"If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard."
-- Dorothy Gale, Kansas
"I am a part of the cosmos! The power flows through me! Of what consequence are you now? This planet, these people. They are NOTHING to me! The universe is power! Real, unstoppable POWER! I am that force! I am that power! KNEEL BEFORE YOUR MASTER! You are no longer my equal! I am more than man! MORE THAN LIFE! I. am. a. GOD! Now, you will kneel."
-- Skeletor, Snake Mountain
There are a lot of details in a hero's career that you really shouldn't look at too closely. Where he goes to the bathroom while dungeon delving, for instance. It's unnecessary to know these kinds of details, but there's still a kind of value in them if you dig deep enough. Not to imply said hero is burying his . . . you know what, let's start over.
Tiers, levels, and experience points don't exist to characters in Dungeons & Dragons. No character looks at a monster, then figures out what level it must be and how many of them he'd have to kill to level up so that he can get a new feat or encounter power. Sure, as players we might do this, but really, experience points and levels exist as an arbitrary way to set difficulties, mark/reward progress, and give the process of making a fictional character of our own devising work within the framework of a world or game of someone else's devising. What we're going to do today is take a look at what leveling up means to the common adventurer and how freaking weird it gets when you start hitting the different tiers at full force. Oh, and watch for some friendly advice on how to tangle with tiers without pulling your hair out as a Dungeon Master. It's a mad world, after all. And I find it kind of funny.
Say hello to Billiam, our grassroots-level heroic adventurer. Since Billiam is someone I've seen at a gaming table, let's just throw out that's he's a level 1 fighter/ranger hybrid. He didn't start out wanting a life of high adventure, but when orcs burned down his farm and all he had to defend himself with was a pitchfork, he excelled at it, so much so that the orc warlord sent a second wave to his village. If it weren't for the just-so-happened-to-be-wandering-by party of five other adventurers who just-so-happened to have an empty seat on their wagon, Billiam wouldn't have survived.
A simple man without a village, Billiam decided to pay off his life debt and see the world by joining this plucky crew of inexperienced but enthusiastic heroes. With a loud pig whistle, he summoned Brutus, his blue-ribbon prize-winning (three years running) boar that'd gotten too big and locally famous to even think of turning into breakfast bacon. With a grunt, Brutus galloped along, wary but pretty sure anyone other than Billiam would want to see his piggy looks improved by adding an apple to his mouth.
Time passed, and adventures were had. Brutus earned many battle scars, thickening his hide, while Billiam learned that by adding another handle to his pitchfork, he was pretty lethal with a makeshift polearm. Monsters were slain and as Billiam learned exactly how big and dark the world was around him, he kept Brutus close, charging into battle atop of his no-longer beautiful swine.
Not the sharpest of men, he saw nothing odd with the god of war guiding him in battle, and, after slaying a great dragon, Billiam became a warhound of Bane -- also not a big deal to the former farmer. The change might have drawn the attention of his friends, except it was such a minor one compared to his companions. The dragonborn sprouted wings while the thief was stricken by a curse that stripped him of his shadow and turned him into a creature driven to drain the shadows of others to survive. The telepath enslaved the necromancer that had plagued the city the party was protecting, turning him into a mindless drone. And the barbarian . . . well, the barbarian's head turned into that of a bear.
Billiam being endorsed by the god war seemed almost minor.
Time passed, and even more adventures were had. The party eventually left the city they had sworn to protect after they learned of darker deeds upon the horizon. A wandering Vistani enchanted Billiam's pitchfork, causing its blood-red tips to resemble a diabolic trident rather than the simple farm tool that it had once been. The once-farmer and mount pair grew more lethal: an enchantment turned Brutus into a boar of brimstone and fire. The slow clap of Bane was always in Billiam's ear.
It wasn't until the beholder slowly deflated at the end of his weapon and at the end of the burning tusks of Brutus that things truly escalated. His skin growing deeply tanned, as if burned by the noon sun he hadn't labored beneath in many seasons, our hero felt tall, powerful. Bane's silent whisper, asking him to become a devil-slaying king, was not what was expected. He had reached his epic destiny. As he straddled his flaming nightmare of a boar, he and his party charged into the Abyss. Billiam was a Prince of Hell.
You'd think the party would have noticed, what with the infernal flames shooting from the mouth of Brutus or the phalanx of legionnaire devils regularly coming to Billiam's need. Of course, having both an angel and a saint in one's party kind of implied it was all going to be alright.
Billiam just smiled, knowing when the fighting was over he'd return to the farm, having seen the world, right? Right?
Surreal character histories aside, that's a pretty common walk-through of what it can look like as characters progress over their career. Billiam's a goofy example of a very simple concept (the desperate farmer needing a new start) and how somewhere during the epic tier the character can't exist as what he or she started as.
And that makes sense, really.
Every character progresses and changes as a story/narrative moves forward. The funny thing here is those dramatic, transformative moments. Maybe the DM can plan out exactly when the party will level so they've got some downtime before starting up again, but often the story doesn't look like it should take a timeout to explain what goes down during the shift from heroic to paragon or from paragon to epic.
Let's break it down.
Heroic to Paragon Tiers
In heroic tier, a character is better than the average person walking down the forest path, but she's still wet behind the ears. Players have to choose between feats that develop their character's concept and benefit them mechanically, and it's a tough choice in early levels. Very few feats have a requirement that you take them at 1st level, meaning that as an adventurer's career continues, each can learn new fighting styles, tap into forgotten birthrights, and other things. Generally it's minor and, hey, that's how the game works.
When you jump to paragon tier, well, this is why if you don't plan it out or talk to your players beforehand, things can get really weird. I'm not the kind of player to plan out his character's build choices many levels in advance. Heck, I'm often just choosing them right as I level. (Which kind of creates a short-term memory bias. When your character fails seven saving throws in a row, those saving throw feats look pretty tempting, even if they weren't part of a master plan.)
When a character hits the paragon tier, it's like she suddenly tapped into the Matrix and got college training (or just kung fu) overnight. I'm a fan of reflavoring things, but a Dungeon Master really has to keep his eyes open and work with his players to make things fit. In most of the games I've been in, I've seen an "ignore it, it's just how the game works" attitude, but man, paragon paths get weird if you look too closely.
Let's walk through a few that can hit a character's identity like a sack of bricks. Sacks of bricks aren't subtle, which is kind of my point.
Welcome to Paragon Path University. What would you like to get your degree in?
- Guildmaster thief? Congratulations, you've landed yourself a middle management position in our local Thieves' Guild!
- Crimson arbiter? "Hey, DM, you don't mind if my invoker wears a hood all the time and is sanctioned by GOD to be judge, jury, and executioner, right? Since I'm the judge, I get to choose who has to die. Woot!"
- Thrallherd? I've talked about this before but, in a nutshell, the psion lobotomizes the nearest enemy or nonplayer character and makes it her mindless slave.
- Shadowthief? Wait, you didn't notice my shadow being drained away by that, um . . . evil shadow guy? Because that's totally why I'm a shadow vampire.
- Scion of Arkhosia? It's a bird. It's a plane. No, it's my dragonborn with WINGS!
- Raven herald? If I coup de grace enough things, the Raven Queen is totally into it. I'm divine now!
- Tiefling warfighter, hellborn shadow, tiefling hellstalker? Thanks for taking our post-graduate tiefling courses. By the end of this semester, you'll find that your infernal nature is increased tenfold.
- Blightbeast? I can turn into maggots and a zombie deer now. Don't judge me.
- Demonskin adept? Hey guys, you all saw me sewing together that cloak made of demon skins, ok? Because I need those. And totally had them.
These are just a few examples of the kind of paragon paths that can spring up. They're cool, but some have such a narrative implication, it's almost something you should run by your DM before swearing an oath to Bane or knitting together a sweater made of demon thighs. Unlocking arcane or genetic potential is what fantasy is often about, as is being stricken with a curse that's also a blessing. The key is staggering it out so that these changes can fit narratively OR saying, "Hey, let's pretend nothing changed and these are just mechanic powers."
Paragon to Epic Tiers
By epic, however, that change can become downright insane. Suddenly, the party, which was pretty mundane or at least normal, hits a level of experience and now consists of any number of angels, demigods, avatars of any primal or supernatural force, people who suddenly realize they're the reincarnation of someone else, or perhaps someone who's cursed to bring about a great catastrophe the world will never forget.
Until Essentials came out, every epic destiny detailed what happened when your character retired, as well as implied side quests, some of which would have to be completed before the character could, in fact, retire. If you just wanted to be "a guy with swords who hits people," that translated into becoming a fledgling god in your own right or trapping the spirit of a fallen primordial in your soul or . . . you see where this is going. Epic destinies rock. But they're hard to pander to if you've got a full table and everyone takes something interesting.
"Hey Steve, you got the short straw, so you have to choose a destiny I don't have to worry about in the campaign."
"Ummm. Ok. I'll . . . just be a Demigod. Nice stat bonus and, well, it looks simple."
"Groovy. Anything else I should know?"
"Oh yeah. All the gods know my name and want to recruit or destroy me before I rise to power."
"I hate you, Steve."
But now? We also have Essentials. The Essentials books all introduce what I'll call "default" paragon paths and epic destinies. They're mechanically solid without, even at epic tier, necessarily impacting the story. Now, don't get me wrong. I love having options spilling over with great roleplaying opportunities. Yet I think it's only fair that we also have some options for the guy who didn't want to suddenly become Dr. Manhattan when he hits the epic tier. That's an exaggeration, but not by much if you look at the story behind epic destiny choices and not just at the mechanic aspect.
Here's a snippet at my table that kind of inspired the following little rant:
DM: Jared, your character isn't trained in thievery or arcane. What did you plan on using to close the portal to Hell?
Me: Narrative imperative?
The DM promptly spends the next 4 rounds making my character eat dungeon tile and make death saving throws -- though I stand by my answer. The rest of the party did make it in time and my corpse did distract the boss long enough to save the day.
So, onto the rant. There your characters are, living out a story, which is presented by the DM. Yet those characters are living out a story that, if TVTropes has taught us anything, often follows certain narrative imperatives. Stories have power. A story told enough times can reshape the world. Your adventuring party is creating a story, touching elements of older, darker stories that they might never see the end of because that's not their story.
Each tier implies a certain amount of fame or infamy as well as scope of what kind of adventures one might expect at that level. Why is this? Why wouldn't an adventuring party stay in a city, gathering experience points and playing it safe, forever, because it's a small city that offers no threats to anything over level 14?
Well, for one, that'd be a terrible story.
Another reason? You and I both know that if the DM was presented with a party with that attitude, something positively terrible would come to that city. Narrative imperative. Or, quite frankly, we don't have the desire to grind our characters against low-level goblins infinitely. High-level parties rarely stumble across low-level enemies that would threaten only a 1st-level party. Maybe this is because the party's no longer hanging out in the same place. Or maybe it's narrative imperative.
What if the characters knew that was how this worked? What if higher levels of experience points didn't just empower characters to tackle larger threats, but also lured them into their realms of experience? In other words, what if the tarrasque woke up only if it sensed a party of level 24 or higher within the kingdom? Why do only epic monsters guard epic artifacts? Narrative imperative. We can easily dismiss this all as "it's just XP" but there's a richness here that's unexploited.
Think of experience points not as arbitrary experience but as energy. Narrative energy. If you kill enough goblins, you're marked by it. More people know you. A certain cave/village won't be plagued for quite some time, and yet an adventurer doesn't retire here. As a character gains more XP (narrative energy), she has a larger weight on the world, like someone slowly putting more and more coins on the center of a piece of paper. The paper starts to distort as the weight increases and anything else on that surface is going to slowly slide toward the center. That's how you can think of XP in a narrative sense.
Maybe monsters also live off it. They're certainly drawn to forces of good and powerful magic items -- items that themselves have stories. Monsters often attack heroes rather than nonplayer characters in a combat not because they look the most threatening (which might be true, depending) but maybe because the fiends exist on the opposite spectrum of narrative energy. In the "points of light" setting of D&D, it makes sense. Heroes bring their light to the dark places, where few dare. If they didn't, the darkness might come for them, to balance cosmic or merely narrative scales.
This is all getting a little abstract, so I'll shut it down before I get (more) carried away. The point is experience points, levels, and tiers aren't arbitrary things. They dictate some practical things to both a character and a narrative. Just because "that's how stories work" or "that's the mechanic" doesn't mean you shouldn't look at it more closely.
Don't fear the trope. In a world of fantasy, stories have power, and, whatever your characters might be, they are the stars of that story.
PS: Of course, my own narrative imperative is that I end with a poop joke, since that's how I started. I'm not proud of that fact. Until next time!