"Adventure writing." It's not something I've done for awhile. Well, never really, at least not to this extent...I'm more of a quick-scenario guy with less than half-a-dozen encounters and a big fat objective-target. As a kid, I'd rip off things I'd seen in movies/TV/books, or I'd draw sprawling maps populated with monsters I thought were "cool," caring nothing for balance or ecology or rhyme or reason.
ANYway, now I'm starting to feel like I'm getting the hang of it. And the method is all math and structure, mainly based on the Moldvay school of adventure design (one-third monsters, one-sixth traps, etc.), wrapped around a central idea/concept, and populated with enough loot to make it worth the players' while. And since I'm playing B/X, I am basing the encounter level on the wandering monster tables in the Moldvay book.
Not entirely, of course; taking a page from my old D20 days I'm throwing in a mix of 20% easy, 50% average, 20% hard, and 10% really difficult encounters. For example, the current adventure (designed for 2nd level characters) has half the encounters in the 2HD/2nd level range, 20% in the 1HD/1st level range, 20% in the 3HD/3rd level range, and 10% in the 4-5HD+ range. Of course, not all of the monsters come straight from Moldvay (some are found in my own B/X book), but I'm adhering to the same general guidelines. In an edition without "challenge ratings," level/HD is about the only way to gauge challenges for your players.
So, yeah, so far so good. Players are still getting killed (though not nearly in the droves they were before) and the treasure (and XP) has been accumulating at a brisk pace. Which is as I like it. So I was preparing to write up a NEW adventure for 3rd level characters (as that should be the average party level after completing the current adventure; a three-session excursion). And here's what I'm seeing on the Level 3 monster table in Moldvay:
Carrion Crawlers (1-3)
Driver Ants (2-8)
Ochre Jelly (1)
Tiger Beetles (1-6)
Any single one of these encounters would easily destroy half of the adventuring party.
I mean D6 dopplegangers? They have 4 hit dice, and do 1D12 damage (more than an ogre), not to mention being able to mimic the appearance of PCs (try shooting arrows into that melee). Thouls? Regenerating ghouls (with a better chance to hit). Ochre jellies are 5HD and can't be harmed by weapons. Tiger beetles (D6) are HD 3+1, AC 3 and do 2D6 damage...driver ants are the same except they're HD 4 and fearless (no morale checks once engaged in combat).
It's almost as if Moldvay wants to kill players before they get to 4th level. "You will never need more than my Basic book, because levels 4-14 shall never be open to you...hahahahaaa!"
Long time B/X players know 4th level is where things start picking up for players. Fighters attack better, clerics and magic-users have 3 and 4 spells, and even those D4 hit dice characters (like thieves) average 10 hit points...enough to survive at least one lucky damage roll. Those who make it to 4th level ("Hero" is the level title for most classes), are ready to leave the dungeon in search of bigger challenges in the wilderness. It's a real bench mark.
Should it be that rough to get to it?
But what's the alternative? Have PCs scour dungeons aimed at 1st and 2nd level characters, over-and-over again until they reach level 4 (or higher?)? So that those 3rd level challenges don't feel as tough? Heck, for me I think I'd want to be at least 5th level before taking on anything in the dungeon's 3rd level.
Crazy. But...waiting till characters are 6th and 7th level to throw these kinds of monsters at 'em takes away the real feelings of "toughness" for the creatures. I had a single gargoyle on the 1st level of my Necropolis dungeon (an encounter that is completely avoidable if desired), and the PCs went for it and took it down, but it was a pretty near thing (and one of the PCs was killed). And they were amply rewarded for it. Whereas, when gargoyles showed up in my B/X conversion of White Plume Mountain (for levels 5-10) they were pretty "ho-hum" and put to the sword rather quickly.
Still, do I really dare to make a dungeon populated with medusae?
Ah, will...I suppose they might all get killed before they finish the last third of the current adventure, anyway (I know some players are waiting for the other shoe to drop). So far, casualties have been light...only two party members killed, one by "friendly fire"...so I'm thinking the chance of majority party survival is pretty good.
Better get something prepared for 3rd level.