Eclipse and the Tier System

For today, it’s a question from Alzrius

I only recently discovered the Tier System for classes in D&D 3.5, by one of the guys over at Brilliant Gameologists, and was wondering what you thought of it.

Looking it over (the second post seems to be the most insightful), this is basically a system for ranking classes based on two factors: 1) How many relevant options they can exercise in *any* given situation (or perhaps it’s better to say “in *every* possible situation”), and 2) how powerful those options are. As you probably guessed, full-progression spellcasters that don’t have a limit to how many spells they can know top the list.

I have to admit, I find this to be a very insightful breakdown of the various classes, particularly in terms of its analysis regarding what these differing tiers mean in the context of practical game-play (particularly what the GM can expect, and should prepare for, if the players use differing-tier classes in his campaign).


The Wizard of Oz as pictured in The Wonderful ...

Stop looking behind the curtain!

Well… I’ve run across the Tier system before, but – to be honest – I’ve never really had that much use for it. Most obviously, that’s because most of my games use classless systems, which makes the entire notion of Class Tiers something of a moot point. There are several more subtle reasons though, mostly revolving around the conditions under which it operates. The Tier system can be very, VERY, useful to those who are playing a classed d20 game “straight” – that is to say, when…

  • Most of the stuff from a fair number of “official” books is allowed, including at least a few badly written or edited bits*.
  • There are no special world-laws that restrict problematic abilities or other major modifications to the classes.
  • The “party” is an automatic association, instead of simply being a current group of characters (possibly one of many) with reasons to work together.
  • The game follows the default d20 pattern – a few sessions worth of self-contained set-piece challenge-rating-appropriate encounters and then a “boss fight” (and usually a level up), with a few bits of gather-information, find-the-mcguffin, social-persuasion, and bypass-the-obstacle activities thrown in along the way.
  • The game continues to relatively high levels. After all, comparing a fourth-level Wizard or Cleric to a fourth-level (whatever) is usually not all that much like comparing an eighteenth-level Wizard or Cleric to an eighteenth level (whatever).
  • The game master is handing out per-level treasure normally, and is either putting in plenty of downtime for spell research and crafting or is allowing magic-shopping.
  • And (of course) that the game is not using Eclipse or another classless system.

In that case the Tier system is reasonably accurate – and can be EXTREMELY helpful. After all, “default games” are very common; an awful lot of game masters have neither the time, nor the inspiration, to invent a world, sort through a mountain of sourcebooks for what to allow, create world laws, let parties self-select from a pool of characters rather than simply having everyone make a character, and adjust the game to complicate things or to keep things at their preferred levels. For them, the Tier system is an excellent guide to what to expect and what to watch out for.

There’s a lot of fun to be had that way – but I generally do take the time. In addition..

  • I’m not much for “level appropriate encounters”. I’ve found that it’s usually MUCH more interesting to let the players discover a strange problem, follow trails of clues to figure out exactly what it is, find that it’s far beyond their ability to deal with directly, gather information, either come up with a plan to exploit a vulnerability they’ve uncovered or gather the resources they need to implement whatever solution they come up with, and then try to pull out a victory. With that kind of adventure structure it really doesn’t matter much how powerful any individual character is; every character can find useful (and often vital) things to do, given that the “Tier 1” types can’t be everywhere at once and that they’re sorting out their own missions (which will, of course, be tailored to their particular abilities). That way special resources – such as connections and character-tailored unique items – often matter more than having an impressive range of personal powers to use. There’s an example of that over HERE.
  • I’ve allowed various freeform magic systems since the late 70’s – albeit usually limited by theme. Over that time I’ve found that cleverly applied minor abilities usually outperform poorly-applied raw power – and my games tend to make small, themed, freeform magics available to anyone who wants them. Of course, when you misuse freeform abilities, or apply more traditional talents in creative and unusual ways, there’s always a chance that things will go spectacularly wrong. Similarly, most of my games since the late 70’s have allowed some form of special talent system – something which makes little difference to a powerful character, but helps a lot with weaker ones. That also means that I’ve had a LOT of practice evaluating proposed spells and powers – which is why many of the spells and ability combinations that are favored as “win buttons” (for example, Shivering Touch) do not make it into my games. After all, if it was THAT easy, then those problems would have already been dealt with by other groups. Ergo it’s obviously not that easy – although discovering why may be an adventure in itself.
  • Problems in my games can usually be solved in many different ways – and the most workable solutions generally involve some sneaking and information gathering, some player deduction, some magic/psionics, some persuasion and negotiation, and sometimes some combat. Those tasks may be simultaneous in in different locations or they may call for a group effort (it depends a lot on how the players decide to handle a situation). When everyone can contribute in their own fashion, flexibility simply means that you get to handle whatever task it is that no one else wants to deal with (Congratulations! It’s probably the worst one!).
  • When there is combat, both the PC’s and the NPC’s in my games tend to use tactics. If the Wizard (or whatever) is really causing your side problems, than you focus your sides efforts on the Wizard and you take him or her out as quickly and efficiently as possible. Of course, the more high-level characters on both sides tend to have defense and escape effects ready – a major reason WHY those individuals have made it to high levels. That’s also why most of the “solve my problem” effects do not work on important people, serious problems, and major opponents. There are LOTS of people out there with special powers; if those important people, problems, and opponents could be dealt with so easily… they would have been dealt with long ago and they wouldn’t be important now.
  • I am throughly willing to play up the disadvantages of the various character types. Clerics had better be being very careful to stay in their gods good graces, Wizards had better look after that precious spellbook and make backups, and so on – and in the time they spend doing that, and in researching spells or making items, the rest of the party is likely to go adventuring without them (one reason why multiple characters are common). Freeform casters, or those pushing their powers, had best be prepared to deal with the possibly disastrous consequences of mistakes. If the enemy facing your party of wizards sensibly flees to a no-magic dimension… then the players will either have to play non-magical characters for a while to go after him or anticipate the eventual return of a well-prepared foe.
  • There is no strict division between “Player Character” and “Non-Player Character” in my games. The players often have multiple major characters, and equally often play secondary characters, or henchmen, or old characters from other players, or have characters retire (they sometimes play some of their children later, and sometimes they make guest appearances when the game hits something important to the character again), or simply take over NPC’s (whether temporarily or to develop one that they found interesting into a regular character). There are also quite often multiple parties, players on hold until they can start making it to sessions again, and players who want to sub-GM for a bit. This also means that parties sometimes reject particular characters, effectively putting them out of play. If the party thinks that a particular character is a pain… they do not have to take him or her along.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the Tier system; it works just fine for it’s intended purpose. It’s just that it’s pretty much inapplicable to any of my games.

For some practical campaign-log examples of how things tend to go… I’d recommend the Shadowrun Yseult Sequence ( Part IPart II,Part IIIPart IVPart VPart VIPart VIIPart VIIIMapping InterludePart IXPart X, and Part XI – Aftermath.) – and, if you have lots of time, the Star Wars Codex log (although just the index is fairly long). The Federation-Apocalypse log is VERY incomplete, both because the game is still ongoing and because I ran out of time to keep the log up – but the last logged session was #201, so there’s plenty of material anyway. The Exalted Chronicles of Heavenly Artifice are also still ongoing, but the logs are up through session 135 (even if they are mostly from the viewpoint of a single character).

*It’s worth noting that many of the examples given for a Wizard easily solving problems have problems of their own, at least from my point of view. Again, that doesn’t mean that the Tier system is wrong – a high-level Wizard may (and probably will) have a vast array of powerful options available – but the most dramatic examples of overpowered spells and combinations of spells tend (pretty much by definition) to be among the “poorly written or edited” material, just like the worst examples of fighter feat combinations.


  • Shivering Touch is blatantly poorly edited – Damage with a Duration? – and is very commonly disallowed as being absurdly overpowered. Lets see… Level 3, no save, 3d6 dexterity damage. Not only is this likely instant out-of-action for a lot of creatures, but it can be put into spell storing missiles. Get forty bowmen; they’re bound to get SOME twenties. Fortunately for Dragons in Eclipse they all have (of course) quite a lot of the Path of the Dragon – which means that they can take some spell absorption abilities very very easily indeed (along with a wide variety of other defenses). Thus a single problematic spell is much less of a problem in Eclipse.
  • Love’s Pain is only third level – and can thus easily be spammed. It damages whoever the target creature most loves, bypassing saves and spell resistance. How hard is it to, say, make a puppy love someone? If Love’s Pain works as described, anyone, anywhere, who isn’t immune to mind-affecting spells (right on up through the local gods) can be killed off at whim by any group who can scrape up the money for enough scrolls and get illusions that are good enough to fool a puppy. This wrecks most settings. While Eclipse, once again, offers a variety of defenses, the real answer is fairly simple; the ability to strike at a target anywhere in the multiverse calls for much, much, higher level magic – which is why Deathlink (which is similar, but more limited) from Paths of Power II is ninth level – and why the general ability to set up such a link to cast lesser spells over (in Eclipse; the Ties of Blood spell) starts off at tenth level. Ah well; even if you insist on using the spell as-is, at least in Eclipse there are plenty of defenses (and even some ways to reflect it back on the attacker).
  • Explosive Runes… Well, some particular rune must be read first yes? Won’t that kind of inhibit reading the next one even if the initial blast leaves the next set of runes intact and visible? Worse, if you write them identically – one set of runes directly over the last – only the top layer can be read at one time. If you don’t, then eventually they’ll be too much overlap for anyone to be able to read them at all. Admittedly, that kind of reasoning will only make sense to the people who consider setting-logic to be at least as important as rules-logic – but I happen to be one of those, and this IS a question about my opinions.
  • Sending in a horde of the mindless dead has it’s places – but unless you take some risks and supervise them somehow, a simple pit can take out hundreds of them.
  • There are reasons why Contact Other Plane is rarely used; it’s risky and it’s untrustworthy.
  • And really… Locate City Bomb? Even the most rules-bound game master will usually squelch that one. It involves blatant abuse of multiple items. Fortunately, in Eclipse, you can be pretty sure that it won’t work anyway. Just as an example, the Eye of the Dragon ability allows it’s possessors to automatically absorb spells that would affect them – and if they absorb an area effect, they negate it entirely. That’s a rare talent in the general population – but it’s out there. If your spell would negatively affect many thousands of people, there’s likely to be a roll-off to see who uses some special ability to negate it first.

And I hope that answers your question!


One Response

  1. Thanks for the answer; it makes me wish I played in a game you ran. Your campaigns sound like great fun.

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