Thoughts on Leveling

Thoughts on Leveling

Please excuse the random rablings...
So, I was reading More is Not Enough (a very interesting post by Ari Marmell (Mouseferatu) on ENWorld) in which it is noted that D&D doesn't provide much distinction between playing low-level and high-level games. Yes, your character has more abilities and deals more damages, but it's hard to feel like he's advancing when all the challenges he faces advance right along with him. Mouseferatu gives some ideas on how D&D might address this, and it's worth a read, but I want to use this forum to post my own ideas on the topic. As well as open up a discussion. I'd love to see what others think about this stuff.

Remind them how powerful they are

At level 1, your characters had a rough time trying to dispatch that small band of goblins, remember? You fought them all the time! Now that you're 15th level, you're fighting nothing but dragons and unspeakable-horrors-from-beyond! Where did all the goblins go? Wouldn't be nice to be attacked by a group of goblins who think they can take you just because they outnumber you 5 to 1? It's a cake walk, right? It should be over in two rounds! (any more than that, and the players will start to get bored. If there are any goblins still breathing after that, they should realize their tactical error and run). "Wow, Great Cleave (or Combat Reflexes) actually does something!"

Remind them how weak they are

Then there's the opposite. While the PCs are low level, pit them against an unbeatable (for now) challenge. Later in the campaign, after gaining several levels, they re-encounter that challenge which they are now able to overcome! This, of course, can be very dangerous. D&D trains us to believe that the PCs can take on whatever the DM throws at them. Running away is never an option! Avoiding an encounter means missing out on valuable XP! A party of 1st level PCs will take on that colossal red dragon in a heartbeat (Surely, the DM has crippled it in some way, or maybe it's just an illusion, or -- *splat*).

Levels? We don't need no stinking levels!

One fundamental issue is that the idea of levels generates the expectation that as your character goes up in level, he/she becomes more powerful relative to the rest of the world. This creates some disappointment when it becomes apparent that the PC's life never actually gets any easier. Perhaps you can avoid this by throwing out the idea of advancement altogether. Most people agree that D&D (most editions) has a "sweet spot" in terms of level (I've heard that for D&D 3.5, it's somewhere between levels 5 and 10, although opinions vary). So why not just play at these levels? Surely, in a story-driven game like D&D, gaining XP doesn't have to be the motivation for defeating monsters. There's gold, treasure, fame, saving the kingdom, etc..
Unfortunately, most players (myself included) want to see their characters grow and develop into heroic monster slayers. I've recently been exploring other games systems like Savage Worlds where levels are more abstract. Playing at higher levels definitely feels different, because the game mechanics don't all scale the same way. The amount of damage my character can deal isn't always proportional to the amount of damage the monsters can take (and vice verse).

Equipment levels

Another thing that's been bothering me about D&D lately is the way that magic items are fungible commodities. One longsword +1 is the same as another. And as soon as you come across a longsword +2, you're putting the old one up on eBay! This runs contrary to most fantasy stories I've read. Magic weapons are sought-after relics, passed down from generation to generation. But at level 12, that longsword +1 just ain't going cut it! Why don't magic weapons earn XP like a PC does? Perhaps even mundane weapons can become magical after a while. I like to think of Magic as a sort of radiation. Once that normal longsword has been in the vicinity of enough magic missiles and slain a few magical beasts, it becomes a longsword +1, after killing a red dragon, it becomes a flaming longsword +1, etc.. Let's just hope that all that exposure to magic doesn't cause cancer or something.
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The throwaway magic weapon problem has been a pain for years.

There are a number of published routes around this; most of them consume feats (which makes them fighter-only solutions, if anyone), but they involve letting the weapon gain powers as the character levels up with it. I particularly like the 3.5E Weapons of Legacy (which isn't only for Weapons); a supplement which offers magic items which effectively gain levels in lock step with the character, provided the character engages with the legacy, the history, of the weapon.

I think that is the way to go with some items.

And some items should remain rather bland; I'd rather give someone a terrible dilemma between an interesting (and potentially, "of legacy") item, and the default, lazy choice of a stat-add item. The one they know exactly and precisely how to value; the other is considerably more variable, but might be more fun.

Another possibility is to create a mechanic which represents the tie the item has to the character; the way I would suggest looking at this is to allow the item to literally earn experience. It's a longer discussion than fits here, but give the item some skills, a class, feats - and allow those feats to alter the way it handles itself as an item. There's probably a whole supplement to be written on that topic... Particularly with intelligent items, why wouldn't they learn?

Just make sure they remain extras in the movie, rather than co-stars.
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I personally like the heroic bonus system, myself--where characters get inherent bonuses to defenses, attacks, and damage as they level. Then, when I give them an item, it's something more than a necessary tool. It's important, and they can keep it as long a the wish, without the need for a greater weapon.

I haven't felt the power issue, but I think that's because the game I've ran started out very small (centered around a few streets, then a city) before covering an area, then the entire kingdom. Now, at 15th level, the players are calling out the minions of hell and making trips to different planes.

As long as you scale the threat, the game always feels bigger.
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John
Another possibility is to create a mechanic which represents the tie the item has to the character; the way I would suggest looking at this is to allow the item to literally earn experience. It's a longer discussion than fits here, but give the item some skills, a class, feats - and allow those feats to alter the way it handles itself as an item. There's probably a whole supplement to be written on that topic... Particularly with intelligent items, why wouldn't they learn?
The only reason I haven't explored this route is because it sounds like a paperwork nightmare. While I like the idea of key items in the game having some sort of advancement, I would want a very light weight way of doing it. Throwing a +1 onto a sword every few levels does seem kind of bland, though. I do like the idea of adding 'feats' like you mention. Item feats would probably not work the same as character feats. I'll have to do some thinking on that.

Ktulu
I haven't felt the power issue, but I think that's because the game I've ran started out very small (centered around a few streets, then a city) before covering an area, then the entire kingdom. Now, at 15th level, the players are calling out the minions of hell and making trips to different planes.

As long as you scale the threat, the game always feels bigger.
Scaling seems to be the problem, though. It sounds like you're addressing the issue by cranking up the scope of the game. You're presenting a larger playing field and higher stakes for the players as they advance. Scaling the threat just means that fighting a goblin at 1st level provides the same threat as fighting a demon at 15th level. The difference is: the PCs go from protecting someone from being mugged in an ally, to saving the world from an invading hoard of demons. Mouseferatu complained that the mechanics of D&D don't make the game feel bigger as the characters progress. However, you're saying that the story and the trappings can accomplish that instead. This is also something to think about...
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Very much so. I don't disagree with Ari--it's hard to, the guy always presents a well-thought argument--I just don't see it as an issue, as the game itself gets much bigger and more intense.

For example, early in my current game, failure meant no pay or, at worst, the party got jailed.

Right now, failure literally means the extinction of the northmen they allied with.

While the mechanics don't seem any different (hardly so, since I'm a huge proponent of reskinning and re-using many monsters with slightly altered powers/abilities) if you step away and watch, I doubt any player notices while they sit there.

One way I succeed with this is having NPCs go from disrespecting and outright ignoring PCs at low levels, to recognizing, respecting, and outright following the PCs at higher levels. That duke who had you thrown out of his court over the goblin massacre is now polishing your shoes to get your aid in dealing with the baron's invasion.

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That kind of flavour change - respect where once there was contempt - is absolutely the best way to handle the running-to-stand-still thing, I feel.

If a more graphic demonstration is needed, I sometimes include some chaff-level monsters in a higher level encounter. A big-CR enemy, with a horder of goblins at his beck and call (or skeletons, or whatever), can provide a challenge - maybe even bolster the goblins/etc enough for them to be moderately meaty - but still remind the players that they now see 40 goblins as a disposable meat shield, rather than a serious threat.

But I really like the social reward for the gaining of levels - in one of my campaigns that doesn't just translate into the respect but also into a genuine consultation by the ruler of their country - how best can we deal with this threat? Can you support the western border? That sort of thing - change not only the scale of the threat, but the scale of the involvement by the movers and shakers in the game world, from "go, do this quest" to "what is our best way to fix this" and even "You are a threat to my power"...
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Pointer-left Scales_of_war_thumb
Ali
It's a little difficult to do the scaling social reward. What level constitutes enough respect? Do you have to stay in an area for long enough for the local authorities to know you? If you are travelling to the other planes, does your reputation precede you?

Paizo just finished putting out an adventure path that I want to run called the Kingmaker, where the PCs end up gaining a kingdom and can spend down time expanding it. Haven't read the whole thing but it looks like a neat premise.

As to the magic item level-up thing, how many of you are playing 4th edition D&D? I forget which book describes it but they suggest that if you want to run that sort of campaign, consider giving out a bonus to your item instead of a new item. For example: Joe hates dragons and was so thrilled that he got a +1 dragonslaying weapon. For character reasons, he doesn't want to upgrade to a plain +2 weapon, or has sentimental value (all these things we want to encourage!). Instead of giving out a +2 weapon, do the following math:
-a +2 dragonslaying weapon costs 20,000
-his current +1 dragonslaying weapon costs 5,000
-a +2 regular weapon costs 15,000
Instead of giving out a +2 weapon, make his current weapon "upgrade". That way they're not missing out on treasure, you don't have fungible magic items lying around, you don't need to worry tracking weapon xp... instead treat the upgrade as an in-game reward.
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What constitutes adequate social rewards really depends on your players as well as game mechanics. A Song Of Ice And Fire RPG has a specific mechanic for social status and influence. It's almost more important than anything else in that game. If your players want to spend all their time rummaging through dungeons, social rewards are not going to have much impact for them. The bottom line is giving the players a sense of progression, and there are lots of different ways to do that.

What you describe for upgrading equipment in D&D is actually one of the nice things about D&D. It has clear guidelines about how much value a character's treasure has at each level. Not every system has that luxury.
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Here is one of the approaches I use now...

You are a member of the elite group vowed to protect the
realm of mortals. Your group must draw a line in the sand
and hold back the coming shadow. The Pheonix Watch is an elite group vowed to protect the realm of mortals.

Members of the Watch are officially inducted by taking The Oath with a Binding (Cosmic Artifact) being wielded by a leader of the Watch. The Oath takes root in the very core of the being affecting interaction between Watch members and their ability to lie. The Oath also makes members of the watch more resistant to influences of evil, more resistant to attack and allows them to draw on extreme efforts sometime meaning the difference between life or death.

Once the Oath is taken and they reach a level of discipline, expertise and power (Paragon Path) they are given a Singularity Shard. This Artifact is very personal and unique to each member of the watch and may only be created with the use of the Binding by a leader of the Watch on a member of the watch that has taken The Oath. This shard may only be used by the "Attuned" member. The nature of the Artifact grows in power with the wielder and may take many different shapes.

Exert...

Property:
The items do not function beyond basic gear in the hands of anyone except to whom they are attuned.

Powers:
The items gains the attributes of one magic item (character level +3) of they players choice and reviewed by the GM. This may be changed at each level.

Legendary Bond:
After speaking the oath, receiving the mark and becoming attuned you now have a Legendary Bond to your Artifact Shard. You may dismiss/recall your item as a minor action (free action for Swordmages) to a pocket dimension for safe keeping.

This allows their shard to always be their most powerful magic item and it allows it to grow and change as they grow and find other useful items.

Hope this sparks someone else's ideas.

Regards
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