Capstone Talent Design

I realized not too long ago that perhaps we’re headed the wrong way with capstone talents.

Most talents have something of a natural order and progression to them.  As you practice and develop a combat style, you learn more specialized techniques related to the combat style.  As you study a particular branch of magic, you learn more obscure and powerful spells.

I have noticed that when I try to describe capstone abilities, though, that they don’t seem to work quite the same way.  They seem almost to branch and merge.

Also, something that has troubled me is that over time the character eventually acquires a number of capstone talents, suggesting that the character is concurrently, and to a significant degree, still summarizable by those capstone talents.  I’d rather see a capstone talent be something “the character used to be” or “the character did”.  He may well still be a soldier or a knight or a marshal, but he has noticeably and recognizably grown beyond that.  This does not see evident to me when the talent abilities stack up and grow.

What if instead of a capstone having the same structure as a talent, the capstones are treated more as achievements marking a character’s growth?

Describing Capstones

I have found when describing capstones that I end up using examples that seem to branch or share effect.  The development of a warrior might look like:

  • Basic: Soldier (common warrior, trained for battle)
  • Expert: Knight (elite soldier, mounted combat, etc.)
  • Heroic: Paladin (divine champion touched by the gods)
  • Master: Avenger of St. Trenneth (holy warrior of the god of justice)

(no specific examples for Champion and Legendary)

It makes about as much sense to have a Master Soldier as a Basic Avenger of St. Trenneth… which is to say, not much.  It seems that as characters reach higher tiers that they will specialize more and more.  At lower tiers there really isn’t much difference between them, they are still pretty interchangeable.


The Deed of Paksennarion

In The Deed of Paksennarion, Paks starts as a sheepfarmer’s daughter (which has bearing on the story, but not so much mechanically) who joins a mercenary company.  She completes her training and becomes a good soldier (Basic capstone).  After leaving the company she adventures for a time more or less on her own before being accepted as a paladin-candidate of Gird.  After some more life experience (I don’t want to spoil things) she becomes a paladin.

Coincidentally enough, her time becoming and being a soldier are in the first book, her time as a paladin-candidate in the second, and her time becoming and acting as paladin are in the third.  Honestly, in D&D terms I wouldn’t consider her to be as high level as suggested here, but it’s not too far off — I had her pegged as being around 6th-7th level in D&D terms.

Her path was unusual (and worth reading about).  Most paladins are suggested by mortal followers of saints and may be accepted by the gods; Paks started the training and had difficulties, but ended up being more directly chosen by the gods.  Gird himself was almost certainly a paladin chosen directly by the gods (though he never quite looked like one by the common model — there were strong hints of it, such as what his broken-down swayback mare really looked like).  A more common path for followers of Gird might be:

  • None: Yeoman (general term for a follower of Gird, not a particular talent but receives certain training);
  • Basic: Yeoman-Marshal ((assistant to the Marshal of a grange); requires proficiency with certain weapons, certain other training such as religious knowledge;
  • Expert: Knight, Paladin-Candidate, or Marshal (might qualify for and/or pursue any of the three; most paladin-candidates are knighted, for example, though they may not have the capstone talent);
  • Heroic: Paladin
There are other capstones that start with this path, such as yeoman-marshal to marshal to high marshal.  I don’t know if there are more intermediate steps, nor higher-tier knights of Gird.  The setting is generally somewhat low-level.

There are also knights following other saints, and clerics following other saints, so the general shape here is fairly consistent.  It would be possible to devise talents representing these common paths, but between branching on the way up, overlap in ability, and the option of merging back in I think it may not be such a great fit.

Knights of Solamnia

I’m somewhat weaker on this one so the details will likely be a little off, but let’s give it a try.

The Knights of Solamnia from the Dragonlance setting have three orders.  To reach each higher order requires that you spend some time in each of the lower orders.  This might suggest that a single talent might be appropriate, but not all characters follow this (they might remain a Knight of the Crown or Knight of the Sword rather than progress to become a Knight of the Rose), despite having the experience needed.

The level-based timing doesn’t work as well here, if I try to model the d20 Dragonlance rules, but I don’t have to do that!

The capstone progression might look like

  • Basic: squire
  • Expert: Knight of the Crown (“most inexperienced and generally young knights”)
  • Heroic: Knight of the Sword (“proven themselves skilled fighters in sword, bow, spear, etc. It is possible for a squire to achieve this rank right from the out-set; however they must demonstrate a considerable degree of skill”).  Thus, it is not strictly required that a Knight of the Sword has been a Knight of the Crown — another sign of deviation from a single-path talent.  Gains some minor divine powers (granted by the capstone) and often develop more.
  • Master: Knight of the Rose (historically has required Knight of the Sword; I would be inclined to require certain talents that might be developed while a Knight of the Sword, since I don’t like requirements spanning tiers).

The level ranges are broader (as written I think the Dragonlance core rules really only require a level or two at each stage), but it doesn’t worry me too much.

Again, many knights continue in the same order and don’t switch to the next even if they meet the requirements.  For instance, here a Knight of the Crown might look for more religious training (according to Wikipedia they get their healing abilities from Kiri-Jolith, so perhaps they might consider moving to a more clerical character following Kiri-Jolith and take a suitable capstone there), or a Knight of the Crown might become a Dragon Knight (doesn’t just ride a dragon, but has mastered certain abilities related to that), and might even become a Dragonblooded Knight (still a Knight of the Crown and Dragon Knight, but has assimilated and internalized draconic magic into his very being).

Closing Comments

In trying to develop capstone abilities, I realized they don’t seem to truly follow the normal talent pattern of becoming more of one something.  They branch, they merge, there are multiple intertwined paths.  Rather than trying to model this by having multi-tier talents, I think it simpler in the long run to simply treat them as accomplishments and achievements that basically ‘close off’ or ‘wrap up’ a certain amount of character growth.

This not only allows for more organic capstone design by allowing them to be treated more or less independently, it also better models how characters seem to grow over time in literature.  Low-level characters may be personally interesting but mechanically quite similar, while high-level characters seem to not only be more specialized in what they do, they seem to change quite a bit in ‘what they are’ over time.

Finally, moving to a more flexible model like this looks like it should solve the “I am many things” view I don’t care for.  The progression from capstone to capstone indicates growth, and more importantly evolution, over time.

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    • David Lamb

      I have come back to this page several times trying to get my head around it, but I don’t think I quite understand it. “Title” seems to be a lot of what Keith talked about, along with multiple prerequisites, but he also talked about the talent granting certain powers. So I think I need to see more examples before I really understand what is going on.

      • I’ll be working on cornerstones and capstones this weekend.

        In the meantime, do cornerstones and common talents make sense? Cornerstones describe certain things you are — dwarf, berserker, steeped in magic, etc. It is sometimes possible to develop your potential in these areas (you embrace your rage, you become further steeped in magic… I haven’t figured out a good way to become ‘more dwarfy’).

        Common talents are generally trained abilities or common nature stuff. You learn a combat style, you are further trained in martial skill, you learn to channel your rage [yes, ‘berserker’ and ‘rage’ might be split into two pieces that interact, but you only need one of them], you learn more spells. You might develop the ability to breathe fire or grow a tortoise shell on your back (natural armor); common talents are strictly limited to trainable abilities but can include relatively generic things like that.

        Capstones are partly a meta-game construct, marking your reaching the top of the tier. They also serve to mark progression in or alignment with an archetype, both by applying the label to your character and by providing benefits that may be unique to that archetype.

        One example of application might be similar to prestige classes in D&D 3.x (and I count ranger and paladin as prestige classes for this purpose). A D&D paladin is a holy warrior and champion of good. In Echelon let’s say you cannot start as a paladin, at least in the Expert tier, you must clearly exceed the capabilities of the common man, and in fact must be the epitome of heroism (i.e. “capstone starting at Heroic tier” — Expert is grittier than the heroism I want to see here).

        To be a paladin, let’s say you need the following (based on Deed of Paksennarion):

        • decent combat ability, let’s say BAB +9 (12th level for Heroic capstone level, +3 from Martial Training and/or Warrior Born);
        • Heroic Good Domain talent (you are a Good guy; I’ll waive the Lawful requirement because of the ‘go where the gods send me’ and solo work often done);
        • Heroic War Leader (paladin quests often call on them to lead others into battle against the Powers of Darkness).

        Paks was clearly Touched by the Gods (another cornerstone, possibly ‘picked up’/manifested later in her career as a mercenary – Basic tier when she hit Expert). She was a Warrior Born (Expert or Heroic) and highly-trained (she could outfight many of the marshals and knights, even before she was a paladin-candidate, and was a good instructor), there was evidence she had the Good domain (even early on she seemed able to detect evil, early in her career it looked like she might have helped heal an injury, later she clearly did). She was chosen to act as corporal in Phelan’s Company after only a couple years and would likely have made sergeant very young, and sometime later after a bit more training was offered a captaincy. She was shaping up to become a leader, including leading yeoman of Gird into battle a couple of times; it’s arguable there were indicators of War Leader.

        So. BAB +9 easily (Warrior Born and Martial Training; she was a good instructor, too). Touched by the Gods and Good domain certainly. War Leader most likely. When she hit 12th level, Heroic Paladin capstone.

        The Paladin capstone would provide abilities that only Paladin’s have. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Paladin’s Mount is the primary one. Other character types might have special mounts, but only the paladin has a Paladin’s Mount.

        Lots of skilled combatants (Warrior Born and Martial Training are everywhere), a fair number of characters with divine abilities (Touched by the Gods may not be really common, Good Domain is probably not uncommon among some groups), War Leaders are found everywhere. You might even find the combination in other places (many Marshals of Gird or Captains of Tir likely fit that combination), but becoming a Paladin is another thing.

        • David Lamb

          That example helps a lot. “Title and a few powers’ was too trite a characterization; it seems to me that while the basic idea of capstones is (now) fairly straightforward, coming up with ‘good’/’appropriate’ ones might be a lot more work than for normal talents. Especially since they might well be campaign-specific, or even negotiated with players early in their characters’ careers as a long-term goal to aim for.

          • I see what you mean. I knew what I intended with capstones, though I’ll admit the implementation of them has changed over time — I now consider ‘multi-tier capstones’ are fair game again, earlier I figured they’d be more or less standalone. I’ll accept that I may not have conveyed it very well.

            And yes, I expect they’ll be more work than many others. Common talents look to be fairly straightforward, cornerstones will need some careful consideration because I want them to interact well with common talents and not tread on them, and capstones are likely to be the most work, for the reasons you give.

            Note that because of how the talents are gained, ‘long-term goals’ don’t need to be too long. Odds are that even a starting Expert character will be headed in the right direction, at least, for whatever Heroic capstone he’s likely to want. Paks never expected or planned to be a paladin, though she had ‘foolish dreams’ of it when she was younger. She was a trained soldier and quite good at it (satisfied the combat requirement easily, and getting into the War Leader even), but even if she just had Expert Martial Training and no Warrior Born at eighth level she would be able to qualify for Paladin at twelfth (upgrade Martial Training, pick up War Leader and Good Domain while Heroic).

            None of this twenty-level-build crap for me, thank you very much.

        • Oh, and note this build still leaves three or four Heroic-tier talent slots open. The BAB requirement could be met with a combination of Warrior Born and lower-tier Martial Training (if needed – Heroic Warrior Born is sufficient). There is still quite a bit of room for customization – Combat Styles are a good choice, additional domain talents are appropriate, but even completely unrelated things can fit, as long as they don’t contradict the spirit of paladinhood.

          “All paladins have these powers (lay on hands, light, immunity to fear [I think there was one more, ‘steadfastness to purpose’?]) and may develop others.” is pretty close to a quote from the second book, when Paks was a paladin-candidate. After qualifying as paladin, and even while growing as paladin, it’s possible to diverge quite a bit from “the norm”.

          All girdsmen are expected to learn ‘Girdish weapons’. These include some ‘military weapons’, but also clubs and staves (Gird was a farmer, and when he led the uprising against the Magelords these were the weapons they had available; to honor him and his origins, they still train with and teach these weapon skills and their holy grounds are bartons and granges – barns and fields, if I remember correctly). While “Paladin” does not require this, all Girdsmen are expected to work toward Basic Girdish Combat Style (full proficiency with club, staff, short sword — the latter is ‘more modern’, but everyone is expected to learn the others as well).

  1. As discussed, if I am understanding this correctly then I think it will be a good approach to capstones. I would like to see some deeper detail into the workings of the examples (you know what I am like for examples), particularly how different characters could follow different paths through the Paksennarion examples, as that capacity for divergence is the most interesting new feature. The Solamnia example illustrates “skipping” a tier AIUI but seems less branchy.

  2. It occurs to me that I might even want to back the Paladin capstone off to Expert. Gaining the capstone at Heroic tier means that you get one level as a paladin before entering the Master tier, and that might be too high — I picture Paladins as being heroic, not masters.

    On the other hand, that several paladins are noted as having become saints (arguably entering the Immortal arena, which I can’t see starting before Master) it might not be inappropriate. Those are special cases though, after they have acted as paladins for a time, so… who knows?

    • David Lamb

      It might make sense for some “capstone families” to have entries at the ends of more than one tier. So and end-expert Paladin capstone makes sense, granting some of the expected low-level Paladin benefits, like a special mount, but an end-Heroic paladin might gain a fancier mount (maybe the regular mount grows wings).

      There’s no reason I can think of why a Paladin capstone couldn’t *require* some of the classic Paladin powers, through divine talents, before *granting* yet others. A saintly high-tier paladin might require both the lower-tier capstone (or its prerequisites at least), plus some demon-smiting or divine magic talents.

      • Indeed, that’s the ‘multi-tier capstone’ change. Earlier I thought they’d be more limited, but I eventually realized it could work better if they were tiered like other talents. They might not exist at earlier tiers, but no talent is required to exist at all tiers — though I suspect it would help that once they exist, they exist for several tiers. What do you do when your guy with three Basic talents filled with talents that exist only at Basic tier? He’s got nothing he can upgrade, but is required to!

        I agree, there’s really nothing that prevents a capstone from having ‘entry requirements’ and then different requirements later. You probably wouldn’t have an earlier capstone as a (hard) requirement — there might be a ‘social requirement’ but not a mechanical one — since those are usually assumed to be incorporated in the lower tiers of the talent being taken.

        To go back to the Knights of Solamnia example, updated for how I see things today:

        “Knight of the Crown” is an Expert capstone. You meet the requirements and you’re in. Knight of the Crown also has Heroic and Master tier capstones now.

        “Knight of the Sword” has some overlapping requirements (more combat ability) and perhaps something else. It might be there are Knights of the Sword not qualified to be Knights of the Crown. Socially most were Knights of the Crown and Knight of the Crown should provide most of what’s needed, but it’s possible to diverge. You cannot become a Knight of the Sword before your Heroic capstone, but you can prepare for it, and there are Master and Champion tiers available.

        “Knight of the Rose” has a social requirement that you were a Knight of the Sword, but personally I don’t think I’d enforce it mechanically, directly. However (and not having the books in front of me), if Knights of the Sword start picking up divine magic you might have some divine casting requirements. This opens the door to Knight of the Rose being eligible to ‘clerics’ who take up arms. You can’t become a Knight of the Rose without Master-tier combat ability and divine casting (not necessarily full or specialized divine casting — you might have only Master Divine Casting but not Master Improved Divine Casting, as it were, though those two talents are likely to not exist in that form).

        So. Crown leads to Sword leads to Rose, ‘most often’. Crown can branch away (you continue to Heroic and Master Knight of the Crown, or do something else entirely). Sword often comes from Crown but doesn’t have to, and may either lead to Rose, continue as Sword through Master and Champion, or do something else. Rose almost always comes from Sword, but might come from martial priesthood, usually continues as Rose into Champion and Legendary but could do something else.

        “Knight of Solamnia” thus clearly contains three distinct capstone talents with different prerequisites and abilities, branching in and out of each. There may be others related (dragon-rider isn’t quite one of them, in principle anyone might have that, but during times of dragons many dragon-riders come from the ranks of the Knights of Solamnia).

        • I notice too that this suggests it could be possible to go directly from Knight of the Crown to Knight of the Rose, without being a Knight of the Sword. Take Knight of the Crown to a suitable level, picking up the other abilities as needed, then Knight of the Rose. Done!

          You know there will complaints of politics and favoritism. Knowing the Knights of Solamnia in later periods I would expect this, and I’m entirely comfortable with this.

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