4e divided by 2

One of the (surprisingly few) things that I don’t like about 4e D&D is the speed of advancement. Those class levels fly by and it seems like every session ends with the players levelling up and gaining yet more cool stuff. I’m sure that’s not really the case, but as GM it feels like I’m continually playing catch-up with my monsters, encounters and challenges.

This is, I’ll confess, a very one-sided concern. Players in the main like gaining levels at the speed of light, while we GMs hunker down below our screens and just grumble to ourselves. It doesn’t help that I’m a proud card carrying Old School gamer where the speed of advancement was positively glacial.

Here’s the difference between Classic D&D and 4e D&D in the form of a one act play.

GM: When did you advance to 3rd level?
Classic D&D Player: 1982
4e D&D Player: Tuesday
GM: ….. and 4th level?
Classic D&D Player: 1984. That was a good year
4e D&D Player: Thursday. That was a good day

See what I mean? (Mind exaggeration for comic effect. Fade to black. Applause)

The problem with this problem (is having a problem with a problem a double negative? I dunno) is that I like the Three Tier structure. It hearkens back to Classic (pre-AD&D) D&D’s Basic/Expert/Companion/Master/Immortal design where each step up the adventuring career ladder brings fresh challenges and opportunities. As your 4e heroes rise from the Heroic to the Paragon and on to the Epic they increase in renown, battlefields get more bizarre and their villains get taller.

It’s not quite as well defined as in the good old days – it’s a crime that 4e D&D doesn’t have decent Domain Owning and Castle Building Rules for Paragon Tier and upward – but it is a welcome nod to Classic D&D, and this ‘wulf approves.

I’ve tinkered with the speed of character advancement for some time. For our epic End Day campaign I both embraced it and threw it out the window by letting the PCs automatically advance after every session and ignoring XP altogether. This gave me a fixed 30 scenarios to work with and a clear path to follow. I’ve tried slowing it down too using several different methods:

  1. Reducing the number of XP I award. GMs, if you want to be lynched by your players, try suggesting this. It’s fun! Players do not like being told “yeah, just 250XP for this encounter. I know it says 500XP at the top, but there’s a global XP shortage and I’m trying to do my bit for the environment.”. At best you’ll get a reputation for being stingy with your XP, and at worst you’ll be tarred & feathered and dumped in a container lorry destined for Paris. Trust me. I know.
  2. Doubling the values in the XP advancement table. This is another sure-fire way of risking a lynching (see 1, above). The XP Table exists on the Players’ side of the table, and as such is perceived as being Closed for Tampering by the GM. The other problem is that doubling the values on a non-linear table is nothing more than a short fix for a few levels. After that the gaps widen so as to seem (from the Player’s point of view) all but unattainable. It could take them months to level up. Perish the thought. The alternative is to hand-craft your own XP through careful negotiation with your Players. It you want to try this, go right ahead. This LazyGM is still plucking feathers from his ass.
  3. Reducing the number of Encounters per session. This is my preferred solution. We prefer our games to be more role-playing intensive than combat focussed so one (or at most two) Encounters per session is plenty for us. This lets us concentrate on the story and use the combat as strategically placed punctuation marks. It also has the added advantage that we can spend time over each Encounter rather than try to find ways to speed them up in order to hit some imaginary target number of Encounters per session.

While limiting the number of Encounters works (mostly) for us, I still felt I was missing something. There had to be a way to slow down advancement without short-changing the Players or reducing the body count.

Then it occurred to me.

The 30 levels are a lie.

The PC’s career in 4e D&D doesn’t span Thirty levels at all. They span 15 levels, with rewards every half-level as mini-buffs. The advancement table looks something like this:

Level XP Ability Scores Powers & Features Feats Known
half as starting char gen 1
1 1000 gain 1 utility 2
1.5 2250 gain 1 encounter
2 3750 +1 to two 3
2.5 5500 gain 1 daily
3 7500 gain 1 utility 4
3.5 10000 gain 1 encounter
4 13000 +1 to two 5
etc etc etc etc etc

In other words, divide their level by two. This means there’s five levels per Tier (plus five half-levels). Players add their level to any applicable dice roll (rather than level/2 – we’ve already done that step) and starting characters nominally start at level 0.5 – they’ve gained some experience and are on the way to attaining Level 1 (ie, the old Level 2). Following so far?

The only downside is that the GM needs to double the level back up to build Encounters. Those 2nd level PCs are really 4th level, remember.

In terms of advancement, the characters still progress and improve at the same pace, but the gap between “full” levels has widened. To go from 2nd to 3rd level, for example, now requires another 3,750 XP. Using the old method it needed only 1,250XP.

Isn’t perception a wonderful thing?

While we’re talking about perception, and as an aside……

When folks say that 4e D&D is just like World of Warcraft I adjust my monocle, point at them with my walking cane and utter “My dear fellow, I think you’ll find that World of Warcraft is like D&D!”. I plan to write a blogpost about this, but then I think “Ah, what’s the point.”. It’s a sad truth that people who are Wrong can rarely be convinced otherwise, yet people who are Right can often be persuaded to change their mind. This inevitably leads (through the incontrovertible power of Mathematics) to mean that more people are Wrong than Right.

Ok, that’s me done. Hope y’all had a great Christmas!

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9 Responses

  1. Very interesting way of looking at the tiers. It would be real neat to figure out how character advancement would look like for the next 30… er, 15 levels. Also yes, 4e could very much use dominion rules. I’m hoping the next dmg will have something. maybe level 16(32?) would introduce stronghold building to the game?

  2. callin says:

    I’ve seen it the other way with leveling taking a very long time. Part of this is that we only play every other 2 weeks and only for about 3 hours. I suppose it all comes down to group play style.

    One question I would ask is, how long do you want a 1-30 campaign to last? I believe someone from Critical Hits just finished a 1-30 campaign that took a couple of years in real time. Slowing things down could drag out a campaign.

    I have run into the same problem of the characters outleveling the adventures I have designed. Part of this is my own fault for not factoring in the speed of level increase. However, I have taken to using the Monster Builder to simply bump up the monsters levels so they match the character’s level. Thus far it has worked out well.

  3. Oz says:

    Maybe I’m lucky because I’ve had the same cadre of players for a long time, but if I tell them a given campaign will be xp lean so that level/power gain doesn’t outstrip the story, they are fine with it.

    One of the down-sides of level based systems is that advancement is lumpy. I’ve been running a bastardized skill-centric version of Microlite that I’m pretty happy with, as the advancement is more granular. The trade off there is that it’s not as easy to suss out the challenges for a given party, something that 4e makes very easy.

  4. Elton says:

    Of course I had a great christmas! Saying that World of Warcraft is like D&D is a no-brainer. It is like D&D. Although 4e and World of Warcraft are too close in concept that no DM can tell the two apart in execution.

    That’s why I’m hoping that wizards of the coast doesn’t get the 4e go ahead from Blizzard, and Blizzard doesn’t consider any other companies. The whole point of the WoW RPG was to deviate from the MMORPG in interesting and fun ways. Says so in the introduction. :)

    Running 4e in WoW isn’t going to be a whole lot different than doing a Dungeon Raid in WoW. You have four roles in WoW dungeon raiding, just like you have four roles in 4e.

    The WoW RPG is best ran with 2e, 1e, Pathfinder, or 3.5 e, or even OD&D (BECMI). Running it with 4e, you’d have a better experience just playing it the regular way. At least that’s the theory.

    I don’t want to test it out.

  5. pdunwin says:

    Wow, I sure don’t have this problem. My live group plays quite infrequently, less than once a month for about four or five hours, and my play-by-post games are by their nature very slow. The live group has gained one level in about a year, and the pbp group is about a third of the way after six months.

    I’m okay with this. I like having a some time to get used to the PC capabilities. Still, I have been tempted to double XP and treasure acquisition in my pbp game. Such games often die out before anyone levels, so speeding things up might tend to hold interest more.

    You might consider doing away with XP altogether. More and more people just level the PCs when it seems right to everyone and the story.

  6. Kensan_Oni says:

    My thought is that given the way players tend to play, bump the tables by dropping the 2nd level experience needed to first level, add in a extra one for 30th, if you are going to play that long, and run that way, without giving out more experience. That should slow everything down by a reasonable amount, and I think would be a good baseline. Of course, this ends up even slower then just doubling, but given how often people run EL+ Encounters anyway, I doubt it’ll be noticed that much.

  7. Jenny Snyder says:

    Funnily enough, my players do complain about the rate of advancement. Mostly the wizard, who was excited last session about using his new daily power at least once before everyone leveled. Then again, every time he complains, the rest of the party tells him to STFU, so I guess it’s just a problem with wizarding, and not so much leveling.

  8. uhf says:

    Who’s got time for castles when you advance that fast?

    Funnily enough… my players are in a more old school game that I’ve adapted from d20. And Bam… they are on second level going on 3.

    Anyways… Its not quite clear who’s perception was fixed here. Is the DM no longer upset? Or are the players a lot happier?

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