Thursday, October 11, 2012

On the importance of being E6 (apologies to Oscar Wilde)

Although I've long been a fan of the E6 tophat, I was reluctant to advise using it specifically with any d20 game except D&D itself (with or without other houserules.)  Looking back at it now, I'm not sure what the source of this reluctance was.  I've now decided that any d20 game--from D&D to d20 Modern to Pathfinder to d20 Star Wars to... well, like I said: any d20 game at all, can benefit from being played with E6.

Here's why.

The D&D game--and the rest of it's d20 derivatives by default, can be divided (by design, in fact, according to Ryan Dancy) into four quartiles, each corresponding roughly to five levels of play.  You can break down, if you like, the "genres" which each quartile best serves as follows:
  1. Levels 1-5: Grittier, low fantasy
  2. Levels 6-10: Classical sword & sorcery or high fantasy
  3. Levels 11-15: Much larger than life heroes; Achilles, Gilgamesh, Sigurd, or wuxia characters
  4. Levels 16+: The Justice League or The Avengers in fantasy drag
Think of things this way.  Most of the regular people in your average setting will have a level or two of an NPC class, right?  Mostly 1st level commoners, with fewer 1st level experts and warriors.  Only a rare few will have a second level, and an even rarer few--typically--have any levels in a PC class at all.  From the perspective of a 1st level commoner or expert, any character of even 1st level in a PC class is already pretty cool.  A character of 5th or 6th level is a hero of nearly legendary prowess.  Using standard D&D to illustrate:
  • A 6th level wizard can incinerate your entire house and most of the villagers too (if they're packed closely together) with a gesture and a few mumbled words (fireball spell).  He can summon horrors that can kill you and most of the villagers you know easily (summon monster III).  He is an epic character to be feared and respected.
  • A 6th level fighter can fight with preternatural skill.  His ability to hit and damage opponents in melee (or ranged) combat is unparalled (total to hit modifier of close to +10, probably doing damage enough to kill a 1st level NPC twice over regularly--three or four times over with a good, critical hit.)  He can roll with hits that would kill an entire platoon of lesser soldiers (hit points probably in the 50-60 range, compared to a 1st level commoner's hit point total of... 3 or so.)  In fact, he can be expected to take on an entire platoon of well-trained soldiers (1st level warriors) and kill them all, and at the end of it, still barely be breathing hard.  He is an epic character to be feared and respected.
  • A 6th level cleric can commune with deity.  He is a being of unbelievable holiness, who can heal the sick and afflicted, bringing them back even from the brink of death, curing them of diseases (or inflicting them,) create food and drink to sustain himself from nothing, cure blindness, deafness, and literally walk on water.  He is an epic character to be feared and respected.
I could do more, but surely you see the point.  You don't need to be really all that high level in D&D to be a thoroughly intimidating and larger-than-life character compared to the masses of characters that are out there.  The spiritual ancestor to E6 was an article published in Dragon back in 1977 that posited that Gandalf was only a 5th level magic-user.  In context, it kinda punctured the bubble that a lot of power-gaming folks had made prevalent in the days in which it was written.  Curiously, the power-gamers seem to have won that in the long-term, so if anything, that sentiment is even more relevant now then when it was originally written.  Although I'm not certain that the original author of the piece was really trying to make that point specifically.  E6, by playing with only the first six levels and then having feat-based continuous (but much more modest) advancement keeps the game firmly in the first two quartiles of play.  It can approach the 3rd quartile in power and efficacy levels of the PCs, but never really cross into it.

Mostly I like E6 because it keeps the game much more firmly in line with the fiction that we read.  The higher level D&D type stuff doesn't feel like anything other than itself.  To me, that's a major bonus.  I'm always a bit non-plussed when I hear D&D players who seem unable to grasp the concept of fantasy that little resembles D&D.  Especially given that such players are at least sometimes, maybe even often, fans of fantasy literature.  Although I can think of plenty of reasons why people may prefer a more superheroic fantasy game than that offered by Tolkien, Leiber or Howard, I can't think of any reasons why anyone would dismiss the notion of gaming in that vein out of hand.  It is, after all, the exact same foundation on which D&D was supposedly built in the first place.  But if you need some other reasons to take a look at E6, here's a few from the designer and author who came up with the concept--paraphrased and added to by me:
  • System never gets "big" or complex enough to bog down play.
  • Focus on planning, not levelling. To take on really monstrous monster, like a CR 10 beastie, the PCs will need help, special resources, and/or inside information.
  • A low magic game that everyone feels comfortable playing without lots of reference to rules.  This also leads to much quicker prep for GMs, who also can find it much easier to run on the fly with less prep, for that matter.
  • Encounters are rarely if ever meaningless. Nor do they drag out to consume an entire session (or more.)
  • Classic monsters stay classic throughout the campaign; even wild animals are dangerous.  Creatures like chimeras or vampires will always be challenging, even to higher level characters.
  • Even legendary heroes remain mortal; sure they're tougher than the NPCs around them, but they can't act with impunity and expect to pull that off for long.  Large groups of even weak minions will always a a threat that can't be ignored.
  • Market research Wizards of the Coast did back to support the design of 4e suggested that most people played shorter-lived campaigns that focused on these levels (and a little above them) anyway, and rarely played in the higher levels.  Possibly because they didn't have good options to do otherwise, rather than continue playing as the game got higher in level, they started over.
  • That same research suggested that many people preferred those levels anyway, and that it was commonly believed that the higher levels of play didn't work all that well, and never have in any edition of D&D.  Plus, they were widely considered very difficult to run effectively, because the game just got too darn complex at higher level.

1 comment:

James Sullivan said...

I must be sheltered. I've never heard of E6 until now.