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Designing a Base Class using a Points Mechanic

Aarnott October 5, 2009 User blog:Aarnott

Anyone who has talked to me recently has probably learned pretty quickly that I am all for Ghostwheel's Toxinblade class and the mechanics that go with it. This post is primarily meant for my own use so that I can document what I like about this concept and what elements of design most successfully use it.

Why it works

In D&D, good class design has progressed towards the 4th edition idea of having abilities that are at-will, once per encounter, or once per day. Each ability can be weighted against its usages. One thing I like about a points pool system is that the line between at-will and once per encounter can be greatly blurred to create a more flexible ability set. An ability can be weighted at a high number of points per usage, which effectively makes it usable once per encounter, but does not completely restrict it to that.

To me it seems like more fun. Players get to add another level of tactical decisions to their character, which almost makes it a game within a game (managing points can be a game itself). The system is also simple enough that a player shouldn't feel overwhelmed with possible decisions.

Balancing a class with a points system also is a lot easier. Very powerful abilities can easily be mitigated by adding a larger point cost to offset their power. On the other hand, overly weak abilities can be boosted by reducing their points cost.

The class has the capability to be much more adaptable than other classes. By offering the ability to augment abilities by spending additional points, the class can remain balanced, but also have flexibility within a single class feature. Augmentation also allows a scaling factor that makes each class feature remain relevant throughout the character's career.

Some disadvantages

One major disadvantage I notice is that the system discourages multiclassing. A character can either gain points to improve their point pool each level and a better class level to use their abilities or they can gain levels in another class and gain some synergistic features, but always be behind in points and, thus, potential power. It is like the wizard gaining levels in anything that doesn't improve their spellcasting. It is usually a very bad idea.

With that, you end up having very specialized base classes (instead of generalized like a "rogue") and feats mainly define the variations of that class. Feats seem to fall short for character customization and what you end up with are a ton of toxinblades running around that are all pretty much the same, give or take a few tricks.

On to the design

Despite the fact that I have not been able to implement a class with a point mechanic that is to my liking, I have given a lot of thought as to what a class like this should look like.

1. The class should have a good mix of abilities that require different action types.

At low levels, the class should have a choice between at least two abilities that take up its standard action. Standard actions are supposed to do something and this class should have to choose what it wants to do.

A swift/immediate action ability should be introduced early on. It should do something worthwhile, but also cause the class to lose its points faster. This forces the player to choose between going nova and wasting all of their points within a few rounds or saving points for the standard action abilities.

Eventually another swift/immediate action ability should come into play so that the player has to choose between swift actions as well.

Swift action abilities generally should provide bonuses to the character or his party and not harm the opponent. If it does something to the opponent, it is effectively like the character is taking 2 actions against the opponent each round.

Move action abilities should be around the same power as a swift action ability. Often enough a character will prefer to do something extra rather than move. Especially if they are already positioned where they want to be.

2. The character should always be able to do something.

Points should be able to be obtained at a rate that the character should be able to use at least its weakest ability each round. Nothing is more frustrating than running out of steam midcombat and becoming completely useless. Less effective is fine, useless is just annoying.

3. Abilities should scale by class level.

Every ability should be capped by class level. You don't want someone being able to take 2 class levels and have 2 new standard action abilities and a swift action ability that would be relevant to a character that took 20 levels in that class. As noted above, this does screw up multiclassing, however.

4. Have some sort of mechanism to regain points.

This seems obvious, but I thought it best to state it. If you have points each encounter, you should have a way to regain them. I prefer classes that start with a pool of points and deplete them, but it is perfectly reasonable to start with zero points and build them up before using them. Just keep in mind the fact that the character should be able to do something each round.

If a character is going to spend actions regaining points, it had better be proportional to the action type. Losing a standard or full-round action should give enough points to make the character feel much more effective in the rounds those points are used. We don't want them to feel like they wasted their action regaining points.

5. Focused role

The class should have a good idea of what role it can do well. This should apply to any base class, but even more so to a points based class. Because a points based class will probably not multiclass if written correctly, it should fulfill its role well so that a player doesn't feel like they have an underpowered character.

6. Awesome flavor

A class of this nature doesn't multiclass, so it should get its dish of being awesome in lieu of Prestige Classes. The class is not a generic role and it shouldn't be defined as such. It should start out from day 1 being really cool. Actually, I wish all base classes were this way to some degree.

Conclusions

I'm sure there is a lot more than can be said for this archetype of class design, but I am limited by time and tiredness. I'm hoping that by writing this, I may actually be able to apply the concept successfully for classes I create in the future.

And, of course, I post this in the hopes that if anyone has anything to add or disagree with they do so :-).

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