The Golden Level of Heroic Adventure

by Sndwurks (David Buresh) on December 13, 2011

As a player and DM through four editions now, I have observed the effect commonly referred to as “the sweet spot.” This is the point at which the game functions as intended, is fun for players and DMs alike, the PCs can handle most fights, and the monsters can be threatening without being overpowering. While the sweet spot in 2e was a strange one due to the difference in classes’ experience charts and earning, and 3e and its iterations had multiple sweet spots, 4e to date has had the longest, most sustainable sweet spot that I have experienced. It starts around level 3, and lasts until about level 23.

However, within this sweet spot, there stand four levels which I feel are the best time to be an adventurer in D&D. While three of them stand firmly in the paragon tier, being levels 12, 16 and 20, one stands in the heroic tier of play. Level 6 is the goal to shoot for in lower heroic, and it is where the PCs truly begin to feel their power. It’s when character choices in build, theme, and class truly begin to differentiate themselves. It is when heroic characters can get their first taste of the paragon tier challenges ahead, and the best time to start defining a campaign’s themes. It is the golden level of heroic adventure.

The first three levels of 4e D&D are, in many ways, its most dangerous. Due to a lack of powers, hit points, and resources, characters are at their most fragile. Two critical hits from non-minions on Team Monster, and any character aside from a high Constitution defender is likely going to be unconscious. Healers have, at most, four encounter healing powers to choose from, and none of them are terribly strong. With only two encounter attack powers and one daily attack power (for most characters), per encounter resources can easily be expended in the first turn of combat with an action point, and the one daily is saved for the inevitable boss fight. A lack of magic items and gold leads to the conservation of resources, and items being coveted objects. Most characters lack an enhancement bonus to either AC, attacks, or defenses. It can be truly a harrowing time, and is the first real hurdle of the game. While themes do change this dynamic by adding an Encounter power at level 1, the impact on the resources is not that significant.

At level 4, characters receive their first attribute increase to round out those odd attributes, as well as a feat. Level 5 sees the introduction of a second daily attack power for most classes, which allows them to start branching out with their dailies, and not have to hoard their power. At level 6, however, a character will have four feats, two or three encounter attack powers, two daily attack powers, and their second utility power. With the options for utility granted by racial utilities, theme utilities, class utilities, and skill utilities, utility powers are one of the strongest way for a character to express their character’s flavor. It can give a leader the fourth or fifth healing power per encounter, usually worth two healing surges. It gives defenders a method to mitigate either hits or damage. It gives strikers a method to be useful beyond simply dealing damage. Controllers might literally get any of the above.

Secondary roles, created by theme or multiclassing, can be fully expressed by level 6 through power choices. Additionally, four feats gives the room for a weapon proficiency, weapon expertise, weapon focus and then a feat of particular choice, so even the strongest optimizers begin to feel some freedom for feat selection. Hybrid classes at level 6 will have two powers from each class, and feat-swap multiclassed characters will be able to have one of their encounters be from their secondary class. Magic items and gold should have accumulated to the point where every character should have the basics covered, and should likely even have one or two items with +2 enhancement bonuses.

As a DM, level 6 is the first level you truly have a great deal of freedom of what monsters to use against the PCs. With the full five levels above and below, PCs can now face foes from levels 1 to 11. While higher level foes are good to keep the game challenging, sometimes lower level monsters are good for rounding out an encounter. While there is a significant power step between heroic tier and paragon tier monsters, this is not inherently a bad thing. This allows for the choice of a paragon monster as a particularly challenging foe. It is the first time in the heroic tier that a DM has the full range of choices when it comes to monster level.

Finally, it is at level 6 that character death becomes something that can be overcome. While the Raise Dead ritual is still costly, 500 gp is something that most PCs can afford at level 6. Character survival leads to narrative cohesion. Without having to reintroduce new PCs in case of character death, the narrative can be refined. The characters who reach level 6 are most likely to be there for the rest of the campaign. This is the time to begin including character plot for the PCs, as well as beginning to define the campaign’s arc story. This story becomes more important as the game progresses towards paragon tier, and by level 6, most players have gotten comfortable with their characters enough to begin to engage the story. Enough of the game has gone past for there to be a history of the game, and enough lays in the future for them to look forward to. Finally, with the first tastes of the paragon tier trickling down to them, the PCs become capable of feats the likes of which are sure to attract notice from the world around them, and begin having an impact on their world.

In my own D&D game, level 6 was a defining point in the campaign. Up until that point, the party had been working for a kingdom, unraveling a conspiracy involving a powerful warlord, a secret society of a rival kingdom, and a mysterious woman, somehow acting to change the balance of power in a land on the edge of war. Halfway through heroic tier, I decided to bring the first arcs to a crescendo. Without going into too much detail, I ran the party through several encounters which were all designed to be challenging. The PCs began to feel their power, easily handling the bandits that had been plaguing them for levels. As they began to confront some of the leaders of the conspiracy, they also saw how their foes were more powerful than them, but still able to be defeated. And then, during a major confrontation, I sprung the game’s first major plot twist on them. Now, two years later, and near the end of the game, it remains one of the adventurers they remember with the most fondness, and it was a twist that wound up defining the game.

The combination of the right amount of options, the right amount of power, and the right amount of survivability makes level 6 the first golden level in D&D, and it is important for both DMs and players to know this. The level doesn’t last, but the adventures your party has while they are there can. Do not waste it, and plan accordingly.

What are your thoughts on the sweet spot for levels in 4e D&D? At what level do you believe that the power creep becomes unmanageable? What level have you most enjoyed playing most?

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1 froth December 13, 2011 at 10:04 am

Refreshing to see a 4e blog that doesn’t just try to tell you to play heroic tier only. I really can’t stand bloggers that do that. I really like all levels but paragon and epic are my fave to play

2 Paladyn December 13, 2011 at 10:30 am

Realy nice article, thank you very much. I like to discover ways of incorporating ‘game rule reality’ into a story, you made it clear and easy!

3 Brian December 13, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Excellent article! I’ve linked it (and elaborated a little) on my blog:

4 Sentack December 13, 2011 at 12:28 pm

An interesting article but I have a very different understand of the term “sweet spot”. The way I understood it, a “Sweet Spot” is a point in which the players were challenged while never over or under powering encounters built under the default rules.

Case in point, a level 5 group of heroes with 5 magic items, none of which were above level 9, and with access to 2 at-wills, 2 encounters, 2 dailies and 1 utility plus a handful of consumables, could be challenges by five Level 5 creatures out of the Monster Vault, without edits, losing about 15%-30% of their resources on any given encounter, leading to a 4-6 encounter ‘work day’. The players are challenged but rewarded and the DM has a fast and efficient series of rules that allows him to focus on other aspects of the game outside of the combat or non-combat conflict resolutions (i.e. Skill Challenges or just general role-play).

After level 10, it’s pretty clear that the rules don’t fit reality. The designers missed something. The “Sweet Spot” is lost. This is often due to magic item properties and daily powers, poorly designed powers in articles and in source books, and class features that interacted too effectively with others. Starting at around level 9, this starts to creep into any game.

Thus, I don’t see level 16, 18 or 20 being included in this dialog. The issue isn’t are the players having fun. Luckily with 4e, players have fun the whole 30 levels. It’s an issue of, can the DM challenge them at a satisfactory level. I say, after level 10 they can not under the default rules. The DM has to work on additional ways to making things more challenging that are not obvious at first. It takes experimentation, and that means the system is broken.

That’s my interpretation at least.

5 froth December 13, 2011 at 1:00 pm

On level heroic tier encounters aren’t challenging even for noobs.

6 Sndwurks (David Buresh) December 13, 2011 at 2:09 pm

@Paladyn and Froth
Thanks for the praise!

Thanks for the link, and for the elaboration. You have some excellent ideas there, and I love seeing the response.

I have found in 4th Edition, the key to building encounters is understanding that they function on an XP Budget, rather than a strict 5 Monsters vs. 5 PCs, all the same level. Part of the way of building a more challenging encounter is including higher level monsters. In fact, this is how Wizards builds their encounters in their modules and Dungeon. The system is not broken. You are not supposed to just throw on level monsters against PCs. Also? XP Budgets do not provide for properly balancing monster types in an encounter. The system, in my experience, works best in Paragon tier, so I have to disagree with you on this.

A system is not broken because it allows for experimentation. 4E, I would say, even encourages it.

7 Norcross December 13, 2011 at 3:47 pm

A system is not broken because it allows for experimentation, but a system is broken if it requires experimentation (ie, if the DM has to change things in order for them to work, that implies that they were not working without those changes). I think this is what the other commenters were feeling with regard to post-heroic tiers.

“4E, I would say, even encourages it” – that’s already getting pretty close to “4E practically requires it”, which would be a bad thing.

8 Paul S December 13, 2011 at 10:21 pm

I have ran a 4E campaign for over a year. Playing every two weeks my players have just finished level 6 and are now level 7. At level 6, I ran them through a gladiator type encounter and a pirate island. Not only did they have a great time. This was the best part for me to design and run as a DM. I don’t know if this was the sweet spot because I haven’t ran another campaign at this level but it has been the most fun so far.

9 BeanBag December 14, 2011 at 9:02 am

These are the sweet spots for the DM, not the players. DM’s need to know what tricks the players have up their sleeves to be able to build challenging and engrossing encounters.

The players love every level they get an additional power, especially the first few adventures after getting a paragon path.

anyway… yes the system needs constant “tweaking”. I think it is due to power creep, and especially power gamers. If I run an encounter “out of the box”, my table will breeze through without batting an eye. This is fine for some encounters, but not for all. Try running an old module against some PC Pixies and let me know how that works out.

When I build an encounter myself the results are much more appealing to everyone. Use updated damage tables!

10 Brian December 14, 2011 at 10:29 am

I don’t think that at-level encounters are meant to be challenging. I’ll run them occasionally to represent an easier fight (and make sure that such a fight takes up very little real time), but I mostly run level+2 to level+4 encounters if I want an adventure to be challenging. I think the designers were thinking in terms of an adventuring day being challenging, in which case even at-level encounters would drain resources to make subsequent encounters more difficult. Many people, OTOH, seem to assume that every single encounter needs to carry some risk of death or failure. There’s nothing wrong with that; I just don’t think that the designers intended it. After all, it’s more realistic to be pit against encounters of varying difficulties.

@BeanBag: It’s tougher to measure sweet spot from an individual player’s perspective because it’s going to vary greatly depending on the type of PC you’re running. For example, I never got excited about level 7 as a Druid because it was a dead level, and the best powers there were merely ok. Now that HotF is out, however, level 7 is pretty awesome because Charm Beast and Grasp of Winter are both really good choices. Who wouldn’t get excited about what is (IIRC) the lowest level encounter dominate in the game? Still, most classes still have levels that are less exciting than others, and so different players will get excited about different levels.

11 Philo Pharynx December 14, 2011 at 12:23 pm

“The issue isn’t are the players having fun.” Having fun is always the issue. If people aren’t having fun, why are you playing?

XP budgets don’t work at all levels. Have you played a game where there was an easy way to challenge the party that worked across the entire span of the game? One that worked with all sorts of different groups of players? In 4e there is less variation as to how much a character can be optimized than 3.x But 4e has more options for synergy betwen characters. If you have a group that works well together, you have to adapt to that. As people get higher level, you have to adapt more. There’s also a change in the monsters available. If you pull monsters from MM1 without modification, you aren’t going to challenge people as much as using one of the later books.

As for DM’s that believe every encounter has to leave the party on the brink of death – do those same DM’s cry about how their players always want an extended rest? For an interesting change, play a game where there’s no particularly tough encounters. There are just a lot of them. Set up an adventure that somebody asks the players to do as a favor. It will be against creatures that are easy but numerous. Have encounters be cakewalks. But keep them coming. Occasionally start the next encounter before this one ends. For example if the next room hears a fight going on. Also, when you are doing numerous easy encounters, make them interesting in another way. Terrain, traps, time pressure. Watch the change on people’s faces after the tenth encounter where they start wondering “Are we going to get killed by kobolds?” By this point they should be deep enough that it will be hard to get out.

12 Kilsek December 15, 2011 at 1:34 pm

As cool as paragon and epic tier play can be, especially story-wise (and that’s honestly where you just HAVE to nail it!), that’s when it also starts getting difficult to really challenge the party like you *expect* them to be challenged.

I mean, just look at recent epic tier advice on the Wizards website – they even say you can start throwing the XP and formulas out at that point because players are so resourceful and powerful that it’s truly hard to measure the right amount of challenge a given encounter presents them, as “appropriate” as it may be on paper for its difficulty.

Plus there’s the matter of lethality vs. resource management, as well as things we don’t count as part of encounter difficulty measurement but probably should (i.e. fantastic terrain, global elements/effects). All of which I talk about often over on my D&D blogsite Leonine Roar.

All I know is, no matter the tier, but especially at paragon and almost always in epic:

If combat is a boring, easy grind, that has to change! Faster combat, going beyond the current standards of difficulty, better story, a bit of all three, something! 🙂

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