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Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.

Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Breakin' Down the Christmas Tree, Part 1

It's one of the things some people love about the standard RPG model, and it drives others crazy: the "Christmas tree effect". Seeing how Christmas itself is almost upon us, and perhaps many of you who are reading this are putting up said Christmas trees (or maybe not, depending on either when you are reading this post, or whether you put up Christmas trees in general). I happen to be one of those for whom the Christmas tree effect is quite agitating. But what is it?

If you're already familiar with the term, feel free to skip this paragraph, unless you feel like reading some more of my prose, in which case...carry on. Quite simply, then, the Christmas tree effect (henceforth to be known as the CTE) is the tendency of characters to both rely on and exhibit a large collection of equipment. This most often happens in fantasy settings with magical items, where entire builds are based upon specific magic items, and a smattering of equipment. Characters are literally covered head to toe with magical items, all shiny like a Christmas tree.

Here's a sample quote from Wizards of the Coast about the 4th Edition of D&D:

"In 4th Edition, only three magic items are important for your attacks and defenses to keep up with the escalating power of the monsters you face. These are your weapon, your armor, and your amulet or cloak (also known as your neck-slot item). Together, they enhance your attack rolls, damage rolls, and all four of your defense scores.

The game assumes that the “plus” of each of these three items follows the normal enhancement curve of items in the game: +1 from 1st to 5th level, +2 from 6th to 10th, and on up to +6 from 26th to 30th. Many (perhaps even most) characters will have at least one item slightly ahead or behind this curve, but if you’re more than a couple of points ahead of or behind the expected progression, you may find your foes notably less (or more) challenging than normal."

I know that there's some who like this effect. They either...a) like having shiny toys to play with...b) think that having a character gain equipment is a good, tangible way to show character development. More power to them. On the opposing side are people who feel that having so many magic items detracts from the characters themselves, that their power comes from their gear. This is the crew that I belong to...I'd be perfectly happy with an itemless game, in fact. Problem is, magic weapons, armor, etc. do play an important role in games such as Dungeons and Dragons. To that end, I propose a simple fix.

[Note: as originally envisioned, this is for D&D Fourth Edition, but can easily be tailored to other systems, with a similar mentality]

It's called "fighting styles"...I can't claim credit for the original idea, as I seem to recall seeing it somewhere around on the Giant in the Playground Forums. What it does is allow a character to no longer have to rely on magic weapons, armor, and neck slot items for the requisite attack and defense bonuses. How can this be, you say? Well, it's time to see the very basic part of fighting styles which fits this need.

Each fighting style gives you a bonus to attack and AC according to the standard enhancement progression: from 1st to 5th level, +1...from 6th to 10, +2, etc. Then, it'll give a secondary benefit, whether that be an encounter ability, healing-surge-activated bonus, or tiny mechanical benefit. In addition, fighting styles qualify you for special style feats, which further increase your capabilities.

But what about your other defenses (Fortitude, Reflex, Will)? For that, you add in Techniques. These are ongoing alterations, which provide a defense boost as above, and help you in some way. As a minor action, you may switch Techniques during a combat (or outside of combat, obviously). And yes, you can (unlike with styles) know more than one Technique.

So, how would one get these? The way I see it, you take a feat to learn one style and one technique. For the price of a feat, you are now fully armed to deal with enemies, in terms of attack bonuses, and magic items are no longer necessary for you. Then, you can take more style feats to get additional style features, and you can take additional technique feats to learn new techniques.

Next week, I'll post some of said feats, to get you filled in on just how this system would play out.


  1. ehem... I like the idea, but it's more suited for a 3.5 setting. However, There ARE rules for itemless games, actually. Speak to Nathan, he's more versed on them than I. I believe it's simply called "inherent bonuses"(DMG2, I think). It's effectively the same. The characters just get the bonuses from being badass and from experience in battle etc. Also, I believe that you can assign the magical property effects as abilities or extra powers. Like I said, not quite up to speed on it.

  2. Yeah, I've heard about the Divine Boons and/or inherent bonuses. I like the approach, for sure. I'm kinda also wondering if it -is- possible to incorporate them into feats.


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