Let me tell you about the random idea I had in a dream a few weeks ago! Unlike most ideas that come to me in dreams and seem totally amazing at the time, this one actually held up after I fully woke.

Epic 6th is the idea of capping D&D/Pathfinder at 6th level (and getting feats for subsequent level-ups). I suggested a variation down to E1 last week, and I’ve mentioned some arguments for E8 before. This is another simple modification to the concept:

All PC-race adults are presumed to start at 5th level, and characters cap at 10th level before they start to just gain feats as normal for E6.

This should result in some interesting benefits over normal E6 (and normal 3.x in general):

  • Starting adult PCs are pretty burly, more on the order of 4e PCs with a pile of HP that means they can handle a lot of punishment. Starting adult PCs should feel like they can have a bit of backstory to them, rather than just being callow youths. You can assume the PCs already farmed goblins and wolves in their backstories, and throw them right into more interesting modules (or make them take on a really ridiculous amount of goblins).
  • If it’s important to you, you’ve plugged the problem where 1st level Wizards start much older than “easier” classes, but then anyone can multiclass and pick up their first level of Wizard almost instantly (because now that level is only 1/5 the levels the Wizard started with).
  • Discrepancies in midlevel special abilities are ironed out (e.g., in Pathfinder, some cleric domains get a special ability at 6th but some don’t get one until 8th, so normal E6 makes the 8th level bonus domains less attractive, but this way they all get such abilities).
  • Low-level NPCs are even more of a long-term threat to PCs than in regular E6: 10th level PCs have to respect being hassled by 5th level guards more than 6th level PCs have to respect 1st level guards. You get more mileage out of standard NPC stat blocks and just adjusting how many the PCs face.
  • Unlike normal D&D, you have a lot of room to run a Harry Potter/the Magicians/Name of the Wind-type school campaign. Start students at 1st level and have them level to 5th by graduation.

In a setup of this type, using NPC classes to differentiate NPCs is likely to be very important. It makes a big difference if a town guard is a Commoner, Warrior, or Fighter when they all have a minimum of 5th level. There’s a lot of room to use access to better classes as a way to differentiate characters by education. Who wins in a fight between the 10th level Commoner who’s the town brawler, the 7th level Warrior who’s actually been a soldier in the wars, and an unblooded 5th level Fighter straight out of dueling school?

The big drawback of going up to 10th level is that it opens up something that E6 deliberately excludes: the common availability of 4th and 5th level spells. In particular, daily access to Scrying, Stone Shape, Teleport, Wall of Stone, Sending, Fabricate, and Raise Dead can blow out the low-fantasy feel of E6 (and even the spells that are just continuations of earlier ones can begin to cause the linear fighter/quadratic wizard problem). GMs that try this are advised to make careful revisions to the spell lists to make sure they’re happy with what the players will get to at the high end, possibly drastically modifying problematic spells or removing them altogether. As an upside, a few of the spells (e.g., Atonement, Death Ward, Break Enchantment, etc.) are somewhat key to the math of mid-level D&D, so E10 makes them available without having to resort to house rules for rituals.

The only other drawback I can think of is some players really dislike not starting at 1st level, because they don’t feel like they’ve “earned” the levels honestly. Make sure you don’t have any players with such feelings before instituting the hack, or there might be some pushback.

Ultimately, this hack should have a number of interesting benefits gained from recontextualizing the ordinary play mode of E6, with only a slight push from the gritty, low fantasy it usually represents up into the top of heroic fantasy and the threshold of wuxia.

And since I’ve been talking about variations on E6 for the past two posts, my plan for next week is a few options for whichever variant of E6 you use.