Burst of Insight—Clever and Often Inspiring Rules, Part Two

Last time I reviewed several rules from the history of Pathfinder (and D&D) I found inspiring and I barely scratched the surface of the rules that have fired and continue to fire my imagination. This week I’m continuing this exploration of clever rules.

Action Points, Eberron Campaign Setting: Perhaps technically I should be crediting d20 Star Wars for Force points since they released 4 years earlier and are esentially the same rules I’m not going to because Action Points broke from the meta-physical magic of the Star Wars Galaxy and rooted the mechanics in pulp action. Action Points encouraged players to DO something BOLD and mechanically rewarded that daring. Since then we’ve seen Action Points revisted and expanded in Unearthed Arcana, Hero Points in Pathfinder, and now Inspiration in 5e. All of these mechanics are very similar but the original with an excellent accompaning web article first rewarded creativity in action at the table.

Defiler and Preserver Magic, Dark Sun Boxed Set: In the campaign setting heyday of second edition it felt like every other day TSR was releasing a new campaign world with a different twist on what D&D was: Ravenloft, Spelljammer, Darksun, and Planescape. When Darksun arrived we were given a world informed by the tales of John Carter of Mars, Conan, and Mad Max. A grim post apocalyptic fantasy where traditional D&D species and concepts were delivered with a twist, half-dwarves and canibal halflings certainly, but most notably was the change in magic. Difiler magic could give a character an edge but at such a terrible cost.

This was probably only the second time I’d seen what I thought of as a fundamental mechanic of the rules changed for “story” reasons and it validated some of the ideas I’d been having about campaign worlds since the Dragon Lance hardcover altered magic by tying it to a lunar cycle. The difference here, I think though was a matter of how central to the setting the change was. While with Dragonlance the moons played a direct part of the fiction, the complexity of tracking three different moon cycles for very little variation meant that the mechanical effects of the moons could be easily left out. Not so much with Dark Sun. Defiling and preserving was a core narrative element and was inextricable from the setting as psionics.

Cinematic Advantage, Mike Shea of SlyFlourish.com: If I have one beef with D&D and Pathfinder since 3.0 its the games’ reliance on battle maps. I love a thrilling combat told largely in theater of the mind. I remember fondly just eyeballing distances on a battle map and moving figures without regard to number of squares moved. Sometimes tactical visuals were just arrows and scribbles denoting movement on a scrap paper map with no scale. My recollection of those combats is that they tended to be faster paced and more mobile. Characters didn’t pick a square and camp in it trading blows with the BBEG until someone fell the way 3.0’s grid, flanking, and AoO’s encouraged. So with all of that said I’m always a little biased when there’s a rule that can (if only for a combat or two) break us away from the grid.

Enter Cinematic Advantage. While specifically for 5e this is still a fun rule that like Action Points rewards PCs for taking bold actions and is easily adapted to any previous game edition including both editions of Pathfinder (so long as you don’t mind making a few feats obsolete – Sliding Dash I’m looking at you). Describe an action typically using set features of the area: A chandalier, long table, or even the monster itself and describe an action that could give your PC an edge and succeed on a skill check determined by the GM to recieve advantage (or a flanking bonus) on your accompaning attack. For example, your monk might run across the banquet table leap to catching a candleabra and swinging out into the air to deliver an epic flying kick. Or your halfling rogue might scale the ogre’s trousers and shirt to gain “flanking” and deliver a deadly sneak attack to the monster’s neck.

Monte Cook’s Alternate Metamagic Feats, Book of Expiremental Might: Okay, this book is a gold mine of interesting ideas but one of my favorites is this simple metamagic variant. In many of the games I’ve played, metamagic has been largely dismissed. Particuarly for wizard PCs, who must not only attempt to predict what spells they’ll need but which of those might need to be stilled, silent, or otherwise modified. Monte Cook’s solution to this is to make metamagic something that any spell caster can perform on the fly a limited number of times a day. It’s a simple solution that makes metamagic much more viable and while the rules only cover some of the earliest metamagic feats the mechanics are easy enough to reverse engineer and apply to any feats your players may want from newer sources if you’re playing PF1 or 3.5 D&D.

Andrew Marlowe

placed in the Top 16 of RPG Superstar in 2012 and 2014, one of the few contestants to get that far in the competition twice. Since then, he has contributed to many Paizo and third party Pathfinder products, including one of the network’s favourite releases in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, the Dirty Tactics Toolbox. Every other Tuesday, he will be sharing his Burst of Insight, with design tips for would-be game designers from a decorated freelancer.