Design & Development03/24/2006

Designing Your Own Vestige, Part 1

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

This week, Matthew Sernett provides part 1 of a Tome of Magic web enhancement--explaining how you can design and develop your own unique vestiges.

Tome of Magic offers three new forms of magic for your D&D game: pact, shadow, and truename magic capitalize on a wealth of fantasy literature, D&D history, and real-world esoterica to give you new play options that fit seamlessly with your ongoing game.

This article focuses on pact magic, the supernatural summoning of otherworldly spirits to inhabit your body so that you can use their powers. If you haven’t read Tome on Magic yet, pick up a copy to familiarize yourself with pact magic and the nature of vestiges—the spirits that pact magic practitioners summon.

In part 1, we’ll go through the creation process for a new vestige so that you can then make your own. In part 2, I’ll present the fully developed vestige we’ll be introducing here today.

Designer’s Note: Vestiges are great for DMs, but they were designed with players in mind. More specifically, their legends are meant for player use. When designing the pact magic system, I wanted to put more ownership of the flavor of D&D into player’s hands and give them more material to roleplay with. The DM owns most of the history of D&D settings and other flavorful details, but with pact magic, a binder’s player can be the one revealing and reveling in all of that. For this reason, players and DMs should work together on new vestiges or changing old ones.

Should You Make a New Vestige?

Before creating a wholly new vestige, first consider whether or not you can customize an existing one. Vestige abilities present a tricky challenge for game balance. If you can keep the granted abilities of an existing vestige but change everything else to suit your needs, you’ll have put a “new” vestige in your game and saved yourself some work. Additionally, you might exchange an individual ability for one of your own choosing that grants a similar amount of power. Of course, if you find the challenge of making a vestige intriguing and you want to keep all the other vestiges in play, then read on to learn the techniques that will help you make a vestige that’s fun and good for your game!

Where to Begin

Start with an idea that inspires you. This idea might be a game mechanic you find exciting, an element of background information from your campaign, an idea for a vestige that suits your view of what vestiges should be like, or whatever triggers your desire to make a new vestige. A vestige’s legend often drives the rest of its description, so you might find that an interesting legendary figure from your campaign will strike a chord with you and the other players.

In the home campaign I’m planning to run for some friends, the gods left the creatures of the world to fend for themselves centuries ago. Since then, various monsters have risen to power as living deities like some of the pharaohs of Egypt and emperors of Rome. This presents a great environment for the use of binders and vestiges, because in my campaign, I can make the vestiges represent the deities that left. Thus I retain the taboo nature of pact magic as the current deific rulers want everyone to forget the old gods.

For most of the vestiges, I can alter them to suit my needs or keep them the same. The mists of time and the mutability of legends can explain why the write-ups in Tome of Magic might not match the facts of these deities in my campaign. However, a departed deity of temptation and fear is important for the grand plot arc of my campaign, and looking at the vestiges, I find that nothing quite suits my needs. With that idea as inspiration, I’m ready to begin making a new vestige.

Step 1: Choose the Vestige’s Level

Note in Table 1-2: Vestiges by Level
Vestiges appear in roughly similar numbers at the various levels except for 7th- and 8th-level vestiges. This keeps players’ new options relatively equal when they attain the ability to bind with vestiges of that level.

Tome of Magic presented fewer 7th- and 8th-level vestiges because more players play D&D at lower levels. Plus at high levels, the binder has access to all the other vestiges of lower vestige level. When you make a vestige, don’t worry about such concerns and create one you know you will soon use. If you need a higher-level vestige later, you can rough out the legend now and worry about the details of the game mechanics when you have a character that can use them.

The first step to create a vestige is deciding its vestige level. (Binders gain access to a vestige at a specific level and thereafter retain access to that vestige. See the binder class features chart in Tome of Magic for how this works.) Vestige level is a measure of the power of the vestige’s abilities. It’s best to pick a level first and design appropriate abilities rather than try to do the reverse. By first deciding the vestige’s vestige level, you have a benchmark for the abilities you design and points for comparison.

If you have a specific ability or two in mind, you might already have a good idea of what level the vestige’s granted abilities should be assigned, but if not, choose based on the relative power or importance of the creature that became a vestige. For example, I want the vestige I’m creating to be a deity very important to the others’ decision to leave mortals on their own, and thus very important to the campaign. A 7th- or 8th-level vestige seems most appropriate, as I want to save the revelation of the deity for high-level play. I’ll pick 7th as my starting point and take it from there (we’ll so how that goes next time).

Step 2: Devise the Vestige’s Legend

Vestiges have legends to give them personality, create a jumping point for design of their abilities and influences, and set them apart from all the other fantastic elements of D&D. Ideally, a vestige’s legend presents a fable of sorts that’s interesting to read and to relate. It should make the vestige approachable but foreign. To fit with the taboo nature of pact magic, the story should present the vestige as flawed, alien, mysterious, repulsive… or all four. Although no vestiges are diabolically evil in their intent, neither are any of them virtuous. All present magnified human flaws and fears.

In your campaign, you might present vestiges differently, but regardless, your vestige needs a personality as well as game mechanics. A binder acts as host to a vestige, and a legend forms the basis of that foreign persona that the players interact with through the filter of the binder PC or NPC.

The vestiges in Tome of Magic have legends that feel a bit like history, and in some cases they adopt and adapt elements of D&D history or real-world legends to strengthen that feeling. For the purposes of your game, a vestiges’ legend might all be true, be partially true, or be what the clerics and paladins fear: nothing but lies designed to lure souls away from the gods. Consider whether the legend you devise is true for your campaign and what affect that might have on the PCs’ adventures.

For my campaign, I want the vestige’s legend to be largely true, but I want the truth to remain concealed behind a veil of allegory. And so, the truth is as follows:

Long ago, the gods battled the fiends in the roiling chaos of the cosmos, seeking dominion over existence. Whenever the gods sought to create a world for mortals, the fiends would appear to destroy it. After many attempts, the gods designed a special world. As expected, the fiends appeared, but the world was a trap. When the fiends arrived, the gods shut them up in part of the world, imprisoning them in the place the fiends sought to destroy. The prison held, and the gods were pleased to populate the rest of the world with mortals.

At first the gods carefully guarded the doors to the hell they had created, but over time, they grew more lax. What was once a sacred duty became an annoyance; thus, the task was given over to younger gods. The deity named Vanus did not experience the terrible time before the doors were shut. He had heard stories of the evils of the fiends, but in the grand world the gods had created, Vanus could not believe their tales. After standing stoic watch over the sealed doors for a thousand years, Vanus at last grew curious about what lay behind them. Vanus lacked the power to open the doors, so he put his ear to them and listened.

What he heard was the beginning of end. Through his actions, Vanus would set in motion the opening of the gates to hell and spur the gods into flight from the mortal world, leaving the unsuspecting mortals unprotected from a danger none but the gods can fathom.

My new vestige will be Vanus. His legend will echo the ideas given above by presenting Vanus as a young prince who failed in the duty of guarding something. This way, when the PCs learn Vanus’s legend they won’t necessarily understand his role as a catalyst for the events in the overarching plot, but when they do they’ll get a fun “aha!” moment if they consider Vanus’s legend.

Step 3: Create the Vestige’s Granted Abilities

The vestige you create should grant four to six supernatural abilities to binders. It could grant more or less, but the vestige must be balanced with others of the same level, and that will be difficult if the number of abilities vary greatly from the norm. With that in mind, the granted abilities you create should also do the following:

Follow Form: The granted abilities you create will work best if they follow the form of the others presented in Tome of Magic. This means they should be supernatural in nature, not provoke attacks of opportunity, and either lack a use limitation or be not be useable after an initial use until after 5 rounds.

Note that the standard use limitation means that a character will likely get one or two uses from the ability during a fight. Uses per day or similar limitations don’t work well for binders as they can simply switch to another vestige to use its abilities.

Avoid Duplication and Conflict: Each granted ability you create should be unique among the vestiges. If your ability duplicates or counters the benefit of the granted ability of another vestige, it’s likely one or the other will see less use.

On the other hand, you might strategically create an ability that stacks with an ability granted by another vestige. This way a clever player can get greater benefit when using both (at later levels, binders are able to make pacts with more than one vestige simultaneously). Also, you might consider creating your vestige’s requirements such that it won’t make a pact with a binder who hosts the vestige that has a similar power.

Avoid Penalties: Granted abilities shouldn’t penalize a PC. It might seem fun or flavorful, or it might seem to balance an ability, but a penalty on a game mechanic a player must choose to use is almost always a bad idea—often because it simply leads players to choose a different mechanic.

Support a Play Style: Binders function much like clerics or druids. They can use their special abilities from the back of the party, like a wizard or sorcerer, or they can bolster themselves and run into the thick of fighting. Also, a binder can take up a different role, such as being the stealthy scout, depending on the vestiges the binder chooses to make a pact with. When designing your granted abilities, consider what role you’re offering to a binder player.

At the same time, you don’t want to steal all the thunder from a particular play style. The vestige abilities you create should not make the binder a better melee combatant that the fighter, a better assassin than the rogue, a better artillery battery than the wizard, or a better healer than the cleric. Instead the binder should be a slightly weaker but more versatile actor in any one of those roles.

Remain Useful: The granted abilities you design work best if they’re balanced for the vestige level but also remain tempting choices at higher level. Similarly, they work best if they don’t negate choosing a vestige of lower level. For example, a vestige that grants bonuses to Hide and Move Silently for as long as it is bound ends up trumped if a later vestige grants the ability to cast silence and invisibility at will.

Express Legend or Personality: The granted abilities of a vestige exist as an extension of its history and persona. Most of the abilities you create should thus express what you’ve created in the vestige’s legend. These legends might be pure myths created to explain the abilities a binder gains, so most should fit the themes you present. For the vestige I’m creating, I’ll work with themes of listening, freedom from constraints, and panic. I considered creating abilities that deal with opening barriers, but Otiax (described on page 43 of Tome of Magic) already covers that ground.

Step 4: Check for Game Balance

Once you’ve created some granted abilities, you should check them against those given by vestiges of the same vestige level. Consider if individual abilities seem too powerful or too weak, and then consider the whole package. If you can fix the problem by changing the vestige level, do so, but chances are that you’ll need to adjust individual abilities. Don’t be afraid to abandon an ability that sticks out, and replace it. You can always save the idea for later use with another vestige or some other game element you create.

More specifically:

  • At-will or constant abilities a binder gains should be about as powerful as what a warlock of the same level can accomplish. (See Complete Arcane for a description of the warlock.)
  • Abilities with the 5-round delay should be about as useful and powerful as the highest-level spell a wizard of the same level as the binder can cast (assuming the vestige grants just one such ability.) If the vestige grants more than one such ability, you’ll need to scale both powers down. A good rule of thumb is to lower the effective spell level by one for each additional 5-round-delay ability that the vestige grants.
  • Abilities that grant a feature from another class, such as sneak attack or sudden strike, should be slightly behind what a character of that class gains.

Step 5: Create Everything Else

At this point, you’ve done all the hard work. What remains are the fun little details that will make playing with your new vestige fun and unique. As you design the rest of the vestige, you should keep the following pointers in mind:

Influence: A vestige’s influence should not be a game balance factor. Influences in Tome of Magic serve as fun flavor for players who like to roleplay that aspect of their binder character. A player who doesn’t care to have his PC’s actions controlled in that manner can manage his chances by choosing less difficult vestiges or picking game mechanics that will help the PC succeed at the binding check.

A vestige’s influence should be a unique expression of that vestige’s personality and legend. Situations in which it becomes a major factor should come up rarely and be manageable if a player wishes to avoid them. Your vestige’s influence should give a binder player a new aspect of personality to explore and offer some opportunity to put pact magic in the spotlight, but it should not be a nuisance to the other players at the table or be likely to derail adventures.

As with granted abilities, try to make a vestige’s influence not conflict with those of other vestiges. If your vestige’s influence makes a character act happy and talkative, and another makes a character act morose and laconic, a player with a character under the influence of both won’t know what to do.

Binding DC: The binding DCs for vestiges in Tome of Magic are roughly set at 14 + the level at which you can bind the vestige. Binding DC should not be a game balance factor because a vestige’s influence is not a game balance factor. Instead, think of binding DC as representative of how willful the vestige is and how often you’d like the influence to come into play. Check the DCs of other vestiges of the same level to get an idea of the average, and then put your vestige above or below that depending on how willful you want it to seem.

Special Requirement: Your vestige doesn’t require a special requirement. This optional feature of vestiges exists to add more flavor to a vestige and to control access to it. For example, if you know you don’t want the powers of two vestiges to be used in conjunction, you can create a special requirement that prevents them from both being bound to a binder at the same time.

Special requirements should not be game balance factors. They shouldn’t cost a significant amount of gp or any XP. Such requirements will swiftly relegate your vestige to use only by NPCs.

Manifestation: The vestige’s manifestation is a player’s most visceral interaction with the spirit. The manifestation should thus be suitably impressive and expressive of the vestige’s being. At the same time, a manifestation should show how the spirit has been twisted by its isolation from reality, and it should reinforce the disturbing, off-kilter nature of pact magic. If you read the manifestation of a vestige to the players and they cringe or look at you funny, you’ve nailed it.

A vestige’s manifestation is a supernatural figment—an illusion. Elements of the illusion created by the vestige’s manifestation (such as wisps of fog) can extend beyond the seal up to 10 feet, but the vestige never leaves the seal. Noises from the vestige or the process of pact making can be heard normally.

Seal: Your vestige’s seal can be whatever you like, but it should occur in a circle, and it probably works best if it’s made of simple lines that you can draw for players, should you have need. Tome of Magic has many examples that you can use as inspiration.

Sign: The sign you create should be a unique expression of the vestige you’ve created. Be careful that it isn’t too obtrusive. PCs should be able to hide the sign of a vestige under clothing or with the use of a disguise kit. This allows for tense situations in which the binder disguises his association with a vestige, whereas an obvious sign makes discovery inevitable. Also, be sure that the sign doesn’t cover the same ground as one already in play. For example, if a vestige makes a binder’s eyes red, creating a new one that makes a binder’s eyes yellow is less interesting and creates a conflict.

To see the full details of Vanus, check back next time (04/07) for “Tome of Magic: Creating a Vestige, Part 2.” In addition to revealing the final design for the vestige I discussed in this article and describing how I derived its vestige level, I’ll discuss the sources of D&D legend used for the vestiges of Tome of Magic and elsewhere.

About the Authors

Once editor-in-chief of Dragon Magazine and now a game designer at Wizards of the Coast, Matthew Sernett was Lead Designer for Tome of Magic. He wrote in a Dragon editorial that there's nothing in D&D he likes better than when the adventurers flee through the dungeon, running pell-mell through traps and past monsters because what chases them is worse. When he wrote that, Matthew was thinking about Undermountain -- a feature that also appears on the official D&D website.

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