What are Cornerstone Talents, and How Do I Make Some?

I suppose it really has been a couple of weeks since I looked at capstones, I’m way overdue looking into cornerstones.

Where common talents are typically things a character can learn, and capstone talents often mark what a character has achieved, cornerstone talents often represent what a character is.  In RSRD-based games race and creature type may be good examples, but ‘natural gifts’ might be represented using cornerstone talents as well.

This is a convenient construct, actually, since it also lets me split various abilities into “natural ability” and “training” components fairly cleanly.

Cornerstone talents do seem to run into a certain disconnect for many people.  Common talents, learnable things, clearly can be changed over time: I didn’t used to know how to use a sword, now I do.  Similarly, capstone talents can be accumulated over time and even change nature: I used to be a soldier, then I was a holy warrior, then I set aside my weapons and became a priest.  Cornerstone talents come before learning, though, and given the interpretation that they represent “what you are”, how can this change dramatically over time?

I can imagine a few ways.  People who lead dramatic lives (not necessarily even dangerous, but who experience great things) often change quite a bit.  The experiences they have reveal things to them about themselves and can even shape them at some fundamental levels.  A character may discover depths to himself or natural gifts he simply hadn’t opened before, such as a natural propensity for violence (Warrior Born) or aptitude for study and deduction (Scholar).  A character might literally experience a transforming event (becoming Steeped in Magic or Tainted by Chaos).  A character might have previously-latent abilities come to the fore (a human might discover he is a Changeling when his fey abilities start to manifest).

Strangely, while it is unlikely a six-foot tall human may suddenly discover he is a dwarf (Kraki Kronarsson notwithstanding, that was an administrative fiction — he entered the kingdom from the land underground, governed by the dwarves, therefore he must be a dwarf), it might be possible to discover late in life that you have demonic blood.

If this seems unlikely, that everyone might have such events happen to them, remember that PCs and major NPCs are likely only a small part of the population.  Most people get up, go to work, come home, and go to bed with little drama or danger (and those that do likely don’t survive it).  PCs are generally pretty special characters and deal primarily with characters of similar magnitude, so the view may be somewhat distorted.

Cornerstones from Races, Creature Types, and Monsters

The difference between ‘monsters’ and ‘race’ in RSRD-based games appears to be mostly that ‘races’ are generally humanoid, and often are playable (have the racial traits identified).  This is almost academic with regard to Echelon, since creature definitions are built on the same chassis as characters.  “Monsters as PCs” should be close to being the base monster implementations with any unassigned talent slots filled and possibly a few changed a bit.  “Creature Types”, per the RSRD, are much the same.

Defining all three of these things is likely to be pretty consistent.

  1. Identify traits common to creatures of that kind (creature type, monster, race). Races have their traits already conveniently identified, the others will require examination.
  2. Make a note of Hit Dice, Level Adjustment, and Challenge Rating, since those will probably determine the tier of the “standard version” of the race.  Lesser or greater versions may also be created.  Otherwise ignore it.
  3. Make a note of ability score modifiers.  Echelon doesn’t use ability scores, but the presence of a particular ability score could indicate a common talent frequently taken or suggest good traits to apply to the race.
  4. Review the traits to see what is or could reasonably be a separate talent, what could be made part of the cornerstone, and what should be thrown out.
  5. Build the cornerstone.  Anything remaining should be considered, and if it seems a little light, pull from some of the not-trivially-talents section.

Note that races can be tricky things, especially when you consider ‘subraces’.  There might be little or no mechanical difference between two elven subraces at the Basic tier, but they start to diverge at higher tier.  If the differences are inherent they could be cornerstone talents with similar lower-tier definitions, branching cornerstone talents (which I don’t really want to get into if I can avoid it), or actually moved to capstone talents instead.

Cornerstone Talents from Character Abilities

Many character types are modelled in Echelon using a combination of talents.  A warrior is trained in various fighting techniques (including general mayhem), a wizard studies various forms of magic and may have some natural magical abilities, and so on.  Superficially this is pretty straightforward.

Split on Power

Some individual abilities are ‘large enough’ to warrant being split.  In an RSRD-based game, classes generally have one of three attack bonus rates: poor (+1/2 levels), medium (+3/4 levels), and good (+1/1 level).  Earlier Echelon design had this represented as the Level Bonus (level/2) plus two common talents, Martial Training and Improved Martial Training.  Each of the Martial Training talents provided +1 bonus per tier, so taking both simulated the good BAB progression, taking just Martial Training simulated the medium BAB progression, and taking neither simulated the poor BAB progression.  A similar mechanism was used for Caster Training, controlling caster level (Level Bonus + Caster Training Bonus) and maximum castable spell level (Caster Training Bonus).

Since then I have moved away from the Training/Improved Training split, instead making half the total come from a cornerstone talent and have from a common talent.  This models a certain amount of ‘full progression’ coming from natural ability and a certain amount from trained ability.  Someone with naturally violent tendencies and someone without might have comparable capability in combat, but someone with both should be able to outperform either of them.

Anything where a character might improve over the norm every two levels, especially on odd levels, is a candidate for being split this way.  Raw combat ability (base attack bonus) does this, so can be split into Warrior Born (cornerstone, +1 Martial Training Bonus per tier) and Martial Training (common, +1 Martial Training Bonus per tier).  Each talent should get someone else at each tier as well.  Simply making numbers bigger may be useful, but is not very interesting.

Split on Relationship

There are other character abilities that might make sense to implement in two pieces, not necessarily because they are too powerful, but because they are quite broad.

Knowledge skills can be useful at times in RSRD-based games, but individually they generally don’t do much and building a broadly-knowledgeable character uses a lot of skill points without necessarily doing much beyond modelling “has studied a lot of stuff”.  Dabblers still probably need to maximize an individual skill for it to be useful.

Echelon addresses that in a couple ways.

First, talents based on Knowledge skills should bring something ‘more practical’ than simply answering questions.  Such a talent will likely still provide bonuses to Knowledge checks related to the topic, but there should be something else as well.  For instance, Lord of Death (a common talent derived from a feat from Trollman’s Tome) is based on Knowledge: Religion and provides an army of the dead to serve you.  There could easily be another talent based on this same skill that deals with destroying undead, or something else entirely (I’d have to check the description of the skill).

Second, a Scholar cornerstone talent provides a like-sized bonus to all Knowledge checks, plus abilities related specifically to research, study, figuring things out, and so on.  Academic intellectual powers, if you will.

Together, they allow modeling of three distinct cases:

  1. Characters who have dabbled in a particular area of knowledge.  An undead hunter may take the “kill undead” talent mentioned above (which provides a bonus to knowledge checks relating to undead — Knowledge: Religion in RSRD terms.  His range of knowledge is relatively narrow (‘Religion only’) and not all that deep (he doesn’t know a lot compared to a scholar who has specialized here).  He does, however, gain the full undead-killing benefits of the talent at the tier he takes it.
  2. Characters who have broad academic knowledge, without specialization.  This character could answer questions about religion about as well as the previous character, but lacks specific knowledge (and abilities) the other has.  He might be able to identify the vampire, but may have no particular ability to deal with the vampire.
  3. Characters who have broad academic knowledge and specialization.  These characters know more in general and can answer both more questions (from broader knowledge) and harder questions (within their specializations) than anyone else… and have the specific abilities coming from their specializations.

Similar splits could be done on Craft and Perform, and even on  spell casting (to get away from skill-based talents).  For instance, there could be a general ‘spell casting’ cornerstone talent that gives a half-bonus toward casting and access to common spells (probably only a quite small set) and some abilities relating to casting.  Various major divisions in magic (RSRD ‘spell schools’, domains, Eldritch Threads, and so on) provide knowledge of uncommon spells specific to the talents, and another half-bonus (that stacks with the cornerstone talent but not with other common talents).

Together, they could model

  1. Characters that have relatively minor spell casting ability to go with specific powers.  For instance, a holy warrior with Law and Good domain talents (i.e. proto-paladin) has the talent abilities (domain powers) for those two talents, can safely use spell completion and spell trigger items for the spells granted by the talents up to the tiers he has them, and has a Caster Training Bonus from the highest-tier domain talent.  This gives him some ability to actually cast the spells of these domains up to the limit of his Caster Training Bonus and the knowledge granted by the talents.  His caster level is still equal to his Level Bonus plus Caster Training Bonus, so while his spell knowledge and casting capacity are still pretty limited, what he can cast, he can cast fairly effectively.
  2. Characters who have learned the basics of magic kind of broadly, but have not yet specialized.  Apprentices might be a good choice here, especially at lower tiers, or hedge wizards.  They have caster levels comparable to the specialized characters above, and comparable amounts of power, but they know only spells.
  3. Characters who are dedicated casters, with both the general background and training (cornerstone) and specialization (from the other talents).  The combination of ‘proper background’ and specialization gives a greater command of magic (the higher Caster Training Bonus increases access to both the general and specialized spell lists) and power (the higher Caster Training Bonus increases magic points, and how many may be invested into a single spell).

If you’re feeling more masochistic, you could use the different secondary Training Bonuses to limit things more specifically.  The example above regarding spell casting could use the highest Training Bonus to determine magic points, but use the list-specific Training Bonus for maximum spell level castable and the maximum caster level for spells from that list.  That is, if I had Master Good Domain (+4 Training Bonus) and Expert Law Domain (+2 Training Bonus), a +4 Training Bonus from the general casting cornerstone, and +6 Level Bonus, I would have:

  • +7 Caster Training Bonus for Good spells (Training Bonuses are capped at ceiling(level/2), but I wanted the higher-level spells) and can cast up to RSRD-fifth level Good spells at thirteenth caster level;
  • +5 Caster Training Bonus for Law spells and can cast up to RSRD-third level Law spells at eleventh caster level;
  • +4 Caster Training Bonus for all other spells and can cast up to RSRD-second level (common) spells at tenth caster level.

As cool as this seems, I don’t know that I want to try to deal with it.  The less-detailed version above results in

  • +7 Caster Training Bonus (again because they are capped) and can cast up to RSRD-fifth level spells (common and Good lists, since he has them that high, but is limited to RSRD-second level spells for the Law list because he only has Expert), all castable at thirteenth caster level.

Either approach could be workable, and might work better than building “caster level” specifically using two talents, then spell knowledge after that.  I think it will come down to a matter of taste, really.

Cornerstones from Character Concepts

Character concepts are probably better modelled as archetypes, and thus likely capstone talents rather than cornerstone talents, but there may be some where the character concept drives the character’s development rather than draws it (as a capstone might).  “Chosen by the Gods” is unlikely to be  a common talent, could be a capstone, but it isn’t likely something you could deliberately work toward, and thus might better fit as a cornerstone.

At this point these cornerstone talents are in the “make from whole cloth” bin because they aren’t necessarily working from existing material.

Closing Comments

These are the three primary sources of cornerstones I see so far.  Races, split powers, and character concepts.  I’ll explore specific instances in following posts.

Addendum: having updated the Dwarf cornerstone from a forum post a week ago, and worked through the RSRD Elf race to build a new one, I have to say that I’m not impressed with what I’m starting with.  I’m going to start over with these, using other information I have available.  RSRD races appear to be little more than ‘humans in funny suits’, and that makes it hard to come up with interesting cornerstones using them.

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