E6 is a variant of Dungeons & Dragons v3.5 that challenges one of the game’s basic assumptions: What if there were only six levels instead of at least 20? And why would you want to play this way?
Lately, I’m looking at E6 as a possible solution to the problems I have with D&D 3e and 4e. For example, at high level in third edition D&D, combat is slow because characters have a lot of abilities and resources to choose from and opponents have lots of hit points. In 4th edition, this privilege is now extended to even low-level characters!
In fact, it was an intentional part of D&D 4e’s design to cut out the low-powered early levels that form E6. The idea was that D&D 3.5 had a “sweet spot” between levels 6 and 15, where characters were tough and had a lot of resources but weren’t invulnerable. 4e starts you out with enough hit points and powers to ensure your character’s survival, cutting out the low-level experience.
It’s exactly this gritty low level content that forms the basis of E6. In a way, it’s the anti-4e.
A world of six levels
For me, one of the most interesting things is how the world changes when everything in it is scaled for sixth level characters.
There are no Elminsters or Mordenkainens, no epic-level characters raising questions like, “Why do adventurers risk their lives saving the world when there’s a council of 20th level wizards who can stop any villain with ease?”
There are no spells above 3rd level, because there’s no such thing in this world as a spellcaster powerful enough to cast them. Anyone who can even master 3rd level spells like fireball is considered an archmage. Nobody can create a magic sword of greater than +2, and if a +3 sword exists it’s considered an artifact.
And, generally, there are few monsters of high level, with a CR10 dragon posing an epic threat. For the average peasant, even a single ogre is a serious danger, and that’s how E6 sees it.
There’s better realism, too. You never become so powerful that you can routinely survive 200 foot drops or take on an army solo. Characters remain human.
But it’s not all philosophical - E6 offers to solve practical problems.
My number one problem with D&D v3.5 was that high level play bogs down under the weight of options and character survivability, and 4e did nothing to improve that for me. E6 never gets to the high levels, so you never get that issue.
Character generation is swift, and this lets DMs challenge their players better. I think this is extremely important. You don’t have to pull punches or obssess over encounter balance, because if a PC is killed it won’t take too long to roll a new one.
This in turn makes player decisions more meaningful, and players can be satisfied that they won because of their own ingenuity and not because the encounter was balanced that way or the DM was afraid to kill off their PC.
Quick preparation helps the DM too. Generating a complete stat block for an NPC takes very little time. Our old epic level campaign ground to a halt because of how long it took the DM to roll up each 25th-level villain - and we’d defeat it in about two combat turns.
The six level cap is also good for running mini-campaigns. You might run a slow forum game or find that your group can only meet infrequently, so a full twenty or thirty level campaign will never finish. It’s also good if you want to plan a campaign in advance but find that writing twenty levels is too much work and takes too long to get to the interesting part.
But why E6?
While there are other gritty, rules-light D&D variants out there, E6 has one big advantage: it literally is just D&D 3.5 with a level cap. This means you have access to a wealth of resources: the free Hypertext D20 SRD, about eight years’ worth of official and unofficial expansion books, and a very large player base.
The basics of running E6 are obvious (start a D&D 3.5 campaign and stop at level 6), but if you’re interested you’ll want to start with the official ENWorld thread from 2007. This goes into detail about the philosophy of E6 and gives extra rules and guidelines, such as E6-specific feats and a rule for advancing level 6 characters using bonus feats.