One problem I mentioned in an earlier blog is how the ability to swap spells every day means a wizard can (in effect) rebuild himself from day to day to better handle the threats expected that day, whereas a martial character’s combat feats are “locked in” (barring the fighter ability to swap a few of them over the course of 20 levels) which makes those classes increasingly specialized and unable to adapt to new challenges. And, as I stated in that blog, martial characters will be able to learn new fighting styles as easily as casters learn new spells.
(Update September 23, 2014: If you like this post and where these ideas are going, please check out the kickstarter for my Five Moons RPG, which uses these ideas. Thanks!)
The retraining rules in Pathfinder’s Ultimate Campaign (which is a part of the book I developed) allow characters to swap feats, skill ranks, archetypes, class levels, ability score increases from leveling, and so on. Because in a world where dragons fly, wizards teleport, and warriors routinely survive hundred-foot falls, it’s not a big deal for a character to unlearn one ability and learn a different one in its place.
Players are used to video games where they can retrain (or “re-spec”) their characters to a different configuration. For example, if you’ve played Borderlands, you can customize the soldier character so his futuristic turret weapon deals more damage, or provides more shields, or heals nearby characters… and if you’re in town you can stop at the New-U station (a high-tech medical device/transporter/DNA scanner) if you want to reset your points and build your soldier character an entirely different way. World of Warcraft lets you visit a class trainer and reset your talent points, allowing you to “re-spec” a healer paladin to a tank paladin, a fire mage to a frost mage, and so on.
The videogames do this because if you’ve been playing a character for a while, you become invested in that character–you’ve put in some time exploring who that character is, established relationships with the other PCs, and acquired some useful gear. But if there’s some aspect of that character you don’t like, it sucks to have to start over with a new level 1 character. Retraining/re-speccing lets you alter your existing character into something a little more to your liking. It also lets you undo a bad mechanical choice (like taking a feat that you no longer feel is useful).
The Ultimate Campaign retraining rules let you retrain stuff you’ve learned (skills, feats, class levels). They even get their feet wet by allowing you to retrain a bit of what you are, like the physical or mental change from an ability score increase, or a racial trait (like the dwarven racial traits “magic resistant” and “stubborn” from the Advanced Race Guide that you can select in place of the “hardy” standard dwarven racial trait).
But why stop there?
Why not allow characters to retrain their actual ability scores? There’s already a point-buy system in the game that lets you know what each ability score is worth. Say you have a rogue with Str 13 and Wis 11, and he really wants a better Wis so he can multiclass into cleric; you could reduce Str from 13 to 12 to regain 1 point and spend that point increasing the Wis 11 to Wis 12. Would that be a bad thing? No. It might have some other repercussions to the character (frex, if you reduced your Int, you’d have to reduce your skill ranks), but you can manage that. Or if the rogue was originally built with a high Str and one heavy weapon, but the player would like to see what it’s like playing a high Dexterity character who fights with two smaller weapons. The player still gets to keep playing that same character (the same person, in-game), the GM doesn’t have to invent a new backstory reason for a newly-introduced character to join the campaign, and so on.
But why stop there?
The retraining rules already allow you to change a character’s physical and mental changes (in the form of ability score increases) and aspects of your race. Why not allow you to actually change your character’s race? If Lucy’s character is a half-elf but really wants to become an elf, why not let her actually change race to elf? Maybe she undergoes a magical ritual to “purge” her humanity and become a full elf. Or maybe Brian’s half-drow is tired of dealing with all the prejudice and searches for a sacred pool that will fully transform him into a human? That’s a cool character-development incentive for the character, right?
After all, the game already introduces race-changing as a punishment, temporarily transforming into another race, and permanently turning someone into a newt, so why not actually allow players to permanently change their race without having to resort to dying or high-level magic? Sure, some characters will try to abuse it to make a more powerful character… but they wouldn’t be any more powerful than a character who was naturally born of that race. And it might take some work to reconfigure the character (losing racial abilities unique to the old race, rearranging stat modifiers and racial favored class bonuses, and so on, deciding whether or not an ability is “learned” or “inborn”), but if the player wants to do that leg work, let them. After all, World of Warcraft lets players change a character’s race, whether you’re going from human to dwarf, gnome to elf, or elf to orc (although it costs real dollars for these changes, so it’s not something you’d do casually).
And if you can change a character’s race, there are plenty of other things you can change about the character that are less radical than that. After all, if it’s a “real” race change, then a human who becomes an elf is 100% elf, and any kids they have with another elf are 100% elf (not half-elf), which means the race-change is altering the creature on a genetic level (or the fantasy equivalent) as well as a cosmetic and magical level. You can change the character’s eye color. Hair color (not just the existing hair, but the new hair that grows out). Skin color. Physical features (taller/shorter, bigger/smaller nose, fatter/thinner, raise/lower cheekbones, and so on… petty stuff compared to turning an elf into a dwarf). Gender. Voice. Birth defects. Handedness. And so on.
Because it’s a fantasy game. Just because it’s not possible on Earth doesn’t mean it’s impossible on a world that isn’t Earth.
In Five Moons RPG, there are people called “shapers” who have the ability to reshape bodies and minds. It is their power that makes retraining faster and easier, and that allows more radical changes in a person’s physiology that simple training can’t account for (like changing race). So if you’re a strong character and you instead want to become an agile character, you go to a shaper and they’ll adjust your DNA (or its fantasy equivalent) so it stops pushing strength so much and instead starts pushing agility, with the net effect of your Strength going down and your Dexterity going up. If you want to be shorter because you work in a mine and are tired of stooping, see a shaper. If you love elven culture so much that you reject your human family and want to join an elven village, see a shaper. If you want to be able to grow a beard, see a shaper. If you have a fear of heights or frequent seizures, see a shaper.
Of course, this brings up the question of “if a shaper can make me into any race I want, what does it really mean to be ‘human’ instead of ‘elf’ or ‘orc’?” And therefore, “if it’s so easy to transform me from a human into an orc, is it morally justifiable to slaughter orcs just because they’re orcs?”
Obviously, the power to shape flesh naturally lends itself to healing injuries, and shapers often support themselves as healers. And not all shaping is necessary (just as extreme body piercings on Earth aren’t necessary, but some people pursue them), so some people might visit a shaper to have their fingers elongated, recolor skin like a tattoo, or modify other features to match–or challenge–local beauty standards. And not all shaping is positive–a macabre shaper might give his minions beastlike features (like a vampire with the vicissitude discipline) or use it to perform vivisection without tools.
And yes, PCs can learn how to become a shaper, just as they are able to learn new abilities like Fireball or Power Attack.
Shapers play an important role in the setting associated with Five Moons RPG (called the World of Five Moons), and they can be useful in a campaign even if you’re playing in a different setting.
To sum up: Five Moons RPG allows you to retrain most of your character options (but not necessarily quickly or easily), including your ability modifiers, race, and physical configuration. This is facilitated by exceptional individuals called shapers who have the ability to alter bodies and minds like sculptors do clay.
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