You need to start paying attention to mods. Some purple gear, and all exotics, have mods on them that boost their power level by 5. If you have 2 chest pieces that both report power 265, and one has a +5 mod on it, its actual power level is 260. If you infused that one with the other, it would bring its base power level to 265, and with the +5 mod, you’d get a 270.
Paying attention to those mods will enable you to make incremental improvements that really help. I’ve managed to inch my way to 280 now.
I think I’ve figured out how the light power level works on drops.
First, this is all about “regular” drops. Whether common, uncommon, rare, or legendary (white, green, blue, purple), I just mean the ones that will pop up frequently through normal play or be given from vendors for normal stuff like turning in faction tokens. So I’m not talking about “Powerful Gear” rewards for milestones like Call to Arms (Crucible) or Flashpoint (Weekly public event bonus).
Regular drops seem to have a floor and a ceiling which eventually collapse into a single value. The floor seems to be a percentage, approximately 96.5% of your current maximum power. You’ll never get regular drops lower than that.
The ceiling starts out somewhere above your maximum power, and I don’t even have a ballpark figure for what it is to start, or if it’s a flat value or a percentage, but the ceiling seems to have a hard maximum of 265, until that would be lower than your floor.
So during the campaign and for a while after reaching level 20, you’re finding a range of drops, but even the stuff you’re coming across in the wild is slowly bumping you up. When you’re 240 you might find pieces around 243 or 246 or whatever, slowly increasing your maximum power level, in turn slowly increasing the drops. But once you start getting drops and vendor packages at 265, the value stops going up until your floor catches up. So at 260 you might start seeing 265 drops, then 264 you’re still only seeing 265, then you’re above 265 and you’re still only getting drops at 265.
From then forward, you’re only* getting drops above your current maximum power level from things like those weekly Powerful Gear rewards or Exotics. Once you hit about 273, your floor is 265 (the approximately 96.5% figure), and from there your drops will start slowly increasing again as your power level continues to increase, it’s just that from now on they’ll always be below your current max power instead of above your current max power. My maximum power now is 294, my vendor rewards and random drops are 284.
*As @baren mentions, mods can make a regular drop 5 higher than your current ceiling/floor, I’ll dedicate another rambling post to those.
Another caveat: apparently Bungie has a sort of “nerf” on multiple characters of the same class. I haven’t run into this myself (and won’t, I just have one of each class) so I don’t know the specifics, but from skimming reddit, if you’re using two of your character slots for warlocks, there’s some way in which the rewards or drops or something for the “second” one (not sure how that’s determined) will be lower. This may just be for weekly milestone rewards, I dunno.
AFAIK there’s no such penalty between characters of different classes. You can’t swap armor between them anyway, but you can share guns. Bungie doesn’t mind players running three different players, but they didn’t want running three of the same class to be “rewarded”.
Just throwing that out there in case someone’s running more than one of the same class and wondering why what they’re seeing doesn’t match what the rest of us are talking about.
It’s not that you need to put work into it (well, maybe a little work on the mod part), it’s just that it’s not really obvious what’s going on behind the scenes.
As others have said, you almost (mods as the exception again) never have to worry about what’s actually equipped. All of your rewards—random drops, nightfall’s, vendor packages, milestones, whatever—have their power level determined behind the scenes by what your maximum power could be if you equipped your “best” possible gear.
The system is very friendly in that regard. You can’t accidentally wear the wrong armor and get lower rewards than you otherwise would.
Legendary (purple) mods all give a +5 power to the equipment they’re applied to.
This counts as if it was the “real” power value of the weapon or armor for all purposes except infusions.
So your mods will raise your overall maximum power level for everything that matters to your character - other gear drops, requirements for nightfalls, raids, etc., and of course your actual power level against enemies for whatever you’ve got equipped.
But during infusions, the base power of the item and the +5 are considered separately.
The target of your infusion keeps whatever mod it may have. Its base power is increased by the item you’re dismantling for infusion.
The item you’re dismantling for infusion behaves as if the mod was simply destroyed just prior to the infusion. The mod from the dismantled weapon is not applied to the new one, it’s not returned to your inventory, and it’s no longer affecting the dismantled weapon’s power level.
So if my target is a 268 hand cannon with a legendary mod, its effective power level is 273.
If I have another hand cannon with a base power level of 269 or higher—whether it has a mod or not—that could be used to raise the level of my target. At 269, it would raise my target hand cannon to 269 base power, and since the target mod is unaffected and remains, it would still have the +5 bringing it to 274.
The confusion only comes if you don’t realize that the item you’re going to dismantle has a mod applied. Most of the items you find and receive will not have mods already applied, but it’s always a slim possibility, so that’s what you need to check. Otherwise you may not realize that the bonus you’re getting from the mod won’t be applied to the transfusion and you’ll wonder why your item didn’t increase as much as you thought.
Right. All weapons and armor have light power levels. But only legendary (purple) mods have power level bonuses, the rares (blues) do not. In almost every imaginable scenario, the long term gain of legendaries that can raise your power level will be more important than the short term benefits a rare mod would apply to your gear.
And once you start wanting specific legendaries (the power level bonuses are always 5, but there are different possibilities for the other effects depending on what piece of gear they’re for—do I want faster arc grenade cooldown, or faster melee cooldown?), it’s all just down to luck. The more purple mods you can get your hands on, the better, so the more blue you have to slowly convert into purples, the better.
I don’t believe it’s a percentage. Up until 260, you can get drops higher than your base light level. After that, blues/purples will drop at 5 lower than your base light. Luminous and exotic will drop at 5 higher than your base light.
Edit: Oh, and exotics from the blue shied quests will drop at 10 higher than your base light.