One of my conceptual problems with D&D 3e and all its inheritors is how it forces world fiction to account for high-level characters. The leap in power from level to level is greater than in any previous edition, and requires a GM really interested in building an internally consistent setting to work out the meaningful consequences of higher level character in the world. Assume that high-level characters are rare, and you have to justify where all the challenging opposition is coming from once the PCs get up there. Assume they’re more common, and you have to explain why at lower levels the PCs were dealing with major threats that an invested high-level NPC could have safely and easily handled instead.
This is much easier to do when your world is more of a sandbox, especially if it features the traditional amoral adventurers just in a dungeon for treasure. Generally, in those cases, you give the players agency enough to go after threats they think they can handle and wait on the ones that are too big. But it’s much harder if you’re trying to tell a long-running story, and becomes especially hard if you’re working out of a module series that, by its nature, has to be fairly linear.
In these cases, events can start to seem extremely convenient if looked at for more than a second. Wherever the players go, they’re in the Goldilocks Zone of challenges, with the traditional breakdown of most at within one encounter level of the party and the rest within three or so to either side. You can put thought into it to try to make sure the players are changing world areas according to some kind of estimation of their abilities, seeking out harder foes as soon as they’re able, but even then you get oddities. Why are these 10th level thieves serving as minions to the 14th level crime boss when they could be lords of the underworld in their own right back in the city the players started with (where, somehow, a third level crime boss controlled the local trade until the PCs got rid of him)? Why couldn’t the villain have spared a few of these 16th level monsters he has just sitting around on guard duty to back up the agents provocateur that the PCs took out when they were sixth level?
4e had an interesting, if little-advertised, solution to this problem. Even though it had a wider range of levels than 3e, conceptually it had fewer. Instead, you could gradually downgrade enemies from boss, to elite, to normal, to minion. A level 3 Hobgoblin Soldier is a normal enemy, and he’s basically the same guy as the Level 8 Hobgoblin Warrior… who’s a minion. The PCs have gone up five levels but, if you assume that it’s basically meant to be the same hobgoblin, all they’ve really done is increase in power by the difference between a normal and a minion. If they’d encountered that same hobgoblin at level 1, he might have been a Level 1 Elite. The monsters all basically level up with the players and just downgrade in quality, so the number of quality downgrades is the real measure of how the players are improving.
3e (and, therefore, Pathfinder) doesn’t have the same capability to bend levels. There is no equivalent to the minion/normal/elite/boss breakdown. But you can simulate it by limiting NPCs to bands of levels that are keyed to the PC’s levels. An example of how to do that is:
Compare the PCs’ level to the column for the type of NPC you want, or vice versa. On a 13th level module, a CR 15 enemy is a type F. If they encountered him earlier, at 6th level, he’d be CR 10, and if they fought him again at level 20, he’d also be level 20. At the start of their career, type C is a normal fight, and by the end it’s type F: they’ve technically moved up four types over the course of their career. Even though that increase in power occurred over twenty game levels, in story terms they made a much smaller shift.
The types are largely arbitrary, but what they can mean is:
- A: Creatures that were never a threat to the PCs, like goblins or kobolds. They start out only a threat in waves, and eventually become mostly a nuisance. But because they reach 10th level when the PCs are 20, they still might remain useful damage sponges for a boss in large enough numbers.
- B: NPC-classed characters and others that are meant to be just behind the PCs in potency reside here; over time, the PCs dramatically eclipse them, but they might still be able to contribute in some small way to a fight.
- C: These NPCs start off basically on par with the PCs, but gradually get left behind as the heroes perfect their skills.
- D: Serious threats at low level, such as lieutenants or obscure monsters, these characters are surpassed by mid-level, but can never be ignored as a threat.
- E: Small-time bosses not big enough for the wider world, the PCs surpass these characters in their early teens and move up the food chain.
- F: Major players in the world, these characters would utterly wreck the PCs at low level without extremely good luck, and remain on par with them to the end.
- G: Story arc bosses or right hands to the global-level threats, these NPCs start out terrifying, become viable (if difficult) fights at the early teens, and remain difficult fights for the PCs throughout.
- H: The big bad of the setting, these characters start an order of magnitude more powerful than the PCs, and remain a major and difficult fight until the very end.
The trick with this system is that, if you’re running a module series, it’s almost entirely descriptive and requires no extra work if enemies are encountered when they’re meant to be encountered. All it does is give you a framework to place the threats of the module in context with the rest of the world. The PCs make friends with a CR 2 guard when they’re 4th level; that means he’s type A, so he’ll be level 8 when they’re 16th level. An 8th level module features an optional side-boss that’s CR 12 (and, thus, F). If they don’t get to him during the module (or one side runs away) but run into him later when they’re level 13, by that point he’s 15th and still a threat (though less of one that he would have been at the time).
You can also use it to establish why friendly NPCs aren’t just taking care of all problems themselves. For example, in the Curse of the Crimson Throne series, Vencarlo Orsini is a well known dueling instructor in town; officially, he’s 9th level, but his stats don’t appear in a meaningful way until the third module, when the players are also somewhere around 9th level. You could assume that means he’s actually type D or E; if the players somehow convinced him to help out physically in the first module, he’d only be a couple of levels higher than them. It’s enough to sell him as an experienced duelist, but not enough that he would just roll over their foes the way he would if you assumed he was already 9th level at that time. It begins to make total sense why a party of PCs might have a valid role in the schemes of higher level NPCs.
Using this system requires a few mental adjustments, particularly in conceiving of how spells might work. At the lowest level, there are no threats in the world much more powerful than CR 10; reconceive of anything more powerful as that powerful early in the game (you’ll mostly be running their antics through pure narration anyway). At the higher levels, there are no meaningful entities of low level anymore; by 20th level, the weakest characters that matter enough to have stats should be 10th level.
For example, typical green peasant levies in a kingdom’s army are probably CR 1/3 or so when the players are starting out, and the biggest threats in the setting might be able to whip out a Cloudkill that could eradicate whole companies. But by the time the PCs are 5th level, those same peasant levies are now CR 3 (and therefore have more than 3 HD since NPC classes take a penalty), so no longer die without a save to Cloudkill. You have to be careful not to make too big a deal out of exactly what dark magic the big bad is using and exactly how effective it is; from a story perspective, the NPC is powerful enough to fight an army singlehandedly, and it’s not good to get too hung up on the actual magical methods.
Interestingly, while this doesn’t work totally seamlessly with spell levels, it does explain why the PCs would ever actually care about a conventional army by their teens. In the standard conception, most armies are full of first or second level Warriors with a tiny handful of leaders of slightly higher level and/or a PC class. They’d quickly wipe against the PCs or any of the threats the PCs are dealing with. But if you assume they’re all type A, B, or C in this system, while they may be individually outclassed by the PCs’ primary antagonists, they can at least put on a good showing. Even against foes appropriate for 20th level PCs, a horde of CR 10-14 soldiers can do something meaningful in a way low-level soldiers cannot (even if the thing they do is just die slowly enough against the hordes of darkness that the PCs have time to pull off their strike against the big bad).
Ultimately, this system blows up a lot of the simulationism inherent in how 3e is put together. But my argument is that the Goldilocks Zone of the encounters in a typical story-based campaign already blow up that simulationism. Instead of a 20+-level world-building framework where the top-end can easily annihilate opponents even in the upper half of the lower end, you get an eight-level framework where the top-end can’t totally ignore the bottom end and may seriously have to worry about characters toward the middle. And that kind of world-building is much easier for me, at least, to use to tell stories without constantly worrying about the power-level imbalances.