Characters change over time.
In many games they become “more of what they were” — a better fighter, a more knowledgeable wizard, and so on.
Some games allow you to change this, and become something else. In Dungeons & Dragons 3.x and in Pathfinder, this is done using the multiclassing rules. Where in previous editions multiclassing let you mix abilities from two or more classes in roughly equal amounts, these games allow you to have “fighter, with a bit of wizard”.
I didn’t want that for Echelon, because that model always starts you at the beginning of each class. A fighter who takes “a bit of wizard” only gains the bit at the lowest levels, abilities that may be significantly weaker than he might have gotten had he stayed the course. A wizard who does the same thing in reverse is much worse off, trading high-level spells for low-level fighter abilities.
I try to avoid this in Echelon.
Gaining Talent Slots
A character gains talent slots in Echelon in two ways: upgrade slots, and new slots. After completing Basic tier (which most PCs are expected to have done), each level grants a mix of upgrade slots and new slots.
When a character gains an upgrade slot, a talent from a lower tier may be improved one step, and the lower-tier slot is not filled. For instance, on gaining ninth level (first level of the Heroic tier), the character gets two upgrade slots and can improve two talents that were previously at the ‘Heroic’ tier. This gives the character continuity from tier to tier.
When a character gains a new slot, there are two ways to fill it. First, the character can upgrade a lower-tier slot from any previous tier, and fill the lower-tier slot with another talent. Second, the character may take a net new talent and leave lower-tier talents as they are. The character mentioned above, on gaining tenth level, could upgrade either an Expert or Basic talent to Heroic, and replace the now-empty lower-tier slot with another talent. The character could instead take a new talent altogether. This gives the character the ability to change more dramatically over time.
In the first level of each tier a character gets two upgrade slots. In the second level of each tier he gets a new slot. In the third level of each tier he gets an upgrade slot and a new slot. In the fourth level he gets an other upgrade slot.
This would be a good place for the talent slot table, but I don’t want to risk getting things inconsistent if I update it. The talent slot table can be seen here.
The dual mechanisms for gaining talent slots allows a gradual but potentially large change over time.
A character who starts as a wizard (lots of spell casting and related talents) can continue to develop those talents. If he spends all talents on these topics he will become a powerful and flexible wizard indeed.
Similarly, a character who starts as a warrior (lots of combat and related talents) can develop to become a martial power in his own right.
However, either could expand into other areas. The warrior might start to learn, and eventually master, the use of magic. Every four levels he gains six talent slots, and up to two of them need not be directly related to the talents he took in lower tiers.
The heroic warrior might choose to learn magic-related talents at tenth and eleventh level (two new Heroic slots). At twelfth level he would have four combat-related and two magic-related talents at top tier, plus two Basic and two Expert slots.
When he reaches thirteenth level he can upgrade any two Heroic talents to Master tier, and can thus improve his new abilities. At fourteenth and fifteenth levels he can take two more magic-related talents, and fifteenth and sixteenth levels also grant upgrades. At sixteenth level he would have two combat-related and four magic-related talents at top tier, plus two Basic, two Expert, and two Heroic talents.
At seventeenth level he can upgrade two talents (both magic), eighteenth and nineteenth he can take two new magic-related talents, and nineteenth and twentieth lets him upgrade the remaining two magic-related talents. At twentieth level he now has six top-level magic-related talents, the same as the dedicated wizard. However, where the dedicated wizard might also have a number of lesser abilities to support his primary power (magic), the former warrior might have two Basic, two Expert, two Heroic, and two Master-tier combat talents. He is still a formidable power on the battlefield even without his magic.
But then, when he goes up against a twentieth-level dedicated fighter, he should expect to get beaten fairly soundly if he can’t use his magic.
Much as the warrior here evolved over time, these rules have changed a few times since I started.
Initially I had each level provide some number of talents (at one point, two per level). This adds up to a lot of slots to keep track of.
At one point, when characters could pick talents freely, this large number of talents meant that a character could change focus very quickly, going from “almost entirely warrior’ to ‘almost entirely wizard’ in the course of four levels. This caused concerns of characters climbing to (for example) Master tier as warriors for the increased survivability in combat, then suddenly jump to wizard for great cosmic power.
I eventually was persuaded, and eventually came to agree, that keeping the top tier limited to six and the top two tiers limited to eight slots, and allowing two slots per lower tier, provided enough to work with without being stifling. Removing lower-tier talents without removing abilities meant upgrades; at no point does the character lose anything gained from a talent.
Unlike multiclassing in Dungeons & Dragons 3.x and Pathfinder, though, filling a new slot gives abilities suitable for the character’s level. It might be weaker or more narrow than a dedicated character might have gained, but it’s not insulting. That is the tenth-level warrior-wizard above might find he can cast common D&D-second-level spells, while the wizard can cast common and some uncommon D&D-third-levelspells. The eleventh-level warrior-wizard might find he can cast common D&D-fourth-level spells, or common and some uncommon D&D-second-level spells; the wizard would be able to cast common and some uncommon D&D-fourth-level spells. [Echelon increases all spell levels by one, so cantrips and orisons are first level, fireball is fourth level, and so on, so I needed to qualify that.]
The keystone talents — cornerstones and capstones — will also help differentiate characters and encourage archetypes. At this point cornerstone slots always act as ‘new slots’ but are limited to cornerstone talents. A character might upgrade a lower-tier cornerstone and backfill the now-empty slot, or might take a new cornerstone as he has experienced a fundamental change. Capstone talents are expected to stand alone; they likelydon’t have lower-tier or higher-tier variations. Those might be represented instead as different capstone talents.