Friday, May 23, 2014

RPG Stuff: Playable Lycanthrope Race

An excellent representation of a werewolf adventurer, link included.
In the midst of planning my Return to Ravenloft campaign, I realized that there was a possibility that some of my players might end up controlling a werewolf. Whether their character contracted lycanthropy, or if they took over an NPC that was already a werewolf, there was a distinct possibility that they would need to control a lycanthrope. Which was fine by me!

The problem, of course, is that I had designed the adventure to use 4th Edition rules for D&D where there are no rules for player characters to play as lycanthropes, werewolf or otherwise. In 3rd Edition, racial templates were a very large thing -- vampires, werewolves, wilden, lichs; you couldn't flip through a Monster Manual without stumbling across at least a dozen of the templates. And, in the grand scope and often convoluted design of 3rd Edition, they were even relatively easy to implement: you would simply design your character as normal, complete with starting race and the like, and then apply the template and make any applicable changes after the fact. My longest-lived character in 3rd Edition was a half-dragon sorcerer who kicked ass absolutely all of the time, specifically because he had the innate Strength and Constitution to take and dish out a melee beating while still having an off-the-charts Charisma to dish out all the nasty spells he had learned. Not to mention fire breath, natural armour, claws and sharp teeth if his weapons were misplaced.

(Yes, Pyro was a bit of a cheat and I was certainly the culprit of using an overpowered character. But I'll defend that choice by saying my GM at the time was merciless and killed a PC practically every session, so I did what was necessary for me to have fun. Besides, Pyro wasn't even a half-dragon anymore by the time the campaign came to an end -- resurrection is a funny thing -- so I still consider my record unbesmirched. Yet I digress.)

Dem vampires, man.
4th Edition, on the other hand, has no racial templates to speak of. In fact, the only way you can play even a vampire character in 4E is by choosing that as your class -- and, if you ask me, that's a pretty piss-poor way of emulating that style of character. It's not very thematic -- who starts off as an adventurer and decides, "I want to be a Vampire"? -- and it doesn't work very well plot-wise. Vampires-as-characters are generally adventurers who have some foul event befall unto them, which means they started out as something else. How does it make sense that a character who was previously a druid would up and forget all of his wild shape abilities and start using powers that allow him to manipulate blood?

So I was left scouring the archives for ways to have a character gain the abilities of a werewolf while still maintaining a consistent and balanced class that fit within the existing conventions of an adventuring party. It was during these searches that I found Backgrounds and Themes -- these were additional add-ons that players could take at character creation to give their characters a bit of a thematic boost while also offering them some additional in-game bonuses and powers. Almost all of them were to be found in the Dragon Magazine archives, which explained why I had not been familiar with them prior to my research, but almost all of them were really excellent. They offered compelling, but not game-breaking, bonuses to characters while giving them a bit more thematic depth.

Now I've never been a stickler for balance and, as a GM, my style is much more plot-driven than rules-lawyering. That being said, I have learned to be fairly hands-on with character creation -- the first time I ran the Expedition to Castle Ravenloft campaign, the characters people brought to the table were min-maxed to the nines and were horribly unbalanced for a campaign that was supposed to be a horrific insert into a mostly regular game. So I learned from my mistakes and I now take a much more vocal role in character creation (something that I would recommend to any GM, new or old).

With that in mind, I still wanted to use the Themes and Backgrounds. Instead of allowing the players to choose their own, however, I had them give me their base characters and concepts and I chose a Theme and a Background each that would match the character. Thus, I ensured balance between the characters to ensure that every character had a little bit of a boost while instilling some of those extra thematic points in the character concept. Who cares if the party would be able to cut through enemies a bit faster, as long as everyone was having fun and had a fully fleshed out character?

But despite all my searching, I was still unable to find anything fitting for werewolves in 4E. There was a Theme attached to the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting that instilled some of that barbaric animalistic nature of werewolves but it was more thematic as a barbarian tribe than an actual wolfman, so it wasn't enough for me. I even found a homebrew 4E Werewolf class from my friend David at Points of Light that one of his players had constructed. it was a solid offering that emulated the abilities of a werewolf but ran into the same issue that the Vampire class had -- namely, that it replaced all of the actual abilities from other classes with things that only werewolves could do. It didn't match up with what I wanted but it did provide some good pointers.

I quickly became aware that what I really wanted was a Werewolf Race in 4E. A race would allow people to have innate abilities given to them from their lycanthropy but still have an actual class to perform trained abilities they had learned from experience. Of course, such a race did not exist in 4E -- so I decided I had best design one myself. So I did so. You can find my results below:

Excellent image from Sandara on DeviantArt.
Beings who, through affliction or curse, have become one with the bestial nature within us all.

Average Height: As base race.
Average Weight: As base race.

Ability Scores: +2 Dexterity, +2 Wisdom OR +2 Strength, +2 Wisdom (depending on your lycanthrope animal)
Size: Medium
Speed: 7 squares (35 feet)
Vision: Low-light

Languages: As base race.
Skill Bonuses: +2 Athletics, +2 Nature
Wild Shape: You gain the Wild Shape ability, as the Druid class (PHB2, pg. 84), with some limitations: the character must pick a single animal whose characteristics they will always adopt (wolf, bear, rat, et cetera). When transforming, the character will only be able to change to a hybrid form; the character will appear mostly humanoid but will take on the characteristics of their lycanthrope animal.
Beast Form Powers: During character creation, choose one At-Will, one Encounter and one Daily power from the Druid power list. All powers must be Level 1 and must have the Beast Form keyword attached.
At Level 3 (and at every applicable higher level), choose one Level 3 Encounter power from the Druid power list to replace the Level 1 Encounter power; the same Beast Form limitation applies.
At Level 5 (and at every applicable higher level), choose one Level 5 Daily power from the Druid power list to replace the Level 1 Daily power; the same Beast Form limitation applies.
Every time you choose a replacement power, lose the lower level power of that type.
Bloodlust: You gain the Bloodlust racial power, as below:

Origins: Lycanthropy is a magical illness or curse that can afflict almost all races in existence. As such, every lycanthrope must choose a base race that they originated as. This original race will help define the characters origins and will determine how the character appears when not in their bestial form.

The character loses all bonuses attached to their original race and instead take on the bonuses listed above. This includes Ability Score bonuses, Skill bonuses, Racial Powers, powers gained from race features, any bonuses for saving throws and defenses, and so forth. Characters are allowed to keep Armour and Weapon Proficiencies granted from their race, however.

As I've mentioned in some of my previous after-action reports, I'm aware that the Lycanthrope race is a bit unbalanced (read: really quite unbalanced) compared to the other races. After all, the Beast Form Powers feature gives the player access to an additional At-Will, Encounter and Daily power from a completely different class. I feel like the cycling of the powers stop it from becoming too unbalanced -- a consistent list of three powers to draw from is obviously favourable to an ever-increasing value -- but it is still three more powers than your typical character would have access to.

I'm also aware that the Bloodlust racial power is very powerful -- it started as a derivation of the Longtooth Shifter racial power, then became much more powerful and transitioned to a Daily power to help off-set the potency. It's obviously more powerful than other racial powers but I feel as though the upgrade to Daily, and the inability to drop out of it (inspired by Barbarian Rage), helps balance that a bit.

Really, the Lycanthrope race is an amalgam of already established mechanics in the game: most of the stats above started as a derivation of the Shifter race -- the Ability Score bonuses, for instance, as well as the Skill bonuses -- and the Beast Form powers are taken straight from the Druid class. Add some inspiration from Barbarians and some mechanics straight from the lycanthrope entry in the Monster Manual (the effect of silvered weapons, for instance), and you've got the general idea.

One thing that I did struggle with was the Origins section: I wanted to maintain the original form of the character somehow, both mechanically and thematically, but wanted to ensure as much balance as possible. I considered looking through all of the racial features and choosing one for each race that would carry over -- things like the Eladrin bonus against Charm effects, or the Halfling bonus against opportunity attacks -- in an effort to help instill that thematic quality of the original race shining through. This would also have the added effect of becoming a Lycanthrope seeming more like a template than a truly original race. But I eventually decided that feature would make the Lycanthrope race that much more unbalanced and decided to scrap it. It's probably for the best, though I'm still trying to think up ways to maintain that thematic quality for the characters. I'm always open to suggestions, if anyone out there has any!

So there it is! The above is what I have provided to one of the players in the current Return to Ravenloft campaign and he is absolutely loving the mechanics. He enjoys the freedom of being able to switch back and forth from human to beast form and back, and the extra powers he has been given access to have saved the party once or twice already. I am still concerned with trying to maintain balance and ensure that Jack (and by extension Nick R.) doesn't outshine the other characters in combat -- so far, that has not been too much of an issue, but it is certainly something I will need to watch as the characters increase in level.

If anyone has any suggestions for balancing the race a bit better, or options that I should consider adding/removing, please feel free to drop a comment below. The Lycanthrope race is something that I still consider a work-in-progress, especially considering it has only seen two sessions of playtesting. Thoughts? Concerns? I'd love to hear what you think!

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