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D&D Next: Tiers of Play

Yesterday's Legends and Lore post deals with what WotC calls tiers of play, or the way the campaign changes over the course of play. This gives me a great opportunity to toss out a link to my previous post on high-level play. Mearls gives a brief breakdown of the history of tiers in D&D; notably they dropped out of any kind of formal usage for most D&D players for more than twenty years, from the "end" of the Mentzer OD&D rules (still played by some, but not actively supported beyond 1985) to the beginning of 4e in 2008. In a faintly less formal sense, tiers are a major part of 1e and 2e rules, as gameplay shifts radically at 9th or 10th ("Name") level: characters gain followers and strongholds, but hit point progression drops off precipitously and characters no longer gain Con bonuses to hit points when they level.
Total digression onto that point: I've been struggling with numerical scaling in my own thinking on design. The good and bad parts of D&D Next put me in mind of how I would design my own ideal tabletop game. Scaling from level to level is, of course, very slow on things like attack bonuses and AC, but it's quite steep on hit points and damage. I think I'd be happier if going from first level to second didn't double the character's survivability (well, less than that if you roll poorly, but I'm not a big fan of die-rolled hit points). More frequent but gradual advancement appeals to me at this point, thanks to years of conversations with Stands-In-Fire. Slowing down hit point progression at some level might be worthwhile overall.
Some classes, such as the druid (and in 1e, the monk and assassin) pick up additional progression hurdles somewhere around 14th level, such that at least one encounter and probably a whole plotline has to be dedicated to that player's advancement. In theory, though, advancement doesn't matter all that much for a druid of those levels, because there are only seven levels of cleric spells anyway. Oh, and if you decided to play a nonhuman character that doesn't have unlimited advancement, you're either advancing with glacial slowness (if the DM decided to use that optional rule) or not at all, so the game's "tier" mechanic is "everyone now wishes they had played humans." The perennial defense of racial level caps - that no one played the game up to those levels anyway - means you could also call it the "game over" tier.

3e - the edition so successful as to be the lens through which all later D&D products are considered - is the one edition that doesn't have pretty explicit tiering on either a story or rules front, prior to 21st level. In theory, gameplay can focus on dungeon-crawling adventures from first level all the way through 20th and beyond. The rules do have unacknowledged tiers, though.

So, okay, while it may not have formal tiers, 3.x absolutely has game-changing powers that come from level gain, and those fall (at earliest) at 9th and 21st levels. That's awfully close to 4e's 11th and 21st level thresholds. In my experience, though, 3.x's tier breaks change the game more than 4e's do, since the teleport ritual is at least a bit of a pain.
4e is the first edition in which tiers are explicit rules terms. Paragon paths and epic destinies substantially increase a character's power, possibly throwing the poor DM for a loop the first time his campaign crosses one of those thresholds. As I've noted, though, 4e's core gameplay experience doesn't radically shift at these points - in fact the designers explained at length that they wanted the whole game to feel like the "sweet spot" of play. Some players of my acquaintance felt that this made the treadmill of gameplay much more evident. Partially by implication and partially by explicit statement, magic items are also gated by character level, though this usually doesn't cause drastic shifts in gameplay that one would identify as a tier threshold.

What about D&D Next? Mearls is proposing a completely different scheme of tiers, and I can't help but see a lot of the "sweet spot" arguments about 3.x influencing the breakdown here. First and second level he calls "apprentice" tier, describing gameplay at these levels as streamlined and simple. Considering how steep D&D's learning curve can be, having "tutorial mode" at least be an option is definitely a good thing.

I'm kind of fascinated that they picked third level as the beginning of Real Adventure. Speaking for myself and Kainenchen, there's a lot to be said for starting 3.x campaigns at third level (and I seem to recall Sea of Stars doing the same), and 4e's starting hit points and general character capability look a lot like third-level characters of 3.x. For Aurikesh, I've granted all PCs a flat bonus of five hit points at first level, because I like the added survivability - a single critical hit isn't a dead character (as the rogue fighting the saber-toothed cat learned). Sure, there are people out there who like DCC and its infamous "meat funnel," but I'd rather spend the first session hooking players into the plot and generating attachment than randomly determining which of several characters they will go on to play. Now that the players are second level, I just about feel like I want to stop numerical scaling of hit points and damage, aside from players continuing to get new options and interesting magic items. As I talked about some time back, hit points and healing output represent a tolerance for failure prior to reaching catastrophic failure, and the amount of tolerance carried in 20-30 hit points feels about right when enemies dish out 5-10 damage on a normal hit.

Planning for most groups to start at 3rd level also means that the first time you gain a level, the hit points you gain are a relatively small percentage of your previous total. Likewise for spell slots, damage dice, and other class features. I am pretty optimistic about this change. On the other hand, I think there will prove to be an unacknowledged tier-like divide right around ninth level, for all the same reasons that I laid out for 3e, above. Teleport takes those shiny new (overland, at least) exploration rules right out of circulation, if the PCs find them to present undesirable risk or the plotline involves any urgency.

I do think there's a valid argument to be made that the expected default version of the game should always start at first level, and the Apprentice tier should be described as 0th level or something like it. This is mostly semantics, except that the Adventurer tier has a stated endpoint, and for many groups that level will end the game because the power level of the game no longer appeals to their sensibilities. Therefore prolonging that tier is, for those groups, something of an inherent good. Also, it will look weird when none of the character-customization options differentiate starting characters (because they kick in at third level). I'm curious to see what they do about randomly-generated character histories of adventures for those third-level characters, and I eagerly anticipate Traveller-like variants that kill a character prior to the start of play. The sales pitch: D&D Next: now with fully-automated meat funnel!

On that note, Mearls talks about gaining a level every other session as a baseline assumption. On one hand, I think that giving each character a cookie every session or every other session is good - as I mentioned above, Stands-in-Fire has convinced me that more frequent but gradual advancement is preferable, and Kainenchen and I discussed and reaffirmed that conclusion over the course of a nine-hour drive this past weekend. On the other hand... Mearls's model achieves more frequent, but gradual is not in evidence. The solution, then, would be to break out all of the benefits of leveling into smaller bites, and dole them out over a few more sessions. D&D doesn't handle that particularly well, though I wouldn't be above hacking the progression rules to make it happen.

My personal preference when DMing is slower advancement, typically to the tune of leveling every four or five sessions. This preference got its start in 2e, when only major DM intervention could have handed out XP any faster, and continued into 3.x, when I wanted to extend the "sweet spot" of gameplay to two or so years of a campaign. In hindsight, I feel much the same about 4e - slowing down advancement gives players more time to be comfortable and familiar with their most recent round of toys, and (theoretically, anyway) shifts the focus off of character power progression and onto advancing the story. As a PC, I don't care all that much, though there does come a point at which I am sad if I haven't seen some improvement on my character sheet. That rate actually comes from some combination of the number of encounters and the number of real hours at the table, since I try to be a reasonable player.

This is the second time Mearls has mentioned a legacy system, previously described as a way for PCs to transition into part-time NPCs so that you can start up a new PC and go back to the core of play. From what I recall, 2e expected PCs to segue into semi-retirement as that domain-level play cropped up. The one 2e campaign I ran in which players reached ninth level was, well, Birthright... so ruling a domain wasn't a reason to retire, but a baseline assumption. Mearls also talks about advancement slowing down somewhat at this point - here we'll have to take his word for it, because all previous editions have seen advancement slow to a crawl at this level, as the complexity of a combat round and the logistics of preparation scale up exponentially. I'm sure that a desire to contain that complexity is a big part of why spellcasters have only one slot of spell levels 6-9.

The funny thing about the legacy tier is that its five levels are described as covering the same span of content that 3.x and 4e covered with levels 21-30. I don't feel that the content currently presented for those character levels matches with the "epic" content (I hate excessive use of that word as much as anyone, but here I have to use it for clarity) of previous editions. Sure, you could use balors and the like for your highest-level content; there's every reason in the world to think that those are intended to be the biggest, baddest thing on the block. On the other hand, D&D can't escape the context of its own history. If previous editions have supported characters fighting these guys, over-the-top and excessive as they might be, I think WotC will face pressure to do the same this time around... even if that content sees use in, at a guess, less than 5% of all campaigns. (Did you know that 77% of all statistics are made up on the fly?) Frankly, I'd buy a book of such monsters, just because I like books of monsters

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