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?