Discover more from Cyclopean Compact
The 5-Rank Class & The Warrior
Playing with the limits of your game design space
In 2019, I started my homebrew experiments by modifying the Dead Simple Roleplaying sheets put out by Dead Simple Roleplaying1. These were simple role-playing games whose gimmick was that for the most part, they fit onto a single sheet of paper - or at least as few as possible.
This resonated with me at the time for two reasons. I was unable to invest a lot of time or money into games at the time, so the simplicity (and price tag of $0) was appealing. The second is because the designer focused a lot on stripping out everything that you can strip, and just asking the question: what is this game, at the core? What does it need?
I don’t go for such extreme minimalism, these days, and anyways I based my earliest hacks off of the 8th Edition draft, which bloated the player’s manual to a whopping 16 pages (exacerbated by the draft’s formatting, which was not nearly as tight as the earlier editions). Classes got five features each. You start with two, and could get the rest later through the analogue for XP points. I took this idea and ran with it for a while. Classes in those systems of mine got a set of what were essentially feats, and often they were poorly balanced, or else mere stat/skill modifications. +5 for your horseback riding, or a second attack.
Too Much Design Space to Fill
By 2020, I was working with a different, custom system. I had scaled pools of features that could be purchased, separated by level. No longer satisfied with the flat singular pool for each class, I was now trying to define several full pools balanced against each other. Imagine three abilities to choose from for levels 1 through 5 each, for three to seven classes. On top of this, I was keen on giving each weapon type its own abilities. Having so many talents causes problems. You run out of design space. You don’t have enough unique features to give to each level, to each class, to each weapon.
Lots of FPS titles have skill trees these days. Most of them are very similar, and very plain. +15% to fire rate, +10% to damage. FPS games don’t usually have the mechanics to differentiate their skill trees more than what they already do. You can’t unlock a grappling hook through the skill tree, usually, and if a grappling hook exists, it might be put onto some other advancement mechanism - you find it in the world, or you purchase it, or it’s unlocked at a fixed point in the narrative. While a tabletop game can feature a dozen native ways to allow players a grappling hook, video game design is tighter in that overlapping features become redundant much more quickly2.
Where things like skills or classes come around, though, I dislike having lots of systems that fill the same niche. Look at the Eldritch Knight class. What’s it doing? Nothing that a wizard or fighter can’t do themselves. It’s filling a niche that only exists because you can’t merge the wizard and fighter (and that can’t happen, because D&D’s mechanics are fundamentally tied to its brand identity). But I wasn’t working with a fixed design. My pools of class abilities and weapon type-bound skills were doing nothing but creating noise. They had low conceptual density. Here’s an ability that gives you a +2 average damage increase in one way, and here’s one that does it in another. +15% damage, +15% fire rate.
I started looking for ways to overcome the bloat I had inadvertently developed. I had abilities that ought to be shared between classes, and a bunch of samey feats tied to specific weapon types. I had, on an unrelated note, an unworkable power point magic system that wasn’t mechanically interesting.
The first thing I did was start looking for ways to share individual features between classes. Pools that multiple classes could draw from? Free-floating talents, and a classless system? I have never been fond of classless systems because they seem like more trouble than they’re worth, in terms of bloating character options. While player choice is important, I try to aggressively minimize the number of pointless choices that are made, and avoid ‘design traps’ that seem enticing to a player but are useless in practice. “Feat taxes” are an example of this. Classless systems, it seemed to me, inevitably develop both in great quantity.
Discovering the GLOG in 2020 was awfully convenient, and a little frustrating. I said at the time that I was a week away from re-inventing the wheel. Here was exactly what I was after: a way to consolidate class bonuses, multiclassing modularity, and feats together into one package - or several, actually. I reworked my class ranks, from the pool system I had into a template-like structure. The handful of mechanically functional abilities I had made it into the new system; the rest I gradually re-evaluated, mutated, or replaced as I read more and from larger reference pools3.
More Space Desired
One of the things I kept from the earliest versions of Taiao, its predecessor system documents, was the five-rank structure. The GLOG is very fond of four templates, and most GLOG hacks I’ve read also like capping the ranks out at that point. You get four, and no more. If you want Template D in one class, you’ll never get a template in a different class. It’s a curiously common preference for a low character power level.
Although I empathize with the preference for comparatively low character power, it’s never quite been to my tastes to limit it so much. I like low-level adventures and human-like characters, but four is unlucky and too low. Something is appealing about an odd number. Three is a natural end-point. Five is, too. But two, or four? Three is definitely too low, and seven is too much - at that point, you get into the habit of spacing abilities out on an every-other-level basis, a major goal of mine to avoid.
A distaste for hard caps on character power comes from another place. It’s not dissimilar to disliking the rigid class system inherent to D&D. It feels artificial. I don’t entirely disagree with the principle - by level 5 or 6, you’re just about getting beyond the point of ability that should be sustainable by heroism/tomb-robbing. I solve the issue of needing a “cap” by making it implausible for common thieves to manage to reach higher levels. The XP costs for each level is 5 times as much as the previous level, and when you hit level 5, you either move to more profitable ventures or suffer a severe slowdown in rate. Players can choose to retire if they prefer the small scale, or graduate into robbing entire realms if they like domains.
The theoretical maximum in this system is around 12 or 13, which is approximately where Alexander the Great should sit having conquered all that he did. Levels 14 to 15 might require more wealth than is normally found in my campaign worlds. I’d be (pleasantly) surprised to have a PC reach that point some day.
Not like I’d end this post without giving an example. Here’s my local Fighter variant.
Starting Equipment: Weapon of choice, wooden shield (1#), leather armor (1#)
Example Skill/Proficiency: Soldier, Mercenary, Town Guard, Tribal
Warriors are fighters, soldiers, guards, and other individuals dedicated to the art of combat and war. They’re almost universally peasants by birth, though some more rambunctious knights with looser training may fall under the category of Warrior too.
Every Warrior rank taken grants +2 Stamina4, +1 Attack, +1 Health5, and proficiency with any two desired weapon groups. In addition, your followers also gain a permanent and irremovable +1 Morale per Warrior rank.
Personal Technique » Every time you help defeat a character, make a tally mark tagged with the kind of weapon you used (spears, swords, bows). At 10 20, and 30 victories, you may choose to increase either your damage or Attack bonus with that weapon group by +1.
At 40 victories, you may instead design a 1st-rank elemental item effect6 that is always applicable while you are wielding a weapon of that type. See the Elemental Crafting & Magical Items chapter for specifics and examples.
Parry Training » Once per day, you may reduce an enemy’s attack damage by 1d10, if the attack was aimed at you. While doing this, you may choose to sacrifice your shield to guarantee a reduction of incoming damage by 10 instead of rolling.
Lunge » On your turn as a free action, you may move up to 10’ towards an enemy outside your melee weapon’s reach, so long as this puts them within your melee weapon’s reach and is immediately followed by a melee attack against them.
Double Attack » You gain an extra bonus attack that can be used for any weapon, which may be used for melee or ranged purposes, or else used to perform an additional opportunity attack between your turns.
Trained Bodyguard » Once per round, if an ally within 10’ of you would take damage from a direct attack, you may make an Agility7 save, using the enemy’s attack roll result as the TN. If you succeed, you move towards your ally and take the blow instead. You cannot be targeted by opportunity attacks while doing this.
Charge » You may lose 1d4 Stamina to double your Speed8 for a single move action.
Threat Assessment » By spending 10 minutes observing/parleying or 1 round fighting a sapient target, you can identify their two most important desires. Completing the mission, finding a new boss, food, wealth, prestige, love, revenge, amusement, to shame you, a formal meeting.
Resilience » You gain a passive natural +1 Armor9 bonus. If somehow lost, it heals itself after a night’s rest.
Monster Hunter » Once per day, you may add a damage bonus to a successful physical attack’s damage equal to the greatest HD value of the monsters you’ve helped slay.
Indomitable » You gain advantage on saves vs fear and mind-altering effects. Your mundane weapons can harm creatures immune to non-magical damage.
Combat Reflexes » You always move before the enemy in combat.
Cleaving » Whenever you kill an enemy with an attack, you may immediately make another attack against any valid target within your weapon’s reach/range.
And since you’ve made it this far, you might as well subscribe!
Terraria gets away with offering 30+ hooks to choose from because it expands upon the basic “grappling hook” design space by offering speeds, hook types, and aesthetics as means of distinguishing them. It also pairs hook quality with ease of access, providing a gradient of progression.
It is a point I consider personally amusing that I have had a rather atypical introduction into TTRPGs. I didn’t start with D&D; I started with someone’s homebrewed sci-fi system in a Google Doc, based off of no game I have yet been able to identify. It took me some years to start reading and playing a variety of systems just to expand my reference pools.
Stamina = HP.
Taiao’s saving throw system is split into Health and Luck. You always add one or the other to every check, never both. If it’s not Health-related, you use Luck. Fortitude, Constitution, or Strength would all be valid substitutes.
I’ll make a post on my crafting system soon enough. For now, something like being able to attack incorporeal targets, adding 1d6 bonus lightning damage, or increasing weapon reach by 5’ is suitable.
You may substitute Dexterity or an equivalent.
1 Speed = 5’ movement.
1 point of Armor reduces incoming physical damage by 1. In Taiao, it’s slashing/piercing specifically, but it might be generalized to just physical damage if you don’t like making the distinction.