Tactics and Tips05/30/2006

Sibling Rivalry: Rebuilding

Topic: Rebuilding Characters and Rebalancing Parties

The release of Players Handbook II throws the doors wide open on character creation, with new classes, feats, spells, and character backgrounds. But what about character re-creation? Nestled in the back of the book, one finds Chapter 8: Rebuilding Your Character—heretofore uncharted waters in D&D.

Powerful tools, indeed. But when is it the right time to put eraser to character sheet, changing your skills, feats, ability scores, class levels, or even race? Follow along with two examples of putting this potent suite of options to use.

"I Want a New Character"

Greg: We're seven levels into the campaign and everybody seems to have found their niche except for me. My half-elf ranger is overshadowed by the barbarian in melee, the sorcerer in ranged combat and the scout in sneaking around. But I don't just want to roll up a new guy, I've invested time and energy in creating his personality and motivations in this storyline. If I start multiclassing now, that'll just put me behind the power curve even more and I'm at least two levels away from getting to a prestige class I like. Help me, DM!

Andy: We have the technology…. We can rebuild your character…. We can make him stronger than he was before… faster… better…

Ahem. Sorry, where were we? Oh yeah, your ranger.

Not to go all Psych 101 on you, but what do you like about your character? Specifically, what do you like about what he can do within the framework of the game? Is it that he’s a crafty woodsman? A twisting maelstrom of two-bladed fury? A friend to the animals of the world? If you could sum up what’s cool about him, what would be on that list?

Similarly, what do you dislike about your character, and what would you like to do with those elements? You’ve said he’s not sneaky enough; does that mean you’d rather play a character who didn’t have any stealth capabilities, or that you want him to be even sneakier than he is now? And is there anything that you’d like him to be able to do that he can’t?

Greg: I want to keep his affinity to nature because that's what makes him fight against the evils of the world. But because my Wisdom is only 12, multiclassing into druid seemed like a dead end. I'd love to be a better shot with my longbow, but I went with the two-weapon fighting style thinking I'd be a front-line melee fighter. That hasn't happened, and now when it comes down to blows, I have to pick my spots. That leaves Thorgrimm the barbarian in the lurch as the only melee guy. We all know Falaster the sorcerer avoids a stand-up fight at all costs, and Parsimion the scout will always be a stick-and-move kind of guy.

As I've tried to improve my Armor Class to be a better melee fighter, a bunch of my skills—like Move Silently and Hide—have suffered from the Armor Check penalty. So if I try to increase my survivability, I'm left with three-quarters of a character.

Andy: Yup, you’re definitely stuck between roles. That’s not uncommon for rangers, who as a class tend to have a lot of decent capabilities but no clear specialty. But since you say you don’t want to just scrap your character for something else (say, a cleric or favored soul, since it seems like the group’s light on healing), let’s see what else you could do.

First of all, let’s get you off the front line. Next time you gain a level, you can swap your current ranger combat style class feature from two-weapon fighting to archery (Chapter 8 in the PHB II explains how). You’ll replace your Two-Weapon Fighting bonus feat with Rapid Shot, dramatically increasing your deadliness from a distance.

Also, spend your newly gained skill points on things that your teammates can’t do, rather than trying to just keep up. Hide, Move Silently, Spot, and Listen are all great skills, but your party’s scout already has those bases covered. Instead, go for a couple ranks in Climb and Jump (to improve your mobility) and a Knowledge skill (so that you can pick up on some of those clues that the sorcerer’s too dense to understand).

Greg: That's a good start, but now I've just pulled myself off the front rank and gotten to make a few different skill checks. I'm still not seeing a huge change.

Andy: That's merely the beginning. If you want to go through with it, we’ll need a long-term solution. Simply continuing as a single-classed ranger isn’t going to suddenly open up an exciting new role for you in the party. You mentioned multiclassing as a druid, but you’re right in that it’s a little late to get much bang out of traditional multiclassing.

However, if your character is up for a challenge, you could pursue a “character rebuild” quest like the ones described in the back of Player’s Handbook II. These are a pretty big deal—you’d have to do some research in-game to discover an appropriate quest, and I’d have to do some work to write it up as an adventure—but the payoff is huge.

Accomplishing a task of that magnitude would let you rejigger your ability scores—trading in a few points of Strength for a few points of Wisdom, say—and simultaneously swap out some of your ranger levels for druid levels.

Greg: Perfect. That quest will allow me to be at the forefront of the storyline for an adventure, something every player likes. I get to stay "nature boy" as the other guys like to say (*insert Rick Flair war cry*), but I'm much more potent in what I do well. And right off the bat, my animal companion becomes better thanks to the druid level; I was looking forward to having a companion as a ranger, but knew it was going to take awhile to make it strong enough to survive. Now that wolf or bear I get can replace me on the front line. I'll be safely behind it, raining down arrows or flame strikes… and I’ll have a touch of that healing that we've been missing.

"Our Party Doesn't Work Well Together"

Andy: Now it’s time to reverse roles. For a couple years now, I’ve been able to step out from behind the screen and enjoy the easy, carefree life of a player character. My heroic barbarian/martial artist/rogue/drunken master, Nat Mason, is an entertaining (well, at least to me) pastiche of Jackie Chan and Jack Burton (Kurt Russell’s brash truck driver from Big Trouble in Little China). Along with the rest of his slightly more stable buddies, Nat tools around an island-based city inspired by the best and worst of Hong Kong action fantasy, getting in trouble and exploring ancient mysteries while just trying to stay perpetually intoxicated.

And who, might you ask, is the lucky DM who gets to witness this train wreck of a character?

Greg: Ah, the sweet taste of revenge. Warm, cold, reheated, served in a styrofoam take-out container, it doesn’t matter. After 20 years on one side of the screen, I'm finally sitting in the comfy office chair running things.

Andy: And a damn fine job you’re doing, sir, and I’m not just saying that because I want Nat to survive the next session (which you’ve already warned us will be extra-tough).

But enough sucking up—it’s time to reminisce about a time in the not-too-distant past when the growingly frustrated players in Greg’s “Island” campaign came to a liberating realization.

Our characters were too much alike.

When we started playing, everything looked fine. Barbarian, rogue, shugenja, monk, bard. Seems like a reasonable mix of characters, right? But then the multiclassing began.

Greg: I purposefully encouraged multiclassing because I wanted the characters to feel like the city had an unending supply of options (most notably the prestige classes). A little research and the barbarian could become a drunken master, the shugenja a sky mage, and the bard a chameleon. However, as everyone knows, the quickest route to a prestige class is often multiclassing.

Andy: My barbarian took a level of rogue, then a few levels of martial artist, and I started looking a lot like Kevin’s monk. Gwendolyn’s bard multiclassed into rogue and swashbuckler on her way to chameleon. Next thing you know, we have four variations on the theme of “lightly armored agile fighter with good mobility.”

Greg: On top of that, as a group of veteran players keen on many options, they spread out their skill points rather than specialize (again, the flavor of the campaign encouraged a broad set of skills, especially in the interaction and mobility departments). That resulted in two characters who wanted to be the party’s face, three characters who wanted to listen at every door, and four players who wanted to be the one scouting up front. Among the five main PCs, only one (the shugenja) wasn’t stepping all over the toes of two or three other characters.

After a particularly unsuccessful attempt to frame a crooked cop (they ended up jumping him in the street, and taking him out in a boat to interrogate him—hardly an elegant solution to my finely crafted plot), the players knew things weren't working out right. The solution? A sit-down to go over what each character did well, and what each player wanted to do well.

Andy: Even though it was born of frustration, I think of this as one of the high points of the campaign on a personal level. As a group, we worked together to ensure that everyone would have more fun. It could easily have become a nasty, protracted argument; and I imagine, in a group that wasn’t based on 15- or 20-year-long friendships, it might have.

Instead, we calmly and productively discovered places where each character was willing to concede certain capabilities to others in the group. For example, Nat moved skill ranks out of Hide, Listen, and Move Silently so that the rogue Korkood could go back to being the party scout. Korkood, on the other hand, ceded most of the social skills to the bard/swashbuckler Lotus Blossom, allowing her to be the primary voice of the party when interacting with NPCs. Though most of the changes appeared superficial—a few skill ranks here, a feat there—the impact was profound in re-establishing clear roles in the party for each character.

We also talked about how we could work better as a group, creating natural affinities between pairs of PCs based on their strengths and weaknesses. Since both Nat and Kevin’s monk were pretty comparable in melee, each one picked a “buddy” from the rest of the group to stay near, essentially creating a “sub-party” within the larger group. Recognizing that she couldn’t keep up with the fast-moving martial artists, Lotus Blossom teamed up with the similarly slow-moving (in comparison) shaman, who’d recently joined the party. Though neither of those characters individually were as capable of dealing damage as the primary warriors, together (along with the shaman’s tiger) they posed a formidable challenge for any one foe.

Greg: And hardly lifting a finger, I saved the campaign. My next challenge, turning an all-gnome party into a wrecking ball capable of eating Balors for breakfast, would have to wait.

Seriously, it was an excellent exercise in realizing what is written on your character sheet isn't carved in stone. With a little planning and cooperation between player and DM (and between the players themselves), the whole experience becomes more enjoyable.

So if you find yourself dissatisfied with your character the next time you're at the gaming table, don’t sit there and moan about what you can't do. What you can do is start making changes, by making the character stronger, faster, better…

(Cue Six Million Dollar Man jumping sound.)

About the Author

By day, Andy Collins works as an RPG developer in Wizards of the Coast R&D. His development credits include the Player's Handbook v.3.5, Races of Eberron, and Dungeon Master's Guide II. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?

As a D&D player, Greg Collins has been taking whatever older brother Andy can dish out for more than 20 years. Recently he took a seat behind the screen to exact his revenge upon his brother for killing his first character by washing him down a flight of stairs. In his time spent away from D&D, Greg is the events producer for magicthegathering.com.

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