Save My Game 06/09/2006

Vow of Poverty, Part 1

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Problem: Vow of Poverty, Part 1

The Vow of Poverty is a great feat in terms of character development and roleplaying ops, but there are two difficulties we have encountered when dealing with it.

  1. What do you do in a "low magic" campaign? Do you just "reduce" the level to match the GP average? Where would that level 1 characters though?
  2. The feat seems to be unbalanced when taken by Monk and Druid characters as they aren't giving that much up and gaining abilities that stack with their own.

-- Lukas, from Ask Wizards

Ah, Vow of Poverty. It's a fun rule, but fraught with all sorts of problems, some of which you allude to above. On its face, though, Vow of Poverty raises philosophical questions about how it fits in the game. Doesn't it violate the entire standard operating procedure of D&D? Isn't that what adventuring is all about -- kill/loot/buy more stuff so you can kill/loot/buy better next time? For that matter, a Vow of Poverty character could ironically become the most money-focused character in the party, because they need to ensure that their cut of the loot pie is maximized in the interest of making sure that charitable needs are met (see "Other Ramifications of Poverty" on pp. 30-31). Sorry, Mumtaz the Mighty, but you can't take a larger treasure split so you can afford that nifty +5 full plate -- starving widows and orphans take precedence over you!

By this I don't mean a character having a motivation for adventuring that is not purely mercenary, or even that the Vow of Poverty mindset is not admirable and noble. The poverty-charity idea is reasonable. In fact, it is probably more reasonable than the standard adventuring model for a character such as a paladin or monk and maybe even a druid, barbarian, ranger, or some kinds of clerics who eschew material rewards. Either they are deeply invested in helping people and don't want rewards, or they have taken spiritual oaths, or they're afraid all that junk will weigh them down or is a symbol of the decadence and corruption that they want to escape from, or they just like natural things and to follow a custom and habit that doesn't involve a lot of bling-bling.

But the D&D system kind of forces you to have treasure. In order to advance up the 'challenge ladder', you need certain countermeasures for the foes you will soon fight (better armor and weapons, greater versatility in movement and other capabilities). A high-level character without high-level gear can still wreak havoc on low-power opponents, but is severely handicapped against more high-powered monsters.

Maybe that's as it should be. It depends on the flavor of your campaign. But that's the rules problem that Vow of Poverty aims to rectify -- a way for PCs who want to role-play the ascetic lifestyle. What you present are two clear concerns of how to implement it so that it doesn't make it an obviously superior option to just playing the regular way.

Vow of Poverty in a Low-Treasure Campaign

Presumably, the Vow of Poverty benefits are stacked up to create a character of comparable wealth (in terms of the equipment she could afford) to a character with typical piles of loot. Given that, if you are handing out less treasure than the average amount, the effective value of Vow of Poverty benefits goes up. If you want to keep it balanced with a lower level of stuff in your campaign, you need to tone down the benefits.

How do you do that?

Altering the relative value of the benefits is difficult, because it's hard to put values on some of those benefits. Some of the exalted feats are great. Others are good but not great. Some are wimpy. The value is thus highly variable. Most of the specific benefits are easy enough to tie to magic items -- exalted AC bonus to bracers of armor (though maybe it should be more, because it stacks with everything you might add with spells), exalted strike to a magic weapon, regeneration to a ring of regeneration, etc.

But what do you do when the exalted bonus to AC goes above +5 (the standard maximum for most kinds of AC bonuses) or above +8 (the maximum for bracers of armor)? Do you recost the ability as an epic power?

Also, what price do you put on versatility and customization? With Vow of Poverty, there is none. You can choose a character for which the existing benefits are a good fit (see the next question), but what if you need to fly and you're not a spellcaster, or you need to fight creatures with DR other than magic or good?

Versatility aside, you also cannot specialize your equipment to tailor it around your character's strengths. Thus, even if the gross value of your benefits is the same as a character with equipment, the real value may be less since you cannot 'target' what you spend to maximize your advantages. You just have to take what you get.

One solution is to audit character wealth in the campaign -- know what everyone has so you can judge how much treasure is out there. You may think you're being stingy on the loot, but are you really? Then compare the average wealth level to the standard in the Dungeon Master's Guide. I used this method in my campaign (with a Vow of Poverty character) and found that I was giving out about 20% less than the presumptive average. To compensate, I cut down the Vow of Poverty benefits by 20% as well. This is hard to do for each ability individually, so I simply slowed down the rate progression of acquiring new abilities on table 2-3 in the Book of Exalted Deeds (p. 31), rather like a prestige class that gets only partial spell advancement. This meant that every five levels, the Vow of Poverty character would 'skip' a level and get no special benefits. If you gave out only half as much treasure as normal, you would give out only half the Vow of Poverty benefits; the character would skip benefits every other level.

I did this well into the campaign (the Vow of Poverty character replaced another PC who had retired after being killed and brought back for about the seventh time), so I didn't have to deal with the 1st level issue. If you were to remove the first level of every five I can see a problem, because then a 1st level character with Vow of Poverty would be severely nerfed. I suggest cutting out either the last level of every five (5th, 10th, 15th, 20th) or the middle level of every five (3rd, 8th, 13th, 18th). If it were every other level being skipped, skip every even-numbered level. Either way, you start to get your benefits at 1st level.

Remember that only humans can take Vow of Poverty at 1st level, because you must take Sacred Vow as a prerequisite. Even though it is not indicated on table 2-3, you do get a bonus exalted feat at 1st level (see Bonus Exalted Feats on p. 30). Your 1st level Vow of Poverty character will be viable but hardly overpowered. Their AC bonus is comparable to a chain shirt, and they can't select more optimal feats or prerequisite basic feats they need for other things. Instead of those two feats, they could have Combat Expertise and Improved Trip, or Power Attack and Cleave, or Spell Focus and Greater Spell Focus, or Spell Focus (conjuration) and Augment Summoning. Your 1st level character will fit in just fine.

Next time, we'll finish up talking about how Vow of Poverty (and certain other game situations) may unequally impact different character classes.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.

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