Assumptions, Levels and Tiers

Posted: 6 July 2012 in Game Structure
Tags: , , ,

One of the biggest take-aways from Justin’s Calibrating Your Expectations is the meaning of levels.  He says that he began writing the post in part to address all the people who said that “D&D Can’t Do Conan” because making a Level 20 Barbarian gives you a guy who can do things the actual Conan never could.  Or “D&D Can’t Do Einstein” because a Level 20 Expert would have way too many hit points for a frail old math geek.  The argument he makes is that people are looking at Level the wrong way, and they’re expecting Level 20 (or Level 5, or Level 12) to mean something that it doesn’t.

Justin makes the argument that pretty much everyone you’ve ever known would be a Level 1 character.  Really exceptional people might be Level 2 or Level 3.  Level 4 characters are some of the most talented and accomplished people in the world, and Level 5 characters are the people who get written about in history books.  From there he calls 6th level superhuman, a 10th Level character is challenging gods to contests of skill, and a 20th Level character is essentially a god themselves.  He bases his argument off of skill bonuses available at level 1 and DCs attached to certain activities.  But there are other clues, too.

A 5th Level character is taking on manticores, trolls, and young dragons; the exploits of Beowulf.  Heroes of Greek myth fought a minotaur (CR4), a hydra (CR4), and Medusa (CR7).  At Level 10 characters are fighting Greater Elementals and huge extra-planar spiders. Above level 15 characters a fighting high-level Angels and Demons, and when they reach level 20 they are literally beating up gods and taking their stuff.   Think that those who have made creatures higher than Level 20 are well-meaning but misguided, and I personally believe that Zeus himself can be built as a Level 20 creature. (It gets futzy when you’re talking about CR versus Level, though.)

The long and short of it is as Justin puts it at the end of his post: the 3.X system expects that you’ll move from one power level to an extremely different power level as you level up, but people expect there to be a much more uniform performance from Level 1 to Level 20.  They bend over backwards trying to make the system fit that expectation, so that a 20th Level character can be treated as King Arthur instead of as Thor.  (As an aside, this is precisely why the trend of D&D 5E worries me; they’re trying to flatten the playing scale so that a 20th Level character is still threatened by orcs.  You lose a lot of variety in what the system can model when you do that, and it isn’t necessary.)

And of course, these kind of expectations are really harmful to the game.  If you expect that Aragorn is Level 15 instead of Level 5, then that colors what sorts of adventures you can have at low levels.  You spend the first 5 (or more) Levels of D&D killing rats and goblins and bandits, instead of leading armies, storming castles, and fighting Nazghul.

  1. casewerk says:

    While I’m not crazy about level mechanics, I do think that this is a valuable insight, and I agree about the flattening thing of 5e being unnecessary, and the assumption that only godlike characters can accomplish big things.

  2. Brendan says:

    I think this sounds like a great way to play Third Edition (and I love E6), but I see no reason why Einstein should have more than one hit die. Really, D&D rules work great for adventurers, and not so great for commoners (even brilliant commoners). Other than that, I pretty much agree with Justin’s analysis that literary heroes tend to have less power than high level D&D characters.

    I think video games make an interesting parallel comparison though, as that is the example many people have of adventurers now. And video game heroes tend to be much more powerful than literary heroes (which has led to games like Exalted that try to capture the feel of gonzo Final Fantasy and anime level heroes, and Fourth Edition “cool down” power design).

    • Jack says:

      “I see no reason why Einstein should have more than one hit die.”

      If you said you don’t see why Einstein should have 30 hit points then I’d be right there with you but, as Justin points out, 5HP is a valid result for a Level 5 character. Beyond that (and I think 5hp is fine for a regular guy) I’m not sure what it matter how many hit die he technically has. I do think that the hit points and damage system D&D has can end up with some weird situations/implications, and it’s essentially been said that they work the way they do because Gygax wanted combat to work a certain way. If you think “fifth level characters must have 20+ hit points,” I’d say you’re working from another problematic assumption.

      • Brendan says:

        I think hit dice is the more meaningful measure, because each hit die is comparable to a die of damage (and that is where the notion came from in OD&D). Having 5 HP from 5 hit dice has a of chance 1 in 7776 (assuming d6 hit dice; I’m not sure what the 3E dice for commoners are). Average HP for 5d6 is 17.5. So by the dice, it is likely that fifth level characters will have near to 20 HP, and that’s with no constitution adjustment. I’m not talking about “should” here, I’m just looking at the averages of unbiased dice using the system as written. So should all genius-level specialists or technicians be assumed to have rolled badly for all their hit dice all the time? I suppose the system can be forced into this paradigm, but what benefit is gained over just assuming a 0 level character who is good at math and physics?

        • Jack says:

          You say hit dice is meaningful because it’s comparable to a die of damage, but one of the big (and I think acknowledged) failings of D&D’s hit point system is that 1 die of HP (or healing) is not equal in game terms to one die of damage. A character with 5HP dies to a solid dagger thrust, a guy with 11 HP can take a few of them, and those are both valid 1st level characters (in fact, they both have 8 CON). I think it’s far more reasonable to talk in terms of actual hit points, though I’d go ahead and say that the hit point/healing/damage system of D&D is one of it’s weakest points, and saying “see, D&D doesn’t work because of hit points” is stretching a bit.

          Further, you’re assuming Einstein had a 10 CON, which might be a fair assumption but it could be just as fair to say he had a 8 CON (I don’t know how athletic he was, but 8 CON isn’t “sickly”). When he died, he was 76; by the rules of aging he would have had an additional -6 to CON, meaning that a -4HP per hit die isn’t beyond the pale. This would bring your expected result much closer to 5 (more than half the rolls will be 1, assuming you always get at least 1 hp).

          The benefit of the system is it’s a meaningful way to gauge characters against the world around them, and each other. It’s possible you could say “Einstein is a Level 0 character with +15 to Knowledge (physics)” but then he’s a one-off ruling with nothing to compare him to the rest of the world — what does +15 to Knowledge mean, why does he have it, what is it comparable to in others? The system takes away that non-comparability and, best of all, does it in a way that is reasonably analogous to real world data.

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  5. […] on Assumptions: RewardsAssumptions: Rewards « Jack's Toolbox on Assumptions, Levels and TiersJack on D&D Next PetitionBrendan on D&D Next Petition […]

  6. […] based off of die type and Constitution score and (importantly) assumes a Level 1 character.  That most people are Level 1 is one of my guiding principles, and I believe it will serve us well […]

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  8. […] games don’t match my expectations, but because they are more-general systems that allow for a wider range of experiences, and Sword & Wizardry intentionally restricts itself to the grittier core of […]

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