A Few E6 Hacks


After all this talk about variations on Epic 6th over the past few weeks, I thought I’d devote a post to a few modular ideas for improvement I had in the process of writing them.

Bonus Feat Classes

One of the classic problems with E6 is the difficulty it causes the fighter (and, to a lesser extent, other classes that get bonus feats). Once characters have hit their level cap and started piling up additional feats, the character whose class advantage is extra feats starts to look much less attractive next to characters that have a bunch of special abilities and a bunch of feats.

A potential fix for this is that, at level cap, these classes upgrade their bonus feats to also qualifying for better feats. For each bonus feat you got as a class benefit (either a broad choice, small list, or specific feat), you also add +1 to numerical values to qualify for feat prerequisites once you start earning post-cap feats. So, for example, in straight up E6, a Pathfinder character who is a 6th level fighter gains +4 to prerequisites for his four bonus feats. He qualifies for feats that require character level or base attack 10, and treats all his ability scores as four higher for feats with ability prereqs (even a fighter with below-average intelligence can eventually figure out Combat Expertise, and one could be fairly clumsy and still try two-weapon fighting).

This bonus should probably affect Caster Level as well, to allow Wizards to potentially get higher level item creation feats. For multiclass characters, I’d suggest limiting it to doubling the effective caster level (e.g., a wizard 1, fighter 5 counts as CL 2 for feats rather than CL 5).

If the feat has any scaling bonuses, those go off of the actual score, not the modified one. This ability affects availability of the feat, but not its scaling.

For classes like ranger and monk who get access to feats that allow them to totally skip prerequisites, you may wish to not count those particular feats. But it’s probably additional bookkeeping that isn’t much of an actual limit.

Ability Score Retraining

Particularly in a modern game with a lot of downtime, there may be some degree of verisimilitude to be gained by allowing player characters to change their ability choices. Without the regular ability bumps at every four levels, E6-based games don’t really have any way to model hitting the gym.

This system has players keep permanent track of their point buy pool. Over time, you can lower one or more ability scores to return points to the pool and spend them to raise another ability. This can take as much time as the GM thinks is reasonable for a workout regimen. I’d suggest a default of 1 month per point respent (which means one could go from an average score to an 18 in about a year and a half, which seems decently realistic).

As a side effect, this can also model ability drain in a world without access to Restoration: having an ability “permanently” damaged returns its points to the pool, and you have to go through months of physical/mental therapy to restore the damage, but the points aren’t really lost.

If you’re running a version that includes one or more ability +1s from levels that are multiples of four, I’d suggest actually treating those levels as giving the character +4 additional point buy points to avoid having to deal with a weird floating +1. (I’d actually suggest doing this anyway, as it’s a good fix for the laser focus on improving prime requisites to ludicrous levels that’s so common in 3.x).

If a player deliberately lowers an ability score that was serving as a feat prerequisite below the minimum qualification, the player should replace the feats in question (and any feats dependent on them) at the same time. If Intelligence bonus goes down, the player needs to remove the granted skill ranks.

Class Retraining

As mentioned last week, E6 variants can put the spotlight on the differences between NPC and PC classes and what those mean for how much formal schooling you’ve had. Within a 3.x framework, Commoner represents having no formal schooling, the other NPC classes represent merchant apprenticeships, army memberships, and other methods of learning-while-doing, and PC classes represent being taught elite skills from the best of the best.

This leaves open the door that characters should be able to multiclass to a better class once better schooling is available. The farmer that gets called into a militia, finds she has a knack for it and stays with the army for years, then impresses an elite swordsmaster might be a Commoner 1, Warrior 4, Fighter 1. And in normal, uncapped progression, that might be fine. But in a capped progression, that character is now stuck, never able to transcend her peasant roots.

So in a capped game, the GM might allow characters to trade up levels in Commoner for a better NPC class, and in an NPC class for a PC class. This can take time and/or XP as makes sense to the GM, and should generally follow a couple of rules:

  • This isn’t a gestalt: you lose the old level, gain the new one, and retain any choices you’d made previously (e.g., skill points remain spent).
  • The upgraded class should generally be one that doesn’t require losing any abilities. Commoner, by virtue of being terrible at everything, can easily transform into any NPC class. Expert has enough skills that it can only upgrade to rogue, ranger, or other classes with at least six skill ranks per level. Warrior can only go into full BaB classes with at least a d10 hit die. Adept can only go into other caster classes. Aristocrat may require very special handling.
  • Adept spellcasting could prove strange. Ideally, if you know an adept is looking to eventually upgrade, her spell list should be pared of any divine or arcane spells that won’t be available later. Spells per day and known should remain those available to the highest level of adept taken until the PC class exceeds that (e.g., an adept 6 training into a wizard keeps casting as an adept 6 until shifted into an adept 2/wizard 4; at that point, the wizard 4 grants better casting than the adept 6, and the player can ignore the adept levels for spells per day purposes from then on).

As a side note, this system may actually work for 5th edition as well: “NPC” classes become just taking a background plus a generic small hit die and the standard proficiency bonus (e.g., you could be an Entertainer 5, which just means the Entertainer background for proficiencies, proficiency bonus +3, 5d6 hit dice, and no class features). That character can then upgrade to an adventuring class (gaining class features and replacing the d6 hit die with a bigger one, if the class grants it). You might even create a midpoint where the character has an adventuring class but not that class’ selectable template (e.g., you could go from Entertainer 5, to Bard (with no college) 5, to Court Bard 5).

Epic 10th (E6 Shifted 4)


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.

D20 Modern, Epic 1st, and Action Horror


Ash vs. Evil Dead was a fun little romp of a first season, and got me thinking about different ways to model what it (and a lot of other action horror shows/films) demonstrate: the supernatural threat can mow through cops and soldiers like grass, but comes up short dealing with initially lucky but now badass everymen. One possibility uses the ideas of Epic 6th (E6) to go even further into the realm of grittiness.

First off, make some classes that make sense for your timeframe. If you’re doing a fantasy horror game, the standard D&D/Pathfinder classes are probably fine. If you’re doing something more modern, you might need to work to update D20 Modern’s classes (or just make your own as modern interpretations of existing classes). The important guidelines are:

  • Each class you include should have interesting tradeoffs at 1st level compared to the others (e.g., more class skills vs. more HP vs. +1 BaB).
  • They should probably get some interesting unique ability at first level.
  • It wouldn’t hurt to retain the NPC Class/PC Class split, if you want to model highly-trained characters that flat out have an advantage even at 1st level.

Most people in the world reach 1st level at adulthood, and improve further by gaining more feats. Depending on how egalitarian you feel about human competence, some people may just be born with better ability scores, or ability scores may be something you can improve over time as another way to advance. But almost no one will ever reach 2nd level.

This creates a pretty interestingly constrained system space that models reality (or at least movie reality) much better than standard D20:

  • It’s virtually impossible to get an ability score over 20.
  • The grandmaster in the world of a skill has a +12 bonus before circumstance modifiers (+4 ranks, +3 skill focus, +5 ability score).
  • The toughest character in the world has 20 HP (D12 HD, +5 from Con, +3 from Toughness), so will die to a few hits from a d8 or greater weapon. Most characters have 6-10 HP (d6 or d8 HD and some Con bonus), so will usually get dropped by one, maybe two hits from a deadly weapon.
  • The biggest badass in the world with a weapon can maybe eke out +10 attack bonus in ideal circumstances (+1 BaB, +5 ability score, +1 weapon focus, +1 masterwork weapon, and a couple points of situational feat bonuses like point blank shot).

On its own, this might be a passable way to run an extremely low-powered/realistic/gritty game. If you don’t allow a feat that gives extra skill ranks, you’d probably want to allow respeccing class-granted ranks in some way. You’d probably also want some way to gradually respec ability scores and class. But, particularly if you gave out bonus feats on a regular enough schedule, and the rest of the world was clearly on the same power level, it might hold your players’ interest for a decently long time.

But it’s also a good way to run an action horror game.

Here, the premise is simple: supernatural monsters are the only source of XP that can improve your character level.

Whatever the in-narrative source of these monsters, they’re basically an out-of-context problem for the existing paradigm. They’re going to have supernatural abilities. They’re going to have multiple hit dice. They’re going to have high AC, attack, and damage relative to what’s possible for even the best of the best that are stuck at 1st level.

So surviving an encounter with one is going to be more likely if you’re a cop or a soldier, with good combat stats and feats, but it’s far from guaranteed. Against even a CR3 creature, particularly one that uses surprise attacks so soldiers can’t get organized, it’s going to be almost pure luck who survives out of a random sample of people. When the monsters hit the cross section of humanity in a department store or a diner, the survivors may just be a bunch of everymen that happened to get some lucky hits in and somehow not die.

And then they start to level up.

You’re now telling the story of a bunch of ordinary people that have become extraordinary purely by virtue of the standard D&D advancement mechanic. Who has a greater chance of taking out a nest of monsters: a team of the very best 1st level Fighters in the world, or a lucky bunch of 6th level Commoners? You don’t go to Ash Williams to solve your Deadite problem because he’s easy to work with, forward-thinking, or able to respond to tactical suggestions. You go to him because he’s the highest level character in the world, and monsters that can threaten a whole Seal Team aren’t really that much of a bother to him.

Hail to the king, baby.

Mythic 6th

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So as a second option to easier world building in a D&D paradigm to last week’s post, there’s Epic 6th (E6). In this game build, once your players reach 6th level, every successive level just gives them a feat. Not only does this keep gameplay in the heroic “sweet spot” much longer (largely by keeping players from being able to fling level 4+ spells), but it also greatly compresses the competence level. In last week’s post, miscellaneous level 1-3 NPCs remain relevant because you keep leveling them up behind the PCs; in E6, they remain relevant because a level 6 character is still slightly threatened by a bunch of level 1 guys (especially if they Aid Another).

Paizo just came out with Mythic Adventures, an alternate take on how to do epically powerful things in a D&D game. Instead of working like Epic levels, which are a particular flavor for leveling past level 20, Mythic tiers can be added to a character of any level, and PCs are intended to be Mythic throughout much of their leveling process. Rather than adding power directly similar to a level (e.g., more BaB, more saves, more spell levels, etc.), they instead offer interesting new tricks that complement level-based gains. You get new attack and defense options, rerolls, what’s essentially mythic metamagic for certain spells, and so on, but your essential numbers don’t go up too much. A 6th level character with several Mythic tiers is probably significantly less worried about a bunch of 1st level characters than a fresh 6th level character, but still more worried than a character in the teens would be.

You increase Mythic tiers by completing special deeds (essentially quests), but it’s not directly linked to experience points. The default assumption is that players will get Mythic tiers at roughly one per two regular levels, ending as a Character Level 20, Mythic Tier 10, but I think the system should be able to handle Character Level 6, Mythic Tier 10. That is, it should be possible to offer players Mythic tiers in an E6 paradigm instead of making them rely entirely on getting feats instead of a new level. This should feel much more exciting to players and preserve the feel of regular leveling, while still making world building easy. That is, a CL 6, Mythic 10 character is probably at least as interesting to players as a CL 16 character, but still has much less distance to standard NPCs of low level (particularly in that you still haven’t let them fling around level 4+ spells). You even have more reason, lore-wise, why there aren’t a bunch of high-level guys that have just shown up now: the default assumption of Mythic is that Mythic PCs are some of the only Mythic beings in the world.

And since it’s not quite crunchy enough to end the post on “so you should try combining the new sourcebook with that link,” here are some altered E6 rules to fit the M6 paradigm. These are heavily borrowed from the link at the top, but adjusted for the following purposes:

  • Account for new traits from Pathfinder that 3.5 didn’t have (e.g., some Domains get a new power at 6th, some at 8th).
  • Move away from the feat-based advancement (which tended to marginalize the advantage of Humans, Fighters, and other bonus-feat options).
  • Let the Mythic system carry most of the character improvement, with experience past 6th used more for rounding out a character than raw power.

Leveling in M6

Characters in Mythic 6th should probably use the Slow experience advancement speed. Not counting the rare Mythic characters like the PCs, 6th level characters represent the pinnacle of mortal development, and it should feel like an accomplishment to get there. Unlike a normal game, you don’t need to race the PCs to 6th level, because they’re already gaining Mythic tiers on the way there to round out their sense of advancement.

PCs gain Mythic tiers per the Mythic Adventures rules, and probably start gaining them very early.

Once a character reaches 6th level, further experience is spent on Upgrades (see below). The amount of experience for one upgrade should probably be a round number somewhere around the difference between level 6 and level 7 (so 15k or 20k on the Slow track). As the players become more Mythically powerful and fight more and harder enemies, you might want to gradually increase the cost for these upgrades if you feel like the players are starting to get them much faster: they’re meant to be a way for players to round out characters and realize a little bit of advancement between Mythic tiers, not be a constant stream of power.

At 6th level, all players should be given the periodic option to respend feats and selected special abilities by taking a few weeks to retrain. Unlike normal E6, the players aren’t getting an ongoing stream of additional feats, and are limited to the ones they got from leveling. As their access to higher prerequisites gradually improves, or just their conception of their character changes, they’ll want to make different choices for how their abilities and feats are allocated.


The following options can be purchased with a single Upgrade. Unless otherwise noted, they can be purchased more than once:

  • Capstone: A single-classed characters profits from the choice to specialize (can only be purchased once per character, see below).
  • Skill Training: The character gains 3 additional skill ranks.
  • Further Education: The character adds an additional skill as a Class Skill.
  • Skill Focus: The character gains a Skill Focus feat.
  • Combat Training: The character treats Base Attack Bonus as one higher for purposes of qualifying for feats; this can be taken multiple times to access even higher-level feats (e.g., a Level 6 Fighter with two of these upgrades qualifies for BaB +8 feats like Improved Critical).
  • Power Extension: The character gains any one of the “Extra” feats that provide more per day currency (e.g., Extra Ki, Extra Rage) but not any of the ones that add more abilities (e.g., Extra Hex, Extra Rogue Talent).
  • Expanded Knowledge: The character gains a single additional spell known of any level the character can cast.
  • Expanded Casting: The character gains a single additional spell per day of any level the character can cast; the character cannot have more spells per day of a higher level than of a lower level (i.e., you can’t just buy high-level slots with this indefinitely; past a certain point you need to buy more low level ones too).


The capstone upgrade gives the character a few of the special abilities that the class would grant over levels 7-9 without the actual numbers of those levels. For classes not listed, try to add a similar level of their next few improvements, but never add level 4+ spells. Even if a character gains an ability from a higher level, it still uses 6 for all level-dependent variables.

  • Barbarian: DR 1/- and +1 Rage Power
  • Bard: 7th level for spells per day and known and Inspire Competence +3
  • Cleric: Channel Energy 4d6 and 8th level Domain Abilities
  • Druid: Venom Immunity and improve Companion as if 7th level
  • Fighter: Armor Training 2, Weapon Training 2, and +1 Bonus Fighter Feat
  • Monk: Wholeness of Body and Unarmed Damage 1d10
  • Paladin: Aura of Resolve and +0 2nd level slots (as if leveling to 7th)
  • Ranger: Woodland Stride and +0 2nd level slots (as if leveling to 7th)
  • Rogue: Sneak Attack 4d6 and Improved Uncanny Dodge
  • Sorcerer: 9th level Bloodline Ability
  • Wizard: 8th level School Ability


You may want to add certain 4th and 5th level spells that fulfill vital game functions back in as rituals. These require additional casting time to what would be normal for the spell and consume spell slots. The suggestions are below, but you may want to alter these based on how frequently you want these rituals used in your game. You may choose to charge a player an Upgrade for each ritual and/or have them be workings that require secret tomes and prepared ritual spaces of great value. You might allow multiple 6th level casters to cooperate on a ritual, reducing the time and sharing the spell slot costs among themselves. You must have the Ritual on your spell list as a 4th or 5th level spell to use it (e.g., only Druids can use the Reincarnate ritual).

Rituals can be upgraded to Mythic spells.

Adept Rituals

These require an additional hour to cast beyond the listed casting time, and one slot each of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd level.

  • Bestow Curse* (Arcane)
  • Death Ward* (Divine)
  • Dimensional Anchor* (Arcane)
  • Dismissal* (Divine)
  • Planar Ally, Lesser (Divine)
  • Reincarnate (Divine)
  • Remove Curse (Arcane)
  • Restoration (Divine)
  • Sending (Divine)
  • Stone to Flesh (Arcane)

Master Rituals

These require an additional three hours to cast beyond the listed casting time, and two slots each of 1st, 2nd, and the 3rd level.

  • Atonement (Divine)
  • Awaken (Divine)
  • Break Enchantment (Arcane)
  • Dismissal* (Arcane)
  • Hallow/Unhallow (Divine)
  • Permanency (Arcane)
  • Planar Binding, Lesser (Arcane)
  • Raise Dead (Divine)
  • Sending (Arcane)
  • Teleport (Arcane)

* This ritual can be “held” by the primary caster for up to 24 hours and then activated as desired as a standard action that cannot be interrupted (but does provoke an Attack of Opportunity). For example, a caster could prepare four Death Wards over four hours, sleep for eight hours to regain spells, and then have twelve hours to trigger the first ward when it is needed (beginning its six minute duration).

Sandbox D&D and E6/8

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There’s been a lot of talk this week about sandbox-style games after Gabe from Penny Arcade posted about shifting his game to a sandbox-style, particularly influenced by Ben Robbins’ West Marches game. Possibly with just coincidental timing, Zak from Playing D&D with Porn Stars pointed out that sandbox games work better with PCs that are roguish rather than completely morally upright, as the more strict a character’s moral code, the more likely he or she is to require being acted upon, rather than acting.

The shared definition in all these cases of sandbox-style game is one where the world simply exists independent of the PCs, and it’s up to them to interact with it in a way that tells a story. The GM sets up as many areas of interest in advance as possible, at least to a degree necessary to logically extrapolate them into an adventure location when the PCs take an interest, but, specifically, doesn’t secretly move the same material around to make sure the PCs see it. That is, the PCs have meaningful choice driven by their own agendas: for example, if they choose between the Cave of Eldritch Horrors and the Tomb of Ancient Evils, they have have some idea of the differences so they can make a decision, and they have to trust the GM not to just have one dungeon prepared that gets slotted into whatever place they pick.

A West Marches-style D&D sandbox also has some specific requirements: a home base that’s primarily for bookkeeping, not exploration; the PCs as the primary actors of the setting, unable to run to a greater authority for aid; an understanding that dangers will be laid out in at least a somewhat simulationist manner, so lower leveled PCs can get in over their heads if not careful; and multiple parties of PCs that can intermix members, and replace dead characters with brand new PCs.

It seems to me that, in particular, these requirements are very well served by Epic 6th (E6) or Epic 8th (E8). Both of these are variants on an idea proposed a couple of years ago about the “sweet spot” where D&D 3.x is Heroic Fantasy rather than more akin to Wuxia or Superheroes in power level. In both, maximum level for PCs is the level at which the GM feels most comfortable with their power level – typically 6th or 8th level. After reaching this maximum level, PCs simply gain additional feats when they should level, drastically slowing their power creep while still introducing variant capabilities and character broadening. In particular, it limits the exponential growth of caster power at a point where they’re still not too out of line with other characters (few save or die spells, limited room-clearing AoEs, less capability to control the beginning of fights and alpha strike), stopping short of spells that allow major changes to the flow of the game world (teleport, raise dead, earthquake, major creations, walls, fabricate, etc.). Under E6/8, PCs should continue to play like typical fantasy heroes like Conan or Aragorn for much longer than in typical D&D.

For a standard D&D 3.5 sandbox, I’d stick with E6, but Pathfinder introduces a number of classes where mid-level “capstone” abilities are awarded from 6th-8th level, so going with E8 prevents some builds from getting their coolest mid-level power while others stop leveling just short. E8 also means that some of the 5th level spells like Teleport and Raise Dead are within range to allow their use as rituals for “epic magic” within a setting, without making them commonly available for use.

E6/8 should have several benefits for a West Marches-style sandbox:

  • It already assumes a dearth of leveled NPCs, and even if it didn’t, once PCs hit the level cap they know there’s no one an order of magnitude more powerful than they are. There are no situations where the PCs will worry that they might as well get a character in the teens to deal with (though they might want to try to get an army).
  • The GM can distribute CRs throughout the map with much more freedom, as even a low level party will have a chance to escape when accidentally confronting a threat for max-level characters in a way that they wouldn’t if the world was designed for up to 20 levels or more.
  • Similarly, rearranging party members and taking on 1st level characters should be far less onerous for higher level PCs, as a spread of no more than 7 levels is much less dismissive of contribution than a spread of 19+. A 1st level character can do something useful in an 8th level fight in a way he can’t in a 20th level fight.
  • Finally, the lack of high-end magic should make preparation much easier for the GM: players don’t get access to the truly amazing travel spells to ignore overland travel through threat areas, they won’t just drop an Earthquake on top of a dungeon, and they can’t make major adjustments to the environment in a way that invalidates standard mapping and monster tactics.

Were I to run such a sandbox, I’d probably have a host of other rules tweaks (like the Trailblazer suggestion of removing permanent item creation and sale, and a return to a variation on level-by-wealth to encourage tactical play), but using E6/8 would seem like the key way that such a playstyle could function for an extended period.