Early D&D: Baking-In the “Sweet Spot”

The amount of XP a Thief needed to advance to each new level in Basic D&D. (chart borrowed from Jeff’s Gameblog)

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.

cakeHere is a very rough idea I’m thinking about to expand the “sweet spot” in Pathfinder RPG. (Keep in mind that Pathfinder’s Medium XP progression assumes a 20-encounters-per-level progression.)

Levels 1 and 2 – 13 encounters
Levels 3 through 5 – 20 encounters
Levels 6 through 12 – 40 encounters
Levels 13 and up – 60 encounters

Suggestions, comments?


About ronaldsf

Grandmaster of the Pathfinders' Guild at Martin Luther King Middle School.
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4 Responses to Early D&D: Baking-In the “Sweet Spot”

  1. Matthew says:

    I ran 4e for 3 years (and 2e/3e for about 10), from level 1 to 30. I found the ever increasing power levels to become tiresome at epic levels. Some magic items and leveling are rewarding, but when they occur over and over again so often, its meaningless.

    The idea of a ‘heroic ideal’ at around level 10 in 2e is spot on, and its a fairly appealing idea when explained that way. I obviously still have issues with 2e, so I’m currently running a pathfinder game like you, but when I ran 4e, I unwittingly ran with heroic plateau.

    Basically, at 20th level, I stopped with regular treasure and went crazy with adventure designs and xp rewards. It felt very much like the characters were set in stone, years ago, and they were just mythic heroes in yet another mythic tale. Some players even despised the idea of leveling, knowing it meant the end of the game drew nearer.

    It wasn’t about the levels. The heroes were who they were. Going from level 1 to 10, you feel the whole world change as you gain the power to change it. Going from 20 to 30, you may change the world, but its nothing new. You can teleport, raise the dead, cast ridiculous divinations, and share wine with elven kings while boasting about the demons you’ve slain and the evil gods you’ve kept unawakened..

    I like the idea that there is a level of maturity to a character, like level 10 (or a very late 20 in 4e), a level where you the hero you desire to be, and beyond that level there is only prestige. Its makes heroic sense to me.

    Late access prestige classes in 3.5, even those classes that required level 7 in BAB or skills, always offended me. Some of them have fundamental changes to who you are as a person or as an adventurer. If I played from level 1, I will be MY hero by level 10. Everything past that is just power, not personality. The furthest I’ll ever think of a character’s abilities and powers when I make him is 12. For me, level 12 is level 20. I’m happy to keep adventuring, but the story of my hero’s growth, his rise to power, is over.

    Those 12 levels are the core of my being, the original saga of his life. Everything after is just a sequel.

    • ronaldsf says:

      I like what you write here. In myths and legends and in our popular consciousness, there’s a reason why the origin story is so appealing.

      From a story-telling standpoint, however, there are other tropes out there and not everything is explored. I just think of the television series produced by Joss Whedon (Buffy, etc.) where there is a resolution at the end of every season, but there are almost always more stories to explore and get told. Buffy goes from teen traumas to the challenges of adulthood. The entire time she is “growing up.”

      As to what you’re talking about, yes there isn’t much of a “story arc” that remains between a superhero 12th-level character and a superhero 20th-level character, simply from the standpoint of personal power. If the players insist on staying with their characters, I suppose I as a GM would need to compensate for the lack of “mechanical maturation” with other ways for the characters to “grow.”

      • Matthew says:

        You always want to have moral dilemma’s and defining character moments in all adventures. I meant mostly that higher level characters are already cemented into their class or role. New classes added in the 13 to 20 range rarely change the ability set of a character. That home stretch seems to exist to max out what one is, rather than pick up a new and defining prestige class.

        I might be out of my element with Buffy (since my Joss is Firefly and Angel), but I don’t remember her skill set changing much in the later seasons. Her personality definitely changed, her morality and views on monsters too, and they even explored the (then) unique story of despising one’s own resurrection, but despite that, her kick-punch-into-stab remained her main maneuver.

        In DnD/Pathfinder, we’re usually rewarded greatly for finishing those prestige classes and base classes we’ve taken, so we get their final powers. As you bear down on level 20, you’re rarely looking for a totally new class. It’s more of the same but better.

        Yes, you’re right, the emotional hits must keep coming. It’s just hack and slash without hard and entertaining dilemmas and choices that can change you, but that late change has a much harder time re-writing your character sheet when compared to the adventures of your youth.

  2. tussock says:

    To get something like the AD&D feel, use the AD&D Thief charts up until they fall back toward the the desired path for pathfinder progression and then switch over. XP awards work much the same, 2nd edition just made you stick around name level (+-1) a very long time. Switch will happen between 9th-12th level depending on desired high-level track. AD&D goes quick, very-slow, and then quick again.

    L2: 1250xp, 12 encounters.
    L3: 2500xp, +8 encounters.
    L4: 5000xp, +13 encounters.
    L5: 10000xp, +17 encounters.
    L6: 20000xp, +25 encounters.
    L7: 42500xp, +38 encounters.
    L8: 70000xp, +34 encounters. (fighter and cleric table would stall here, badly).
    L9: 110000xp, +34 encounters.
    L10: 160000xp, +31 encounters. (nicks pathfinder hard on the way past, can stop off here).
    L11: 220000xp, +25 encounters.
    L12: 440000xp, +68 encounters. (classic “stuck around name level”, 11th for Thieves).
    L13: 660000xp, +45 encounters.
    L14: 880000xp, +34 encounters.
    L15: 1100000xp, +23 encounters.
    L16+: back on pathfinder hard track, 30 encounters per level. Or just stop advancing at 16th.

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