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D&D General "For 4 to 6 characters of 6th to 9th level" - Notes on the intro to a Dungeon adventure

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
So I was looking through my box of old Dungeon mags looking for an appropriate short adventure to shoehorn into my Ghosts of Saltmarsh+ campaign and I started to notice some thing about the intros that struck me as very different from adventure design today. . . But then I thought, how would I know? The only 5E adventures I've read are conversions of earlier editions, so I am not sure how individual adventures of the type you might find on DriveThruRPG or even how the hardcover adventure path WotC puts out describes both what kind of characters the adventure is suited for and what to expect. Nevertheless, looking back from 30 years on, it strikes as a very odd way to approach it.

Wayward-Intro1.jpg

This is from "The Wayward Wood" by Leonard Wilson and it appeared in Dungeon #32 (Nov/Dec 1991)

Things that stuck out to me in no particular order:
  • 4 to 6 characters of a range of up to 4 levels difference for a total around 38 levels. This means that even SIX characters of the lowest level would not reach the total level minimum (though they'd be close enough to be considered "about 38" and four characters of highest level would fall short by the same amount. Knowing what I know of the adventure (fighting tons of trolls) 6th level characters would find it tough. Essentially, it expects for PCs to be of different levels (which makes sense since in 1E/2E different classes had different XP tables).
  • All types of characters are appropriate for this adventure (or so it would seem), as it says "no particular character type must be present." In this case "character type" means class/race. No one spoke of builds back then. This strikes me as the assumption for current D&D.
  • By "well-balanced," I am pretty sure this author means, a varied representation of PC classes in the party - not "balanced" in terms of power level of the game or power between different characters.
  • It feels the need to say that "typical" D&D play (or at least what some people see as typical) would not be appropriate for this adventure. In fact, the follow up (see below) explains that there is absolutely no monetary reward for his adventure. PCs are expected to engage because of altruism and curiosity (which I think is a perfectly good motivation - but I think this caveat is a less explicit way of saying to the prospective DM running this, "Know what your group likes before deciding to run this."
  • The last bit about a druid or ranger seems obvious, but also strikes me as how classes have thematic links (or should have) to the story narrative (classes not just individual backstory) - and in addition to just a set of powers, there was a sense of ethos that went along with those classes that isn't just set-dressing (at least as written) as opposed to built into how classes like rangers and druids work and are expected to do.
Wayward-Intro2.jpg

So two questions:

1) Is there anything that stands out to you about this bit of introductory information and how it is presented/framed?
2) What do you expect an adventure to let you know from the outset about the kinds of characters most appropriate for it, thematically and/or in terms of power level/abilities?
 
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MarkB

Legend
In your first paragraph you frame this as a comparison of presentation between then and now, but with only one example to draw upon, it's hard to conclude how much we can generalise - which elements of this particular intro are typical for their time, and which are not?

Certainly, some aspects of this seem to be deliberately written to challenge what may have been the default assumptions of many games - that PCs and players are motivated mostly by material gain, and would not engage with a plot hook of a more altruistic nature. Whether that was (or is) true or not, it does point to this adventure being deliberately atypical for its time.

The concept of an adventure having a total levels 'budget' for the party does seem like a weird approach - I'm pretty sure that even in older editions there was a somewhat exponential power gain as characters increased in level, so a purely additive approach to budgeting seems off. Certainly, these days, a group of four 9th-level characters would be significantly more dangerous than a group of six 6th-level characters.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
In your first paragraph you frame this as a comparison of presentation between then and now, but with only one example to draw upon, it's hard to conclude how much we can generalise - which elements of this particular intro are typical for their time, and which are not?

Well, it started that way - but as I said in the post itself - then I thought "How would I know?" I chose this one because it seemed representative - a total level budget, a guide to what classes/races were most appropriate, maybe something about the setting or motive.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
Yeah, tons of Dungeon magazine adventures during AD&D had a similar preface, and it was pretty much de rigueur to include the level range & total levels & any suggestions on character type that would be handy. Umbra, Redcap's Rampage, A Wizard's Fate, Bzallin's Blacksphere... those are the ones I recall reading this year, and they all have something along those lines.

I always thought, yeah, that's all a good starting point, but as a DM I'm even more interested in the bit hidden further in the text that lets me know trolls feature strongly in this adventure. I never got really hung up on the level range maths, because back then it was common to have PCs of varying levels and even if the author hadn't said "about 38 total levels", I would have mentally inserted the "about" myself.

Basically, I see the preface as the primary place for playtest notes and theoretical comparisons of the main adventure scenes to various character powers/spellsor unorthodox strategies. Anything that you didn't edit in the adventure text as a result of those playtests/theorizing, might be a note here. This is where you might say something like: Hey, a party with access to greater restoration could restore the petrified elven prince around whom the adventure revolves, so bear that in mind if you decide to use 9th+ level PCs in this adventure (designed for levels 4 to 8).
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
So two questions:

1) Is there anything that stands out to you about this bit of introductory information and how it is presented/framed?
2) What do you expect an adventure to let you know from the outset about the kinds of characters most appropriate for it, thematically and/or in terms of power level/abilities?

The thing that stands out most to me is that it implies that the characters might not all be the same level. As you pointed out, the math doesn't work out if every character is the lowest-level in the range...six, 6th level characters would be 36 total levels, which is below the total of 38...so you would need one of those six characters to be 8th level.

Back in the early 90s, we were still playing BECM....and it wasn't uncommon for there to be different characters of different levels in the party. After all, human characters could advance all the way to 36th level, but dwarves maxed out at 12th level and halflings stopped at 8th. I wonder if having all of the characters in the group be the same level is a new trend?

As for my preference, I like it when a published adventure gives me as much information as possible about the party composition. It gives me a good idea of what the adventure expects, and what kinds of adjustments I might need to make. Take "X1 - The Isle of Dread" for example: it included two whole paragraphs on the party of adventurers and what was expected.

The Isle of Dread said:
The party of adventurers
This module is designed for a party of 6-10 characters. Each character should be between the 3rd and the 6th level of experience when the adventure begins. The party should have a total of 26-34 levels, 30 being best. Furthermore, the party should have at least one magic-user or elf1, and at least one cleric.

Be careful to give the characters a reasonable chance of survival. Try to be impartial and fair, but give the characters the benefit of the doubt in extremely dangerous situations. However, if the players insist on taking unreasonable risks, they must be willing to pay the penalty. Everyone should cooperate to make the adventure as fun and exciting as possible.
 
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There was also a much different approach to the game in the earlier days.

At leas in my experience, players had binders of characters that they have played over the years. When they sit down for a module, they go through their characters and figure out what to play. I may pull out my 5th level dwarf, Dorbo for one game, whereas another night, it may be my 2nd level magic-user.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
You have to remember that AD&D characters were not as calibrated as 3e and beyond. The amount of wealth and magic items varied widely, but also the amount of experience points needed to increase in level was different from class to class (you could have a thief almost level 3 in the party, when the Magic-User was still level 1, for example, and if there were multi-classed or re-classed, it was even more complicated).
 

1) Is there anything that stands out to you about this bit of introductory information and how it is presented/framed?
This was pretty standard for most adventures. Pre-3E xp advancement was class based, with rogues needing less xp than fighters and clerics, and magic-users needing more. The 1E barbarian was insane in this regard, needing about 3x what even the magic-user needed IIRC. Because of this, a broad number of levels was a useful guide to who would be too weak and too powerful for the adventure.
2) What do you expect an adventure to let you know from the outset about the kinds of characters most appropriate for it, thematically and/or in terms of power level/abilities?
Some of the older adventures made certain assumptions in design, so if a particular class was required the adventure would warn you in advance. If no one had a character of appropriate level, nor a henchmen that could suffice, the DM would need to provide an NPC or not run the adventure. The "balanced" part was a general assumption, but sometimes players would choose a mismatch bunch (this often didn't end well).

The secondary part was very important to the DM. The playstyle of the time differed from this quite a bit, so letting the DM know in advance was useful. If the players wouldn't go for it, then the DM is better off not trying to force them into it.
 

aco175

Legend
Add in level caps for non-humans and the party a member that is capped at 7th level and the rest going higher.

Also, there was the intend to bringing characters from one game to the next and playing in different groups. If I bring my 8th level Pc to the game and everyone is 6th- it can still work. There was some widely ranging styles back in the Wild West of gaming.

Don't forget about henchmen and hirelings that can swing all sorts of things. I do not recall if they counted towards the level of the dungeon. Read some of the old Gygax articles about players not wanting to bring certain characters in certain parts of Castle Greyhawk until the lower level henchmen cleared out some of the traps and such.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
As mentioned, the biggest reasons you saw that were:
  • different XP tables meant different level advancement rates by class
  • multi-classing was much different, as you split your XP (dual classing was even wonkier)
  • level caps
  • the power range between a level 3 fighter and level 5 fighter was much closer than in 3e or beyond, so having different level classes worked smoother than in modern editions.
 

jayoungr

Legend
At leas in my experience, players had binders of characters that they have played over the years. When they sit down for a module, they go through their characters and figure out what to play. I may pull out my 5th level dwarf, Dorbo for one game, whereas another night, it may be my 2nd level magic-user.
People don't still do that?
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
The thing that stands out most to me is that it implies that the characters might not all be the same level.

Back in the early 90s, we were still playing BECM....and it wasn't uncommon for there to be different characters of different levels in the party.
Exactly. There were several factors causing this:

1: different classes had different XP requirement. The thief was kinda weak, but their XP requirements were low enough that they were normally the highest level PC (... if they hadn't died)

2: Death was more common, and a new PC either started at level 1 (ouch!) or at the lowest level in the party.

3: Level draining effects were a lot more common, and dreaded by the PCs/players.

4: Multiclassing was.. different... and a mutli-class character would usually be about a level lower.

So as a result you could have bob the lucky thief at level 7, Jane the average fighter at level 6, Mike the fighter/mage at level 5/5, Luke the ranger who got level drained to level 5 and Lucy the cleric who's previous PC died and is back and is starting at level 5 (to match Luke)
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
People don't still do that?

I have fond memories of doing this, but now, at our tables, we only play long campaigns, so we don't have a character folder with characters of various levels in there.

But yes, when I was playing in a club, it was great to see who would play at which table during in the evening, what the levels would be, and who would the players bring, because the characters would then act as old friends and reminisce about shared adventures in the past. Nostalgia. :)
 

What strikes me is 1991 is quite late for the author to consider a non-financial reward to be a novel idea. We had already had Dragonlance at that point.
 

Hussar

Legend
multi-classing was much different, as you split your XP (dual classing was even wonkier)
There was also the additional point of how do you calculate the level of a multi-classed character? If you are a 6th Fighter/7th/MU/8th Thief (which is entirely possible dividing your xp three ways because the xp tables in older D&D were wonky as all get out), what level character is that? IIRC, you counted the highest level first, and then half for each other class, but, it's been a really long time.

But, yeah, the range is not terribly shocking. There were MASSIVE differences between the capabilities of characters between tables. Heck, if you had the base 3 fighter types, cleric, wizard and thief, and your three fighter types all had percentile strength, by 6th or 7th level, you could be dealing well over a hundred points of damage in a single round in 2e just with attacks. In a game where trolls averaged what, 30, 40 HP? It really could get out of hand.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
What strikes me is 1991 is quite late for the author to consider a non-financial reward to be a novel idea. We had already had Dragonlance at that point.
Honestly, Dragonlance is a very mixed bag for me. It was still extremely classical in design. The illustrations were fantastic, but the novels were really not that good, and honestly, the module design was really bad. The first dungeon is full of uninteresting encounters that repeat themselves and the fight against the dragon is totally stupid at that level.
 

Stormonu

Legend
As someone who got an adventure published in Dungeon, the level range was common, but it was a guess (based on experience). You didn't calculate a budget of any sort for the adventure, it was purely by feel.

The author's comments on party composition weren't atypical for these things, but were opinion-based based on their own gaming. The Dungeon staff did prefer to go for adventures that were in some way "out of the ordinary" and not something they felt any old DM could whip up. It had to have an element that stood out in some way, so its not your typical gaming fare.

I learned a lot of this from a seminar TSR held back in the 90's, where the staff lectured us in detail in the sort of things they were looking for publication. They had us go through exercises to brainstorm content, as the seminar was created in the hopes of grooming future authors for creating content for TSR. It was there I came up with the idea for what would be "The Winter Tapestry" - and I met Owen K.C. Stephens as he was being brought aboard TSR.
 


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