I realized not too long ago that perhaps we’re headed the wrong way with capstone talents.
Most talents have something of a natural order and progression to them. As you practice and develop a combat style, you learn more specialized techniques related to the combat style. As you study a particular branch of magic, you learn more obscure and powerful spells.
I have noticed that when I try to describe capstone abilities, though, that they don’t seem to work quite the same way. They seem almost to branch and merge.
Also, something that has troubled me is that over time the character eventually acquires a number of capstone talents, suggesting that the character is concurrently, and to a significant degree, still summarizable by those capstone talents. I’d rather see a capstone talent be something “the character used to be” or “the character did”. He may well still be a soldier or a knight or a marshal, but he has noticeably and recognizably grown beyond that. This does not see evident to me when the talent abilities stack up and grow.
What if instead of a capstone having the same structure as a talent, the capstones are treated more as achievements marking a character’s growth?
I have found when describing capstones that I end up using examples that seem to branch or share effect. The development of a warrior might look like:
- Basic: Soldier (common warrior, trained for battle)
- Expert: Knight (elite soldier, mounted combat, etc.)
- Heroic: Paladin (divine champion touched by the gods)
- Master: Avenger of St. Trenneth (holy warrior of the god of justice)
(no specific examples for Champion and Legendary)
It makes about as much sense to have a Master Soldier as a Basic Avenger of St. Trenneth… which is to say, not much. It seems that as characters reach higher tiers that they will specialize more and more. At lower tiers there really isn’t much difference between them, they are still pretty interchangeable.
The Deed of Paksennarion
In The Deed of Paksennarion, Paks starts as a sheepfarmer’s daughter (which has bearing on the story, but not so much mechanically) who joins a mercenary company. She completes her training and becomes a good soldier (Basic capstone). After leaving the company she adventures for a time more or less on her own before being accepted as a paladin-candidate of Gird. After some more life experience (I don’t want to spoil things) she becomes a paladin.
Coincidentally enough, her time becoming and being a soldier are in the first book, her time as a paladin-candidate in the second, and her time becoming and acting as paladin are in the third. Honestly, in D&D terms I wouldn’t consider her to be as high level as suggested here, but it’s not too far off — I had her pegged as being around 6th-7th level in D&D terms.
Her path was unusual (and worth reading about). Most paladins are suggested by mortal followers of saints and may be accepted by the gods; Paks started the training and had difficulties, but ended up being more directly chosen by the gods. Gird himself was almost certainly a paladin chosen directly by the gods (though he never quite looked like one by the common model — there were strong hints of it, such as what his broken-down swayback mare really looked like). A more common path for followers of Gird might be:
- None: Yeoman (general term for a follower of Gird, not a particular talent but receives certain training);
- Basic: Yeoman-Marshal ((assistant to the Marshal of a grange); requires proficiency with certain weapons, certain other training such as religious knowledge;
- Expert: Knight, Paladin-Candidate, or Marshal (might qualify for and/or pursue any of the three; most paladin-candidates are knighted, for example, though they may not have the capstone talent);
- Heroic: Paladin
There are also knights following other saints, and clerics following other saints, so the general shape here is fairly consistent. It would be possible to devise talents representing these common paths, but between branching on the way up, overlap in ability, and the option of merging back in I think it may not be such a great fit.
Knights of Solamnia
I’m somewhat weaker on this one so the details will likely be a little off, but let’s give it a try.
The Knights of Solamnia from the Dragonlance setting have three orders. To reach each higher order requires that you spend some time in each of the lower orders. This might suggest that a single talent might be appropriate, but not all characters follow this (they might remain a Knight of the Crown or Knight of the Sword rather than progress to become a Knight of the Rose), despite having the experience needed.
The level-based timing doesn’t work as well here, if I try to model the d20 Dragonlance rules, but I don’t have to do that!
The capstone progression might look like
- Basic: squire
- Expert: Knight of the Crown (“most inexperienced and generally young knights”)
- Heroic: Knight of the Sword (“proven themselves skilled fighters in sword, bow, spear, etc. It is possible for a squire to achieve this rank right from the out-set; however they must demonstrate a considerable degree of skill”). Thus, it is not strictly required that a Knight of the Sword has been a Knight of the Crown — another sign of deviation from a single-path talent. Gains some minor divine powers (granted by the capstone) and often develop more.
- Master: Knight of the Rose (historically has required Knight of the Sword; I would be inclined to require certain talents that might be developed while a Knight of the Sword, since I don’t like requirements spanning tiers).
The level ranges are broader (as written I think the Dragonlance core rules really only require a level or two at each stage), but it doesn’t worry me too much.
Again, many knights continue in the same order and don’t switch to the next even if they meet the requirements. For instance, here a Knight of the Crown might look for more religious training (according to Wikipedia they get their healing abilities from Kiri-Jolith, so perhaps they might consider moving to a more clerical character following Kiri-Jolith and take a suitable capstone there), or a Knight of the Crown might become a Dragon Knight (doesn’t just ride a dragon, but has mastered certain abilities related to that), and might even become a Dragonblooded Knight (still a Knight of the Crown and Dragon Knight, but has assimilated and internalized draconic magic into his very being).
In trying to develop capstone abilities, I realized they don’t seem to truly follow the normal talent pattern of becoming more of one something. They branch, they merge, there are multiple intertwined paths. Rather than trying to model this by having multi-tier talents, I think it simpler in the long run to simply treat them as accomplishments and achievements that basically ‘close off’ or ‘wrap up’ a certain amount of character growth.
This not only allows for more organic capstone design by allowing them to be treated more or less independently, it also better models how characters seem to grow over time in literature. Low-level characters may be personally interesting but mechanically quite similar, while high-level characters seem to not only be more specialized in what they do, they seem to change quite a bit in ‘what they are’ over time.
Finally, moving to a more flexible model like this looks like it should solve the “I am many things” view I don’t care for. The progression from capstone to capstone indicates growth, and more importantly evolution, over time.