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I have just reread the introduction part of the Abridged P6 codex, an implementation of E6 rules for Pathfinder. And I noticed (once again) a very interesting passage:

One way of envisioning the character levels is that a 1st level character is roughly equivalent to a journeyman craftsman – a squire just completing their training, a conscripted farmer just off their first tour of duty, or a wizard just finishing their apprenticeship. A 3 rd level character is roughly equivalent to a master craftsman – well above the peasants, common laborers, and even craftsmen in most rural villages, but not uncommon in the towns and cities. Fifth level would include the renowned master craftsman – one who has achieved a rare height for their profession; they would only be found haphazardly in anything smaller than a city and be few in number for any given profession even in a larger city. Beyond 6th level, a character or NPC would be truly epic, the type about whom legends will be spun unless they work hard to hush them up.

While I understand clearly why is it good to go no further than level 6 (because 4th level spells), my question is:

Why does this game not stop earlier, for example, at 3d or 4th level?

It would probably be kind of unreasonable to permanently stick with a situation where everyone has "just finished their apprenticeship", but being "roughly equivalent to a master craftsman" is already a pretty high position. Not everyone should be "truly epic", achieving the potential of standard Pathfinder level 8 heroes.

I am seeking for answers naming exact disadvantages of low-level play (levels from 1 to 5) compared to level 6 play, not general rant. I also ask to adhere to Good Subjective, Bad Subjective guidelines and support your answer with actual experience.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is there a reason not to tag this PF? Or is it just an oversight? \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jul 31 '17 at 15:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 The historical context suggests that this should be tagged 3.5, not PF. I'm guessing that's a good enough reason to not tag it Pathfinder. \$\endgroup\$ – godskook Jul 31 '17 at 15:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ This question is likely to attract speculative answers, you might want to tag it [designer-reasons] to avoid it. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Jul 31 '17 at 15:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @kviiri Well, I have defined the scope of possible answers as "the exact disadvantages of lower-level play compared to level 6 play", as much as those can be named objectively. \$\endgroup\$ – Baskakov_Dmitriy Jul 31 '17 at 15:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @kviiri The fact that level 6 was chosen and not some lower level. If an answer offers a frame challenge such as "there are no disadvantages" and explains it well, it could also be good. \$\endgroup\$ – Baskakov_Dmitriy Jul 31 '17 at 15:35
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The official thread for E6 references the idea that 6th is the beginning of the “heroic fantasy quartile” as defined by discussions prior to the development of E6, but this isn’t really the answer because: 1. when answering “why 6th?” this isn’t the answer given, and 2. the entire quartile premise isn’t really accurate. Rather, the designer’s stated reasoning is purely empirical: in their experience, 6th worked best. They don’t specifically offer speculation as to why 6th worked out well, they just tried different things and found 6th most comfortable.

However, there are many reasons why that happened, that we can see from a system-design standpoint. 6th level has a lot of notable advantages to it.

  • Generally, more levels means more toys to play with, more options available, more customization possible. Removing levels from the game thus comes at a cost. So balancing “having enough levels to have a lot of options” against “having few enough levels to avoid the problems of high levels” is a two-way street.

  • In specifics, the biggest single reason is the first iterative attack gained at +6/+1 BAB. Since that is achievable, it gives a rather nice benefit to taking only full-BAB classes—6th is often one of the best levels for such characters. If you never got to 6th, you wouldn’t “lose out” nearly so much if you missed a BAB or two.

  • 6th also bumps both good and poor saves, avoiding any awkward fractions that go unused.

  • You can take your first level in many prestige classes at 6th. Getting to 6th thus allows prestige classes to exist in the game, where otherwise they mostly wouldn’t.

  • As I have discussed, the difference between 3rd and 4th level spells is vast, far more than between 1st and 2nd or 2nd and 3rd. The manageable potency of 3rd-level spells, versus not having spells at all, is a significant factor. While this is kind of the inverse of “why not higher than 6th?” it is relevant because the problems that limiting things to 6th fix are much less severe below 6th. Going lower than 6th thus solves fewer problems than stopping at 6th does.

This list should not be taken as exhaustive, but I do think these are the biggest reasons for not lower than 6th.

There is also another thing to point out: the game changes massively between 1st and 2nd level. It’s almost like playing a different game entirely. At 1st level, the game is hyper-lethal—many characters are downed by a single attack, and almost no one can survive a critical hit. Wealth is massively limited, usually (a lot) less than 200 gp, while at 2nd the expected wealth is 900 gp. A lot of classes (e.g. paladin, ranger) don’t even have their signature ability yet, since the need to avoid overpowering single-level multiclass dips shifts some signature features to 2nd level instead of 1st. Since 1st level is such a completely different game, staying that low brings with it a large array of changes—you’re basically not playing the game that 3.5 or PF represents at any other level.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can I please ask you to tell a little bit more about the difference between level 2 and level 4? I think, then it will be complete. \$\endgroup\$ – Baskakov_Dmitriy Jul 31 '17 at 15:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Baskakov_Dmitriy The answer addresses 6th vs. <6th, and then addresses 1st specifically. There are not really anything special between 2nd and 4th to address. I honestly don’t really know what you expect, or in what way this is incomplete. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 31 '17 at 15:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Then perhaps I expect something that isn't there. :) \$\endgroup\$ – Baskakov_Dmitriy Jul 31 '17 at 15:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Baskakov_Dmitriy Not 2nd or 4th because my answer. It’s all already in there. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 31 '17 at 15:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Baskakov this explains precisely why you need at least 6. The answer to "why no 2 or 4" is "6 makes the more sense" \$\endgroup\$ – Patrice Aug 1 '17 at 13:11
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In this forum thread, under the FAQ, the following is said by the creator of E6:

Q: Why 6th level for the cap? Why not 12th, or 20th?

A: My experience in D&D is that at around 6th level the characters are really nicely balanced, both in terms of balance against other classes, and against the CR system. Also, there was an element of setting assumptions; each class is strong enough that they're well defined in their role, but not so strong that lower-level characters don't matter to them any more.

Emphasis mine. This topic is not explored any further, but it the bolded part reveals quite well the intent behind choosing level 6. Characters beyond that would become so strong that they would be completely out-of-touch with lower-level adventurers, while restricting the level cap further would not provide the same sensation of playing a well-defined epic hero.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I would gladly hear more details about things that "define heroes". And this entry is actually about high levels, not low. \$\endgroup\$ – Baskakov_Dmitriy Jul 31 '17 at 15:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Baskakov_Dmitriy You can always ask the creator of E6 what they meant, but what I gathered from this is that a character below level 6 wouldn't adequately fulfill the archetype the character is supposed to represent in heroic fantasy except as someone still in-training. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Jul 31 '17 at 15:53
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The current wisdom of the time was, roughly speaking, that 3.5 can be divided up into 4 quartiles of play:

Levels 1-5: Gritty fantasy

Levels 6-10: Heroic fantasy

Levels 11-15: Wuxia

Levels 16-20: Superheroes

E6 sat at the cusp of Gritty and Heroic fantasy within this paradigm. That alone is sufficient to explain why level 5 or 6 is chosen, but a few more gritty details of 3.5 can be noted for why 6 is obviously preferable to 5.

  1. Even levels are better balanced than odd levels, for casters, as that's when Sorcerers and the like catch up to Wizards.
  2. Level 6 has the first iterative, and Full-Attacks add a tactically interesting point to the game. Additionally, this gives value to Full-BAB classes beyond being marginally higher-numbers when attacking, helping to maintain a delicate mundane/caster balance.
  3. The last natural feat is given at 6.
  4. A large number of feats have BAB 6 or other level-6-only requirements, due to that being such a natural "hot-spot" for picking up feats(Fighters get 2 feats and EVERYONE gets a feat at level 6). Stopping at level 5 would've cut out a larger section of feats for mundanes than stopping at 6 does, and casters didn't need the help.
  5. All save progressions progress at 6.

And yes, the designers were aware of these things.

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Because the goal of E6 is to capture the feeling of playing D&D in a certain "sweet spot."

Check out the intro text:

How E6 works

Like d20, E6 is a game of enigmatic wizards, canny rogues, and mighty warriors who rise against terrible dangers and overcome powerful foes. But instead of using d20’s 20 levels to translate characters into the rules, E6 uses only the first 6. E6 is about changing one of d20’s essential assumptions, but it doesn't need a lot of rules to make that change.

To understand E6, imagine the perspective of the average medieval peasant in a d20 game. This person has the stats of a 1st-level commoner, and while they might not know their stats explicitly, they know their relation to the rest of the world. Our peasant knows that he can be killed quite easily by maurauding raiders, enemy soldiers, or even wild animals. He’s not mighty, he’s not organized, and he doesn’t have any special skills to bring to bear when danger strikes. He worries about drought and flood, and the welfare of his livestock. His extended family likely all lives within a mile of his birthplace. To him, a trip to a town ten miles off is an expedition into the unknown.

Imagine you are this peasant, and you meet a trio of 6th-level adventurers. When you address the wizard, you are speaking to someone who could incinerate your home and slay all your livestock with a few words. The fighter has prevailed against a dozen orcish skirmishers and slain them all – and he could do the same again. The cleric is a man so holy that the gods themselves have granted him the power to cure the sick and heal the wounded. These are epic heroes.

Now consider the powers of a CR 5 manticore. To the peasant, the appearance of this manticore near the village isn’t a nuisance: the beast can, and likely will slay you in seconds if you draw its attention. You, your livestock, and your entire family are in immediate danger of violent death. Even if you were well armed and gathered a large peasant militia, your village faces heavy losses and no guarantee of success. Against such a creature, adventurers may be your only hope. E6 recognizes that 6th level characters are mortal, while reframing the game’s perspective to create a context where those same 6th level characters are epic heroes.

Read over that paragraph about character abilities. That's the part that explains the intended feel of the game: heroic, fundamentally D&D-like, full of familiar touchstones, but without the glut of harder-to-manage stuff you get at higher levels.

A wizard with Haste and Fireball is, very recognizably, a D&D wizard. A druid who shapeshifts is, very recognizably, a D&D druid. A fighter can pick up Great Cleave or Whirlwind Attack and really go to town on a bunch of low-level enemies (as described in the blurb) at around level 6.

The other answers have addressed some of the mechanical concerns, like the reason to cap at 6 instead of 5 (saving throw breakpoints, +6/+1 BAB, parity between classes that get major good stuff at level 5 and classes that get major good stuff at level 6). There's a lot of fine details that, conveniently, just work out at level 6! Which keeps the rules-hacking pretty minimal even though it's such a big structural change.

But, most of all, I want to emphasize this: E6 caps at 6 because the stuff you get at levels 5-6 is a big chunk of the stuff the author considers the most iconic and fun part of D&D.

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In Calibrating your Expectations, Justin Alexander comes to almost the same level distribution for standard D&D3:

Almost everyone you have ever met is a 1st level character. The few exceptional people you’ve met are probably 2nd or 3rd level – they’re canny and experienced and can accomplish things that others find difficult or impossible.

If you know someone who’s 4th level, then you’re privileged to know one of the most talented people around: They’re a professional sports player. Or a brain surgeon. Or a rocket scientist.

If you know someone who’s 5th level, then you have the honor of knowing someone that will probably be written about in history books. Walter Payton. Michael Jordan. Albert Einstein. Isaac Newton. Miyamoto Musashi. William Shakespeare.

So when your D&D character hits 6th level, it means they’re literally superhuman: They are capable of achieving things that no human being has ever been capable of achieving. They have transcended the mortal plane and become a mythic hero.

These conclusions comes from different considerations mostly on the value of skill ranks, read the article if you want the full explanations.

The "E" in E6 stands for "Epic" (not "Master", "Accomplished"...). If it stopped before this level it wouldn't follow the goal to make players play epic characters.

So by Justin Alexander's logic (which seems the same as E6 designer's) it makes sense to choose 6 for the level cap.

The 6th level is also a sweet spot where the game is balanced-ish between giving characters interesting options and keeping them as a reasonable level of power. Other answers already explained that better than I could.

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