Thursday, November 20, 2008

Designer's Notes for non-humanoid monster rules

My last blog entry was in the form of a new rule. In this entry, I shall attempt to give designer’s notes for the rule, explaining why exactly I made it the way I did, to bring out the game design and game balance behind the rule.

The issue is that in D&D, magic items are an integral part of the system and the game balance. 4th edition D&D puts tight controls on various types and slots of magic items, and it has a defined system for how you gain magic items with levels. The expected strength of magic items is tied into the expected strength of the characters and tied into the game balance. In addition to gaining powers from class and race, characters are expected to gain powers from magic items, and a substantial amount of power at that.

However, the magic item rules assume humanoid characters. A Sphinx is a quadruped without hands. She clearly cannot use a sword or a shield. It is possible to imagine a Sphinx wearing a belt or a helm, but it seems distastefully comical. A noble Sphinx should not have to festoon herself with out-of-place humanoid clothing implements.

However, if a Sphinx cannot use magic items, she clearly needs to compensate in some way. This brings up an interesting difference between fourth edition D&D and earlier versions. In earlier editions, the emphasis was on different characters having totally different powers which worked totally different from one another; you couldn’t really compare or balance 2 classes except by comparing them to very similar existing classes or just guessing. But a fourth edition D&D, the emphasis is on an underlying game balance, where at a low level characters work in the same way even though there are many higher-level differences.

So when I did this sort of thing in third edition, I would make a monster class and compensate for the lack of magic items by giving totally different “monster powers”. But for the fourth edition Sphinx, I felt it would be much more in keeping with the game to make them as similar as possible to other types of characters in terms of using magic items.

So my idea for an elegant solution to this is to allow them to absorb the properties of magic items without having to physically wear those magic items. Not only does this give them the right amount of magic item powers, but it has an additional advantage. If I were to simply give the Sphinx powers to compensate for not having magic items, this would mess up the treasure distribution for the party. The GM would have to give out less treasure to make sure that the Sphinx doesn’t give away her share of the magic items and treasure to other characters and make them more powerful than they should be. Requiring the Sphinx to actually use the items discovered or bought makes her fit nicely into an ordinary party.

Once I made this decision, it was immediately obvious that slots would work in the normal way. The only question was how a Sphinx would duplicate the ability of characters to swap items. For worn items, I normally would only swap between encounters (and very rarely at that). So however the Sphinx does the swap, it should have to be done out of combat. I chose the 10 minute imprinting ritual because it felt similar to the fourth edition idea of rituals. This is not the only way to do it; an alternate (equally good?) way would be to be able to change magic item selections after any short rest.

Now the tricky part is how to deal with items that require hands, and with weapons and armor. I could have given the Sphinx a fixed armor bonus, but I felt this would really limit the ability of the Sphinx to feel like a real member of its actual class. So I just went with the most “game balanced” approach and gave the Sphinx the exact same armor and shield modifiers as if it were a humanoid member of its class. One might argue that giving a – 4 armor check penalty to a Sphinx paladin is strange, but I figure she is just a fat, slow, tough Sphinx.

You could give this same freedom of choice for weapons, and I still think giving them some choice wouldn’t necessarily be unreasonable. But clearly, a Sphinx fighting style cannot imitate all weapons – reach and range don’t make sense. So I decided to go with the idea that the basic claw attack is just like a Warhammer. There is precedent for a race being specialized with a single weapon, such as the eladrin affinity for the long sword. To make sure I wasn’t too inflexible, though, I allow the Sphinx fighting styles to duplicate two-weapon fighter and two-handed weapon fighter (stats are like using a greatsword). Actually I pondered some other small game balance details between them that I don’t have time to write here. I will give a feat to allow limited imitation of other weapon types so that Sphinx rogues are possible.

Now back to the question of hands. A humanoid character has the ability to switch which weapons and implements it is carrying during combat. I decided that this ability, while useful, was not strictly essential for game balance. After all, if you have a heavy shield and don’t have Quick Draw, and you need your minor actions for your features and powers, switching weapons can be so inconvenient that you rarely actually do it during combat. So I decided to classify this as a disadvantage of non-humanoid monsters, that they cannot change what is in their “hands” during combat.

However, they still need some way to use consumable magic items which require hands. So I came up with the rule that they can do this once per combat. Note that this is actually a little trade-off. In return for only being able to draw one item per combat, she gets the advantage of being able to draw it as a free action instead of one or more minor actions. Since one of the normal drawbacks of a heavy shield is that drawing and switching weapons can be incredibly time-consuming due to the inability to free up that hand, I gave a penalty in that situation that you need to have a feat to use this power.

My new rules may look lengthy, but that is really because they are reiterating a core feature of the D&D rules in a slightly different way. You can consider them “advanced” rules as far as reading them is concerned. As far as playing the character is concerned, though, they should be extremely easy. The party obtains magic items, divvies them up, records them on their character sheets, and uses their powers in exactly the same way they would normally. The choice of a Sphinx choosing armor and a fighting style is no different from the identical choice that a normal character makes when selecting what armor and weapons to use and what will be held in the hands at the start of combat. The only difference is that the Sphinx is a little bit easier to control because she doesn’t have to worry about all of that finicky manipulation of items in the hands, which I always find difficult to keep track of. She just has a fixed selection and a very convenient encounter power to use one additional item for combat.

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