Power vs Levels

Today’s post concerns itself with character level, a subject I’ve already pondered in the first incarnation of this blog, back when it wasn’t so 4e-centric. You can tell it’s been rattling in my head for a while. Lets start with definitions. ‘Level’ is the number on the character sheet. It determines access to powers, number of feats, etc. ‘Power’ is the character’s ability to affect the world around him or her. It can be subdivided into ‘power through personal strength’, i.e. the ability to change the world by killing things, and ‘power through politics and social standing’, which is remarkably absent from 4e as a system. We could potentially dig deeper here, but this should be enough for our discussion. Now for a shocker: in 4e, there is no causation between character’s level and power, only correlation. Barely even that.

To paraphrase: characters’ level doesn’t really determine what or whom they can kill, much less on what scale they can change the world. It merely suggests certain things to a DM. To prove this I’m going to first prove another lemma: level doesn’t exist for monsters (used as a broad term), only for characters. How does a level 10 character fight a level 1 goblin? He doesn’t. Such difference in levels makes the fight incredibly boring and pointless: the goblin would never hit unless it rolled a natural 20, and the character would never miss. It would still likely take a non-striker several turns to deal enough damage, though. So instead, a level 10 character fights a level 10 minion goblin that has sufficient attacks and defences to be a minor threat, as well as only 1 hp so as to go down nice and quick. Case in point: level 12 minion lolthbound goblin slave, as compared to a level 3 standard lolthbound goblin.  The ‘slave’ version is not somehow better equipped yet underfed. This is the same goblin. The only difference between them is that the ‘slave’ is expected to fight a low-paragon party.

This flexibility is reflected in the simplicity of the rules for adjusting a monster’s level as well. If we want the same 10th level character to fight a level 20 monster, we can adjust it until it is more manageable. Or find one of a dozen variations of this monster, generously spread throughout a tier or two, that suits us. What matters is not the stats of the monster, but the place it has in the story. We expect a paragon character to stomp goblins en masse, if they bother at all. And lo, they do. This is so incredibly important that I’ll repeat it: the only reason a 10th level character easily defeats a goblin is because the story suggests it should be so. Because levels are meaningless in-world. Q.E.D.

The initial statement is corollary to this. This thought may have buzzed in the back of many DMs heads before, but it was 4e that made it prominent. Since it has abandoned attempts at being a simulationist system, character level no longer provides useful information as to what sort of monsters they can face, i.e. how great their power is. The monster levels in Monster Manuals merely suggest rough guidelines as to the complexity of monsters and their narrative pecking order. Beholder are tougher than goblins, so their levels are generally shown to be higher.

The rate at which characters accumulate levels is governed by rules, namely the coveted XP. But the accumulation of power is governed by the story. The guidelines linking local-international-universal power to heroic-paragon-epic tiers of levels exist, but are highly subjective. Some DMs will have you still running errands for a local king until you are epic, while others may dump international intrigue at your doorstep from level 5 – depending on personal preference and plans for the specific campaign, as well as input from players themselves.

This is the reason I have abandoned the use of XP in my campaign, instead declaring the PCs have leveled up when I see fit. And armed with my new understanding, I might reconsider. What I want to control as a DM is the rate of acquisition of power. I don’t particularly care about levels. Levels are a candy for players, a reward for participation.

All great, but how does this actually impact the game? The short answer is it allows us the freedom to play as we want to play. If you consider the heroic tier to be the sweet spot, there is nothing wrong with making a level 10 tarrasque. Which is, shockingly, not a new thought. I do hope this little essay offers you a better look at the underlying properties of the system, though. As for a longer answer, I’ll look at a significant mod of D&D that explicitly separates power from levels in my next post. Soon!

5 thoughts on “Power vs Levels

  1. Necropost time!

    The problem with 4E is that Level describes Power, but it is managed through a relative terms.
    For many players Lv 2 thugs being replaced with Lv 10 minion thugs is an act equal to cheating, like replacing cards in hand or placing dices with desired number up.

    Most players I know who refused to play 4E decided to do this for one solely reason: they want their numbers to be real. And when they read that Lv 30 Daily power is 9d6 fireball with range 12.. They say it is lame and they don’t want to hear GM’s fluff that this power level allows to describe this power as groundshaking burst which leaves only ashes from lots of mobs, because it ruins their sense of belief. And I have to say that I myself prefer more stable systems where monsters have one charsheet instead of several according to party level.

    • I think you’re missing the point: I argue that in 4e there is no “level 2 thug”, there is just “thug”. These are two fundamentally different ways of playing. The one 4e follows is gamist, and the one you prefer is… well. I used to call it “simulationist”, but have recently switched to “modelist”. Taken to the extreme, it models the whole world according to its rules (which in 3.5 don’t fit its stated purpose, but that’s a conversation for another time).

      To illustrate. Say there is a cave, and trolls live in it. In a modelist game, there are 3 level 7 trolls, statted up by the GM before the campaign began, and they will be that way regardless of whether the party is level 1 when it stumbles in, or level 30. It is “fair”. In a gamist game, however, the trolls don’t exist until the players walk in. They don’t have stat blocks, levels, anything. When the party takes a step in, the GM considers what this encounter should be. Is it a terrifying fight from which the low-level party has to run away? Let there be a solo troll there. Is the story such that the trolls should no longer be a threat to the epic party? Perhaps there isn’t even an encounter then, just an acknowledgement of “yes, you’ve killed them, now what?”

      Would it be nice if level 30 party could have a meaningful encounter with level 7 trolls? Sure. But neither 4e nor 3e offers that.

  2. So….. The system should create different type of trolls, orcs and gnomes etc. From different…. cultures? ages? jobs? defenses? powers? Some with magic, some with melee, some with range? So as both, the characters powers and the story progress, so do their enemies? Or should it just be 1 type of monster with set stats and either you can or can’t kill them? And create new and exciting battles with other monsters? Or… in general, what would you think make 4e encounters better?

    Or what should make higher level characters much more different from lower level characters? What should change in 4e for this to be achieved?

    • There are, in fact, lots of different kinds of trolls/orcs/gnomes, spread across levels. Older editions of D&D used the approach of “well, this is a troll, take it or leave it”, often coupled with adventure design of “it lives here, and will attack you regardless of your level if you approach it”. That is *not* the way 4e operates – see my previous comment.

      And if existing monsters don’t quite fit the party, it’s trivial to change their level or re-skin another monster. By the end of our campaign, almost all of the creatures the party faced were custom.

      The next post explores a bit what it means to go up in power, as opposed to level.

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