Running Pathfinder: Kingmaker -- Entry 1: The Not-So-King-ish Maker

For the Pathfinder role-playing game, the Adventure Path (series) Kingmaker is famed as a semi-sandbox collection of stories that start with exploration of monster-haunted wilds and move into settling the countryside, domain management, and the establishment of a new kingdom under the stewardship of the players. Veteran adventure gamers will, of course, recognize this as an old conceit: In early Dungeons & Dragons games, experienced adventurers eventually settled down, gained minor titles, and built castles, temples, wizard towers and thieves' guilds. This system was even heavily codified in the D&D Companion Set, part of the series of boxed versions of the game that were made specifically easy to learn but with a lot of long-term campaigning.

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Running Dark Sun: Merchant-Adventurers

In the original incarnation of the DARK SUN game, the supplement Dune Trader detailed the independent traders who ventured from city-state to city-state, hawking their wares and sometimes engaging in shady dealings. Players could take on the Trader class and deal with the problems of trying to move caravans of goods, bribing templars, buying low and selling high, running a business, and defending against thieves and scoundrels.'s 3rd edition version of DARK SUN didn't explicitly deal with traders, but 4e included the trader as an archetype, continuing the trend.

Now, some players didn't like the trader class. This was a character that didn't fight well (using the thief's combat ability and often without armor), had limited skills (like a thief but not as competent), and had no magical or psionic power. The trader's main claim to fame was having access to more money than most characters, but not so much that it really mattered after a level or two. So why would you ever play one?Read more...Collapse )

Running Dark Sun: Dark Secrets for Dark Hearts

The original DARK SUN boxed set includes a small section of rules regarding the shift in alignment of characters suffering from extreme thirst. In short, if your character's dying of dehydration, morals and scruples slip away, and the character becomes overwhelmed with the need to acquire water to slake that burning thirst, no matter the cost!

Of course, many players dislike the sense of losing control over their characters. I'm the one playing this character, why are my actions being dictated by circumstances beyond my control? If I decide that my character is a heroic martyr and would give up his or her last sip of water, who's to tell me otherwise?

The reason for this set of rules isn't just to take away control from players or simply to underscore the brutal realities of the desert world of Athas (though that latter is certainly part of the equation). This rule exists to create terrible situations in which characters do awful things to their allies so that they can regret it later!

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Running Dark Sun: The Order

In the DARK SUN campaign setting, spellcasters face specific threats and challenges in tandem with the powers that they wield. Preservers and defilers are both pariahs and social outcasts; defilers have special difficulty concealing their magic, while preservers are specifically hunted and killed by the sorcerer-kings (not to mention angry mobs who don't understand the distinction between the two styles of arcane magic). Clerics are constantly pushed to promote the agendas of their elemental patrons, while druids will find themselves fighting against the encroachment of city-dwellers and resource exploiters, not to mention against mages who might defile the druid's guarded lands. Psionicists, by contrast, are largely accepted in society; nobles send their children to psionic schools, psionic mercenaries work for merchant houses as guards and information-gatherers, and slave tribes rely on both wild talents and trained psionic abilities for defense. Psionic powers don't have the stigma attached to wizardry, nor do they have repressive pall of the templarate or the revolutionary cast often attributed to elemental clerics. Psychic powers are, for the most part, free of any prejudices. This means that playing a psionic character is an attractive path for players avoiding the difficulties that spellcasters face.
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Running Dark Sun: Memorable Magic Items

Magical treasures are a mainstay of Dungeons & Dragons games. After all, they're the means to acquire special bonuses and powers that your character might otherwise never have -- and for players interested in building their character stories, every magic item is a piece of the character's history, a reminder of past adventures and a glance backward into the world itself (after all, someone had to make that magic item).

In DARK SUN, magical items sit on an awkward position of the reward hierarchy. Characters typically pursue metal weapons first, then hope to improve to enchanted metal weapons, but this isn't a sure thing. A 5th-level fighter with a +1 obsidian broadsword is still pretty fearsome, as the magical bonus on the weapon helps to ameliorate the drawbacks of obsidian. Essentially, for low- to mid-level DARK SUN characters, an enchanted nonmetal weapon might have parity with a mundane metal weapon. For nonweapons, though, the utility of magical items stays the same, or is even better. When you're stuck using bone-studded leather armor, a +1 ring of protection is a pretty big deal!

To match the setting's emphasis on damaged, second-hand, and worn-out gear, magic items in DARK SUN should have some kind of story or heritage that fleshes out their individual histories. This is good practice for magic items in any Dungeons & Dragons game, but in DARK SUN it's particularly useful to underscore the ancient history of the world. Here's an example from the oft-overlooked DARK SUN game, Shattered Lands:

Obsidian Bloodwrath: "This looks like a ritual sacrifice item of the templars of Tectuktitlay. Its blade is magically sharpened to better pierce the hearts of the dragon king's victims."

This is just a +1 obsidian longsword, but this nice little description explains where it came from (some templar made it in Draj for ritual sacrifices) and this gives it a bit of history. How did it get out of the hands of the templarate? Will they recognize it if they see a character carrying it? Built-in story development!

Since magical weapons in DARK SUN may well be made of obsidian, bone, or wood, you might extend this principle to other items as well. You could give the players a +1 ring of protection that is made from twisted knots of agafari wood, but it loses its enchantment for a day if the character is struck by a metal weapon. (Avoid the temptation to specify that its +1 bonus doesn't work against metal weapon attacks -- these kinds of situational modifiers that have to be applied on the fly to individual attacks are hard to remember.) Or, give a +1 cloak of resistance that's made from dyed erdlu feathers with solar patterns on it, enchanted by a para-elemental Sun cleric, but it only grants its bonus in daylight. A suit of +1 studded leather armor might be made with bulky pieces of hide that also give it extra weight or grant the wearer a penalty of some sort on various Strength and Dexterity checks (the implementation of such a penalty being dependent upon your edition of the rules). This way, you can give magic items with edge-case bonuses and drawbacks, just like magic weapons.

As noted with the cloak mentioned previously, the style of an item can also reflect the nature of its enchanter. A neutral defiler might make a wand of magic missiles out of simple teak, but an evil defiler might make such a wand out of a thigh bone wrapped with a rough leather grip and inscribed with tiny dart-like sigils. A set of boots of striding and springing enchanted by a druid could be in a sandy dun color that blends well with the desert, while ones made by an elemental priest of Air might be of white leather with blue trim.

Naturally, as the characters reach higher levels, they'll acquire or enchant weapons and items with better qualities, perhaps taking that extraordinary metal sword from an earlier age and placing their own spells upon it to make it even more powerful. As a rule of thumb, the bonuses for items should hover around a +1 bonus starting at 4th level, and going up by another +1 for every four levels thereafter (+2 at 8th, +3 at 12th, +4 at 16th, +5 at 20th). This might vary depending upon your edition -- in 3e or 4e, weapons with special properties tend to be more common instead of higher bonuses, and they may show up somewhat earlier -- but this general guideline indicates that your DARK SUN characters will have their low-quality obsidian or bone weapons when they start, get slightly better weapons at 4th or 5th level, then around 8th they will start to see enchanted metal weapons or powerfully-charmed weapons of inferior materials. You can and should, of course, break this progression if you feel that the players have earned an exceptional magic item, or if you want to saddle them with something beyond their level of ability and make them a target because of it. (Going the other direction is painful because there's already so much stacked against DARK SUN characters, but it might make sense in a city-heavy game of gladiators and thieves who don't need special magic weapons to fight their humanoid adversaries.)

Why go to all of this trouble? Because when your magic items have these extra bits of description, this descriptiveness helps to set them "in the world." A +1 sword is more than just a sword with a bonus: it is an object with a history, that was made by someone, went through various hands, and eventually wended its way to the players. The item not only has a past, but it reinforces that it came from somewhere, and that the world itself has myriad events and people in it that the players' characters may not know or have met. This provides versimilitude both to the item and to your world.

This bit of advice wouldn't be complete with a few tables to help inspire you with ideas for your own special magical items!

Age (1d6)
1. Ancient -- This item is from an earlier age of Athas. It is possible that it has only survived to the current age due to its enchantments. If it is artistically embellished, the artwork may reflect creatures or settings that no longer exist.
2-3. Old -- This item is from the current age, but it was created decades ago -- maybe even a century or more. The creator, if human or humanoid, probably isn't alive any more. The item probably doesn't have a reputation, unless it was used for a notorious deed in some place (a knife used for a series of killings in a city-state, a wand carried by a defiler who murdered several druids and terrorized a specific feature of the landscape, etc.).
4-5. Recent -- This item was created in the last few years, possibly by a local enchanter, or maybe it made its way to the area after its creator was robbed, killed, or sold the item. People who knew the creator might recognize the item; it could have a local reputation in some areas.
6. New -- This item was created very recently. The creator is probably only one or two steps removed from its falling into the hands of the player characters. It probably doesn't have a reputation yet, but if its creator was well-known the workmanship might be familiar to people who knew the creator.

Artistic Decor (1d6)
The nature of an item's artistic decor will reflect the preferences of its creator. A druid is likely to use pictures of natural spaces, animals, and natural phenomenon, a cleric will depict his or her patron element, a preserver might work arcane shapes into pictures of plant life, and a defiler might use symbols relating to death and terror.

  1. None -- The item is purely functional.

  2. Subtle -- The item has some sort of artwork built into it, but it is not apparent without close inspection (a pattern in the grain of wood or the fibers of cloth, a small number of colored spots that are out of place, a fresco that is so finely hewn that it can be felt but not seen).

  3. Minimal -- Item has a single rune, picture, or piece of embellishment.

  4. Decorated -- The item was made with several artistic choices, influencing its choice of material and also its form. The item is made of materials that may have some intrinsic value, specifically carved/woven/dyed/tanned/shaped to have a pleasing aesthetic, such as a wand with a smooth finish and tapered point that has an embedded ring of obsidian just under the tip, or a set of sandals with colored tassels on the ties and buttressed with polished pieces of petrified wood along the front to protect the toes.

  5. Whimsical -- The item is decorated with patterns and symbols that might be representative of an idea, but are not necessarily a specific shape of a creature or other object (tiny stars all over its surface, a stylized flame picture, a bolt of lightning with lines radiating from the point of impact, a picture of a cloud).

  6. Symbolic -- The item may be made to resemble a specific other object or creature (a wand that is shaped like a slender cactus, or a ring shaped with carved feet to look like a mekillot), or a natural phenomenon (a shirt with patterns in the dye-work to make it look like rain against a dark sky, a flask twisted into the shape of a sandstorm dust devil).

Quirks (1d20)
Only roll quirks for items that you want to be limited in some fashion. In general, you can think of a quirky item as one that has a bonus equivalent to an item one "plus" lower -- a +2 sword that only functions in daylight is roughly similar to a +1 sword in terms of its value, unless your game happens to always or never take place in daylight.

  1. Item only works for a specific period of time (day, night, during the waxing of one of the moons, half of the months of the year, etc.)

  2. Item is powerless when exposed to a specific element (e.g. if wielder is next to a fire at least the size of a bonfire, item loses its magical bonuses)

  3. Item has powers only after exposed to a specific element for an hour (e.g. wielder must immerse the item in water for an hour in order for its power to become active, item must be left unattended in the sun for an hour, etc.); lasts for one day

  4. Item only functions for characters of a specific race (thri-kreen, mul, etc.)

  5. Item's power does not work on one class of enemies (beasts, elementals, undead, etc.) or one specific social group (templars of Nibenay, clerics of Fire, etc.)

  6. Item works for a given owner for one week, then works only for a different owner for a week. Must be traded to resume functioning. If traded back, remains inert until the current owner's week expires.

  7. Item's power only activates when wielder is at 1/2 maximum hit points or less.

  8. Item's power only activates when wielder is at more than 1/2 maximum hit points.

  9. Item "turns on" by activating it with 5% of the user's psionic power points (minimum 1). Lasts for 24 hours. If item is dropped or given away, it becomes inert again.

  10. Item "turns on" by activating it with the user's blood -- 5% of the user's hit points (minimum 1). Lasts for 24 hours. If item is dropped or given away, it becomes inert again.

  11. Item radiates magic with triple normal strength and radius.

  12. Using item's power causes defiling as if casting a spell of level equal to item's bonus (e.g. +1 sword causes defiling as if casting a 1st-level spell every time it hits).

  13. Using item's power causes water sources to dry up. Calculate range as if defiling and destroying plants, as entry 11. above, but this causes water sources to completely dry up and become empty instead of destroying plant life. This still causes pain in living creatures (due to dessication).

  14. Item is fragile and subject to breakage like a normal item of its type, not as an enchanted item.

  15. Item has immediately recognizable characteristic or legendary history and many people will recognize it instantly (especially other magicians).

  16. Item causes a penalty on certain skill checks. Choose two skills. Item causes a penalty on those skill checks equal to its bonus (2nd/3rd/4th edition) or grants disadvantage on those skills (5th edition) as long as it is carried or worn.

  17. Item irritates psionic creatures nearby. Unintelligent psionic creatures seek out and attack the wielder to try to break the item. Range is dependent on item power (a good rule of thumb is, if the item could be detected with detect magic, it can be sensed at that range by a psionic beast.)

  18. Using item's power angers elementals nearby. Determine range as entry 17., above, but with the added effect that clerics carrying the item cannot regain spells (as their elemental patrons will not respond to them). Could be used as a shackle for an imprisoned cleric...

  19. Item temporarily loses its powers if it is in area of defiling magic. Powers are suppressed for 1 round per level of the defiling spell.

  20. Using item's power within a city-state alerts sorcerer-king to its presence.

Have fun with your +2 bone sickle of the scrublands, a druid-created weapon that bears a carving of the scrub plains and mountains west of Tyr, made a hundred years ago by a druid who eventually died in his guarded lands, but not before passing it on to one of his students, who took it on her journeys into the world. Or your +1 cloak of tears, a +3 cloak of resistance that looks like a limp gray length of cloth with a silvery threaded lining around the neck and shoulders, which only functions while it is damp with water. And may your weapons never break!

Running Dark Sun: City Adventures

Last time, I wrote a bit about settlements in the wilderness of DARK SUN. I mentioned briefly the presence of the major city-states, so now's a great time to talk a little bit more about adventuring there!

Since the world of Athas is a devastated nightmare of diminished resources, survival is a difficult proposition. Naturally, this prompts people to band together anywhere that they have a decent chance of avoiding the monsters of the wastes. This, though, places people at the mercy of different kinds of monsters . . .

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Running Dark Sun: Making Interesting Settlements

The DARK SUN setting comes with several built-in settlements: the various city-states of the sorcerer-kings. This gives you plenty of options when you're running a city-based game, with characters hustling, avoiding and bribing templars, looking for patronage from the noble houses, and running small-time operations. Characters who head out of the city into the wastes -- pretty much a requirement at some point in any DARK SUN game, if only because at some point you'll cross the wrong templar or be framed for a serious offense -- will probably run across various small settlements out there in the desert landscape. While the core DARK SUN setting includes a few villages and tribes, the books also note that transitory settlements pop up from time to time, lasting only a short while before they're wiped out by monsters, the environment, or internal strife. This means that even characters familiar with the wastes might find themselves surprised by coming around a bend and discovering a tiny settlement huddled around some natural feature! Play their cards right and the adventurers might have shelter and a hot meal -- or possibly an entire mob of angry villagers chasing them . . .

If your player group decides that they're just going to haggle for some supplies and be on their way, you don't have much work to do; but, if you want the settlement to be memorable, or possibly to serve as a new temporary base of operations or as a story lynchpin where players can get attached to the locals before you threaten them with your devious plots, you'll want to put a little bit of thought into it. Settlements in a DARK SUN setting are much like settlements in any other game world: People need places to live, and they gather together in groups for safety and mutual prosperity.

When creating a new transient settlement, avoid the temptation to make everything unique, unusual, and strange. The DARK SUN setting is already full of unique, unusual, and strange things. Having one element that stands out can be a hook that players remember for the location; having too many strange elements just makes it noisy and confusing. With that in mind, here are some questions to consider when you're building a settlement for your adventurers to encounter in DARK SUN.

* What natural feature anchors the settlement? It's rare for people to just put down a tent somewhere in the middle of the desert away from everything. The obvious choice is an oasis, but this isn't the only possibility. The settlement might abut a cliff face, have a large sinkhole of silt along one side, sit among cactus plants, or be festooned with chunks of basalt from an ancient volcanic eruption from an earlier age. It could lie in a natural arroyo, sit atop a mesa, or be dug into a ruined remnant of an older city. The inhabitants will make use of the feature for defense or resources. This also tells you what might get them to leave: If the locals rely on the natural cactus plants to create a thorny barrier that keeps out predators, a defiler's magic that destroys a ring of the cacti might cause them to flee the locale, since it is no longer defensible.

* How do they get their food and water? The basic survival questions central to DARK SUN apply just as much to settlements in the wastes as to any traveler or city-dweller. The typical answer is that the settlers have a small oasis -- maybe a mud flat, a spring, or a salty pond. Other settlements might get their water from cacti, from trade, from raiding of other nearby caravans and villages, or from exotic sources like a magical device or alchemical distillation of kank nectar. For transient settlements, it's possible that the water or food source is seasonal. It may be tempting to go afield from the usual "small oasis" answer, but it's not necessary; many settlements will make do with whatever small water source they can find, and a small, temporary oasis is a perfectly viable answer to that question, especially if you want the settlement to seem relatively normal and have its unique characteristics come from something else.

* How many people live there, and what are their relationships? A settlement could be a tiny gathering of inix-hide tents, holding a single family, or it could be a lone psionic master and his students, or perhaps even a band of soldiers who decided to sack the caravan they were guarding, escape into the wastes with the goods, and set themselves up in a remote location for a while. If the settlement is small, the players might be tempted to confront the people there, on the premise of overpowering them; similarly, a small settlement usually appears of limited utility -- there's not a lot to trade if there's only a half-dozen people there -- unless one or more of the villagers are something more than just a survivalist out in the desert. A slightly larger settlement, though, may tempt the players to stay there as a new base, especially if they can make themselves useful. Depending on the direction of your game, this may or may not be desirable. After all, if you want the characters traipsing around in the desert themselves, you can't give them a safe place to be homebodies!
The relationships of people in the settlement are important because these give you your adventure hooks and drama. Consider the classic movie Yojimbo (you might've heard of it as A Fistful of Dollars). When the stranger arrives in town, two sides are warring, and he profits by getting in the middle. Not every settlement in the Athasian desert needs to be a peaceful place. Villagers might have any number of reasons to dislike each other, and hostilities might be kept from boiling over only by the desperate needs for survival. A village might revile a local magician but be too scared to confront him or her, and the adventurers could find themselves in trouble if they try to curry favor in hopes of acquiring new magical spells. Or the villagers might consist partly of slaves and partly of ex-templars, who have avoided killing each other only because they need to band together to stave off the attacks of monsters of the desert.

* What threats does the settlement face? Monsters, water sources drying up, sandstorms, raiders, nearby city-state templars, slave-takers, the Dragon, defilers, angry elementals, angry druids, starvation, ancient curses, disease -- pick one or two. This will give the adventurers problems to tackle (or, possibly, a reason to high-tail it on to the next destination in a hurry).

Feeling stumped by these questions? Fear not, in the vein of the ancient lore from days of yore, here are some random tables that you can use to generate some answers!

Roll 1d20 for each table.


  1. Cliff face

  2. Quicksand

  3. Silt estuary

  4. Cactus field

  5. Obsidian field

  6. Mesa

  7. Cave

  8. Ruin

  9. Intersection of trails/animal runs

  10. Defiled ground

  11. Oasis

  12. Geyser(s)

  13. Mud flat

  14. Boulder field

  15. Colorful sand/rocks

  16. Hardy vines/root plants

  17. Tar pits

  18. Lava pools

  19. Shattered psionic crystals/enchanted fragments

  20. Roll twice


  1. Oasis

  2. Spring (roll 1d6: On a 5-6, hot springs)

  3. Kank herds

  4. Erdlu herds

  5. Small lizards and mammals

  6. Raiding

  7. Trading

  8. Local cleric

  9. Bird flocks

  10. Bat flocks

  11. Stores from previous location (taken when fleeing/from a caravan/from former home)

  12. Succulent plants

  13. Honey bees

  14. Edible flowers/native fruit-bearing or leafy plants

  15. Well drilled into aquifer

  16. Rain-catches and cisterns

  17. Sand/rock crustaceans (crabs, insects)

  18. Worms/vermin

  19. People

  20. Roll twice


  1. Small family of 1d4+1

  2. Large family of 2d4+2

  3. Extended family of 3d4+3

  4. Small mercenary group of 1d6+2

  5. Large mercenary company of 2d6+4

  6. Small group of escaped slaves, 1d4+2

  7. Band of former slaves, 5d6

  8. Explorer and hired help, 1d6+1

  9. Cleric and acolytes/followers, 1d10+1 (Roll 1d6: Para-elemental on 6, elemental otherwise)

  10. Psion and apprentices, 1d8+1

  11. Magician and apprentices, 1d6+1 (Roll 1d6: Preserver on 6, defiler otherwise)

  12. Nomadic community, 5d6

  13. Split community of former slaves and non-slaves, 6d6

  14. Split community of magician (and possible apprentices), 1d4, and suspicious villagers, 3d6

  15. Split community of former merchants, mercenaries, or nobles at odds, 5d4 on each side

  16. Small band of hunters & herders, 4d4

  17. Dwarves with a shared focus, 1d6+2

  18. Travelers who got lost, 4d4

  19. Miners/treasure hunters/resource exploiters, 4d4

  20. Roll twice


  1. Limited water supply

  2. Limited food supply

  3. Resource shortage (tool-making materials, clothing, fire fuel, etc.)

  4. Disease

  5. Poisonous plants

  6. Dangerous plants (razor vines, needle-shooting cactus, psychic strangler vines, etc.)

  7. Obsidian shards

  8. Sinkholes

  9. Gith

  10. Belgoi

  11. Thri-kreen

  12. Slavers

  13. Raiders

  14. Templar or templar group

  15. Giant(s)

  16. Angry elemental(s)

  17. Unknown thief

  18. Other nearby settlement

  19. The Dragon

  20. Roll twice

Happy hunting!

Running Dark Sun: Chance versus Fate

A common tension in running games is the conflict between telling a story – the idea that characters are central to a dramatic narrative and that their challenges should follow a fulfilling dramatic arc – and playing a game – the idea that skill and randomness come together under a set of rules operations to decide on an outcome. These goals wind up at odds because random outcomes (as determined by dice or cards or whatever) are not conducive to a story that follows a character’s choices to a dramatic conclusion; indeed, over a sufficiently long campaign, the odds will probably wind up falling against a character and some kind of random disaster becomes nigh-inevitable. In a nutshell, this is chance versus fate: Is your character's ultimate destiny set by the dice gods, or by dramatic necessity?

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The Book of Infinite Spells Problem (yet more game design)

The earliest printed edition of Dungeons & Dragons was pretty thin on the ground with magic spells. The starting list for magic-users included a whole eight spells, such as charm, sleep, and read magic. The neophyte magician's palate is limited to some simple enchantments; the character -- and the player! -- must rely on cleverness and caution more than just spells.
Of course, this situation wouldn't remain for long. Once the first edition of A&D debuted, the Player's Handbook included 30 spells, ranging from write (transcribe a spell that is too difficult for you to understand yet, so you can at least have a copy in your spellbook for later) to magic missile (the venerable low-level damage-dealing spell) to spider climb (climb up walls and ceilings like an arachnid). As the years and editions rolled on, this situation continued to expand. Unearthed Arcana added new spells to the list, then 2nd edition updated the list and added new spells with its Tome of Magic supplement. 3rd edition similarly added spells in nearly every hardcover character-centric book -- Complete Arcane, Stormwrack, Dungeonscape, you name it, there were new spells.

This presents a bit of a problem. On the one hand, players love the variety. Having lots of spells provides you with the opportunity to flip through a hundred pages of wonders and find the ones that really speak to your character. If you want to play a wizard who's a master of cold magics, you pick and choose all of the cold spells from the many lists. On the other hand, though, you wind up with choice paralysis and non-choices. Some spells are clearly advantageous -- even looking at tiny cantrips in 3rd edition, acid splash is often slightly better than ray of frost, simply because acid splash is a conjuration spell that bypasses spell resistance (you're making a ball of actual acid, instead of shooting a ray of magical cold -- a distinction that really winds up being hair-splitting in a lot of cases). And there are so many spells that unintended synergy is a real problem, and you can almost always find a magical spell that does exactly what you want.

With so many spells, there's little incentive to "think outside the box," to find creative uses of existing spells or look for nonmagical solutions to problems. Instead, magicians are encouraged to simply find just the right spell for any problem. Plus, if there's a spell for everything . . . what does your magician create? There's less incentive to make your own spells -- and leave your mark on the world! -- when all the spells you could ever want already exist.

Naturally, this sells lots of books. Having spell compendiums is a good way to generate revenue because players are primed to accept that anything published is always, de facto, included in the game. If it wasn't "balanced and appropriate," it would never be published, right? D&D went down this road pretty hard late in 3.5 edition, with Eberron explicitly trying to include everything published in every sourcebook. It sells, so it's in the publisher's interest to do it.

What happens when you go the other direction? Pare down your spell list. Remove non-essentials. Give spells a specific niche and make them fit a theme. This lets you tune your magic to support your campaign setting. If you remove detect evil, you can create a campaign setting with more moral ambiguity. Remove all evocations and you can have a game that doesn't use flashy fireballs and lightning bolts, so wizards will focus on other ways to get the job done. Obviously in Dark Sun, you get rid of create water. The very divide between cleric and magic-user spells from early D&D speaks to the idea that spells can function according to broad thematic categories. A great example of tightly theming spells is in Sean K. Reynold's Kickstarter project Goody White's Book of Folk Magic, which provides a selection of spells that work like curses and remedies from folk tales about witchcraft. This kind of book isn't a grab bag of twenty new ways to blow people up; it's a way to infuse your campaign setting with a specific flavor -- in this case, the home crafts, charms, and hexes that one would associate with witches both petty and powerful.

If you want a campaign in which spells are a bazaar and there's something for every occasion, you can throw a thousand spells into the mix and have something like the Forgotten Realms, where wizards have figured out ways to do everything worth doing (and a lot of things that aren't). If you sharply limit your selection of spells, you can build a campaign setting where your magic supports a common theme, or one where magic is a great problem-solver but only some of the time; your players have to use their wits to get out of scrapes, and they'll spend less time flipping through sourcebooks and more time thinking about how they could make their own named spells as a legacy!

If you're following in the footsteps of Vance's Dying Earth, in which there are just over a hundred known spells in all the world, less really can be more.

Mixed Messages: The Multiclassed Student Becomes the Master

As I previously discussed, multiclassed characters in D&D descend from a lengthy history, in which they began not really as multiclassed characters but rather as elves who could choose whether to use warfare or wizardry on a per-adventure basis. This then turned into the idea of the hybrid multiclass, which remained in 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, and in 3rd edition turned into a new kind of hybrid where instead of combining features of two or three classes in off-peak levels, the multiclass character split performance between several classes but was generally pretty bad at all of them. 4th edition tried to mitigate this by, for the most part, just making you substitute one kind of power for another similar kind of power.

Since 1st edition's multiclassed characters basically function one or two levels behind a single-classed character -- at least, until they hit a performance cap, usually somewhere just below "name" level (most demihumans cap out at 4th to 9th level for anything but thieves, with elven magic-users potentially peaking a bit higher) -- what would happen if this were tried with 3rd edition multiclassed characters? It might look something like this:
(Note: There are significant problems with this implementation, which I'll discuss afterward. Keep your hats on.)

New Feat:

You pursue a blend of the skills from two different adventuring professions.


This feat must be taken at 1st level.


Choose two classes. You gain the ability to blend those two classes' features as if they were a single hybrid class, so you might be a cleric/fighter 6, or a rogue/wizard 3. You can gain levels in this hybrid class as if it is one class, but most of your features function as if your class level is one level lower than your actual level. This provides you with the following characteristics:
Base Attack Bonus: Your Base Attack Bonus from your hybrid class equals the Base Attack Bonus from whichever class is better, as if your class level were one level lower. For instance, if you are a fighter/wizard 3, you use the Base Attack Bonus of a level 2 fighter, a +2 BAB.
Saving Throws: Use the base Saving Throws that are best in each category, as if you were one class level lower. For instance, the aforementioned fighter/wizard 3 gains the Fortitude saving throws of a level 2 fighter, and the Will saving throws of a level 2 wizard. The Reflex save is the same for both classes and thus is the same for the hybrid class.
Proficiencies: You gain all of the proficiencies granted by both classes.
Class Skills and Skill Points: You gain the class skills listed for both classes. You gain skill points from whichever class grants the most favorable total, as if you were one level lower -- for instance, a rogue/wizard 3 would gain skill points as if a 2nd-level rogue (because rogues gain more skill points than wizards).
Feats: You gain feats based on your total character level. Thus, a rogue/wizard 3 gains a feat for reaching 3rd level.
Class Features: You gain the class features of both classes, as if you are one level lower in each. All level-dependent features function as if you're one level lower than your hybrid class level. For instance, the aforementioned rogue/wizard 3 gains the sneak attack bonus of a level 2 rogue, the 2nd-level rogue's evasion class feature, the wizard's Scribe Scrolls feat, and the spellcasting ability of a level 2 wizard. The character doesn't yet have 2nd-level wizard spells, nor does the character have the trap sense bonus normally gained by a 3rd-level rogue.
Hit Dice and Hit Points: Average the hit dice of your two classes, and use that as your hit die type. Roll this hit die as appropriate for your total character level. For example, a rogue/wizard 3 would gain 1d6 hit dice from rogue levels and 1d4 hit dice from wizard levels. Averaging these provides a hit die type of 1d5 (roll 1d10, 1-2 = 1 point, 3-4 = 2 points, etc.), and the character would have a total of 3d5 hit dice.

So what does that get us? Essentially this is a pseudo-copy of how multiclassing worked in 1st and 2nd edition, to some degree. You get the better saving throw bonuses and attack rates, all of the proficiencies, all of the weapon and armor skills, and some of the class features, but you function as if you're a level behind the rest of the party.
Where does this fall down? Well, in several places, mostly because of departures in how 3e and later versions of D&D function compared to 1/2e.

Too Many Class Features: In 1/2e, the fighter class had few "class features" to speak of. The fighter's claim to fame was the ability to learn to use any weapon, to wear heavy armor, and to take all the punishment that the monsters could dish out. In 3e and later versions of the game, the fighter starts gaining extra class features, primarily in the form of feats. (Pathfinder starts taking this into the direction of giving the fighter more combat-specific bonuses that make the fighter the undisputed king of the battlefield, which is a good direction.) Unfortunately this means that when you make a multiclass character in 3e, you're no longer taking a set of class features from one class and layering on the better combat survival abilities of the fighter. You're taking the fighter's better combat ability AND class features and adding that to another class's features. This means that a character who is, functionally, a fighter 2/wizard 2 may not quite hit the peak performance levels of a fighter 3 (your BAB is one point lower) or a wizard 3 (you don't have second-level spells), but the hybrid functionality may well push you over the top. This becomes more pronounced when you look at multiclassing into similar classes. A fighter/barbarian hybrid under this system would lag slightly in terms of BAB but would still have phenomenal hit points and would get bonus feats and rage. This disparity becomes really pronounced (in bad ways) at very high levels. For a group of 20th-level characters, a fighter/barbarian 20 hybrid would have ten bonus feats as well as all the barbarian's best damage reduction, trap sense, and rage benefits (except mighty rage). The loss of one point of BAB is a small price to pay for this. (1e/2e prevents this to some degree by having classes in categories, and you can't multiclass in two classes that share the same category, so no fighter/ranger or rogue/bard for your enterprising demi-humans.) How to deal with this? Well, the problem is that at at higher levels, having all of these combined class features is more valuable than the base attack bonus and saving throw bonuses, but at lower levels, getting the best BAB and saving throws means a lot. When you have a choice of BAB +0 or +1, that +1 BAB is a big difference, but when it's between +19 or +20, getting other powers is desirable.

You could apply level limits like 1e/2e did, but this is generally an undesirable feature because you're essentially making it impossible for multiclass characters to continue adventuring with the rest of the party once they "cap out." You could apply an XP penalty: -50% to earned experience points after some level -- say, level 10. This would mean that the hybrid character starts to really slow down at some point, but this also becomes undesirable because the character's BAB, saving throws, and hit points will wind up lagging so far back that the character can't survive. You could rule that your hybrid class functionality only continues until some arbitrary level, at which point you "cap out" one of the classes and go back to just advancing in one or the other -- so you could be a fighter/wizard 10, but after that you are gaining levels, benefits, and class features as if you are either a fighter or a wizard, not both. This front-loads a lot of benefit but lets you continue some amount of high-level progression, but then raises the problem of, if you can do this, why would you ever be just a wizard? Get the hybrid levels at the low end for survival, keep advancing as a wizard at the high end to get the best spells. This is because of the difference in how progression works between 1e/2e and 3e/Pathfinder; in early editions your progression tended to top out around 9th-11th level and most progression after that was mildly incremental, while in 3e/4e/Pathfinder progression continues on a linear scale regardless of level. Thus, in 1e/2e having a maximum level isn't so terrible until you start talking about a difference of ten levels or whatnot, because the major feature improvements happen at lower levels -- having a 9th level dwarf fighter in the group in 1e or 2e isn't that bad when the rest of the party is 12th level, because that 12th level human fighter really only has a +1 or +2 over you on attack rolls anyway and doesn't get all of the cool dwarf abilities.

One possibility is to rule that each time you gain a hybrid level, you can pick the class features from one class or the other, but not both. But now you're back to essentially having half your level in each class.

If you stick on the 1e/2e limitation of putting classes into categories, and not allowing multiclassing of two classes in the same category, this does mitigate some of the stacking. So you'd have:
Warrior types: Barbarian, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Psychic Warrior, Ranger, Soulblade
Divine types: Cleric, Druid
Arcane types: Sorcerer, Wizard
Vagabond types: Bard, Rogue
Psionic Manifester types: Psion, Wilder
(You can do your own homework by inserting your favorite nonstandard class here as appropriate.)
This means you don't have to worry so much about the 10 bonus fighter feats + all the class features of a level 19 <something else that rocks at fighting>. Instead, you're more likely to see hybrids that are trying to combine functionality of two disparate roles, but without quite hitting the peak of either. Still, this packs a lot of powers onto a single character. Having the spells of a 19th level wizard with the abilities of a 19th level monk is pretty crazy good!

Early 1e and (especially) 0e were even more stringent, and only let you combine a very limited schema of classes. This might do the trick, since you can basically eliminate any class that has a strong suite of class features. No multiclass barbarians, paladins, or monks! But you can stick fighter and wizard together and get something reasonably viable, especially because there's some collision of features (with a fighter/wizard worried about not having really good armor). If you do this, you could just enumerate which hybrids are considered permitted for multiclassing, such as cleric/fighter, cleric/rogue, cleric/wizard, fighter/wizard, fighter/rogue, and rogue/wizard. (Your top performer in such a case is probably a cleric/fighter, since the cleric gets to use all the heavy armor and fighter weapon proficiencies and cleric spells and bonus feats, while the other classes have some degree of collision over their use of armor with their skills or spells.)

Other other classes: This system starts to get really murky when you start adding on yet more classes. Since a 3e character can just take a level in another class, this presumably would allow you to advance as a hybrid some way, then add on something else. You could be a fighter/wizard 3, rogue 4. Doing all of the necessary computations would become taxing, to say the least, not to mention that this becomes yet another way to exploit class feature advancement in hopes of finding the quickest way to some favorable prestige class, feat, or power.

Multiple Ability Dependency: Arguably this is a feature, not a problem; when you multiclass, especially into two different disciplines, you make a character who now needs to have good ability scores in several areas. A fighter/wizard needs strength and intelligence to function competently in each class. This means harder choices about how to arrange your ability scores and more scraping for magic items to supplement them.

Where this ultimately led, of course, is in the single-class multiclass designs of late 3e and Pathfinder, in which two classes have some of their features mashed up into one base class, like the duskblade (something resembling a fighter/wizard) and the beguiler (a sort of rogue/wizard), both appearing in the Player's Handbook II for 3.5e. Pathfinder, similarly, has their new Advanced Class Guide providing hybrids like the warpriest (fighter/cleric-ish) and the investigator (ranger/rogue-ish).

But players still want to play their good ol' fighter/magic-users, so multiclassing in some form or another will likely never die . . . I'll dig into another variation on this theme next time!