by Mike Shea on 21 November 2011
As much as we love 4th edition D&D, the design begins to break down as levels increase. The scaling power of PCs makes it harder and harder for 4e dungeon masters to build challenging encounters. Further, encounters at these higher levels take longer to run and longer to design. Back at Gencon 2007, Wizards stated that level 1 to 30 is the new sweet spot for D&D. That turned out not to be true, but there is a sweet spot and today we're going focus on it in two ways, level range and source material.
The easiest way to deal with the issues of ever-increasing PC power and complexity is simply to stay out of it. Things don't really start to get out of hand until around level 11, when PCs get their paragon path and the increasing curve starts to get steeper and steeper. For this reason, keeping adventures and campaigns in the heroic tier means a much smoother experience for both players and DMs. Battles will run faster, monsters will run as expected, the game will bring a good challenge.
There's also no reason not to start a campaign at level 1. Level 1 in 4th edition gives PCs a good deal of options and a good bit of power to survive and thrive. There's no need to start a campaign or mini-campaign any higher than level 1. Players enjoy it and the game runs great.
Luckily for us, there is a huge wealth of material for the heroic tier. The adventure line in the D&D starter set, the Dungeon Master's Kit, the Monster Vault, and concluding in the level 6 to 10 Gardmore Abbey adventure can make for a great level 1 to 10 campaign. This is a campaign I personally plan on running next.
The recent Neverwinter sourcebook also builds an excellent campaign environment for the heroic tier and even the recent Heroes of the Feywild book gives enough locations and background to run an excellent heroic tier high fantasy campaign.
Both the Monster Vault and Monster Vault 2 include hundreds of monsters focused on the heroic tier. When filling out a pre-published adventure series or your own campaign, these books give you more than enough monsters to do so.
In short, there's no lack of material both in story and mechanics to run many level 1 to 10 mini campaigns for years.
The design of D&D 4th Edition has also gotten a lot better over the years. Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms refines the core characters originally released and smooths out a lot of the rough edges of the initial release. With the Heroes of Shadow and Heroes of the Feywild books now released, players have enough options to tweak and customize their characters without having to fall back to pre-Essentials material.
Sticking to post-Essentials only material is a bit controversial. A lot of people hate having to give up all the options of previous material. Post-Essentials material contains four more years of design tweaks than older material. The designers learned a lot over those four years and the best way to benefit from that design is to focus on it.
Returning to the heroic tier and focusing on better-designed source material can help you, as a DM, return your focus to building fun and exciting adventures. With some excellent design, a nice linear power progression curve, and enough source material to last you a lifetime, there's no need to frustrate yourself and your players with an endless sea of imbalanced design.