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it's fine, we can hit the milestones faster now that I knew what damage vulnerabilities our enemies have

Starfall #9

Starfall #9 published on 12 Comments on Starfall #9

Alternate Ending:

I detest milestone leveling. I really do. Enough of the game is already at the DM’s complete whim that also denying the players the ability to know precisely when or how they’ll get their next class feature feels lame. I get why people do it though; the 5e leveling system is boring, feels slapdash, and is designed for the “tiers of play” concept from the Adventurer’s League, which is a type of gamification that yoinks a good deal of verisimilitude out of the system. Level 7 characters and Level 9 characters apparently exist in completely different worlds with no good in-system explanation as to why.

I also resist the idea that everyone is supposed to be the same level, especially now that I’ve been playing that way for a while. I’m working on my own leveling system, complete with an overhaul to how spells work (because that’s fundamentally related to level, if not to gaining experience itself) which I think will solve both of these problems. It’s part of a campaign setting I’m working on. My patrons will see it before anyone else, but it’s a long time from being fit for human consumption, so I’m going to stop talking about it for now.

Suffice to say, I think a good experience system will model a variety of ways in which adventurers grow from their challenges while also reflecting that a proficiency in easy activities should take less practice to achieve than a proficiency in very difficult activities. IE – the wizard is probably going to be level 2 for a much longer amount of time than the fighter, and just because an older system modeled it that way too doesn’t mean we need to be done iterating that idea and fishing for new, interesting ideas that it can hold.

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I like using XP as guidelines. Milestone is often difficult because then the DM has to know when to level up the characters, and might forget to give the characters the next level as well. However, XP can also be difficult because it’s so arbitrary, and the amount of XP given out varies. So, I use XP, but do modify the amount of roleplay XP arbitrarily, or even just give players XP for no reason, if I feel it’s been a while since they last levelled.

For a more detailed point on leveling, especially in terms of how hard/ different it is to learn magic vs fighting, look at the German “ the dark eye” rpg.
You don’t have Charakter Levels just different Levels of skill that make up your character.
Every type of spell is it’s own skill, so being a powerful and diverse wizard requires a lot of experience, vs a fighter who only needs to know swords or axes to be useful at fighting with them ( of course there is more to learn on that topic besides swinging those damned things).
Additionally each skill and spell has its own learning difficulty based on the complexity of the area it covers and to a degree, based on game mechanical impact.

I dislike milestone levelling for much of the same reasons as you listed. I hate it even more as a GM, because that is just one more thing I have to plan for and consider. XP makes it so much simpler, since I can just take a look at my player’s sheets, see their levels/XP values and know how many encounters they are away from gaining the next level and plan the session accordingly.

On the other hand, I also dislike the idea of different classes leveling at different rates. Unless a slower leveling class gets significantly more from each level, it can leave players feeling like they can’t contribute. So, if a wizard gains one level in the amount of time the fighter takes to gain three levels, the level 2 wizard should be just as strong and able to contribute just as much as the level 4 fighter. If the level 2 wizard is still only as useful as a level 2 fighter, then that is just bad design in my opinion.

Just curious, given the “Magic > Melee” issues previous editions have had, what’s your take on how useful level ups are based on class? I’m not sure how that could exactly be balanced, though a more MMO-type system tends to lean more in that direction, but it ends up being restrictive and ‘build-y’. (i.e., a Lvl 1 Fighter tends to do better than a Lv 1 Wizard, but a Lv 10 Fighter starts to slip behind a Lv 10 Wizard, and at Lv 20, there is no contest.) How does your idea of ‘bad design’ factor that in?

I guess in a lot of ways it comes down to the power of versatility (why Magic tends to win – Melee classes just tend to get better at whacking stuff with a stick and taking hits, while Magic can actually bypass entire portions of an adventure), but at the same time, the utility value of abilities is in a lot of ways dictated by the DM and what they choose to throw at the players. I know that the ‘rules of good DM-ing’ always say to ‘not take away the effectiveness of a PC’s abilities (i.e., don’t throw out a bunch of fire resistant baddies simply because the Wizard just got Fireball), but that never seems to apply to Melee characters, as they don’t get many of their ‘special abilities’ from their class but from magic items, and AC increases and Damage resistance seem to be counter to that ‘rule’. It’s one reason why magic items are almost requirements in treasure, rather than being able to institute a system where magic items (even the lower tier ones) were actually treasured, which, to me, made a heck of a lot more sense in earlier editions given that sacrificing CON was a part of the item creation process. (As an item creator, why would I potentially spend a CON point for a +1 item EVER?)

I always wanted to run a game where magic items felt like MAGIC items, but then I realized how much extra work would go into scenario creation, as it breaks a fundamental assumption of the Monster Manual, which is that PCs are getting level appropriate treasure, including magic items. Also, it would exacerbate the gap between Magic and Melee, which generally speaking is too wide already.

And complexity of the system itself aside, is it ‘bad design’ for a game to acknowledge this power gap issue not by trying to balance the classes, but to come up with a way to create a game that allows for that gap but at the same time creates roles for players so they can still enjoy the game despite the gap? (e.g., Ars Magica’s troupe system where players kinda rotate who’s the Mage and who’re the more mundanes)

I do remember 2e trying to fix some of this issue by basing XP bonuses on actual actions performed, but that often led to uneven leveling (player frustrations), excessive bookkeeping requirements (now what did you do this session?), and still didn’t address the fundamental issues of the power gap.

This is why I don’t envy game designers.

So, it took me some time to come up with a response, as I wanted to give your question the time it deserves. I’ll start with the last question, since that is the simplest.

Is it ‘bad design’ to acknowledge, but not try to balance classes, rather try to come up with a way to keep the gap and still let players have fun in spite of the gap? I would say no. My main issue with the power gap is with players using the ‘weaker’ classes not feeling like they can contribute. If the system has a built in way to address this, and everyone at the table knows this going in, then that is great. I am not sure if I would personally enjoy such a game, but I’d be willing to give it a shot.

As for addressing the power gap itself, I’ll preface this by saying that the bulk of my tabletop rpg experience is with D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder 1E. That said, there is a 3rd party supplement, Spheres of Power & Spheres of Might, for Pathfinder that I feel does a great job at fixing the power gap between martials and casters. Spheres of Power, while can be used in conjunction with the standard casting, is really best used as a replacement. The Magic Spheres (which are similar to the spell schools) each have basic effects, as well as a number of talents. Depending on your class and level, you can learn X number of talents. You can choose to dump them all into one or two spheres, or spread them around many of the spheres. The more game-breaking spell effects are locked behind Advanced Talents, each of which explicitly requires GM permission to take.

Spheres of Might works in a similar manner, but with martial combat. Each of the Martial Spheres focuses on a combat style (e.g. dual wielding or wrestling) and gives martial characters combat options that are more than just “I swing my sword at the goblin.” I am fond of the Brute Sphere, which gives you various abilities to forcibly move your opponents, including the option to violently slam them into another opponent or object, damaging both.

Granted, this is for Pathfinder 1E, but the developers, Drop Dead Studios, have mentioned that they want to convert it to 5E D&D, so there may be a kickstarter for that in the future.

I know this doesn’t fix the martial/caster power gap for everything, but it is the answer I have found for my games. As for other systems, I think what it boils down to is making sure every class has abilities and/or options that allow them to feel useful at all levels of play. Bad design comes in when a class is unable to meaningfully contribute past a certain level. If that can be avoided, then I can’t ask for much more.

Thanks for taking the time to respond. I’ll have to check out those books and see how the approach you describe helps with the typical magic v melee issues.

I will say that the issue with magic v melee has its biggest issue with divination/fly/teleport/projection/invisibility/wish -type powers. In other words, powers that let you circumvent the adventure (or portions of it). Of course, this is kept well in check in most video game RPG systems, as the interface provides inherent limitations (i.e., you can’t do anything that hasn’t been programmed for in the interface/program itself), but it’s harder to keep a tabletop game in check, as it seems that just about anything designed to do so tends to be labeled ‘railroading’ and is treated negatively, as it takes agency away from the players to do what they (or their characters) want to do with the powers granted.

By your description, those books don’t seem to address this part of the issue, but instead try to make a more interesting game out of both sides power structures, in the hopes that despite any power gaps, players on both sides are able to enjoy the game. I think that’s an easier hurdle to tackle, rather than the true magic v melee issue, which is more inherent to the flexibility and definition of magical effects.

Well, getting more specific with the spheres, the divination sphere, by default can only allow you to read magic (like from scrolls) and detect the presence or absence of magical effects/items. To do more than that requires spending your limited talent slots on doing so. And the more powerful divination effects, like the ever classic scrying, are advanced talents, so players need GM permission to take them in the first place.

Flying and invisibility are limited by duration, and the martial spheres have hard counters for both. Teleport is limited by distance. It is still strong though, I admit, especially in the hands of a player that knows how to abuse it. As for wish/miracle and similar reality warping effects, I will have to do a deeper read through, but I do not recall seeing an equivalent power. This would likely fall under their incantation rules, which similar to the advanced talents, require GM permission.

If you are on the fence about getting the books, there is an unofficial wiki that contains the rule information, which can be found here:

The rules are published under the Open Game Licence, thus the wiki, serving as a sort of SRD for the Spheres system.

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