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Rule-of-Three: 12/05/2011
Rich Baker

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For this week, a look at epic level play from Chris Perkins and some musings on multiclassing.

1 Any advice that DMs can use to keep the continually growing power curve of PCs in check as campaigns go from 1 to 30?

(I asked Chris Perkins to share some thoughts here, so… here’s Chris.) I’ve been running two epic-level games for the past year, and I have a couple pieces of advice based on my experiences:

  1. Don’t concern yourself with encounter balance. By the time they hit epic tier, the PCs have enough resources to extricate themselves from almost any precarious situation. Throw the kitchen sink at them. If the encounter ends up being too hard, the players will be forced to make some tough tactical decisions, call in some favors, buy time, and put their epic destinies to the test. If the encounter ends up being too easy, the players will feel as invincible as their characters, and that’s equally awesome.
  2. Don’t show the players your entire hand at once. Let encounters unfold gradually, with new threats or challenges announcing themselves over a period of several rounds. I think of an epic-level encounter as a three-act play (or, if you prefer a different analogy, a three-stage rocket). I introduce a threat in Act 1, add reinforcements in Act 2, and then add a complication or twist in Act 3. Depending on how the heroes are faring, the “twist” might be to their advantage rather than to their detriment. For example, Act 1 might begin with the heroes defending their keep against an ancient red dragon. In Act 2, villainous rogues in league with the dragon announce themselves by attacking the keep from within. In the final act, a gold dragon allied with the party shows up, chases off the wounded red dragon, and helps the heroes catch the fleeing rogues.

2 How do you feel about 4E's multiclassing options? What have you learned and what would you change?

(Back to Rich) We’re generally satisfied with 4th Edition’s feat-based approach to multiclassing. It’s reasonable to charge a feat (or two) for the increased flexibility and abilities the system offers. Likewise, the hybrid rules seem to be serving the purpose we intended; players who are interested in exploring the combinations have fun tinkering with the rules, and players who don’t want to do that work don’t feel compelled to hybridize just to keep up.

The feat-based system is definitely safer and more balanced. A couple of Rule of Threes ago, I touched on the use of “role insulation” features that protected classes and made sure every character could perform the job he or she is expected to. The feat-based multiclassing system is a good example of that sort of design philosophy: You can’t completely shed functionality in your base class while chasing after the goodies in another class. I saw plenty of characters in 3rd Edition games who managed to nerf themselves by chasing after bad multiclass combinations. The hybrid rules are a little more flexible in that regard, of course, and are probably best used when you’re not worried about filling a role.

While I appreciate the balance of the 4th Edition multiclassing system, I do miss the elegance of the 3rd Edition rules and the character stories you could tell with them. If your rogue suddenly experienced a religious conversion and decided to become a man of the cloth, well, you could just stop adding rogue levels and begin taking cleric levels. We even created some pretty interesting prestige classes that helped cool but suboptimal multiclass combinations like rogue/cleric, which made for an amazingly open environment in character management. But it definitely wasn’t for beginners. Editor Julia Martin once observed to me that 3rd Edition leveling drove her crazy because she didn’t have one or two things to address when her character leveled—she felt that she had to evaluate every other class in the game and see if that would be better for her character now.

As far as what I might change now about the 4th Edition multiclassing system, I would be tempted to take a hard look at the “setup” feats that open up multiclassing. They are generally very strong, and in many cases offer better options for improving your character than non-multiclassing feats. It’s simply too tempting to take a multiclassing feat with no intention of ever moving your character concept in that direction. For example, I’ve made plenty of characters who eventually wind up with Warrior of the Wild, because it’s Skill Training plus 7 (or 14, or 21) points of damage per encounter. On the “back side” of those initial access feats, making characters pay a feat for each power swap is pretty expensive; I wish the buy-in was a little less good or a little pricier, and the continuing investment a little cheaper. I don’t see a way to do that without singling out specific feats and nerfing them, however, and I suspect that is not something the audience wants us to do.

3 Earlier in the year, we were hearing about some more multiclassing options that were coming, but nothing recently. Are there any plans for adding some mechanics that allow for more freedom in multiclassing?

The short answer: No, we don’t have any immediate plans to revisit the multiclassing system. The somewhat longer answer: We did some preliminary work on a more 3e-style multiclassing system for a sourcebook we wound up cancelling, which is why we were talking about this back at the beginning of the year. We still have that work on hand, of course. But it would take a pretty serious amount of additional design and development to prepare that material for publication, even as an Unearthed Arcana article. For now we have other projects that have higher priority.

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