for many gamers… though it does involve a mental shift that “fighters can have nice stuff”.  This is what I’m trying to do with Echelon.

The third option, of course, is midway between the two above – take from casters and give to non-casters.  I have considered this for Echelon (fighters get the battle magics, stuff that is useful in combat, while wizards get the other stuff) but ultimately decided I didn’t want that baked in.  Specific characters might purse those kinds of builds, I don’t see why I should require that kind of separation.

“Super-Anime Non-Magic-Using Characters”

I posted an article yesterday outlining my thoughts on Anime and RPGs, prompted in part by this comment.  It depends a lot on the type of anime.

I fail to see this as a problem.  I want to be able to play ‘non-magic-using characters’ with that kind of awesome.

Regarding Skills

I feel that the skill system presented in D&D 3.x is inadequate for measuring awesome.  This is largely because of the size of the die used – according to RAW, if a Master-tier character (9th-12th in D&D) can expect to be able to do something cool based on the skill check DC, an Expert-tier character (1st, for the sake of argument) probably has a chance of pulling off the same stunt.  In order to break this behavior it would be necessary to have skill checks ‘fall off the RNG’ (which is to say, the bonus has to be bigger than the die rolled), but that doesn’t hold much appeal for many people.

Instead, Echelon gives additional effects possible that are flatly not possible to those with the skill at lower-tier.  Because of the relationship between level and power (and level and awesome), this means that ‘mundane’ skills trained to higher tiers must be capable of things beyond the mundane.

You read that correctly.  ‘Mundane skills’ should do awesome things because once you’re at Heroic tier ability with a skill you should be just past what people can easily believe, and after that you’re beyond human ability.

I’m ramping up skills so they have uses beyond “I stay on my horse” or “I taught I taw a puddy tat”.  This will also encourage and enforce a relationship between mundane capability and combat capability (if you are good at fighting from horseback, you will be good at riding a horse – D&D does not currently do this, you need only one rank in Ride and you can take the entire mounted combat feat tree).  There is a slight oddity in that you cannot be remarkably good at riding without having the combat capability, but I can live with that since most people who would need more than you can get at the Basic level probably need that kind of capability.

Mind you, a particular skill might have multiple avenues of awesome.  Ride at various tiers could instead (or also, I haven’t decided) let you ride in ways normal people can’t.  Experts can charge across broken terrain, Heroic can ride across unstable surfaces as long as they could in theory support the mount, Masters can ride through air, Champions can ride through space (i.e. teleport or dimension door), Legendary can ride between planes.  Or something like that.

Regarding “Lesser Talents”

I plan to use Echelon to model the power curve and the awesome curve of D&D 3.x, but for all characters.  However, as I described above there are three ways to correct the disparity of the curves in D&D 3.x – raise the non-casters, lower the casters, or find some middle ground between them.  Depending on the talents selected for a particular game, Echelon should be able to accommodate all three options (though I plan to only use the first one, myself).

For instance, I can easily see different ways to model various character abilities such that they would fit different power curves.  Modeling D&D 3.x wizards isn’t all that hard, but I can back their power off pretty easily (model FantasyCraft casters instead, or look the Green Ronin’s variant casting system used in Black Company and Thieves World (both of which are rather more gritty, especially for casters).  I could just as easily (or actually, even more easily) limit casters so they gain access to a new spell level only once every four character levels (take away ‘Improved Caster Training’, which keeps the Caster Training Bonus down, limiting them to half the maximum spell level they would be allowed if Improved Caster Training were still available).

Part of building a generic system (which, while not one of my original goals, is now part of what I’m aiming for) is offering the flexibility to adjust the power curve.  D&D would be a poor fit for some games if played as presented.  It can handle more genres better if people accept the power curve Justin described and choose to fit their play within the range they want (no twentieth-level Conan, but likely also no first-level Superman either – though that depends a lot on which Superman you consider canon).

Regarding Tier Sizes

I started working with the ‘standard levels’ of 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, but it fell down on me because it doesn’t actually fit the power curve exhibited by D&D 3.x.  Casters get their new powers (iconic spells) at levels 1, 5, 9, 13, 17 – four-level tiers.  Rather than trying to fit things to the fighter’s iterative attack bonuses (new attacks gained at levels 6, 11, 16 – which doesn’t fit the truer power curve) I fit things to the wizard curve.

This also caused some very happy things regarding bonus progression and the like – it is very easy to have two talents work together to give a bonus equal to the character level, it gets rather harder if the tier sizes shift around.

I didn’t choose four-level tiers because I particularly liked the tier size.  In fact, I’d be happier if they were wider but still fit in the twenty-level block that most people play D&D in.  I chose four-level tiers because, frankly, I think that will work best.



  1. GreyKnight

    D&D 3.5’s Warlock class was interesting because it could do all sorts of interesting magical tricks without actually being a spellcaster. I think using an approach like that (with a bit less emphasis on “look how arcane I am” and “look how dark I am”) might have worked out better for D&D than the spell-analogues presented in Book of Nine Swords. Possibly make the abilities Extraordinary rather than Spell-like (maybe Supernatural in a pinch). Things like Echelon’s Ride talent’s special effects seem to meet this idea.

    Would it be possible to have alternate selections for the special abilities of a talent? For example, one person might want to charge across broken terrain, while another might want to ride without leaving tracks. It provides a little more customisation (not just doing something awesome related to riding, but choosing which awesome thing).

  2. Keith – I’m still planning to respond but right now I wanted to take and digest your last comments and try to clean things up on Threshold a bit based on those comments. Your thoughts and suggestions are very much appreciated and I am trying to adjust things based on them so feel free to tell me other areas that need work :) Oh, by the way, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the pages under Gamemastering > Running an Encounter. I put a lot of time into those pages. Not that they don’t need work, or that they are perfect by any means, but they are more representative of my more recent work.

  3. GreyKnight

    John, I had some remarks from the peanut gallery but can’t seem to leave comments on your blog for some reason. I put them here instead. Overall I quite like this, and I look forward to the day you get enough rules codified to run an actual game session with! ;-) Same for Echelon.

    I like that you removed Surprise Rounds. It always seemed like it was a needless complication. Regarding initiative checks; you’d mentioned elsewhere the ability to have 2 ability modifiers involved in a check, have you considered making Initiative Dex+Int? I tried something like that at one point.

    The description of the “Standard Withdraw” action is a bit odd due to the repetition of “threaten”. On the other hand, the description of “Use or Activate Standard Item” is crystal clear! ;-) Possibly you could combine the Command/Direct/Redirect actions into one “Direct” action; there are currently quite a lot of options available here and combining similar things can help with memorisation. Do you have a diagram of the action-point helper sheet you mentioned?

    The threshold-based approach to criticals is interesting, and I see you got rid of the critical confirmation roll too (“I rolled a twenty! Oh, but nothing happened after all.”). For the wording in 2-handed weaponry it might be easier to cover the normal case of two-handed creatures first and have a parenthetical note to cover mariliths etc. Bonus damage: what does the “W” stand for?

    Obscurement: hooray! Enough said.

    Diagonal movement: easier to use than the “alternating costs” thing, but I have a love affair with hex grids so I will complain anyway ;-)

    Area attacks: what happens if you miss with an area attack in a crowded room? Presumably the blast goes somewhere

    Grid size: It looks like you’ve abstracted this so that squares aren’t “really” a particular size. While this is handy if you want to have all your corridors not be rigidly 10ft across, it does somewhat hamper things if you want to convert the size of an effect into real-world terms, either for description or because you’re experimenting with analogue movement.

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