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I've read a lot here (and in the official books) about balanced parties in Dungeons and Dragon's 4th edition. Parties should contain at least one each of four specific roles, a distribution of skills (for checks), and character-levels all assumed to within a very narrow range, say + or - 1 from the average.

As a AD&D first edition game master, I find this all rather intimidating.

Back then, other than making sure they had a healer, I never determined "combat roles", never made sure they always had an even distribution of anything - money, magic items, or even levels. It wasn't unusual for there to be a 2, 3, 4 or even 5 level difference between the lowest and highest in a group. The experience point distribution tended to advance those behind quicker, so it didn't seem like a big deal and tended to self-correct. Perhaps as a DM I was compensating for weakness in monster tactics, but it wasn't obvious, even to me.

Can D&D 4e be played the same way? What, happens when there is a friendly "overpowered" character in a group? When does the difference in level (and consummate abilities) become untenable for the DM? for players?

I've got some higher-level NPC/Allies as story-arc characters in my new campaign, and they will do some fighting side-by-side with the party, so experienced guidance would really help me out...

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Should the adnd-1.0 tag really be here? The question is really about DnD4e. –  Iszi Dec 7 '10 at 17:12
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up vote 16 down vote accepted

Here is the essential problem: monsters scale by level.

AC is Level + 14, and PC to hit is around level+7 (give or take) (+4 stat, +2 weapon proficiency, floating +1 from proficiency, feat, or what have you)

This roughly means (after everything is said and done) that an equal-level PC will hit a monster 50% of the time. For every level of difference, that moves 5%.

Damage from monsters is on average level+8, which roughly equates to a healing surge on hit (for everyone but a defender)

Missing most of the time 65%+ is boring. Especially as that means you're more likely to miss on your important encounters and dailies. Missing more often than the rest of the group is even worse, because it's essentially saying "You suck, go find a group of your own level." At the same time, being significantly over-leveled with regards to the monsters is boring: they can't hit you, and even if they do, they don't do much damage.

If you want to play with mis-leveled parties, get rid of the auto-scaling... everything (except for maybe damage), otherwise the lower-leveled members of the party won't be useful and the higher-leveled will have no challenge.

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+1 @Brian - what do you mean "get rid of the auto-scaling"? –  F. Randall Farmer Dec 4 '10 at 22:40
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Shouldn't something like the leader/minion model apply to PCs as well? Strongest character gets mobbed/concentrated on - weaker ones have to be clever to reduce the threat. [I guess that's what I meant in the question by "compensating"] –  F. Randall Farmer Dec 4 '10 at 22:51
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The fundamental problem of being a minion is that it's boring. If the enemies can ignore you or drop you in one hit from an AoE, there's no point in being at the table. In earlier editions, you could still make useful contributions because level had far far less to do with enemy defenses. In 4e, the best you'll do is aid-another and be a flanking buddy until some monster decides to lash out at you for fun. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Dec 4 '10 at 22:58
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@Brian It is a shame, in 3.5 I had someone play a Cohort (level -2) character, and he was as effective in the game as anyone else. Partly that was synergy, and mainly it was skill, but level -2 could still be effective back then. –  C. Ross Dec 5 '10 at 1:10
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@CRoss You can get away with level -2 in 4e, but it's just about as far as I'd be willing to go? And it would have to be an intentional choice on the player's part. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Dec 5 '10 at 1:27
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I don't even know why a 4th edition character should be at a different level from the rest of the party. AFAIK, death penalities don't include xp loss anymore and I think a character change or a new character should start with the same xp of the rest of the group.

The only one problem I can see is when you award "roleplay xp". This is not in the core rules and works perfectly fine if the bonuses earned are given to the whole group instead that to the single players.

Remember: 4e as a game focuses a lot on tactical combat. Characters can't single-handedly face an encounter like they could (or could not) in previous editions. So the odds are they're always going to fight togheter. Keep everyone at the same xp and the game will work fine.


So, if you really want to award different prizes to different people, I'd keep them all in the same 2 levels range. A little more, a little less. Ideally, one or two encounters should be enough to let the lower levels catch up.

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I was asking at the time exactly because it had been my practice in previous editions to give "roleplay XP" and to not give XP to PCs that had players not attend a sesssion. This often lead to level differences. I have since adapted to 4e by giving other benefits instead and lock-stepping their XP (which kinda sucks, but is workable.) Thanks for your comment, but it isn't not an answer to my question. Could you rephrase it to say the maximum range you think is reasonable? –  F. Randall Farmer Sep 1 '12 at 15:30
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Generally I think that as long as the lowest level character in the party isn't more than 4 or so levels off of the party average, and the highest as well, that things will work out pretty well. Note that this works out such that you could have a 1st level and a 9th level in the party as long as the rest of them are around 5th, so that's a fairly decent range. The 1 won't be hitting as often as the rest, but a 20% drop is manageable, especially if he realizes it going in. Plus, he'll be getting more XP, I'd think, for going up against 5th level challenges.

On the other hand the 9th level character is going to hit a bit more often, and do more damage, but on the other hand wouldn't be receiving as much xp and would be levelling slower than the rest, and eventually I would think things would even out.

That said if I had a group of 5th level players and a new person came in I'd probably start them at the same level, but that's me.

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In 4e the encounters don't give lower level characters more experience by design. So the gap in xp would remain forever, while the corresponding gap in levels is doomed to decrease but never cease to exist. –  Zachiel Sep 1 '12 at 9:13
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There is a non-boring solution to the problem: there are a few specific builds that don't require attack rolls to play and play effectively. While they're not to the taste of all players, there is still a significant amount of player choice available.

Option 1 is a Skirmishing warlord centered around direct the strike. For best results, reflavour your weapon to something apparently non-violent. At most level's there's a no-attack option for some warlord build, and you can essentially go your entire career without making an attack. A very... odd class to play, but feasible a few levels below.

From an abstracting PoV, One abstraction would be to enhance the aid-another rules such that aid-another can be used to (possibly) grant an adjacent ally an MBA on an adjacent enemy. While this is a typically leader role, it's one way of functionally scaling the attacks of a PC and making them feel like they're contributing without turning it into a whiff fest or unbalancing the game.

Option 2 is a Watcher Shaman. Be advised that with the MM3 damage, the spirit needs to be adjusted in the damage it can take.

Option 3, unusually, is an enchanter mage.

The theme here, functionally, is classes that have no-attack powers are still fun to play at lower levels. If you must play a class other than those, have one that has on-miss damage, and effects as its primary goal rather than simple damage.

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When I first started playing LFR, modules were built for different ranges of levels: 1-4, 5-7, 7-10 if I recall correctly. Since my friends had all been playing longer than me, my level 1 character was surrounded by 3s and 4s. And it worked out fine. No, I didn't hit as often, but my character still contributed and I never felt like I was holding the group back.

As a GM, I have a mixed XP group. Some people got more of a reward for their backstory. Others skipped sessions. Nobody is fully a level ahead of anybody else, but we'll have some sessions where the current XP leader is barely a level ahead and the rest of the group will catch up by the end of the session.

The only difficult thing I've found about GMing in this case is figuring out how much XP to budget for combats since the DMG assumes a consistent party level. Other than that, I haven't been able to notice a difference between levels.

Anyway, my point is that within 1-2 levels you're fine. A 3-4 level gap is probably pushing it though.

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Because every class has the same experience level chart and benefits, and everyone receives the same amount of experience from every encounter/quest/skill-challenge/whatever, everyone should be at the same level.

There should be no reason that characters are of different levels unless they have not been playing with the same group.

The 4th edition system doesn't have much to say about when characters are of different levels, but as long as it's in 1 or 2 levels then just adjust the experience point budget for each encounter to make it more or less difficult.

If the level difference is greater than that, then you'll probably have to level some of the guys up so that they are close together in level. Otherwise the game will not work from a balance and design point of view

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+1 Surely someone has dealt with this... –  F. Randall Farmer Dec 5 '10 at 1:21
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In the D20 and Saga Edition Star Wars games I've been in recently, the party is always at a fixed experience level, and if we have to swap out characters (as when a player quit and was replaced) the new person makes a character of appropriate level. It works fine. –  David Thornley Dec 5 '10 at 18:16
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