Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The "Sweet Spot" of an Adventure Campaign

My Arandish Campaign 2010, begun last January, has now entered what I consider to be the "sweet spot" of any ongoing D&D adventure campaign: the portion where the player characters are all at least 3rd level, but haven't yet advanced much beyond 5th or 6th level.  From this point until the PCs start hitting the double-digit experience levels, we are in for some really fantastic gaming.

Why?  Part of my reasoning here has to do with the numbers themselves: the PCs have made it past those first few vulnerable levels and are, at this point, somewhat less likely to be instantly killed by, say, a lucky battle-axe strike by a hobgoblin.  Now, to be fair, I am probably something of a "kind" DM, particularly at lower levels; I always reward players for thinking or negotiating their way out of conflicts, and I rarely allow their foes to vastly outnumber them or out-strategize them unless they (the PCs) do something especially imprudent or dumb.  I mean, I let the dice fall where they may, and character death still occurs -- our group has had two PC deaths so far -- yet I admit that I am secretly rooting for the PCs at low levels.  Perhaps I am a sucker for the underdog.

Not so anymore.  Now that the PCs are all at 3rd level and above, I feel much more freedom to hurl more deadly and pernicious monsters and foes at them.  For example, simply perusing the monster listings at the back of my Advanced Edition Companion, I notice some much-beloved creatures in the 5-8 HD range: the hydra, the owlbear, the basilisk, the minotaur, the troll, the cave bear, the remorhaz, the 8-HD elementals. . . . These are the kinds of delightful fiends I can now deploy with reckless abandon, because the party should be (more or less) ready for them.

However, beyond these matters of game mechanics is the realm where my heart truly lies: the ongoing "story" of the adventure and the characters.  Of course, I use that term loosely because I would never reduce an RPG to being the mere recounting of a story; I agree with many other (and wiser) old-schoolers that D&D is first and foremost a game.  But as DM, my role in that game is to provide at least some possible adventure hooks and plots for the characters to pursue, lines of action and exploration that might develop into something like a collaboratively generated "plot" -- and in that collaboration, I get to supply the villains!  So, in addition to the higher-HD monsters listed above, this is the point in the campaign where I get to start introducing the upper- (or at least middle-) management villains, the NPCs who are actually running things and actively plotting to do (horrible, exploitative, destructive) stuff in the game-world the PCs have been exploring.  The PCs will start becoming aware of these key players and, should they so choose, may decide to actively intervene in those nefarious NPCs' affairs -- thus making exciting new long-term enemies!

Of course, that process has already begun -- readers of my session reports are aware that Uncle Junkal has already rubbed some undead entities the wrong way by stealing their mirror, and the PCs in general have pissed off both the lizardfolk of Stonehell and the hobgoblinish Skullface Occupational Army -- but the PCs and I are in for a whole new level of adventure as they start meeting some of the behind-the-scenes string-pullers instead of (mostly) mucking about fighting with the rank-and-file.  THAT is why I particularly relish the sessions immediately ahead -- things are really beginning to get interesting.

At the meta-game level, I am also thinking about and planning for what will happen when the PCs reach level 9 and beyond.  In my earlier AD&D-playing days, nobody I ever played with payed any attention to the "build a stronghold" rules that kick in at the titled levels -- we just kept adventuring around, albeit in increasingly difficult modules (e.g., Q1).  Yet for my current Arandish Labyrinth Lord Campaign, I plan to play it much more "by the book," and therefore will expect my PCs to claim land and erect strongholds starting at Level 9.

On top of that, I am also open to seeing this campaign continue through to PC levels in and beyond the "teens," which is why I plan to use some holiday money I have coming from my folks to purchase JB's B/X Companion -- I need to start planning for higher-level play and -- gulp! -- an ENDGAME.

But that is all a long way down the road, and for the time being I am simply going to kick back and enjoy the "sweet spot" we find ourselves in -- starting next session!


  1. I like that you are thinking of an endgame. One of the best pieces of advice I got from Fear the Boot was, "Start your campaign with the end in mind." I always found that helpful. On those rare occasions when I had an endgame in mind, it helped me to keep play focused in terms of theme and pace.

    Most of the time though, I have no idea what I'm doing. ;)

  2. Our campaign is flowing in that same sweet spot. The "story" is getting thicker, the PCs tougher and I think they feel that things are getting a bit more heavy. I'm always keeping a few steps ahead of the players in terms of hooks and endgame goals which I think has helped keep things moving.

    Nice post!