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I'm new to DMing and writing my own campaign, and I've only played Pathfinder once with a group of other new players. I was wondering how "powerful" of something level X (in terms of character level) is from the standard 1-20. Coming into it I had the mindset of level 20 is kind of like a max level character in an MMORPG, maybe a bit more powerful, however I feel this is pretty wrong assumption now.

I guess really what I'm asking is how strong (from a story standpoint) is a level 5/10/15/18/20? For example, what level would a captain of the guard for a metropolis settlement be or a Summoner guild master on the council of a powerful mage city? I'm not necessarily referring to sociopolitical power (probably should have used more diverse examples), but just how personally powerful I should depict them in the story. Is it jarring for a random guardsman to be fifth level? Or for a feared warlord to be ninth level?

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This isn't a full answer, but 3.5rd edition's Dungeon Master's Guide had some basic rules for determining the population of a settlement by class that heavily implied that characters of any given level were significantly rarer than characters of the level directly below. As some of the answers below have said, though, it's setting-dependant. –  GMJoe Jul 8 at 2:36
    
d20srd.org/srd/equipment/goodsAndServices.htm "In addition, not every town or village has a spellcaster of sufficient level to cast any spell. In general, you must travel to a small town (or larger settlement) to be reasonably assured of finding a spellcaster capable of casting 1st-level spells, a large town for 2nd-level spells, a small city for 3rd- or 4th-level spells, a large city for 5th- or 6th-level spells, and a metropolis for 7th- or 8th-level spells. Even a metropolis isn’t guaranteed to have a local spellcaster able to cast 9th-level spells." –  Mooing Duck Jul 8 at 17:11

4 Answers 4

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It's Setting-dependent

In most settings, level isn't synonymous with political power. Kings can be level 1 and farmers can be level 20. It's often easier on the community (and on the setting's verisimilitude) if the most powerful folks are the folks in charge, but that's never mandatory. A highborn, well connected level 2 wizard could be in charge of the wizards' guild, and a down-on-his-luck level 20 fighter (perhaps the victim of amnesia magic or an effect that removed from him his gear) might be earning his 2 sp per day working as bouncer at the Rusty Gorgon.

Two Examples

  • The Eberron setting for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, Pathfinder's immediate antecedent, had very few high-level characters, owing to disastrous conflicts in the setting's recent past. I'm no Eberron expert, but I think most published characters for the setting were levels 10 and below.
  • The Forgotten Realms setting, originally published for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and updated for every edition since, came to be inhabited by so many high-level characters DMs sometimes struggled to find things for their low-level players to do at all because, it seemed, a high-level character should've handled it already--I mean, there's one right over there, after all.

One of my disappointments with Pathfinder is its lack of demographic guidance. I, too, am curious, for example, just how many summoners the designers think should live in a village. While I think it's brave of the designers to leave this to the DM instead of mandating it, at least some guidelines like those available for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 in the Dungeon Master's Guide (137-41) (but not made available as part of the d20 SRD) would've been useful, if only for comparison.


Suggestion: Reverse-engineer

If writing a campaign instead of setting, gear the setting to the campaign, not vice versa. Figure out what you want the characters doing in the campaign at levels 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, and 16-20, and make the NPCs of levels appropriate to when they're going to be more important to the campaign. This way the NPCs can be encountered earlier and be untouchable yet the NPCs can be of the appropriate levels when the PCs reach that point in the campaign.

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I think more of what I was getting at was like in your examples the "population" per-say of high level characters in a world. I didn't want to make something be level 20, but have that correlate to "power to bend the country to their whim" instead of "proved to be a very powerful mage". –  PRX Jul 7 at 20:36

There can't be an answer for "Pathfinder" in general, as each setting is different. To use an earlier version example, average levels in Greyhawk (rulers are ~9th level, "zero level" rules are a popular variant) were much different from rules in Dark Sun (everyone starts at 3rd level because the world is so high powered). However, for the default Pathfinder setting of the world of Golarion, there are some reasonably common "breakpoints" based on published NPCs and rulers. The Inner Sea World Guide states on p.253:

Power Levels: Throughout this book, particularly in Chapter 2, key NPCs are mentioned by name. Experience levels and classes are not presented for these NPCs, in order to maintain a level of versatility and freedom allowing adventure writers, hobbyists and professionals alike, to adjust these NPCs as they wish. Nonetheless, there exist guidelines for how powerful most rulers and heroes and city guards are in the Inner Sea region. The vast majority of humanity are “standard,” ranging in level from 1st to 5th—most with NPC classes like commoner, expert, or warrior (it’s uncommon for a character with only NPC class levels to be above 5th level). A significant number of a nation’s movers and shakers, along with other leaders, heroes, and notables, are “exceptional,” ranging in level from 6th to 10th. “Powerful” characters, ranging in level from 11th to 15th, are quite rare—typically only a handful of such powerful characters should exist in most nations, and they should be leaders or specially trained troops most often designed to serve as allies or enemies for use in an adventure. Finally, “legendary” characters of 16th or higher level should be exceptionally rare, and when they appear should only do so as part of a specific campaign—all legendary characters should be supported with significant histories and flavor.

Although there is no strict correlation between level and political power, you will usually find some kind of relationship. To become high level you have to do lots of stuff, gain lots of loot, meet lots of people. People look to those kind of people as leaders and governments aren't usually happy to have a level 15 fighter just living independently in a hut outside their capital city - they're going to try to co-opt them into the power structure or drive them out; see the entire history of superhero comics for examples of this syndrome. As a result, higher level people tend to be in higher placed roles. A level 1 aristocrat king is unlikely to hold onto his throne as his ability to diplomacize, intimidate, etc. will be poor (unless he is a puppet where his advisors do all that).

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Level advancement increases a character's ability to control and influence their environment, but doesn't automatically confer social power or prestige.

If this seems counter-intuitive, it's because Pathfinder is not a system that's interested in accurately modelling social hierarchies: it's a system about fighting bad guys and taking their stuff. Non-player characters in positions of power are often high level characters because it makes for more interesting fights if the player characters oppose them. Their sociopolitical position influences the GM's decision about what level they are, rather than their level defining their authority.

The exception is when a mechanical feature like the Leadership feat explicitly gives a character some temporal authority over others.

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While I'm not very familar with Pathfinder, It would be pretty logical that people in political positions without much opportunity for direct conflict would be fairly low level.

Adventurers reach higher levels quickly because they take huge risks, while others generally do not. Retired Adventurers are kind of in the middle, usually, the kind who await a large score so they can just settle down and live comfortably or get famous enough to be granted Lands and titles by nobility.

Generally speaking, unless someone is a retired badass adventurer, lvl 5-10 is about the most you'll see from people in positions of power. Their day to day responsibilities usually prevent from gaining any meaningful xp.

Now, casters usually have some means of conducting magical research to gain xp without having to go adventuring. So magic users will generally be higher then non-magic users.

Career soldiers will usually be a little higher then non-soldiers, and most nobles will usually hire an elite bodyguard or 4 from adventurers who've gotten tired of risking their lives all the time and want a more stable life-style.

It also depends on how much conflict a land faces. A commoner in a area that basically never experiences threats that they fight off themselves would probably remain level 1 their whole lives, while commoners who occasionally defend themselves from bandits or monsters might get a couple levels by the end of their lives, assuming they aren't killed.

Back in 2nd edition DnD, almost everyone got followers and a stronghold at around 9-10, and that's where most people stopped, since you were already at the peak of what the cream of the crop could achieve, and for non-casters, that's pretty much where your personal power stopped increasing.

3rd, despite it's more focus on higher level campaigns also kept the same overall ideaology, where the vast majority of people were under lvl 5, with retired adventurers or casters getting up to about 6-12. People over 10 usually account for less then 1% of an area's given population. While people 5-10 are usually only about 15% or so.

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