Challenges for the Upper Tiers

Don’t Settle for Post Essentials Material, Bring the Heat

I haven’t played the epic tier…yet. I’m both dreading it and psyched for it. I’ve dipped pretty substantially into paragon though, and I can say that I agree with much of the online discussion as of late that the game scales pretty poorly. There are many things that contribute to the less challenging, yet more complex game in the upper tiers, and although I’ll mention team synergy as being, in my opinion, a primary cause for such deconstruction at those levels, I can’t begin to hypothesize or remonstrate all of the agents involved.

A related reference I would like to point out is a recent article by Mike Shea at titled “The Scaling Woes of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.” In this article, Shea suggests that if one wants to stay ahead of the curve, one really shouldn’t even step foot in the upper tiers, and even then, one should only include content from Essentials onward. While I completely agree this would reduce the stress of players outmatching monsters and challenges, it isn’t really helpful for those who are still engaged with the idea of making the upper tier challenges viable. For that, Shea has written an entire book that exemplifies his savviness in dealing with epic juggernaut characters called Sly Flourish’s Running Epic Tier D&D Games, which I highly recommend. The thing I came away with from his article though was that surprisingly, 4e scales in such a way that makes the game effectively easier for players the higher level you are. I hadn’t thought of the system in this light before—I had always presumed I was doing something wrong as a DM in mid-paragon when I couldn’t challenge the players as much as when they were level 5. With numerous systematic examples, Shea shows how the complexity, the exponential growth, the versatility and the synergy that PCs gain in the upper tiers far outweighs the still-simplistic monsters of their level. He does, however, suggest that we wouldn’t want to see monsters that can actually perform better because we would see a stalemate at the table, prolonging battles, nullifying powers PCs are fond of, etc. I am not entirely sure I agree with this sentiment personally, though I can see that an overhaul to simplify the system is what he’s training at, and would indeed relieve the stress of an inverted level vs challenge scaling conundrum.

Another reference I would like to point out is Monte Cook’s Legends & Lore column, specifically some of his recent notions on complexity compared to level. As is a general suspicion in the D&D community, Cook seems to be asking big questions about the game in order to gather data for a future reboot of the system. A recent article by him, “A Different Way to Slice the Pie,” suggests that the game could be streamlined by aligning the complexity of rules to the level of an adventure. I am in full favor of this kind of structure as it helps categorize play style while overlapping with player experience. In many senses, this is already an attribute of the game, but the rising complexity is not necessarily exhibited from behind the screen but in the build of a player character; you don’t start a game with a newbie at higher levels because the monsters are harder or the traps are more complicated…you don’t start them at higher levels because there are too many options to consider when drawing up a character. Cook suggests that if the game is going to have a scale of complexity (which it already does through player generation), that complexity should increase across the board so that not only players gain a complicated portfolio of options at higher tiers, but the challenges they face match such sophistication.

Again, this is somewhat reflected in material that’s been designed so far (for instance, you don’t really see a creature that can petrify a player until upper heroic tier), but the power scaling begins to fall apart real fast in mid-paragon. It would be lovely if the system was built in the opposite way, where any adjustments to the challenges that need to be made are to make them more survivable, instead of adjustments to keep the players awake.

Regardless, those are my thoughts on the upper tiers of the game as I see it, and I am no fool to believe that it is a simple fix, or even if everyone out there believes the same as me. I do find that honing encounters and crafting threats is sometimes an enjoyable experience, so I see the adjustment of upper tier encounters as a challenge. Therefore, I’ve designed a few features myself that might give DMs out there a means to redeem their balors, titans, and ancient dragons.

Some Crunch for Challenging your Upper Tier Players:

First some advice and notes on the designs.

Don’t Go Total Defense. They’ve waited a long time to master Ancient Forgotten Magic or Opened the Fifth Gate of the Soul. Don’t give monsters immunity to the Fifth Gate of the Soul. But do give them a response. I had an idea once to craft resistance or immunity to all powers of a certain power source, like Spell Resistance from 3rd edition—I canceled that idea because I felt it was always nerfing and unrewarding. Instead, think about reflective damage for power sources, skill checks to bypass, or some other engaging option rather than strait up defense.

Fight Synergy with Synergy. One of the aspects of upper tier play is that PCs have so many feats and powers and items that at a certain point they realize that they can spare a few to optimize other team members instead of just themselves. This can lead to very very dangerous combinations, but it’s also something they should be rewarded for. However, PCs shouldn’t be the only creatures in the universe that have thought about working as a team. Add aspects to your monsters that make them more effective in ensemble—breaking apart that harmony can be a great goal to a combat encounter. The heroes can’t have their cake and eat it too in every combat.

They Have Amazing Power…Force Them to Use It. A staple of epic destinies is usually some form of power that returns a character from the dead. It’s hard enough to build an engaging combat that brings them to 0 hit points, but when most have the ability to reboot after such a rare instance, it’s time to pull out the stops. If your players have features that defy even the most fundamental rules, powers that put them in the seat of advantage without risk or any defined measure of limit, put them in situations that don’t just make those powers a useful utility, put them in situations that require such features.

Templates and Monster Themes. A long lost utility that DMs in 3rd edition had that were a nice little go-to for ramping up the threat was adding templates. There are similar utilities in 4e that apply blanket powers on top of your current monsters that not only add potency to their threat, but offer a great opportunity to link them into a thematic story. My regret is that Monster Themes aren’t really divided into level of threat, but they can still be used to bolster your baddies in nearly every encounter. Find or design a few thematically connecting extra powers and give them to all your creatures.

Superior Paragon Powers:

These powers can, and should, be dropped on any standard, elite or solo monsters in the paragon tier to keep PCs on their feet.

Superior Epic Powers:

These powers can, and should, be dropped on any standard, elite or solo monsters in the epic tier to engage and challenge them more. Consider combining these powers with the paragon powers above as well.

Superior Paragon Traits:

These traits can, and should, be dropped on any standard, elite or solo monsters in the paragon tier.

Superior Epic Traits:

These traits can, and should, be dropped on any standard, elite or solo monsters in the epic tier.

Brutal? Yes. Effective? Yes. As Chris Sims has advised before about challenging your epic tier players: “don’t hold back.” Each one of these powers and traits have a loop hole, and most of those loop holes involve powerful combinations or abilities players are already swinging around like Superman tosses missiles. It’s time to bring the heat. Let us know if you have a chance to use any of these, and how it goes!

Unlock Keywords

When Dungeons & Dragons 4e first arrived I was very interested in keywords. Specifically how would they play out and interact with not only the flavor of the new D&D world but also the design. I could imagine that specifically schools of magic would become much easier to define as all you would need to do is attach the associated keyword to all arcane and divine powers. Design mechanics could function around keywords with bonuses to save or resistances or defenses. On a much grander scale classes could melt away and you could take whatever power you wanted as long as it met the power source keyword requirement.

Suffice to say much of this has not happened. One of the biggest let downs has been the near complete absence of keywords for monster powers. You can tell that some of the designers saw opportunities what with there being all these floating bonus to saves versus fear effects. Can anyone tell me how many monsters actually have fear keyword associated with their powers?

To a lesser extent the designers have started implementing school of magic keywords back into wizard powers. I have missed the schools of magic quite a lot. It is pretty sad that the schools are only tied to wizard powers. You could really open some interesting and synergistic doors if all the appropriate powers had a school of magic keyword included (um bards?).

There has been a slight, albeit feeble, trend to include multiple power source keywords into the builds of different classes. Examples include the bard with martial and arcane powers as well as the more prominent and failure ridden seeker with primal and martial abilities. I could easily imagine a system of class building that revolved around defining your character’s power structure specifically through power source key words. Most likely each character would not start with a class, but instead would choose a power source to define their character going forward. You could then take a feat, similar to a multiclass feat, that would unlock other power sources for you, resulting in you being able to start making power selections from different power sources. Imagine something like this:

This way a character could end her career possibly pulling from as many power sources as she wanted. And you notice that I put in a feat bonus to hit. That is because even in my own fantasy world I am still a slave to expertise. What a travesty.

However in the current incarnation of D&D, I could see power source keywords being a nice tool for the wretched expertise feats. Sure we could just house rule a +1 to hit for everyone, but I would rather take a look at the expertise feats that exist now and consider just how absolutely horrible they are. Recently there was a release of “dual” expertise feats. These were supposed to help your bards and clerics and all other forms of dual item wielding characters that are stuck having to either take multiple feats and/or upkeep multiple items in order for all their powers to have the same to hit.

Does anyone see why I think to-hit should just be inherent? In a cooperative game why would you want any of your characters to be on unequal footing? But I digress. Here would be a sample expertise feat that uses the power source keyword:

Pretty simple and straight forward. This would facilitate all of your powers, no matter what you used as your weapon or implement. I think the expertise feats are so remedial and torturous that they need something else besides a plus to hit. I would go so far as to say that every last one of them needs to give you a bonus to hit and a skill and one other thing. Basically the +1 to hit is something that should already exist. So fundamentally you are taking an empty feat slot. Here are some jazzed up power source expertise feats:

You Are Great (with that magic sword in your hand)!

When 4e was originally released, we were promised a more cinematic game. A game where the heroes could be larger than life and iconic. We were also told that heroes would no longer be walking Christmas trees, limbs draped with sparkly magic items. Lets be real, no hero wants to live an acetic life (even the paladins and monks). That said, heroes should be heroes no matter what bling they have hanging from their necks or gem encrusted blades they wield in their hands. However as with most games, the mechanics must facilitate the intentions of the design; if not there is a disconnect.

There is a problem with the math in 4e that has facilitated some unsavory “fixes” in my opinion. Certainly we are far away from the days of base attack bonuses, a heinous system that some how determined that some classes should just hit more often than others. In the 4e world, it is essential that all the characters hit as frequently as possible. Everyone has something to contribute to the battle and most often it revolves around hitting a target. But it does not end with attack, each character should have a base set of defenses that are comparable to her co-adventurers. Yes each class will choose different equipment, but the most basic of attacks and defenses should be linear and equal. Certainly I am treading on some complex ground.

Why is it complex? The money system in 4e is tied directly to your development as a character, in that without a certain amount of treasure your character will simply fall behind the rest of the characters in the group. You MUST constantly upgrade your keystone items in order to maintain the most basic functions of attack and defense. Keystone items are your weapon/implement slot, armor slot and neck slot. In fact, if you do not take an “expertise” feat or Improved Defenses feat it is even more essential that your keystone items be the best enhancement bonus possible. To add insult to injury some character have to juggle between weapons and implements. In addition, heroes can fall behind the curve when they are not afforded the same treasure parcels or opportunities to create items as their co-adventurers. This is all because a character’s “to hit” bonus and defenses do not scale proportionally to monster defenses and attack bonuses. You know this, I know this, WotC knows this. However instead of streamlining their rule books and overhauling their magic item system, WotC chose to enact a feat tax that will be a -2 to your total number of feats for the rest of your career.

This is sad. It is sad that they did not properly evaluate or play test the math in their own design. It is also unfortunate that characters cannot be heroes without their magic sword or wand. That is all I will say about that because I am here to come up with some answers, not complain about problems. Here are my goals:

  1. Eliminate the Feat Tax
  2. Re-evaluate Enhancement Bonuses
  3. Standardize Character Attack Bonuses and Defenses

You Are Great!

That is what a hero wants to hear. I am stealing this example from Shimmertook. He always gushes about Madmartigan from the movie Willow, rightfully so because Madmartigan is a great antihero. Madmartigan is also a boastful, sarcastic letch, but still with a heart of gold. If you recall Madmartigan is encountered in a cage without weapon or armor. He frequently boasts of his skill and constantly complains that he could do so much more if he just had a sword. Of course it is proven later that he is quite accomplished with a blade in his hand.

There is something to be said about Madmartigan. He apparently has nothing to his name. He eventually acquires a sword, but it is by no means a legendary artifact. I think about a lot of great heroes in ancient mythology and modern storytelling. Yes many conquest for powerful weapons that will help them slay the ultimate evil, but at the end of the day the hero’s strength or intelligence or charisma is her greatest weapon. I think this concept should be reflected in 4e. The character’s power should be complimented by her equipment not fueled by it.

The first step in undoing this magic item dependency is building an inherent attack mechanic. What will often happen in 4e is that characters are scrambling to keep their keystone items constantly upgraded. Unfortunately for players, it is financially impossible to keep all their enhancement bonuses of level. When I say “of level” I mean the five level window where all enhancement bonuses fall (1st-5th is a +1, 6th-10th is a +2, 11th-15th is a +3, etc.). What would be more appropriate is for a hero’s attack bonus to simply scale as they gain levels.

The current system can stay intact. It is not a particularly difficult problem to solve. Simply supply each character an additional bonus to hit and damage (for attacks that deal damage) based on their level divided by 5 (round up in this rare situation). You may choose to round down if you wish, I would recommend that approach if you want to create a more challenging game over all. In general this system works great for low magic worlds as you do not have to stress about giving or getting enough items to make the math work with your vision. The same approach can be done for armor class and non-armor class defenses, supply a bonus to the score based on level divided by 5 (round up or down to your preference).

By creating a static bonus you are eliminating the tension between players for precious keystone item parcels as well as every player character is now always on the same playing field. Plus your heroes can be versatile and special. You could use three different implements if you really wanted or be the ultimate weapon master who can kill a man with a rusty nail if she so chooses.

Wait It Still Does Not Add Up

Indeed that little trick only takes care of enhancement bonuses. But things get more complicated now. What is a magic sword to a hero? Should it be just a daily power or property (many a striker would argue yes for Jagged Weapons). We still have yet to take care of feat taxes and there is a question of where do keystone items fall now.

It would be impossible to eliminate the need for spending treasure on magic weapons/implements, armor slots and neck slots. In addition, I do not believe that players or dms want that. A certain part of the game, arguably a large part, will always be about treasure. It is one of the most common and traditional reasons that people take risks and explore and adventure. I believe there is a way to make these keystone items relevant but not essential to character development. For me the major goal is to meld the feat tax into something that you already want and will have in the game.

These items can be that point of entry. I know, it sounds like I am renegotiating my own goals. However, there is an argument that you can still succeed in spite of the math without taking these feat taxes. My main gripe is how WotC attempted to correct the math by making players take feats, forcing them into a “choice” and taking away their options.

So looking at the structure of the keystone items, you can see that there are at least two versions at every tier. What I propose is that we strip out the enhancement bonuses to a base of +1 at heroic, +2 at paragon and +3 at epic. So no matter what the level of the item, its enhancement bonus will be dictated by what tier it falls in. This is certainly a much easier window to attain a magic keystone item. And it insures that once purchased, a keystone item will be much easier and quickly upgraded as you could raise the enhancement bonus very early in the tier that you are entering. For example, take the Githyanki Silver Sword. It is first available at 9th, supplying you with a +1 enhancement bonus. The next available upgrade would be 14th for a +2 enhancement bonus. The money values would not change as allegedly the availability of the item is weighted against its level. In addition you would not be cheating the system as you would ultimately spend the same amount of money to gain that same bonus until epic.

That is an issue, it may not be an issue for all groups but conceivably a high level epic character would not need to continue to upgrade her weapon past the first window of epic (21st-25th). This does bring up a question about how the money system works in 4e, but that is another long post for another time.

Despite the late level issue, this solves the issue of feat tax. In addition, it works the math into the game in a much more seamless manner through a mechanic that the players and dms need and want already.

Loose Ends

My plan is hardly perfect nor revolutionary. You will encounter loose ends with this approach. But there are some highlights as well. Consider magic items with attack rolls, those will now scale much more appropriately (to be even more accurate give it a +1, +2 or +3 to hit based on its tier). Racial ability attack rolls will stay normal over the course of a character’s career (it is my opinion that a racial power should also receive a standard +1, +2 or +3 for the requisite tier). On the flip side you will have items like the Amulet of Health that has a property directly tied to its enhancement bonus. I recommend that you look at these on a per case basis. It is not hard to simply tie such things to the item’s level. It will take some extra book keeping but these items are hardly the norm.

My homebrew plan is as much a work in progress as anyone’s. So if you have any suggestions or your own approach, I would love to hear about it.

Real Treasure as a Real Reward

Disillusioned by the Parcel System

Treasure is something players want, and want lots of it. It never gets old. But if you over analyze the game like I constantly do, you can often get disillusioned by understanding too well the treasure parcel system. The treasure parcel system in D&D 4e is a nice step up from the old days of randomly rolling and randomly placing items and coins in the players’ hands. I fully recognize that there are folks out there who appreciate the randomness of treasure, and hopefully you’re satiated by the new DM Kit version that provides tables for semi-random treasure parcels and rarity installed with items. That’s a conversation for another time, but the topic today is tangential.

The disillusion I speak comes from the knowledge that no matter what you and your characters do, you’ll receive the allotted amount of coins and magic items indicated in the DMG. No matter if it is a dragon who is renowned for hoarding massive amounts of coins and art and magic, or a wasteland of zombified peasants plagued by necromancy who may not have a single copper piece among them, the treasure will equal out. There are ways to bend it of course so there is the illusion of verisimilitude (the zombies are controlled by a wizard who has every coin and magic itemin the parcels in his locked tower, or the reason the dragon is so upset is because thieves came in and stole all the coins of all the parcels that you have to collect along the way…) but what about the instances when your players do some extraordinary things or invest some real time and focus on their characters? How do you give back to the players without making the scenario high in expectation for the next adventure? How can you reward your players for good game play without straying too far from the rules?

Do They Deserve It?

The first thing you should ask is if your players deserve any extra earnings. I know that sounds harsh, but this needs to be put out there. If you’re running a game where the players are happy and the parcel system is normal, kudos, keep doing what you’re doing. If you feel like you’d like to amp up the game by making particularly dangerous and insidious traps and scenarios, or the players are making serious investments in their characters, then perhaps they deserve a bit more than the standard payload.

Another thing to consider, if it isn’t clear by some of the recent posts here at Rules As UNWritten, is that some characters may be investing in an aspect of the game that is actually rather sapping to the funds. Two big examples in that department are Rituals and Alchemy. Those things often require a collection of expensive materials that sometimes do not pay off in the same way the Vorpal Sword does with every swing. They are beneficial, but not a fundamental improvement to the players’ power. I may even go so far as to say that often they end up completely fruitless, and their costs should be waved. The outcome of investments like, for instance, bribing a noble lord with a bit of coin to add flavor, shouldn’t be considered a tax, it should be rewarded. Funding a stronghold for a defenseless village after saving them from a gnoll bandit lord shouldn’t tap into the funds that are dolled out in the parcel system.

"I am an exceptional thief!"

But how can the players be sure they’re getting what’s due to them? Some players are of the mind that their treasure is meant to be spent, and some even wish to play altruistic characters that spend their earnings on others and not themselves purely for role playing value. This is some of my favorite kind of player investment, and I want to encourage it whenever possible. I don’t want those characters to feel as if they are behind the power curve because they’ve chosen to do a good deed, or work hard on collecting rituals, or maintain a mount, or are particularly adept or have a penchant for picking pockets. How can you explain to the person playing a cutpurse that no matter how many pockets they pick they’ll eventually hit a maximum amount of treasure you can gain because that’s what the book says? Now, that little thief has to understand the risks she’s taking by doing those petty thefts, just as the do-gooder should know the responsibilities required of building and maintaining a stronghold for that defenseless village, but that is the source of fun, the tension and the tactics, not the result of the system. They should be able to play these characters without breaking the system of the game—no, they should be rewarded for the kind of energy they put into their characters. They shouldn’t have to feel guilty because they know every coin they spend makes their character just a little less optimized. They shouldn’t have to believe picking pockets is fruitless because those coins would be found in a parcel after their next encounter anyway.

For the record, I fully realize there are a multitude of ways to reward characters without touching treasure. That is a fundamental quality of the 4e system I believe and those kinds of rewards are also great things to keep in mind for your players. When it comes to money though, consider some alternate rules like these below.

Easter Eggs

I like to implement a strategy similar to those in video games: Easter Eggs. If you go hunting for something unique, you should have the opportunity to find it. How does this not break the system? Well, every character still has a level, so keeping the rewards within their range is key. They shouldn’t be picking astral diamonds off passers-by at 4th level, and they shouldn’t be building Helm’s Deep when they’re at that level either. So I’ve devised a scaling system that can provide players the opportunities to push their characters in these ways without straying so far outside the realm of the rules that it warps the character’s power.

1/ Take the last parcel listed for the characters’ level and divide it by two.
2/ Keep that number in your back pocket and award to the characters when:

  • they go above or beyond with the investment of their role playing
  • they take an unexpected risk and succeed with a particularly high skill check
  • they charm, delight or impress an NPC with an exceptional in-character performance

3/ Keep track of the Easter Eggs provided, and award no more than 3 per level to the group

There are a few alterations you can make to this method for a more tailored approach to your party’s way of playing. For instance, in the case of the cutpurse, take the value of the Easter Egg and divide it by 3, awarding that divided amount for every successful pocket picked. Remember that these are still Thievery checks, and some form of risk should be involved with getting the reward, so the player will need to weigh those outcomes. You can easily communicate to the player that they know their abilities and going after the pocket of a djinn being carried by a palanquin and surrounded by ten brutish slaves is beyond their skill level, and that’s why they’re coming up with pocket change. Another alteration is giving more or giving less depending on the investments that your group makes; certainly if a player takes a vow of poverty you may have to rethink the system, but if a player has a true devotion to a church and always pays a tithe to his temple with every passing, keep a quick note of what the player is putting in, and pay him back, not only with good story, but with the gold he’s spending on the upkeep of his character.

There are a few more instances that I would find appropriate for dolling out Easter Eggs. If your players are the type that are indeed putting forth extra funds strictly for role playing value, find ways to pay them back for that when they make particularly heroic successes. Nailing all successes with no failures in a skill challenge is a great example. A player who’s character has a quirk of collecting the teeth of his victims could find a witch one day who is in need of a behir’s canine, and lo that character has such a thing. The witch pays a pretty penny for that tooth, and although the player has a bit of a demented character trait, their devotion to that personality should be rewarded.

Do remember to consider if this method is even important to the players. If they don’t wish to invest the extra time or effort with building homeless shelters, bribing their way out of a sticky wicket, or having the internal struggle of abstaining from their addiction to gambling, then don’t give them any more than they deserve. If you do however, see that your players are putting forth great efforts and coin to paint a more enjoyable picture of their characters and the world you’re running, don’t be afraid to award them, and even tell them that they feel like they’re making headway on the system. Players will often need to know that they’re not dipping into their Vorpal Sword fund before they start getting entrepreneurial. A quick mention or note to them that indicates they got a bit of an Easter Egg out of their action is something that’s going to bring a smile to their face and keep the game on its intended power level.

As always, we welcome feedback on this house rule crunch and anything you read on Rules As UNWritten. How do you deal with monetary ups and downs in your party? Do you believe that adding coins to the system for role playing purposes is prudent? Game changing? Or insignificant?