za3k > archive > rich burlew's articles > the new world, part 4: the right tool for the right job

The Right Tool for the Right Job

by Rich Burlew - originally from

So this will be interesting.

I've been mulling over my campaign world since I wrote the last two articles. It's kind of tricky, because the original point of these articles was to do the thinking as I was writing them, but I can't help it. I do my best thinking when I can't sleep, when I am waking up, in the shower, on the subway, anywhere I don't have anything more pressing to occupy my mind. Anyway, the point is, I've been thinking and coming up with what I really wanted from this world, and to tell the truth, some of the choices I made in the last two article are starting to bug me.

I loved the Sun/Moon dualistic religion, and I really loved the Dark Ages setting, but I was starting to feel like some of my other ideas were not going to work. I had wanted to cut away the differences between arcane and divine magic, but didn't because I was worried about players balking at such a major change.

I have also been thinking about eliminating magic items from the setting. The reasoning there is that magic items tend to increase the interest in loot and quick rewards, as well as serving the role of technology. If I am going to set a world in the Dark Ages, I want life to be more of a struggle. Plus, the economy of that period does not support the Magic Shop Model; people in that age acquired objects through barter, traded favors, and force. They did not go buy things at a store, much less mystical objects. I want to capture that feeling of a non-commercial economy, and the wealth-by-level rules and the costs of magic items seemed to contradict that.

Plus, there were clearly balance issues. I took the topic to the fine folks at the Nifty Message Board and asked what they thought would need to be done to balance the game if I stripped out all magic items. Their opinions confirmed my suspicions: spellcasters would be dominating if the fighters and rogues of the world were forced to live without items that magically increased their armor, saves, and ability scores. So I began thinking of all the ways I could either rebalance spellcasters, or boost fighters, and it started to feel like this project was turning into a new game system. That is not what I wanted.

Further, I was starting to see issues with party-composition. In a Dark Ages setting, I imagined the prototypical group of heroes being a cadre of knights serving a single lord. Sort of like the Knights of the Round Table; sure, they were all knights, but each had their own schtick. But in D&D;, characters tend to be wildly different, partly because of the system. A party of 6 fighters may have some variety, but not enough to support the interests of the players or the mechanics of the system. I imagined wizards and clerics being rare, but then considered that every adventuring party would probably have one of each, ruining the verisimilitude of the setting: "Sure, spellcasters are rare, except, uh, you know, in every group of adventurers." Considering there was the possibility they would end up being the most powerful classes if I couldn't figure out a way to balance them, there may even be an abundance of player wizards!

In the end, I had a stroke of inspiration: what I needed was a low-magic, no-magic-item system that inherently limited spellcasters while supporting fighting- and skill-based characters. What I needed already existed, I just hadn't thought of it because it was…well, kind of out there. D20 Modern. Think about it: d20 Modern already is balanced for low-magic, and the core rules are put together on the assumption of no magic items and limited equipment (meaning that there is not a steady progression of equipment upgrades as your character advances). Spellcasters are all advanced classes, meaning that they wouldn't even find their way into the game until 5th level or higher. It seemed like it might be a good (if strange) fit, so I started to look a little closer at the ruleset.

The profession rules might seem strange, until you think that they could be used to simulate social class and birthrights; you would be able to pick either a noble or common "profession" that would grant certain bonuses and wealth levels. It will also let me separate being a priest from being someone who can cast spells. Priest will be a profession, which won't necessarily mean you need to learn the spellcasting class that goes with it. And the Wealth system is perfect, because it allows players to acquire items with an abstract system. Sure, the mechanic was set up to represent modern checking accounts and credit systems, but it could just as easily represent influence and the ultimate ownership lords have over everything on their land. You won't buy equipment in this new setting, after all; you'll ask your lord to grant it to you. The Wealth system works great for that.

So, I am pretty set that this will be a Dark Ages fantasy setting for the d20 Modern ruleset, so let's look back at some of the decisions I had made in the last two article. The class decisions will clearly need to be replaced with series of appropriate advanced classes, but that's OK. I like designing that sort of thing, and I think it's better to create new material than to put out a book that consists of rewrites of existing classes. Inevitably, some poor DM will be playing at a table with a player who likes the standard versions of the class he picked better and won't ever stop complaining about it. "What do you mean my wizard can't cast teleport? This game sucks!" All-new material is easier to swallow. Plus, I can leave the base classes of d20 Modern untouched, and just work on the advanced/prestige classes.

Back to the point at hand, I think I will stick with my original idea to have all magic be of the same type. No division between arcane and divine in this world, magic will simply be magic. That's easier with these rules because I get to craft a mage class from the ground up, including both cleric and wizard spells on the same list. And then, as mentioned, the decision whether you want to be a priest or not is one of roleplaying, not mechanics. The Sun and Moon will provide magic to anyone who masters the technique. While many priests will choose to learn magic as a way of honoring their gods, plenty won't. Likewise, not everyone who masters magic is going to be particularly interested in praise and worship. I think I will keep the idea that the church frowns on non-worshipping magicians, though; the idea of secretive wizards hiding their powers appeals to me. But that will be a political aspect of the world, primarily.

The bard and paladin concept can be kept, but transformed into a pair of advance classes that really do what I want them to do. Like priest, druid will be a profession, not a class, while ranger will probably be a Dex-based advance class.

Now on to the races. I have to say, after writing that article, I was not so sure of my choices. I had images of a party with one of each of the races I had proposed, and realized that it would completely squash my image of a realistic Dark Age adventure. The fact is, I think this world needs to be either all-human, or close to it. I still have a soft spot for the gnomes, though, and they are visually close enough to humans that I think they can stay-although they will need new d20 Modern stats. The Suntouched and Moontouched can stay, because they are essentially humans born under extraordinary auspices. But the flying race and the generic half-orc replacement race are now officially gone. For that matter, while I still like the feel of the Traders, I am hereby relegating them to NPC-only status. The fact is, someone playing a character of a mysterious race instantly makes that race less mysterious.

Oddly, the name "the Traders" is starting to grow on me; it implies mystery even about who they are and where they come from, as if all humans know about them is that they trade. Perhaps neither race can understand the others' language, so they are forced to simply barter with simple signs. I like that a lot, actually. (Note to self: make sure the mage class does not have a Comprehend Languages spell!)

Well, there you have it: I've switched systems! Some of you may be thinking, "But I don't run d20 Modern! These articles just became useless." Not so. First, I don't plan on dwelling on the specifics of my mechanical changes in this column. I need to save some surprises for the finished product, after all. But more importantly, these articles will continue to talk about the procedures I take when making decisions, which should be adaptable to anyone creating any world, for any system.

I hope you'll join me next time, when I'll probably reverse everything I just wrote.