Simplification and Complexity: Character Creation

Character creation is a very important activity, since it establishes what abilities the players’ avatars bring to the table.  However, it can be a fiddly pain sometimes (often, or even usually!), and I am trying to avoid that in Echelon.

There are two primary considerations, building a new character and upgrading an existing character as it gains power.

Monsters can be treated much as characters, so I’ll include them as well.

Creating a Character in Dungeons & Dragons 3.x or Pathfinder

I have split building a new character into two parts, ‘Creating a Starting Character’ and ‘Creating a Higher-Level Character’ because they have different considerations.

Creating  a Starting Character

Creating characters in Dungeons & Dragons 3.x and Pathfinder is pretty straightforward.  Notionally it consists of:

  • Confirm house rules, valid classes, source books, and build options;
  • Roll (or buy, or arrange) ability scores;
  • Pick a race, update ability scores;
  • Pick a class, update derived scores like hit points, attack bonus and base saves, remembering to include modifiers for ability scores and racial bonuses;
  • Pick the specific class abilities (sometimes class abilities include options, I think this happens a lot in Pathfinder, but somewhat in D&D 3.x too).
  • Pick skills (possibly at the skill point resolution… and remember class versus cross-class distinctions, and racial bonuses to skill checks);
  • Pick feats (remember prerequisites, make sure you have the right skills and ability scores and other scores like base attack bonus and stuff);
  • Pick equipment (making sure you have the stuff you need to make use of your skills and feats — no sense taking Weapon Focus: Longsword if you don’t have a longsword);
  • Pick spells (if needed), and domains if you get them (go back and check your skills, some skills become class skills… and check other stuff, since you can get bonuses to other stuff from domain powers);
  • Pick alignment and other descriptive elements (may relate to previous choices, not allowed to have a CG paladin, unless you’re using non-core material).

There, easy!

Searching online for an optimal build is optional, but it seems a lot of people spend time doing that research, so why not use it?

Oh, and at some point you should come up a character concept and maybe some back story or something.  Or don’t.  Whatever, the rules don’t need it.

Creating a first-level character, a starting adventurer, isn’t as complicated or as time-consuming as it seems.  Most players seem to learn to do it in an hour or so, or 20-30 minutes if they aren’t too concerned about optimization.

Improving an Existing Character

When a character gains a level, that too is pretty straightforward:

  • Confirm house rules, valid classes, source books, and build options (these things change sometimes);
  • Possibly improve an ability score;
  • Pick a class to take a level in, remembering that there may now be prerequisites if you want to take a prestige class, and update derived scores by rolling more hit points, possibly increasing base attack bonus and saves, and so on — remember an ability score, probably the one you use the most, has just gone up, so take that into account;
  • Pick specific class abilities;
  • Assign skill points if needed;
  • Pick feats, either from gaining levels or from class levels;
  • Probably no new equipment;
  • Pick new spells if appropriate;

Fewer steps means less work, right?  Sure.

Creating a Higher-Level Character

I find when creating higher-level character that people tend to focus on the goal at that point, be it levels in a prestige class or access to certain spells or feats or what have you.  This requires, basically,

  • Do everything needed to create a first-level character;
  • Establish your end point;
  • Make sure the middle is filled in correctly, so the character is legal.

If you are willing to fudge things a little it’s easier, but mid- to high-level characters can be a lot of work.

Creating Monsters

Monsters are constructed in a manner quite similar to characters.  The monster type can be treated much like a class (Hit Dice brings a certain amount of hit points, skill points, feats, derived scores, and so on).  They can be treated much as higher-level characters.  Not exactly the same, there is some adjustment required to make things fit, and adding class levels to monsters gets ugly… but in principle they are similar.

Creating a Character in Echelon

The exact same processes apply to creating characters and creating monsters in Echelon.  The talents chosen and archetypes used will likely vary, but the processes themselves are the same.

Upgrading a character is simpler, and creating higher-level characters is exactly the same process as creating lower-level characters, just with more talent slots to fill.

Creating a New Character

Creating a character in Echelon is done by choosing talents consistent with the character’s intent.  The same process applies whether the character is a starting adventurer (typically fifth level) or a much higher-level character.  Notionally it consists of:

  • Confirm house rules, valid classes, source books, and build options;
  • Choose cornerstone talents appropriate for your level, updating derived scores as needed (not many);
  • Choose normal talents appropriate for your level, updating derived scores as needed (base attack bonus, base saves, etc.);
  • Choose capstone talents appropriate for your level, remembering to confirm that the prerequisites for each are satisfied;
  • Pick equipment (remember to get equipment that supports your talents — but for starting characters I assume reasonable equipment comes with the talent, all characters with Archery talent have a bow);
  • Pick descriptive elements, including alignment if it’s being used.

Ability scores don’t exist, replaced with talents indicating abnormal ability, but otherwise people are assumed to be generally equivalent where they aren’t special.

Races are handled primarily with cornerstone talents, possibly with normal talents to supplement (dwarves tend to take Axe-based combat styles… it’s not mandatory, so it’s not part of the ‘dwarf’ cornerstone).

Classes don’t exist, but you are welcome to review archetypes and use them to simplify character construction by selecting the pre-grouped talents.  Some capstones will look and behave something like prestige classes.

Skills and feats are replaced by (or used to construct) normal talents.

Domains are talents, spell selection is handled through talents.

Improving an Existing Character

Every level, a character can upgrade an existing talent, add a new talent, or both.  Adding a new talent may mean upgrading an existing talent and filling the now-empty lower tier slot with a new talent.  I describe this process in somewhat more detail in Character Evolution.

  • If entering a new tier, choose a new cornerstone talent or upgrade an existing one and backfill, updating derived scores as needed (not many);
  • Upgrade talents as appropriate for your level, updating derived scores as needed;
  • Choose new talents or upgrade and backfill as appropriate for your level, updating derived scores as needed;
  • If at the top level in a tier, choose a capstone talent appropriate for your level, remembering to confirm prerequisites are satisfied and updating derived scores as needed.

Same notes as under ‘Creating a New Character’.

Creating Monsters

Creating monsters is done exactly like creating characters in Echelon.  They will generally have different talents, and follow different archetypes… but honestly, in a game where a human character can legimately learn to fly unassisted, having unnaturally thick scaly hide, and breathe fire is there really that much difference between ‘dragon’ and ‘human’?

And yes, at appropriate levels it is possible for a human to gain such abilities.  Remember, above Heroic tier, characters really aren’t on the human scale any more, so why limit them to what humans are and can do in the real world?

Closing Comments

Echelon should have much easier character construction and evolution than Dungeons & Dragons 3.x and Pathfinder.  The framework is a little more abstract and some time will be needed to review individual talents to see if they fit, but where D&D 3.x/PFRPG require you to track down and satisfy prerequisites, almost all talents in Echelon are self-contained.  Some might interact better than others, but almost all talents include what in D&D 3.x/PFRPG would be prerequisites.  Not having to track prerequisites makes it much faster.

Also, talents are not expected to interact directly much.  Armor Class may be the worst one, since it is derived in part from the characters Base Attack Bonus (Level Bonus + Martial Training Bonus, and the latter is directly affected by two talents), and may be affected by equipment.  There might be a talent that affects Armor Class directly, but probably not.  So “calculate your Level Bonus, Martial Training Bonus, add them together and add your armor bonus from your equipment” is probably about the worst calculation I expect.

Between removing ability scores, largely obliterating prerequisites on talents by making them part of the talents themselves, and reducing the number of directly-interacting modifiers that apply to derived scores, character creation in Echelon should much faster and easier than many other games.

High-level characters can be largely constructed from the top down.  Prerequisites don’t span tiers, so it is possible to choose talents for the top tier (including cornerstone and possibly capstone) without considering lower-tier talents at all… then repeat for lower tiers as needed, with a smaller number of talents for each tier below the top one.  The heavy math (major training bonuses) are probably already handled, so if a capstone has particular prerequisites it should already be evident they are met, or they can be met with the talents from the tier being populated.

And if you don’t actually assign all the talents a character is eligible for, it might not be important.  A Champion swordsman or wizard can probably be used quite adequately without his Basic or Expert talent slots (all four of them, combined, or eight with cornerstones and keystones).

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  2. I can create a basic Pathfinder character okay, but if you add in extensions like the advanced player’s handbook I start to lose track. I wouldn’t feel comfortable making a character out of that lot without computer assistance, I just can’t hold that many things in my head at one time.

    A thing I particularly like in Echelon is, as you alluded to in the last paragraph, the ability to create partial characters which are still functional. This is a lifesaver for GMs if, e.g., the players decide to pick a fight with the magic university’s Dean of Illusions and you hadn’t produced stats for him yet because he was only supposed to be a background character. Just fill in the top tier and you should be ready to get going. Since talents are independent you can even fill in some of the lower talents mid-fight without disrupting things too much.
    You don’t have to stop the game for an hour, and as far as the players know you may have had him statted up ahead of time (which may lend credence to their wild assumption that he’s behind the murders they’re investigating, but… you know what they say about leading a horse to water 🙂 ).

    • If I implement correctly, that’s entirely so, GreyKnight. The ability to assemble a character (or monster) to give him the parts he needs right now and fill in the rest later, and still have him viable, is something I very much want to keep. I think getting rid of ability scores was a good idea too, in part for the same reason.

  3. David Lamb

    If you’re looking for more simplifications: it occurred to me to wonder why have both cornerstone and capstone talents? They arrive one level apart, and the inherent differences between them aren’t too obvious to me. “Enter-a-tier” abilities (cornerstone) make more sense to me than “finish a tier” (capstone).

    • Capstones actually predate cornerstones and were intended as a reward for reaching the top level of a tier. I’m not deathly attached to them, but I do like that they still serve that benefit and provide a convenient place for me to hang ‘acknowledgements’ and single-step talents, and that they are related but not bound to cornerstones.

      I’ll keep it in mind, though. If I find it too hard to come up with a decent set of workable capstones I can get rid of them without too much heartbreak. If they can work, though, I think they’re still a good idea. It’ll have to wait until I see how they turn out.

      • David Lamb

        You’ve necessarily been spending a lot of time working out the “architecture” of Echelon, but I’m starting to see a pattern in my initial reactions; I keep thinking “I need to see more details!” Two (mostly) worked out capstone progressions and a similar pair of cornerstones would help me (and others!) a lot in wrapping my head around the general principles.

        • Agreed, and I’m working on it. I want to get a core rule set out so the talents have a little more context, but the talents are becoming crucial.

          I may or may not have complete talents, but I expect I can get at least a few tiers out. Right now I’ve got one cornerstone started (Warrior Born) and nine common talents (Armor Proficiency, Combat Mobility, Great Fortitude, Iron Will, Lightning Reflexes, Martial Training, Shield Proficiency, Spot, Two-Weapon Fight). Most are taken from this site, some need updating (still refer to ability score pools, which I expect are gone), not all are complete… but hopefully enough to help.

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