Exploring Complexity (Player Characters)

Hello again!

Much like another recent article I wrote, I wanted to take some time to expand on a topic that a fellow blogger (or several, although in this case just one) came up with. Specifically, a piece that The Id DM wrote titled “Player Characters Are Gods“. In that post, which I highly recommend reading for yourself in addition to my short summary, he basically puts forward that the number of options, and the power of those options, make player characters in Paragon tier and beyond get completely out of hand, potentially slowing combat to a halt with analysis paralysis and option overload (link courtesy of an old article written on the topic of option overload by AngryDM) in addition to their numerical superiority (in the sense of more plusses) to monsters. I will be focusing on expanding the former claim rather than the latter.

In this article, I’d like to take the example set by The Id DM and take it to its logical conclusion. While he presents J’hari Wrex (his level 12 dragonborn rogue scoundrel) in a fashion that did not include quite a few of his options, most notably those not related to combat I’ve decided to go whole hog and steal liberate a core fighter (also known as the weapon master) build from the 4th edition character optimization forum for sake of having a “good build” (i.e. a pretty reasonably strong level 30 character that you might expect a good player to make if he had a lot of time on his hands and happened to enjoy character optimization in addition to following the “recommended wealth” guidelines in the DMG). I also built this same character as a level 1 version of himself to see how the stat blocks compare, and made sure to include all of his powers and various options. For sake of thoroughness, since I included traits that were granted by feats, I also included traits such as the base proficiencies, etc. Are you ready to see the difference in complexity between a level 1 and level 30 character? Here we go:

Level 1

Level 30

Before I go on, I’d like to apologize for the inability to include one of the paragon path powers in the level 30 stat block, which if you take the time to read it thoroughly you may notice. The monster builder tool actually couldn’t manage to wrap itself around such a complicated power (with a tertiary attack) without crashing, so an approximation will have to do. I could have included a few other things for clarity (like a specific opportunity attack power), but most monsters rely on traits to tell the DM about changes to their opportunity attacks so I followed the same sort of paradigm here as best I could.

The Conclusion

Not only do the number of options increase (even with many powers being replaced by better ones instead of supplemented by them at higher levels), but their complexity does as well as many of them begin to become triggered actions, which is a common complaint among some of the more prominent bloggers like Mike Shea and Robert Schwalb (that is, the complaint is about too many out-of-turn actions slowing combat way down in epic tier).

The Numbers –

Level 1 Fighter

Traits – 7

Standard Action Options – 6

Triggered Action Options – 1

Other Options – 1

Level 30 Fighter

Traits – 31

Standard Action Options – 12

Move Action Options – 1

Minor Action Options – 7

Free Action Options – 6

Triggered Action Options – 6

Other Options – 2

The grand totals?

Level 1 Fighter – 15

Level 30 Fighter – 65
A level 30 fighter, although this might be a bit presumptuous, looks to be around four times as complicated as a level 1 fighter, going with the definition of complexity as being “number of parts”. With a character four times as complicated, it’s reasonable, then, that perhaps it can take up to four times as long to figure out which one(s) to use… and that hypothesis seems to bear out, according to the experiences of several epic tier running DMs.

Plan of Action

How can you reduce the ridiculously overbearing complexity? Well, there’s really only a two notable options, both of which came out closer to now than they did to 4th Edition’s launch, which bodes well for the designers recognizing some of the big problems.

1) Essentials material.

Essentials characters do not get this complicated, that’s basically just how it is. There are a few exceptions, like the Mage, that can… but most don’t. This, of course, has the drawback that players will feel somewhat slighted as you are stripping them of potential options. Of course, whether we know it or not, sometimes fewer options is better. In fact, sometimes having no choice at all is the best thing for us, whether we believe it or not!

2) Fixed Enhancements/Restricted Magic Items.

With some vigilance, you may note that of the 65 options that exist to the 30th level fighter, 6 traits, 2 standards, 2 minors, 5 free actions, and 3 triggered actions of those (for a total of 18 options, approx. 28% of the options, and further 5 of the 8 added out-of-turn options that were gained since level 1) are directly related to his complement of magic items. That’s quite a lot! Cutting down on magic item options may make you somewhat more popular with your players than cutting down on class options.

Put together, the two of these can seriously reduce complexity at epic tier, which can result in seriously enhanced play because there is much less of an issue with the players being so overwhelmed with options they don’t know which end is up.


A level 30 fighter is, approximately, four times as complex as a level 1 fighter and that can cause a lot of issues as the players become overwhelmed in a deluge of options. A lot of these options come from the At-Will, Encounter, Daily, Utility (AEDU) design structure of the first three Player’s Handbooks, and a lot of them come from the absolute downpour of magic items that is normally accumulated (per the DMG’s suggestion, at least) by level 30. By removing these two major contributors to the ballooning of complexity (or at least one of them) you can drastically improve the play experience in epic tier. In theory, anyway.

The Hydra DM


Posted on November 26, 2011, in Rules Design and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hydra,

    Thank you for linking to my original article, and KUDOS for taking the ball and running all the way to 30th Level. I know how much work that must have been. I used Power2ool, which is a great application (it’s free) if you haven’t tried it yet.

    I will have additional data on powers throughout levels 1-30 this week. Not only do players gain more power options, the effects of those options become substantially more damaging to monsters. Instead of a few powers that might slow or daze, players, the powers now stun or dominate. The consensus seems to be that Epic is overly complicated and DMs have few tools to combat the players without extending combat encounters for many hours.

    • Hey, thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m glad that you enjoyed my application of “yes, and…” to your article, and having seen the preview of the status effect/condition per tier per role article(s) on your site I look forward to them for sure!

  1. Pingback: Power Options, Status Effects & Mutual Assured Destruction | The Id DM

  2. Pingback: Portals of the Week | Castles & Cooks

  3. Pingback: Scaling Damage – Working Backwards « The Hydra DM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: