There is a very interesting thread on the Paizo forums right now, about how to give more of an “old-school feel” to the Pathfinder RPG ruleset. The discussion has been widely varied — not in small part due to the fact that “old school” means different things to different people — from suggested houserules that emulate AD&D 1e and 2e, to use of battle grids, to adventure and encounter design.
Several people in the thread have said that old-school play involved more real-world time passing between gaining new levels of experience.
Sure, I can see that being true once you got to higher levels of play in 1e and 2e, but that wasn’t true at the earliest levels: to take the most extreme example, the Thief in AD&D 1e achieved 2nd level at 1,251 XP, then 3rd level at 2,501 XP. And advancement speed also depended on the GM, who could drop a big treasure hoard in 1e, where gold equaled XP, and level up the characters as he or she saw fit. Heck, Gary Gygax even introduced a rule that no character can advance more than 1 level of experience at a time from a single play session — something unheard of in D&D in later editions.
One thing I like about the older rulesets was that the “sweet spot” of mid-range levels — at which the players no longer were common pushovers, and still had not maxed-out the limits of the game system and able to overpower all monsters and obstacles in their paths — was baked-in to the XP progression charts. Sure, the first few levels were obtained fairly quickly, but because advancing to the next level involved a doubling of the previous level’s XP requirement, each subsequent level involved a much longer effort than the previous one.
At the same time, each character class could only obtain so many Hit Dice; after 9th level or so, you could only get +1 hit points or +2 hit points per level, and regardless of your Constitution score.
Together, these rules presumed a “training period” during which adventurers strove toward a heroic ideal, with progress being quick at first but eventually slowing-down and plateauing. This was definitely true of the Fighter and Thief classes, but then there were the spellcasters who continued to uncover new secrets of the universe, who at the very-highest levels continued to obtain new tiers of power. Still, for them the XP requirements were so large that every “unlocking” of a new tier of power entailed a significant amount of play. This led to increasing imbalance among the classes, but at the same time it was consistent with the concept of magic being all-encompassing and powerful and was seen (for the Magic-User at least) as the reward for being extremely weak at the lowest levels.
Starting with D&D 3rd Edition, there was assumed to be a standard number of encounters to advance to each new level — about 13 encounters — and this remained at each level, all the way up to 20th. So the new norm of what every Level 1 adventurer was potentially capable, if they “simply worked hard and tried,” was to the 20th level adventurer. Gaming-time-wise, you skidded past the “sweet spot” at the same rate as you did the earliest levels. At the same time, the Fighter-type and Thief-type classes also continued to obtain abilities that kept them power at a closer pace with the spellcasters.
The end result is the opposite of a plateau in the “sweet spot”: a geometric curve upward in power that parallels the progression between levels of spellcasting power. And these new tiers of power are achieved at the same, unchanging rate. This is figured into the math of D&D 3rd Edition and its derivatives (including Pathfinder): the XP rewarded for defeating a creature is doubled for every 2 Challenge Rating (CR) levels one goes up. And CR by definition is equivalent to PC levels. So therefore one 5th-level PC “packs the same punch” as two 3rd-level PCs, just as one 13th-level PC packs the same punch as eight 5th-level PCs. And so on, and so on.
This, combined with the flat rate at which one obtained experience levels, has two effects: (1) the “sweet spot” is truncated and supplanted sooner by high-level play, and (2) gone is any sense of any an ideal to what mortals can achieve. To clarify this second point, there no longer is an in-world “elite club” of the mortal world’s movers and shakers — in 1e, there wasn’t much of a difference between a 14th level Fighter and an 18th Level Fighter. But in 3rd Edition forward, the difference is immense. The legends of your community are not nearly as legendary, when viewed in light of their higher-level neighbors, or in light of what they eventually could be if they went on, say, two more adventures. (Incidentally, this also compounds the difficulty of creating a believable “sandbox” setting with widely-varied encounter levels, and makes the escalation of monsters’ power over the course of a campaign more extreme and conveniently-coincidental.)
And so, in 3rd Edition D&D and its derivatives, the “pinnacle,” that achievement of legendary status, lies at 20th level. Instead of savoring the taste and feel of the “sweet spot,” the players during middle levels of play are still hurtling toward ever greater levels of power, with the expectation of attaining that greater power baked-in to the XP and rewards system.
This is my long-winded way of saying that, when Pathfinder RPG goes through its next iteration years from now, I would like the “sweet spot” to stay sweet much longer. In the time, I am wondering how maybe I could “fix” the recipe to make it better suit my tastes.
Levels 1 and 2 – 13 encounters
Levels 3 through 5 – 20 encounters
Levels 6 through 12 – 40 encounters
Levels 13 and up – 60 encounters