In the product page for “Project Pentagon,” I mention that a goal for this game is to “Create a longer play experience in the leveling “sweet spot” (the D&D/PFRPG equivalent of character levels 6 to 12).” But what does that mean?
Most people who have played a lot of D&D (or Pathfinder) would agree that the “sweet spot” of leveling a character starts around character level 6 and ends around character level 12. Most people consider level range the most fun for playing. Why?
(Update September 23, 2014: If you like this post and where these ideas are going, please check out the kickstarter for my Five Moons RPG, which uses these ideas. Thanks!)
On the lower end of this level range, PCs are starting to feel really tough–they can easily handle a fight with a few ogres; the full-BAB classes like the fighter are starting to get their second attack per round; spellcasters get access to cool game-changing spells like fireball and fly… but a large number of low-CR opponents (like 16 1st-level orcs) can still be an annoyance, even if they really aren’t a threat to the PCs. And large numbers of low-CR opponents are excellent fodder for area and multi-target attacks like fireball, flurry of blows, and Whirlwind Attack. The PCs have cool abilities and have plenty of opportunities to use them.
On the upper end of this range, the PCs can handle fights against Large dragons, liches, and some of the tougher demons; the fighter has picked up a third attack per round; spellcasters have access to world-changing spells like raise dead and teleport and badass combat spells like disintegrate, flesh to stone, harm, and heal. Instead of packs of orcs being a hassle, packs of ogres are a hassle. But magic like limited wish, maze, prismatic spray, and spell turning are out of reach except perhaps if they find a scroll, easy planar travel (whether through the Astral or Ethereal planes) is limited to natural portals, and something grand like a scroll of wish is a fantastic treasure worth 1/4th of what a typical 12th-level PC carries around. In other words, the PCs are very powerful, but not so powerful that the GM has to invent incredibly powerful obstacles to challenge them (like a gang of adult red dragons, or the tarrasque).
Also, the teen levels are where the math of the game starts to break down. The fast-BAB characters start to miss only on very low rolls, and the slow-BAB characters start to only hit with very high rolls, so monsters are (a) challenging for the fighter to hit but impossible for the wizard to hit, (b) possible for the wizard to hit and trivial for the fighter to hit, or (c) straddling the boring middle ground between these two extremes. The iterative attacks for the fast-BAB characters seldom hit. Good save bonuses and poor save bonuses start to be very very different, so it’s very hard to fail your good save and very hard to succeed at your poor save, so tactics become figuring out which saving throw to target.
In a recent blog post, I talked about reading the D&D Basic and Expert sets from 1981, how they stopped at level 14, and how that let you play for the full “sweet spot” level range. If you wanted to “get back to basics” like that with a new D&D-ish system, you could just end the game rules at level 12 or 14. That way, you don’t have to waste time and energy trying to make that part of the system (a level range most people don’t play in anyway) functional, you just focus on the fun part that works best.
However, nowadays people are so used to being theoretically able to reach level 20 (or even level 30, if playing 4E D&D), that if you ended the class tables at level 12 or 14, players would feel like they were being “robbed” of the opportunity to play through those character levels, even though most campaigns stop around level 12–14.*
So what can you do to break that psychological disconnect of “losing” the option for playing through character levels 13+, and also not just have the game weirdly end at level 12?
Answer: You double the number of levels in the game. Instead of ending at character level 12, you end at character level 12 x 2 = 24. A 6th-level D&D character converted to this game system would be a 6 x 2 = 12th level character. A brand-new 1st-level D&D character would still be a 1st-level character in this system**, but a barely-experienced 2nd-level D&D character would be a 4th-level character in this system–a relatively new, but still competent adventurer. Instead of a D&D wizard getting 3rd-level spells at character level 5, they get them at character level 5 x 2 = 10.***
To keep the pace of the campaign the same, your character could level up after every 2 game sessions instead of every 4–5 sessions. Or you could slow it down a little bit and level up every 3 sessions, or keep it like D&D and level up every 4–5 sessions, extending the overall playtime of the “sweet spot” levels.
I admit, if having the capstone at level 12 would feel weird to players, having it at level 24 would probably feel just as weird. So let’s add 1 level to the end so the capstone is level 25. That’s an easy number to remember, it’s easy to count because it’s a multiple of 5 (5 times 5, in fact****), with a lot of history in the game (like 25 being the original maximum for any ability score). And that still gives you plenty of leg room to fiddle with BAB and save progressions so high-level characters are better than low-level characters without introducing a great disparity between the best and worst BABs (or saves) in the party.
By ending this game at level 25 (effectively D&D level 12 or 13), this also lets you trim the 8th- and 9th-level D&D spells from the game. Note that many of those spells are basically “I’m a lower-level spell you’re familiar with, but even better because I’m higher level,” especially on the cleric and druid spell list (which originally ended at 7th-level spells up through AD&D 2nd edition, and had its list altered and filled in for 3E so clerics and druids would be full 9-level casters like wizards).*****
So that’s my plan for Project Pentagon: Focus on the most fun levels of the game, allow for “apprentice”-level characters, give more flexibility in speeding or slowing leveling during the campaign, end the game before the levels where the math breaks down, and cut the chaff in the ultra-high-power endgame magic.
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* It’s simple math. Most people reset their campaigns every 12 months. The game assumes you’ll level up every 4 or 5 game sessions, and if you start at level 1 and play once a week, that means after 52 weekly sessions, you’ve gained about (52 / 4.5 equals) 12 levels, putting you at level 13. That’s one reason why Paizo’s adventure paths top out around PC level 14…
** Alternatively, a 1st-level character in this system could be even weaker than a 1st-level D&D character–for example, a barely-trained apprentice. With that in mind, a 2nd-level character in this system is still a little wet behind the ears, but isn’t a complete rube.
*** This of course assumes that you keep the weird dichotomy between at what character level you get access to each spell level. In this game system, you could restructure the spell levels so you get 2nd-level spells at character level 2, 3rd-level spells at character level 3, and so on, so fireball would be a 10th-level spell you get at character level 10. But that’s a topic for another day…
**** It’s almost as if this game is codenamed “Project Pentagon” because of how often the number 5 comes up for various things…
***** Here’s something neat that happens because of this change: If D&D character level 12 becomes character level 24 in this system, the very next character level in D&D is 13th, which is when casters get 7th-level spells like creeping doom, ethereal jaunt, and limited wish. In this system, characters could gain access to these abilities at level 25, the last level in the game. So the capstone spells in this system could be the equivalent of D&D’s 7th-level spells… and because there aren’t higher-level spells above that, it means limited wish is the coolest, most versatile spell in the game–it is, in effect, the wish spell, and you’d just call it wish. A spellcaster could gain the ability to cast wish at the very last character level in the game, instead of at the fourth-last level of the game (17th in D&D). It’s long seemed weird to me that a 20th-level wizard’s level progression amounts to “ho hum, I get a fourth 9th-level spell per day at this level, I guess I’ll prepare a wish spell just in case my three other 9th-level spells don’t do the job…”
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