A few months ago I read Justin’s article, “D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations“. I agree with a fair amount of what it says about how character level expectations are often unreasonable (‘Einstein need only have been fifth level’… Justin shows how this could be so, and it makes sense).
That in mind, I think the ‘highest level local’ tables are insane. The highest-level Commoner — an NPC class with bugger all opportunity for advancement — has the base level rolled using 4d4. There is a 1/256 chance that any particular highest-level local commoner has a base level of 16.
In a metropolis, with its +12 modifier to this roll, this results in a 28th-level Commoner.
This is, in my opinion, insane.
Below I analyze why it’s like this, and what can be done about it to make it reasonable. While I look primarily at the Commoner class, I think the logic extends to the other NPC classes (Adept, Aristocrat, Expert, Warrior). These are not intended to be the heroes, why do they have the ability to gain heroic stature (high level)?
Why is it like That?
I can see two reasons why the system might be set up like this.
First, to ensure that sufficiently skilled individuals are present.
A fifth-level Commoner (or Expert, if necessary) can achieve world-class results with sufficient tuning. High Int, Skill Focus, skill synergies, good tools (masterwork and/or enchanted), Aid Other, all can result in the ability to hit DC40 at least some of the time.
Ability score bonus +4, Skill Focus +3, 8 ranks in skill, we’re at +15. Add masterwork tools (+2), an assistant (+2 for Aid Other, if only one can help), a +5 item to help, we’ve got +24. Get some circumstance bonuses, ability score bump (+2, +4, +6 item, for another +1-3) and we’re getting close to +30.
You don’t need a Commoner 18 smith to make the supermasterwork sword.
Frequency of Skilled Individuals
The second reason for having such high-level Commoners is to ensure there are enough highly-skilled individuals in the settlement. If you start with a 16th-level Commoner, you get (according to the DMG) two 8th-level, four 4th-level, and eight 2nd-level Commoners (and a slew of first-level commoners, of course; they aren’t calculated using this system).
This means a total of fifteen Commoners higher than first level.
This reason makes some sense to me. If you have enough people there should be a reasonable number who are more skilled than usual. I don’t think it’s necessary to have a 16th-level Commoner at the top, though.
How to Fix
With my premise that the problem here lies with the level of the highest-level Commoner, rather than the number of them, I propose the following:
- reduce the roll for all NPC classes to 1d4, and add *half* the community modifier. You’ll still end up with relatively high-level commoners in a metropolis (1d4+6, for 7th-10th level), but it’s not nearly as bad.
- multiply the number of rolls for the NPC classes by the number of dice that used to be rolled. In a metropolis (+12 community modifier, rolled four times) you’ll roll for sixteen highest-level local Commoners.
- Adepts normally roll 1d6. In the bulk determination (91% commoners, 3% warriors, etc.) adepts and aristocrats split 1% of the total, so treat Adepts like Aristocrats: d4+half community modifier.
This results in slightly fewer higher-level NPC class members. Where you might have a single 16th-level Commoner and his tree below him, you might now have (up to) four 4th-level commoners and eight 2nd-level commoners. You lose the three highest-level that might have been rolled before. Perhaps add an additional d4 roll (Adepts and Aristocrats get two d4 rolls, Warriors get three d4 rolls, Experts get four d4 rolls, and Commoners get five d4 rolls). This should strike fairly close to the total counts normally seen.
Incidentally, I’d still calculate the first-level characters under this model. While they are still first-level characters, I treat them as somewhat special. They’re more optimally designed, they have a specific purpose in the campaign, whatever. They stand out.
There is no need to change how the highest-level elite class members are determined. The changes outlined above mean there’s a good chance the highest-level fighter has a higher level than the highest-level warrior (which in my opinion makes sense). There may be more fighters overall, but that’s okay.
When I want more elite characters (a town where the Wizard Academy has a College should probably have more wizards than usual) I’ve got a few options.
- Roll a bigger die (d8 or even d12 instead of d4)
- Increase the size of the community modifier
- Roll more times
One or more of the above can be done, and I can, of course, simply ignore the dice and put in what I want. I usually prefer to roll, though, because it leads to ‘more organic’ results.
I think this presents a workable system for determining ‘highest-level local’ NPCs for a settlement. It removes the insanely high levels of the weakest, non-adventuring classes (Commoner 28? Get real), keeps the possibility of having world-class talent in a settlement, and keeps a comparable number of higher-level locals to the old system.