K20 is big on setting expectations. For players and DMs both. One of the key backbones of the game is the concept of Tiers. Its not ground breaking, and various editions have used different levels of directness when talking about them. In 3.x, one hits level 5ish, and is expected to prestige class. In 2e you’ve got Name Level, and start to get castles and stuff. 4e has its defined heroic, paragon, and epic tiers and 5e has its unofficial break points of “low level, mid level, high level” changing at about level 7 and 12. K20 codifies this and uses Tiers as a method to control power.
Writing a collection of level 1-20 classes that are fun to play at all levels, and relatively balanced at all levels is hard. Like really really hard. You might get one or two classes that make the mark, but more often than not, you’ll drop the ball. A 3e fighter isn’t boring at level 1-3. The rules give you cool stuff to do, and you aren’t getting shown up yet. But if you google 3e fighter, you’ll see countless threads about how underpowered it is, and how un-fun the class is. Why? Because the class is a low tier class. It conceptually can’t compete with a conceptually high tier class like a wizard. People don’t bat an eye at fiction where a wizard has a private demi plane full of mind controlled demons. The amount of hate one gets for including Superman or Goku as your high end martial is unreal. Even if Superman usually can’t defeat Darkseid and his demiplane of mind-controlled demons on his own. K20 admits that some concepts are high level, and others are not. In the case of our beloved fighter, its playable and included, but its also time to tell the player they can’t write “Fighter 20” on a character sheet anymore. In the case of the Wizard? Well we need to split out some of their concepts into things like spellthief, planeswalker, and magus.
Locking class choice in for 20 levels leads to player frustration. As a player, you might select a 3e barbarian at level 1, and have a blast, but by the end of the campaign at level 18 you’re bored out of your mind. 3e had multi-classing and prestige classing, which was usually a huge power down, with a few exceptions. 4e had multiclass feats, which folks just disliked, and 5e has multiclassing to a limited extend. Which, like 3e, is usually a power down, but not as often as 3e. In practice, multiclassing is hard. If I’m level 8, and I take a level of another class, there are two ways its traditionally done, both of which are designed for failure. I can either take level 1 (in which case the level 1 ability needs to be as impactful as a normal level 9 ability), or I can take the level 9 (in which case, my level 9 ability can’t tie to my level 1-8 abilities). Most games and homebrews use the first, but the second option comes up a lot from people trying to solve the problem. K20 forces new class choices at designated intervals, similar to 4e, but more drastically.
DMing a game can be a challenge because of optimization levels. Two challenges arise. First, players optimize to different degrees. Some, go hard, and bat way above their level, while their peers just take stuff that sounds cool, and end up falling into a trap option. Designing a challenge to be hard for both, without killing one, is tough. It leads to bad vibes between players, and is frankly an avoidable (if hard to achieve) challenge, with tighter game design. The second, occurs when you’re DMing a new group, and don’t know the optimization level of the group. Your home group are all power gamers, and suddenly you TPK the new group you offered to run at work. Or vice versa. Both are solved in K20 through the use of Tiers. Each Tier has defined challenges and expectations for what players should be able to do. By limiting the size and scope of each tier, its much easier to ensure everyone can do a given set of common tasks and contribute to the party. Its also much easier to guess the relative power level of a group you haven’t played with before.
K20’s tiers are the backbone of the game, and all design work stems from them.
|Basic||NA||Peasants, commoners, serfs. Anyone who only has a single racial hit die and no class.||Calorie – The economy at this scale is based on quantity and quality of food.||Themselves, and maybe a family.|
|Heroic||1-5||Adventurers. This is where the bulk of adventurers live and die. It is also home to town guard, and many unnamed NPCs||Gold – People pay for things in gold. Functions very much as normal.||Village, and surrounding area.|
|Prestige||6-10||One in a thousand adventurers make it to prestige level. They are generally treated as local heroes and celebrities.||Gems – Gems are used in high level magic to power lasting effects like magic items.||Major cities and territories.|
|Paragon||11-15||One in a thousand (or one in a million from heroic) make it from prestige to paragon tier. They are held up as the best in the nation.||Essence – trade in things like raw chaos, liquid hope, and distilled dreams.||Kingdoms and realms|
|Epic||16-20||One in a thousand (or one in a billion from heroic) make it from paragon to epic tier. These individuals are held up as the embodiment of their planes, often in direct contact with deities.||Souls (Influence) – characters begin forging their long-lasting legacy and impact on the world.||Planes and travel between them.|
|Deific||21+||Deities and gods. There are not classes at this level. It is also beyond the scope of this book.||Souls – Harvesting of living souls while gaining more and more Divine Rank (of which there are only 111 to spread among them)||Afterlife and Eternity|
Players select a new class each tier, and as such, each class is only 5 levels long. This is the most drastic K20 change from a design perspective, and probably the one that gets you booed out of the room, or paraded through the streets like Rudy when you suggest it. Each class is balanced against other 5 level long classes. This allows for a tighter span of power levels, and makes it a lot easier to ensure classes are similarly powered. It also lessens the impact of someone who makes a bad choice. A few levels later, they can pick a new one. If someone likes their character, but the campaign changes from the original expectations, a player can change classes fairly quickly, without major upheaval or rebuilds, and without scrapping a character.
Ensuring that you get enough calories for you and your family to make it to the next day. This is not a tier for adventurers, as most of your tasks are things like “Farming” or “Backbreaking Labor”. People in this tier are not happy.
At the heroic tier, a character can become a PC, and no longer worries about Calories. They take their first class, and it should be generally assumed they can get 3,000 calories a day without much effort on their part. Maybe a tavern has decided to put them up in exchange for some protection, maybe they made a couple hundred gold on a quest and can pay for food for a year (1 silver is usually more than enough for a day’s food), maybe your father is a merchant and has a regular income of gold, or maybe you are simply a better than average scavenger.
PCs at this tier can become adventurers, and if they do, generally go on weeklong excursions far from the safety of the village. The local peasants generally see this as suicidal. If the peasant left the village, they would be eaten by wolves in a day. Adventurers go on quests and are paid in gold for the completion. Most of their wealth also comes from the acquisition of looted treasure from ancient tombs. By far the most common quest is to rescue a child or livestock from bandits of some sort. By far the easiest solution is usually a fight with those same bandits. A Heroic tier PC will return from that quest earning the 5 gold, 93 silver, and a cheap golden locket as agreed upon, but also with an entire bandit squad’s worth of loot. This loot generally includes weaponry, armor, and most of the things the bandits have stolen which have no one stepping forward to claim. Because of this, many PCs go on quests for free, simply for the salvage that comes along with them…. and out of the goodness of their hearts to right the injustice in the land. Or at least, that is how they spin it. Heroic PCs would do well to find a friendly merchant, who can exchange the 95lbs of cinnamon they retrieved from the goblins of Mt. Boom for something the PCs actually care about. A silver sword, 50 gold pieces, and promise of meals and lodging at the local inn indefinitely.
PCs at the Heroic Tier are by definition, Heroic. The townspeople approach them on the street and beg for their engagement. The local townsfolk regard them as their best chance to get justice and treat them with the reverence one would expect. Merchants tend to see them as peers and will engage as such. The nobility tends to see them as servants, and may demand fealty, undertakings, services, and the like. Many adventurers at this tier forget their place after a few successful quests, but the King’s army is not above correcting that perspective. The 4-5 PCs may be a match for 15-20 bandits, but a squad of 20 imperial guards, with what is for all intents and purposes limitless reinforcements? That may still be above their limits. For now.
Just as a heroic character should not be expected to track individual calories, a prestigious character should not bother tracking individual gold pieces. The general assumption is that if a price is listed in gold, they have enough on hand to make the purchase. To carry it all with them requires a team of servants and wheelbarrows, and this is no reasonable basis for an economy. Thus, most prestigious characters form a base of operations somewhere, and the smart ones have a treasure vault for their gold. Maybe they run a tavern themselves, sponsor a thieves’ guild, teach at a wizarding academy, or have a simple druidic circle they founded. Those lesser acolytes and servants keep the manor in order and keep an eye on the piles of gold and precious gemstones.
Prestigious characters spend their time questing for magical items. Powerful objects crafted from gemstones and magic worth far more than any amount of mere gold. Thus, prestigious characters spend their time in search of gemstones which they can use to either create magical items themselves, or barter with powerful beings to trade.
Quests at this level should be grand undertakings with the fate of nations at stake. That means that they are hopefully infrequently, and unfortunately long lasting. A Band of prestige adventurers may go on a year’s long quest to slay an evil dragon, route an enemy army, or clear out some ancient ruins long infested with the undead.
Similarly, to Heroic adventurers, prestigious characters should do their best to find a suitable patron for their work. An Efreet in dire need of gems for his magical fortress is more than happy to take gemstones the PCs have no use for in exchange for flaming swords.
The local townsfolk regard prestigious PCs as unapproachable and do their best to avoid them if they recognize them at all. These are the celebrities and local myths they tell one another. Aside from reverence there is another reason the locals shy away. A prestigious PC is not only fully capable, but generally expected to take any magic items or gems from local townsfolk, lest a more powerful, and opposing prestigious NPC do the same. One does not leave a toddler with a dagger, so why would one leave a wand of magic missile with a shepherd? It is easily taken, and highly dangerous. The town authorities are very likely to side with prestigious characters at any dispute, due to their power and influence for the region. Merchants and the professional class view the prestigious character as a mentor or master, and often pledge loyalty or assistance. After all, what merchant does not want to be around a man who does not think gold has any value? The nobility views prestigious characters as peers, and will treat with them, and request favors. Prestigious PCs can most likely cause problems that even an army cannot solve, and so it is generally in the nobility’s best interest to hear them out, or make requests, not demands.
Paragon characters are beyond the comprehension of most basic tier characters. These are the folk of legends, and generally regarded as the best in the world at their given task.
Paragon characters do not worry about gems, having long since created or obtained the best magical items they need. Instead, they work on the creation and acquisition of artifacts crafted from Essence. A paragon adventuring group may travel to the heart of hell to steal the Archduke’s Fear so they can craft an orb that enslaves any who see it forever.
They are often heads of nations, and not always by choice. A paragon character is known by all, and generally has no peers. As such, their renown is so great that they cannot help but find themselves as the leader of a folk. Prestige and Heroic characters flock to them, asking for quests in exchange for magic items or gems, and often the only way for a paragon character to act stealthily enough is to outfit a party of lower tier adventurers with magic items and send them on a quest for them.
The royalty and nobility see a paragon tier character as one to approach with reverence, and respect, as not even their armies can pose much of a threat to a paragon character, let alone a party of them.
The paragon characters generally deal with intraplanar quests and rewards most cannot comprehend. These quests come around once or twice a generation and may last a lifetime.
An Epic character is just that. They are Epic. They might be the best in all worlds, or the best that ever was. Most normal folk are not even aware that these characters actually exist and are not just abstract concepts.
Due to their drastically extended lifespans, Epic characters do not worry about gold, or gems, or even anything as exotic as distilled chaos. These characters are concerned with one thing, and one thing only. Influence. They work tirelessly to expand their influence at the cosmic level with the hope of one day bridging the gap to true timelessness.
With a word, an Epic character can wipe out armies, ruin crops, and devastate a nation. These are the characters that accidentally unleash the armies of the damned upon the world because they weighed the risks. And they would do it again if the need arises.
There have only ever been around 15 epic quests, and almost all took well beyond a single human lifetime to complete.
Deific characters have achieved one or more of the coveted divine ranks. These are unique beings of unimaginable power whose names and influence will be felt for eternity. They use souls as a currency and measure of power.