Thursday, 2 May 2013

Heroic Tier as Character Development

Dominic Matte
D&D 4e is divided into three tiers. Heroic tier spans levels one to ten; paragon is levels eleven to twenty; and epic encompasses twenty-one to thirty. The tiers represent three distinct stages (or power levels) of an adventuring party's career. In heroic, the players are small-time heroes or mercenaries, exploring dungeons and dealing with localized threats. In paragon they become well-known and deal with threats on the scale of countries or the world, at a power level far above the majority of people in the world. And in epic the scale becomes that of gods and legends, the characters carving out a place for themselves in the myths of all creation.

But you can also approach the tiers from a characterization perspective. This is what I've been aiming for in my current game. Instead of thinking about heroic tier in terms of scale, I'm thinking about it in terms of character growth. Early on this meant giving the characters plenty to react to and interact with, but as things go on, it (hopefully) means resolving major personal story arcs before the end of the heroic tier.

As well as introducing my players to the world and the ongoing plot, I'm trying to help them to understand and decide their characters' place in the world, how they feel about and interact with other characters and events. To do that I've tried to offer a wide variety of situations and characters for the party to interact with. Sometimes it can be hard to get a handle on a new character, but having more open quests and goals helps a lot with characterization. Instead of telling your players "you need to break into this building at night and steal a sword without anyone seeing you", simply tell them "you need to get this sword". The players then get to think about and decide how their characters approach the situation, instead of following a script.

That may be fairly obvious to experienced DMs, so I won't spend too much time on it. 

My main focus in this game's heroic tier is to resolve a major story arc for each character while also providing an introduction to the world. For example, the party's monk, Tong, is carrying a sword called the Edge of Sanity, a cursed blade that makes the wielder undefeatable in armed combat but also subject to the constant screaming and torment of those the wielder killed with the blade. His goal is to get rid of the Edge and kill the devil who gave it to him. I want this done by the end of heroic tier. Currently the party is level 8 and they have the means to summon the devil and confront him; it's up to them when they'll do so.

Why do I want to conclude Tong's story arc by the end of heroic, when it could easily be an undertaking that  doesn't conclude until epic? That's partly because it provides a major milestone for the player, a strong sense of accomplishment. It's also partly because I don't want to drag it out with meaningless padding or distractions. Tong has spent ten years in training and devoted his life to getting rid of the Edge - why should I make him wander around protecting towns and killing monsters when that's not what he wants to be doing?

Besides, finishing a lifelong quest brings about its own roleplaying questions. If you've devoted your entire life to something, and then you accomplish it, what then? It's possible, depending on the character or the player, that the answer might be nothing - settle down and live a quiet life somewhere out of the way.

Of course, by the end of heroic tier, the party has seen a lot and started to learn what's really going on behind the curtains of the world. They've made friends, made enemies, grown attached to some people and places. If all of that is threatened, if the entire world is on the brink of war, how could anyone - even an evil character - step back and forget about it?

And there's the final reason for concluding some character arcs in heroic. Things are happening in the world. Momentum has been building. Armies are gathering, diplomacy is becoming strained, secrets are coming to light. When the chips are down and shit gets real, I want my players' characters to be rich and developed, so that they know exactly how their characters will deal with what's coming. I want them to know their characters so well that they never have to ask "what would he do in this situation?". Struggling through all the decision points and twists of the character's personal arc is the best way to develop that knowledge, so why would I want to dangle those goals out of reach until the end of the game? 

If you're not playing in my game it might have occurred to you that maybe I'm just getting all the boring character stuff out of the way so that we can get on with my story. I suppose I can't completely refute that, but it's not the goal here. As I said above, I don't want to throw random obstacles in the players' way just so that they can't accomplish their goals yet. If the party decides they're going to help Tong get rid of the Edge of Sanity, and they're all working together to do so, they need to make some kind of tangible progress, or else their efforts feel meaningless.

Going back to the question of scale I mentioned at the beginning of this post, personal quests aren't always extremely large in scope. Personally, when I play in a D&D game, I don't necessarily want my character to be special or chosen from the beginning. I think it provides a greater sense of accomplishment to work your way into the big leagues when you didn't start as anything special. And when your character grows in power, the scale and scope of their adventures inevitably changes.

If a characters' goal is revenge on the assassin who killed her parents, she probably doesn't need to become a demigod to find a single person. This is the kind of quest that can be resolved in the heroic tier. But that doesn't mean she's done and it's time to go home - she discovers that the assassin wasn't simply a lone mercenary, but part of a larger guild that's working toward a mysterious and nefarious new direction for the kingdom. Resolving a character quest relatively early is a great way to develop a character. Initial goals don't have to be the endpoint, either - a character can set new goals for themselves as they learn more about the world.

And they'll be ready when shit gets real.

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