Revisiting Token Pools

Last week I was inspired to work on some talent design, specifically by converting various PRD game elements to talentsSorcerer Bloodlines became cornerstone talentsCleric Domains became common talents, and Arcane Schools became common talents. The latter interested me enough (and honestly, were a small enough set) that I converted all the arcane schools to common talents.

For the most part this was a straightforward mechanical effort, though there was some adjustment as I went.

The biggest stumbling block, though, was the number of abilities that increase (in scope or capacity) by class level. Because Echelon does not have classes, it follows that it does not have class levels. For that matter, scaling things by character level means they change every level, and I think I would generally prefer talents to have a more granular growth.

The arcana talents I drafted last week are written with the values derived from ‘class level’ calculated as if the character was at the second level of the tier (second, sixth, tenth, fourteenth, eighteenth, twenty-second)… but because the values changed every tier, I showed the calculated value in each tier. The table showing the tier abilities could take half a page by itself. I’d much rather see a short list of perhaps one or two lines per tier showing new things gained, rather than how a previous thing increases.

Token Pools

Iron Heroes used token pools to govern access to certain abilities. A character can gain tokens by doing certain things (such as concentrating on a target) or from certain events (such as gaining rage tokens by being hit in combat). These tokens can then be spent to fuel abilities related to the token pool.

This approach may better suit my goals and preferences.

If there are common rules about token gain and expenditure, then I can lean on those common rules to cover abilities scaling by tier without needing to present the effects explicitly. At the same time, the use of tokens can deal with things such as ‘uses per day’ without having to track the uses.

Draft Token Pool Rules

I will start with the following rules. They may change as I explore the topic some more.

  • A talent may have abilities powered using tokens from a pool associated with the talent.
  • A talent will use only a single token pool.
  • A token pool may be used by more than one talent.
  • A character has all token pools for the talents chosen.
  • A token pool can hold as many tokens as the character has levels.
  • A character can spend as many tokens on a talent ability as the character has tiers in that talent.
  • A talent ability will usually cost a minimum number of tokens equal to the tier the ability was gained.
  • A talent ability may have additional effect if more tokens are spent.
  • A talent ability may have lesser effect if fewer tokens are spent.
  • A token pool will have a way for a character to deliberately gain tokens (such as careful aim for aim tokens, ‘biting the shield’ for rage tokens).
  • A token pool may have ways for a character to receive tokens (such as gaining rage tokens by being hit in combat).
  • A talent may provide additional ways to deliberately gain or to receive tokens.
  • A token pool will be ’empty’ at the start of each combat because the tokens come from specific situations in combat.

I think that covers most of the key elements, and I will refine the wording as I go.

Sample Talent: Abjuration Arcana

Given the rules above, the Abjuration Arcana might be revised as follows.

Abjuration Arcana (Starting)

Tier Benefit
  • Resistance 5
  • Energy Absorption 10
  • Protective Ward (+1, 2 rounds, 3/day)
  • Energy Absorption 20
  • Protective Ward (+2, 3 rounds, 5/day)
  • Arcane Grip
  • Energy Absorption 30
  • Protective Ward (+3, 4 rounds, 7/day)
  • Resistance 10
  • Energy Absorption 40
  • Protective Ward (+4, 5 rounds, 9/day)
  • Energy Absorption 50
  • Break Enchantment
  • Immunity
  • Protective Ward (+5, 6 rounds, 11/day)
  • Energy Absorption 60
  • Mind Veil

Resistance and Immunity are passive abilities. I may leave them alone… or I might drop them in favor of the modified Energy Absorption below.

Energy Absorption scales directly with tier, and provides a fixed amount per day. I think perhaps I’ll halve it, but allow it be be used as long as there are tokens available. Energy Absorption is usable as an immediate action (so once per round) to absorb 5 points of energy damage per token of any one type.

Protective Ward scales pretty directly with tier and scales linearly with tier, but doesn’t quite align. I see a possibly interesting idea for managing this. When used, assign a number of tokens (up to your tier in Abjuration Arcana) for a +1 deflection bonus to AC for each token. Each round one of the tokens is removed (swift action to replace tokens). In effect, this is close to “#tier for +1 AC/token, 1 token per round to maintain”, but without the immediate interruption if the maintenance is not paid.

Arcane Grip is a Heroic ability (three tokens) and lasts as long contact is maintained (built in limitation).

Master tier now no longer gains anything. This will need to be fixed.

Champion still has Break Enchantment. Instead of once per day, it costs five tokens. Probably good enough.

Legendary has Mind Veil, which I would be inclined to treat as a passive ability. Not everything has to powered by tokens.

Abjuration Arcana (Token-Based)

Tier Benefit
Basic Energy Absorption (10/token)
Expert Protective Ward (+1/token, maintenance)
Heroic Arcane Grip (3 tokens, while touched)
Master FIXME: no ability gained
Champion Break Enchantment (5 tokens)
Legendary Mind Veil

This actually doesn’t look too bad to me.

I increased the Energy Absorption from 5/token to 10/token (and it lasts for one round, so multiple attacks in a single round can all be absorbed) and dropped Resistance and Immunity. I didn’t really like how the passive abilities worked — not that I dislike passive benefits, but it didn’t set well having them change daily and work against only one energy type at a time, when a more dynamic mechanism was not only present but already in use and available. I increased the Energy Absorption to make up for the loss of the Resistance and Immunity. It can still be overcome or avoided.

Arcane Grip is as described: three tokens to activate, and it lasts as long as you stay in contact with the ‘gripped’ object.

Master doesn’t have an ability, and it should. This is usually the point in Iron Heroes that a class or ability makes it easier to gain tokens, so I can fall back on that if I need to.

Break Enchantment is as straightforward as Arcane Grip. In the base rules it is usable once per day and this is more, but I’m not convinced that it’s a problem. Something to keep an eye on.

Mind Veil is ‘as permanent mind blank spell’, a passive defense. I see no reason to change that.

I have no identified the token pool, nor how tokens are gained. I need to think about that (and look up how Iron Heroes might do it).

Cornerstone Talents and Related Common Talents

When I first devised cornerstone talents I realized that some will often have related common talents. A martial tradition might favor certain combat styles and weapons, a race (half-orcs) might often have rage-related abilities. I realized that the token pool mechanics might be a good way to handle it.

I will add the following rule. I will note several options, but only one will be used.

  • A cornerstone talent and a common talent may reinforce each other. When using a reinforced common talent, a character…
    • May spend an additional token, as long as the tier of the common talent is no higher than the tier in the cornerstone.
    • May spend one fewer token when using a common talent ability and spending a number of tokens no higher than the tier in the cornerstone.
    • May spend tokens up to the maximum of the cornerstone tier and the common talent tier.
    • May spend tokens up to the sum of the tiers in both cornerstone and common talent.

(I should note that I am not satisfied with the wording of these; it’s late and I’m sleepy.)

The first option means that if you have the common talent at a tier equal to or less than the cornerstone, you can spend an additional token when using that common talent. If you have the common talent at a higher tier there is no benefit. I’m not sure I like that, it feels weird that there is effectively no reinforcement if you are particularly focused on something the cornerstone supposedly reinforces. If you have both at the same tier, though, you can get more effect than you otherwise would be entitled to. A character with ‘reinforced Basic Abjuration Arcana’ could spend two tokens for Energy Absorption 20 for one round but could not use Protective Ward.

The second option is quite a bit more useful. When using the common talent within the limit of the cornerstone to reinforce, the cost is reduced. You don’t get more effect, but you get it more cheaply and thus can extend your use of the talent. For a maintained ability such as Protective Ward in the Abjuration Arcana it can mean that the maintenance is paid for out of the reinforcement benefit (but still costs a swift action). A character with ‘reinforced Expert Abjuration Arcana’ could spend one tokens for +2 Protective Ward or get Energy Absorption 10 for one round for free (but as an immediate action; he might have to choose if he wants both in a round, or spend a standard action for the maintenance).

The third option means it is useful to dabble in the reinforced talents. In fact, as written it is only useful if the common talent is at a lower tier, since no benefit is gained if the common talent is at the same or higher tier. Perhaps allow an additional token to be spent (as the first option) or reduce the number of tokens spent (as the second) so there is some benefit in these cases. A character with Expert Abjuration Arcana and Master <reinforcing cornerstone> could spend four tokens on Energy Absorption or Protective Ward instead of the regular two, but does not have access to any of the higher talent abilities.

The fourth is simplest, and the most powerful. It can always have effect, at the cost of rapid token expenditure. It allows only the options available to the character normally, but much more of it. The character above with Expert Abjuration Arcana and Master <reinforcing cornerstone> could spend six tokens (equivalent to what an unreinforced Legendary character could spend!) for very powerful Energy Absorption or Protective Ward. Of course, having perhaps 13-16 tokens available at a time means this could only be done a couple times before exhausting the pool, and the character with Legendary Abjuration Arcana has the full suite of options… it’s powerful, but it’s easy to apply and it does have some limits on application.

Closing Comments

I need to think about this some more, but it’s a start. While I am a little uncertain about some of the details with the Abjuration Arcana it already feels better than what I had initially. There is some potential in the reinforcement mechanism between cornerstone talents and common talents that I want to explore some more. The exact mechanism isn’t quite sorted out, but the ability to exceed normal limits or reduce token cost is worth something, possibly enough to encourage characters to take related talents without being so powerful that it becomes a necessity.

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  1. Is it expected that your average “token income rate” will increase over tiers?

    Arcane Grip was at-will and got turned into a tier-appropriate (Heroic) 3 tokens; Break Enchantment was 1/day and got turned into a tier-appropriate (Champion) 5 tokens.

    Conjuration has at-will Combat Teleport at Champion tier; how would you price this?

    • As a just-do-something suggestion, how about this:

      * 1/day: cost $tier+2 tokens
      * 2/day: cost $tier+1 tokens
      * 3/day: cost $tier+0 tokens
      * 4/day: cost $tier-1 tokens
      * at-will: cost $tier-2 tokens

      This is calibrated around 3/day as an “average” amount, and using the notion from 3.5e item pricing guidelines that 5/day has the same cost as at-will.

      This would price Arcane Grip at 1 token, Break Enchantment at 7 tokens, and Combat Teleport at 3 tokens.

      • This probably adequately addresses the relative frequency. As much as I like the idea that the ability costs a number of tokens equal to tier, I am not so attached to it that I am unwilling to change.

        However, one of the draft rules is that “a character can spend as many tokens on a talent ability as the character has tiers in that talent”.

        This works just fine for the higher-frequency abilities (nice solution there, though I’d rule you can’t go below 0… possibly not below one, but you certainly shouldn’t… wait, “shouldn’t gain tokens by doing iconic things for your talent?” maybe you _can_ get paid to use certain abilities).

        I digress. The limit of one token per tier means that Break Enchantment then amounts to a tier-7 (Epic) ability because you can’t pay for it until then. At least, not without a rider like cornerstone reinforcement.

        On the other hand, if it is considered as a surcharge separate from the base cost, and the rule is changed to limit the token charge for base cost only (allowing additional surcharges to exceed that) would do what you describe, though not quite as you describe it.

        It also opens the door to other modifications and adders. In D&D 3.x terms, metamagic feats could be implemented this way — you still cast the spells, but can expend additional tokens for the greater effect. This could potentially allow greater effect such as applying the metamagic feat to already top-level spells (probably at a surcharge, double if the resulting spell level is higher than your ability.

        Lots of possibility here.

    • “Token Income Rate” may increase with tier. I still need to review how Iron Heroes does it, but it may be that (eventually?) a standard action can gain you $tier tokens for a single pool.

      You’re right that straight tier-to-token cost means that all abilities are functionally at-will-if-you-have-tokens. This conflicts with the expectations of the base ability (arcane school).

  2. The cornerstone reinforcement stuff was quite confusing until I noticed these were a list of ideas, only one will actually be used. Stripping out the details, I read the options as:
    (1) able to spend an extra token for extra effect
    (2) able to spend fewer tokens for the same effect
    (3) as 1, but you can spend several tokens; stays within normal tier caps
    (4) as 3, but you can exceed normal tier caps

    My opinions:
    * I would prefer to skip option 2, since it necessitates some special cases (i.e. you can’t reduce the cost below 1 token; and hence it has no effect on 1-token abilities). It would also force me (as a player) to re-evaluate how much a token is “worth”.
    * The other options differ in how many extra tokens you can spend: just one, several, or several and potentially exceeding your normal caps.
    * Option 4 feels like it might fall into the “no-brainer” category: it potentially allows you to twice your character tier’s worth of tokens on a single ability. I would skip this one as well.
    * Out of the remaining two, the mechanics of option 3 seem the easiest to express right now. Adding an “or spend one extra token” clause to it might bring it close with option 1 in terms of complexity though.

    My suggestions for possible choices:
    * Use option 3 as-is (i.e. use the larger of the tiers). This is the more restrictive of my suggestions, working from the standpoint that the reinforcement is a bonus and hence it’s okay for there to be no benefit if the cornerstone is of a lower tier.
    * Use an unconditional form of option 1 (i.e. you can always spend an extra token, regardless of relative tiers). This is the more generous suggestion.
    * Or, do something else.

    • Actually, reducing token cost to 0, or potentially even below 0, is not off the table. If you have such a facility with one of the powers it might prove to be a source of tokens. While I’m not a huge fan of someone spamming an ability, using a low-tier ability (an at-will Expert ability is already 0 tokens, you can do it for free… which suits me fine) that is reinforced (-1 token to cost, so down to -1 cost) giving you a token doesn’t hurt my feelings much.

    • On the other hand, abilities that depend on the number of tokens spent (such as Protective Ward, the example I have immediately at hand) might get kind of weird if this rule is used. Not insurmountable, but “-1 tokens means 1 token spent” is going to confuse people.

  3. I think modified option 3: higher of common and cornerstone, +1 if they are the same tier. I don’t much like the exception, but it’s easier to express and there is always a benefit _if_ the cornerstone is at least as high as the common.

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