If you’re worried about balance it’s because you’re not having enough fun
+Trent B said: everyone should need the same xp to level up – fighters, mages, whatever.
And a light went on in my head. I’ve worried about balance – especially between PCs – pretty much my entire gaming life. But I’ve also long disliked stuff that gets in the way of troupe play – like having one character lag far behind the others on the leveling ladder, or character classes that might have a useful schtick but nobody wants to play them because they have some other feature that turns everybody off.
And then I read Jeff‘s and Scrap Princess‘s and Arcadian‘s character generation documents and I realised something: they made characters I wanted to play, with absolutely no regard for their mechanically effectiveness. I discovered that I only worried about balance when I felt like my character wasn’t awesome enough to make me smile even if – maybe especially if – it was kind of inept. I’m talking about gems like No Signal!’s Doxy (sexy green alien dancer) and Luchador classes – one’s crazy overpowered with limited teleport baked right in, the other’s a kind of cut-price paladin with the monk’s restrictions on effectiveness at low level. Both are funny, inspiring and will operate at an intriguingly oblique angle to the dungeon. I’d choose either in a heartbeat over some boring old cleric.
Actually, that’s how I want to learn about your setting – not from pages and pages of lore or even necessarily from rules and table contents, but from the characters I can play in it. Because if I want to play your characters then I want to play in your game, and we’ll figure out the plot and challenges at the table.
So here’s a stupid idea: exploded classes, no regard for balance, hot rod style. Everyone’s an ordinary fighting man, except for what happens on the following tables. Roll once on each table, or as many times as you like, and go with whatever you get. Or cheat and use adjacent results or swap the percentiles around if you think you can have more fun with something else. Reroll obvious conflicts (eg sneaky and not-sneaky) or invent some clever way they could work together. Maybe, just maybe, then you get the option to arrange your attributes to fit rather than 3d6 in order.
No, it doesn’t make iconic archetypes, and for any specific setting (in my case Carcosoid Turkestan or Spice Island Poke-Pirates) you’d want to lean on evocative cultural references, but this is my vanilla DnD pre-first-draft:
01-05: no metal armour or weapons (it chafes! It smells! I’m allergic!)
06-10: only metal armour/weapons (my clan spits on your leather, bows and spears)
——— I don’t need no steenkeeng armour because:
11-15: naturally armored, or amazing dodge – anyway, hard to hit – base AC 6
16-20: I’m not made of meat! (ie robot, golem, brass jackalman, lucked out with the mi-go braincase): either AC 3 or mad damage reduction as appropriate. But you clank: no sneaking.
21-25: it gets in the way of mah sexay (AC 10 but enemies vulnerable to your sexay fight you at -2 attack and defense)
26-30: it would stop me stretching all around like a some crazy putty demon (half damage from blunt weapons, stretchy squeezy feats like reaching very high shelves or slipping between bars)
———-end no steenkeeng armour section————-
31-35: ambidextrous! May get one attack for each hand (how many arms you got?) but every attack after the first is at cumulative -3
36-40: sword saint (or whatever: make up an awesome style name): +2 with preferred weapon
41-45: only improvised weapons or bare hands – damage depends on what you can find, hands is d4
46-50: may not draw blood. At all, so no smashing weapons neither. Burning’s OK, though
51-55: dirty fighter: may reduce your own AC by 2 to try a sneaky trick – it if hits, automatic crit
56-60: Summer Glau type berserk: you keep total, icy control but you can’t talk or work in a team during your fugue. +3 to hit/damage, but cannot retreat once in berserker state
61-70: You Are All My Children! You will not fight some common monster type (choose goblins or undead or whatever) for some reason
71-75: Just a sec, let me do my war-dance! At -2 to all fighting unless you’ve done your specific pre-fight ritual
76-80: physics-defying preternatural throwing ability: chuck anything up to 5lbs x your strength, up to 3 feet x strength, damage by DM fiat
81-85: danger sense: you don’t know what the danger is (trap, monster, betrayal, whatever) but you know it’s imminent. Unless it has some kind of awesome sneaky ability in which case it gets a saving throw to strike without warning
81-85: concealed/natural weapons. Claws are all very well, but what about constrictor legs? D6 damage
86-90: venomous bite/scratch/hair swipe/rasp: immediate -2 to all the victim’s rolls, victim emits a smell you can track them by later
91-95: unhealing – you need to be repaired by a smith/woodworker/farrier/whatever, using spare parts
96-00: run like a maniac: -2 to hit you with projectile weapons, cross dramatically important distances in 1 round
01-04: Cast cleric spells like the class
05-08: cast MU spells like the class
09-12: cast illusionist spells like the class
13-16: cast druid spells like the class
17-20: cast random spells off any list, like a Vancian MU but you have no idea what’s coming each day; your demonic helper/passenger doesn’t tell you
21-24: cast spells from some other game altogether – Ars Magica, Nephilim, CoC: talk with the DM
22-28: Sneaky like the night – get a decent chance to hide and sneak and so on, right from 1st level.
29-32: Toblerone/boisterous brawler – you can’t sneak or talk below a shout but once a day you get the power of suggestion, to bully or browbeat or inspire someone to do what you tell them
33-36: blind albino cave-dweller: there’s no infravision here, but you can “see” in the dark through echolocation, smell, whatever – and torches don’t cancel it. Alas, you’re weak above ground (-4 to surprise etc outside your nice, echoey hole in the ground)
37-40: Sherlock Holmes attentiveness – you get Trail of Cthulhu-like clue-finding and trap detection Figuring out what to do about it all is still your problem
41-44: animal whisperer: can calm, tame and talk with animals – or vegetables or minerals if you like, and you get +2 on the reaction roll
45-48: built-in GPS: gives you absolute position sense and a big bonus to mapping, but beware those GPS-leggers
49-52: scholarly knowledge OR barbarian insight: prod the DM for extra clues when things get slow
53-56: astral projection (takes an hour to set up, you can wander as far as you like, spying on the material plane, but face astral hazards), once per day
57-60: possess someone else, once per day. Your own body falls limp to the ground, or trails around after the rest of the gang like a zombie, or maybe the possessee gets ejected into it! Invent your own saving throws and psychic combat and whatnot mechanics or steal them from Nephilim or the Magic Jar spell
61-64: One spell effect as a fixed natural ability, once per day (randomly select from all lists up to level 3)
65-68: useful devices: either you McGyver them out of the environment or you have a cartoony pouch/cyberwear. 1d4 damage when used as weapons
69-72: change appearance, gender, status or other ascriptive characteristic once per day (good for spies! Inconveniently you can’t change right back!)
73-76: Wuxia style cloud- jumping or glide like a flying squirrel (your choice)
77-80: acrobatics and climbing. You only have to roll for any circus-type feat when it makes for more fun
81-84: wild sorcery! You get one random spell a day and you must use/express/vent it
85-88: psionics, per Zak’s simple, brilliant system*
89-92: cracksman – good with any manual dexterity task – lock pick, lift wallets, forge documents, mend clocks
93-96: medic – heal others’ injuries. Is it magic? Is it ultratech? Dunno, but roll a D30: you can restore that percentage of their hit points/heal one severe injury, 5 times until you have to go somewhere secret to get fresh supplies/charged up again
97-00: inspire others (with your goodness or intimidating scowl or sexy wiles or whatever) – improve morale, other paladin-like effects: +20% HP to everyone around you, while you’re around
01-05: environment-type specialist: eg woodsman, miner/spelunker, architect, sailor, mountaineer, desert-dweller – you know the secrets of this place and how to survive here like a ranger or druid or dwarf or whatever. Not very flavourful? Get creative! What, you want a big jobs list here?
06-10: mandatory poverty – must give away all treasure you can’t justify to your mother superior/directly use yourself
11-15: mandatory ostentation – must wear all your wealth on your body, or sell it for jewelry
16-20: iron stomach – immune to ingested poisons, but also most potions
21-25: strong smell – delicious to some monsters, terrifying to others: reaction rolls always go extreme
26-30: secret – you know something important about the game world but can’t talk about it
31-35: must obey some entity and act according to its precepts (law, a god, your mum, a guild, another PC…)
36-40: must work to annoy/hamper/discredit some entity, as above
41-45: soulless automaton – immune to any kind of mind or spirit magic, charm etc, but also to cheering effects
46-50: spiritual entity – immune to elemental magical damage and impersonal accidents, but not immune to the intent to harm expressed in an axe swing or bow shot or poison dart trap
51-55: visitor from another dimension: weirdly affected by some common thing in our world, like strawberries make you shrink or you can pull duplicates of yourself out of mirrors (but they’ll turn against you after d6 minutes)… goatee and angry eyebrows optional.
56-60: terrifying/unhinging appearance/nature – must stay hidden/disguised somehow (like you’re a shoggoth or walking corpse or something) or unfortunate, taboo-breaking appearance (like you have sex organs where your mouth should be or look exactly like the devil). Veil around friends, or reveal your shocking truth to get automatic surprise
61-65: communicate with anything once per day – like Vulcan mind-meld but you can use it to get psychic vibes off dirt floors or pools of water, as well.
66-70: involuntary mirroring – you look to others exactly like the last thing you killed. Unless they make a save, maybe.
71-75: nine lives: if reduced to negative HP you get stunned for that many hours but then you wake up again on 1HP, unless someone deliberately makes sure you’re dead or you fall in acid or something. Only works 8 times (inspired by Leps the Indestructible, in Thomas Funderburk’s brilliantly entertaining The Fighters – the men and machines of the first air war)
76-80: Wait, I know this guy who… one useful contact, once per session. You tell me how he’ll help
81-85: repulsive/overbearing/awesome to some class of monster (acts like turn undead but you specify the brood – goblins, beastmen, ghosts, whatever, and maybe you can charm them or freeze them or something else)
86-90: were-whatever (shapeshift only to that thing, according to whatever crazy rules you make up. Only no wolves, bears or eagles: wereshoggoth is encouraged, weremeerkat doubly so)
91-95: it just so happens… you can keep this side of your character in reserve until that exact moment you need it. But once you make something up, the slot is gone
96-00: sidekick – an unfailingly loyal companion, played by someone else at the table in addition to whatever else they’re doing**
* So I asked Zak for a non-sucky psionics system that also wasn’t just another magic system, and he said:
1. Once per day, period.
2. If you want to be a psionic PC you are distracted and fucked up, -1 to con and dex.
3. You must concentrate for 3 rounds in combat or 20 seconds. No physical interruptions allowed but you can hear noises or be in the presence of combat.
4. After the 3 rounds you can “hold” the release of the power up to 2 rounds if you like.
5. Psi power is based on traumas and horrors your PCs has witnessed. To wit: the power consists of the PC being able to manifest the effect of any natural power of a living being (or undead or whatever demons are) s/he has seen used to date. The effect of a ghoul’s paralysis, a medusa’s stare, a sorcerer’s intelligence, an ogre’s strength, a hydra’s regeneration etc.
6. If the ability in question can normally affect another creature it can be projected up to levelx5 feet. So like if your PC had seen a giant, the PC could telekinese with the giant’s strength up to 5 feet at 1st level and at 200 feet at 20th level.
6. Spells do not count as powers, but the spell-like abilities of demons and devils do.
7. Feedback: after manifesting the power, the PC must make a wisdom check (roll-under-wisdom-minus-the -monster-level-of-the-creature-being-mentally-evoked) or will save (at a DC of 10+monster CR) depending on system
8. A failed feedback save/check causes hp damage equal to the level of the creature evoked. A botched feedback save causes that much damage to everyone in a creature-level x 10′ radius including the psion.
9. If the psion is ever knocked unconscious by feedback (alone), this is a traumatic experience that will cause him/her to gain one minor insanity.
10. At the GM’s discretion this may also extend to natural phenomena such as lightning discharges, etc. If there are described dreams in the game, any supernatural ability observed in the dream may be used. If the effective level of the phenomenon is unclear, roll 2d4
11. Instead of the normal botch rules you can use the Dark Heresy weird phenomena psychic phenomena chart which is pretty cool.
** if you roll a crappy character then that can be the sidekick – create a second character with the pre-determined attribute “sidekick.” If a sidekick loses their main character (the side they kick off?) then they can charm one (only one) other character in the game world into becoming their new main character. That character gets a DM fiat save, in case the DM doesn’t want Lolth or the Vampire Lord of Gibbons to join the party right now.
Phew. Going to lie down now.