Just The Rules: Higher Expectations

Or perhaps ‘higher level expectations’.

I have long held the opinion that D&D-based game have several modes of play.

In old school D&D, the low to middle levels, from first to just-before-name-level, were a sort of ‘personal heroism’ level, before ‘making a name for themselves’ and becoming significant powers themselves. PCs start off a little more capable than normal people, grow into middling powerful, larger than life heroes, and then to serious actors in their own right.

BECMI had this explicitly. PCs start as basic adventures, become expert heroes, rulers of the land, mythic figures of the realms, and ultimately gods.

Adventurer, Conqueror, King System bakes this right into the game modes, to the point it is the name of the game itself. A PC starts as an adventurer, possibly with no real ties, carves out a realm, and then rules over it.

In D&D 3.x-based games, there are distinct bands, modes of play based on PC capability, that are evident. There are several models for these bands. I have most often seen five-level bands (1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20), I think because of how the base attack bonus and iterative attacks come into play. I favor four-level bands (1-4, 5-8, 9-12, 13-16, 17-20) because they align with iconic spells coming online (fireball at level 5, teleport and raise dead at level 9, and so on), and I think this a more true representation of the power curve.

On that basis, when I design for 3.x-based games, I tend to look to spells available in the ranges to gauge whether an ability is reasonable for a character of that level. I take into account flexibility and expected frequency of use, but in terms of power and capability, the bands work fairly well.

For instance, the fly spell is available to level 5 wizards. They don’t need to study air magic in order to qualify (i.e. no real prerequisites beyond class level), it’s a very useful ability, and through scrolls — and wizards get the Scribe Scroll feat as a bonus feat at first level — they can likely have the spell available whenever needed… and can share it with others.

If a player came to me with an idea for a race or even a skill that allowed a PC to fly at fifth level, I would treat it seriously, not deny it out of hand. Yes, it makes certain in-game challenges easy, but the PCs can already have that via a wizard with the fly spell. I’d want to check the balance on it — that it’s usable at will might not be a problem, especially if the character is limited to light loads and can’t reasonably wear armor.

Keith’s Choice

I expect to continue this line of thought, using the same four-level bands I normally do. I obviously like the definitions I use in Echelon, (though Echelon is calibrated eight levels higher — a level 1 PC in D&D 3.x and Pathfinder is level 9 in Echelon) and expect to use them in devising path features, feats, and so on. Casting the Echelon tier definitions back tot his game, I see the following.

  • Level 1-4 Veteran. Professional badasses, tougher than almost everyone you meat, but still more or less realistic.
  • Level 5-8 Heroic. Larger than life, and indeed very few in human history land in this range. Heroes of Celtic and Greek myth, most street-level superheroes… these people can do things real people can’t.
  • Level 9-12 Champion. Superhuman, no such people exist in the real world.
  • Level 13-16 Paragon. Superheroes, capable of things the wonders in brightly-colored spandex can do in movies.
  • Level 17-20 Legendary. Near deities stomping around the world, giants of the earth, and capable of bending reality to fit them.

Abilities gained in each tier should fit roughly within these descriptions. At level 19 a ‘plain fighter’ has (or at least should have) left human limitation behind. Never mind that this fighter is not trained to use spells, this fighter should be an avatar of battle and war who causes armies to tremble when taking the field… and it is a fortunate populace that has such a mighty warrior defending them from the powers from beyond.

Now, in Echelon this is easily modeled, mostly because Echelon is designed around this mode of thought. Each tier comes online at a certain level, talents have multiple tiers based on these divisions, and so on.

This new project doesn’t match that so well, at least not directly. A character starts the basic path at level 1, the expert path at level 3, the master path at level 10, and the champion path at level 14… not a clear match.

3 X/F  
6 X  
9 X/F  
10  M/F 
12 X  
13  M 
14   C/F
15 X/F  
16  M/F 
17   C
18 X  
19  M 
20   C/F

However, not a horrible one, either. If I look at the path/feat by level table from the post a couple days ago (shown to the right) I see some alignment.

The Veteran tier described above (levels 1-4) covers three basic path levels and one expert path, and three feats.

The Heroic tier (levels 5-8) has three more basic path levels, one more expert path level, and one feat.

The Champion tier (levels 9-12) has the last basic path level (and basic feat), two expert path levels, and the first master path level (three feats overall).

The Paragon tier (levels 13-16) has two master path levels, an expert path level, the first champion path level, and another three feats.

Finally, the Legendary tier (levels 17-20) has two champion path levels, the last expert and master levels, and one feat.

What Does That Mean?

The paths don’t totally line up with the tiers… but they’re not horribly off, either. Each path spans multiple tiers, which suggests path features should similarly escalate. Feats tend to have multiple tiers by path slot used to gain them, so it could be difficult to level gate them without tying to specific path features gained… I could do so, but I want to minimize prerequisites.

  • The basic path is almost entirely in the first two tiers (six of the eight levels from 1..8) and just touches on the third tier. Basic path abilities should do the same, being more or less totally mundane in the first three basic levels, larger than life in the next three, and superhuman in the last. Basic feats should mostly be in the ‘veteran’ range: useful, more than most people can do, but not unreal.
  • The expert path spans the entire level range. Again, expert path abilities can be commensurate: first is a realistic ability, second is larger than life, third and fourth are superhuman, fifth is superheroic, and sixth is legendary. The expert tier of a feat should be larger than life.
  • The master path spans the three higher tiers. First is a superhuman ability, second and third are superheroic, and last is legendary. The master tier of a feat should offer superhuman abilities.
  • The champion path spans the last two tiers, superheroic and legendary, and should offer abilities in that range (the first superheroic and the last two legendary). The champion tier of a feat should be roughly superheroic.

Not an exact match, but not horribly bad, either. Path abilities can fit reasonably well.

  • Basic path abilities are realistic at first, then larger than life (with one superhuman element at the end).
  • Expert path abilities are at all tiers.
  • Master path abilities start at superhuman and work up.
  • Champion path abilities start at superheroic and work up.

I like this. The basic path has the most levels and provides much of the realistic (more or less) ability, without being tied to just the lower levels, and should cover much of the fundamental ability of the character. However, it is evident to me that the expert path will provide most of the (mechanical) identity of the character. There are more basic path levels, but the expert path spans the entire gamut and provides abilities at all tiers. The master path is a specialization and gives some greater powers that needed growth to acquire, and the champion path is an achievement unlocking the greatest powers.

Feats are even easier to fit.

  • Basic feat abilities are more or less realistic.
  • Expert feat abilities are larger than life but not impossible.
  • Master feat abilities are superhuman.
  • Champion feat abilities are superheroic.

Feat abilities will have some variability to them, especially if a feat does not include abilities for all paths. A feat that has four tiers should fit the above fairly well (a realistic tier, a larger than life tier, etc.), but one that starts at master might start with superheroic and go to legendary at the champion tier because it doesn’t have lower-path tiers.

I feel good about this. When I realized I was deviating greatly from the model in Echelon that simply stacks the tiers together, and that the paths spanned those tiers, I thought I might have a problem. I no longer think I do. The paths span the tiers, but the growth within each path is good to see. I don’t have to limit path abilities by the path, but can instead base them on level gained. The feats are more constrained but they add up, and I like that the tiers each align fairly well with the tiers. Expert feats are available before the second Echelon tier, but that’s okay too. The small extra bump there is a nice bonus for joining the path.

I feel very good about this indeed.


  1. Steve Gunnell

    I like those tiers. If ever you want to expand the rules to cover other genres they will be a key mechanic. It does perhaps suggest a slower rate of advancement than usual for D&D or perhaps a gate you have to pass to advance to another tier. Similar to Runequest advancement to Runelord or Runepriest where the advancement to a new mode of play has a bunch of social and personal baggage.
    GURPS, of course, has power levels and a 300 point martial artist can certainly play with the spandex boys and girls. It is nice to see at least one rules developer thinking of this kind of equivalence.

    • I started exploring the idea ages ago — proto-Echelon started somewhere around 2007 and has seen many evolutions since then. The (Echelon) level ranges have slid around a bit, mostly because I’ve recalibrated things twice. It actually worked out well for me to have two tiers below the starting adventuring tier.

      • Basic tier is for the smallest things that have stats. In Pathfinder terms, CR 1/10 .. 1/8.
      • Expert tier is for most normal people, and minor nuisances. CR 1/6 .. 1/2.
      • Veteran is for real-life professional badasses. Most people might meet someone like this, and most people aren’t someone like this. CR 1..4.
      • Heroic are larger than life, many mythic heroes of our world would be in this range, and most street-level supers. CR 5..8.
      • Champion are superhuman, the greatest of mythic heroes might be here, and bread and butter supers. CR 9..12.
      • Paragon are the big superheroes and the like. CR 13..16.
      • Legend are proto-deities. Not the little demigods we see starting around Champion tier, but the ones gods tread cautiously around. CR 17..20.
      • Epic goes beyond that. CR 21..24.
      • Mythic? I’m working beyond my imagination now.

      Echelon has more complete definitions, with examples. I will note that Batman should probably be middling-low in the Heroic range, tops (at least, before he gained plot immunity), Captain America should probably be at the top of Heroic (“pinnacle of human ability”), Spider-Man probably near the top of Champion or low Paragon (at one point he was fourth-strongest in the Marvel Universe, and that wasn’t even his main shtick!).

      I reckon the actual measure of awesomeness should be the character’s level, not the class. A fighter at paragon tier should not be just a sword swinger, but someone who can cut a storm and shoot lightning… not because he casts spells, but because he’s That Damn Good.

      Or to describe another way, “spells are fantastic, but fantastic doesn’t have to mean spells”.

      I try to always keep these tier definitions in mind when designing for anything D&D 3.x-ish.

      • I should note also, Echelon makes it easy to stretch a tier. The game defaults to four-level tiers, but if you really like playing in the heroic tier you can make it six levels, eight levels, whatever. I’d allow an additional cornerstone and an additional capstone every four levels, I think, but as long as you’re in the same tier they spread your character out, not make your character taller, so that should be okay.

      • But I have to admit that I’m coming to really like this interleaved model, too. It’s not as easy to stretch a tier as it is in Echelon, but the way the paths interweave actually meshes well with the concepts behind Echelon.

      • Steve Gunnell

        Yeah, a top level fighter should be able to go toe to toe with a wizard and expect more options than just being a crispy smear. I think you alluded to this in a later post. Balance is not my god but I like some form of parity of effort between the classes.

        • Parity of awesome. I don’t particularly care if one can dependably beat the other if they go toe to toe, but it irks me that casters can warp reality to their whim… and can be as effective in combat as the poor schlub that cuts things real bad.

          I wouldn’t mind the reality bending as much if it didn’t also have the combat effectiveness. Split responsibilities are fine, but each should be comparably as good in their area, and have areas about as big. If another character has bigger area that character should not be as effective in it as someone specialized.

          My favorite line about balance goes something like “when a player can’t make up their mind about what option to follow because even if there are trade offs that matter but they’re all So Freaking Cool!… that’s where balance lives”.

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