Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Sweet Spot

At level 5 you get Fireball.

If I remember one thing about my time with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, it's that at level 5 you get Fireball. Also Lightning Bolt and Dispel Magic.

In previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons there's a sweet spot. It starts at level 5 and continues on to about level 9. Your hit points are finally high enough that you're unlikely to die from a single unlucky hit. You've got some magic items in your pack. Your magic-users and clerics have evolved from dress-wearing weaklings into fire-throwing killbots and you're finally getting to fight something other than goblins and kobolds.

Later, the shine wore off. Both enemies and players gained access to a range of one-shot-kill attacks, while high level healing spells trivialised death into a revolving door. Non-casting classes became overshadowed by their godlike dress-wearing allies and on the rare occasions when no-one busted out the death rays combats would devolve into an attrition-based slog.

One of the explicit goals of 4th Edition was to take the 5-9 sweet spot and extend it out over the entire game. Largely, it seems to have worked. Almost every level in the game is pretty fun. Except, ironically, for levels 4 to 6. It's an unfortunate aspect of Thunderspire Labyrinth that it lines up its worst content with the dullest point of the Heroic Tier.

How are levels 4, 5 and 6 the weak point? Like so.

New characters are shiny. Usually they're a class, race, or build that you've never played before. They have a range of new mechanics and a new feel to them. You get at least two at-wills, an encounter power, and a daily. You're in a new campaign with new house rules, a new environment to explore, and new party members to come to grips with. At level 2 you get a utility power and at level 3 you get an encounter power, which you can use in each and every encounter if you're so inclined.

Level 4 is when it goes south. You get no new powers at all. Instead you get a couple of stat-ups and a feat. At level 5, you get a daily - something you'll probably only use once a session. And then at level 6 you get another utility - which is, again, most often a daily.

This means at exactly the point where the shine is coming off your initial new-character love affair, the game stops handing out new toys. Whatever it is that you're doing to kill enemies at level 3 is pretty much what you'll be doing in every fight until level 7.

That's a long, hard slog. With a new Player's Handbook or Power supplement coming out every other month, it's tough not to think about re-rolling during the winter levels.

The solution is on the DM side. Level 4 to 6 is the time to take off the training wheels. Encounters should be harder, leaner, and just plain meaner. Loot should be more plentiful and players should be living or dieing on the basis of their initiative and cunning. It's time to present bizarre monsters, baffling traps and your most intricate dungeon setpieces.

It's Thunderspire's tragedy to throttle back on all those things just when it should be stepping up the pace. It takes players for a leisurely stroll through a hobgoblin hideout when it wants to be pitting them in a desperate struggle. It's got a series of knock-down fights against dwarves where it should have an intricate diplomatic contest. Players accustomed to Keep's focus on minions and terrain will find not a single minion awaiting them in the Labyrinth and only the driest of tactical layouts on offer. Where Keep was showing off a different 4th Edition mechanic in every combat, Thunderspire is happy to confine itself to the most basic actions contemplated by the Player's Handbook.

Thunderspire eventually takes off the gloves. The module's third mini-dungeon, the Well of Demons, busts loose with a fiesta of classic dungeoneering, including traps, puzzles, skill challenges, and cursed artefacts. The "Proving Grounds" section of the Well is one of the best set-pieces ever presented in a published adventure.

But by the time players reach this point, it may well be too late. Over the early parts of the module, the shine well and truly wears off 4th Edition, and the level 4-6 Sour Spot will cause the majority of groups to fall to ennui before getting the chance to actually experience the final third of the Heroic tier.


Would it have been so problematic to move the Level 7 Encounter to Level 5, the 5 Daily to 6, and the 6 Utility to 7? It creates a more natural flow over the early levels of the game and puts less pressure on the DM to keep things interesting over this critical period.

[2] Races are an underused element of 4th Edition. Would the addition of a Level 5 Racial Encounter Power, gained on top of the existing Daily, help fix 4th Edition's Sour Spot?


Maelora said...

Insightful as always, Greg. I like your idea of spreading out the powers, and the addition of an extra racial daily power.

May I ask - what's the 'grind' like at this level? In my opinion, certainly based on 'Keep', 4E is more likely to "devolve into an attrition-based slog" than the earlier editions ever were. A lot of fights in 1st and 2nd edition were over in a few minutes, but 4E wants every battle to last an hour, whether it's against kobold guards or a boss fight (giving us such arrant nonsense as rank and file goblins and kobolds with more hit points than starting PC fighters).

Anders Hällzon said...

Well, WOTC developers were talking about having race as some form of path throughout the heroic tier, much like paragon paths and epic destinies act for the second and third tier. That got scrapped, but it would have looked interesting.

Other thought: I wonder if you hit the nail on the head with "Loot should be more plentiful". Level 4-6 could be where you start getting cool things like flaming swords and whatnot. Now that's not quite how it works, there are magic items from the start, but running with the guideline of 4 magic items per level (for a five man group), level 4 is indeed when everyone should finally be kitted out with all the three "basic magic items". (Weapon, armor and amulet/cloak.)

I hear the official modules are stingy with loot, though.

skrapsan said...

I must say that I truly enjoy reading your blog. And I thank you for helping me turn my own campaign into a even better one. I don't play the modules, but I still learn from the advice. Especially the one about level 4-6

brandykruse said...

Great bloggage!

Valid criticism of the 4th level slump I must say. As DM, whenever I encounter what looks like an upcoming boring grind, I just make all the lessser nasties into minions and let the players wail away. It really moves things along.

Maelora said...

What happened to Greg? No updates for a week or more? Let's hope WotC didn't get him with their ninja squads... :(

Greg Tannahill said...

I'm back! Long work week. After a 12 hour work day I just don't remotely feel like anything more creative than getting into a flame war over on the Wizards boards.

All the comments above are great suggestions.

Maelora - the grind in Keep is pretty atrocious, particularly in the Horned Hold, with no minions and repetitive enemies. That's largely a problem with Keep's encounter design, I think, more than a particular problem of the rules.

TildeSee said...

I don't know if you read or reply to comments back this far, but I figured I'd put this comment here where it's relevant rather than elsewhere where it's a potential derailed thread.

The 4-7 "level slump" is a bit more on the interesting side when multiclassing is involved. At either level 4 or 6, the feat Novice Power comes in to the equation, giving you new tools to try out. Considering the possibilities for power swapping and retraining those swaps when something isn't working quite the way one hoped really makes this a period of rapid change.

Although I have to say, I found it interesting when I first read that this was felt to be a level slump. Among my group it seems to be the most enjoyed section of the heroic tier :)

nyenyec said...

I think getting a second daily at level 5 actually changes things a bit.

Having about 10 dailies in a party of 5 means that players don't have to be as stingy with them as before and can drop one even when there is clearly no BBEG involved.

This helps speeding up combat too. (In addition to being fun.)

Kameron said...

I've always felt that the PCs should gain additional At-Wills during their level progression. Perhaps level 4 would be the next opportunity for that to happen.

Sagiro said...

Having recently reached level 6 in a new 4E campaign, I don't think I agree that level 6 is necessarily a dud. At that level I chose a new Utility, *and* selected a new Feat, *and* got to bump a bunch of numbers by +1 for hitting an even level.

To be fair, I picked an Encounter utility (Ignoble Escape) and a Feat that also comes with a daily ability (multiclass warlord). But I don't think anyone in the group felt like the level was part of a dead zone.

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