Tuesday, December 27, 2011

On Size and Gravity

Iron Kingdoms is one of my favorite fantasy settings and I’m probably one of the many who are very happy with Privateer Press’ news that a new edition is finally coming out (unfortunately “finally coming out” means 1-2 years I guess). While the original books were beautiful and refreshing (Iron Kingdom is its own genre – “Full Metal Fantasy”), the d20 rules always seen as odd and clunky (especially the mechanika part) for the setting. Even the new races had weird traits, like the Ogrun’s “additional” Hit Dice. Ogrun are the Iron Kingdom’s version of traditional ogres. Each Ogrun gains one “extra” 1d8 HD; however, this HD was used solely for granting HPs and didn’t count for things like BAB, character level and other progression. As I said, it was weird.

The funny (and ironic) thing about the information above is that today I quite like the Ogrun’s “bastard” Hit Dice. It’s a (clunky but viable) way of simulating an ogre’s toughness without resorting to racial Hit Dice or levels (which are in my opinion a yet clunker and unbalanced way of using powerful races). I’m totally in favor, as I comment from time to time, of player-friendly versions of exotic races – like giants, dragons, ents, demons, golems etc. Their “monster” versions are usually powerful and tailored specifically to face a party of adventurers (they’re rarely designed to mimic a specific legend or myth). Therefore, it seems logical that if you want to play a minotaur or a centaur, you don’t need (respectively) of 6 or 4 racial HDs. What you need – basically – is horns, strength and cunning (for minotaurs) and a horse’s speed and stamina (for centaurs). Both traits can be reasonably simulated by the power level of 1st-level characters. [Ok, we know that there’re players out there that want races like minotaurs to have the 6 f***ing HDs and the +9 Str bonus… I suggest that they stop playing Pathfinder/D&D and start thinking about Mutants & Masterminds.]

The traditional problem with “giant” races is that most players believe that they should be represented by insane racial bonuses to Strength and Constitution (besides those damn racial HDs). I think that, with some exceptions (creatures clearly beyond the power level of a typical Pathfinder party) most creatures desired by players can be used as 1st-level characters. While writing the Tharks, I came up with some racial traits for big guys. They’re variant mechanics to simulate with is usually represented by high Strength, Constitution, HDs, natural armor and tons of hit points:

Reach (Ex): This is usually given as the main balance problem with bigger races. If your Gamemaster uses attacks of opportunities (I know only two who does), then Reach indeed is a big deal. Otherwise, I wouldn’t worry about Large-sized races.
The best solution is to use Powerful Build, by now a famous trait that is a perfect example of the type of mechanic we’re looking for in this post.
However, even if your GM uses attacks of opportunity, Reach can be a balanced racial trait. First, remember that Large-sized creatures are big and will have trouble in moving and dealing with certain environments (and, most important, with equipment). Second, if a race has Reach then it should have some mechanical disadvantage or in other way be in some aspect weaker than a Reach 0 race. Using the Tharks as an example, note that their Ability Score net bonus is 0, not +2 (like most Pathfinder races).

Strength Checks/Encumbrance Bonus (Ex): This is the easier and most obvious way of simulating a strong race. Give to them a bonus to Strength checks (particularly when breaking things). To keep verisimilitude, it’s also recommended to grant a bonus to encumbrance and lifting/pushing capacities.

Damage Bonus (Ex): Give to your giant race a bonus to damage rolls. A +2 racial bonus is a good number for races like Ogres and Tharks.
Each +2 bonus to Strength gives a +1 bonus to damage, but also increases a character’s attack bonus, which can easily unbalance a race. It also creates bizarre things, like the Forgotten Realms subrace of small arctic dwarves who have a +6 bonus to Strength.
You can further customize your monster by limiting the damage bonus to certain types of attacks (like “only natural weapons” or “only within melee combat”). A radical option would be to give the new race a bigger bonus (like a +4), but inflict a penalty to the attack rolls or to limit it to things like “only when using the Power Attack feat/Charge/Full Attack”. Conditional modifiers are your friends here, because you don’t want your Large race to break the game – only the spine of your monsters.
Other option is to grant a “Hulk smash!”-like extraordinary ability.  For example, allow members of a giant race to, once per encounter, inflict maximum damage (not critical damage!) with a melee attack that successfully hits. Or allow them to roll damage twice and keep the best result. Both options will increase their damage output (even if only in dramatic moments).

Natural Armor, Vigor and Resilience (Ex): The best course here (without resorting to Constitution bonuses) is through bonus feats – Endurance, Diehard, Greater Fortitude and Toughness are good options.
The second option is to grant bonus hit points. If you like randomization, follow the Ogrun’s infamous racial trait and grant hit points by rolling dice (like 2d4 extra HPs). You could grant a fixed rate of extra hit points at 1st level and every X levels thereafter (careful with those). Maybe this bonus is based on the race’s Constitution modifier. Stealing an idea from Fantasy Craft, your ogre race could receive 1,5x their Con modifier in hit points at 1st level and every 3 levels thereafter.
Another way of simulating giant toughness or thickness of skin (without using natural armor bonus) is through extraordinary abilities. For example, give to your giants a special damage reduction, that convert lethal damage to nonlethal damage. An ogre-like race could have the ability to convert 1 point of lethal damage to nonlethal per attack. This rate would increase maybe every 3 or 4 levels, to a maximum equal to his Constitution modifier (minimum 1).
A more complex option would be a pool of “reserve hit points”, perhaps equal to the race’s Constitution Ability Score. This pool could be used to “heal” damage, as a full-round action. Each time the giant used this ability he would recover a number of HPs equal to his Constitution modifier +3 (or any other number). His pool would be depleted. Each time the giant was healed he could choose to “heal” either his pool or his HPs. Again, this is just a suggestion.

One-time bonus to one or two Ability Scores Advancements (Ex): Instead of big bonuses to Strength at 1st level, allow members of the Large-sized race to gain a +2 bonus (or even +3) to Strength the first time they use an Ability Score Advancement. It’s easy to play with Ability Score Advancement.
These one-time bonuses are usually for Strength or Constitution. If you’re granting this type of benefit, think twice before giving high damage bonuses or additional hit points.

Large-sized races are also good candidates for some racial disadvantages. I mentioned earlier a lower Ability Score net modifier, but you could also inflict a -2 or -4 penalty to certain skills (like Acrobatic, Diplomacy, Escape Artist) or even forbid members of a particular race of gaining those skills as class skills (thus eliminating the +3 bonus). This last option should rarely be employed and the player should always have the option of spending a feat slot to negate the penalty. Here are other suggestions:

-> The race is naturally lumbering and awkward due to their size. Unless they buy Combat Reflexes, they don’t have 1 attack of opportunity per round;
-> The race is slower to react due to their bulk. They must roll twice on all Initiative rolls and take the lower result;
-> The race has a slow metabolism (perfect for dragons). They take twice to heal naturally and magical healing only is half effective;
-> The race requires lots of food and water to sustain them. Double (or triple) their nourishment needs (reducing by the same amount the required time to suffer damage due to hungry and thirsty);

I hope these wacky suggestions and ideas help you to approach race design with a different perspective.

Bonus Content: John Carter’s Gravity Rules

Well, Distant Worlds is on its way, but other day I was pondering how to simulate the effects of gravity on the player characters. Something akin to John Carter’s Barsoom.  The rules below assume that the PCs are aliens, not used to the local gravity.

I divided the possible worlds the PCs may visit in:

Light Gravity Worlds: All characters gain a +10 bonus to jump checks and treat all their jumps as if they had a running start. They ignore the first 30 ft. of fall of damaging purposes. Their speed increases by +10 ft. Their Strength is treated as 10 points higher for carrying/pushing effects. They are treated as one size larger for CMB rolls (especially grapples). They receive a +4 bonus to all Str-based damage rolls. They receive a +4 bonus to all Strength checks.
All characters also suffer a –2 penalty to all their Dexterity-based checks and attack rolls until they succeed at a Dexterity check DC 20 (can try once per day). They must make an Acrobatics check (DC 20) to avoid falling prone after each jump or tumble-like maneuver; this situation persists until their succeed at the “adaptation” check.

Heavy Gravity Worlds: All characters suffer a –10 penalty to jump checks and their Speed is reduced by half. They’re always considered to be carrying a medium load. All items carried weight double. After two consecutive physical Full Round or longer actions, a character must succeed at a Fortitude save (DC 20) or become fatigued. They suffer a -2 penalty to all physical actions (including attack rolls and damage rolls).

The categories above are subjective. Player characters on Barsoom would gain all the modifiers of “Light Gravity Worlds”, while Tharks on Earth/Oerth/Golarion/Whatever would suffer the modifiers of “Heavy Gravity Worlds”. I would allow Tharks to buy a feat that would eliminate the penalties for living on a world with heavier gravity. The penalties of living on a light gravity world are easily removed with a daily Dexterity check, as mentioned above. The Gamemaster can remove the need of a check if characters spend a few weeks dedicated to adapting to their new home.