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The Tiers of the World

Posted in Indies & More

Mike’s been talking about tiers in D&D again. So I’ve dug up a Samuel Beckett quote for the title and dug through a lot of games, let’s talk tiers.

What we’re calling tiers might also be considered ‘sets’ (as in BECMI) or even different games. The idea for Next is to have three distinct styles of play that vary in focus, complexity, and length. Here’s Mike:

For D&D Next, we’ve had some discussions about tiers and what they mean for the game. I’ve felt that a tier should be much like any other option a DM picks for a campaign—a flag that tells you what kind of game to expect.

The basic idea here—flagging different ways of playing D&D and calling out how to get to each of them—is fantastic. It’s embraces the fact that different editions of D&D have had entirely different approaches to what adventurers do and how they do it. The stumbling point may be in the progression.

The three proposed tiers tell a pretty definite story: characters start as apprentices, become adventurers, and eventually become major celebrities. By default you spend two sessions as apprentices, 24 sessions as adventurers, and 12 sessions as “legacies.”

On the one hand, this is a great progression. It tickles the same itch as Adventurer Conquerer King, where the sheer increase in scope and power is a real draw of play. It’s exciting to go from a lowly apprentice to a major celebrity.

The only issue is one that’s haunted D&D over time: what do you do when you really just want to play lowly apprentices? What if you really don’t want to have to deal with the progression of more complex rules? What if you just want to keep kicking around dungeons?

There’s a lot of concepts bundled up in these three tiers. There’s system complexity, ranging from decidedly introductory to unabashedly complex. There’s the place of the characters within the world, from lowly to high. There’s speed fo advancement and number of abilities. There’s actual mathematical numbers. Putting those all together says something about what D&D Next is.

It does have some interesting emergent properties, though. Once place in the fictional world is related to level NPCs start to have to fit the same curve. If adventurers are level 3-15, how good at bargaining does the average shopkeep have to be to not get fleeced on every deal? That assumes that there’s some kind of character ability for haggling, which Next is definitely leaning towards with how skills work right now. Currently the difference in skill between a 3rd level and 15th level bargainer would be on the order of +5, which means that a shopkeep has to have a save or DC on par with a 15th level character to be able to stand a chance of not getting ripped off all the time in a world of adventurers.

The same thing can show up with royalty (what level is a king?), religion (what level is a high priest?), or any other hierarchical organization. A presumed level advancement says things about the world of D&D.

I think that’s great. Sure, it means we have to think about what level the shopkeep is, but it’s a very classic D&D thing. And, more importantly, it’s a solid statement of what D&D is. It’s not a wishy-washy “make it what you want.” It says “D&D characters gain considerably in power and status as they level up.”

The part that excites me less is the implied escalation in complexity. If I want weak characters my game is less complex; if I want to play powerful characters my game is more complex. This doesn’t have to be the case—take Burning Wheel and With Great Power as examples—but in Next they’re baked together. Mike doesn’t mention that escalation in complexity much this week, so hopefully it’s something they’re revising.

Assuming an escalation in power and position in D&D Next is a great chance to see what Next will actually do. While I’m not too excited about having to play a more complex game just to play more powerful characters, the basic idea of a world of tiers is wonderfully D&D.

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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