A Bit About Echelon

Echelon is my name for my next version of d20, so named in part because I am trying to remember to be conscious of the varying levels of power experienced through the levels.

In my design of Echelon I am trying to address many of the failures of D&D described in my previous posts on the subject. Most of the worst problems aren’t, I think, that hard to work around if you’re conscious of them while developing.

The realizations that led to Echelon caused me to more or less abandon my work on my Class Framework. I concluded that as well as it could model the existing core classes (mostly), it was difficult to extend to new ability types. Worse, it was built on the same flawed foundation the rest of D&D was – it was something of an improvement in some ways but in the end only a (deep) cosmetic change.

Tiered Advancement

After having read and agreed with other peoples’ observations of how the game actually plays, the scope and nature of the game shifts as the characters gain levels. My three primary influences have each tier being five levels (levels 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20), perhaps because these are a reasonable number of levels and the divisions best fit the Base Attack Bonus and iterative attack rules. I’m working with four-level divisions (1-4, 5-8, 9-12, 13-16, 17-20) because they better fit the breaks in power I see in spell access by major spellcasters.

Basic Tier (level 0)

This is where the bulk of the population can be found. They go about their lives and can be competent at what they do, but are usually not notably capable. Your typical farmer, master smith, or soldier is likely to be here.

Expert Tier (levels 1-4)

These are the people notable for their skill and ability. They stand out from the crowd. They are still within the realm of normal human ability (barring things like magic) but are often the best in the area at what they do. You would likely find the ‘best smith in the guild’ or ‘best fighter in the company’ (and probably the cadre and officers) in this range.

Adventures at this tier often have only local effect. You save (or destroy) a village, not lay waste to the countryside to avenge your family.

Heroic Tier (levels 5-8)

These people can do more than almost anyone normal. Where experts are notably skilled, these people go beyond that. You might find Olympic-grade athletes at the bottom end of this tier.

Adventures at this tier may be notable in the ‘sub-kingdom’ (duchy, county, barony, whatever suits the setting). The consequences of an heroic adventure may well bring you to the attention of the movers and shakers of the kingdom, but you probably only directly affect them if they are actually involved.

Master Tier (levels 9-12)

Now we’re clearly beyond human capability in our world. Wizards can teleport, traveling instantly between locations without having to exist in the points between, while clerics can literally bring the dead back to life.

Noncasters… not so much, but they should be able to do fantastic things too. I’ll work on that.

Adventures at this tier often have effects spanning a kingdom or the like, perhaps very directly (such as conquering a kingdom to use for a base of operations).

Champion Tier (levels 13-16)

How do I say ‘beyond beyond human capability’ without it sounding silly? At this point characters (especially wizards with limited wish) can start bending reality around them.

Adventures at this tier may have effects spanning multiple kingdoms (a continent, an empire, or the like).

Legendary Tier (levels 17-20)

Characters are walking legends at this point. Tales of their exploits have carried to the far edges of their world, and they can somewhat accurately be described as being nearly gods.

Adventures at this tier often have world-affecting consequences

Epic and Beyond (levels 21+)

I’m frankly not thinking very hard about this yet. I sometimes have difficulty wrapping my head around things past Master.

Systemic Design Considerations

Now, how I expect to address certain failures of D&D, starting with the systemic failures.

Quadratic Growth vs. Linear Growth

It is necessary to accept the tier descriptions above for this to be solvable. Spellcasters grow quadratically because they gain level-appropriate abilities as they level. A wizard gets to fly, then teleport, then travel between planes (these align with spells that come available at the Heroic, Master, and Champion tiers). A cleric can revivify someone who recently died but whose body is intact, then someone who died some time ago and only part of the body is present, and can eventually revivify someone who was utterly obliterated (aligning with the Master, Champion, and Legendary tiers).

In D&D 3.x, it appears that because noncasters don’t have access to spells, their abilities have to be credible in real-world terms. I have come to the conclusion that this may be true at the Expert and perhaps Heroic tiers (since that’s what they mean – at least somewhat believable in the real world), but after that it is foolish to expect, require, or even allow this limitation.

Just like the spellcasters, noncasters are expected to have abilities appropriate to their level. If it means the Rogue can climb a wall faster than a normal man can run or the knight can ride his horse across a chasm in an effort to rescue the princess, that’s just fine. This is what it means to be That Damn Good.

Multiclassing Doesn’t Work

I’m going to cheat here. Echelon is a classless system.

Instead, you get talent slots at each level, appropriate to the level, that you can use to build up certain abilities. Within a tier I expect it to take about half (four to six of the ten) slots you eventually get in the tier to develop a character focus such as spellcasting or combat, though you can go beyond that and flesh out a focus even more (such as taking more spellcasting-related talents or supporting talents such as increasing your ability scores).

One of the related imbalances here in D&D 3.x is that noncasting abilities (such as skills and Base Attack Bonus) are built up in all characters as they level, while casting abilities build only within a single class (barring prestige classes granting “+1 spellcaster level”). I expect this will no longer be the case. Just as the Base Attack Bonus is increased for wizards, ‘fighters’ can have a ‘Base Casting Bonus’ that increases as they level. When they get around to learning spellcasting, they actually get a reasonable amount of it… just as, when a high-level wizard gets around to learning to use a sword he can do so better than most people in the world (+9 BAB is +9 BAB – a Ftr9 will still take him in a straight-up fight not using magic, but the Wiz18 will still be able to outfight most anyone under sixth level… which is, according to tier theory, almost everyone on the world).

Level Adjustments Don’t Work

Level adjustments are described as being there to cause (player) characters to pay for the abilities they get, but the true purpose is to ensure that a character has abilities appropriate to his level. That is, the level adjustment forces the character to be of an appropriate level for his abilities before he can be that race. Unfortunately, because of how this is implemented the character often ends up much weaker than he should be at his adjusted level because he lacks Hit Dice, and thus hit points, attack bonus, save bonus, and so on, and access to higher-level abilities that would otherwise be appropriate to his level.

Echelon considers racial abilities just another facet of a character. Humans don’t really have any, so anyone can play a human. Other races may have abilities inappropriate to Expert or Basic characters, so in order to play a member of that race you have to buy racially-required talents using the appropriate tier slots.

An ogre has an usually high Strength score, high enough to be inappropriate in a lower-level character. The RSRD gives ogres four racial Hit Dice (as ‘Giant’, which is worse than Hit Dice in an elite class) and a +2 Level Adjustment, which means that an ogre PC is expected to be roughly on par with a human sixth-level fighter. Sort of is, but not really. In Echelon there is no level adjustment, but ogre PCs are required to take the Large Size talent (Heroic tier), which brings with it most of the Strength and Constitution bonuses. If I don’t revise how size modifications work entirely, at the least I’m tempted to reduce the ‘Large size Strength modifier’ to be +4 and assume that ogres typically take the ‘Heroic Strength’ talent as well (which is worth +4 to Strength, and allows two feats of strength – +8 to two Strength checks per day). Having to take both Large Size and Heroic Strength means that ogre PCs will be at least fifth level, and sixth if they want any ‘class related’ abilities at the Heroic tier (though they would have the full range of Expert tier slots available for use as well).

Magic Trumps Mundane

Given the expected changes to skills and whatnot, that they actually let you be awesome, this will likely be much reduced. Making the direct-challenge spells such as knock provide effects comparable to those of skill checks rather than just binary success will help as well. For instance, knock might be redefined as “you can make an Open Locks check as if you had tools available and the Expert Open Locks skill” (possibly give it a duration in case there are multiple locks). You can probably get through most mundane locks, but it cost you resources and the Heroic thief (i.e. ‘has Heroic Open Locks’) can still do better than you can.

Mind you, fly might still be a problem this way in that it lets a spellcaster overcome obstacles that merely skilled characters can’t… but maybe some things should be left for spellcasters.

On the other hand, the idea that spellcasters gain mostly by having adjustable-at-runtime talents has some appeal.

Application Design Considerations

I think the design considerations above will address many of the systemic difficulties in D&D 3.x, but the application difficulties are a little trickier. Let’s see what can be done.

Preparation Time and Complexity

One of the bigger irritations about building characters and creatures is that you need to pick a goal, and then plan how to get there. If you want to ensure a strictly-legal character there are times you would have to build it from first level up. The web of prerequisites that needs to be satisfied and the web of interactions between abilities are perhaps the two biggest time sinks I’ve found in building these things.

Echelon goes about it more directly. Classes are gone, so prestige class prerequisites aren’t an issue. Feat prerequisites are largely absorbed into the talents that replace feats. For instance, Whirlwind Attack in the RSRD requires Dex 13, Int 13, Combat Expertise, Dodge, Mobility, Spring Attack, and Base Attack Bonus +4. In Echelon the talent that includes Whirlwind Attack has it at the Heroic level (minimum fifth level, so level appropriateness is taken care of) and gives the benefits of Whirlwind Attack, Spring Attack (granted by the talent at the Expert tier) and Mobility (granted at Basic Tier). I may or may not require the ability score prerequisites, they seem to typically be trivially met by characters who would take the talents in the first place. The same logic applies to the Base Attack Bonus prerequisite – those with low BAB get little from this and are less likely to take it.

However, in the cases where I do want to include those other prerequisites, I am likely to base them off talents rather than bonuses. The Base Attack Bonus prerequisite might be instead “Heroic Martial Training”, which de facto means base attack bonus of +4 or more (+2 level bonus, +2 training bonus), requires focus on combat, and increased investment in the ability (you have to pay two slots to get it, as a specific application of your martial mojo, thought you do still get the benefit of that martial mojo). I could reasonably look to the ability scores as prerequisites, or look for the related talents as well.

One key thing about talent prerequisites in Echelon, though, is that they are always same tier or above (for those abilities that are level-appropriate at higher levels than their power suggests, such as at-will spell-like abilities that would be inappropriate at lower levels but level appropriate at higher levels because they would no longer imbalance the character). This allows you to ‘build top-down’ – if you want a Champion Wizard, you give him the spellcasting and related talents that are critical to his role, fill in the lower talents as long as you need to complete the build. After that you may or may not fill in the rest, depending on what you need.

Temporary Changes

I am inclined to do what I can to remove these entirely. ‘Poisoned’ might be a condition that causes certain specific penalties or effects, rather than doing ability damage (which causes a ripple effect of modifications to a character). Similarly, a buffing spell might just provide specific bonuses rather than modify the score. I’m still thinking about this one.

Hit Dice vs. Challenge Rating vs. Level vs….

This should get quite a bit easier, since we no longer have Hit Dice, and Challenge Rating should be directly based on the talents chosen. A monster with Heroic talents (size, strength, nifty tricks, etc.) should be expected to be an Heroic challenge (CR 5-8), if D&D 3.5 bullying… erm, ‘suitable encounters’ are applied. Hit points are based on level, Constitution, and talents (calculated, in other words), and so on. Everything looks like it will hang off level.

Encounter Balancing

This should not be any more difficult than in D&D 3.5. The way I design encounters (to be described in another post, in short I try to have weaker monsters in rough parity of numbers with the PCs, with adjustment for flavour) largely gets around the difficulties often experienced in D&D 3.5. This seems to me to be a documentation exercise rather than a design one.

Setting Design Considerations

These are probably the hardest to address in system design because they are largely a matter of taste.


The only thing I can see here that will really help are to make it less attractive to buy and sell magic items. Tome suggests a couple of ways of handling this, including having magic items scale with level. Your ancestral sword (+1 when you first get it) becomes a +3 or +4 sword as you become more powerful because that’s appropriate for your level and you just didn’t have the personal mojo to use it that way earlier. Dumping it for another magic weapon really gains you nothing because the new one will have the same bonus.

The other suggestion from Tome is that magic items for more than 15,000gp simply can’t be (fairly) bought or sold for gold. I won’t go into the reasoning behind that value, but the gist is that after a certain point ‘money’, as known by most mundanes, is no longer meaningful, and that items worth more than that require special considerations to ‘purchase’. The upshot (and quoting from memory) is that “it’s totally okay for an adventurer to have a batcave full of different magic weapons that he picks from as needed for a mission”, but he’ll still have some special ones that he always wants at hand. Seeing as I’d prefer to have characters to have ‘iconic items’ that are their focus, and ‘utility items’ of lesser power that come and go, this appeals to me.

Of course, this doesn’t get rid of the MagicMart, but it does tone down its application to a very large degree. You can still make or find (quest for) the special items, you might find a Planar MagicMart where they take planar currencies like souls or solidified chaos or the like, but stopping off in the local metropolis and expecting to readily find +7-equivalent weapons (or +10-equivalent armor). This is an explicit change to the rules around settlements based on interpretation of how things work with regard to wish and the like, but seems feasible and plausible.

Zero to Hero, Just Like That

Not much to be done here system-wise beyond backing off the experience gains so it takes longer to level, and/or spacing out how often experience can be gained. Mandatory training would annoy me.

I expect the recommendation here is that each adventure be good for no more than one level, with a capstone adventure finishing a story arc to get to the next tier.

10-Minute Adventuring Day

Short of limiting the concentration of power (such as short term buffs) and slowing the use of power (perhaps limiting immediate mojo available but increasing recovery, so you have a little bit to use at a time but can do it a lot of times through the day) I don’t have much to go on here. I think this might have to be a consideration in design rather than deliberate goal.

Major Influences on Echelon

The idea of the game changing at various level ranges has been in D&D for a long time. In the BECMI series you has Basic adventures (generally simple dungeon crawls), Expert (wilderness and some urban), Companion (becoming lords of the land), Master (world- or plane-spanning adventures on your way to immortality), Immortal (become a Power, a literal force of nature). In AD&D this was still there but not as explicit; many groups had the idea of low-level, mid-level, and high-level play, but the exact level ranges could vary considerably from group to group.

Justin Alexander’s D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations

This was perhaps my first exposure to a deliberate analysis of the tiered behaviour Echelon is built on. I found this article does a good job of outlining why D&D actually can work at high level, once a few of the bugs (non-casters) are ironed out.

Dawnforge: Crucible of Legends

This setting was published by Fantasy Flight, a semi-finalist in Wizard of the Coast’s competition to find a new campaign setting. It appears the core book is out of print (not even listed at Fantasy Flight any more). Some of the build options only work in certain level ranges and whatnot, which seems to fit the five-level tiers. This book did a fair job of breaking me from the limitations of picking a race and growing by class – it has as a major component the ability to develop racial talents that support certain archetypes, and some of these talents are pretty powerful for their level.

Tetsubo did a video review of this book.

The Tome and The Gaming Den

The Gaming Den is a gaming forum that spends a lot of time on concepts similar to those in Echelon. The Tome is a collection of the writings there and includes not only lots of crunch, but a lot of campaign setting philosophy that explains how this crunch can be applied in a meaningful and useful manner.

Be warned that this is not a place for the thin-skinned. There seem to be very few rules of engagement – F-bombs are common, and “go suck a cock” is a common way of saying “I disagree”.

Still, I find some fascinating reading here. I don’t post there very often, but I find it useful for gaining perspective on how things can fit together.


  1. hadsil

    I once gave you a compliment that’s worth repeating. Usually when someone creates a house rule or alternative rules, the best advice is KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. What you’re doing is not Simple, but it is also not Stupid. You are certainly putting in good thought about this and make the appropriate changes when something doesn’t work. I am looking forward to your finished product.

    I like the idea of magic items scaling with level, at least for weapons. Perhaps they could be an inherent property of all magic weapons. Details need to be fine-tuned of course.

    One issue with Magic Mart is also campaign dependent. Sometimes, whether by purposeful DM design or DM used random treasure tables, a party will acquire treasure they can’t use. If the dedicated warrior concentrates on using a greatsword, he has no use for a +3 flaming flail. A +1 keen greatsword would have been a much better find.

    The Magic Mart allows the player to get the magic items he actually wants and could use. This is a game design issue you should address in an “Echelon DMG”. Logically there will exist some magic items a party couldn’t use, but the DM does need to meta-game and provide useful treasure. When the players are content with what they’re getting in treasure, a shopping trip at Magic Mart is not necessary. Some DMs need to learn to accept that it’s ok for player characters to have stuff.

  2. Thank you for the compliment. As I recall, Einstein said, “make it as simple as possible, but no simpler”. In this case it looks like the trickiness is on my side as the designer rather than the DM or player side, which is a good thing (a lot of my life consists of making things simpler for people; I’ve gotten good at it). So far I think the framework is generally simpler than class- or common point-based alternatives.

  3. As for the MagicMart being a campaign-specific (non-)problem, I agree entirely, which is why it landed in my third ‘failures’ article. What I described above helps mitigate it by limiting just how big the ‘Mart can get (in terms of salable goods), but I agree that really, it’s up to the campaign contract to decide whether it should be an issue.

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