A Conversation About Tiers
Now here comes 5e, asking "Should the game change as you go up in levels?"
And a lot of the response is saying "It'd be really nice if I could decide for myself what kind of game I like. If, instead of forcing me to play godslayers at level 20, I can stay killin' goblins forever. Or, if I want to slay gods without having to spend months level grinding, maybe I can do that right out the gate, too! It would also be nice if I could control when the game changes — maybe I want everyone to be baker-battlers for 5 levels? 10? And THEN become Heroes."
How do we do that? How do we let people decide for themselves what kind of game they play, and when to change it?
We move the tiers from something that automatically happens as you gain levels, to something the DM gives out when the DM (and the rest of the group) are ready for it.
So, here's how it works.
First, the tiers:
So, once you've got a handle on what the tiers mean generally speaking, we can say that the lowest possible functional tier is the Commoner Tier. Usually, PC's don't start here, but we can imagine a game in which they could, so let's start there. They are Common Tier characters, and they do things like stop kobolds from kidnapping children, or clearing giant ants out of the tunnels below the town, or killing a few dire rats in the sewers, or going to find the prize cow that's gone missing in the wolf-infested forest. Important things, no doubt, and dangerous, too, but they do what they can to survive at this point. If a dragon comes to town, they don't stand to fight it — they run, and they help others to run. Dragons are not something that bakers and town guards can expect to slay.
Then, we keep them there. For how long? Forever, maybe. How long do you want them to be there? How long do they want to be there? Whenever you want to, at some point, you can introduce Heroic Tier via an award.
In play, it would look like this: Your party of bakers and blacksmiths are out gathering a rare spice for the local chef, when you stumble into a cave, infested with dire spiders and a few lost, panicked orcs. And there's one monster you have no hope of beating, because you're just normal folks from the town — it is a horrible MIND FLAYER is performing unspeakable experiments on the vermin here. If you could find a way back up, you might call the local hero to come slay the mind flayer, but on your way up, you uncover what seem to be ancient ruins, complete with five magic swords sitting there for the taking. As you hold them, the power of their ancient crafters flows into you — and that mind flayer doesn't seem so tough now. You slay it, and escape the tunnel — as Heroic Tier characters.
This doesn't happen automatically at level 3, or level 5, or level 7, or level 10. It happens when the DM awards it — when the PC's earn it.
Of course, the DM could award it right at the beginning of play, if they wanted to. You're the type of DM who likes to start his PC's out already being "newbie heroes"? Perfect! They start out as Heroic Tier characters.
This transition works the same regardless of what tier you're passing from or into. It is hypothetically possible for those bakers and town guards to stumble on magic swords that make them not just heroes — but Epic-Tier Demigods. It's also possible to start play there — Hercules in the crib crushing snakes! Achilles dipped in the Styx! It's also not required that you ever transition — your party of bakers and blacksmiths can stay Common Tier forever, if you want.
Which leads us to the next bit…
First, some background
To get to this next bit, we're going to have to talk about a few game design tricks real fast.
"Horizontal" vs. "Vertical" advancement
I'm gonna get a bit game-designy on you for a second.
Anyone who plays D&D knows that you can get two main things when you gain a level: +1's to your existing abilities (+1 to attack, +1 to damage, +1 to skill checks, etc), and/or new abilities (new spells, new skills, new powers, new proficiencies, new feats).
In game-design speak, those +1's are "vertical" advancement: they increase your ability to succeed on your die rolls. The new abilities are "horizontal" advancement: they give you more situations in which you can roll dice.
D&D levels can come with one, or the other, or both, depending on your edition and your class and your playstyle. A +1 BAB or a spell level or a skill rank is a vertical advancement. A new feat or extra spell per day is a horizontal advancement.
E6 and Caps
For the uninitiated "E6" is a version of D&D where you stop gaining levels at level 6. It is designed to preserve that "Heroic Tier" feel forever. You still gain XP, and you still gain more things you can do, but it is nearly all in the form of "Horizontal" advancement — for instance, you keep gaining spells per day, but you don't usually gain more spell levels.
The trick is that this works at any tier. You can just stop gaining +1's to things, and thus keep the feel of your favored tier for as long as you want to keep it. You can keep getting more things, so you can keep "gaining levels," your raw bonuses just don't increase. This is effectively a "cap."
When we look at tiers, we can easily see that the "cap" between the tiers might be very different. Common-tier folks might be capped at +5, while Champion-Tier folks might be capped at +20 (or so), making even the best baker in the village still no match for even a newborn destined-emperor-to-be.
So, we have a maximum bonus from level that can be applied to characters of any tier. These can also serve as minimums for the tier above:
- Common Tier is between +0 and +5.
- Heroic Tier is between +6 and +10.
- Champion Tier is between +11 and +15.
- Epic Tier is between +16 and +20.
So, an example. Let's say the bonus from your level is equal to your level (level 1 = +1, level 2 = +2, etc.), and every time you gain a level, you gain a feat. Our Common-Tier Town Guard PC's start at level 1, with a +1 bonus to their attack rolls from their level — they are trained warriors, sure. The local farmers know how to aim a pitchfork, the local blacksmiths are good with a hammer, okay, +1 to attack rolls.
They gain levels by going on adventures, and they get experience to help them get better at what they do. It involves some fighting (killing a wolf trying to eat the cow, spearing a dire ant, whatever), so they get better at fighting, too. By level 5 they have +5 to their attack rolls (and 5 feats!).
Then it stops. The next time they gain a level, when they reach level 6, they don't get another +1 to their attack rolls. They still get a feat, though — they get broader, but not deeper.
This is why you can sit in Common Tier (or whatever tier you want) for functionally the entire time you play D&D, if you want. You can still "gain levels," those levels just don't increase your power (though they still increase your versatility).
If our town-guard-and-bakers DM never graduates from common tier, the characters will still grow and change. That Level 20 Baker might only have +5 to attack rolls, but he's got, I guess, a LOT of skills and tricks. He's still only a baker, and he's still fighting goblins and kobolds and bandits, but he's probably seen a lot more than any baker has any right to.
But the moment the DM wants to, he can change the tier to Heroic Tier — the party finds some magic swords and find heroism deep within themselves. At that point, when that level 20 baker reaches level 21, he gets another +1 — a total of +6, and he can go until +10 (at level 25).
This also works the other way around. If the DM starts the game at Heroic Tier, even our Level 1 Hero has a +6 to attack rolls — he's a hero by nature, after all, and that is reflected in his being able to outclass anyone else in town at his archery test. He's got no problem killing goblins and bandits. That mind flayer might give him some trouble, though and Dragons…hoo boy…
For Classes, Magic, and Monsters, too!
Because each tier in this model functions as a DM-level switch, it works for any aspect of the game — not just PCs gaining levels.
You could put certain classes in certain tiers. For instance, a Paladin might be a Heroic-tier class: Common-tier folks need not apply. Archmage might be Champion Tier. Lord of Hell might be Epic Tier. This works with prestige classes, paragon paths, and epic destinies in similar ways.
Certain character abilities certainly should be limited by tier. Raise Dead might be Champion or Epic tier — handily solving the problem of why kings don't use it all the time on themselves (Because Champion-tier characters are more powerful than most kings, and rarer than an honest banker to boot). Teleport may be the same. Fireball might be comfortably heroic — no need to have acolytes burning down towns.
Magic items can function here, too. Potions and scrolls might be Common-tier items, but magic equipment might be Heroic Tier, and Champions might have artifacts.
Monsters work in the same way. Goblins are good Common-tier threats, Orcs might be Heroic-tier, with Dragons being Champion-Tier, and Demon Lords being Epic Tier.
This helps explain why townsfolk run away from dragons, and why if your PC is just a townsfolk, they should probably run, too. It also explains why townsfolk aren't raising their dead and teleporting everywhere — it's out of their tier, so they don't have access to it. Folks who DO have access to it are fairly unique in the world.
What This Does
It makes character power level something that can be opted into or out of at any time by the DM and the group in general. At some precise time, the DM can choose to award a tier. Otherwise, no tier is awarded. The DM might build these into levels, or he might take a more curated approach, awarding them only when relevant. Or he might award them at character creation. Or he might never award them.
This gives everyone the freedom to play the game they want without being forced to change at a certain point, but allowing them to change at literally any point.
The exact numbers/mechanics maybe could use some tweaking, but the bigger perspective seems right on to what people need.