What are Capstone Talents, and How Do I Make Some?

Capstone talents are kind of tricky.  Even I’ve had some trouble wrapping my brain around them, and I came up with the idea.

I think there are two main reasons for this.  First, they’ve changed purpose a few times.

  • At first I had characters receive +1 to all ability scores on reaching the top level in each tier, as something of a reward to mark the achievement.
  • Then I decided to expand on that by granting them an extra, special ability – like a talent, but not a free talent like they get at other levels.
  • Some back and forth about how much mechanical benefit it should offer.
  • Realization that adding the same thing at the other end as ‘cornerstones’ would solve some other problems.
  • Giving capstones prerequisites.
  • Deciding that maybe having capstones exist only at a single tier would solve everything!
  • Deciding that was a dumb idea.

… and so on.  It is difficult to describe something in a manner that will make sense to other people when you don’t fully understand what you’re doing with it yourself.

Thankfully, I think I’ve got a handle on it now.

A capstone talent has two primary purposes, both marking achievement.

One is the achievement of reaching the top of the tier. Given the power shift from tier to tier, the extra talent at the top smooths the power curve a little and makes the characters at the top a little more special (mechanically, at least).

The second is a reward of sorts for aligning to archetype.  It is not required to do so (I might simply allow a free talent for those who don’t want a capstone talent), but it is what makes the difference between a character who casts spells, and a Wizard.

And on that note, I realized recently — as in today — a reasonable method for developing capstone talents.  Which is good, because I’ve been absolutely hounded for examples, and I actually do need some capstones in order to move on with getting Echelon ready for playtest.

Capstone Talents from Prestige Classes

I think prestige classes can be a pretty good source of capstone talents, and the process is probably pretty straightforward. In short,

  • Determine what tier the capstone talent becomes available.
  • Determine how many tiers the capstone talent will have.
  • Determine prerequisites for each tier.
  • Determine abilities gained at each tier.

Capstone Talent Starting Tier

First, figure out when the capstone talent becomes available. Not all capstones are available at all levels.

  • Prestige classes accessible around or before sixth level are probably capstone talents starting at the Expert tier.
  • Prestige classes accessible from around eighth through twelfth level are probably capstone talents starting at the Heroic tier.
  • Prestige classes accessible after twelfth level are likely capstone talents starting at the Master tier.

Basically, take whatever tier might normally match the first level the prestige class would become available and reduce it by one because it is explicitly at the top of the tier rather than anywhere in the tier.

Capstone Talent Tier Range

Next, figure out how many tiers the talent is likely to have.  These are baseline approximations; if you see a reasonable way to extend things then feel free to do so, but this is probably a good starting point.

  • Five-level prestige classes become one- or two-tier capstone talents.
  • Ten-level prestige classes become two- or three-tier capstone talents.
  • Fifteen-level prestige classes become three- or four-tier capstone talents.

Now the tricky parts.  Capstone talents almost always have prerequisites for all tiers, and they grant abilities.  These things need to be taken care of.

Capstone Prerequisites

Each tier of a capstone talent has prerequisites.  Prestige classes have prerequisites to gain access, but that’s about it… but it shouldn’t be too hard to work between them.

First consider the lowest-tier prerequisites.  These will be largely based on the class prerequisites.  These require some consideration, because many class prerequisites are there almost entirely to either force a level minimum or, whether explicitly stated or not, force specific class progressions (such as requiring “+5 base Fort, +5 base Reflex, +5 base Will” — something most easily done by the Monk class).  Determine the minimum level each prerequisite could be met in a straightforward manner, ignoring funkiness like multiclassing Barbarian, Fighter, and Cleric to get base Fortitude of +6 at third level.  All prerequisites at the same level, or close to the same level, are good candidates.  They will not be used directly, though; see ‘Selecting Prerequisites’ below.

The higher tiers are a little bit different to determine prerequisites for.  Look at the abilities gained from the class levels (including attack bonus and base saving throws).  For instance, if the class has full Base Attack Bonus progression (+1 per level) there is good reason to include Base Attack Bonus as a candidate prerequisite.  Good base saves are another, full or half spell caster improvement, and so on are all good. If the prestige class has a strong relationship with a skill, consider that. And so on.  Be aware that the prerequisites for higher tiers need not be the same as for lower tiers, especially if the focus of the class changes over time.  For instance, a “Lord of Battle” prestige class might be expected to be personally competent in a fight (Base Attack Bonus prerequisite for the capstone talent’s first tier) but focus more on leading troops and controlling battles; there might be no Base Attack Bonus prerequisite at all after the first tier, branching instead into leadership-related and battle-related talents.  Many such characters likely do continue training their personal combat skills, but I have also read stories where “a good general never bloods his blade in battle, a great general never draws his blade in battle”; I can easily image a Lord of Battle capstone talent representing this sort of archetype – personally competent in a fight, shifting to more leadership concerns, and remaining talent slots are spent on social matters as he moves among and into the Emperor’s Court.

Selecting Prerequisites

Prerequisites can be mapped between the prestige class definition and Echelon talents in ways that aren’t quite obvious.  The general approach may be pretty clear, but how precisely to do it might not.  It’s still pretty easy, though.  Normally each prerequisite should need only one talent at most to satisfy, sometimes they can be met without talents at all.

Each tier of a capstone talent should have two to four prerequisites.  If it requires two talents to meet the prerequisite it is possible to satisfy the requirement during a single tier.  If it requires three or more talents there will be greater continuity between tiers in order to ensure all needed talents are present when needed.  More than four required talents means planning over at least three tiers.  This is slightly inaccurate in that characters will often have the general talents needed already — a capstone talent representing a martial prestige class might require two specific Heroic talents (a Combat Style and Lightning Reflexes, say) and Basic Attack Bonus +9 (meaning Heroic Martial Training or Heroic Warrior Born), but a character interested in taking this class would likely already have at least part of this “without planning” because he’s already playing a martial character.

Base Attack Bonus prerequisites almost always indicate some degree of Martial Training Bonus.  I don’t think I have seen a ‘Wizard-based’ prestige class with a Base Attack Bonus unless the class is a composite class such as Eldritch Knight.  Prerequisites like this can usually be met by having a Base Attack Bonus equal to 3/4 of the capstone level.  If the talent is expected to model training specifically or a violent nature specifically it might be worth identifying either Martial Training or Warrior Born explicitly, but most often you will probably want a straight Base Attack Bonus.  This can be satisfied by either or both together, or even just by high enough level.  There may sometimes be classes that require Martial Training and Warrior Born together (or Base Attack Bonus equal to capstone level) but these are very focused capstone talents and probably should not come up very often.

Base Saving Throw prerequisites are much the same.  If a capstone talent has a saving throw prerequisite, pick a base saving throw prerequisite equal to 3/4 of the capstone level.  If the class is centered specifically on the nature of the saving throw, make the saving throw talent an explicit prerequisite.  For instance, Arcane Trickster is a rogue-related prestige class, so it might have a base Reflex save prerequisite, but Shadowdancer is a rogue-based prestige class based even more on mobility and movement, so it might explicitly require Lightning Reflexes.

Skill Rank prerequisites are kind of strange.  When a prestige class calls for skill ranks available at the same level as the other prerequisites (such as 8 ranks of Ride at fifth level) consider including a Skill talent for that skill (some RSRD skills map to multiple Echelon talents – include either a specific one or a choice of several) as a prerequisite.  If the number of ranks is half or less of this number then consider simply noting it as a common skill for people with this capstone (just as you would note non-mechanical requirements) or simply require that it is ‘Trained’.  This is an exception to my normal position that prerequisites are generally handled within the tier of the capstone talent.

Ability Score prerequisites almost never come up.  I am inclined to ignore them, but if they are needed and there are ‘ability score talents’ (and there might be, but I don’t have them yet) consider using these.

Feat prerequites would obviously map to talents.  If the tier of talent needed is below the capstone tier, I would consider noting it as a ‘commonly held talent’ for characters with this capstone and not enforce it.

Class Feature prerequisites would again obviously map to talents.  Treat much as feat prerequisites.

Roleplaying or non-mechanical prerequisites can be noted but have little bearing on this process.

Selecting Capstone Talent Abilities

This might be a little trickier.

Review the abilities gained in the prestige class progression.  Remove anything used as a prerequisite for the next tier (such as a Base Attack Bonus prerequisite, or something mapping to specific talents); they are accounted for as prerequisites.  Anything that is readily available through other talents (such as Evasion, when Lightning Reflexes is not a prerequisite for the talent or tier) should be marked as optional, “many characters with this capstone talent take this talent” sort of thing.

This should leave you with abilities not readily mapped to existing talents or used as prerequisites.  They likely provide some kind of defining ability for the class.  These are good candidates for use as capstone talent abilities.  Group them roughly by level, based on five-level boundaries in the prestige class.

  • Abilities from levels 1-3 in the prestige class should be considered for the first-tier capstone abilities.
  • Abilities from levels 3-7 in the prestige class should be considered for the second-tier capstone abilities.
  • Abilities from levels 8-12 in the prestige class should be considered for the third-tier capstone abilities.
  • Abilities from levels 13 and up in the prestige class should be considered for the fourth-tier capstone abilities.

If the capstone talent’s range is smaller (one tier for a five-level prestige class, two tiers for a ten-level prestige class, and so on) expand the range covered for each.  A five-level prestige class with a single capstone talent might end up using an ability gained at the fourth level of the prestige class.

Non-Capstone Prestige Classes

If there are no really defining abilities, reconsider the class definition and purpose, and whether you really need a capstone talent for it.  For instance, I strongly suspect the Eldritch Knight prestige class (which seems to have been originally created as a kludge to deal with fighter/wizard gish characters) will not be needed in Echelon since the primary purpose appears to be to let such character reasonably progress in both combat- and casting-related areas.  Reviewing the class description I see

  • Full Base Attack Bonus, which would be mapped to a Base Attack Bonus prerequisite (trivially met by Martial Training or Warrior Born at each level);
  • Almost full arcane casting improvement, again trivially mapped to Caster Training or Steeped in Magic;
  • Good Fortitude progression, a base Fortitude requirement that might suggest Great Fortitude but not require it – maybe have Great Fortitude as an initial prerequisite and stop there;
  • Some bonus feats, which means a combat-related talent or two.

There appears to be nothing here that cannot be met with existing talents.  If this character takes Warrior Born plus Steeped in Magic a tier lower, Martial Training and Caster Training at the same tier he will have a Base Attack Bonus equal to his level and a Casting Bonus one point lower, and still have four top-tier talents for other purposes (probably two-combat-related talents and two magic-related talents).

Closing Comments

This should be a fairly straightforward process to apply, at least with a bit of practice.  I’ll be working through some examples over the weekend, likely drawing from a pretty broad range of supplements.

After having examined the Eldritch Knight for this post, though, I suspect many will evaporate as achievable almost entirely, or at least close enough, implemented with (soon to be) existing talents.

I’m not sure if that’s bad because it cuts into my capstone bank, or good because it means the talent system is flexible enough to deal with these things.

(I lie a bit; I’m pretty sure that’s good.)

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  2. David Lamb

    Echelon should be able to directly model any of the D&D classes that exist only to “fix” multiclassing problems. Mystic Theurge is another example besides Eldritch Knight. I also recall some people saying certain other prestige classes only existed because the standard base classes were too wimpy (no examples come to mind at the moment, but I know I’ve seen some); Echelon ought to automatically fix that problem, too.

    I’m a bit too heavily invested in NaNoWriMo at the moment but maybe at the end of November I can take a look at a couple of the prestige classes I like and see if I can figure out how to do them in Echelon.

    A couple of very minor issues: you used the word “inobvious” when I think you should have said “obvious”, and I’m not entirely sure whether each reference to BAB was actually BAB and not MTB.

    • I think you’re probably right, and I was planning to look carefully at Mystic Theurge carefully, and expecting to “nope, not needed!”

      Actually, I did mean to use ‘inobvious’, but it’s nice that you think it is obvious. What I meant was that while the general approach is pretty clear, the exact method of expression might not be. Take Base Attack Bonus, for example.

      When a prestige class says it has a “BAB +5” prerequisite I read “you are expected to be a martial character of at least fifth level”. Barbarian, fighter, paladin, ranger all meet this easily, the remaining prerequisites will tell me which one after that is the best fit. “Martial character” in Echelon doesn’t necessarily mean “Base Attack Bonus equals level”, though. It may be more accurate to be “Martial Training, Warrior Born, or some combination of the two, plus these specific combat talents”. Base Attack Bonus is often used to control and limit the minimum level of characters taking the prestige class, and I don’t need to do it that way because I do it explicitly. A prerequisite where the Base Attack Bonus equals level tells me this is not only a trained and/or experienced and/or natural combatant, but someone who is very dedicated to the art of making people die. There likely will be examples of this, but I expect they will not be terribly common. Many will still have Warrior Born and Martial Training because it likely makes the capstone abilities work better or that’s just how they are playing the character, but unless I have to I don’t want to build this into the talent prerequisites.

      Mileage varies, of course. One of the things about Echelon that pleases me is that people can do what they want with relatively small pieces without having to worry about horribly weird interactions.

      I’m pretty sure every reference to BAB here actually meant BAB rather than MTB. Because capstone talents can now be advanced and upgraded I wanted to allow for lower-tier capstone slots to be backfilled. An Expert capstone tier that requires Base Attack Bonus +6 can have that prerequisite trivially satisfied by a character who has gained his Heroic capstone just using his Level Bonus, one that requires Martial Training Bonus +2 requires one of two talents at Expert tier or higher, or the two talents working together at Basic tier, and that’s more restrictive. As above, there are cases where different approaches will have merit.

  3. Pingback: Capstone Talents: Shadowdancer | Echelon d20 - An RPG framework based on the d20 system.

  4. David Lamb

    Suppose we have a 2- or 3-tier capstone — say the 2-tier Dwarven Defender. Toogli takes Expert Dwarven Defender at level 8, and Heroic Dwarven Defender at 12. Is this an upgrade? That is, does the expert-level capstone become freed up now that he has the heroic? That’s what I’d expect for a normal talent, but maybe capstones are different.

    IIRC there’s a Warrior Born cornerstone at each tier. Do the higher-level ones upgrade the lower level ones, so the lower-level cornerstones become freed up? That is, can someone take Basic Warrior-Born, then at level 5 upgrade to expert warrior born and free up the Basic cornerstone to be something else cornerstoney, like Steeped in Magic? That makes much less sense to me than upgrading a capstone, but maybe it’s the right thing to do.

    • Yes, capstones can upgrade explicitly. I had planned, for a time, having them independent and standalone, but further consideration made that not such a great idea. Similarly with cornerstones.

      It just looks like it works better to have all talents upgradable. They might not run the full range, which is okay for cornerstones and capstones, but could be a problem for common talents because they go away — careful you don’t pick common talents that only exist for a few tiers. I’ll try to avoid short-run common talents.

      I see what cornerstones and capstones look like in my head, and I think when I get some examples together (which is what I’m doing today and tomorrow) that you can see it’ll make more sense to allow them to upgrade.

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