Thursday, 9 December 2010

Low-Level 'Adventures'

Reading this post on Discourse and Dragons, about relatively straightforward adventures that build up to a climactic battle against an archetypal monster, I was struck by how inappropriatethis adventure structure is for low-level characters. And I wondered how other DMs handle low-level adventures. What I mean is, D&D promises players that their characters will be heroes, but the first couple of levels – which if we go by a 3 game session per level rule of thumb, could be quite a long time – are spent worrying that a couple of goblin arrows will kill Hurkar the Strong, never mind imagining that Hurkar the Strong will hack his way through the goblin horde before doing heroic battle with the evil wizard, the bandit king, the Ogre chief… whatever. The low-level adventures that I run are either very short, practically single encounters with a few trailing threads to be explored, or exercises in rest and resupply. Neither of these capture the structure of heroic fiction.
The heroes stagger back to town, again.

Do people start their D&D characters at higher levels? Do they make judicious use of the DM screen to slide the characters though peripheral encounters to ensure that the session generates the sense of adventure and exploration? Or do they run combat-light adventures – the sort found in WFRP, which seems contrary to the spirit of D&D – that reward player characters for ‘sustainable’ adventuring?


  1. I just keep it unheroic. As long as the players are on board with not doing very heroic things until they're at least level 3, it can be a lot more fun scrabbling around to survive.

    Especially for a more grim, sword & sorcery feel.

  2. The accidental, frightened (un)hero?

    That's one of the things I've always liked about WFRP - a starting party might include a ratcatcher, a beggar, and a labourer (all dealt with in the game mechanics). Survive for a few 'adventures', and they might just become 'someone'.

  3. This is the paradox of old-school D&D: whatever the implied promise, a starting character mechanically is not heroic yet. You can paint yourself into a corner if the DM or the players are expecting totally heroic play without making some allowance for real power.

    I've come back around to the idea of just embracing the "exercise in rest and resupply" as part of the old-school experience. Preferably in the context of a big graph paper dungeon and pole-arm wielding hirelings. But it took some time playing other games for me to come back to that.

    Reportedly, Gary Gygax's own house rule for some time was to start new characters at 3rd level. Which is interesting; I think there's some value in starting at 1st and learning to keep a character alive without trying to fight everything you see, but it's a good reminder not to take the book as gospel when even the guy who made that argument in print (If I remember the AD&D DMG right, anyway) decides to get to the good stuff.

  4. In the AD&D DMG, EGG suggests that a group of experienced PLAYERS could start at higher levels if ALL of them agreed upon it. Never understood why people didn't exercise this option from time to time, other than low-level play is often more exciting, imo. There was of course, DMs who started off all characters(regardless of past play) at 3rd to 5th(or higher) levels or so around here.