The Basics of Cornerstones and Capstones

David asked at google+:

Has anyone been thinking about keystones (corner and cap) at the Basic level? We have Warrior Born and Steeped in Magic cornerstones, but for a character who upgrades these to the Expert version (where adventurers start), they need to replace them with something else. I’ve been having a lot of trouble coming up with ideas.

Fair enough.  I’ve had trouble myself trying to devise enough cornerstones.

It gets somewhat easier once you hit the Expert tier.  By then you are expected to be good at something, and that your destiny has a path to follow, at least for a while.  The Basic tier, though, is somewhat deliberately kind of vague.  If, the farther you rise, the more unique you become, then it seems reasonable that the lower you are, the less distinct you would be.

… I think I got the tenses there that I meant to.

This relative uniformity makes it difficult, but I have a few ideas.

Basic Capstones

Capstones exist, in part, to measure achievement.

In adventurer terms, Basic characters generally haven’t achieved much.  However, compared to other Basic characters?  I can see a number of achievements, even just among humans.

  • Soldier: you have become proficient with several weapons and have learned to fight in formation.  This could be done in several forms (infantry, cavalry, navy, and so on… probably no air corps in fantasy land, at least at this tier).
  • Craftsmaster: you are proficient in your trade and likely have a business or patronage, and probably apprentices and journeymen of your own.  This could be done in several forms (smith, alchemist, carpenter — the Recluce books by LE Modesitt, Jr. had books with characters who were variously woodcrafter, engineer, and scrivener).
  • Acolyte: you have received religious training and other skills related to your church.  Again, this can be done in several forms, at least one per religion.
  • Social group membership: guilds, religious orders, military groups, all might have capstones.  Arguably all three of the above are specific examples of this… or not (a mercenary soldier could be between units).

Various professions could have capstones as well.

I don’t yet know what they all do, of course, but they could all be viable capstones.

Come to that, where prestige classes are good candidates for higher-tier capstones, base classes and even NPC classes may be good candidates for capstones at Basic and Expert tiers.

Basic Cornerstones

I did capstones first because I expected them to be a little easier to explain.

Again, part of the expectation of the Basic tier is that you really aren’t anything yet, especially at first level where the house cat hangs out.

No, housecats probably can’t kill first-level wizards in Echelon.

Maybe it isn’t so difficult.

  • Racial: dwarf, elf, and so on.  I’m been having some difficulty converting the RSRD races because they’re boring, but when we get some better ideas together these are good candidates.
  • Cultural: as with races, except (possibly) more or less limited to humans (or to non-humans who have their racial cornerstone at a higher tier — dwarven samurai, elven ninja, yes we could have “asian” demi-humans).  These could provide various cultural benefits, or things that are common within the culture… and you can still have “outsiders who don’t fit in” (born in the culture but not enough of the culture to really apply mechanically).
  • Skill-Based: skill-oriented characters might have a cornerstone that makes them better with a number of related talents.  Scholar comes to mind, gaining a bonus to all Knowledge checks, but perhaps limited in the types of questions that can be asked.  Crafter does as well, for someone skilled in several crafts (which wasn’t uncommon historically; membership in multiple guilds could be a powerful thing).
  • Religious: “Touched by <god>” or “Chosen by <god>”, which could improve several talents associated with the god, or the spells granted by the god.  It is not impossible, or even unlikely, that a trained warrior (Expert character, Expert Martial Tradition Cornerstone) has a ‘minor’ in divine power (Basic Ironhand — Chosen of the Master of Iron, a god of war).  Many paladins and other holy warriors might start like this.

As with capstones above, classes themselves might be good sources of inspiration.  Consider how many classes have abilities that could be gained “at a lesser rate”.

  • Druidic abilities are shared at something of a lower power by rangers.  “Heart of Nature” could be a cornerstone that interacts with things like wild empathy, animal companion, and wildshape (I have allowed rangers to trade spell casting for wildshape for a long time).  Probably not spells… or maybe “Heart of Nature” is the Caster Tradition and these other things come with it.  (Probably not.)
  • Barbarian abilities could be reasonably split, even if they aren’t commonly available at ‘half rate’.  “Wild Heart” or “Raging Spirit” might offer limited rage abilities and stack with a Basic rage talent (both together might be good for a normal rage?)
  • A number of Iron Heroes classes could be examined for possible cornerstones, again especially if their abilities can be gained at “half rate”.

Again, I don’t know what these would all look like.  I would probably start with something about half as powerful as you might get at Expert, then tweak from there.

Closing Comments

As may be evident, I have not spent a lot of time thinking about the Basic tier.  It is full of creatures that aren’t particularly powerful and (according to capstone theory) “haven’t achieved much”.  Most of the play is expected to happen at higher tiers.

However, while cornerstones and capstones at this tier might not yet be very powerful or exciting, I think there are a number of avenues to explore to find them.

I hope this helps, I found it a useful exercise to think about this.

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