Monday, February 23, 2015

Interesting 3rd Party Finds: the Variant Adept (Pathfinder)

For those not familiar with the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game, anyone who belongs to the major races and is not a monster has class levels.  However, there are no 0-level humans in the game like in earlier Editions.  Instead, there are five NPC Classes meant to broadly cover the non-adventuring common folk of the realm.  The Aristocrat is the rich noble who doesn't know much in the way of fighting; the Commoner is the peasant or unskilled laborer; the Expert represents a skilled tradesman; and the Warrior a common soldier who knows how to fight but does not approach the level of the Fighter (a master of war).  The Adept is the sole spellcasting NPC class, yet surprisingly it only covers a narrow purview: the folk shaman living away from civilization who gains minor spells from a patron.  Given its limited spell list and the differing game mechanics for magical traditions, the Adept can't really reflect the studious hedge mage, cunning illusionist trickster, or other minor apprentices common in magic school campaigns and Sword & Sorcery demonic cults.

By sheer chance I stumbled across an interesting Variant Adept within a free adventure for the Scarred Lands Campaign Setting.  Basically, it allows the Adept to expand their spell list to a small selection of ones from PC classes, and to trade in their Familiar class feature for another supernatural boon.  That way, a DM can have adepts who are wizardly apprentices, followers of a druidic faith, or even cultists to a vile god.  As this section of the rules in the adventure is designated as Open Game Content, I'm going to post it here in its entirety.

Optional Rule: Variant Adepts

These variant rules can make the adept NPC class much more versatile, representing anything from a simple apprentice wizard to a strange prophet, or even a druidic cultist who worships some primordial titanic power.

Spellcasting: An adept can cast either arcane or divine spells (choose one; this cannot be changed once decided), which are drawn from the adept spell list in either case. Like a cleric or wizard, an adept must choose and prepare her spells in advance. An adept cannot spontaneously cast cure or inflict spells.

To prepare or cast a spell, an arcane adept must have an Intelligence or Charisma score equal to at least 10 + the spell level. The Difficulty Class for a saving throw against an adept’s spell is 10 + the spell level + the adept’s Intelligence or Charisma modifier.

A divine adept must have a Wisdom or Charisma score equal to at least 10 + the spell level. The Difficulty Class for a saving throw against an adept’s spell is 10 + the spell level + the adept’s Wisdom or Charisma modifier.

Arcane adepts acquire their spells from books or scrolls and prepare them through study. The arcane adept keeps a spellbook just like a wizard, and uses it in exactly the same way that a wizard does.

Divine adepts must meditate or pray for their spells, in the fashion of a cleric or druid.

Where the adept class table indicates that the adept gets 0 spells per day of a given spell level, he gains only the bonus spells he would be entitled to based on his Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma score for that spell level.

Adept Talent: At 2nd level, an adept can choose any one of the following options:

Arcane bond: As the wizard class feature of the same name (either a familiar or a bonded object).

Bloodline: As the sorcerer class feature of the same name. She gains the bloodline arcana and bloodline powers for that bloodline as a sorcerer of the same level, along with any bonus skills. The adept may add the bonus spells for that bloodline to her spell list, but does not gain the bloodline’s bonus feats.

Cleric domain: As appropriate for the adept’s god, philosophy, or religion; she gains a bonus domain spell of each level she can cast, as a cleric, along with any domain powers. She uses her adept level as her cleric level for this purpose.

Nature bond: As the druid class feature of the same name. If she chooses an animal companion, the adept treats her druid level as half her adept level for that purpose; if she chooses a cleric domain, she gains a bonus domain spell of each level she can cast, along with any domain powers. She uses her adept level as her druid level for this purpose.

This ability replaces summon familiar.

Favored Class Benefit: At 1st level, the adept may choose cleric, druid, or sorcerer/wizard; once chosen, this class cannot be changed. For each favored class level in adept, the adept can effectively add one spell of any level she can cast from the chosen class’s spell list to the adept spell list.

Personal Thoughts

You might notice that while the Variant Adept draws various abilities from the major spellcasting classes of Pathfinder, they are neither as powerful nor as versatile as the magical traditions they're meant to emulate.  The ability to add more spells to the base Adept list (which is quite small in Pathfinder) only comes via a Favored Class Benefit, meaning that only races which have Favored Class: Any will be adding things like fireball, silent image, and third party spells to their repertoire.

I also find it interesting in how an arcane adept is not limited by an arcane spell failure chance, and thus can potentially cast spells in plate mail with the expenditure of feats.  There's also no restriction in the text for a divine adept drawing Favored Class spells from the sorcerer/wizard list, or for an arcane adept to do the same with cleric/druid spells.  Although the base Adept was a strong contender for being the most powerful and versatile NPC class, the variant version makes it good enough to be on par with some lower-tier PC classes.

The utility of a spellbook and allowing others to copy spells from it might present a potential problem in regards to the Leadership feat and followers.  Even though the rules prevent a wizard from copying spells not on his class skill list into his spellbook (see "Adding Spells to a Wizard's Spellbook"), this can end up as a way for said PC to exponentially gain more spells for free.  Adepts copying spells from PC class spellbooks is not as much of a problem, in that they only gain cleric/druid/wizard spells not on the Adept list via Favored Class, and thus only 1 per level at most.

Use in a Magic School Campaign

The variant adept is a good way to populate your academy with low-level student NPCs without worrying about class features, at-will cantrips, and the like.  The adept's poor base attack bonus, lack of any martial weapon or armor proficiency, and low Hit Die and skill list make its minor spells and adept talent its sole strong suit.  This archetype is perfect for the mass of fresh-faced youngsters dedicating their school months to study, and having all Knowledge skills as class skills for this last part doesn't hurt either!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Magic School Campaigns by System and Setting: Dungeon Crawl Classics

Dungeon Crawl Classics is one of the most popular OSR games currently on the market.  Not emulating any one particular Edition, DCC borrows elements from multiple games to create a series of themes drawing inspiration from 1970s Sword & Sorcery and lethal "Fantasy Fucking Vietnam" game-play.  One of its most notable features is the Level 0 Funnel, where each player runs 3-4 PCs little better than average folk unsuitable to adventuring such as bakers, tax collectors, and other medieval occupations.  Those who manage to survive the adventure and gain 10 experience points reach 1st level and selects a real Class; it is assumed that from then on the players will control one 1st level PC of their choice, the lucky survivors.

Like other retro-clones, the existing classes are strongly role-based.  The three magic-using classes are Cleric, Elf, and Wizard.  Unlike in other retro-clones, magic is less predictable, where the elf and wizard risks their soul and sanity and the cleric can earn disfavor from their deity.  Combine that with rather deadly critical hit and fumble charts, and you have a dungeon crawl full of random elements and unpredictable combat.

The Class of 969: the School-based Funnel

So, how can we adapt a magic school campaign to Dungeon Crawl Classics?  Well, notice for one how a lot of Level 0 parties are quite large: 12-20 PCs to be weeded down to a pack of grim survivors.  That's a healthy-sized student body for a typical classroom, right?  So instead of villagers of differing occupations banding together, the PCs are all fellow classmates of differing magical traditions banding together to face some impending threat coming to their school!

The school is home to a lot of strange goings-on, but the painstaking discipline of senior staff and daily training imparted to the students keeps most magical disasters from spiraling out of control.  But something terrible happened, and now the class finds themselves in peril!  Perhaps the academy's under attack by an invading army seeking its wealth and secrets; maybe one of the students or teachers turned traitor and summoned a horde of demons past the protective wards; or maybe a civil war erupts among the magical factions as one side takes the initiative and starts killing everyone in the school.

There might not even be a group threatening the academy's stability.  Perhaps the dangers of magic are too great to let anyone but the most skilled keep, and the PCs are sent into a dungeon of trials.  Those who make it to the end alive and with their sanity intact are accepted as full mages and taught the inner mysteries of sorcery.

Larius Firetongue's School for Sorcery: Further Adventure as Level 1 Mages

They got through the funnel, reached first level, and now have real magical power at their fingertips.  What then?  Well for one, this game isn't called Dungeon Crawl Classics for nothing!  You need weirdness and adventure!  Forgotten crypts to climb through, rituals to perform, planar gates to close before the Purple Ooze seeps through and engulfs the entire kingdom!

The Megadungeon: Even senior mages whose minds are battered and broken from contact with otherworldly powers know better than to set up a magic school in any podunk town.  Location is key, it has to be close to a source of eldritch power to properly harmonize the supernatural energies so that when the stars align and-yadda yadda yadda, it's a bunch of wizardly gobbledygook.  What matters is that the school's been built on top of, nearby, or even inside of some strange, labyrinthine place.  This dungeon is responsible for not just the strange goings-on in the land, or the monster of the week bursting forth to menace the school and the nearby peasant village; its foundations hold the key artifacts, spell tomes, and ritual components so necessary for the mages to further their studies into that which can never be truly known.  In order to advance their own power, they must delve into this strange land where civilization ends and the laws of the world do not apply.

It might seem negligent, cruel even, to allow young men and women barely old enough to learn a trade into such a dangerous dungeon.  But the truth of the matter is that they can't rely on anyone else: the teachers have their hands full keeping order among the factions and holding the wards together so the school doesn't cave in on itself in a magical conflagration.  The witch-hunting Knights of Magus, tasked with cutting down any student or teacher who becomes 'too far gone,' see little need in going on dangerous adventures and potentially helping the mages unlock some eldritch abomination upon this world.  The peasants in the nearby village are even more out of their league than you when it comes to dealing with monsters and magic, and those necromancer jerks in the school's basement are probably digging a tunnel straight into the megadungeon and by Sezrekan are you going to let them snatch up all the good stuff!

Careful now, you don't want to end up vaporized! In spite of their best efforts at security, magic is an inherently unstable art.  Death, dismemberment, and insanity are accepted casualties of learning at the school.  It's sad when a student dies or vanishes to the realms between planes, and the mages do hold funerary rites in the ever-increasing cemetery, but it happens often enough that nobody is truly surprised when poor Achebe is stricken with permanent blindness by failing to follow the ritual's instructions, or when Esmerelda turns into a mute snake-woman after spending too much time in the Reptilium.

For this reason it's not out of the blue to suddenly drop a dangerous random encounter within the school grounds.  The PCs might flee, try to unite with fellow students and staff, or even be forced to handle it themselves.  As the DM, take care not to make the danger constant, but do it often enough when the PCs are treating the school as a safe haven too much to remind them that nothing is truly safe when magic is involved.

In a DCC magic school, even middling apprentices and senior staff members bear some kind of physical ailment, deformity, or personality tick.  Feel free to take examples and inspiration from the Corruption section (page 116) of the main rulebook.  For further inspiration, I made a table here:

Mage has a prosthetic hook hand
Mage’s eyes lack irises, are milky pools of white
Mage is forming gill slits on neck
Mage speaks backwards
Mage’s skin is transparent
Mage’s flesh, and room has runes carved into it
Mage is severely underweight, has to be reminded to eat to survive
Mage writes everything in their own blood
Mage experiences no emotions, speaks in monotone voice
Mage talks to objects as though they’re real people
Mage’s skin exudes slimy sweat
Mage’s bones are like rubber, body is super-bendable
Mage attracts a flock of birds whenever they go outside
Mage wears eyepatch, covered eye offers maddening glimpses to those who stare into it
Mage wakes up every day with no memories older than 24 hours, still accumulates spell knowledge
Mage is living on borrowed time, will drop dead with no explanation in 1d4 months
Mage is colorblind
Mage collects dead insects
Mage refuses to cast any spells for any reason
Mage gnaws on their hand, is bruised with teeth marks

Embrace the Zany: Whereas many fantasy RPGs and retro-clones are tightly-defined with genre-appropriate ideas and canon, this is not the case for Dungeon Crawl Classics.  While there's plenty of room for iconic traditional fantasy, there is no shortage of strangeness which would not have a place in more tightly-defined games.  One game session the PC might be infiltrating the dark tower of school's bone-clad necromancers to stop a dangerous ritual.  The next session a meteor from space might crash near the village, from which emerges Rotol the Conqueror, Extra-Dimensional Alien Overlord who must feed on the brain matter of sapient humans to grow to full power.  The emotionless teenage girl who does nothing but dutifully study might actually be a disguised golem, and ends up revealing her super-strength once she throws the class bully across the lake!

Combine what your players know and take for granted in the fantasy and sword & sorcery genre, lay it over the setting in appropriate parts, then scatter some stuff which goes beyond their expectations.  This not only keeps a sense of wonder and mystery in the game, it applies for a nice variance between adventures.

New Apprentice-Based Occupations!

In core Dungeon Crawl Classics, there's not much in the way of suitably supernatural occupations. Astrologer, Fortune-Teller, Shaman, and Wizard's Apprentice are about it.  More than a few standard ones might be offbeat or unsuitable for a magic school-based campaign, so I decided to make a new 1d100 table!  Below is detailed a variety of disciplines and traditions of magic; as 0-level PCs, they do not know any spells (yet) so feel free to theorize as to what some of the more obscure titles might signify.  What is a Claw of Chaos, and why does that PC wield such a mean-looking dagger?  It depends on your campaign, and what the player or GM makes sense of it!

Table: Magic Academy Apprenticeships

Trained Weapon
Trade Goods
Oil, 1 flask
Amulet Maker
Hammer (as club)
Warding amulet (non-magical)
Short Sword
Musical Instrument
Blood Mage
Vial full of own blood
Celestial Devotee
Holy water, 1 vial
Claw of Chaos
Kukri (as dagger)
Blasphemous Tome
Curse Speaker
Hammer and Chisel (as club)
Runic plate with names of hated enemies
Hand Axe
Robes with 5-pointed star on back
Crystal Ball (non-magical)
Pouch of blessed soil
Eldritch Historian
Quill (treat as dart)
Book of Strange Lore
Elven Bladecaster
Leather Armor
Elven Greenbond
Clothes made of interweaving leaves
Elven Star Mage
Star-shaped necklace worth 1 gp
Tarot Deck
Herbs, 1 lb.
Hallucinogenic herbs
Iron Magus
Iron Bar (as club)
Iron spike
Maintainer of Balance
Set of weighted scales
Herbs, 1 lb.
Shovel (as staff)
Bone meal
Flint & Steel
Black hooded cloak
Spell Dancer
Performer’s Outfit
Spirit Keeper
Ouija board
Pouch of powdered silver (5 gp worth)
Sword of Law
Tattooed Mage
Needle (as dart)
Temple Ritualist
Religious Text
Vial of unknown substance
Universalist Mage
Bag of multi-colored pebbles
Human skull
Vest with royal insignia
Wearer of Silver
Short Sword
Silver necklace worth 10 gp
Wild Mage
Multi-colored string of cloth
Short Sword
Chain, 10’