Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Character Levels and Campaign Styles

So thinking about both my own take on a D&D-clone and the campaign that would go with it got me thinking about player character levels and what the overall aims of a campaign at a given level-range could be. I grew up on BECMI, so the first breakdown I think of is what that version of D&D did:

  • Levels 1-3: Local dungeon crawls, plots of "disappearing cattle" style
  • Levels 4-14: Kingdom-level wilderness crawls, dungeon-esque side-treks, plots of "evil cult" style
  • Levels 15+: Domain creation, continent-spanning conflicts, plots of "evil arch-lich commanding an army" style

I am intentionally leaving everything else out since I don't see why I would play at level 26+ at all. But anyway, looking at just that list, I realize that I cannot recall a campaign I ran or played in that actually had player characters achieve anything beyond 7th level. Not ever. The only truly "high-level" campaign I can recall had us create high-level characters to run through the old "Bloodstone" modules with Orcus waiting at the bottom.

Also other D&D-variants seem to imply "domain creation" slightly earlier. In fact even BECMI actually says that characters get their strongholds at name level, but the way the rules are split across boxed sets that didn't mean the same thing as what I imply with "domain creation" above.

In my recollection AD&D 1e didn't really talk much about domain-level play at all, but I might be wrong about that. It certainly never came up even as a remote possibility when we were playing AD&D. The level progression in AD&D 1e seemed to top out at around 20 I think, and from what I've seen of OD&D it originally stopped at 10 or 16 for the magic-user while the Greyhawk supplement pushed things a little further close to AD&D 1e range.

So what is a viable range of levels, something that can actually be achieved realistically in a campaign that runs for a few, say three, years? As far as I can tell a group of four players will need to grab about  one million XP to get them all to about 9th level, give or take a few hundred thousand. If you play once a week (a fairly ambitious schedule!) you have about 120 sessions when you compensate for holidays, so you need to hand out about 8500 xp per session. Doesn't seem too bad actually, except that you'd spread it out appropriately of course.

But now you've played in the same setting with the same (set of) referees for three years. Do you really want to keep going for another three or would you rather try a different setting, a different character, a different group of players? I think it's a fair bet that most people will opt for retiring the high-level character or for playing that character only every now and then.

From all of this it seems to me that levels 1-10 or thereabouts are really the only thing that matters, at least for most groups. The rules and the setting should probably allow for slightly more advanced characters, but realistically those options will only be tested on occasion, certainly not nearly as much as the lower levels. With that in mind, I think the level-breakdown I'll shoot for will be more like this:

  • Levels 1-3: Local dungeon crawls with intermittent wilderness components, local plots interacting with few mid-level NPCs
  • Levels 4-6: Increased wilderness-focus with intermittent dungeon components, regional plots interacting with several mid-level and a few high-level NPCs
  • Levels 7-9: Wilderness exploration/clearing as the primary focus, plots spanning several nations/territories and interacting with several high-level NPCs
  • Levels 10-12: Domain creation (if desired anyway) and "retiring" to a less active role in the campaign, serve as high-level NPCs for a new generation of PCs

With this in mind, most of the rules and most of the campaign really only need to work flawlessly up to about 12th level. This means, for example, that adding a character's level to a d20 roll is alright as a mechanic. It also means that spells really only need to be detailed up to spell level 6 or so (although they could also be rescaled to give access to traditionally 9th-level spells earlier I guess, not something I am too fond of trying). Finally it means that one can stick to an exponential level progression and hand out hit-dice instead of having to switch to a linear progression with additional hit-points instead. All simply wonderful consequences in my book.

And at this point, dear reader, you are probably no more enlightened than you were before. But I needed to record this brief rant so I can stop worrying about making things work well for higher levels where I'll presumably never even play.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Holmes-ian Surprises

Yay, I finally got my copy of John Eric Holmes' Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set from 1979. Actually the book says "Second Edition, November 1978" but who cares. The box is pretty beat up, but the booklet itself and the copy of B1: In Search of the Unknown are very good.

I spent two days reading the thing and overall I am quite happy to finally understand why some people prefer Holmes over later revisions of the "basic" D&D game. However, I also was a little disappointed: I guess I expected the editing to be of higher quality given Holmes' academic background. Short sentences in which the same word repeats with just three words in between seem? A little clunky. But again, who cares. :-)

Here are the notes I jotted down while reading through the rules, mostly about stuff that surprised me. I edited this only a wee bit before hitting "publish" so please forgive me if I still have the odd typo or misunderstanding left. Feel free to correct me in the comments!
  • Ability Modifiers: Unlike in Moldvay/Cook, the modifiers for high/low ability scores are super-unorganized, similar to what they are in AD&D and (presumably) OD&D.
  • Adjusting Abilities: The rules for improving prime requisite abilities are similarly random-ish, Moldvay/Cook just says "lower by 2 to improve prime requisite by 1" I think.
  • Encumbrance: Holmes actually emphasizes where things are, not just how much they weigh or how bulky they are; what's not to like?
  • Organization: There really is none, we go from making characters to wandering monsters, to experience points tables; luckily there is a table of contents.
  • Spells and Scrolls: Magic-Users get spells at random by checking "chance to know" based on Intelligence; scribing scrolls (relatively cheap and apparently doable at any level) is explicitly mentioned as a way to offset having only a few spells per day memorized.
  • Thieves: They have d4 hit dice which indicates being worse at fighting than clerics, but then they have access to all fighter weapons (no restrictions whatsoever) and the Strength spells works better on thieves than on clerics.
  • Weird Combat: "When the party of adventurers is attacked by several monsters, all may be involved in melee, but the hand-to-hand battles must be fought one at a time and then the result imagined as if all were going on simultaneously." (page 18) What the hell? So four adventurers (A, B, C, D) meet four orcs (1, 2, 3, 4). We first resolve A-1 by going back and forth between them for however long it takes to finish the battle. Then we resolve B-2, C-3, D-4. And regardless of how long each took, we imagine them to occur simultaneously? That's the weirdest thing I've ever heard, and it certainly doesn't work at all with movement in the mix. Like the fighter who is done after 2 rounds will just light a pipe now watching the other three guys take much longer to tear down their orcs? (And I don't think I am misreading this, there's an example right above the text I quote where combat goes back and forth between two individual opponents and not between groups.) Actually page 20 then goes on to say that after melee those not engaged may move to assist.
  • Missile Fire: Mentions the need for high ceilings (good) but rules out slings indoors (what the...)? Firing into melee is not allowed (page 20, left column) but then allowed (page 20, right column) with a mention of friendly fire but then disallowed again (page 21, end of second example)?
  • That second example also then contradicts the earlier "resolve each combat seperately" routine by having multiple PCs engage a single monster.
  • Funny Monsters: "The minotaur is a bull-headed man (and all of us who have debated game rules are well acquainted with such)."
  • Inconsistent Monsters: Zombies are described as "slow" and get to attack only every other round, but their movement is 120, same as an elf or a blink dog.
  • Light Coins: "All coins are roughly equal in size and weight, being approximately the circumference and thickness of a quarter and weighing about twice as much as a quarter." It's roughly 6 grams for a quarter, so roughly 12 grams for a coin, so roughly 38 coins per lbs. Moldvay/Cook/AD&D 1e use 10 coins per lbs. Later AD&D editions use 50 coins per lbs. Seems Holmes was on to something there.