Monday, January 16, 2012

What works in D&D - part 3

Just as older editions of D&D had a firmer baseline, they also had a more defined cap. I hate to use the word "cap", because its not exactly true, but the way the experience point system is set up, there is a point when character development stops having such an emphasis on leveling up, and more of an emphasis on how the character influences the game world (we'll call it a "soft cap"). There comes a point, typically between 200k-400k xp, when a character reaches "Name" level. The actual level may vary (9-12) but this is when a character stops rolling Hit Dice, and is presumed to have reached the upper limits of power, with further advancement being a lot more incremental in terms of hit points and armor class. From this point, goals become more obscure and narrative-driven - establishing and maintaining strongholds, attracting followers, carving demesnes from the wilderness, researching more obscure and powerful spells, and so on.

This could also be seen as a time to let those name-level characters essentially retire, fading into the background of campaign setting politics and such, letting players start new characters and reserve those high level PCs for only the most earthshaking missions. In a way, successful players "win" the game by getting to this point, or by tapping some later resources to poke a finger into the strange waters of attaining demi-god or "immortal" status.

Later editions would remove the "soft cap" of 10th level and push it up to 20th (or 30th in "epic" play). To facilitate that, the options of the game would have to get so far from the baseline as to become nearly comedic. Where once an armor class of "0" (or 20 in ascending terms) was a watermark only breached by the toughest dragons (or high-dex elves in magical plate mail), armor classes in the 40's (or -20's in descending terms) had to become commonplace. To challenge a party of say, 18th level characters, who are now presumed to continue regular dungeon crawling, you have to have dozens and dozens of extremely powerful (yet mundane and common) monsters to stock those dungeons, begging the question of how any lowly orcs, beggars, or 10th level paladins for that matter, can even exist in this nightmarish apocalyptic world.

In case the implications of the removal of the soft cap are not immediately obvious, this basically means that, no matter how powerful your character gets, there will always be a multitude of more powerful foes out there. Not one or two, mister 12th level ranger, but hordes of stuff designed to make much higher level characters wet their pants. In eight years of running and playing 3x, this seemed to convey to the players and DMs (in my experience at least) a growing feeling of "nothing's ever good enough". There was no built in mechanism like Name Level to attain, no gradual high-level power curve to ride gracefully into a well-deserved retirement and notorious spot in tavern tales and the epic poetry touted across the realms by any bard worth his salt.

The term "grind" is one often used to describe later edition combat - hours of PC bonuses and modifiers striving against heaps of monster hit points and star-trek-spaceship-force-field-level armor classes until one emerges the statistical victor. But its not too much of a leap to describe an entire 20 or 30 level 3x or later campaign as a grind - when does it all end? In my experience, these campaigns ended when everyone got fed up with the needless complexity of high-level play.

If I had to pick the best publisher of contemporary edition adventures out there right now, I'd pick Paizo, hands down. Their Adventure Paths are consistently well-thought out, entertaining, with high production values and interesting plots that make you not mind the odd railroad car so much. Yet, scanning message boards out there, you will find a whole lot more "just started Adventure Path X!" threads than you will "Just finished Adventure Path X!". Actually, I couldn't find any of the latter, but I'm assuming there must be some, just harder to find maybe. What do you do when the rules themselves are the biggest challenge to overcome for even the best adventures?

To be continued...


  1. > In a way, successful players "win" the game by getting to this point

    I like this concept very much. It helps explain the game to new people. Gives everyone a tangible goal and reason to be poking around deadly tombs and what not.

  2. Interesting post. In fact interesting series of posts so far. I completely agree with you that removing the "soft cap," as you term it, changes the nature of the game at a fundamental level. When surrounded by constant access to goodies, goodies lose their value (hence the experience of a value-less grind). Ironically, though, being surrounded by constant goodies makes it difficult to forgo them, because it makes the perceived loss of goodies more noticeable (hence the difficulty in modifying goodie-laden rule sets).

  3. I've been putting a lot of thought into putting name levels into my 4e campaign, because while some players are perfectly happy to dungeon dive for 30 levels, some of us want to become movers and shakers. (I also like coming up with explanations for the high level food chain.)

    It's going to be a lot of work though, because I'm not satisfied with the 90% narrative let's-play-kings-and-castles style. I want more game in my I have to make my own rules.

  4. I like these posts, you are raising interesting points. I think there's always been an interesting friction between the concepts of playing an open-ended game that does not define a winner (or winners) and what to do once the characters are so powerful that challenging them becomes an actual challenge itself.

  5. Thank you for the excellent post. You put into words what I experienced, but never articulated/reflected upon. And I totally agree with you that this is a virtue of the game. When my characters reached named level, I never felt let down or cheated. I felt the satisfaction of finishing a long race. I had accomplished something significant, but there were other races to run in the future. A character may retire, but the campaign, the game continued.

  6. Hmm... this post reminds me most of E6 ( ), though with a higher soft cap. Also an excellent summary of why high-level 3.x is painful and nonsensical.

    1. Yes! I've been avidly following this series of posts, which cut to the heart of the matter (as usual). BtBG is one of my favorite blogs to read for well-considered system analysis & comparison.

      Even at 3rd level I'm running into these kinds of problems with my home Pathfinder game. I'm starting to dread what it's going to play like when the PCs get into the double digits. Maybe I can armtwist everyone into playing E6.

  7. @John - you ninja'd part of my next post! :)

  8. Al, thanks for this series, I'm really enjoying it.

    I believe your post should be read back to back with this post by Mr. Rients about level limits HERE.

    One point:

    this is when a character stops rolling Hit Dice, and is presumed to have reached the upper limits of power

    I think this is mostly true, but violated somewhat by the magic-user, who continues to accumulate new spells. A 15th level fighter is not that much more powerful than a 10th level fighter, but a 15th level magic-user is much more powerful than a 10th level magic-user. Consulting Labyrinth Lord, a magic-user is first able to prepare a 9th level spell at 17th level. This issue is mitigated somewhat by capping magic-user spells at 6th level (as in OD&D and B/X), but even then it doesn't go away.

  9. An irritating experience I had with 3.5 occurred when our DM was moving away, and we had time for one last session. I suggested that we fast forward a few levels (we were about 8th, I think), so that we could take on the evil dragon emperor (who was some kind of Hell Dragon - lots of hp, etc). The DM dismissed it pretty much out of hand, saying that EPIC-level play really required a level of player knowledge that some of us didn't have - as if we needed to train for it, or something. So, in the end, we just fought a bunch of monsters that the DM really wanted to try out on us. :-/



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