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

Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
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?
 

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riprock

First Post
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.
 

Aus_Snow

First Post
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.
 

Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
riprock said:
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.
 

Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
Aus_Snow said:
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.
 

Greenstone

First Post
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.
 

ehren37

Explorer
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.
 

Harlekin

First Post
Wulf Ratbane said:
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.
 

GlassJaw

Hero
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. ;)
 
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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.
 

painandgreed

First Post
Wulf Ratbane said:
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?

My plan is to try a different XP chart and go to an exponential climb. Doubleing the Xp needed for each level is a little much. I'm looking at making it 1000 Xp for 2nd level and then x1.6 for each level after that. That means for a bit quicker climb in the first couple of levels but then becoming longer between levels later. So, I wouldn't cap, but rather just slow down the rate of advancement at higher levels. A good deal of the trouble with high level play isn't the play or powers itself, but rather the DM and the players are given too much too quickly. Slow it down and I think that it will be easier to handle.
 

Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
GlassJaw said:
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.

Nope, it's not really a low-magic issue. I have no problem with the style and feel of the normal, full-on, magic-infused Dungeons and Dragons-- up through about 10th level.

Maybe I need to restate the design challenge just to clarify my own thoughts.

1) The rules and options available will dictate the style and feel of your game.

2) You want to capture the feel of the "sweet spot" play-- about 1st-10th.

3) You want your campaign to last, in real time, about the same amount of time as a normal "Adventure Path" that covers 1st-20th.

but here's the kicker:

4) When you stretch out the amount of time it takes to get from 1st to 10th level, you must still provide the same pace of regular character advancement ("cookies") as normal play. If your players are accustomed to levelling up once every 3rd session or so, you still need to be providing them that same incentive pace.
 

Wulf Ratbane

Adventurer
painandgreed said:
My plan is to try a different XP chart and go to an exponential climb. Doubleing the Xp needed for each level is a little much. I'm looking at making it 1000 Xp for 2nd level and then x1.6 for each level after that. That means for a bit quicker climb in the first couple of levels but then becoming longer between levels later. So, I wouldn't cap, but rather just slow down the rate of advancement at higher levels. A good deal of the trouble with high level play isn't the play or powers itself, but rather the DM and the players are given too much too quickly. Slow it down and I think that it will be easier to handle.
Not picking on you, but that's exactly the approach I am talking about NOT doing. Just slowing down the rate of XP doesn't work, because it doesn't provide the players with the regular feedback of advancement to keep the game interesting.

(And I mean advancement in a Gamist sense. Ignore this comment if you don't know what I mean. Fnord.)
 

Mark CMG

Creative Mountain Games
I've heard that for a lot of DMs the game starts to feel out of their control once spellcasters get to levels where "travel" spells come into play and then definitely feels unwieldy when "save or die" spells are most prevalent. There are a few other things DMs sometimes mention (the increased need to be quick with mathematics, for instance) but those seem to be the primary two, from what I have heard and read. To many, it simply seems like such a very different game that it doesn't integrate well with what they have planned during earlier levels. I think that some (optional?) rules to adjust those spells (and related effects) might make it easier for those DMs who prefer low- through mid-level play but would definitely irk those who regularly enjoy (and even prefer) high level play. It may be something that is best handled as rules adjustments for particular settings (e.g. In the world of blah-blah there is no planar travel because no other planes exist, teleportation works dangerously strange, and any type of death magic brings on only a death-like state that . . .). Just a few thoughts.
 

Hussar

Legend
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.

True, but, then again, Rapan Athuk and the World's Largest Dungeon do not and both go up into the high teens for levels.

You don't necessarily have to do the planar hopping bit at high levels, but, then again, at high levels you can. It's always nice to get some traction out of those spells that don't get used a lot.

I would point out that this trend of planar hopping at high levels certainly isn't anything new either. Queen of the Demonweb Pits and Isle of the Ape jump to mind. I think it gets to the point where the players are so powerful, that it's maybe a good idea to broaden their horizons a bit.

However, it's still a pain in the butt to create adventures for. :)

There is another option. Simply restart campaigns at "name" level. I've found it takes me about 4 to 6 sessions to gain a level, which means that a 10 level campaign would last me about a year. That's not a bad run for a campaign. Run for a year and then try something new. Keeps things fresh at least.
 

GlassJaw

Hero
Wulf Ratbane said:
1) The rules and options available will dictate the style and feel of your game.

Correct. You basically have to determine the "end-game" style you want to establish and then work backwards. Once you have done that, you can also determine the pace of advancement and the pace at which the characters gain new abilities.

True, but, then again, Rapan Athuk and the World's Largest Dungeon do not and both go up into the high teens for levels.

You don't necessarily have to do the planar hopping bit at high levels, but, then again, at high levels you can.

While I don't think using two massive dungeon crawls is a good example, you are correct.

However, even if you your high-level campaign is of the planar variety, the options available at that level still dictate the style of the campaign, even if they don't dictate the story arc itself. You still have things like Raise Dead and Commune as Wulf mentioned. Spells like that go a long way in establishing what constitutes a challege.
 

Kid Charlemagne

I am the Very Model of a Modern Moderator
Is the goal to extend the time spent playing 1-10, or is the goal to extend the sweet spot so that it continues into later levels? Is that second option even possible? I think my response would be to try to re-imagine those items that are too "wahoo" for you - I think those are things like teleport, raise dead, etc, as well. Then maybe you could continue to capture the sweet spot feel while continuing to advance all the way to 20th level. This could be accomplished by capping those "wahoo" areas, while leaving the other bits intact (which a lot of people already do).
 

Dorloran

First Post
Man, am I glad to see this thread! It hits on THE problem that my group and I have been struggling with ever since we finished the RttTEE about two years ago.

Here are some thoughts I have had, in no particular order.

Start PCs at 1st level, but give them 5th level hit points. That’s all they ever get, then, unless they take feats (Toughness), raise their CON, etc. I think that this would open up the range of encounters for characters and the DM would not be so beholden to EL or CR. You wouldn’t have to worry about wiping out the low level party, an Ancient Red Dragon would really be horrific, but it could still be placed in the bullpen of monsters available to fight, really pushing the characters to use their wits to overcome it.

Cap character advancement at around 6th or 7th level, when classes get most of their good perks. PCs would not advance beyond that, though you might use something like the Epic level concept of still allowing feat selection as characters progress. You could also make a tweak to the spell casting rules to allow for finding, learning, and casting the odd high-level spell, though at great risk (can you say, Spell Burn??)

You could slow down progression using a different XP chart (like the one in the Wilderlands campaign, that more closely mimics 1E/2E advancement). This solution seems inelegant, though, especially if used alone.

I have always wondered why skill DC increases with CR while skill points increase too. I go up a level, I increase my ranks in certain skills. But the DC goes up by level, too, until you have a DC/skill rank arms race. Having been raised on both 1E and 2E, I still cringe when the rogue calls out, “I got a 34 on my Search for traps roll.” That’s just too high. Why not keep the Search DC for a secret door at, say, 20, and have slow down the skill rank progression? If you wanted to keep the mechanic of increasing ranks in certain skills, it should be retained only for character development purposes (I ran into Gord, and he showed me a thing or two about disabling poison needle traps). The bonuses would remain low, though.

The DND Basic Game has an interesting approach to this problem, I think. The DCs remain pretty static, but so do the skill ranks. All the rank/bonuses are given at character creation. Elves get bonuses in Search, etc. Humans get a +2 to any single skill. Rogues, the masters of skills, get a +4 bonus to everything. Etc. You could raise numbers through feats, increased ability scores.

Actually, the above is the same for AC. My BAB goes up, my opponent’s AC goes up. Why is that necessary? I ran some numbers back in 2E. I took what I considered the most common monsters PCs would encounter at 1st, 3rd, 9th, 12th, etc. levels and tried to figure the chances that a fighter, thief, cleric, and MU would have to hit at each level. The percentage remained pretty much the same. So again, why the numbers race? If I get a +15 to hit at 15th level, and the monster’s AC is up to 30, that gives me a 30% chance to hit. If I’m first level with a +1 and the monster’s AC is 16, that gives me a 30% chance to hit. Why this illusion of progress? (Maybe a similar study would be interesting for 3.5E.)

Although, I agree that leveling up is important and players need rewards of some kind. Maybe a reward in Status or Reputation, a role playing reward rather than a mechanical, numerical reward?

What we’ve been struggling with is keeping mid-level play, which we agree is the most interesting and challenging and most fun to DM, yet still having a system that allows character growth, customization, and rewards for the players. Gee, that seems pretty simple…?
 

Kid Charlemagne

I am the Very Model of a Modern Moderator
Mark CMG said:
I've heard that for a lot of DMs the game starts to feel out of their control once spellcasters get to levels where "travel" spells come into play and then definitely feels unwieldy when "save or die" spells are most prevalent.

To this I would add the ability to raise the dead - so three categories of spells - Travel spells, Raising the Dead, and Save or Die. I don't think there's any strong reason (beyond tradition, which is a strong force) to have any of those three things in the game. Not meaning that they're bad, but rather that you could pull them out without losing any of what I think is essential to a fantasy RPG (for example, fireball-ish spells ARE vital to the genre, in my view). These things could be taken out of the spell lists and added to a category of "very rare" magics - powerful rituals, requiring unique and very rare components, etc. Maybe you can't Plane Shift - but you can find a portal that will allow you to traverse the planes. You can't Raise Dead - but you can quest to the land of the dead to bring your dead friend back (and in the meantime adopt rules systems that make death less common, perhaps).
 

Mallus

Hero
Wulf Ratbane said:
When you stretch out the amount of time it takes to get from 1st to 10th level, you must still provide the same pace of regular character advancement ("cookies") as normal play. If your players are accustomed to levelling up once every 3rd session or so, you still need to be providing them that same incentive pace.
Does this have to be some form of mechanical advancement? What about characters accruing influence, enemies, a greater engagement with the setting?

There's a big difference between a 10th level fighter and a 10th level fighter who commands an army embroiled in a civil war.

I guess to do agree that character development needs a mechanical component, even if its just new items. Like Pavlov's dogs, D&D players are trained to expect that --and I count myself among the dogs, despite how much I claim to interested in "story".

Here's what I'm planning to do w/the game I currently run. The party's 9th level. The setting isn't really set up to accomodate epic-style play. So I'm just going to cut down the XP awards, and hopefully I can make up for it in other areas.
 

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