Practical Applications of Power

This is a follow-up on the previous theoretical post, in which I claim the link between character’s power and character’s level is much weaker than we imagine, especially in 4e. If you disagree with the idea, I’ll be happy to discuss it in that post. Here I’ll offer one possible model for explicitly separating these concepts. Bear in mind that it has not been tested.

Power

Since power is its own concept, we measure it separately. There is no need to invent terminology, so let us use the existing one: an adventuring party can be at the heroic, paragon or epic tiers of power, regardless of their individual character level. What does that mean? First and foremost, it informs the kinds of plots they deal with – the “framing” of their adventures. Most of the advice from the DMG and other books on running campaigns in different tiers still applies. The surrounding world knows of the PCs’ personal power, and they get treated accordingly.

It also informs the choice of adversaries for their adventures, as that is how power is typically exercised in D&D – by beating down ever more dangerous monsters. Same as the PCs, monsters get assigned to their own tiers of power, based on their flavour and role in the world: their default level is a fair starting point. When PCs are facing a monster from their tier, all is good. When the story dictates they meet a monster from another tier, use the following trick: move it along the minion-standard-elite-solo scale one step accordingly (or two if jumping all the way from heroic to epic or vice versa). Heroic goblin becomes a minion in paragon, just as epic elite beholder becomes a paragon solo. This means you’ll have to redesign it or reskin an existing monster, but such is DM’s fate. If this would make a monster less than minion, they can easily be disregarded – archmages do not deal with rats. Similarly, PCs should be strongly advised not to get on the bad side of a greater-than-solo monster until they are more powerful.

One thing that’s tied to level while it actually is about power is rituals. Just as with everything else, divide them into tiers, allowing access when the PCs have reached that tier. While levels are a good guide in this case as well, there’s no need to stick to them. If you don’t want heroic characters to have access to some level 8 ritual, make it paragon. Fine-tune your campaign to your tastes.

The way PCs advance in power is up to the DM. This is a major change, they become head-and-shoulders above their old selves. Here are a few suggestions: several years have passed; gods reward them for completing a major quest in their name; the PCs fulfill a prophecy; the DM says so. And, of course, the game can start at any tier of power.

Levels

That takes care of the fluff that is power. But what about the crunch of levels? Their primarily role shifts to being a reward for players via increased complexity and development of their character’s mechanical side, rather than a measure of character’s progressing power. With that in mind, lets start cutting. First, we remove the half-level bonus to everything. There is no longer a need for the red queen’s race that it offers, if there ever was. Similarly, enchantment bonuses to defences and attacks go away, and feats that provide such bonuses no longer scale. This means that from level 1 to 30, their attacks and defences will likely improve by at most 5 points: 4 from 8 stat advances and 1 from a feat.

Similarly, skills will grow by at most 13 in most cases (4 from stat advances, 3 from skill focus and 6 from an item). I leave items bonuses for skills in, as disparity in skills is much less critical than disparity in attack bonuses. Besides, this is one of the few ways a character can improve their skill, which could be important for their concept. Everyone needs to be able to hit, not everyone has to be a great thief. This also means that we can have a non-scaling DC table that lets us know what character’s skills are actually worth. Here it is in all its uncomplicated glory:

Trivial

5

Easy

10

Moderate

15

Hard

20

Very Hard

25

Insane

30

Legendary

35

God-like

40

Interestingly, skills become almost simulationist again: the DM assigns the DC based on what the task actually is, rather than the ephemeral “moderate for your level”.

This is about all you need to change from the PCs’ perspective. The DM still needs to adjust monsters, which isn’t much more complicated. Similarly to skill DCs, use the following table:

AC

NAD

Attack vs AC

Attack vs NAD

Abysmal

12

10

2

0

Weak

14

12

4

2

Average

16

14

6

4

Tough

18

16

8

6

Great

20

18

10

8

Amazing

22

20

12

10

Legendary

24

22

14

12

Assign values based on what you want your monster’s defences to be like. Avoid using the last three rows unless your PCs are high-level and you’re sure it’s needed. As a functional alternative to it, you can scale monsters’ attacks and defences down to level 1, which will land you around the ‘average’ row.

That’s about it. You still want to use monsters with levels roughly equal to those of your PCs, because their hit points and damage output are still scaled to match. Also, at higher levels monsters are generally meaner and inflict nastier effects – just like characters. It seems this will allow you greater freedom in the range of monster levels, though.

Players get to enjoy the complexities of high-level combat (or the simplicity of low-level one, depending on their preferences) without engaging in pointless mathematical races, and DMs get the control over the progression of power of the characters.

A few notes and variants

First, on magic items. Since the PCs don’t need new items every 5 levels to keep up with monsters, we have a situation similar to inherent bonuses from Dark Sun, and so the amount of magic items the party gets can be reduced accordingly. In this system, a lot of items are pointless or have much less use. And I’m perfectly fine with that. However, note that weapon enchantment still influences its bonus damage. Likewise, some abilities scale with the enchantment’s plus, and others only become available with greater enchantments, so the existing magic items can still be used as is. This could be used as an opportunity to do something to them, too, but that’s up to you.

It is possible to reduce the need for magic items even further by removing item bonuses from skills, and improving the trained skill bonus to +8 at paragon +11 at epic. This is roughly equivalent to PCs having bought the items giving bonuses to those skills. It is also possible to offer additional uses to skills at higher tiers of power instead of increasing them at all, which would be in keeping with the overall direction of this mod. Perhaps appropriate some rituals and exploits for this.

Another thing you may want to try is break up the power tiers into finer gradation, and offer a selection of Party feats at each such power-up (not to be confused with level-ups). There were some rules for training together as a company in 3ed PHB3, unless I’m mistaken, which could be used as an inspiration. Or just give out a free feat, as they’re the thing low-level characters are short on. Yet another option: give out some paragon path or epic destiny feature on such power-ups. Those parts of the game get largely left out in this model otherwise.

One more thing you may want to consider is having political power on its own scale, again with several tiers and a choice of some perk at each. Title, castle, loyal soldiers, ear of a king (preferably still attached to the king), etc. Perhaps borrow a part of some other system that you think does this well.

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4 responses to “Practical Applications of Power

    • I suspect introducing such substantial rule changes into an ongoing campaign might be somewhat disruptive 😉
      Although they shouldn’t affect the way characters function. We’ll give this a try in the Land Below side-game, and see if they actually work.

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