[IKRPG] No Levels For Old Men? NPCs in Imperial Khador

Blame Palette.  It’s decent general advice for life, to be honest, but in this specific case something has been instigated for which she is responsible.  See, she’s currently hosting a series of articles on designing a town for Pathfinder/D&D.3.x, and the most recent of these has introduced me to this piece on the Alexandrian about what the D&D levels really correspond to.  And… I’d sort of been confused, in the past, about how the original endgame of D&D, where characters heading towards tenth level settle down and build a castle or tower and become essentially lords of the land, gave rise to a further ten levels beyond that, and what they were for, and how a society which had characters like that in it could function.

And now I think I understand…

Given the exponentially rarer characters at each level in a sensible world, characters sufficiently powerful to hit ten levels in an adventuring class should be forming and reforming nations around themselves if you’re taking a rate of progression like one in ten as given.  Beyond tenth level you’re talking progression into myth, beyond the fields we know, that kind of stuff.  A character at twentieth level is one step down from the gods themselves.

The levels beyond twenty have always felt unnecessary to me… because they are, and the only game I’ve ever played that warranted that sort of thing was Neverwinter Nights, where by fifteenth level your character is disappearing into the Plane of Shadow to escape an exploding sky-city, ending up questing through the most dangerous dungeon in the land (well, one of ’em anyway) and thence the Underdark, and then ending up as potential ruler of another plane of existence by the time we start bandying ‘level 21’ around.  Transcending the mortal clay and essentially becoming a minor god, in other words.  Oh, wait…


Anyway, all this is having some quite serious effects on how I approach the Iron Kingdoms – bearing in mind Kent’s apposite warning that you need to think about what these numbers mean not just in the terms of realism and simulation of the Alexandrian but in terms of your campaign world.

Previously, I’d been working off the half-remembered assumption that a Winter Guard – an ordinary soldier, conscripted at sixteen and serving a two-year tour of duty – ends up at level 3 Fighter.  Problem: every male in Khador serves two years in the Winter Guard by law and women without children are encouraged to volunteer, so every male in Khador (and quite a few of the women) is a level 3 Fighter… which means elite troops like the Iron Fangs are inflated to level 5 or so to be impressive, and a Kovnik – who, to be fair, is a high-ranking member of the Khadoran military, equivalent to a colonel in our understanding – needs to be about level 8 in order to suitably outshine them.

This is starting to feel a little bit excessive.

Let’s take this back to the drawing board and consider that, by and large, adventuring classes are the domain of the elite; your ordinary soldiers will have levels in Warrior.  Now, the effect of Khadoran conscription is modelled by having a significant proportion of your Commoners – two-thirds to three-quarters – being Warriors instead, and mostly first level unless they had a VERY active tour of duty.  They leave service after two years to do something else with their lives, and maybe notch up a level in Commoner or Expert, to end their days at level 3 to 5.

via thefeather.com
There's a trashy 'Combined Melee Attack' joke in here somewhere.

Now I want to consider ‘proper NPCs’, people with levels in adventuring classes who are designed to present some sort of meaningful challenge to players and PCs alike.  Let’s stick with the Khadoran thing and look at an NPC military spellcaster, a Greylord Magziev (the lowest rank of Greylord permitted to take to the battlefield).  Consider what they can do in Warmachine; icy sprays of icy death, clouds of obcuring snow, immobilising or slowing enemies by chilling their wossnames off.  Cone of Cold, Fog Cloud, Slow.  Cone of Cold is a 5th-level spell and there are various fog-related spells that interfere with vision and movement all the way down to first, so you’d think they’d be easy to replicate…

Stop right there.  A sorcerer has to be tenth level before they get their paws on Cones of Cold (sorcerers being stated as more common than wizards in the Iron Kingdoms, owing to arcane magic being a Gift trained and honed in schools rather than an accomplishment taught in them; the arcane mechanik replaces the conventional ‘wizard’ as the ‘taught’ spellcaster).

I don’t want loads of tenth level sorcerers running around, not when tenth level is my threshold for ‘beyond this lies legend’…  but this is Pathfinder, so I can make ‘Greylord’ into a bloodline for sorcerers and give them signature spells as bloodline extras at third and fifth level.  The IK has already messed up healing and resurrection to make them harder to come by, so I don’t see anything wrong with taking the axe to spell progression in other ways, especially not if it means I have a slightly saner levelling-up process for NPCs.  Young Khadoran is born, discovers sorcerer talents, is packed off to the Greylords, and after about five years’ training achieves the rank of magziev and is allowed to take to the battlefield.

via FStiltz on deviantart.net
Whereupon things like this occur...

That still leaves them as one-in-a-million characters, though, and while Greylords are not common features of the Khadoran army and society, they’re more common than that.  I need to tinker further.  Up until now I’ve been considering levelling up as a ‘one in ten people can’ kind of thing.  How about one in four?

  • 1 in 4 people make it from level 1 to 2  (Veteran).
  • 1 in 16 people make it from level 2 to 3 (Sergeant/Uchenik).
  • 1 in 64 people make it from level 3 to 4 (Lietnant/Ratovik).
  • 1 in 256 people make it from level 4 to 5 (Kapitan/Magziev).
  • 1 in a 1024 people make it from level 5 to 6 (Kovnik/Koldun).
  • 1 in 4096 people make it from level 6 to 7 (Kommander/Koldun Lord).
  • 1 in 16384 people make it from level 7 to 8 (Kommandant/Obavnik).
  • 1 in 65536 people make it from 8 to 9 (Supreme Kommandant/High Obavnik).
  • 1 in 262144 people make it from 9 to 10 (Premier).

Italicised levels are those at which the old school suggests packing it in and building a castle/tower/temple and controlling a territory, included by way of comparison.  I might consider nudging that down a bit to account for a social structure where a seventh-level character might be a landowner – a knight, perhaps, with responsibilities both up and down but nevertheless with a castle to call their own.

Khadoran military/organised magical ranks in brackets, as an indication of how a character who’s part of that structure might advance through it; the exceptional figures who command small armies, including warjacks, all sit at sixth or seventh level, which again feels about right; scary and special, but not godlike.  Elite troops like Iron Fangs are distinguished not by level, but by class; they’re badass enough to warrant levels in Fighter but they’re still only second level, officers at fourth or fifth, topping out at six for people like Markov (the baddest Uhlan of them all).  As a nice bonus, mapping the magical ranks we know of onto this structure means you’re not even a ranking Greylord with a title until level 3, where the first bloodline spell kicks in.  I love it when a plan comes together.

Beyond level 10 you’re into the one-in-a-million (and a bit) territory where truly epic figures end up – in Iron Kingdoms terms, this is where you’d find Vinter Raelthorne, the man who carved his way across half a continent more or less single-handedly, and browbeat an entire race into becoming his new empire, or the Old Witch of Khador, an immortal magic user who is in essence the Motherland given flesh.  Only the very largest of nations will produce a character of this calibre, maybe once in a generation.

via coolminiornot

It should be pointed out, at this stage, that level in PC classes is not directly equivalent to rank, or vice versa.  Supreme Kommandant Irusk is a veteran warcaster and authentic military genius, but in terms of raw arcane and physical power he is outmatched by, say, Vladmir Tzepesci, the Dark Champion – there’s a man who’s definitely pushing level 9, while Irusk is probably still 7 or maybe just 8.  Likewise, the Empress Ayn, Premier of the Khadoran Army, to whom Irusk is answerable, is a teenage girl; a low-level Aristocrat who, while she meets his one major defeat with the observation that she’d have joined in if she’d known he needed help, is still young, still settling into her role.  The man who more or less ran the country while she was growing up, though, the Regent Blustavaya – ahh, now there’s your tenth level character, the eminence grise who owns half the capital city and has contacts in business, the army, the court…

When we start talking about twentieth level demigods – well, the step up from twentieth level is to godhood, and only two mortals in the history of the Kingdoms have ever made that step.  Given that my calculator packs in when working out how many people progress up from fifteenth level, that should indicate just how rare Morrow and Thamar – who, lest we forget, have a dualistic religion founded about them, and have selected mortals to elevate to the rank of ascendant or scion – mortals who were well on the path to divinity themselves – the one in four rate of progression is starting to feel about right.

Which means I need to rethink those eighth-level NPCs I wrote up last week, but what the hell.  Lower levels mean easier designing.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

3 thoughts on “[IKRPG] No Levels For Old Men? NPCs in Imperial Khador”

  1. That article made me want to play D&D. Thinking a world all out like that and putting it into game terms used to be one of my favourite activities as a young teenager, before I developed . . . older teenager activities.

    Back when I last played (towards the end of 3x so about 2004-7), there was the beginning of a power-gaming culture and people were starting their first level PCs with a plan of how they would be at level 15 and above, considering that realm as the real game to aim for. I had a feeling it just wasn’t the way the game worlds were balanced, and you’ve shown why nicely.

    What sort of monsters are there in the IK? I’m not really familiar with the setting but I think this obscene power climb of your standard D&D character has a lot to do with an arms race across editions resulting in more frequent, bigger and meaner monsters. Unless the monsters lack magical defences and threats, you can end up with a sucky situation where people are balanced against each other but a roaming ghost kills most mighty (level 7) heroes easily.

    1. Well, the thing about third edition and build optimisation is that it withholds some of the OMGSOCOOL corner-case feats like, say, Whirlwind Attack, until higher levels, nudging them further away from the players with complex chains of prerequisites. I am not a fan. I would probably simplify the feat-gaining process somewhat so that the fiddly little +1 here and there feats are not required to get to the big ones; prerequisites could be simply a stat and either a spell level or weapon proficiency. Strip the system down so that the cool stuff is available earlier and not shackled to a long-term ‘build’ process, and I think part of that problem goes away. Level 15 characters are fine if they’re considered as what they are; you’re in the territory of saints and demigods when you hit that kind of level.

      Iron Kingdoms monsters… hmm. There’s a whole post in that (and two whole monster books) so I’ll get back to you there. Mind you… ghosts should be scary, and not just to level 1 peons either. I like the idea that a Will-o’-the-Wisp can lead to a TPK, and that ethereal undead have to be dealt with either by magic or – shock horror – by finding things out and resolving their ghostly business, rather than by whittling their hit points away.

      1. Yeah that sounds a lot more sensible. 3x was pretty much groaning with intricate specifications and “if . . . then” clauses by the end.

        Perhaps a ghost was a bad example – they are meant to be pretty scary after all.

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