A few weeks ago I wrote a short post about the problems I have with published adventures. One of the pretty big problems that makes most adventures unusable to me is that they are not only written for a different game than the one I am running, but have also been designed for a group of player characters of a specific power level. While am talking a lot about published adventures here, the main point I want to make further down is really about designing adventures in general, so even if you don’t usually use published adventures either, this might still be interesting to read. The earliest adventures for Dungeons & Dragons were pretty vague on this subject, simply saying they are for adventurers of “1st to 3rd level” or characters should be “5th to 10th level”. Since at that time nobody had any pretense that character levels and monster experience were an exact science, it really was just very rough eyeballing. But soon it got more specific like “This module is designed for 6-8 characters of 4th to 7th level. […] The party should possess somewhere between 35 and 45 levels of experience.” Since experienced henchmen were a common feature of the game at that time, it really wasn’t any big deal to get a few more of them to make the party ready for adventure. I make no secret of the fact that I think AD&D was really terribly written and had really bad ways to deal with numbers. But while the 3rd edition did some good work in straitening up the rules (mostly fixing attack bonus, armor class, and XP tables), it also went of into a completely wrong direction with long steps. A derection into which I, being totally new to RPGs, happily followed.
Over time people realized that any claims that there was a balance between the classes and experience, treasure, and monster abilities were carefully calculated and weighted against each other was complete nonsense. It was still nothing but eyeballing and often pretty bad one. But you still got all this huge amount of additional math that didn’t actually make anything better! But the published adventures might be one element of the game that suffered the most. From now on published adventures would usually make a statement like this. “The Sunless Citadel is a DUNGEONS & DRAGONS adventure suitable for four 1st-level player characters. Player characters (PCs) who survive the entire adventure should advance through 2nd level to 3rd level before the finale.”
Great. What if the characters are already 2nd level? What if I have another adventure I want to run that is for 2nd level characters? At these very low levels it’s not such a big deal yet, but when you get adventures that are for 10th level characters and take them to 14th level it does become a real issue. My campaigns are usually with new players and run for perhaps a year or so, so I usually ran games with characters that are all 1st or 2nd level. (It’s easier for new players.) Which means lots of great adventure I never got an opportunity to run. But it got worse. The way things were described in the rulebooks and the first adventures that were published for 3rd edition, players had the expectation that the encounters would be “balanced” and “suitable for their level”, which means they should win the fight without any big trouble. I did. I am guilty. I was young and stupid.
But of course, that idea is nonsense. While Gygax was pretty bad at explaining himself, he did understand that D&D was not just a game about individual fights, but also, and perhaps more importantly, about rationing your strength and resources. Part of that is judging when to let the warriors clear the room with their swords and when the wizards unleash their full awesome power against enemies the warriors can’t handle on their own. And when you put it this way, it is obvious that individual encounters should be highly imbalanced in either direction. Many fights should be pretty easy while some should be pretty hard, and the key to being a successful adventurer is being able to tell which type of fight you’re currently dealing with. If you rush in with full force, your resources will be quickly exhausted. And if you then get into a fight against a strong enemy, it could be your death. But if all fights are balanced to a level where the players will be able to win without great difficulty or great risk, what is there really to do for the players other than “I guess I attack it with my sword again” over and over and over. 3rd edition tried to “fix” this with lots of special attacks and feats. But that’s where everything started to go wrong. They tried to make the round by round attack and damage routine more entertaining, but that part was never meant to be center of the game. It really was about judging the strength of your enemies, using the environment to your advantage, and making calls which fights to pick and which ones to avoid. The notion that fights should be balanced according to a mathmatical calculation killed all that. The Sunless Citadel did include a fight that would be really difficult to win and force players to retreat and come up with outside the box solutions or avoid that particular monster entirely. But as the story is being told, people complained about the encounter being unbalanced and that practice was discontinued from there on. Paizo eventually became not only the biggest creator of published adventures but actually the biggest RPG company of all. (Seems like WotC has left the field.) But even though there’s lots of great stories, I only really ran three of their adventures. Flight of the Red Raven and Escape from Meenlock Prison and The Automatic Hound from the Dungeon magazine. All three of which I completely rewrote to fit the size and level of the party I was running them for.
However, and here I finally get to the point I want to make, there is a much better way. The adventures published for Lamentations of the Flame Princess are a bit of an acquired taste and the most well known contributors seem to be people who quite enjoy having a reputation as being confrontational. Which doesn’t exactly help them getting popular with a larger crowed outside their dedicated fans. But regardless of that, the approach to adventure design and the way they are structured, which has developed among the LotFP writers is what I genuinely believe to be the high water mark when it comes to published adventures. I got Better than any Man a while ago and noticed that it doesn’t actually say anywhere for what range of character levels it is intended. Neither does No Salvation for Witches. The original version of Death Frost Doom says “an adventure for character levels 1 – 6” on the website, but the recent revised edition discards this bit of info as well. And when you look at how these adventures are actually designed and structures, that actually makes perfect sense.
These adventures don’t really have a “story”, or at the very least they don’t have a “plot”. Instead, they present a location in which something unusual can be found or something interesting is going on. This is very much like the very old D&D modules. The players are then free to explore the place and get into fights and collect valuables they find. Mainly the players in old D&D modules are assumed to be adventurers who want to get rich and famous, and the location described in the module is an opportunity to do so. What little “story” there is is usually along the lines of “Help, giants are raiding the countryside! Stop them!” or “Help, people are disappearing in the forest! Get them back!” LotFP adventures usually assume much less combat. There are generally few enemies and mostly those aren’t standing between the PCs and treasure either. Instead, they are focusing on an event that is currently going on and will lead to a grand finale soon. The players are then free to snoop around and interact with the other people. In Better than any Man, a small town in the path of a huge invading army has come under the control of a group of witches who want to make it a safe haven for refugees from the war. But being witches this make the town a prime target for the advancing army that is determined to purge this wretched hive of Satans Brides and their heretical followers. The players could decide it’s too hot for them and try to get as far away before the inevitable slaughter, or they might stay around and try to learn a bit more about who the witches are, how they got control over the town, and what their plans for it are, and they might attempt to remove them before the army will massacre everyone they find or help the witches in somehow saving the town. Or anything else the players might decide they want to do. In No Salvation for Witches, a magical barrier traps everyone within several miles of an old monastery inside and really strange things are starting to happen while at the same time a group of people has barricaded themselves inside the monastery and are working on some kind of ritual. This time the players can’t simply leave the area as the are also trapped inside the barrier, but they are free to wander around and look for clues what is going on and can decide which of the groups to help or join that are trying to do something about the situation. Death Frost Doom is a bit different as it is mostly a dungeon with strange things inside it, but it shares the very important trait that there isn’t really any specific goal. At any time the players are free to decide if they want to go through a door or not, if they want to talk to an NPC or not, fight a monster or run away, and so on.
And that’s why these adventures work for any number of PCs of any level! If the players feel too weak to to fight a given NPC or creature, they don’t have to fight. Talking, surrendering, or running away is almost always an option and the adventure won’t stop because of that. At low levels the players most likely don’t have any powerful or even very useful spells and magic items, while at higher level they would have lots of them. If you play the adventures with a low level party, they need to be super sneaky, use lots of ambushes, and allow themselves to be pushed around by powerful NPCs. If the characters are at a high level, they can simply destroy most enemies and obstacles and they can push around other people. It’s not that the challenges are appropriate for the level of the party. The level of the party determines which options the players have and how the adventure will turn out. It would be very weird to play Better than any Men with a group of four 15th level magic-users, but it could be done and could be very awesome. Without spoiling much, Death Frost Doom is well known for the real chance that the players might be facing a fight they couldn’t possibly hope to win. (The main big improvement of the revised version is that players now get plenty of warning that they are tinkering with something dangerous instead of it blowing up in their face without any warning, which makes the cool idea into an actually wonderful adventure.) For 4th or 6th level characters that might be the case, but if they are 12th or 16th level it could easily be one of the most glorious battles the players will be retelling for the rest of their lives.
Not only is this approach convenient for the GM, who does not have to rewrite everything so that it is balanced for the party, but actually rewarding for the players as well. Pathfinder, and to a lesser extend the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons are trying to give players more options in combat as their characters gain levels. And spellcasters like wizards and clerics really become a lot more versatile as they level up. But if the monsters also get constantly bigger and stronger at the same rate, the game still plays very much the same way. First you fight three ogres, then three hill giants, then three stone giants, then three frost giants, and then three fire giants. Or you fight six goblins, then six orcs, then six bugbears. Numbers start to get bigger, but you’re still doing the same thing. Creating adventures without a specific character level in mind does really change that. Now D&D 3rd edition and Pathfinder are games that might really not be games that are not well suited for that style of campaign as the numbers grow very quickly between levels and you quickly get to the point where a strong enemy is literally invincible and a weak enemy has no way to possibly harm the PCs. In most other games this is not the case, however. And I think this really is the way to run campaigns.
Of course, it requires that players understand that before the game starts. The players need to know that they don’t have to fight openly and could use diplomacy, ambushes, or even full retreat to deal with an enemy that might be too tough to handle directly. To make that work, dungeons have to be designed in a way that allows multiple possible paths and options to get around certain areas without being unable to progress at all. The Alexandian wrote about this a while back and I very much recommend reading his thoughts on the subject.