Origin of the Name
It is not explicitly spelled out in the D&D 3.x core books that play changes significantly through the various levels. The lack of this explicit statement has caused, for many people, a detachment between the levels of power and the styles of play appropriate to those levels of power. This is evident from the disparity of ability between classes of different types – spell casters gain power on a quadratic curve, while those who don’t use spells grow more linearly.
Or, to use a common complaint about D&D, “fighters can’t have nice stuff”.
On top of this, because ‘mundane’ characters, those who do not use magic, learn only ‘real’ things such as combat tricks or skill use, there is the perception that much of what these characters can do should be learnable by ‘anyone’. After all, it’s just a matter of training and skill, not magic.
The name ‘Echelon’ was chosen as a conscious reflection of how D&D, especially D&D 3.x editions, actually works. Just as échelon originally meant a rung of a ladder, Echelon has explicit tiers of ability, power, or incredibility. The abilities (called ‘Talents’) gained at each level are expected to be appropriate to the tier.
Echelon was also chosen because this game no longer uses classes, and all other editions of D&D (and most d20 games) have. Character differentiation is managed through their tiers (as indicated by level) and the talents chosen. A high-tier martial character is expected to be just as awesome and incredible as a spell caster of the same tier.
Levels and Tiers
There are seven initial tiers in Echelon. Each is four levels in size and the transition between each marks a distinct increase in power and incredibility.
Basic Tier (Levels 1-4)
This tier covers most ‘normal’ people and many of the more mundane and relatively non-threatening creatures. It is possible to be a master craftsman, soldier, or housecat.
Introductory adventures and ‘apprentice-level’ adventures might take place in this tier, but these are expected to be uncommon.
Expert Tier (Levels 5-8)
Beginning adventurers, unusually capable non-adventurers, and many of the more common predatory animals such as wolves are found in this tier. For the most part, unusually competent people in the real world (including many geniuses, such as Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton) would likely be in this tier.
Adventures in this tier are often fairly straightforward, be they dungeon crawls, urban adventures, or simple wilderness adventures. Most have fairly limited and easily managed scope.
Heroic Tier (Levels 9-12)
Characters and creatures in this tier are beyond common human capability in our world. Some real-world people might be in this tier, but they are going to be quite rare. The abilities are often extensions of real-world capabilities, but more (such as a character able to climb a smooth wall without using tools, or being able to do a standing jump equal to a running jump from a lower-tier character). There are still some mundane animals from our world in this tier – they are not incredible, just beyond human capability (most of the major predators are stronger than a human can be, for example).
Adventures in this tier are more wide-ranging. If Expert adventures take place around a single town or small region (such as in a ‘points of light’ setting) and have limited local consequences, a Heroic adventure might involve traveling between regions or have consequences that affect a region.
Master Tier (Levels 13-16)
Characters and creatures in this tier are well beyond what is possible in our world. Spell casters can teleport or bring the dead back to life, and fantastic abilities become much more common.
Adventures in this tier might have consequences that affect an entire kingdom. This might be leading a rebellion against an unjust ruler, dealing with an invasion from the Icy North, recovering a lost artifact that causes dissension and strife in the Grand Temple.
Champion Tier (Levels 17-20)
Even more than Master tier, characters and creatures in this tier are nearly at the pinnacle of mortal ability. Whatever a Master-tier character might be capable of doing, a Champion-tier character may be able to do it better (higher grade result, more of it, and so on).
Adventures in this tier can be expected to have far-reaching effects, often affecting multiple kingdoms or an entire continent.
Legendary Tier (Levels 21-24)
This is pinnacle of mortal ability. Characters in this tier are close to being ready to pursue immortality – not in song and story, but true immortality and a place among the gods.
Adventures in this tier might have consequences that span the world.
Epic Tier (Levels 25-28)
Characters in this tier are likely pursuing immortality, directly serving the gods or learning to manipulate the fundamental elements of reality.
While planar travel may show up in lower tiers, adventures in this tier can have consequences that affect entire planes.