Save My Game 06/16/2006

Vow of Poverty, Part 2

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 2

The Vow of Poverty is a great feat in terms of character development and roleplaying ops, but 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

To continue the discussion about Vow of Poverty, what about the fact that it seems to be more beneficial for some classes -- monk and druid being the most obvious ones? The rule is specific in what you are allowed to keep -- clothes, simple weapons (though, amusingly, there is no limit on how many weapons you can have), a sack, one day of food and water, and a spell component pouch. That's it. Nothing else. Period. If you have a class that can make do with that, you're golden. If not, Vow of Poverty will wreck you. You can divide how the classes mesh with Vow of Poverty more or less like this:

Perfect Fit: Druid, Monk, Sorcerer. These classes allow you to fight well without weapons and don't rely much on armor for protection. Not too many druid spells have divine focus requirements (a divine focus is not a spell component), and for some of those, the focus is something natural like a pool of water. A sorcerer can just avoid choosing spells that require expensive components or a divine focus.

Some Problems, but Still a Pretty Good Fit: Bard, Ranger, Rogue. These classes have abilities that work well with no armor, and the characters can get by with simple weapons. They're not the optimal choices, but it doesn't hurt too badly. Bardic music can be done with singing and bards can choose non-focus-requiring spells.

You Can Make It Work, But It's a Big Handicap: Barbarian, Cleric, Fighter, Paladin. These classes rely substantially on versatility in weapons and armor. Clerics have a lot of spells with divine foci, so it's hard to avoid them. Paladins and clerics cannot turn undead without a holy symbol.

Not in a Million Years: Wizard. Two words: no spellbook. 'Nuff said.

This is not too dissimilar from the situation characters might find themselves in if they somehow get separated from their equipment -- marooned in a shipwreck, captured and sent to the dungeons, or chained on a slave ship, etc. The monk really needs nothing to be effective. Sure she can be more effective with all of her stuff, but she can get by without it. A druid or sorcerer (especially with the Eschew Materials feat) is likewise fine. Other classes are at graduated levels of being pooched, up to the wizard, who is useless without his spellbook. Even Spell Mastery is like a life preserver in the ocean for a wizard. You can hold on and maybe survive for a while, but it's tough.

If the adventure calls for characters to be separated from their stuff, that's a decision the DM makes in the knowledge that some characters will be better able to compensate for it than others, and it's a short-term issue. Some characters will be better able to deal with it than others. For example, if you're in an undead-heavy area, clerics are going to rule and rogues are going to drool. As long as it's temporary, and it isn't always the same characters getting the shaft or being advantaged, then it's OK. When characters lose their stuff, at some point they get it back or find, steal, or buy new stuff. Vow of Poverty, on the other hand, lasts as long as the PC survives, so you can't say "just wait, it'll get better."

Vow of Poverty and Armor Class

The relative value of Vow of Poverty changes for classes based on their inherent abilities in part because of what the cost would be to replace that benefit with your normal abilities. The simplest example is the exalted AC bonus, which is essentially equivalent to an armor bonus. A class that can wear armor can 'buy' Armor Class much more cheaply than a class that can't. Consider the following comparison for buying a +8 armor bonus to armor class --

  • +8 bracers of armor = 64,000 gp;
  • a +4 chain shirt = 16,250 gp;
  • normal full plate = 1,500 gp
  • normal splint mail + a normal, large wooden shield = 207 gp.

Of course, exalted armor bonus has none of the hindrances of wearing armor on movement, Dexterity bonus, skills, feats, or class abilities that are limited by armor, so it's better than just wearing armor. In terms of pure AC, you see that a sorcerer or monk gets a bonus that would cost a massive premium -- more than 300 times what it would cost for a fighter, cleric, or paladin to duplicate or supersede the same AC bonus.

As a solution, you might suggest that proficiency in heavier armor or membership in armor-bearing classes might increase your exalted bonus to Armor Class (maybe +1 for light, +2 for medium, +3 for heavy, and another +1 for shield proficiency), either at the outset or with an increased rate of gain.

Vow of Poverty in Alternate Forms

It gets better when you consider that Vow of Poverty abilities appear to be portable across changes in shape and form -- it's as though every armor or shield had the Wild special ability and every other item a wilding clasp. Sure, the massive 'abusability' of wild shape and polymorph and similar spells has been drastically reined in recently, but there are still plenty of places for shapechangers to cheat, cheat, cheat! That means Vow of Poverty gives more advantages to characters who can change shape -- cue the druid and the sorcerer (and a variety of prestige classes such as Bear Warrior, Lion of Talisid, Sentinel of Bharrai, and Warshaper). A monk obviously has no shapechanging abilities, though his unarmed attacks and monk AC bonus are functional equivalents to an alternate form's natural armor and natural attacks.

Note, however, that nowhere is there an explicit statement that Vow of Poverty benefits carry over across various forms. Any DM could impose a rule that the bonuses are tied to a character's natural form and that shapechanging temporarily forfeits or reduces some benefits (especially physical ability score bonuses, exalted AC bonus, and natural armor).

Exalted Feats

A side problem is that exalted feats show class favoritism. A large number are equally useful for anyone (including the long list of Sacred Vow-based feats and a few generic combat-related feats). Paladins (fittingly enough) have the most class-relevant ones, but druids and monks are right behind. Clerics and rangers have a few each, and rogues, barbarians, sorcerers, and wizards really have only one each. Because a significant part of the Vow of Poverty benefits is the accumulation of exalted feats, players who spend some time developing exalted feats that are relevant to the class abilities of other classes will be rewarded.

One Size Does Not Fit All

The best fit for balancing Vow of Poverty is probably not any of the above but instead an acknowledgement that Vow of Poverty as written greatly favors druids, monks, and sorcerers. Tweaking the poverty benefits to equally fit everyone is not realistic. A better solution is to do one of the following:

  1. Develop a personalized list with the player: You probably have only one PC with this vow. Don't waste your time rewriting an entire rule set. Work with that person, see what he would like to be able to do, what kind of character he would like to create, his reasons for adopting voluntary poverty for his character, and develop a list and a progression that fits that unique PC's situation.
  2. Develop specialized vows: This is hard to do solely on the basis of class when PCs multiclass so often, but you could develop several styles to fit different types of characters -- perhaps one or two for each good alignment. Each list could have a particular flavor for why the character adopted poverty and the path they are following, with different benefits (though many may be similar across lists).
  3. Make the system modular: Reformat the ability progression table in the form of 'slots' rather than set abilities. You could make each Vow of Poverty ability an exalted feat (with Vow of Poverty as a prerequisite) or a class ability (like a rogue's special abilities at 10th, 13th, 16th, and 19th levels). As a character advances, she selects the new exalted abilities that best fit the character. Some might go for more AC bonuses, some for more attack bonuses, some for protections, and on down the list. This would require the DM to generate more abilities so that PCs with the feat have alternatives from which to select, but this way, players can essentially build their own structure of benefits, as they can with a character's feat selections.

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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