Deconstructing Vanessa...a lesson in handling published NPCs

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willpell
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Deconstructing Vanessa...a lesson in handling published NPCs

Post by willpell » Tue Apr 03, 2018 2:52 am

I've long been fascinated by the puzzle of character creation in 3E; it may not lend itself to actual play as well as the current minimalist approach, but as a use for one's idle hours it's tough to beat. I'm currently working on the book Elder Evils excessively, toiling to convert NPCs on the printed page into entities that I understand holistically and could use in a storyline, and this often means trying to take a published high level NPC and "unlevel" them, figure out how their build works. This process is a good way to remind yourself that Wizards was constantly breaking their own rules, and often the result is just frustrating, but sometimes it turns out well.

A particularly interesting case study is the last NPC in the book, an archivist named Vanessa Mackelroy, from the chapter on Zargon. (Mystara fans take note, this is based on the module The Lost City.) Vanessa is presented as a villain in the service of the corrupt Cyndiceans, a level 7 Entropomancer, which in turn requires her to have 7 more levels in a divine spellcasting class (Archivist in her case). This is the only version of her which is statted out, but the included sample storyline specifically calls for Vanessa to initially travel with the PCs as a friend...this is when she is just an Archivist (an "expert on dead gods" as the descriptive text puts it), and so it would be very helpful to have stats for this early version of her, who hasn't yet been kidnapped and pulled into the Zargon drug-cult and started taking Entropomancer levels and getting Vile feats.

In trying to regress Vanessa back to her pre-villainous version, I ran into a lot of trouble with her skill ratings; I'll run through the gritty details when I have more time, but in brief, Vanessa has an impossible INT of 22, with otherwise average stats, and her skill totals exceed even what should be possible along with that. This greatly complicates the problem of building her legally, let alone in a fashion consistent with the story arc she goes through.

More on this intriguingly thorny problem to come....

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Re: Deconstructing Vanessa...a lesson in handling published NPCs

Post by shesheyan » Tue Apr 03, 2018 1:32 pm

willpell wrote:
Tue Apr 03, 2018 2:52 am
In trying to regress Vanessa back to her pre-villainous version, I ran into a lot of trouble with her skill ratings; I'll run through the gritty details when I have more time, but in brief, Vanessa has an impossible INT of 22, with otherwise average stats, and her skill totals exceed even what should be possible along with that. This greatly complicates the problem of building her legally, let alone in a fashion consistent with the story arc she goes through.
Very Interesting.

And that is why I fell off the 3/3.5 band wagon eventually. First it tried making all my NPCs legally which took too long as we got to higher levels. I wanted to spend that time to think and write the scenario. After a while I just started re-using the same 10 NPCs sheets and simply renamed them, over and over again.
Currently playing : Coriolis The Third Horizon
Preparing : Modern AGE Urban Arcana mini-campaign
Reading : 5E Sci-Fi Esper Genesis

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Re: Deconstructing Vanessa...a lesson in handling published NPCs

Post by willpell » Tue Apr 03, 2018 10:32 pm

Vanessa's stats are Str 13, Dex 14, Con 15, Int 22, Wis 10 and Cha 11. As a tiefling, these stats translate to a human equivalent of Str 13, Dex 12, Con 15, Int 20, Wis 10 and Cha 13. She's a level 14 character, so she got a plus one (my phone apparently cannot create a plus sign, that's going to make this whole thing more difficult) three times, giving her an initial INT of 17. Thusly, if built using the point-buy rules, she paid 13 for that high INT, 8 for Con, 6 for Dex, 2 for Wis and 5 each for the other two stats...a total of 39 pb. I think the highest advised PB is 32.

Deriving 32 from 39 is easiest if we assume Vanessa was originally a more ordinary INT 13, and at some point in her fourteen-level career stumbled upon a Tome of Clear Thought, medium power, which boosted her brainpower from "prodigy" to "superhuman". However, per the rules, this would leave her very deficient on skill points, so we must likely abandon this theory.

Actually, scratch that. I just thought to check her gear, and she's listed as having a Headband of Intellect and Gloves of Dexterity, both plus two. I could subtract those, but frankly it doesn't fix the problem, as the headband can't give her skill points anyway, so I'm just going to ignore these items completely for the purposes of this analysis; they only make her illegal status worse.

However Vanessa got her stats, they give her an innate INT bonus of 6, con and dex bonuses of 2, str of 1, and no Wis or Cha bonuses. Going over her skill list, we subtract all of these bonuses, along with her entire Bluff and Hide skills which are just a Tiefling racial bonus, synergy bonuses to Gather Info and Spellcraft because of her Local and Arcana knowledges, 3 points of Intimidate for her Willing Deformity, and the Magical Aptitude feat. This actually adds to both Spellcraft and UMD, but when the other adjustments are complete, we are left with a total of 19 apparent ranks in both Spellcraft and Knowledge Arcana (as a level 14 character, she can have only 17 ranks in a skill), so I'm guessing that Vanessa's builder misremembered this obscure skill-boosting Feat and applied it to the knowledge.

This done, we are left with Vanessa's evident skill ranks: Appraise 5, Concentration 17, Decipher Script 10, Heal 7, Intimidate 7, Arcana 17, Dungeoneering 10, Geography 10, Local Knowledge 7, Religion 15, Search 13, Spellcraft 17, and Use Magic Device 5. If she was a 14-level Factotum (the Dungeonscape catch-all class, not the Planescape definition), then she'd be able to get all these skills for 148 skill points, which would be easy enough with 12 skill points per level. But the situation is much, much more difficult than that.

Our miss Mackelroy has started her career as an Archivist, then become an Entropomancer; neither of those classes is heavy on skill points. Ignoring the question of when she raised her INT, if she managed to have 22 since day 1 and never changed, her Archivist levels each get 10 skill points, quadrupled for the first of seven and thus producing an even hundred. Entropomancers aren't so skillful; here she gets only 8 points a level, totaling 56. That's enough, it seems, except that Vanessa does not have the Able Learner feat (as a non-human, she can't, although Races of Destiny optionally allows it for part-human races such as tieflings), so it very much matters whether her skills are in-class when she buys them. Appraise is never in-class for her, so that's five skill points wasted on double-cost ranks right there; additionally, any skill with more than ten ranks has spilled over into her Entropo levels, and several of these skills are cross-class at that point (Decipher Script 2, Dungeoneering 2, and Search 3).

So seven more points are taxed by class restrictions, for a total of 12 including Appraise, and that cuts our hypothetical unchanging wunderkind down to 144 skill ranks. This is already just shy of what she needs, but shaving a skill point each off levels 1-3, before she plus-oned her starting Tiefling INT of 19, and then another point off all those levels and all the others prior to 12, when she could attain the full value shown, leaves her 14 more short...too big a miscalculation, at this point, to even fix by just completely dropping one maxed-out Skill.

EDIT: Looking at the Archivist class features, the solution presents itself...three of her skills are boosted by 2 with Lore Mastery, so a number of small cross class investments can be avoided. It still becomes necessary to assume that she started her career with an insanely high INT (18 raised to 20 by race), and thus her point-buy total is even more insane than before; we might be able to fix this somewhat by replacing the Headband with a different item, as her initial builder seems to have included the Headband bonus in her skill points total for every level of her career, none of which should have worked.

EDIT AGAIN... Okay, I haven't double-checked everything, but it looks like the correctly adjusted skill numbers add up to 148 skill points, the same total I previously calculated (proving I did one of these sums wrong, since one accounts for cross-classing and the other doesn't). Assuming that I did it right this time, it's enough, though only barely; she bought eight ranks cross-class, and has just enough skill points for that, if her INT was always 22. So it's just that part of the design which is awry; we can ignore point-buy limits and assume she was rolled up with an 18, but that still leaves her missing 10 skill points because she doesn't reach her full INT until level 8 (the same time she becomes an Entropomancer, interestingly). I'll run through it one more time and then post the resulting Level 1 version later today.

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Re: Deconstructing Vanessa...a lesson in handling published NPCs

Post by willpell » Mon Apr 09, 2018 2:47 am

Okay, there's no legal way of making Vanessa start the game as a 22-int superhuman without worsening her Tiefling level adjustment...so let's go ahead and do that, making her a Prodigy, just because it's super convenient for her to start with 40 skill points instead of 36. (Except that Prodigy also boosts skills by plus 4, so that still doesn't work; argh. Okay, the attributes issue just gets to remain unresolved for now.) This nets her ten sets of 4-point Skills:
* Appraise 2 (cross class)
* Use Magic Device 2 (cross class)
* Concentration 4
* Decipher Script 4
* Search 4
* Spellcraft 4
* Knowledge Arcana 4
* Knowledge Religion 4
* Knowledge Dungeoneering 2 and Knowledge Geography 2
* Knowledge Local 1 and a yet to be determined Knowledge 3 (this is me building some wiggle room in, to account for the probability that I've screwed up somewhere).

As to the rest, level 1 Vanessa has 7 hit points, a total of plus 4 on Fortitude saves and plus 2 on the others, the Scribe Scroll bonus feat plus one feat of her choice (probably Improved Initiative), and the Dark Knowledge Tactics ability usable 3 times per day. She casts 3 orisons and 2 real spells per day, using a save DC of 17 for the latter (her absurd Intelligence score makes saving against her spells nearly impossible for level appropriate foes, but a lack of Wisdom means that she receives no extra spell slots and thus can only cast five total spells a day at first level). With her Intelligence level seeming to be 20 at bare minimum, her initial prayerbook should have contained at least 8 first level spells at character creation, plus two more learned automatically at 2nd level, with no mechanic for discarding such spells in order to learn new ones; the final version of Vanessa is listed as knowing only five level one spells, so that further suggests that something wonky was going on when she was built. (This discrepancy could be explained as evil Zargon-cultist Vanessa having lost her original prayerbook when she was captured by the Cyndiceans, and not bothered to replace all those early spells when she created a new one...the rules don't explicitly say that an archivist's prayerbook can be replaced like a wizard's spellbook, but I'm sure this was meant to be true. More likely, however, this was simply an editing oversight.)

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Re: Deconstructing Vanessa...a lesson in handling published NPCs

Post by Khedrac » Mon Apr 09, 2018 1:14 pm

I think it is usually accepted that a lot of the 3.5 "example characters" simply don't work by the rules. If Vanessa is presented as actually having the pre-requisites for her feats she is doing better than many!
"If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it might just be a crow".

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Re: Deconstructing Vanessa...a lesson in handling published NPCs

Post by willpell » Mon Apr 09, 2018 6:55 pm

Khedrac wrote:
Mon Apr 09, 2018 1:14 pm
I think it is usually accepted that a lot of the 3.5 "example characters" simply don't work by the rules. If Vanessa is presented as actually having the pre-requisites for her feats she is doing better than many!
True, they often did screw up; another example in the same book is Marcus Hape, who is presented as having four levels each of Assassin, Rogue, and Thrall to Demogorgon, but he can't hit either the skill requirements of Assassin or the BAB prerequisite of Thrall with less than five Rogue levels. In this case, however, there's a better than average explanation; Marcus's statblock lists him as having no spells, just the SLAs from the Thrall class, so it's reasonable to assume that Marcus's "DM" could have granted him early entry into the Assassin PrC in exchange for him never getting spells from it. (While most of the PrCs come online at level 5, there are a few which become available sooner, so getting to be an assassin before level 6 isn't inconceivable, it just requires a ruling.)

I'm hoping I might manage to discover some such explanation for Vanessa's problems. One find I made since my last post, though not precisely a helpful one, is that the Madness feat gives her a permanent -4 to her Wisdom score, so she was created at WIS 14. This means her point buy total is even more inordinate than I thought, but does also mean that her level one version gets a third spell every day, and other benefits like a better Will save, so that version's playability is improved by this find, assuming the DM is okay with her stats. (Currently she's sitting at a point buy total of 28 plus whatever she gets for INT; ignoring the skill issues, the Headband and her racial and level bonuses total plus 7, so she could have been created with 15, but that would cost another 8 PB for a total of 36.)

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