D&D 4e is a wonderful refined combat-focused RPG but it scales poorly as levels increase. While many of the elements of 4e scale along a linear path, many powers and effects scale at a much greater rate resulting in large imbalances between PCs and the threats they face at higher levels. This makes it hard for dungeon masters to challenge PCs. The best way to stay ahead of this curve? First, stick to heroic-tier campaigns and second, stick to post-Essentials D&D source material.
The Linear Power Curve of 4e
Most of the progression of 4e follows a nice straight linear progression. Skills, attributes, defenses, and attack bonuses generally follow linear increases as PCs level. Other effects like combat advantage and a mark’s –2 penalty for attacking the wrong target scale linearly as well. No matter what level you play, a +2 or –2 bonus equates to a 10% greater chance to hit or miss. Whether you have combat advantage at level 4 or at level 28, that +2 bonus will always equate to an additional 10% chance to hit your target.
The Exponential Power Curve of 4e
Some effects in 4e grow at a steeper curve or even increase the curve each level. While a marking power is just as useful at level 28 as it is at level 4 (always equating to a 10% greater chance to miss), most defenders gain abilities to increase the number of monsters they can mark, increase the range of those marks, and increase the potential effects of those marks. What used to be –2 to attack on a single target turns into –3 to attack on five targets across an entire map and, should they trip the mark, they take a much more significant penalty. A marking defender becomes much more effective at higher levels than at lower levels.
Bonuses to attack and defense work the same way. A power that gives a +4 bonus to attack scales linearly from level 1 to 30. No matter what level the PC is, that always equates to a 20% greater chance to hit. But when that bonus becomes 2 + a wisdom modifier, now the curve goes up. The benefit of this power grows every time that wisdom bonus increases. Instead of a flat 20% bonus, it grows from 20% to 25% to 30% and to 35%. Warlords at level 30 can give a +9 bonus to attack. Stacking that with combat advantage and a power that once gave a 20% bonus makes an attack impossible to miss.
These are just a few of many examples where the power curve steepens. Blasts become wider. The number of attacks per round increases. Critical hits happen twice as often on each hit. The number of actions a character can take stays the same, but the number of powers they can use during those actions increases greatly. All of these increases are in addition to the increase in attack scores, damage output, and other linear progression.
Healing also scales along a much steeper curve than the damage PCs might receive. Leaders will find, as they level beyond 11, that their healing powers not only increase in the amount they heal (as they should) but the number of people they can heal increases from two at lower levels to as many as six later on (three on their targets and three on themselves).
In short, 4th edition becomes an easier game for players as the game’s level increases.
What About Our Poor Monsters?
Monster power progresses linearly. They don’t get the same exponential boosts that PCs get. You might see new auras or some nastier effects on monsters, but these in no way keep up with the increase in PC power. Monsters find themselves at a greater disadvantage when compared to equal level PCs as levels increase. We probably don’t even want them to keep up. If they did, we’d have battles where both sides lock up and paralyze the other. Battles would take even longer than they do now.
I won’t dig into the problems of elites, solos, and minions here except to say that all of the problems we see with these monster types occur because of this steep increase in the power curve of PCs. As levels increase, solos become less effective and minions die much faster.
Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies
The design problems really begin the minute you start looking at paragon paths and epic destinies. Many of them work fine, with no major unbalancing power increase to a PC. Others, however, increase the rate of PC power progression much higher than the standard linear progression we see from level 1 to 10. Paragon paths such as the Paladin Hospitaler and the rogue’s Daggermaster paths give new always-on abilities that make these classes far more effective. Epic destines like Demi-God and Legendary General push that curve even further. In some combinations, entire parties of PCs become nearly invulnerable when played correctly.
They’re epic, you might say. They should be invulnerable. I disagree. 4e should not get easier for PCs the higher you go. It should get more dangerous, not less. A level 27 balor should not have a harder time fighting a PC than a level 4 orc. The creatures faced by a paragon and epic tier should increase the challenge, not decrease it.
The Problems Designing a 1 to 30 Game
It’s easy to understand how things got this way. With 30 levels to cover, Wizards of the Coast wanted each level to be interesting and exciting. Keeping a static linear power curve isn’t very exciting. It isn’t enough that characters become more powerful by increasing attack bonuses, damage bonuses, and defenses; characters need to feel more powerful as they level up. The way the designers chose to do that was by increasing the overall power curve every level all the way to 30 when their epic destinies make them almost unkillable machines of slaughter.
I’m not sure how they could have done it differently. A game with a flat power progression curve can get boring pretty fast. Perhaps adding smaller jumps in PC power at specific times and being mindful of how those increases will affect the whole game would have been a good start.
The Rule of Fun
Who cares as long as the game is fun? You’d be right to ask that question. Players don’t often mind watching their awesome PCs rip through a wall of huge monsters. They feel powerful. They get to enjoy every leap in that power curve to its fullest. That joy, however, won’t last if they never face a challenge.
And what of the joy of the DM? We don’t want to kill players but we also don’t want to feel like we have no way to even challenge them without dropping planets on their heads. We hate to see huge and powerful monsters; monsters that should scare the pants off of a player; stun-locked, jammed in a zone, and killed with three hits.
Given the amount of time we DMs put into our game we deserve a bit of fun too. Instead, we get the headaches of trying to make battles challenging as levels go up.
So Where Does This Leave Us?
I never like writing an article that doesn’t have a solution so I’ll offer you two. Both of these are severe but both of them will keep your game fun and interesting without forcing you to become a game designer to keep the game interesting.
- Keep your game at levels 1 to 10.
- Stick to post-Eseentials material.
Neither of these are ideal solutions but both of them should keep your 4e game running smooth and nice before the power curve spikes high. In the future, we can hope that Wizards, in the development of future products and future games, is mindful of the curves of PC power and its balance against the threats those PCs will face.