E11 – 4e Gritty Heroic Roleplay

This idea was fully inspired by a thread on ENWorld about adapting E6 to 4e. What is E6? You can find more about it in another thread on ENWorld or in the full PDF write-up, but the core idea is simple: for D&D 3e games, players stop gaining levels at level 6, and instead, gain new feats whenever they would level. This keeps the PCs right at the top edge of “gritty fantasy” and on the cusp of “heroic fantasy” while still allowing the characters to grow. Lower level bad guys (like Orcs) still remain threats in high numbers.

Well, I think this idea can be ported to 4e pretty easily. However, in 3e, feats were a big way in which characters changed. In 4e, some of the emphasis has been taken off feats and put into powers. Plus, the 1-20 vs. 1-30 level spread changes things a bit. Thus to accomodate it, here’s the rules I propose:

  • Everything is normal until level 11, AKA the first paragon level. Paragon path is chosen as normal. Then advancement stops. Though you still level up, you do not increase HP, the half-level bonus (it’s always calculated as if level 11), do not gain further class abilities, and so on.
  • At every even level, you gain a new feat.
  • At every odd level, you upgrade your lowest level power to a higher level version of a level you do not possess, no matter what level that power is. For example, if you have level 1, 3, and 7 Encounter powers, you can upgrade your level 1 to a level 13 encounter power, since it is the same type (encounter) and the next jump is of a level you don’t possess (since you already have a 3 and 7). You can choose the powers of your paragon path in this way.
  • Repeat forever.

There’s something that particularly tickles me about this idea, that you gain powers beyond your level. The powers system is pretty modular in this way, not being dependent on a specific ability score or something similar. That way your techniques in battle are getting improved, without ascending bonuses into godhood. Level 11 (or as I like to think of it with this system, “name level”) has a pretty good number of options for characters, and the DM still has plenty of options for monsters. This option might work better for campaigns focused on empire-building then those where you eventually ascend to god-like power. The system isn’t without issues: for instance, PCs will start to cherry-pick paragon paths based solely on what is granted for 11th level instead of what might balance throughout the whole progression, and the XP system might need to change. But I think it’s a good start.

I’m considering this for a Dark Sun game. What do you guys think?

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, the Geek's Dream Girl.


  1. I’m a little baffled, actually … if you’re going to go through that much gutting the system anyway, why use 4E at all? There are already-existing systems that do heroic fantasy better right out of the box.

    -The Gneech

  2. I wouldn’t call it gutting- I think those are pretty simple changes to make. While I’m generally a fan of “right system for the right job”, there’s a lot 4e has to offer for these kinds of games. For those of us who enjoy 4e but want to limit the level range a bit, I think this might do the trick.

  3. It seems like it might be fun, though once you start getting high level powers characters are going to get squishy. Also, how do you scale threats after they reach the HP cap? I’d try this.

  4. I would allow the normal progression of feats, powers, and paragon path abilities. Just cut out the HP increase and the 1/2 level bonus after level 11. Seems a lot easier to explain while achieving approximately the same result.

    What about magic items? I’d say, cut the numeric bonus in half. Round down, so level 1-5 items are +0 (granted, makes the level 1 “magic” enchantment useless). This prevents magic item quality from overshadowing character abilities.

    What about the damage of higher-level powers? You might want to reduce power damage, otherwise you get an unusual curve where damage starts out-pacing hit points. My gut says, reduce damage of level 16+ powers by 1[W] or 1dX, and powers of level 26+ by 2[W] or 2dX. Many of those powers are still going to be super awesome even with the reduced damage.

    Alternatively, if you want to avoid the more over-the-top epic powers, just impose a level cap on powers. Say, level 20. So at level 23 when you get to replace an encounter power, you get rid of your 3rd level encounter power, but then must choose a level 17 power or lower, since level 23 powers are off limits.

  5. I like the idea – I might try it for a pbem Eberron game that I’m trying out. My preferences have always been for the low-powered type games rather than the cosmos-hopping-god-slayers games.

  6. So do you set challenges/encounters at an appropriate level?

  7. Cooperflood says:

    The biggest potential problem I see with this system is the Paragon Paths. In theory the Paragon Paths are balanced against other but PPs, however the individual class feature strength varies. Some have great level 11 abilities, but a weaker lvl 16 (Dagger Master). Other classes have weak class abilites, but strong powers (and vice versa). Not a game breaker, but certainly something to keep an eye on.

  8. I tried something like that many years back using an adaptation of the old Champions system. In that campaign, I kept the Heroes at “agent” level, and used the hit location system to increase the brutality of the game.

    I think it’s a really interesting idea though, and 4E seems like it could be adopted to this style of gritty play. I agree with Copperfield’s assessment of PP’s however, and DMs using E11 might need to “tweak” them to balance them out. Good post!

  9. Meh. I think I’ll try Dark Sun 4E when it comes but I think I’ll stick my Savage Worlds Dark Sun for now. Drinking urine in slave pits and bashing heads with rocks doesn’t translate well to 4e in my mind even with that houseruling.

  10. If you cap the attack bonus from half level at 11, you will stop hitting things in six levels or less. Monsters will also start destroying you in less than five hits. Maybe gritty fantasy is like my experience with Cthulhu games: you cannot survive and you will not survive.

    I suppose it could be fun. I like the idea I think I saw on this site earlier: getting bloodied has lasting effects (scar, limited ability, loss of healing surges forever).


  11. Maxwell: I guess I wasn’t clear enough, you’d generally cap the monsters’ levels at around the 17th level mark, except for some really big events. Part of the idea is to keep the upper-heroic monsters in play as threats, just that they tend to go down quicker (because your powers are dealing more damage) but they can still cut you.

  12. I think with 4e you could just reduce the rate of XP gain so that the entire campaign takes place within the level range you think suitable for the setting, and cap maximum level at whatever seems right (which is after all what WoTC does with default 4e, capping at 30); allowing max level PCs to retrain stuff every something-000 XP. I think if I were going to go into Paragon at all, as a player I’d want it to go to 20 so I could complete my Paragon Path; otherwise I’d rather it stuck at 10 with an Heroic Tier world – ie the GM should be very careful about using any Paragon monsters.

    My thinking: Say you normally level about every 3 sessions, and want to run a Heroic Tier Dark Sun campaign of approximately 60 sessions. The best thing to do then is to halve XP awards, so PCs level up about every 6 sessions so they reach 10th around the end of the campaign. If they level up faster than you expect and reach 10th in say 50 sessions, well then they simply stay 10th for the rest of the campaign.

  13. The Game:
    “Part of the idea is to keep the upper-heroic monsters in play as threats”

    But with 4e a few seconds on the monster builder can turn a 9th level standard monster into a 17th level standard monster, if you want a tougher version, or a 17th level minion if you want to keep its XPV. So this isn’t the big issue it was in 3e, where levelling up monsters was quite a pain.

  14. At first glance, I like this simple change. There are still two issues that really bother me, however.

    1. Players recover from damage too quickly: It takes days to fully recover from even a minor wound, and weeks or months to recover from a truly grievous wound. In 4E, just take five minutes, pick your lung up off the floor, slap on a band-aid, and burn three or four healing surges. Ooo-ra!!

    2. Players are not in any immediate danger from a weapon hit: you’ve got to grind through lots and lots of hit points, even with this system. It’s nearly impossible to assassinate a target of any level with a crossbow unless you crit with a daily. There has to be some possibility for any hit to drop any target if you want “gritty”.

    I’m sure that these have een hashed over many times, so I apologize if that’s the case. Just getting back into the game after a several year hiatus. Lots to love and hate about 4E…


  15. Muddling Mage says:

    E6 for 4E can definitely work, but it will need tweaking and play testing.

    You’ll need to change the XP curve for advancement once characters stop leveling. Their ability to fight higher level monsters (and thus gain more XP) won’t progress at the same rate at all. In E6 for 3rd edition, characters gained a feat for every additional 5000 XP. If you follow the normal XP curve, character advancement will grind to a crawl. Picking a static amount of XP will help things out a lot.

    You should consider stopping the level progression at level 6, as E6 does. That will help keep characters from gaining too many hit points and losing their keen sense of mortality. In 4E, levels 21 through 30 simply incorporates an alternative to 3E’s infinite epic level progression into the core rules. E6 doesn’t bat an eye at the Epic Level Handbook. If character’s never reach paragon levels, you don’t have to account for diverse paragon paths or players sniping paths for potent level 11 features. You’ll save yourself a lot of time in the long run. If you don’t like making level 6 the cut off, you could just make it level 10.

    Allowing characters to gain powers above their level is viable, but may be tricky. If characters’ upper level is static, but the level of their powers keeps climbing, their damage will spiral upward beyond their defensive capabilities. Also some high level utility powers that effect hit points aren’t balanced for reduced hit point pools. You could create a feat series that allows them gain powers that exceed their level within predefined limits.

    A few more circumstantial tweaks may prove necessary. For example, 4E Toughness could go back to it’s 3E roots and allow characters to take the feat multiple times. If characters never gain the benefits of becoming paragon, it will be a sensible change. Characters who want to be really tough should have to work hard to get there. You may also want to take a close look at the effect this system will have on 4E rituals.

    My gut feeling is, the closer this adaptation stays to the original E6, the better it will work.


  1. [...] original: E11 – 4e gritty heroic roleplay Postado em: 28 de março de 2010 Autor: The Game Site: Critical [...]

  2. [...] would use the idea in a Gritty Heroic setting for D&D 4e, quite possibly using Dave’s E11 variant where no one levels up passed 10 except gaining new feats and swapping [...]