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Now that 5e's been out for a few years, has anyone found a point past which characters have a significant jump in power and developed a set of rules for capping levels below that, similar to the "E6" system in 3.x?

If there's not a generally accepted system, has anyone created and used a set of rules that accomplish the goal of capping play at a modest power level, where PC's can't topple kingdoms by themselves? Specifically, I have a large city on the verge of a peasant uprising, where I want the players to be able to influence the outcome one way or the other by strategically picking battles, running supplies, advising leaders of different factions, etc., but not by just blasting whoever they want to lose.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Obviously related to What would an "E6" for 5e look like?, but IMO not a duplicate because at this point it's more of a factual question, not speculative. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 16:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also take a look at the Brancalonia rules, which have a functioning "E6" system for 5e. \$\endgroup\$
    – porges
    Commented May 20 at 22:52

5 Answers 5

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In a word? No.

There are several people out there who have tried to cap 5e Character progression in differing ways (one such example being here), but there is no 'broadly accepted' system that I have ever seen.

Part of this is because 5E is much better balanced than 3.5E was. Yes, spellcasters are very powerful... but spells like Solid Fog that are basically "Be a Spellcaster or Lose" simply don't exist anymore. And the existence of spells like Solid Fog are the whole reason that E6 was invented in the first place. And other spells that 'broke things' at 7th level, such as Polymorph, received a significant Nerf. (Polymorph used to let you turn targets into dragons, aberrations, etc. Now it only lets you turn targets into Beasts)

See, 5E introduced Bounded Accuracy, sharply restricted the Magic Item creep, made non-casters more powerful than they used to be, and ditched a lot of the terribly unbalancing spells. These systemic changes are widely viewed by fans of the old E6 system as an integration of E6 design goals into the base system. As a result, it seems that the fanbase at large has not deemed the addition of an E6 system to be necessary. The opinion seems to be that 5E doesn't "break" at a certain level the way 3.5 did.

Advice Section

With the factual bit out of the way... let me offer a bit of advice.

If you want to cap character progression for your campaign, then do it. 5E provides rules for doing without XP, so your characters only advance at 'Milestones' (i.e. when the DM wants them to level up). So you could pace your entire adventure so that they level more slowly than 'normal' and only reach your chosen 'max level' by the time the campaign is over.

Alternately, have a look at Epic Boons in the DMG, and if you want to cap them at a particular level, but allow progression to continue... consider inventing some nerfed versions of those.

Bear in mind... 'Level 7' isn't quite as big of a deal in 5E at it was in 3.5. The 'Tiers' of adventure are divided up at...

  1. Level 1-4 (local threats... such as those threatening a small town)
  2. Level 5-10 (Area threats... such as those threatening a city or kingdom)
  3. Level 11-16 (Continental threats... such as those threatening an entire continent or region)
  4. Level 17-20 (Global to Universal threats... such as those threatening the entire world)

As a result, in 5E... the published adventures tend to follow this trend.

Lost Mine of Phandelver deals in a fairly local threat, and caps out at level 5. Curse of Strahd deals with a Kingdom-scale threat, and caps out at level 10. Basically all the rest of them address threats that target an entire region, and cap at level 15.

So, just pace your game so that they level at a pace to keep them within the 'appropriate' range.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, there's a few near-1:1 mappings, such as the Proficiency bonus and BAB growths lining up(A subset of bounded accuracy), reduction of magic item power. These could be argued objectively as things that solve the same sort of problem. \$\endgroup\$
    – godskook
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 19:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ Of note is that the tier system is not entirely accurate for all published adventures. Tomb of Annihilation deals with a global threat, the entire world suffers from a curse, yet you're expected to cap at level 11. \$\endgroup\$
    – Theik
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 10:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ E6 isn't just about balance, it's about maintaining a feel where wizards and warriors don't become superheroes. You don't just "break" above level 6 you tell different stories above level 6 (per the tier system) and some people want to run a longer campaign telling those stories. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 4:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Aside from the first paragraph, this answer doesn't address the OP's question, which was, "If there's not a generally accepted system, has anyone created and used a set of rules that accomplish the goal of capping play at a modest power level." To answer "In a word? No." is misleading. People have absolutely developed such rules. The answer addresses the question "Should I adopt or create E6 rules?", which isn't what the OP is asking. \$\endgroup\$
    – shmeck
    Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 23:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Theik: Tomb of Annihilation is a weird one, as the curse in question's only immediately noticeable effect is on the tiny subset of the population (the few people who are wealthy enough, and live lives dangerous enough, to both have died previously and had the money to afford being resurrected). It's technically a global threat (and it has implications not known initially), but on its surface, it's like a city/kingdom scale threat finely scattered across the world (admittedly, it's super-important to adventurers, what with their risk of dying on the job). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 1:53
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No. There is no e6 variant in 5e.

I've met people who worked out how to level beyond 20th, calculating XP tables, proficiency bonuses, etc., but I haven't seen anything for capping the game below 20th. Instead, I have experienced a few surprising changes to NPC structure that may already solve your problem.

First of all, for your demands, there is a carrot stick approach.

Let's Begin with the Carrot

The DMG presents sections on Pages 228 to 231 covering options including Marks of Prestige, Parcels of Land, Titles, and Training, which include things like granting proficiency in a skill or a new feat.

These are the tools a king or empire can use to influence high level characters to do things like stopping a peasant revolt, under the conditions that a minimum number of lives are lost. You could even make a short chart indicating cumulative merits, like, "no lives lost, total success" vs "few lost lives", "major political/military strategic person/place destroyed" vs. "major political rival/fortress captured". Then dole out better titles and awards (cash, treasure, medals, etc.) in exchange.

You could even earmark certain grand awards on a tier, like its own level system or "merit badge ranking" system, where a character can become an earl if they earn medals A,B, and X and complete 2 minor, and 1 major missions/boons, etc.

All the tools to do this are right there in the DMG pages I mentioned, and all you need to do is remember that you control the politicians, their titles, ranks, and coffers.

The average player character, given a choice between low XP awards for blasting an irritating peasant, and wedding a lady of the court, marrying into a famous house, becoming knighted, gaining a keep or castle, or getting those precious weeks/months of training to learn that precious feat without having to level...

They are almost always going to take the boons.

Now for the Stick

When I first got into 5e, I began to notice "these orcs were not the same as grandpa's orcs". The NPCs aren't zero level. Even in a small number, like 5 or 6, a few CR 1-4 NPCs can lay waste to a player character.

They can get you when you are sleeping in the Inn, or drunk and wandering down the ally. They can get you when you are shopping or crossing that draw bridge, to go prove how tough you are, only to discover what goes wrong when the NPCs all have just enough HP to survive the first blast of fireball. How high level does an NPC have to be to survive 8d6?

When you have a group of 6-30 NPCs, not as high as you think. About half will make their saving throws. 8d6 averages about 24-26. But saving for half only requires NPCs to have 13-14 hit points to survive. A bunch of CR 2-3 peasants, captains, and soldiers would never be seen in AD&D, but in 5e, they are all over the place. Even the local priest, CR 2, has 27 hit points - that's like two fireballs in a row and he's still barking orders at his zealots!

Have a number of knights guarding the gates at a rival Duke's palace in the middle of a War of Roses? All 8+ of those guys in armor have 52 hit points a piece, and are only CR 3. Sure, the PC's think they are Guards (11HP, CR 1/8) but the PCs don't need to know that.

If you want to get really mean, there are tv series like Spartacus, that illustrate whole pits full of Gladiators. Literally, a small army of gladiators, ranging from 15-300 men. How bad could that be?

The lowly CR 5 Gladiators only have 112 hit points a piece. Wait. What? But commoners are 4 hit points, and it says "peasants, serfs, slaves...hermits". Sure. But Gladiators are also slaves. And hermits are also Priests and Spell Casters.

By sticking with CR 1-5 NPCs, and using them in small bundles, you can keep the peasants far lower level that say, a 14th level Warlock or 12th level Barbarian, but even 5-6 of them could drop your most obstinate PC.

I had a very high level 5e character, something like +14 to hit, multiple attacks, spells, sneak attacks - even had fireballs. And he didn't stand a chance against 8 human "guards" at the gates.

You, as the DM don't just command the gates. You command the whole revolution. The whole kingdom, and all its neighbors. You have literally millions of people to draw from and among them, can easily cluster dozens of mediocre CR 2-5 traditional NPCs (like knights, gladiators, and cult fanatics) to surround and imprison/execute uppity player characters.

Balancing Stick and Carrot

When you demonstrate the stick, it adds weight to the otherwise "fluff" aspect of the carrot options that don't seem as useful. When the players see the power wielded, then they will start to respect the value of being able to walk about those "walls of meat" guards because of their Medals of Valor, or being awarded with NPC servants that can actually do things by means of land and title. A Paladin having command of a squadron of Knights, or a Fighter being gifted their own Ludus (Gladiator training hall) with one or more gladiators to command has more impact than the CR 3-5 implies.

Letting your players build into the world, like actual buildings, territories, alliances, and relationships bolsters the value and personal interest in ways that leveling up doesn't. Meteor Swarm is nice, but many will find a Palace is better.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 I really appreciate that this answer accentuates that being high level does not convey borderline godly powers compared to other people you encounter, which I consider one of the highlights of 5e. Furthermore, you included the concept of seeking non-violent solutions to problems by virtue of the fact that combat doesn't really ever cease being a dangerous endeavor. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 19:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank goodness I remembered at the last minute to include the reason I was asking! These are great suggestions for how to accentuate the natural PC-NPC balance in 5e. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 21:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Answers like this make me wish I could favorite answers as well as questions on StackExchange. Although I won't necessarily experience the scenario outlined in the question, this answer presents some useful ideas that I might want to draw on for other purposes. Kudos! \$\endgroup\$
    – Soron
    Commented Jul 2, 2017 at 7:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ The average of 8d6 is 28 \$\endgroup\$
    – András
    Commented May 23, 2022 at 20:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ I had one of a pair of 7th level characters get killed by kobolds, and it wasn't an insane amount of kobolds either. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 19:07
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Yes, I developed the 5e E6 rules below.

Our group has used them for over a year. They work well for achieving E6's goals, and they seem to align with Ryan Stoughton's stated goals when he created E6.

We like 5e and were pleased that it addressed many of the issues E6 resolved, but we do not feel 5e achieves E6's goals— at least not enough for our taste and play style— especially regarding class balance and the overall feel of the game <— (original inspiration for Stoughton's E6, written by Bill Seligman for The Dragon #5 in 1977). The good news is 5e's bounded accuracy design really lends itself to an E6 mod.

For Players

  • Level Advancement ends at 6th Level. Spells above 3rd level only exist via extremely powerful items, one-time unique rituals and Legendary creatures. Maximum Proficiency Bonus is +3.

  • Experience Point Progression: After 14,000 (6th level), characters receive either a Feat or a Class Feature every 7,500 xp. This is referred to as 6+1, 6+2, etc.

  • Hit Point Increases: At each progression, characters receive new Hit Points equal to their Constitution Bonus or 1, whichever is higher, every 7,500 xp. Hit dice do not increase.

  • Selecting Feats: A character may select any feat for which they meet the prerequisites. Feats that duplicate or grant access to spells above 3rd level (or features that the DM declares overpowered) are ineligible. A special Spell Improvement feat is also available (see Normal Spell Progression below).

  • Selecting Class Features: Instead of a feat, players may select a single class feature from any class. The same restrictions on feats apply for features. Players use (Class Level) + (# of features selected from this class) to determine class level eligibility (see Example 2 below). Thus, if a new class is selected, players may only select a 1st level feature. A lower-level class feature may be “skipped” for a higher-level feature under two conditions: (1) more than one class feature was available at the previous level, and one of those features was previously selected, or (2) the only available lower-level feature was ruled ineligible by the DM. Eligible lower-level features may always be selected.

  • Class Features that Scale by Level: To determine the effects of Class Features that scale by level, use (Class Level) + (# of features selected from this class) as the character’s level to determine effects, with a maximum of 6+10 = 16. Class Features that scale by level never scale beyond level 6+10. The effects of cantrips and spells count as features that scale by level, and unlike regular spells, cantrip effects are always determined by total character level (ignoring classes), as with normal 5e (see Example 2 below). Multiclass characters with non-cantrip features that scale by level in multiple classes may only scale up features in the class from which they most recently selected a new feature, unless the feature is a cantrip.

  • Spells that Improve by Spell Level: Characters who reach level 6+1 in any spellcasting class except Warlock gain one Spell Level Enhancement slot, which can be expended at the same time as a spell slot. Each Enhancement Slot has a fixed spell level, determined at the time it is gained, using (Class Level) + (# of features selected from this class) ÷ 2 rounded up. Each subsequent feature taken in the same spellcasting class grants an additional Enhancement slot with its own spell level. The spell level of previous Enhancement Slots never increase. Spell Level Enhancement slots are replenished simultaneously with spell slots. Warlocks cast all spells at 4th level on reaching class level 6+1, and they cast at 5th level on reaching class level 6+3. Warlock spell level does not increase after class level 6+3.

  • Normal Spell Progression ends at 6th level. A special Spell Improvement feat is available to all spellcasting classes, and it counts as a feature in that class. Spell Improvement grants one spell slot at any spell level a character can cast, using (Class Level) + (# of features selected from this class) as the character’s level, with a hard maximum of 3rd level spells. Also, for classes that normally receive new Spells Known on advancement, the Spell Impovement feat grants one new Spell Known at 3rd level or lower from the appropriate spell list (Wizard, Sorcerer, Bard, Ranger, Warlock, Eldritch Knight, Arcane Trickster). Spell Improvement can be taken any number of times, and there is no maximum number of spell slots per spell level.

  • Class Features that can be swapped for different class features when gaining a level, such as known spells, invocations, infusions, etc. can be swapped at each progression.

Advancement Examples

Example 1: More than one Class Feature available at the same level: A Cleric reaches 21,500 xp, Level 6+1. She adds her Con bonus (or 1) to her HP and takes the Warcaster feat. When she reaches 29,000 xp (Level 6+2) she adds her Con bonus (or 1) to HP. Then she may choose a new feat, a first-level class feature in a new class, or one of the three class features available to Clerics at 8th level: Divine Domain Feature, Ability Score Improvement, or Destroy Undead. She may also select Spell Improvement and gain another 3rd level spell slot. At Level 6+3, she may select another 8th level feature, a feat, or a 9th level feature such as Spell Improvement, which is available at every Cleric level.

Example 2: Multiclass Character with Scaling Class Features: A character with 5 levels of Warlock and 1 level of Rogue reaches 29,000 xp, Level 6+2. She adds her Con bonus (or +1) to her HP. Then she may choose a feature from either of her classes or a feat. Her effective Warlock level for selecting Class Features is 5+2= 7th and her effective Rogue level for choosing features is 1+2= 3rd. At 6+1 she took the 2nd level Rogue feature Cunning Action. If she wanted to take a Warlock feature, she would need to take the 6th level Otherworldly Patron Feature, because these must be taken in order. She chooses the Roguish Archetype Feature for 3rd level Rogue. She also has two features that scale by level in different classes: Sneak Attack and Eldritch Invocations. She must scale up her Rogue features, since she took Rogue features this level, so her Sneak Attack increases to 2d6. Her Eldritch Invocations remain at 3.

For DMs

Of course the DM should apply similar restrictions to challenges and treasure, and often boss monsters with Challenge Ratings above 12 should be tweaked regarding effects above 3rd level spells. This creates some extra prep work for the DM. Legendary Actions and Lair Actions are good first places for DMs to look for adjustments. Often these can simply be deleted, unless the party is far beyond Level 6. A Level 6+4 party is not substantially weaker than a normal 5e Level 10 party, but a normal 5e Level 17 party is substantially stronger than a Level 6+11 party. The further players advance beyond 6+5, the more this mod departs from regular 5e regarding challenge rating, especially if the DM tosses a Very Rare or Legendary item into the mix. At our table, +1 is the maximum bonus an item can grant, except for artifacts and conditional item powers, such as a Mace of Smiting that becomes temporarily +3 vs constructs.

How it's worked so far

Once 6+1 is achieved, learning the rules mod above was a minor hurdle for those less conversant with the nuances of 5e. With a new feature every 7500 xp, advancement in our game feels steady and swift. Players with Wiz / Sorc / Cler /Dru PCs naturally tend to be less enthusiastic about E6, since it places the most severe limits on those classes.

Update: Previously we kept a hard cap of 4 spell slots per spell level, but at higher levels, martial classes began to outstrip spellcasters. When we removed the spell slot cap and added Spell Level Enhancement Slots, the mod has a very close balance between martial classes and high level spellcasters than normal 5e. We've also found Level 6+ characters in this mod can handle powerful, high-CR foes as long as the DM is careful with abilities on par with 4th level (or higher) spells. Legendary actions and occasional one-time "epic" effects imitating spells above 3rd level haven't caused serious balance issues. For example, a Level 6+8 party defeated a slightly nerfed Tiamat with the help of a powerful demon and a single-shot Time Stop item.

Spell Improvement has been the best optimization pick for primary casters. The non-E6 class design assumes spell progression, creating more "dead levels" for Wiz / Sorc / Cler / Dru class features. Players wishing to focus on spellcasting have usually taken Spell Improvement or feats that improve or expand casting. For other classes, this mod seems to encourage and facilitate multiclassing, which we've enjoyed.

We've also had fun introducing spells above 3rd level as "epic" scrolls and artifact abilities. A regular old Crystal Ball, for example, becomes a truly mighty and game-changing item with this mod, like the Palantir was in LOTR.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 4:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is there a reason this post keeps being bumped with what look like inconsequential wording tweaks? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 23, 2019 at 16:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I've been improving the language to make it easier to understand for anyone who might want to try it out. I also fixed a few holes I discovered in the mod, like setting a maximum number of slots attainable with the Spell Improvement feat. \$\endgroup\$
    – shmeck
    Commented Nov 30, 2019 at 13:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @shmeck is this post the entire set of your E6 rules, or are they posted in a google doc or a pdf somewhere? (I am a little puzzled with how Seligman's article on Gandalf is the genesis of E6, but I can't open enworld nor rpgsite from where I am so that question I'll not ask here) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 16:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast this post is the entire set and it's the only place I've posted it publicly. In his E6 FAQ, Stoughton writes: "E6 was inspired by the article Gandalf was a Fifth-Level Magic User by Bill Seligman. The article was published in The Dragon (which became Dragon magazine) in issue #5, March 1977." \$\endgroup\$
    – shmeck
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 17:14
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Kind of

There are 5e-based indie games with similar experience. The one which comes to mind is Five Torches Deep, it is essentially a simplified 5e and OSR crossover.

According to the PDF, PCs are supposed to be as powerful as 1-3 lvl characters are in 5e:

PCs are most similar to 5e in levels 1 - 3, and to B/X for 4 - 9. Max PC level is 9.

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This was our version, reserving full feats for occasional use, but granting some higher level class abilities.

Total Character Level is limited to 6 Levels. For these first 6 Levels they get all abilities from all levels.

When characters would advance after Level 6, they instead get a modest Hit Point Increase, an extension to their class levels (which defines options for selecting their Advancement), and then pick one Advancement. This extension raises the class level to X+1 (e.g. a Level 6 Fighter would be a Level 6+1 Fighter; A Level 4 Ranger/Level 2 Druid could become a Level 4+1 Ranger/Level 2+1 Druid). They do not get the full abilities of the new level, just more options to choose their Advancement from.

  • Hit Point Increase is equal to the higher of Con modifier or 1. This does not grant extra Hit Dice.

An Advancement can be a single class ability from any level that they are eligible for (including the +X levels).

  • Class Ability: One selection from the standard array of abilities available from any of the character’s classes (e.g. Extra Attack, Uncanny Dodge, Subclass abilities, etc.).

  • Skipping Abilities: With the exception of Spellcasting (below), class ability selections can skip levels (e.g. skipping the Level 7 abilities and taking a Level 8 ability when they reach Level 6+2).

  • ASI/Feat: One selection can be the class’s listed Ability Score Increases or Full Feat. The same level feature can’t be taken multiple times (i.e. you can’t take the Fighter 6th level ASI multiple times, but you can take the 6th level and 8th level each once).

  • Spellcasting: This Advancement increases their caster level by one, granting both Spell Slots and Known Spells appropriate to their new Casting Level, learning up to Level 3 spells. Characters can gain 4th level spell slots (for casting lower level spells with more powerful effects), but cannot learn 4th level spells.

    • The character’s total Casting Level is their base casting from Levels 1-6 plus one for each time they’ve selected the Spellcasting class ability for a given class.
    • It determines their spell slots and maximum level of spell they can learn.
    • Multiclass caster spell slots are based on the combination of their Caster Levels in all classes.
  • Hit Points: This Advancement grants an additional hit die and its max value in hit points (Con modifier was already added as part of Hit Point Increase).

If no class abilities look good, they also have the option of taking:

  • An additional use of existing class abilities (additional Second Wind, additional Lay on Hands, Channel Divinity, etc.)
  • +1 to any Ability Score
  • A Half Feat (Feat that also grants a +1 Ability Score Increase, but without the increase)

For example:

  • A Level 6 Paladin would advance to a Level 6+1 Paladin: they gain a few additional hit points, and could pick one of these: one 7th level Paladin class ability, gain an extra use of Channel Divinity, increase their Paladin Caster Level to 7th, gain a +1 to Charisma, or learn the Heavy Armor Master Feat (without the +1 to Strength).

    • Then when they advance again, they would become a Level 6+2 Paladin and could choose a 7th or 8th level Paladin class ability, in addition to the other options. In addition, this would be character level 8, so they could choose a standard Ability Score Increase or Full Feat as their class ability.

    • Another advancement is Level 6+3 and they could choose a 7th, 8th, or 9th level Paladin class ability, in addition to the other options, but if they have already chosen to take their 8th level ASI, they can’t select it again.

    • Altogether, they could have chosen +1 to Charisma at 6+1, a extra Casting Level at 6+2, and an ASI at level 6+3 (skipping the 7th level class abilities). They would not have the full class abilities and spell slots of levels 7-9 – only what they chose.

  • A Level 4 Rogue/Level 2 Fighter would become a Level 4+1 Rogue/Level 2+1 Fighter. In addition to a few additional hit points, they could pick one of these: one 5th Level Rogue class ability (Uncanny Dodge), one 3rd Level Fighter class ability (select a Martial Archetype and pick one ability), an extra Second Wind use, +1 to Dexterity, or learn the Durable Feat (without the +1 to Constitution).

    • Then when they advance again, they would become a Level 4+2 Rogue/Level 2+2 Fighter. In addition to a few additional hit points, they could take any ability from level 5 or 6 Rogue or level 3 or 4 Fighter, including going back and selecting another ability from the same Martial Archetype that they missed last advancement or selecting an ASI/Feat from 4th Level Fighter.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center. \$\endgroup\$
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