[D&D Design Discussion] Preserving the "Sweet Spot"
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    [D&D Design Discussion] Preserving the "Sweet Spot"

    I was having a conversation with GlassJaw the other day about preserving or extending the "sweet spot" of Dungeons and Dragons.

    Bear with me, because I need to run through the course of our conversation-- the high points.

    1) There was a poll here a while back and there is a pretty good sized chunk of folks who find mid-level play to be the most engaging and rewarding part of D&D play. I think if you couple that with low-level play, most of the best D&D is done right here. (Please don't use this as an opportunity to extoll the virtues of high-level play if you disagree.)

    2) A slightly-less-than-arbitrary "cap" to the sweet spot is 10th level. I consider mid-level play to be around 5th-8th level; 10th level play is where we start to really get the "wahoo!" factor. Consider the difference when the pinnacle of spellcraft is Raise Dead, Teleport, Commune. Just shy of these potentially game-breaking spells is the "sweet spot." Perhaps "game-breaking" is too harsh; but certainly campaign altering.

    3) We're not necessarily talking about a low-magic game, here. We enjoy the spells and magic items, we just don't enjoy them at high level. It's a lot more work for the DM to run a high level game. Strangely enough, the more options the PCs have, the fewer options the DM has to challenge them. It's the "D&D Arms Race."

    4) One of the most telling exercises is to compare, side by side, a low- or mid-level adventure and a high-level adventure, for example from Dungeon magazine. Most of the interesting story is at the low levels, and the high level play becomes an exercise in plane-hopping from one huge over-the-top fight to another. (I've oversimplified to capture the "essence" of my point.)

    Anyway, on to the discussion:

    How do you extend the "sweet spot?"

    Where would you "cap" the game?

    And how would you do it in such a way as to give the players the same "real time" rate of advancement/improvement as the current rules provide?

  2. #2
    I don't think high levels are a problem if the players continue to encounter challenges.

    I think monsters with class levels are a great idea. Likewise monsters with templates are a great idea. Both of those can extend the challenge level.

    Eventually, you can take missions among the gods instead of among the rabble in the tavern.

    In fact, I recommend watching Harryhausen's "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Clash of the Titans" for examples of heroes encountering divine forces.

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    Myrmidon (Lvl 10)



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    For people who don't want magic in particular to 'blow out' as it seems to do, according to many, the good advice that is often given on forums could apply to this perceived problem too.

    That is, enforce a rule that disallows characters to take more than one level of any full spellcasting class in a row. This way, magic is held back yet still 'omnipresent', as it were. Big woohoo stuff just isn't there until very high levels indeed.

    Only one way, but it works.

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    Waghalter (Lvl 7)

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    Quote Originally Posted by riprock
    I don't think high levels are a problem if the players continue to encounter challenges.

    I think monsters with class levels are a great idea. Likewise monsters with templates are a great idea. Both of those can extend the challenge level.

    Eventually, you can take missions among the gods instead of among the rabble in the tavern.

    In fact, I recommend watching Harryhausen's "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Clash of the Titans" for examples of heroes encountering divine forces.
    First response. Amazing.

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    Waghalter (Lvl 7)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Aus_Snow
    That is, enforce a rule that disallows characters to take more than one level of any full spellcasting class in a row. This way, magic is held back yet still 'omnipresent', as it were. Big woohoo stuff just isn't there until very high levels indeed.

    Only one way, but it works.
    That's functionally the same as one of my thoughts, which was to cap any single class at 10th level. So you could multiclass wizard 10 / cleric 10, for example.

    But I think I would want a solution that doesn't just handicap the spellcasters.

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    After DMing more than a few campaigns in D&D and AD&D (one lasting over 10 years, from levels 5-15, but with a homebrew rules system), I agree that in 3.5 (or any incarnation of D&D) there is a definite 'sweet spot' for DMs. I also agree that the end of the sweet spot usually means that battles become continent- (or plane-) hopping battles that are widespread in their consquences.... and a pain to DM.

    As direct comments on your points:

    1) Agree. For me the split is basically...

    Level 1-3: PCs find 'themselves', battle minor threats, learn how these threats have at their root some larger evil, or a BBEG, etc. Travel within one realm or small locale.
    Level 4-7: PCs take on bigger and badder foes nearer and nearer to the 'source' of the evil, travel between various nations/realms.
    Levels 8-12: Plot builds towards the inevitable confrontation with the BBEG. PCs embark on worldwide travel and/or travel to other planes.
    Levels 13-15: The climax...

    Sounds very formulaic I know, but look at the AoW and Shackled City Adventure Paths, or even the old DL modules... all seem to fit within that pattern (granted the Adventure Paths 'extend' the last phase to level 20...)

    2) Again, fully agree. The campaign I'm starting soon for my kids (11 and 7) will run from levels 1-9, with the climax their ascension to the dizzy hgeights of 10th level... . This because I know that they want a 'classic' fantasy campaign in the vein of Shannara, Willow, the D&D movie, etc. Planar travel will, I think, be too 'alien' for them - it is more a 'staple' of D&D's own created reality than mainstream fantasy, IMHO.

    3) Agreed. But notice how you state "It's a lot more work for the DM to run a high level game... the more options the PCs have, the fewer options the DM has to challenge them...". I believe (although I've DMed and not played for my entire 20 years in RPGs. so maybe I'm wrong) that perhaps for players there is no 'sweet spot'... that they would happily watch the DM squirm all the way to Epic levels... .

    4) Already agreed to this in (1)... .

    So I'm not adding much other than my agreement and perhaps sympathy from a fellow DM... and one whose current 'adult' campaign will cap at 15th level, as will the next two in planning...

    However, what I could suggest (and what I plan on doing in the future) is retiring those 15th level heroes, and then using them for one-off adventures, weekender specials, guest appearances in the campaign, and so on. Or maybe even saving three or four groups of them and then running one mother-of-an-adventure where (for example) 15 or so 15th-20th level PCs take on the 'worst' the DM can throw at them, perhaps to become gods, perhaps to go out in one unforgettable blaze of glory, perhaps to battle each other in some kind of cosmic 'winner takes all' arena of the gods... I've always thought that the toughest adversary for any PC over 15th level is another PC over 15th level

    And now you've got me thinking, so I'm off to pursue that idea... .Thanks!

    Peace on Earth will mean the end of civilisation as we know it.

  7. #7
    I dont cap, the campaign goes on as long as there are good adventures to be had. Sometimes we opt for fast or slow advancement as the setting warrants. Our ravenloft game of 3 years got to the mighty level of 7 or so. Our Al-Quadim game went to 17ish. My current oathbound game is set to continue to 25+ to free the grey stranger. For me, the sweet spot varies by what kind of game we want.

    Playing with arcana evolved rules has helped keep the casters from getting grotesquely out of bounds. Ditching raise dead, and implementing a luck score that goes down each time you would ordinarily die keeps things a bit more playusible as well.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Wulf Ratbane
    That's functionally the same as one of my thoughts, which was to cap any single class at 10th level. So you could multiclass wizard 10 / cleric 10, for example.

    But I think I would want a solution that doesn't just handicap the spellcasters.

    If you combine that with a low number of magic items for the non-spellcasters, you might not weaken the spellcasters too much, especially for the next few levels.

    Of course you could also go the brute force route and ban/weaken the most anoying spells.

    One thing that you did not mention that also bothers me once you pass 10th is how long it takes to resolve a fighter's combat round, rolling at least 3 attack rolls etc. Full attacks get to be a pain in the neck at some point.

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    Wulf captured the major points of our conversation but I wanted to highlight my interest on this issue.

    If you take a look at the essence of the "challenge" in D&D, it basically boils down to bigger numbers. The players get bigger mods so the "challenges" have to as well and vice versa.

    But if the increase in challenge is a linear progression throughout the lifetime of the characters and/or campaign, i.e., the "challenge" is the same regardless of the level of the characters, why is there a need to make the numbers so cumbersomely high?

    I define the "sweet spot" as the point in which the DM can challenge the party with a wide range of encounters and the PC's have the resources needed to overcome those challenges. The sweet spot is also the point at which these encounters and challenges can be resolved in a timely and efficient manner so as to keep the game moving and to maintain the story.

    At the early levels (1-3ish), the characters are relatively fragile. The options a DM has is more limited as these levels because a single encounter can destroy an entire party.

    At the higher levels, the DM may have a wide range of encounters in which to challenge the party but the nature of the challenges changes. In high-level play, the numbers are much larger overall so the game plays slower. Also, with spells that Wulf mentioned, it becomes more difficult to preserve story elements or even maintain certain plots. For example, just read the outlines of the three Adventure Paths. They all invariably end up with the characters plane-hopping and teleporting as story arcs.

    A low-magic ruleset does address many of these issues but I don't think it's necessarily a low-magic vs high-magic/standard D&D decision.

    If we go back to the "essence" of the challenge in D&D as I mentioned earlier, it's all about bigger numbers, i.e. more "stuff". Part of our conversation that Wulf didn't mentioned was the design philosophy behind 3ed. Just looking at the nature of the rules and the subsequent supplements, it is primarily about the numbers. Bottom line: people want more "stuff" as they level-up. 3ed, at its core, is about increasing your character's power in one way or another.

    And I'm fine with that.

    What I don't like, however, is that in doing so, I feel 3ed sacrifices the DM's ability to tell certain stories (or at least forces his hand) and makes the game cumbersome.

    The challenge, as I see it, is the following:

    1. Maintain the challenge as the players progress without "numbers bloat".
    2. Provide rewards to the players that don't necessarily just increase the numbers.
    3. Keep the numbers in check so they don't restrict the flow and pace of the game.
    4. Make the game easier for the DM to run but not over-simplified so as to limit his options.
    5. Allow the DM to advance the story arc as the characters advance without being forced to deal with certain "campaign-changing" spells, powers, abilities, etc.

    Wulf and I discussed some possible solutions but I'll hold off on discussing those for now.
    Last edited by GlassJaw; Thursday, 3rd August, 2006 at 04:30 PM.

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    I don't know that I would cap. I'd try to flatten the power-curve instead. One of the best things about GT (and more so with Mythic Tales) (see how I suck up ) is that every level you have the opportunity to grow your character. This doesn't have to lead to power-creep, if done well it just adds flexibility and flavor. Everyone hates 7th level enough already.

    Move the game-breaking magics to 19th/20th. Make wishes and teleporting and summoning the princes of hell the pinnacle of the non-epic game. Make penalty-less resurrection a true miracle instead of a common occurrence.

    Tweak the HP mechanic a little so that there was more gradation between 1 hp / -1 hp / dead. Add more permanent damage effects (and if needed corresponding healing magic) to fill the gap for clerics and keep them relevant and mid-to-high levels.

    Change spell progression so that multi-classing doesn't kick casters in the teeth quite so much. A spell progression similar to BAB/Saves could take care of that -- give pure casters 1/1, hybrids 1/2, pure melee 1/4 or something.

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