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In Rebuttal of the Level-Tiered Starting Area

200px-Darkirond [1]Most RPG settings feature the same level-tiered setup. The PC’s home base is surrounded by an area populated by first level monsters, while the next concentric area is populated by second level monsters and so on.  It’s usually a bit more complex than that, but that’s the basic model. Problem is, the basic model, and any models flowing from it are bullshit. Of course, it’s always done that way for playability, not realism, but there’s no need for it to be that way.  A more “realistic” model is a reverse level-tiered system, which is not only not a lot of extra work to set up, but is more natural looking and more importantly makes for more interesting boundaries and setups and lends itself to natural adventure hooks.

Let’s start with the basic truth.  The biggest baddest monster pretty much takes what it wants. So if there’s a choice area in your campaign, it’s going to be owned by the most badass monster or group of monsters around. This could be a single ultra-nasty beasty, a huge population of weaker beings led by powerful individuals, or whatever. The important thing is that if it wants the terrain there’s nothing else in your campaign with the chutzpa to do a damn thing about it and once they’ve got it, nothing short of divine intervention, maybe in the form of high level adventurers are going to pry them out.

So what do the second string monsters do about it? They might suck up to the big baddies in hopes they’ll share or at least employ them or trade with them. They might hang around outside the gates and jump on any scraps of whatever it was that drew them to the area in the first place that they can get their hands on. Or, they might just pack it in, look for the next best spot, and go set up camp there.

Further power levels of monsters will do the same. Either they’ll camp out around the territory of an established higher power or they’ll go somewhere else.  This does create a concentric level based tier, but it’s not the low to high tier around the starting area that we’re all familiar with, but rather a high to low tier around areas of interest.

h-l tier [2]This sample diagram shops what a setup like this might look like. Already you can see the more interesting borders in play, and since the areas where the tiers begin are contested it’s clear that they hold some resource, tactical advantage or aesthetic benefit that makes them of value to PCs or those a group of PCs might get a quest from.

Pocket1 [3]But that leaves us with the same problem that gives rise to the traditional “noob zones”. Where do we start the PCs so they don’t get their asses handed to them the instant they walk out the city gates? The simple answer is that these areas go at the edges in areas that no one else wants or in “pockets” of undesirable terrain that’s between areas of interest.  The advantage of this setup is that the PCs are starting in an area so crappy that literally no one else wants badly enough to take it from them. That means that everyone else out there has nicer stuff and better places to live than they do, which is a great incentive to get out their, do some adventuring and better the position of your holding.

2 pockets [4]But these pockets don’t have to arise by accident. Races whose major strength is based on large numbers of weak fighters backed up by more powerful specialist and exceptional individuals (Like PC races) can intentionally build them with a series of fortifications and garrisons surrounding a soft underbelly which is the fantasy standard anyway simply because it was the historical standard. And of course it was the historical standard because it worked. These defensive pockets can be built right next to each other (think countries) with a relatively low level “buffer zone” between them or they can hold a valuable site right in the thick of a high to low level tier. In the later case, PCs may have to gain experience inside their own defensive zone wiping up the occasional threat that sneaks by their front line or handling internal affairs until they’re tough enough to take on their neighbors.

To use a setup like this in your game, you need a rough sketch of your campaign area, and a brief list of all the enemies that are powerful and organized enough to hold territory.  Sort your list by how badass the enemies are if the PCs were to encounter the largest organizational unit of them that exists (City, Tribe, Solitary and slaves, etc…) Make sure your PC’s allies, race, or whatever are on the list with everything else.  Then go down the list and for each pick a spot on the map that’s somewhere they’d like to live or where a resource they’d want could be found. If another baddie already holds something they want they might instead camp out around the more powerful settlement as outlined above. Alternately if they’re numerous, and tactically minded, they may build a defensive pocket and capture more territory and resources then they could otherwise hold. Enemies might also hold several locations if they’ve got the manpower or there are multiple groups of them (Think nations with frontier outposts, or fractious tribes). If the PC’s sponsors aren’t last on the list, they can claim their own territory just like everyone else.  Otherwise they get the territory that no one else wants and the PCs have their jobs cut out for them, which isn’t a bad thing for your game at all.

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15 Comments To "In Rebuttal of the Level-Tiered Starting Area"

#1 Comment By lordbyte On February 16, 2012 @ 5:20 am

While I wouldn’t actually “draw” or explain the zones like you did, when I build my world it does follow a natural logic.
Big monsters are further away from the points of light of civilization, and if the players are not careful they might end up in it.
I tend to have a few big monsters in the area, for the rest (for 4E) I have a couple of monsters prepared (thematically) that are below, around and above their level to fill in whatever they do.
I fill those into the blanks, and when they stray into a villain / monster’s lair that’s out of their league, tough… I do generally give enough opportunity for them to be warned though (perception, dungeoneering, arcana,… )

#2 Comment By Trace On February 16, 2012 @ 9:19 am

This is an awesome idea. I’d never even thought of this. I guess my campaign map .psd needs yet another layer…

#3 Comment By Bronco_6 On February 16, 2012 @ 9:37 am

I really enjoyed reading the article and the concept of geographical power centers of monsters. I am running a GURPS campaign based on a fantasy setting and and will be implementing the concept, with the campaign being relatively new and still in development. This will make things interesting for my PC’s.


#4 Comment By kirkdent On February 16, 2012 @ 9:53 am

@Matthew: Maybe I’m looking at the diagrams wrong, but I’m not sure quite what they represent: big baddies or high resource areas for red, weak wussies or poor resources for yellow, etc.
The last diagram was particularly confusing to me, because the relationship between left and right sides is not described.

Can you clarify the diagrams for us obtuse types? 😉

#5 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On February 16, 2012 @ 4:11 pm

[5] – Sorry about that. I thought about numbering the areas, then I decided to be lazy instead. :p

So, the power levels follow your basic ROYGBV scheme from most (Red) to least (Violet) powerful. Thus, the red areas represent the holdings of the most powerful groups, and are surrounded by concentric areas of groups that become steadily less powerful. However, there are more than one “Most powerful” group, so it’s not a single tier system. Instead they bump into one another.

If it helps, think of them as your basic contour map, but with “monster badassery” instead of altitude.

The last diagram was an example of a pair of defensive pockets next to each other with a lower level “no man’s land” between them.

Hope that helps!

#6 Comment By Tamerlin On February 16, 2012 @ 4:22 pm

Very interesting read, thank you.

#7 Comment By happymoney On February 16, 2012 @ 7:07 pm

This was a very interesting article. Thank you for the good ideas! I never thought of planning a world like this. However, I have had similar problems in my games so I figure I’ll share a different solution to the problem you addressed.

First off, I prefer event based campaigns, as opposed to location based campaigns. This means I don’t really increase the difficulty of different areas, but rather I increase the difficulty of events. I also play D&D 4e, this means that monsters don’t scale well for more than a couple of levels. This creates two problems for me:
1. How can I show my players that they are increasing in power throughout the game? (As opposed to a fight against 4 goblins at level 1 feeling the same as a fight against 4 angels at level 20.)
2. What is a logical reason why threat level would increase as the campaign progresses?
Obviously, your solution solves problem 2, but I just thought I’d share my alternative solution.

I structure my games as mini-arcs within a huge campaign. Within each mini-arc, the players fight a fair amount of reoccurring enemies. In this way, they are able to handle more and more as they level, so they can feel their power growing. At the same time, the leveling doesn’t make any fights a cakewalk, because each mini-arc lasts only a couple of levels. This solves problem 1, it allows them to measure their power against certain types of enemies, so that they know they can handle more and more as they gain power.
Then, to solve my second problem, at the end of each mini-arc, a major change occurs that will bring in more powerful enemies.

For example: The PCs are currently living in an oppressive city that is one of only a few in a vast desert. They often fight guards of the city as they attempt to find (steal) food to keep themselves alive. They started as level 1, and I had three types of guards that they encountered often. As they have leveled, to level 4 now, they are able to handle more and more of the guards. They also fight other enemies to spice things up. So, while a fight against 4 guards may have been difficult at the begin, it is easy now. They also now have fights against larger numbers of guards because they can handle it.
When the players finally kill the dictator of the city, the next mini-arc will happen several months later in in-game time. In this mini-arc, a more powerful city will send armies to attack. The PCs, now rulers of this city after killing the dictator, will have to defend their city against the more powerful hordes. These hordes will be their baseline enemy for the next couple of levels, before I introduce an event that brings in yet more powerful enemies.

That’s just my solution.
Once again, thanks for the great read!

#8 Comment By Svengaard On February 17, 2012 @ 5:17 am

It’s an interesting idea I had to think about before I could comment on it. Since I run a fantasy setting I’m commenting based on that type of setting.
The first thing I had trouble wrapping my head around was that this type of setting is almost forcing a “final bastion” type campaign. If your players are all humans or good races then they’re going to either be besieged and eating stored provisions or sending out foragers and hunters for food. Doing so would imply a small population.
On the other hand if your dominant species around are uncivilized or partially civilized then they may just take the forest and mountain regions and leave grasslands and plains available for species that can use that terrain. Which leaves a situation similar to the level-tiered starting area.
If your big baddies are “civilized” and are able to farm (or keep the slaves to do so) then you’re back to the original situation of a “last bastion”. Intelligent species are either going to wipe them out in a siege or just wait for them to die of starvation. Either way, the player’s group isn’t going to last long without some sort of support. I suppose in your situation that’s going to be the point.
Your idea to me feels like it’s limited to certain styles of campaings. It’s an interesting idea to be sure, and its something I’m going to see if I can make it work for my own campaigns.

#9 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On February 17, 2012 @ 6:19 am

[6] – If you want a situation where the PCs have more resources and support on their side, then put their allies/support system higher on the “list of powers” With a fairly high ranking they can easily carve themselves out a large defensive pocket that can sustain most of their basic resource needs.

This is totally fair game because PC races are usually prolific, highly organized, well versed in magic and technology, and have perhaps the highest incidence of exceptional individuals. Thus you can justify a PC race settlement as one of your top power levels.

However, it’s also playing fair to assume that the PC races HAVE that and it’s just “Off the map”. That would create your standard “frontier town” feel. The settlement the PCs hail from is fortified and semi-self-sufficient, but they have shipments from the “motherland” to help support them.

#10 Comment By Sarlax On February 17, 2012 @ 10:13 am

I enjoy thinking of worlds in this way (how mechanics and power should control the social structure of the world).

I agree with the premise of the argument, but in many games, there’s a big wrinkle: Many creatures have no trouble projecting power over great distances. In last 3.5 game, all of the central threats to the PCs’ cities and world (githyanki, illithids, and fiends) had an ability to teleport or plane shift (and sometimes both). This meant that they were usually based in the areas most inaccessible to the PC races for their own protection, but could easily control territory anywhere they liked.

The remaining demihuman (that sounds better that “PC races” to me) settlements, however, generally followed the leftovers model. There was only one major city (which was depopulated before the PCs ever traveled to it) and it had only happened to survive because, as the only significant trade port, the illithids recognized it as necessary for keeping their food supply (demihumans) alive. The rest of the settlements were small, isolated, and generally in pretty crappy spots: swamps, deserts, and bordering poisoned lakes.

#11 Comment By drow On February 17, 2012 @ 11:22 am

so, exactly the same, but opposite. sure, that works.

#12 Comment By philipstephen On February 17, 2012 @ 11:09 pm

A variation on this theme that I like is that the PCs actually start in one of those uber controlled areas that some big badass mega boss has control over.

They need to fight to escape and gain enough power and capabilities elsewhere before they can return home and be triumphant heroes.

A lot of literature and movies have been based around that idea of exile and return and it makes for fun games.

#13 Comment By Tamerlin On February 18, 2012 @ 6:50 am

I have read again your article and something emerged that I want to propose to my players.

A collaborative sandbox campaign creation based around the core of your article: characters coming from the bleakest hole of the setting.

Each “island” of power, with its surrounding less powerful areas (see diagram 2), being created with the players.

Each power base could even be designed trough Diaspora’s modded cluster creation system.

More generally, I would like to thank all the Gnomes. Since the beginning of the year we are benifiting from a flurry creation and great ideas. I don’t know if they are more practical as it is your good resolution of the year, but your articles give me a lot to think and work on.

Keep the Flame!

#14 Comment By Silveressa On February 19, 2012 @ 8:22 am

I’ve always taken the approach that the further form civilization the characters stray, the worse the danger they are likely to encounter from “monsters.”

Near a collection of intelligent people there will likely be one (or several) men/women at arms that keeps anything too powerful or predatory at bay.

If something (or a group of somethings) shows up strong enough to overpower them, chances are it/they will make a meal out of the town as well shortly afterward.

(On the upside this leaves a ghost town of slaughter for the PC’s to stumble across and investigate, complete with ghosts of fallen townsfolk and the remnants/descendants of whatever killed them.)

The more remote the area, the fewer defenders of the town there will be; (perhaps even only a local rag tag miltia,) but the premise is whoever is protecting the town and its outlying farms is no doubt skilled enough to do so, (and the trade routes to/from town to the bigger cities/trade hubs) or there wouldn’t be a town in that area in the first place.

This explains why there’s generally scattered low level monsters in the surrounding vicinity that prey on the drunk wandering home from the tavern, or pilfer the outlying farm at night.

Anything more dangerous and it/they would either be wiped out by the towns protectors, or drive the villagers away from its territory.

#15 Pingback By Links of the Week: February 20, 2012 | Keith Davies — In My Campaign – Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play. On February 20, 2012 @ 6:47 am

[…] gives another view of threat levels varying by region.  He inverts the model (find the danger hot spots and build down, rather than safe areas and build […]

#16 Comment By howandwhy99 On February 22, 2012 @ 8:52 am

I’ve expressed this method as the onion method in a few posts in recent years. What you’re doing is some of what I do, but you definitely explain it more clearly. I’d hate to think DMs were making the biggest ring the one of highest level foes and challenges. Your graphs express the more sensible demographics.

Also, it’s been understood for some time that early play begins at low levels, so level 1 parts of the world are the proverbial “borderlands”, frontier territory. This can more easily be understood if you start assigning Alignment to territory (and EVERYTHING else). Now we have the Lawful Town, Neutral wilderness surrounding it, and across this “neutral territory” another power concentration: the Chaotic dungeon.

Thanks for writing this article. I think every DM who is looking for sandbox play design should absolutely read it.

#17 Pingback By News from Around the Net: 17-FEB-2012 | Gamerati On December 17, 2015 @ 5:03 pm

[…] Matt Neagley over at Gnome Stew had some thoughts around the idea of a different way to look at leve…. Though it involves more work, it seems almost like how some of the big sandbox games (Skyrim anybody) manages similar issues in-game by making some areas more difficult than other areas. As a “n00b” it becomes very quickly apparent where you will survive a fight and where you won’t early on. I think that’s what Neagley is trying to do with the various contour layers put over the top of a setting map… […]