[d20] The Path to Leveling Up

Running low-level Pathfinder has reinforced one thing in my mind: the players level far too quickly, even on the slow track (which several were grousing about, before it evened itself out).

The mindset behind 3.x D&D was to blaze through the first 4-6 levels with ease, in order to get into prestige classes—speed through the lower levels of base classes in order to start customizing your character. The irony is that it’s skimming over about half of the “sweet spot,” the low-mid level realm where most campaigns take place in, and the area where the game is most evenly balanced and developed. Pathfinder attempted to mix this up, with its three experience tracks, but that just changes the number of encounters per level by a handful: I find it odd they didn’t lengthen classes at lower levels, since the drive to reach pres classes ASAP is something Pathfinder did away with. It doesn’t address the core problem: d20 leveling is fast, compared to both older iterations (AD&D) and newer games (Exalted, 7th Sea, Shadowrun, and specifically CthulhuTech, which goes the other route and is painfully slow.)

Shorter, more manageable campaigns are a good thing, don’t get me wrong. Not every game can withstand the demands which come with a multi-year campaign. And “shorter/more campaigns” was a player-based driving force for this, hence the major shift between 2nd AD&D and 3.0. But it’s tied to the d20 emphasis on player customization: you need to level frequently, allowing your character to expand their abilities and powers and get more feats. Sooner or later, the system can’t handle any more leveling—epic level play has always been hit-and-miss for D&D—and once a game is over, you can start building again with your next interesting concept.

Hence why I constantly contrast d20 with AD&D. The first D&D campaign I played in took years to advance a handful of levels. (No high-handed claims that this gave us more time to build character and roleplay, that was back in high school; the modus operendi was sex jokes, bad puns, and nerd/fantasy pop culture references. Which, for high schoolers, I guess counts as roleplaying.) But there wasn’t the huge drive to level: AD&D characters were static, the variables only changed by a handful of digits, save for fighter hit points. That also meant they didn’t do as much, and had a cardboard cutout feel of similarity: the only differences were in who used what weapon.

Now, players in my last Pathfinder games have their character build prepared five levels or more in advance: plotting what feats to take, what class abilities to get, which prestige class to take and when. They know, with the CR system, it’s more-or-less 8 to 18 encounters per level to level (depending on the advancement track used). It’s part of the optimization paradigm: there’s such a wealth of abilities to take, but only a few will give you the character you want, and you have to look and prepare for them. To some, if you’re not focusing on character build, you’re not playing the game right.

The players who don’t look ahead, merely taking whatever sounds interesting when they level, stuck out (and badly). My Legacy of Fire monks were horribly unprepared build-wise, and had the inane idea that monks don’t need items to exacerbate their bad builds. (Armor, longsword, spear and magic helmet, no; amulets, belts, rings, vests, gauntlets, shoes, pants, hats, and weapons in flavor-of-the-day DR-overcoming properties, yes.) And for all their feat versatility, and the thousands of d20-based feats, every fighter I’ve ever seen has stuck with the Weapon Focus/Specialization and Power Attack/Cleave feat trees, leaving them a bit underwhelming and single-focused.

Anyways, back to leveling. When I started my Starblazer game, which uses the indie FATE system, I asked everyone what they wanted to see in a game. What struck me most was my Pathfinder-fanboy friend—the one who won’t buy compatible 3.5 supplements because they’re “not Pathfinder”—telling me he wanted a game with long-term character development, since he’d either a.) not been in a game long enough to support it, or b.) played in games which didn’t emphasize it. The implication was that his character in my Pathfinder game didn’t have the room or need for the development he wanted because it’s focus is on tactics, numbers-crunching, and combat, and to get ahead (or change) in those, you need to level constantly.

I’d like to contest that—the old mantra of “any game can promote roleplaying and development”—but most of my players have implied the same thing. (Well, 3/4ths of them are heavy in Pathfinder Society, so that might be an influence; several have said they like the Adventure Path and home campaign style since it’s “for real” and not just “numbers-crunching.”) I don’t want to sound hypocritical, given that I’m still using the system. Besides, if I wanted to run a long-term game with room for development, I wouldn’t use a class/level system. (Hence, Starblazer.) But one of my biggest problems with d20 is its time limit built into the XP and level system, restraining the number of encounters, roleplaying, character development—in short, the campaign length is determined by the number of encounters run.

2 thoughts on “[d20] The Path to Leveling Up

  1. I agree – the time it takes to level up is way too short for the player that wants a long term character development and lengthy campaigns. But why don’t you adjust the problem by using the “slow” experience table and give less XP per encounter? For example: When I see that a simple Gnoll gives 400 XP but I want to send a bunch of them at my 1st level group I reduce the amount of XP per Gnoll drastically. And so far no one has complained ;)

    1. That’s actually more or less what I’ve been doing in my Serpent Skull game, and it’s worked out perfect. Slow track, six players, and cresting into level six is about where they fall a little behind from the modules.

      But it still bugs me on a macro level: why speed through the sweet spot to get to the less-balanced part of the game when there’s less of a mechanical incentive (de-emphasis of pres classes)? Something that could have used a good upgrade in Pathfinder.

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