Character Evolution

Characters change over time.

In many games they become “more of what they were” — a better fighter, a more knowledgeable wizard, and so on.

Some games allow you to change this, and become something else.  In Dungeons & Dragons 3.x and in Pathfinder, this is done using the multiclassing rules.  Where in previous editions multiclassing let you mix abilities from two or more classes in roughly equal amounts, these games allow you to have “fighter, with a bit of wizard”.

I didn’t want that for Echelon, because that model always starts you at the beginning of each class.  A fighter who takes “a bit of wizard” only gains the bit at the lowest levels, abilities that may be significantly weaker than he might have gotten had he stayed the course.  A wizard who does the same thing in reverse is much worse off, trading high-level spells for low-level fighter abilities.

I try to avoid this in Echelon.

Gaining Talent Slots

A character gains talent slots in Echelon in two ways: upgrade slots, and new slots.  After completing Basic tier (which most PCs are expected to have done), each level grants a mix of upgrade slots and new slots.

When a character gains an upgrade slot, a talent from a lower tier may be improved one step, and the lower-tier slot is not filled.  For instance, on gaining ninth level (first level of the Heroic tier), the character gets two upgrade slots and can improve two talents that were previously at the ‘Heroic’ tier.  This gives the character continuity from tier to tier.

When a character gains a new slot, there are two ways to fill it.  First, the character can upgrade a lower-tier slot from any previous tier, and fill the lower-tier slot with another talent.  Second, the character may take a net new talent and leave lower-tier talents as they are.  The character mentioned above, on gaining tenth level, could upgrade either an Expert or Basic talent to Heroic, and replace the now-empty lower-tier slot with another talent.  The character could instead take a new talent altogether.  This gives the character the ability to change more dramatically over time.

In the first level of each tier a character gets two upgrade slots.  In the second level of each tier he gets a new slot.  In the third level of each tier he gets an upgrade slot and a new slot.  In the fourth level he gets an other upgrade slot.

This would be a good place for the talent slot table, but I don’t want to risk getting things inconsistent if I update it.  The talent slot table can be seen here.


The dual mechanisms for gaining talent slots allows a gradual but potentially large change over time.

A character who starts as a wizard (lots of spell casting and related talents) can continue to develop those talents.  If he spends all talents on these topics he will become a powerful and flexible wizard indeed.

Similarly, a character who starts as a warrior (lots of combat and related talents) can develop to become a martial power in his own right.

However, either could expand into other areas.  The warrior might start to learn, and eventually master, the use of magic.  Every four levels he gains six talent slots, and up to two of them need not be directly related to the talents he took in lower tiers.

The heroic warrior might choose to learn magic-related talents at tenth and eleventh level (two new Heroic slots).  At twelfth level he would have four combat-related and two magic-related talents at top tier, plus two Basic and two Expert slots.

When he reaches thirteenth level he can upgrade any two Heroic talents to Master tier, and can thus improve his new abilities.  At fourteenth and fifteenth levels he can take two more magic-related talents, and fifteenth and sixteenth levels also grant upgrades.  At sixteenth level he would have two combat-related and four magic-related talents at top tier, plus two Basic, two Expert, and two Heroic talents.

At seventeenth level he can upgrade two talents (both magic), eighteenth and nineteenth he can take two new magic-related talents, and nineteenth and twentieth lets him upgrade the remaining two magic-related talents.  At twentieth level he now has six top-level magic-related talents, the same as the dedicated wizard.  However, where the dedicated wizard might also have a number of lesser abilities to support his primary power (magic), the former warrior might have two Basic, two Expert, two Heroic, and two Master-tier combat talents.  He is still a formidable power on the battlefield even without his magic.

But then, when he goes up against a twentieth-level dedicated fighter, he should expect to get beaten fairly soundly if he can’t use his magic.

Closing Comments

Much as the warrior here evolved over time, these rules have changed a few times since I started.

Initially I had each level provide some number of talents (at one point, two per level). This adds up to a lot of slots to keep track of.

At one point, when characters could pick talents freely, this large number of talents meant that a character could change focus very quickly, going from “almost entirely warrior’ to ‘almost entirely wizard’ in the course of four levels.  This caused concerns of characters climbing to (for example) Master tier as warriors for the increased survivability in combat, then suddenly jump to wizard for great cosmic power.

I eventually was persuaded, and eventually came to agree, that keeping the top tier limited to six and the top two tiers limited to eight slots, and allowing two slots per lower tier, provided enough to work with without being stifling.  Removing lower-tier talents without removing abilities meant upgrades; at no point does the character lose anything gained from a talent.

Unlike multiclassing in Dungeons & Dragons 3.x and Pathfinder, though, filling a new slot gives abilities suitable for the character’s level.  It might be weaker or more narrow than a dedicated character might have gained, but it’s not insulting.  That is the tenth-level warrior-wizard above might find he can cast common D&D-second-level spells, while the wizard can cast common and some uncommon D&D-third-levelspells.  The eleventh-level warrior-wizard might find he can cast common D&D-fourth-level spells, or common and some uncommon D&D-second-level spells; the wizard would be able to cast common and some uncommon D&D-fourth-level spells.  [Echelon increases all spell levels by one, so cantrips and orisons are first level, fireball is fourth level, and so on, so I needed to qualify that.]

The keystone talents — cornerstones and capstones — will also help differentiate characters and encourage archetypes.  At this point cornerstone slots always act as ‘new slots’ but are limited to cornerstone talents.  A character might upgrade a lower-tier cornerstone and backfill the now-empty slot, or might take a new cornerstone as he has experienced a fundamental change.  Capstone talents are expected to stand alone; they likelydon’t have lower-tier or higher-tier variations.  Those might be represented instead as different capstone talents.

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  1. The “fighting wizard” reminds me of some issues I was looking at recently in WRPS*. If the fighting-wizard needs to use an action for either his swordsmanship or his magic, he may be less effective than a wizard whose lower-level abilities enhance his magic without needing an extra action.
    Two possible ways to address that are (a) make sure the pure wizard’s abilities require choosing between two possible actions as well, or (b) give the fighting-wizard talent options that let him combine his magic and his weapon in a single action.
    (*The related subject in WRPS was more to do with initiative and turn order. I went down the latter road, so rather than a paladin casting bless weapon on the fighter’s sword on his turn, then the fighter striking with it on his turn, they both act together: the paladin blesses the sword, maybe both their swords if he’s up to the task, and the fighter attacks. Next round, they can both attack, again simultaneously or as part of a planned manoeuvre; if the fighter now wants to trip an enemy to set him up for the paladin to finish off they can do that without having to rearrange the turn order.)

  2. Pingback: Simplification and Complexity: Character Creation | Echelon d20 - An RPG framework based on the d20 system.

  3. David Lamb

    If I understand correctly, a Heroic warrior character can take a new talent at tenth level and become a Heroic wizard as well as a Heroic warrior, albeit likely with several warrior talents and only one wizardly ones. If this is correct it makes me uneasy that somebody could suddenly become so good at something s/he “just started with.” Maybe uneasy DMs could impose a roleplaying requirement of taking some training with a master when you take a brand-new talent in this way?

    In a smaller way it also happens if you suddenly take Heroic Axe Mastery having never wielded an axe before, so it’s not just a hangup about wizard-warriors.

    • It should in principle be a hangout in no smaller way for Heroic Axe Mastery than it is for Heroic Caster Training.

      Perhaps I don’t mentioned it in that post, but yes, significant deviation from current archetype (a high-tier wizard grabbing another Eldritch Thread at that tier, or a high-tier warrior grabbing another Combat Style at that tier, isn’t so bothersome I’m sure) can reasonably have character overhead such as a training montage or time offline.

      On the other hand, given the broad competence characters are expected to exhibit in Echelon as configured this way (using the Level Bonus for so many things) it’s not entirely unreasonable to handwave picking up specific skill and ability in a new area. The same dedication and focus the high-tier warrior exhibits in mastering swordsmanship can be readily turned to other purposes such as casting spells. He has the mental discipline normally developed during wizard apprenticeship exercises, he just has never applied it this way. Focused intensity to light a candle comes trivially to him, creating the imagery in his mind to enact a ball of flame engulfing his enemies has at times been a fond dream…

      If anything, the dedicated wizard taking up axechoppery is more troublesome because of the lack of muscle tone…

      I’m pretty cool with the second idea, but I do agree that the other view has validity. I’ve got no problem with a training montage at any time, and I especially don’t when it means significant deviation from what is already there. Your wizard wants to take up martial arts, he’d better find someone (in-play quest or montage) to teach him.

      • David Lamb

        I think training montage for “big” changes satisfies my concern. Like training time in some earlier D&D versions, it’s something some groups will ignore and others turn into role-playing experience.

        Wizard-to-warrior-in-one-step was my specific example, but I agree it applies to suddenly taking Heroic Axe Mastery having never touched an axe.

        If a talent is prerequisite to a capstone, then I presume its upgraded form serves to satisfy the prerequisite. So if I build an upper tier character top-down as suggested, all I have to do with Basic tier talents is make sure that the 2 remaining talent slots, plus any upper-tier slots, satisfy whatever capstone I pick for the lowest tier. I don’t have to worry about some prerequisites “disappearing”. I can presume a history where he took the prereqs at basic tier and upgraded them later.

        Or do I have to count how many upgrades actually took place? is it numerically possible to create a character top-down who couldn’t have got to where he is by a bottom-up evolution?

        • Yes, prerequisites continue to be met if the talent required is advanced to a higher tier. Remember that talents are all self-cumulative; each tier contains everything from the previous one plus new stuff.

          I believe your observation about Basic talents — “I need only ensure I satisfy the Basic capstone” — is correct.

          I don’t think you can build a high-tier character directly that you could not have created working from the bottom up, at least as long as a capstone needs no more than four prerequisite talents (three almost certainly, but I think four is safe). In each tier above Basic you can shift focus on two talents (so a character with an Expert martial capstone of some sort could, by the time he reaches his Heroic capstone, pick up two magical talents, then two more on his way to his Master capstone), so I think it’s impossible to come up with a higher-tier build that doesn’t involve upgrading the four talents he might have needed at the previous tier to qualify for the capstone at that tier… and this works all the way down.

          I.e. it looks like it works for arbitrary n, n > Basic, and at n-1, so I think it should be good all the way down.

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