How Fast is Too Fast?

I have to wonder, how much time, in game terms, should it take to become good at something you don’t already practice?

One of the biggest sticking points for people when I describe Echelon is the ability for a character to go from ‘no casting’ to ‘decent casting’, and even ‘casting as powerful as someone who spent his entire career as a caster’. “It breaks my suspension of disbelief” and “it’s unrealistic!” are expressions I’ve heard a few times.

Revised System Reference Document (RSRD)

In most games based on the Revised System Reference Document, the answer appears to be “a long time”. At least for those who are not spell casters.

For a non-caster to develop a new ability takes at least one level, and often more. A fighter who just ‘learns a new trick’ (feat) might take two levels to get there, if he becomes interested at the beginning of a level he does not receive a feat slot. If he wants to learn a particular trick, or something he has not done before (such as a melee monster taking up archery) it could take a large number of levels in order to get all the feats needed to be considered “good at it”. If he wants to learn something kind of related that he hasn’t practiced (a new skill) he will likely have to invest several levels and not raise his other skills much, if at all. If he wants to learn something farther away (any kind of spell casting, for example) he has to multiclass and start at the bottom.

Admittedly, for many fighters even first-level magic use can be a better option, power-wise, than another level of Fighter at high level, but that’s a different problem.

A non-caster who takes up casting in RSRD-based games will never catch up to those who started as casters.

A caster, on the other hand, who decides to take up a new type of magic (a character who has never studied conjuration, for example, who decides to learn teleport) can do so as soon as he is high enough to cast the spell. No careful apportation of small objects required, no abilities limited by feat acquisition, just “I have a new trick!”.

Advanced Old School Games

I will ignore multi-class characters because they in principle “grow in parallel” and never really learn a totally new ability, just expand on what they already know.

For dual-class characters, if they can be done at all (the high ability scores needed were a killer), it was actually amazingly fast compared to RSRD-based games. You had to go through all the previous levels, but a first-level magic-user with ninth-level fighter hit points has a lot of durability on his side… and will reach tenth level in the time he would otherwise have reached tenth-level as a fighter. That is, by ‘trading a single level of fighter’ (and the right to continue developing as a fighter) he goes straight from no-casting to serious casting (two fifth-level spell slots per day). To compare, a ninth-level magic user would be somewhere around the middle of eleventh level as a magic user in the same time (and have sixth-level spells)

So, it seems Advanced Old School games are pretty okay with the idea of someone becoming a spell caster on short notice, if he was lucky enough to have the right ability scores.

I suppose nonweapon proficiencies are a case where a character might go from “no ability” to “pretty good, actually”, but they came pretty infrequently, and most of the really good ones cost multiple slots and thus were really only viable at first level anyway.

Spells, on the other hand, are much as in RSRD-based games. One significant difference is that you didn’t get to freely pick what you learned. This is pretty big, I think.


I think I would place Echelon between the two. A character who has never studied spell casting can become a caster comparable in power to a dedicated caster in the course of two levels, and even make it a significant part of his repertoire in four.

Common Talents

The way talents are gained, only two common talent slots per tier may be entirely new abilities. The other four common slots must be upgrades of talents from the previous tier. This means that any character can become something of a caster in one or two levels… in the middle of the tier. Tier Level (TL) 2 allows you to take a talent that grants spell knowledge and a Caster Knowledge Bonus equal to the tier. A tenth-level Heroic character (RSRD equivalent sixth-level, nominally) who takes a Spell Knowledge Talent such as an Eldritch Thread or a Domain talent would learn perhaps 1-3 spells per spell level up to (RSRD) fourth level and have a Caster Knowledge Bonus sufficient to cast up to (RSRD) first-level spells. He would do so at a Caster Level of 8 (Level Bonus of +5 and Caster Training Bonus of +3). He could cast a four-missile magic missile spell, say. He can also safely use spell trigger and spell completion items of the spells he knows, even up to the fourth-level spells.

At the next level he can gain another Spell Knowledge talent, and thus another 1-3 spells known per spell level. His Caster Level is unchanged because Caster Knowledge Bonuses do not stack with each other, only the largest applies. He might know a decent range of spells, but his common talents will still be mostly not-casting talents.

A more extreme example is a Legendary (level 21-24) character. A twenty-second-level Legendary character (RSRD equivalent eighteenth level, nominally) could take a Spell Knowledge talent at the Legendary tier, gaining knowledge of 1-3 spells of each spell level up to (RSRD) tenth level, which is for practical purposes ninth. He can safely use spell completion and spell trigger items using those spells. He has a Caster Knowledge Bonus of +6, which allows him to cast dimension door or similar, at a Caster Level of 17 (Level Bonus +11, Caster Knowledge Bonus +6).

Cornerstone Talents

Cornerstone talents are much like common talents in that mechanically there are usually no requirements. If a high-level character is inducted in a Caster Tradition he can have the whole thing (Caster Tradition Bonus, spells known, and related abilities and powers) in a single level. This has pretty much the same effect as gaining a Spell Knowledge talent, except in this case they do stack.

In two levels (TL1 and TL2) a character can go from “complete non-caster” to maximum allowed Caster Training Bonus (technically exceeding — Caster Tradition Bonus equal to the tier plus Caster Knowledge Bonus equal to the tier is more than the allowable Caster Training Bonus, at least before TL3). The character will know perhaps 2-6 spells of all levels available and have a Caster Level equal to Character Level.

Narrow spell selection, but still a decent range and can be cast at full power, just like a dedicated caster… who will have two other talent slots available at that level, and two more by the end of the tier, that could all have been spent on additional Spell Knowledge talents or talents that support spell casting (such as Iron Will providing more magic points).

Capstone Talents

I haven’t discussed it much before, but just as a cornerstone talent, a capstone talent could itself be a Caster Knowledge talent. For instance, the Shadowdancer prestige class grants the ability to cast some shadow magic spells a limited number of times per day. When I wrote the Shadowdancer capstone I replaced this benefit with the ability to enact a blur or blink effect instead, but I could instead make them partial casters of shadow magic.


It is possible, if timed correctly, to go from ‘no casting’ to ‘full casting’ in only two levels. This is still slower that Advanced Old School games, much faster than RSRD-based games.

This sounds pretty significant. However, when compared to what a character dedicated to casting might do, it is still quite limited. A high-tier character who invests a single talent in casting basically has access to much lower-level spells than a dedicated caster and fairly narrow spell knowledge (1-3 spells per level, generally). He can cast them pretty competently (Caster Level approximately 3/4 Character Level), but for his level they aren’t all that powerful.

Even if he dedicates all the talents he can to casting, the best he can do is four of his top eight talents dedicated to magic: one cornerstone, one capstone, two common. Four more common talents are upgrades of something he was doing before. Eight of his top twelve talents (four common at the current tier, two common talents of the tier below, plus the cornerstone and capstone of the tier below) are assigned to non-casting abilities.

While he may be able to cast as hard as a dedicated caster, the dedicated caster is likely to have a fair bit more spell knowledge and a longer career as a caster. They aren’t quite equal yet.

At that, because of how the talents are constructed and the expectations around them, the character may be reducing his raw power by splitting his attentions, at least for a time. A high-tier character who picks up the ability to cast spells much below his own level of power can be limiting himself. The abilities granted by talents should be scaled to the tier they are taken, regardless of talent type. This means that a high-tier combat talent should offer abilities comparable to those of a high-tier caster talent, at least in the right hands. A “non-caster” who takes up magic will be at a disadvantage for a time because he will lack the ability to use the full range of power available from the talent.

Put it this way: a Legendary warrior might not be able to cast a teleport spell, but could well have developed the ability — possibly some time ago — as part of a combat style. Gaining the ability to cast dimension door in exchange for something better he might have gotten is… a “strategic benefit”, let us say.

Closing Comments

This is most often a ‘problem’ related to casting. It seems few people balk at a ‘non-warrior’ suddenly becoming competent at martial activities, until directly challenged.

I don’t know that Echelon is too fast this way. Very narrow abilities can be developed to high degree quickly, sometimes. Major character ability facets (such as casting, or martial ability) takes longer but it is still possible for someone to become effective and competent, if only in a still-narrow way, in a short time but at the at least temporary cost of something else at least as good. A character who splits his attention this way can still expect to be outmatched in breadth in both areas by those who did not split his attention the same way.

There are ways to slow the perceived “jump in ability”, such as requiring that all slots gained in the highest tier be upgrades, but allow the two ‘new’ talents to backfill. This is allowed already, but making it required means the character must hold the talent at a lower tier before moving it up. You can still gain two talents that are ‘new abilities’ each tier, but will hold each for at least one level at a lower tier. This can even be extended to say that ‘new’ common talents must start at the lowest tier and work up (“rippling”, as it were). At level 10 a Heroic character could upgrade an Expert talent and backfill by upgrading a Basic talent, then fill that Basic talent with a casting talent. At level 11 he can upgrade another Expert talent to Heroic and backfill by upgrading the Basic casting talent to Expert, then at level 12 upgrade that to Heroic.

Personally I think this would be remarkably tedious, I prefer something much quicker and easier… but it could be done. I prefer to not build it into the rules, but it is an easy modification to make (just a pain in the ass in practice).

On the other hand, what do I know?

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  1. tussock

    I think if you’re just explicit in the fluff that base spellcasting itself isn’t anything difficult, it’s just a talent that some people have which takes either years of training or a sudden and unpredictable inspiration to come out. High level spellcasting can then be the same. You either obsessively train your underlying base, or randomly discover something miraculous about your ability to call up walls of force. Happens all the time.

    The “problem” for doing it in 3e is it carried the old fluff about 1st level Wizards all being old genius dudes who’d studied for years because magic is incredibly hard, and then let any PC with 10 Int become a Wizard at 16 after starting life as an illiterate Barbarian with no background support at all. Not that any experienced player actually multi-classed their d20 spellcaster classes, good grief.

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