Level Head (Power Tiers for GMing)

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A general sense of party-level and the implications of it can be critical for campaign planning and encounter design. General outlines of power emerge from the core metabalance. Non-traditional classes, races and builds can push or miss these norms readily, so understanding what each rough benchmark means is very useful to GMs.

Benchmarking Power Tiers for GMs:

Consistent abilities begin to surface for characters in distinct levels of the Pathfinder RPG. Determining your games Average Party Level (APL)Average Party Level (APL) will give you a sense of what thresholds below they are passing. Knowing when these abilities surface (and if your PCs in particular have them) is key to designing challenging encounters and not setting up accidental TPKs:

  • 3-4 – “The Unseen Edge”:
    • Invisibility: This is the first major distinguishable from 1st level in that for the first time the characters gain both the ability to become and see invisibility. Awareness of this tier is key to understanding the relative power levels of invisible foes. To a PC group that does not hit this benchmark the invisible foe can be nearly god-like stealing untended items, suprising PCs and gathering intelligence the Party can’t afford to give away. Or with as single spell the party is either on equal footing or sees through the disguise and it is straight to initiatives.
    • Significant Treasure: At this level we also can expect to see PCs with consistent magic weapons or other wondrous items. If the PC party fails to hit this benchmark creatures with DR can be devestating and require huge amounts of resources deal with and odds shift drastically in the favor of the monsters outlasting the PCs.
    • Blindness/Deafness: Becomes a player option, note its removal does not happen in this level range. Inflicting these conditions “in the wild” can cause serious problems for the party.
  • 5-6 – “The Acceleration Zone”:
    • Flight: This is the major game changer of the 5-6 area. At this level encounters not flight ready can often break as characters can ignore significant challenges or tactical elements to sail right where you aren’t ready for them to be. Simply put an GM must start accounting for flight and vertical movment at this level.
    • Attack Acceleration: This level also heralds the arrival of haste spells and full BAB classes first iterative attacks (shoosh monk players) means multiple attacks and a far greater chance of one turn “mook” kills for weapon based characters. Expect your front ranks to start going down like wheat at this point.
    • Area of Effect: The introduction to mass damage effects like fireball and lightning bolt are going to mean faster combats. Entire parties will become more tactically aware of potential effect areas and be more generally concerned with tactical movement and positioning.
    • Dispel Magic: For ending negative spells and countering effects. Also suppresses magic items for short durations.
    • Blindness/Deafness: Becomes curable.
  • 7-8 – “Durable Do-Gooders”:
    • Damage  Mitigation: Spells like stoneskin and flame shield rear their head here. Party wealth starts allowing for more common defensive items for most basics like AC, secondary stats and Saving Throws. In general, parties become more resistant.
    • Ability Damage Repair/Prevention: Both neutralize poison and restoration become options for player character healers. Mitigating damage to ability scores and negative energy effects.
    • Versatility Explosion: Spells like polymorph come up and our mid-range BABs come into their second attacks. Play styles often change around this level as new options arise and older options become more reliable. Improved Critical is available to full BAB characters and their damage spikes.
  • 9-10 – “Death to Distance and the Distance to Death”:
    • Teleport: At this level reliable teleportation and travel mitigation becomes available as a renewable player managed resource. Spontaneous casters making day trips to hometowns during downtimes, communication acceleration and access to NPC support all explode.
    • Raise Dead: Access to a first renewable player managed resurrection effect. Party survival hinges more on healer survival and player rosters solidify as the need for replacement PCs diminishes.
  • 11-12 – “Goodbye and Hello to Mystery”:
    • True Seeing: Now available to most spellcasters, illusions and shapeshifting are far less useful to decieve the party. Expect long standing deceptions and falsefacing to collapse under the weight of scrutiny and have contingency planes ready as needed.
    • Plane Shift: Parties are no longer strictly limited to their own worlds. PCs can reliably reach other realms of existance but are likely to be stuck exploring them while the spellcaster is on cooldown.
  • 13-14 – “Escalation Nation”:
    • Heavy Hitters: Spells like finger of death, disintegrate, and destruction arrive promising death to a target that fails to resist them. Area of Effects are commonly hitting near 15d6.
    • Teleport, Geater: Distance within the same planet becomes trivial at this point in downtime. Ambush and retreat take on whole new levels of speed and complexity.
    • Quickened AoE:  At this level casters can also begin laying down secondary spells each round, especially Area of Effect damage or de-buff spells. Often this can escalate a casters output to well above 20d6 of damage.
  • 15-16 – “Either way you’re my b****”:
    • Polymorph Any Object: Permanent player managed transformation magic becomes regularly available. Versatility and lasting de-buffs all possible with singular spells like this one.
    • Three Attacks: Full BAB characters gain a third extra attack (4 in total) in attack routine and Power Attack  is adding a minimum of +10 points of damage an attack. Dual-wielders and Two-Handed critical masters start to unleash static damage to rival any spell out there.
  • 17+ – “Because I Say So”:
    • Wish: Player controlled reality alterations and ultimate versatility. Miracles can provide even cheaper solutions under the right circumstances.
    • Interplanetary Teleport: Players pretty much go where they want to if it isn’t actively opposed. Be ready for revisited locations to see old friends, remorse runs to old sites of missed treasure and wild hares going nearly anywhere just because they can.
    • Class Omegas: Presitge Classes should start bottoming out and the first omega abilities should surface. Highly customized abilities and spikes rivaling the 9th level effects full casters are getting will be surfacing for some characters.
    • True Resurrection: Death now is solely a cash flow issue.

Awareness of the general power tiers of the party in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is something that gets easier with time and practice. A general idea of the benchmarks however will prevent and anticipate deviations form the norms.

(Edit: Thank you to the users of reddit for their feedback.)

For options for characters of all power tiers check out or offerings at: d20pfsrd.com, drivethruRPG, paizo and RPGNow.

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