Sunday, 22 March 2009

20th level, ho hum

“…the original D&D assumed an endgame where you would build your stronghold, acquire vassals and tenants, and become A Major Player In The World's Politics. That endgame seems to have virtually disappeared.”

-- Mike Mornard, hat tip to Sham for the quote.

One thing that 3E lacks that earlier editions of the game enjoyed is any sense of explicit, meaningful character progression within the game world. Sure the requisite components of such development are all there (level scaling abilities, ever-increasing wealth, the Leadership feat), but to someone coming new to the game there is no explicit declaration that "this is what you are capable of/should be doing at this level".

PCs have - at least by reading the rules as written - no social context beyond 'adventurer', and no meaningful benchmark of their ability to affect the world other than the system level mechanic of the Challenge Rating. As a result PCs in 3E exist, by default, in a solipsistic void. At 15th level characters are, by the RAW, just bigger, tougher versions of their 5th level selves doing the 'same old, same old' with bigger numbers (edition war flamebait: this applies in spades for 4E).

Now, back in the sepia-toned old days this sense of dislocation was explicitly not the case. Pre-WOTC D&D was divided up almost into a series of 'mini-games' (pace Keith and Frank). Although already implicit in OD&D this succession of ever-more involved challenges and potential character objectives was perhaps stated most explicitly in BECMI D&D:

  • Basic Set (levels 1-3) - Explore the dungeon. Get to understand the game rules
  • Expert Set (levels 4-14) - Explore the wilderness. Learn more about the game world.
  • Companion Set (levels 15-24) - Explore the world. Carve out and rule a domain.
  • Master Set (levels 25-36) - Explore the planes. Challenge the gods for immortality.

These expected play styles were specifically supported by new game rules introduced in each boxed set. Basic Set players didn't have to worry their pretty little heads about the world beyond the dungeon; and Expert Set players weren't required to know the cosmology of the multiverse inside-out. Some argue that the foci of attention of the Companion and Master boxes were a wrong turn for D&D; a game which - at its core - really was about looting treasure from ancient, trap-filled underworlds. I feel that this ignores the obvious pulp connections that even these sets had. Conan, Kane and John Carter all led armies and trampled the thrones of kings beneath their heel. Elric, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser all travelled to other planes and fought or outwitted godlings. Sure, the quest for immortality might not be purest Vance; but it's definitely pulp heroic in feel.

So, for many years the expectation was that, at about 9th level, PCs in both Basic D&D and AD&D were supposed to establish a base of operation, gain a small army as a class ability, and set about subjugating those around them and reshaping the game world in their image. (I am not making this up. Go download Labyrinth Lord or OSRIC and look in the character section. It's all in there!) AD&D's "Birthright" setting had to muddy the waters a little by allowing you to play a ruler from level one, but the basic idea still held true: ruling the masses was part and parcel of the D&D experience. In the immortal words of Mel Brooke: "It's good to be king."

Come the advent of 3E and this intended progression from tomb-robber to explorer, then from local baron to conqueror, and finally to figure of legend was all but completely discarded in favour of MOAR POWAH!!! The "math is hard" aspects of ruling a fantasy kingdom, running a thieves guild, proselytising the heathen, or becoming a magus of power and renown were to be ditched in favour of adventurer (a wandering sword- or spell-slinger) becoming a permanent career in itself. I feel the game suffered greatly for this.

Whereas back in the day a high level character might be a figure of political importance who knew that utilising the right help (soldiers, assassins, sages, etc.) was part of the path to power; in D&D3 he was a dude with a big red S on his chest who didn't need any help saving the world because low level characters were naught but squishy pink blobs. And, let's face it, there are only so many stories you can tell about an invulnerable big blue boy scout.

True to the old axiom that players don't respect what can't hurt them, high-level characters in 3E D&D generally ended up acting like the new generation of supers in Alex Ross' "Kingdom Come" (capsule summation: thoughtless dickheads). Having no need of the proles, why should the PCs care about them? The tramp of PC-headed armies marching across the land in time to Anvil of Crom was replaced by the stirring chords of a certain John Williams anthem as players lived out Nietzschean power fantasies. And lo! the grognards wept for what was lost.

An unintended consequence of this superheroicisation ("Hey look ma, new coinage!") was the entire field of theoretical optimisation number-worshipping power wank. All sense of a scale of PC power in relation to ordinary human beings was lost. Rules lawyers darkened the face of the land like a plague of neckbearded, cheeto-stained locusts, 20th level became the new 'name' level, Pun-Pun arose from the Abyss, cattle died in the fields, grieving mothers wept, and the crocus did not bloom.

It may be tilting at windmills on my part (although the evil whirling birdmincers deserve it), but I hope there's a way to reconcile these two views of D&D progression to the possible enrichment of both. Wouldn't it be nice to have the flamboyence of 3E D&D, but tamed by the sensibilities and tastes of the old school? So here's a few suggestions from yours truly.

The four stages of play outlined for BECMI D&D above have a rough correspondence with the idea of there being four tiers of play in 3E D&D. I have seen these typified as:

Gritty1-5 Movie Conan, Kane, Indiana Jones
Pulp Heroic 6-10 XLG, Luther Arkwright, Judge Dredd, Lord of the Rings, The n Musketeers
Wuxia11-15Crouching Tiger, Hero, Nemesis the Warlock
Superhero 16-20Justice League, The Authority
[Godlike21+Thor, Chronicles of Amber, Sandman]

Characters within the same tier are generally a meaningful threat to one another.
Gratis LOTR example: named Orcs vs. members of the Fellowship, the cave troll vs. the Fellowship, generic humans vs. generic orcs

Those one tier removed are either mooks or impressive menaces.
LOTR example: generic Orcs vs. members of the Fellowship, Sam vs. Shelob

Two or more tiers removed means that the lower tiered character is - mathematically speaking - no meaningful threat to the more powerful. Lower tiered characters are, exceptional circumstances aside, no more than background colour, while higher tiered characters are little less than a force of nature.
LOTR example: the hobbits vs. the Nazgul, generic orcs vs. Ents, generic Rohirrim vs. Mumakil, etc.

When looked at this way even a 10th level character - a guy who in D&D-land has his own keep, generally flies around on a griffon, goes toe-to-toe with giants, consorts with wish granting genies, or can kill with a word - is suddenly a big deal again. He's not a partially complete ‘build’ (and boy do I hate that particular piece of jargon); he's already a power in the land in his own right.

So, given that 10th level characters are able to bellow “Kneel before Zod!” at ordinary people without class levels, that does this do for the game? When the numbers on the character sheet are translated back into the game actions they are supposed to represent you can quite clearly see that Mr 10th-level McBadass can do more or less what he likes to lower tier characters. Said group comprising – at least if you ascribe to Justin Alexander’s Calibrating Your Expectations article (some don’t, but they’ve never offered me an explanation that amounted to more than “Baaaaw! Butthurt!”) – every human who has ever lived in our world. The greatest historical heroes and geniuses in history are not a patch on Mr 10th-level McBadass.

The thing is, there are still a select group of rare and powerful characters and creatures out there that are to Mr 10th-level Badass what he is to the tier 1 peons. There are guys in 3E's version of D&D-land who, according to the Core rules (let alone the Epic Level Joke Book), are seriously able to tell four Pit Fiends a day to take a number and get in line to wait for their kicking! How on Earth does one go about becoming that absurdly hardcore? Surely it takes more than just grinding mobs?

One idea that I saw suggested by always excellent Philotomy is that of progressing beyond 10th level has a cost to the character (hat tip to Pat Armstrong for the link). In essence the idea runs that anyone over 10th level or so has progressed beyond the bounds of normal human ability, usually by investing themselves with magical power. As befits the pulpy ethos of old(-ish) school gaming, magic in the Vaults game is an inherently perilous thing. Its barely contained power inevitably and inexorably warps the physique, psyche and spirit of those who tap into its power.

So, that’s all those mad wizards, fate-cursed warlords, tragic anti-heroes, vampire nobles, and villains warped into monstrous forms explained in one fell swoop. What's next?

A house rule I might institute is that characters above 10th level have to bond themselves in some manner in exchange for power beyond the normal human limits. I’m not thinking in terms of the execrable “Weapons of Gimping Legacy” nonsense, but perhaps more in terms of thematically appropriate stuff that adds to the character flavour without imposing specific numerical penalties. Just off the top of my head:
  • geases (as in the celtic taboo, rather than the spell)
  • tying life essence to a specific weapon or object
  • physical immersion or spiritual connection to fonts of power
  • leeching the spiritual essences of others in a quasi-vampiric manner
  • becoming the focus of a hero cult
  • entering dark pacts with demons, a god or elder beings
This would all help to tie characters more strongly to factions, events, locations and totemic objects within the game; largely for the simple, cynical reason that most players actually honestly care where their next hit of character power comes from. They salivate like Pavlov’s dogs at the thought of that next level. It also allows the DM easy access to themes of temptation, hero-worship, hunger for power, and the costs of same.

The variant experience system I’m using (Berin Kinsman's session-based system) means that characters will generally reach 10th level after about a year of weekly game play (rather than haring through 20 levels in a year as 3E and its' red-haired offspring "Pathfinder" are apparently geared for). Beyond 10th level Berin's mod suggests another 50-odd sessions of play to reach 14th level, then another 50 to reach 17th, then another 50 to reach 20th. Yes, that's a lot of playing time to devote to a single character. In effect it's a cap (albeit a soft one) on level advancement. But then, as I see it, advancing beyond the 10th level threshold into the sunny uplands of high-level power is intended to be slow, demanding and arduous.

Top this slowed rate of advancement off with the aforementioned gradual dehumanisation through the seduction of power, and you've an instant recipe for grim pulp heroism goodness.


version 2 - edited 23/03/09


  1. "Well, one idea that I’ve seen is that of progressing beyond 10th level having a cost to the character. Unfortunately I can’t find the specific link right now, so I’m not sure which of the blognards to credit."

    That would be the "Level Scaling" post on Philotomy's OD&D page.

  2. Much obliged Pat. Loving "Ode to Black Dougal" btw.

  3. Lots of interesting stuff here. I've actually done something like what you suggest for post 10th level play in a 2e game, though that wasn't the conscious intent. It worked out really well and not only made the characters extremely distinctive, but, as you suggest, tied them more closely to the setting.

  4. Absolutely brilliant analysis!

    And you've even included my solution: "leeching the spiritual essences of others in a quasi-vampiric manner." In my World of Prime, XP is a tangible substance you acquire from sentient beings. This means a high-level lord has consumed the souls of thousands of his own people - usually with their permission! If that doesn't bind him to them completely, nothing will.

    I am so sick of 20th level pickpockets whose sole goal is to become richer. Nietzschean power fantasies, indeed. Spare me!

    In case you're interested in seeing more:

  5. a year of once a week gaming to reach 10th level? wow no thanks.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...