Echelon breaks down naturally into tiers of four levels each. Note that Echelon is effectively offset by eight levels from D&D 3.x and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (abbreviated ‘PF’ in the headings below): first level in these games maps to ninth level in Echelon.
Basic Tier (levels 1-4, PF CR 1/10-1/8)
This tier exists mostly so there is a place to put the very weakest creatures that have stats. In PF/D&D terms they are creatures with CR 1/8 or CR 1/10.
Expert Tier (levels 5-8, PF Level 0/NPC Class)
This tier replaces the ‘0-level’ characters from AD&D and largely replaces the ‘NPC classes’ from D&D 3e and 3.5. The bulk of the non-adventuring characters in a setting should likely be in this tier.
Introductory adventures and ‘apprentice-level’ adventures might take place in this tier, but these are expected to be uncommon.
Most skilled craftsmen and general soldiers are in this category. They are competent at what they do but usually lead fairly predictable lives.
Veteran Tier (levels 9-12; PF levels 1-4)
This is the start of the ‘adventuring tiers’, where characters get involved in situations beyond the norm. They are quite within normal human abilities of our world (ignoring such things as magic), if more impressive than normal. They are a little more competent than expert-tier characters because they’ve been more tested by adversity.
Adventures in this tier are often fairly straightforward, be they dungeon crawls, urban adventures, or simple wilderness adventures. Most have fairly limited and easily managed scope.
Elite troops (Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, etc.) and Olympic athletes may be good examples of people you might find in this tier. Better-trained, generally mentally and physically tougher than the norm.
Heroic Tier (levels 13-16; PF levels 5-8)
At this point characters are larger than life, reaching or exceeding the limits of real-world credibility. This isn’t to say that they are impossible, just incredible. They can do things that are somewhat beyond the capabilities of all but the very best in the world. Where many people fit into the previous tiers and can be described as groups, in this tier we find specific people who made their mark on history.
There are mundane animals from the real world that might be found in this tier — they aren’t necessarily incredible, but they are beyond human capability (most of the major predators are stronger, faster, and tougher than a human can be, for example).
Adventures in this tier are more wide-ranging. If veteran adventures take place around a single town or small region (such as in a ‘points of light’ setting) and have limited local consequences, a heroic adventure might involve traveling between regions or have consequences affecting a region.
Julius Caesar. Genghis Khan. Isaac Newton. Sun Tzu. Joan of Arc. Albert Einstein. All could be considered of the heroic tier (if perhaps low level within the tier) because of the mark they made on history.
Champion Tier (levels 17-20; PF levels 9-12)
Characters are superhuman, beyond human capability in the real world. We can find examples in literary and mythical figures, the challenges faced and overcome by these characters are insurmountable by ‘real people’. For reference, the equivalent levels in D&D have wizards who can teleport and clerics who can raise the dead.
Adventures in this tier might have consequences that affect an entire kingdom. This might be removing an unjust ruler, dealing with an invasion from the Icy North, or recovering a lost artifact that causes dissension and strife in the Grand Temple and a schism among the faithful.
Using those guidelines, the following are possible examples.
- Vlad Taltos in the earlier Dragaera books. He can teleport (though he doesn’t like being teleported in the first place, and really doesn’t like doing it himself, he’ll get someone else to teleport him when he can — in D&D it might be dimension door except for the range). He gets more powerful (probably paragon; I don’t think he’d be higher tier than Morollan or Aliera) later in the series.
- Belgarath the Sorcerer, the Eternal Man, would probably be at this tier. He does teleport, but it’s probably closer to dimension door (very limited range) and he does change shape (polymorph). He might be paragon tier (he and his peers have some ability to affect weather, and he does summon some pretty big demons), but he doesn’t feel quite like it to me. I’d be inclined to park him here.
Paragon Tier (levels 21-24; PF levels 13-16)
If the champion tier can be described as ‘superhuman’, I consider the paragon ‘superheroic’. At his point we’ve got resurrection and teleport without error.
Adventures in this tier can be expected to have far-reaching effects, often affecting multiple kingdoms or an entire continent.
- Morrolan and Aliera from the Dragaera books. They are certainly more powerful than Vlad for much of the series, and certainly less powerful than Sethra Lavode (whom much of the Empire holds in awe).
Legendary Tier (levels 25-28; PF 17-20)
This is the pinnacle of mortal ability. Characters in this tier may well be pursuing immortality. There is true resurrection and wish; the bounds of reality are fairly elastic at this point.
Adventures in this tier might have consequences that span the entire world. Characters in this tier probably directly interact with — and interfere with — the plans and plots of deities.
- Sethra Lavode from the Dragaera books is almost certainly in this tier, and probably near the top end.
Epic Tier (levels 29-32; PF 21-24)
I mention this tier only to make it clear that I expect there to be something after Legendary. I don’t yet know exactly what this tier will look like, nor anything after that.
Many characters in this tier are effectively immortal… unless something more powerful comes along. They are likely in direct service to (or in contention with) gods. They may be learning to manipulate the fundamental elements of reality.
While planar travel may be present in lower tiers, adventures in this tier can have consequences that affect entire planes.
- The Jenoine from the Dragaera books are probably at this level. Sethra was exhausted facing off against a single one while in her seat of power. Defeating several of them took a team consisting of paragon and legendary characters, at least three Great Weapons (and one ‘Very Good Weapon’), and a few gods… and even then there were casualties.
I’m having some difficulty making the tier definitions sufficiently clear. I’ve been trying to come up with superheroes that fit (some of the most powerful, readily-available figures for examination) and… in D&D terms they often actually aren’t that world bending.
- Captain America: high heroic (arguably with champion gear — unbreakable shield)
- Spiderman: low champion (frightfully strong — lifting tons is pretty impressive, and he was once identified as ‘fourth strongest’ of the Marvel lineup, behind Thor, the Thing, and the Hulk).
- Hulk: paragon (‘just’ strength tricks and toughness… but a lot of it)
- Daredevil: high heroic (superbly trained and sensory tricks)
- Wolverine: high heroic (the regeneration is impressive, but considering how much damage a D&D character can survive not necessarily higher level; he just doesn’t need the healing stick)
- Scarlet Witch: usually high heroic or low champion during Decimation probably epic — through sheer force of will she changed reality, depowering almost every mutant on the planet)
- Batman: high heroic (superbly trained and talented, but still ‘actually human’)… at least in the early days.
- Superman: legendary/epic (clearly superhuman, I considered champion until it was pointed out how much he bounces around the time stream and his fortress in the heart of the sun…)
- Green Lantern: legendary (limited only by his imagination, force of will, and… the color yellow. Ah well…)