Power Levels

In a previous post, I praised the flattened power curve that 5E seems to be groping towards. Jack (of Jack’s Toolbox), left the following comment:

I like the vast spread of potential power levels in D&D 3.X. I don’t think that it’s a game that reasonably can or should be played straight from Level 1 to Level 20 or beyond, but the system gives you the option of playing wherever you want from gritty adventurers to wushu-style heroes to nigh-demigods. I don’t think that flattening that curve or ‘simplifying’ the system along that axis is going to be a benefit for people like me.
My own preference is towards more grounded play. As a DM, managing a low-power campaign is more tractable, and, as a player, a low-power campaign is more exciting (because the stakes are higher, the motivations more immediate, and the treasure is more special). I’ve never played in a satisfying high-level campaign. This is entirely a subjective preference, I readily admit.
That being said, I think Jack has a point regarding the potential of the 3E system (as elaborated in The Alexandrian post he links to). I suspect that the original authors did not have such a sophisticated intention, however, due to how challenges are scaled. In 3E, adventure design seems relatively constant (and is even more so in 4E); that is, the primary difference between a low-level and a high-level adventure is the cosmetic dressing (sewers in the beginning, planar travel at the end) and the tactical complexity of the combat (due to the increase in things like numbers of attacks and spell selection). I think it was designed to be played straight through from level 1 to level 20, and I also think this is the assumption of the vast majority of players.
However, assuming that supporting a vast spread of power levels is a good thing, doing it mechanically via difficulty levels doesn’t work very well, because it assumes a sameness to play, and I think that dooms any kind of lengthy campaign. It seems to me like much of the design of 3E and 4E involved embracing only a limited part of the full traditional D&D campaign arc, discarding the parts presumed to be not-fun, and extending the remaining part over the full level spectrum. In 3E we can see this in the generalized multiclassing, removal of level limits, and continuing accumulation of hit dice. In 4E we can see this in the extension of the 3E “sweet spot” (roughly levels 4 through 10) over the entire game experience.
I like the idea of bounded accuracy, but I think there is a danger that the designers will try to fit the entire game into another limited box using this principle. There is actually an impartiality to difficulty class systems (generalized with 3E) which could in theory work well with wide-open sandbox games, exactly because such DC systems are not centered around character stats. This is in contrast to systems like “roll under” stat checks, which, while more traditionally old school, are also more solipsistic (even if you keep the math the same). One crafts bonuses or penalties around character abilities when using a roll under system, rather than just describing the external entities.
Here’s Zak on campaign evolution (that is, how game play changes as a game progresses over multiple sessions). Along similar lines, there was a Save of Die interview with Frank Mentzer where immortal level play is discussed. To paraphrase Frank, the focus of the game shifts from how to defeat (or circumvent) the monsters to preventing collateral damage to mundanes (the mortals that the characters presumably care about). He compares immortal play to Superman stories; it is assumed that Superman can triumph “mechanically” over his foes in most direct confrontations, but he must protect those he cares about (and avoid being tricked into succumbing to his weaknesses).
We can also see this in the traditional domain game that comes when a D&D character builds a stronghold and begins to attract followers. This was always present in the B/X and BECMI systems, was present in AD&D (though somewhat obscured by the popularity of high-level tournament-style modules), and then embraced again by recent revival systems like ACKS, the very name of which embeds the expectations of the campaign arc (fist adventurers, then conquerors, ending as kings).

I don’t think that high power campaigns are inherently bad or unsatisfying (I have a copy of Nobilis on my shelf), but I do think they need to be different in some meaningful way from the first level character experience. It’s not enough to have a higher attack bonus, more spells, and +N equipment. RPGs have more potential than that.

13 thoughts on “Power Levels

  1. Matthew James Stanham

    I definitely prefer a relatively low power curve, but on the other hand appreciate that there is a difference between, say, level seven and level one in terms of play in AD&D. About as high as we have ever played from level one is level twelve, I think.

  2. Alex Schroeder

    I totally appreciate changing gameplay over time. What I did not appreciate in 3E was the insane accumulation of buffs and how combat took forever to resolve. I totally dig from peasant to superman. I don’t dig superman fights taking two or three hours at the table.

    1. Brendan

      Yeah, I don’t have much real 3E experience, but from what I have read it could get pretty bad.

      Maybe the Rules Cyclopedia is the way to go for that style of play.

  3. Peter K.

    You cover a lot of ground here. But if I understand correctly, I think I agree with your sentiments.

    Maybe a tangent, but the problems I’ve encountered in the few times I’ve been in high level play are long combats due to high HP and caster over-utility.

    This may be a slightly unusual take on the LFQW issue, but: as a low level player there were a couple high level spells I always wanted to cast cause they just seemed so cool. But when I was in a campaign that actually progressed to such levels the couple cool spells became just another tool in an already full arsenal.

    Setting aside the idea of different play styles at higher levels for a moment, something I always thought would be interesting is the availability of just one or two “big guns”, powerful tricks that can be pulled out on rare occasions at low levels.

    1. Brendan

      Re: Big Guns

      I have used scrolls like this to great effect, since spells of any level can be cast from a scroll. For example, the cleric in my current campaign found a scroll of a spell called “The Flaming Fist of God.” The players don’t know exactly what it does, other than that something similar was used in ancient times to take out ranks of siege engines. But they know they only get one use of it since it is a scroll.

      And, unlike many magical items, scrolls are consumable, and so don’t corrupt the aggregate power level.

    2. Peter K.

      Along these lines, one if the sort-of-solutions I’ve been thinking on is a ritual system, whereby even those at low levels can make scrolls or other items if they have the time and resources to spend. And resource costs would often be in rare commodities rather than just straight gp value.

      The costs would follow approximately the following progression, increasing by an order of magnitude with each category:

      – Immediate effect ritual (doesn’t create a magic item)
      – One use magic item or add a charge to a charged item
      – 10 charged or 1 use/week magic item
      – 50 charged or 1 use/day item
      – Always-on or at-will item

      Items usable by any skill set (e.g. race or class) increase the cost by one level.

      The idea is to give characters more strategic control of magical resources (at a price), rather than simply shopping at the local scroll-mart or hoping they stumble across exactly what the want randomly in the dungeon.

    3. Brendan

      Holmes Basic D&D allows magic-users of any level to create scrolls. Cost is 100 GP and one week per level of spell. So a second level spell scroll takes 200 GP and two weeks to scribe. Only of spells that could be prepared normally by the magic-user, as you might expect. I house rule that into pretty much every edition.

    4. Brendan

      Oh, and to respond more directly. “X charged” can be represented by the scroll rules. I think of scrolls as abstract; they don’t necessarily need to be rolled up pieces of parchment. As long as they have some sort of magical symbols that need to be interpreted for use. I personally would avoid allowing systematic creation of X per time period or at-will items, because those make magic feel a bit too common for my taste (and are already available to some degree with the standard spell prep rules). I want the supply of items that break resource limits to be limited in the campaign.

      I have been thinking of some variation of the scroll rules for potions (basically, these are bottled effects that can be used by anyone, not just a magic-user). So they should be harder to make or procure.

  4. Peter K.

    I’m certainly down with the idea of scrolls being not so “scrollish” (spellbooks, etc. too for that matter).

    As for scroll costs:
    I admit I haven’t perused the old school literature very thoroughly on this point, but the 100gp/spell-level curve starts out a bit high, and has doesn’t climb steeply enough. Assuming generously that a hireling gets 3sp pay/day then a first level spell scroll costs 300 peasant-days wages. And is a 9th level spell really only 9x more valuable than a 1st level?.

    I just prefer low level spell scrolls start a bit cheaper and high ones be even more ridiculously expensive, so I’d probably go for a more logarithmic increase in costs.

    1. Brendan

      The economics don’t really bother me, but I see your point about game balance. It’s also worth noting that in 3 LBB OD&D, and B/X, there are no magic-user spells above sixth level. Even in the case of high level spells though, I would worry about making the price too high, because scrolls are really only useful as backup ammunition. To be able to scribe a scroll of a sixth level spell, a magic-user has to be able to prepare a sixth level spell, the casting of which is free. My guess is that very few scrolls above third level would be created if the costs were much higher.

      Here is the text from Holmes, page 13:

      This rule places great limitations on the magic-user’s power, but there are ways to partially overcome them. One is to have the spell written out on a magic scroll. Scrolls are written in magic runes that fade from the page as they are read, so a scroll also can only be used once. Magic users may make a scroll of a spell they already “know” (i.e. have in their magic book) at a cost of 100 gold pieces and 1 week’s work for each spell of the first level, 200 gold pieces and 2 weeks for a second level spell (if the magic-user is third level), etc.

  5. Jack

    I strongly prefer low-level, gritty fantasy games. Above, say, Level 3 I start to lose interest, unless I’ve really been sold on a higher-tier campaign. (I’m currently in a game where we’re level 8… I’m less-than-sold on the campaign, unfortunately…)

    I think you’re probably right on what the original designer’s intent was, but I don’t think that changes the nature of the system they created. And I KNOW you’re right about adventure designers; it’s a big part of why published adventures turn me off. Every kingdom is ruled by a Hercules-tier King? Really?

    Combat in 3E can (theoretically) be very quick: move, roll a fistful of dice, done. It rarely plays out that way in practice, though, and I’m not entirely sure why.

    I’ve considered trying to deconstruct high level play and “fix” it so that it’s not just celestial sewers and fiendish dire rats, but I don’t have a lot of personal stake in that kind of a project.

    1. Brendan

      celestial sewers and fiendish dire rats

      We need a module by this name now.

      Every kingdom is ruled by a Hercules-tier King? Really?

      Totally with you. This is one of the few missteps that ACKS made (they formalized the “ruler => high level” thing).


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