Tier System: a General System for Categorizing Scope in RPGs

Recently I’ve been thinking about the Tier system from Chronicles of Darkness and how it might be applied to other games and settings. The tier system I envision incorporates aspects of both scale and scope but focuses on the abstraction of the conflicts which the player characters encounter.

History

The Tier system, as far as I know, was introduced in the then new World of Darkness (a.k.a. Chronicles of Darkness) gameline Hunter: the Vigil. It supposes that a given game can be played at different degrees of scope or scale and attempts to codify what that means for the story and the characters.

In Hunter the Vigil this system consists of three levels of play. Tier 1 consists of unaffiliated hunter cells fighting local monsters. At Tier 2, hunters could join Compacts who tackled monsters on a city level. They gained access to special merits and training from their allies. At Tier 3, hunters belonged to world spanning Conspiracies who could lend them supernatural gifts to even the playing field.

Later books extended the system to other games. Tier 1 became street level where political and “clan” connections mattered less than the people immediate around you (i.e. the other PCs). Promethean with its road trip style of play exemplifies this. Tier 2 became city based play, the default for most games. Tier 3 continued to consist of globe-trotting adventures.

In the Mage: the Awakening book Imperial Mysteries, the system was expanded to the fourth tier, where reality itself became the battle ground. Victories and losses here could change the very nature of the world. Archmages struggle with gods and might endeavour to make it so vampires never existed.

My Tier System

For my version of this system, I focused on the scale and abstraction of the conflicts involved. That led me to decide on a system running from 0 to 5. 1 to 4 remain similar to what I described above but I focus less on the neighborhood/city/world split and more on the conflicts involved.

Tier 0: The Self

At this tier on conflict, the obstacles lie within. The player character struggle to overcome personal flaws and shortcomings. Other characters exist to highlight the internal conflict.

What I like about this tier is how it illustrates how a game can flow between tiers. PCs can focus on their weak social skills one session and fight to save a city the next time. Those different tier levels also impact each other, as internal problems hinder their conflicts at other tiers or vice versa. For example, overconfidence might let the local street tough lure them into a fight they can’t win or their victory over a magical monstrosity may help to further inflate their ego.

Tier 1: Immediate Life

These are the struggles most people face. Dealing with coworkers, family and friends. Or in more desperate situations local gangs, criminals, or hostile wildlife.

All conflicts boil down to one on one struggles (or the PCs versus a similar small group). These “battles” may be physical or on some other arena like social interactions or intellectual puzzles. The important point is that they are direct. Your foe might not be explicitly named but they have a face you can punch (or hack or talk to depending on the conflict).

D&D works at this level for most of the early door bashing levels as do many other roleplaying games.

Tier 2: Politics

Here the struggles encompass larger regions and more importantly a larger cast. Now the PCs face foes they haven’t met yet and might never meet directly. A single character can’t realistically deal with all participants directly.

These conflicts include convincing a tribe of several hundred orcs to move on (violently or otherwise) and dealing with intrigues between rival factions of vampires. These conflicts can be mass battles, political intrigues, or social engineering.

Individuals matter here and your final foe still has a face, but there is also a large “chorus” that needs to be dealt with. Murdering everyone is impractical or counterproductive as is convincing every individual.

Tier 2 involves “public relations” and working with other power players in the setting. Many Chronicle of Darkness games and World of Darkness games alternate between this Tier and Tier 1 (with inner struggles like the Beast represented by Tier 0).

Tier 3: The Epic

At Tier 3 the scale expands greatly. What this means depends on the game. It might mean a larger region of play, where the PCs affect different (and distinct) communities. But it may also mean changing the political landscape dramatically by toppling an evil overlord or dismantling a world spanning conspiracy.

I was ambivalent about including this Tier even though my definition is similar to the original source. However I’ve come to the conclusion that the defining feature of Tier 3 is not so much the scale but the ripple effects of the result of conflict. For better or worse the world will not be the same afterwards.

Night’s Black Agents is played at this level where defeating the vampiric conspiracy changes the world. Many D&D games at higher levels tend to this scale (which isn’t surprising given the influence of Lord of Rings epic on the game).

Tier 4: Changing the Rules, Mythological Play

Things get weird beyond Tier 3.

At Tier 4, PCs engage in regular conflicts that alter the nature of reality. Moving beyond the political and occasionally physical changes of Tier 3, the struggles involved now may alter things like day and night, world history, the existence of major races, or aspects of the magic system.

PCs battle equally cosmic forces: archmagi, gods, and reality’s inherent resistance to change. They are active actors in these conflicts, attempting to impress their own vision onto the world.

Time travel games naturally lend themselves to this tier, where altering history or restoring it is the whole point. At its highest levels, Mage: the Awakening deals with this type of play. This tier also serves to model mythic play, where PCs take on the roles of divine figures whose stories essentially create the world.

Tier 5: Game Changer (Literally)

Tier 5 would take the reality warping of Tier 4 a final step forward and have game play change the actual game mechanics. This tier is more hypothetical than anything I can point to in actual play.

Aspects of this appear in games in development where the push and pull of playtesting alters the game mechanics toward some final form. But that is towards a specific end and, I suspect, mostly guided by the developer.

But there is no reason that someone couldn’t start a game (perhaps with Simple World) and play to see what rules develop. The players would add, alter and remove game mechanics based on the table consensus.

An alternate spin would be to switch between game systems depending on the action within the story. The PCs enter an ancient tomb and the players begin using D&D. They bicker over the spoils and move to Drama System. Finally they wake up after a hard night’s partying to find their henchman murdered. Time for GUMSHOE.

Conclusion

So that’s my rambling idea for now. People love classifying things and I think this might make a good system for classifying conflicts. What do you think? What system do you use or heard of?