Sunday, December 20, 2015

An elegant solution to the cleric problem

I've been debating writing up my ideas for an improved 5e cleric class, and have a few that I really like. The idea is to make the cleric a much more versatile and customizeable class, rather than what the cleric is now. To that end, there's a few simple fixes. Conceptual at the moment, I might mock up a version later. I'll say cleric and priest interchangeably, but I might ultimately call it a priest because there's not a real reason you couldn't also use the cleric class in the same game as this priest.

Spells and domains. The cleric spell mechanism is stupid. For some reason, they're much more flexible than wizards in their spells known (two bonus domain spells for spell levels 1 through 5!) and any increase to the number of cleric spells automatically makes all clerics more versatile. I think there's a solution to this problem (that I've written about twice before) to be found via Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperboria: just give them a few spells per level. When clerics and druids have a whole list to choose from, its unbalanced. Wizards have to work to expand their list of spells knowable, so why can't clerics? Originally, clerics had a thematic and reasonable spell list which wasn't too big, so why not keep it that way? Then, you can expand the list with a few simple mechanisms. I think it would work something like this:

1) All clerics have access to a small set of pretty iconic priest spells. This is basically the sphere of All from 2nd edition, with a few staples in it like bless and protection from good/evil. So make that 2-3 spells per spell level.

2) Add to that a couple iconic domain spells. All clerics of a specific faith gain the training/insight of their deity or aspect of the deity. This is largely what happens in 5e, and similar to gaining one or two spheres in 2nd edition.

3) Add one more layer to the system, where, based on a cleric's wisdom, you gain a few bonus spells for insight. This allows a player to pick 1-5 additional spells per spell level that a cleric can add to their list which are derived through piecing together obscure bits of theology or delving deeper into the mysteries of their faith. These might be restricted to secondary domains or spheres, but means the player has a finite set of possibilities. This could be ditched simply by expanding the universal cleric list a bit (still restricted from what it currently is), but I like the idea of being able to pick a few additional spells that others of your order might not have access to.

4) As is, you keep prepping spells normal-like, you just create a custom list for each priest. Its definitely not as simple as the current system, but I could imagine two clerics of Lolth in a drow game with different spells this way.

Cross this spell system with a vocation system. Just like fighters or thieves choose an archetype at 3rd level, why not give clerics another meaningful choice? Priests would have a few distinct options:

A) Crusader. The militant of the faith. This option would get a few combat bonuses, like weapon and armor training and extra attack.

b) Evangelist. This is the skillful priest, who gains expertise in persuasion and performance. Alternately you could reword this as votary so the archetype is trained in the deity's ways, so it might cover thief skills for a god of thieves or knowledge skills and tools as appropriate. Or maybe they're two distinct options.

c) Theurge or mystic. This is the caster priests, who probably gains a few additional spell options and maybe a "divine recovery" for a few extra spell slots. You could get halfway to wizard by allowing a theurge to maintain a ritual book as well, giving them more rituals (or a limited number of rituals, like 1 their wisdom modifier).

d) Prophet. A cleric free from the heirarchy, the prophet might lose some basic spell training but gain some big guns and granted powers.

This makes a cleric about as complex as a warlock, with two meaningful choices (domain/deity at level 1 and vocation at level 3).  And I can imagine a game in which the party all follows one deity yet has multiple clerics in the group actually working.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Why I fell in love with Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperboria

I've started two or three posts on why I love Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperboria, but it finally hit me last night during a bout of insomnia. The classes are almost exactly what I think you need for a solid D&D game. Its not just that there's a good number, or that they're thematic for the game that is being played, but really reading through them leaves me hard pressed to do much more than what there is. And I've been vaguely working on a personal version of 2nd edition and we get some very similar things between AS&SH & my 2nd edition.

While I still think the basic fighter is a bit generic, AS&SH has Barbarians, Berserkers, Cataphracts (Knights), Paladins, Rangers, and Warlocks (Fighter-Mages). The warlock is a multiclass character, plain and simple. But this is the same list, more or less, as I'd really like. Though I might replace the generic fighter and make him more low-class (ala the Oriental Adventuerers Bushi) and add in a weaponmaster/kensai. Whether or not knights are a separate group is kind of irrelevant. Also, I had never really consider the Barbarian worthy of classhood (particularly when contrasted with Berserker) but I can almost see it here, particularly if the fighter was given a power or two of civilization.

AS&SH has Thieves, Assassins, Bards, Legerdemainists and Scouts. The Legerdemainist is a mouthful and also just a multiclass thief/mage. That leaves the expected thief, assassin, and bard plus the unexpected scout. I like it because the scout is a different archetype and makes a primal rogue. The legerdemainist could also be a mountebank or fire thief (thief/pyromancer), but the mountebank or trickster are much better names for the class. The bard seems like a really interesting class learning a few magician and druid spells plus the generic song/poetry stuff.

I go back and forth one whether or not specialty priests are great, but if you want a few different priest classes it's hard to go wrong with AS&SH's Cleric, Druid, Monk, Priest, and Shaman. Now, I've been thinking that a purely martial monk ought to be a fighter type and most monk/mystic classes ought to have a few spells like the Spells & Magic monk of 2nd edition or be psychics, but these are some solid archetypes. Prophet is the only thing really missing, and you might need to muck around with spell systems to make it work well. As an aside, they solved the priest problem where priests get access to their whole spell list and get a power boost with every suplement: clerics and priests choose a few spells (3-4) per level to add to their lists. Simple and effective.

This is where AS&SH fails me a bit. They give us the generalist Magician alongside Illusionists, Necromancers, Pyromancers, and Witches. Its a nice little slate, but they don't seem as distinct as I might hope, and its not clear that an illusionist can preform the same work for the party that a magician or witch can. But they have unique spell lists and a couple special abilities, so its a nice slate assuming there's only one or two ways magic works in the world. I think with a couple well done spells you could add the idea of the warlock/pact-mage into the game as is, and I'm never 100% sure that the game needs sorcerers (though if they were run like 13th Age Occultists...).

One thing that really caught my attention and made me read through AS&SH again was the ability of
a few of the "primal" classes (Barbarian and Shaman) to draw poison: basically they get a chance to remove poison before it takes effect if they're quick enough and a bit lucky. The other "primal" classes (berserker, ranger, druid, scout) get some similar abilities but they don't all overlap. I'm not sure how it all washes out in play or if some of those skills could be a bit unified as "thief" type skills, but I like how the wilderness classes all give nice abilities (or at least fancy ribbons) that are thematic and cool. If I wanted to take that into a four class system, you could crib the civilized/barbarian theme and add it in as a background. So a civilized fighter might get some towny powers while a barbarian fighter could choose from the wilderness ones.

Essentially, AS&SH is looking very close to a 2nd edition game which uses Fighters, Barbarians, Berserkers, Paladins and Rangers; Thieves, assassins, and bards; Clerics, crusaders, monks, druids, and shamen; and mages and all sorts of specialist wizards. Just tweaked to cover a sword and sorcery setting with a few hard-coded multiclass options. In otherwords, AS&SH gets it about as right as Oriental Adventures.

The big flaw with AS&SH as I see it is that it's based on AD&D 1st Edition, and I'd like it a bit more if it were basic D&D. The unified ability bonus and simplified combat system appeal to me a bit. The combat phases really disinterest me, but by and large I think the game is decent looking (even if I might import a few 2nd edition-isms like d10 for initiative).

Anyway, of all the retro-clones out there I think this one is worth a second or third look. I wouldn't give up Al-Qadim Church for the world, but I'd definitely consider running AS&SH sometime. At least the class system looks to do a very good job of mixing Conan with D&D as though D&D never had elves or dwarves. The only real competitors in my mind are Adventurer Conqueror King and actual published D&D stuff. And the only real reason I like ACKs is that its based on basic D&D (i.e. simpler rules) and yet has some good variety to its classes. Though ACKs classes seem to be more about mixing fighting, thieving, clericing, and wizarding than anything unique and innovative (yeah yeah, Dwarven Machinist and Mystic and such).