Tiers before bedtime
This is, I suspect, not the first time this blogpost title has been used, and it certainly won’t be the last. That is because it is a Good Blogpost Title. But what I want to write about in this post is 4e’s Tiered play. How it’s nothing new, not innovative at all and because of that it’s a Very Good Thing indeed, but it could be much, much more.
Back in the wonderful world of Classic D&D, we have Tiered play too. Only we don’t call it that, on oh. We call it Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal. These took us through levels 1-3, 4-14, 15-25, 26-36 and 36+ respectively with each “Tier” of play adding Yet More Goodness to the overall play experience.
With the glorious Red Box Basic set you were firmly entrenched in the dungeons. While 1st-3rd level might not sound much to your meagre 4e-inspired rocket-paced D&D mindset, remember that this is Hairy Chested D&D where is takes months (if not years) to rise just one level. I reckon it took just as long to make 4th level in Classic D&D as it takes to hit Paragon Tier in 4e.
When you finally make it out of the dungeons, your heroes have the Wilderness of the Expert set to contend with. At 9th level (this is the important bit – I’ll be coming back to this) your experienced heroes are recognised for their valiant efforts and granted the rights to build a Stronghold of some sort.From there, the game turns increasingly toward nation-wide, world-wide and plane-spanning plots as you continue through Companion, Master and finally Immortal-level play. By that point the characters are gods in all but name and able to meddle in the affairs of Mortal Man as never before.
4e D&D’s Tiered structure is, I believe, but a pale imitation.
It’s lacking some of the core concepts and mechanics that their game-designing predecessors built right into the game. Where are 4e’s castle-building rules? Dominion politics? Mass combat? Classic D&D recognised that for the game to maintain its interest, it had to evolve at higher levels to become more than just a fighty-monster game. Sure, the big bad uber-monsters were there but there were rules to let the high-level heroes battle against them with an army of 100,000 men (or elves, dwarvess, goblins….). We had siege craft. We could build a castle able to withstand an Elder Dragon’s mightiest breath, complete with full stats and layout.
In comparison, 4e’s Tiers as written present a structure where the heroes use bigger and blastier Powers to fight bigger and blastier foes on increasingly weird battlemats.
Of course, there’s nothing to stop we, the DMs, making stuff up. There’s nothing on this planet to stop me from pulling out my copy of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (praise its holy name) and using it at the table of a 4e game. One of the strengths of D&D is that it’s conceptually backwards compatible, even if the rules themselves might not necessarily be. A 4e orc is still essentially the same as a Classic D&D orc (though Kobolds are a different matter).
But the point is why should we have to? Where Third Edition could trace a clear conceptual lineage back to AD&D, 4e’s design has looked further back, going right back to Classic D&D for its inspiration in so many ways. It just needs to go that bit further to become what it should be – a true, modern, evolved take on Classic D&D for the gamers of today.
So, here’s the challenge for Wizards of the Coast.
Give us three books. Call them something like The Heroic Tier Handbook, The Paragon Tier Handbook and The Epic Tier Handbook.
In the first, fill it to the brim with dungeon crunch. Give us traps galore. Give us a decent non-magical equipment list complete with 10′ pole. Give us an alphabetical list of Powers suitable for use when creating our own Heroic-Tier monsters (things like Bite, Claw, Bloodsuck, Drain, Envelop, etc) so we can let our monster-building minds go wild. Fill it with legends, tales, plot hooks and sample dungeon layouts.
In the Paragon Tier Handbook give us Stronghold building rules complete with siege warfare and mass combat. Give us rules for ruling a Dominion complete with servants, loyalty tests, morale, crop failure, earthquakes and betrayal.
Finally, in the Epic Tier Handbook let us explore the planes. Give us world-spanning, word-conquering adventures and the promise of immortality.
The D&D Rules Cyclopedia (praise its holy name) gave us all this, and more, in just one book. I’m willing to give you three, plus as many PHBs and DMGs as you need.
Do this, and we’ll do the rest.
Over to you.