In the comments on my post about Falling Damage, Brenden mentioned his mechanisms for making falling “always scary” but allowing good luck to save you from even extreme falls. I liked the system but noted that I don’t think falling is always scary, because eventually the PCs are at near-god levels, and Superman isn’t afraid of falling off a building or two. From there, Dr. Gentleman posted this:
I think the idea that higher-level characters in D&D are akin to demigods is one that makes the system make more sense (and actually makes me want to look at 3e again), but I don’t think that’s the intent of D&D. Heroes go on adventures, gain experience, skills, abilities, and treasure, but they’re still essentially human (elf, dwarf, or whatever). The idea that an exceptional person can gain experience and thereby become the equivalent of a demigod or superhero is not a basic assumption when it comes to D&D, which leads to a lot of complaints about realism. I think that’s a pretty fundamental difference in assumptions, and needs to be explicitly cleared up straight away in these types of discussions.
Except that I think that this is the intent and, if a little buried, that it is fairly clear when you look for what the system ask for.
First, though, there’s a couple of things to say about “the intent of D&D.” I think there are essentially two ideas in play here — the intent of the designers as they build D&D, and the actual “intent” (for lack of a better word) of the system that resulted from their efforts. I would sincerely like to believe that the designers of 3.X had some notion of what they held in their hands — the post by Justin Alexander that I base most of my assumptions on, allegedly based off of a playtest copy of the Player’s Handbook in 1999, at least alludes to the fact that all the foundation was there in the beginning. As Brenden notes back on the Falling post, though, it could be that Justin made the notion up on his own and the designers of the system didn’t consciously intend that outcome. I think it’s highly probably that they were simply trying to clean up the rules system from 2nd Edition.
Fine, the designers weren’t planning on that. I’m not sure that matters. If the system that they created is more easily understood and approached with the understanding that “regular people” are 1st level and gods are 20th level, and the various tiers of mythic hero fall in between, then I would argue that’s the proper way to approach it; that’s what the game intends. The developers may have stumbled upon it by happy coincidence, but that doesn’t change the way the system works or the way it’s best understood.
One of the things that strikes me the most when discussing this apparent misunderstanding of the game is looking at the sorts of challenges that high level characters are expected to engage. Challenge Rating is defined in the SRD as “the level of a party of adventurers for which one creature would make an encounter of moderate difficulty.” So a single CR 20 creature is “moderate difficulty” for a party (I believe that’s 4 or 5 characters in 3.X) of 20th Level characters. In 3.X, ignoring Dragons, that gives us the Balor, the Pit Fiend, and the Tarrasque. The Balor is based off of the Balrog from Tolkien Lord of the Rings; Balrogs are suspected of being corrupted Maia, high-ranking “angels” only a step or two removed from The One (God). Pit Fiends are literally lords of the Pit and the rulers of Hell. And the Tarrasque is assumed to have been a weapon made to kill gods. These are the things that pose a “moderately difficult” encounter to a handful of Level 20 characters.
Moving on, if a CR 1 creature poses a challenge for a group of Level 1 characters, presumably a creature of CR 1/4 should be about even with one Player Character (since it would be a 4 v 4 fight). A CR 1/4 creature is effectively 3 levels lower than a CR 1 creature (based on the way 3.X figures CRs below 1). By that it would follow that a single CR 17 creature should be the equivalent of a CR 20 PC. This gives us an Aboleth Mage, Maralith Demon, Frost Giant Jarl, and various old dragons. Dropping to CR 16 we find the Planetar Angel, one of the highest-ranking angels described. So a 20th Level PC is more powerful than most angels.
The same pattern follows as you move down, with Lv15 PCs taking on angels and being the equivalent of adult dragons, and Lv12 PCs taking on Kraken and being the equivalent of Greater Elementals and mid-level Angels and Demons. Killing a Hydra, a CR 4 creature (assuming it started with 5 heads) is literally a Herculean feat (since it was 1 v 1, Hercules would have been between Lv6 and Lv8, presumably).
If we assume average abilities, a Level 20 character will have +20 (give or take) on his key skills. This means that (save for the rule of Natural 1 always being failure) the worst they can do is better than the best that a regular person can do. They can Take 10 and successfully navigate a heavily obscured, severely slippery surface less than 2 inches wide. A 15th Level character can do the same if the surface isn’t obscured. That is to say, given that they aren’t pressed for time or under some kind of duress, they can do this with an average, rote level of effort. A Level 15 sage can Take 10 on “really tough” questions, and a Level 10 Character can Take 10 on Spot and become aware of invisible creatures.
This is just the off-the-cuff stuff I was able to grab from the SRD in response to The Doctor’s comment; I’ve found that the more time I spend looking at the system itself the more this notion of PCs over level 5 (or even Level 3) are something “more than human” makes sense. At the lower levels you’re talking about Game of Thrones, Fellowship of the Ring, and possibly Conan (I still haven’t read any of those), but at the higher end characters are simply capable of absolutely fantastical feats, without any real effort. The designers may not talk about immortality, but everything else points to being on the threshold of godhood. Add to that the incredible amount of HP such a creature has, resulting in the ability to take an impressive amount of punishment before dying. That this is misunderstood by hobbyists at large speaks to me of a great failing of those presenting the system (and maybe their own misunderstanding of what they’d wrought).
A Note On Experience
The knot in this whole thing is the experience system. As I’ve eluded to elsewhere (the full post on Experience hasn’t been finished yet), it simply doesn’t make sense that someone could massacre a sufficient number of goblins and then take on the likes of Zeus. If that happens, the DM is doing something wrong, applying the strict mathematical mechanics of the game without thinking about what they mean. This isn’t entirely his fault; I think the experience system itself has flaws because it allows this sort of abuse. I’m inclined to attach level advancement to in-story/in-world accomplishments, and having those accomplishments be suitably mythic as characters rise through the various tiers.