Project Pentagon: The Leveling “Sweet Spot”

In the product page for “Project Pentagon,” I mention that a goal for this game is to “Create a longer play experience in the leveling “sweet spot” (the D&D/PFRPG equivalent of character levels 6 to 12).” But what does that mean?

Most people who have played a lot of D&D (or Pathfinder) would agree that the “sweet spot” of leveling a character starts around character level 6 and ends around character level 12. Most people consider level range the most fun for playing. Why?

(Update September 23, 2014: If you like this post and where these ideas are going, please check out the kickstarter for my Five Moons RPG, which uses these ideas. Thanks!)

On the lower end of this level range, PCs are starting to feel really tough–they can easily handle a fight with a few ogres; the full-BAB classes like the fighter are starting to get their second attack per round; spellcasters get access to cool game-changing spells like fireball and fly… but a large number of low-CR opponents (like 16 1st-level orcs) can still be an annoyance, even if they really aren’t a threat to the PCs. And large numbers of low-CR opponents are excellent fodder for area and multi-target attacks like fireball, flurry of blows, and Whirlwind Attack. The PCs have cool abilities and have plenty of opportunities to use them.

On the upper end of this range, the PCs can handle fights against Large dragons, liches, and some of the tougher demons; the fighter has picked up a third attack per round; spellcasters have access to world-changing spells like raise dead and teleport and badass combat spells like disintegrate, flesh to stone, harm, and heal. Instead of packs of orcs being a hassle, packs of ogres are a hassle. But magic like limited wish, maze, prismatic spray, and spell turning are out of reach except perhaps if they find a scroll, easy planar travel (whether through the Astral or Ethereal planes) is limited to natural portals, and something grand like a scroll of wish is a fantastic treasure worth 1/4th of what a typical 12th-level PC carries around. In other words, the PCs are very powerful, but not so powerful that the GM has to invent incredibly powerful obstacles to challenge them (like a gang of adult red dragons, or the tarrasque).

Also, the teen levels are where the math of the game starts to break down. The fast-BAB characters start to miss only on very low rolls, and the slow-BAB characters start to only hit with very high rolls, so monsters are (a) challenging for the fighter to hit but impossible for the wizard to hit, (b) possible for the wizard to hit and trivial for the fighter to hit, or (c) straddling the boring  middle ground between these two extremes. The iterative attacks for the fast-BAB characters seldom hit. Good save bonuses and poor save bonuses start to be very very different, so it’s very hard to fail your good save and very hard to succeed at your poor save, so tactics become figuring out which saving throw to target.

In a recent blog post, I talked about reading the D&D Basic and Expert sets from 1981, how they stopped at level 14, and how that let you play for the full “sweet spot” level range. If you wanted to “get back to basics” like that with a new D&D-ish system, you could just end the game rules at level 12 or 14. That way, you don’t have to waste time and energy trying to make that part of the system (a level range most people don’t play in anyway) functional, you just focus on the fun part that works best.

However, nowadays people are so used to being theoretically able to reach level 20 (or even level 30, if playing 4E D&D), that if you ended the class tables at level 12 or 14, players would feel like they were being “robbed” of the opportunity to play through those character levels, even though most campaigns stop around level 12–14.*

So what can you do to break that psychological disconnect of “losing” the option for playing through character levels 13+, and also not just have the game weirdly end at level 12?

Answer: You double the number of levels in the game. Instead of ending at character level 12, you end at character level 12 x 2 = 24. A 6th-level D&D character converted to this game system would be a 6 x 2 = 12th level character. A brand-new 1st-level D&D character would still be a 1st-level character in this system**, but a barely-experienced 2nd-level D&D character would be a 4th-level character in this system–a relatively new, but still competent adventurer. Instead of a D&D wizard getting 3rd-level spells at character level 5, they get them at character level 5 x 2 = 10.***

To keep the pace of the campaign the same, your character could level up after every 2 game sessions instead of every 4–5 sessions. Or you could slow it down a little bit and level up every 3 sessions, or keep it like D&D and level up every 4–5 sessions, extending the overall playtime of the “sweet spot” levels.

I admit, if having the capstone at level 12 would feel weird to players, having it at level 24 would probably feel just as weird. So let’s add 1 level to the end so the capstone is level 25. That’s an easy number to remember, it’s easy to count because it’s a multiple of 5 (5 times 5, in fact****), with a lot of history in the game (like 25 being the original maximum for any ability score). And that still gives you plenty of leg room to fiddle with BAB and save progressions so high-level characters are better than low-level characters without introducing a great disparity between the best and worst BABs (or saves) in the party.

By ending this game at level 25 (effectively D&D level 12 or 13), this also lets you trim the 8th- and 9th-level D&D spells from the game. Note that many of those spells are basically “I’m a lower-level spell you’re familiar with, but even better because I’m higher level,” especially on the cleric and druid spell list (which originally ended at 7th-level spells up through AD&D 2nd edition, and had its list altered and filled in for 3E so clerics and druids would be full 9-level casters like wizards).*****

So that’s my plan for Project Pentagon: Focus on the most fun levels of the game, allow for “apprentice”-level characters, give more flexibility in speeding or slowing leveling during the campaign, end the game before the levels where the math breaks down, and cut the chaff in the ultra-high-power endgame magic.

– – – – –

* It’s simple math. Most people reset their campaigns every 12 months. The game assumes you’ll level up every 4 or 5 game sessions, and if you start at level 1 and play once a week, that means after 52 weekly sessions, you’ve gained about (52 / 4.5 equals) 12 levels, putting you at level 13. That’s one reason why Paizo’s adventure paths top out around PC level 14…

** Alternatively, a 1st-level character in this system could be even weaker than a 1st-level D&D character–for example, a barely-trained apprentice. With that in mind, a 2nd-level character in this system is still a little wet behind the ears, but isn’t a complete rube.

*** This of course assumes that you keep the weird dichotomy between at what character level you get access to each spell level. In this game system, you could restructure the spell levels so you get 2nd-level spells at character level 2, 3rd-level spells at character level 3, and so on, so fireball would be a 10th-level spell you get at character level 10. But that’s a topic for another day…

**** It’s almost as if this game is codenamed “Project Pentagon” because of how often the number 5 comes up for various things…

***** Here’s something neat that happens because of this change: If D&D character level 12 becomes character level 24 in this system, the very next character level in D&D is 13th, which is when casters get 7th-level spells like creeping doom, ethereal jaunt, and limited wish. In this system, characters could gain access to these abilities at level 25, the last level in the game. So the capstone spells in this system could be the equivalent of D&D’s 7th-level spells… and because there aren’t higher-level spells above that, it means limited wish is the coolest, most versatile spell in the game–it is, in effect, the wish spell, and you’d just call it wish. A spellcaster could gain the ability to cast wish at the very last character level in the game, instead of at the fourth-last level of the game (17th in D&D). It’s long seemed weird to me that a 20th-level wizard’s level progression amounts to “ho hum, I get a fourth 9th-level spell per day at this level, I guess I’ll prepare a wish spell just in case my three other 9th-level spells don’t do the job…”

Five Moons RPG cover

Five Moons RPG cover

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15 thoughts on “Project Pentagon: The Leveling “Sweet Spot”

  1. Regarding the schism in BAB: I’m of the opinion that:
    * Having high-level fighters never miss is a feature, not a bug.
    * Having wizards unable to hit in melee combat is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as they can still land their spells.

    The latest iteration of D&D dealt with this issue simply by compressing down the range of variance. A 1st level character has a +2 bonus with proficient tasks; at 20th level it’s +6, a mere 4-point difference. This means that the actual variation of capabilities by level has more to do with class features than with numbers, which is nice, because it means your character is distinguished by doing interesting things as opposed to having 20x the attack bonus of a newb.

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    • {* Having high-level fighters never miss is a feature, not a bug.}

      I know, I was there when they designed it. 😉

      {* Having wizards unable to hit in melee combat is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as they can still land their spells.}

      It becomes a bad thing if you’re fighting a creature that’s immune to magic or the wizard is out of spells, in which case the wizard is just wasting a turn every round trying to hit.

      Also, wizards not having a high attack bonus led to the solution of “let’s create the concept of a touch AC and allow most wizard spells to roll against that instead,” which actually introduced a bunch of other problems in the game (and is something I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, and I’ll be talking more about in the future).

      {The latest iteration of D&D dealt with this issue simply by compressing down the range of variance.}

      Which is what I’m aiming at, I’m just doing it in a different way/at a different scale. 🙂

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      • I really liked that there existed three types of AC for whether or not your armor/dodge bonuses applied. It makes sense, it’s not that hard to keep track of, and gave trade offs between armoring yourself up or becoming nimble. Touch AC struck me as problematic with the fact that pretty much every monster pads its AC with natural armor. And this problem unfortunately translated to the firearm rules.

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      • Yep, exactly–it means the touch AC for most powerful creatures is pathetically low, and the gunslinger gets to take advantage of that (and it’s a full BAB class, where the character doesn’t need Str so it can boost Dex, so it doesn’t need the advantage of aiming for touch AC).

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  2. You know, you’re not legally obligated to make each level have some ratio of the same value it does in D&D. Not only can you cut out the level 13+ part of the game, but you can also shrink the level 1-5 region just as easily.

    If in your game, levels 1-3 mapped to levels 1-5 in D&D, and levels 4-20 mapped to levels 6-12, you’d surely be in even better shape.

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    • I know… but I like that there’s a leveling band for “apprentice”-type characters who are adventuring. And some people REALLY like starting out as (the equivalent of) D&D 0-level characters and developing their low-level abilities over the first few sessions. IIRC one of the complaints about D&D 4E was that characters already started at a heroic level, and the “I’m just a farmboy who practiced swinging a sword in his free time” wasn’t possible as a character concept because a 1st-level fighter already had some amazing moves.

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      • Don’t confuse “the apprentice band” with “everything before the sweet spot.” In old D&D terms, apprentice would be level 1, novice-but-competent is level 2–4 (or perhaps 5), and the sweet spot (which is a term describing the *fun* of playing, not the competence of the characters) is 6–12 or so. So using the Project Pentagon setup, apprentice is level 1–3, novice is 4–11, and the sweet spot is 12–24. And, if you prefer to not start at novice level, there’s no reason you couldn’t start play at level 4.
        Basically, it’s easier to have the apprentice band go from 1 to level X and allow people to start at X+1 than it is to have the apprentice band be level 1, and have to create a kludge from the lead-up-to-apprentice scenarios (0– level or less).

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  3. Some concerns with the article:
    1.)Doubling the “sweet spot”, resulting in it actually taking longer to reach the point that people have enjoyed from it.

    2.)The idea of making lower level characters even weaker, as response to people not liking how weak low level is. Which low levels need increased base survivability, not the other way around. Suggest have starting range little higher, so can include the low-low riff raff stuff (like rats, cats, big bugs & peasants).

    3.)Cutting out High-level play. While at start I can understand, allows the “meta” to play out, and game to get properly testing to see its limits. However I would consider an expansion for High Level play in the future. Just because something doesn’t work, doesn’t mean it can’t be designed to work with proper testing going forward.

    4.)Decisions based on Legacy, “sacred cows” or otherwise beholding to something because what its based on did it. Example of this is settling on doubling levels simply because of feeling “robbed”, since D&D did it. Despite even a new game based on something, doesn’t need to stick to sacred cows of its inspiration, should make designs that fulfill the experience it wishes to emulate.

    The Fourth point is a very important one, as limiting ourselves to legacy is going to weigh down how good of a Fantasy RPG it could become. If for example, the (Dark/Demon) Souls series never innovated from its roots, those games would’ve still been like the “Kings Field” series it was a spiritual successor of.

    5.) Fighter-level Tricks like “Fireball, 2nd atk per round, Whirlwind attack, etc” seem concerning that game will be starting on a weak balance point. However further examples do show actual good abilities from casters, & given prior article about Ex/Su, I’ve faith you’ll ensure Warrior-types are doing awesome & exciting things as Disintegrate, Flight, Color Spray and other interesting abilities that were always reserved for spellcasters.

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    • 1) Hmm, not true, as I said here: “To keep the pace of the campaign the same, your character could level up after every 2 game sessions instead of every 4–5 sessions.” So if D&D takes you about 4 weeks to get from level 1 to level 2, this system would take you about 4 weeks to get from level 2 to level 4; i.e., the exact same pace (in terms of character power) as D&D.
      2) I don’t think I said, “some people are concerned about how weak low-level characters are.” If that is *your* concern, you can start characters at level 2 or 3. As I said in an earlier comment, IIRC one of the complaints about D&D 4E was that characters already started at a heroic level, and the “I’m just a farmboy who practiced swinging a sword in his free time” wasn’t possible as a character concept because a 1st-level fighter already had some amazing moves (and one of the 1st-level caster powers was a short-range teleport!). PCs have gotten more powerful with each edition… which means people who like grittier, low-powered starting characters are disappointed.
      3) Noted. 🙂
      4) Yes, I know, and that’s not the only reason. See point **** for more information, and understand that 25 is 5 x 5…
      5) The whirlwind example was just using a D&D/PF term that people would be familiar with. I wouldn’t put 1/day fireball vs. 1/day whirlwind and consider those abilities balanced. 🙂

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      • 1.) “Could” phrasing makes it sound more like a guideline than a hard fast rule for your game, which isn’t helpful to beginners if they feel advice they’re given is unsure. Nitpick aside, a concern with it being a guideline, means that for games that “don’t” use that, it will slow down the game. While if a 6th level PC =12th in Pentagon, then seems by nature, taking twice much progression to get to that point. Unless it’s less like class abilities, and more like spellcaster spell levels, like 3rd level spells have for 5th-6th, till get 4th spells at 7th level in D&D. Which case I hope you’ll be able to execute that in line with your intentions.

        2.) Its Extrapolation from mentioning why people like the “sweet spot” & traits mentioned of it, that low level generally lacks, opposed to a direct quote. We obviously all know that 1st level in D&D is not a good place to be, you’re more like rambunctious teens than characters of any caliber (The town guard is more equipped to do any 1st level adventures than you are!). So having 1st-3rd PC’s that are that weak, would be kinda lame to deal with for 6-ish sessions (most people who go past 3 session affairs tend to speed up beginning levels, especially in my personal experience there). I like to try and have the criticism from being some purely personal, so placing “*your* concern” bit, seemed kinda dismissive, and unneeded towards the criticism I was making.

        “which means people who like grittier, low-powered starting characters are disappointed.”
        Thing is about that, is there’s TONS of RPG’s that do the whole “gritty, lower power”, and given their focus, possibly do it better than Pentagon possibly would. Games like: Warhammer Fantasy, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Torchbearer?, Most Retroclones as I understand it. Though since you’ve expanded the level scheme, it seems like it would be a good fit for expanded starting range, as then would allow you to have your grit, but without the silliness of rats/cats/bats (oh my!) exploding PC’s.

        If you’re emulating from 3rd edition D&D, it’s always been advertised as “Heroic Fantasy” in PHB. Examples being: Back of PHB, on page 4, second paragraph of Introduction: “D&D is a game of your imagination in which you participate in thrilling adventures and dangerous quests by taking on the role of a hero—a character you create”, under Characters: “Your characters star in the adventures you play, just like the heroes of a book or movie.”, and under Adventures: “Your character is an adventurer, a hero who sets out on epic quests for fortune and glory.”

        Now, while AD&D & like I haven’t for certain found direct quotes like that, but some of their famous adventures have involved one eventually going up and fighting a god. While that’s possibly beyond scope of your game, I would think that lends a certain “heroic” fantasy like touch to older material in its implications as well.

        4.) Alright, and if 4 stars is “**** It’s almost as if this game is codenamed “Project Pentagon” because of how often the number 5 comes up for various things…”

        Also basing a design decision like that on a name doesn’t seem like a compelling reason for that either. Since lot of projects have “project names” before they get settled with an actual one, and if its something like that holding it down, it could easily be changed. Name can be just that, could be called “Pink Elephants”, and it have nothing to do with the color Pink, nor elephants. Though given your art design, and implications, obvious there’s a theme implicated as well, a sort of “witchcraft”, or Pagan? like vibe that’s also the design decision here I’m sure. I’ve seen people design things due to hang-ups on minor things, and wouldn’t want a new game to suffer any baggage, be it a name, “sacred cows”, and even Fantasy genre conventions.

        Sorry this got lengthy it looks like, as well if I come off as “arguing to argue”, as I’m merely commenting the info to discuss. I like to think it can be wise to call out to even solid seeming design decisions, as lot of times intentions have unintended bad consequences.

        3 &5 skipped as no need for comment on those (yay for smiles though).

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      • 1) Well this is a blog entry about a game concept, not the actual copy-pasted rules for the game.
        2) I think I just didn’t understand what you were getting at. I didn’t mention “people being concerned about how weak low-level characters are” in this blog, so when you mentioned it, I assumed you were introducing it as something you were concerned about.
        4) “Making it use 5” isn’t a design decision. No, it has nothing to do with paganism or witchcraft.

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  4. 1.)True, but with the rules-like bits you “have” mentioned, can be important to discuss especially while they’re still in their conceptual stages. Makes any idea more open to change when its still in its infancy (as applicable of course).

    2.)Fair enough, I just don’t discussion to turn into “well that’s YOUR opinion” type dismissal stuff, glad that won’t be the case. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the rest of what got mentioned in #2 (whenever you have the time of course).

    4.)If the theme of 5 is influencing design, then it can be considered a design decision. Even so, shouldn’t be dismissed out of fashion simply because one considered is concept/art, and not a literal gameplay mechanic. As for paganism thing, that was just my poor guess, as I was thinking “colonial/pilgrim” like deal, & thought those would be more descriptive, not meant as insult to anything insidious or have you. I meant it that the reason its there is assumed to be more than just a name, and legacy, but also catering to some unknown theme to me at this point. So while the theme is only known to you, I can only comment on what’s been showed/said so far. Which, “seems” to be the name of the game, because Legacy (D&D players are used to 20-30th level paradigms), “Theme of five based on geometric shape Pentagon” (which legacy you understood, but didn’t deny isn’t a reason, which is why I placed it here).

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