The Alexandrian

… and by that, I mean that they should be inspiring good, old-fashioned awe with the things that they do.

This is something I first talked about in D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations and I developed the theme in E(X): The Many Games Inside the World’s Most Popular Roleplaying Game.

Recently I was speaking with someone who was unhappy with the “crazy scaling” of Perception checks he was seeing in the arms race of high level Pathfinder games: The players crank up their Perception modifiers. The GM responds by simply cranking up the DC necessary to accomplish previously much easier tasks. The result is “silly” and “ridiculous”.

This is what I said:

FIRST, CONTEXTUALIZE THE NUMBERS. Instead of just blindly cranking up the numbers, think about what those larger numbers really mean. If a DC 30 check reveals a “well-hidden secret door”, then what does a DC 40 check really mean? Well, it means something that no one in the real world without special tools would ever be able to detect. So maybe that means that the door has been phase-shifted onto the Ethereal Plane; or painted with the illusion-infused blood of a demon; or covered with the alchemically-treated hide of an animal that has evolved the ability to make people psychically ignore its presence.

In other words, embrace the fact that the PCs are doing awesome things and really emphasize how awesome it is.

SECOND, EMPHASIZE NOT CHANGING THE NUMBERS. Instead of trying to keep the same old tasks challenging, focus on the paradigm shift that’s occurred.

Yup. They’re really, really good at finding hidden things. Similarly, they’re really, really good at killing 1st level goblins. Instead of resisting that change by leveling up all the goblins in the universe to match their new abilities, focus instead on exploring how their interaction with the world shifts.

A mechanical option along these same lines would be to include guidelines for improving the quality or speed of a check by accepting a penalty on the check. For example, I have a generic set of guidelines for “quick checks” that drop the time required for the check by one category in exchange for accepting a -10 penalty to the check. (High level characters, for example, can make successful Gather Information checks in 1d4+1 minutes instead of 1d4+1 hours by accepting a -20 penalty on their check.) For Perception checks, you might apply a -10 penalty to allow characters to notice hidden doors/objects/etc. without actively searching for them. (They just walk into a room and spot the hidden door in the corner.)

An extreme example of this sort of thing is Doctor Who: The Doctor can open the door of the TARDIS, sniff the air, and instantly identify the atmospheric content, the planet he’s standing on, and the time period. (I like to imagine that this is based on complex spectrographic analysis compared to charts which Time Lords study in school much like we study multiplication tables.)

ALTERNATIVELY, PUT A CAP ON THE AWESOME. If you don’t want to embrace the awesome, on the other hand, you’ll be much happier simply stepping out of the arms race. Cap their advancement before they become “too awesome”, either drawing the campaign to a close or finding other ways of advancing their characters. (This is where E(X): The Many Games Inside the World’s Most Popular Roleplaying Game comes back into the picture.)

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9 Responses to “Thought of the Day – High Level Characters Are (Literally) Awesome”

  1. Keith Davies says:

    This aligns well with a conversation I had in a while ago, when we were discussing the ‘meaning’ of various tiers in Echelon.

    Tier Definitions contains the more or less formal descriptions, while Paths of Immortality is a less-formal discussion, mostly based around what “godly ability” means and into why levels in D&D are kind of misunderstood by a lot of people.

  2. guest says:

    driving up the DCs is metagaming on the part of the DMs and cheating.

  3. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    > driving up the DCs is metagaming on the part of the DMs and cheating.

    Realizing that the DM is driving up the DCs is metagaming on the part of the players and cheating.


  4. Brooser Bear says:

    These issues are addressed pretty much in the same way in a AD&D 2nd Edition book, DMs Option: High Level Campaigns. Power gaming and meta gaming is my pet peeve. Players should be thinking their way out of boxes in terms of the events in the story, not in terms of what they should roll. If a player fails to look for a thing, no perception check, neither should there be one, when player looks exactly where a thing is hidden. 1st level Goblins are easily killed only if you don’t go beyond rules and die rolling, same way as unarmed people are easily killed by mass murderers with automatic weapons, but if led intelligently, if DM has goblins implement historically accurate tactics, you can have bands of goblins tie down 4th level parties. Role playing is an exercise in imagination, and DMs should provide original stories that force the players to think, and maybe even think out of the box. It is the DM’s burden to stick to the game and faithfully play the consequences, if the players’ original thinking lays entire dungeons to waste and side-step whole sections of his adventures. Instead, I’ve seen DM’s nurse their bruised egos and rely on hordes of the undead to capture players, so that the DM can role play from the position of power. I have seen it more than once and the sight is just as pathetic as the numbers crunching rules munchkin.

  5. GreyKnight says:

    “if DM has goblins implement historically accurate tactics” <– ALL my goblins are historically accurate, thankyouverymuch.

  6. Brooser Bear says:

    Goblin, as presented in Monster Manual is a forager/skirmisher. There are also elite Goblin Warriors in the Goblin King’s entourage. I got Wolf Riders, mounted on Dire Wolves and armed with goblin lances, that will do 2d6 damage if hit on first contact during a charge. Thereafter they use maces on armored foes and slashing swords on unarmored folk trying to flee, when they run them down. It takes an extremely tough Goblin to ride and train a Dire Wolf, or is the other way around? Any wolf, must see its rider as a dominant Alpha. There are also Goblins outfitted in plate armor working with Goblin-sized Voulges (a human-sized slightly off-balance Berdiche) that do 1d8 damage. A phalanx of mere 12 Goblins (3 rows of 4) was holding a staircase landing and they advanced on a party of 12 player characters and NPC’s. I didn’t expect it, but it almost became a total party kill. They were all 1HD monsters. What do you got yours doing, Grey Knight?

  7. Charles Brown says:

    Limiting high level characters so that they don’t seem like Gods to low level character is a feature to be implemented in the next edition D&D, and it is called Bounded Accuracy (BA). There are many ways to implement BA.

    The way the Wizards of the Coast chose to do it, and which is also suggested by Justin, is by capping or slowing down the bonuses of each level. For example, fighters only get a maximum of +1 to hit every 5 levels instead of +1 every level.

    Another way to implement BA is by capping the levels that characters can achieve, and this is the way that the RPG called 13th Age implements BA.

    Yet another way to implement BA is by rolling a larger die or dice. For example, instead of rolling d20 against 10 + bonuses to make checks, roll 2d20 against 20 + bonuses. The effect of each bonus is made smaller by rolling a larger die or dice. The last method is the least intrusive in that it doesn’t require the game to change dramatically. You can for example play Pathfinder or D&D 4th edition or any other RPG using this implementation without making many changes to the core and supplemental rule books.

  8. CampaignDM says:

    I ran a 3.5 D&D game taking characters from 1st through 17th level (and we only ended due to real life issues, not because the campaign had ‘capped out’). As the PCs leveled, they faced new, and tougher foes; their arch-rivals leveled with them as ‘team evil’ completed their own goals, and clashed with the PCs several times (sometimes killing a PC, sometimes killing a rival, only to be resurrected later on both sides – which was expected, but it always mattered who won each battle based on ongoing campaign goals).

    However, I took time to bring the PCs back to earlier ‘challenges’ in order to highlight how much they have grown. At mid-levels, for example, I occasionally ran them against low leveled opponents which the PCs handily defeated in order to *show* the players how far their characters had come since the last time those creatures were actually a challenge!

    To me, becoming awesome at higher levels is a *feature* of the game, not a drawback. When playing OR DMing I enjoy the feel of climbing from ‘gritty’ to ‘godly’.

  9. Brian Rogers says:

    Some aspects of this were covered back in 3.0, where Hide and Sneak had massive penalties for hiding while moving, letting you accept a DC+20 penalty (IIRC) for staying hidden while running. I like the idea of truncating time frames for Gather Information in a similar fashion, and can easily see several other places for that to work.

    Honestly though, my groups have never had this problem since I run d20 variants with a small player group (never more than 5 PCs, usually 4) and breadth off ability is always prized more highly than depth of skill. No one has Spot at +25 when they could have Spot +10, Ride +10 and Profession/Sailor +5, to pick a random example.

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