Wednesday, March 20, 2019

High Level D&D

For men, there're few things more juvenile than comparing the size of one's penis as a method of bragging to (or belittling) friends and rivals alike. Most guys with a modicum of maturity of course realize this, and any banter is likely to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But I think it's safe to say that any man in a healthy relationship with a satisfied partner cares little about the size of his cock; the fact that it functions is a far more important matter to his confidence and sense self-worth.

There's a lot of correlation between comparing character level (in a D&D game) and comparing the size of one's dick. What really matters is whether or not you're playing at all; whether or not you're enjoying yourself.

And yet, back in the day, there was more than a bit of this kind of thing. "Oo, my character is level 15." "Oh, yeah? Well, mine is level 19." "HA! The characters in our campaign are all 24th level!" There's nothing quite so nerdy as nerds nerding out over some nerd hobby, but it is (perhaps) human nature. Or at least the nature of boys (it's rare I've heard this specific type of bragging from female gamers, except as a matter of shutting up some mouthy kid). Coming from mature male gamers (i.e. "old geezers") boasting of character level isn't really a lacks class, I suppose, though it may just be the shift in perspective that comes with age lends itself to a different type of bragging ("Back in my day, we had to walk 20 miles and fight a dragon in the snow for a bag of silver pieces...and we were damn thankful to get it!"). 

Yeah, it's probably just a male thing. Like comparing dicks.

In response to yesterday's post in which I reflected on "old school" level advancement (as discussed in Gygax's article from issue #7 of The Strategic Review), Scott wrote:

Ok leveling. 18th level or whatever always struck me a silly. The sweet spot for d&d, at least in 3E and beyond, is about level 3-6. You can take on 10th level opponents like dragons with planning and luck, and that’s thrilling. Once you get a handful of 4th level spells, it stops resembling the source fiction. 

 In my own home game, 10th level is a great achievement. We’ve played about 50 sessions and the highest level guys are 6 and 7. And that’s a little slow, but it’s okay because the threats can stay at an imaginable level and there’s always something out there that can kill you with a snap of its fingers.

Scott comments here frequently (which is nice...thanks!) but this is the first time I remember feeling riled up by something he wrote. Maybe. Let me try to articulate my thoughts in a coherent, constructive manner.

First off: 3rd edition...and 4th edition and 5th edition...can all go to hell. If those are your editions of choice, that's great: love them, play them, play the heck out of them, introduce new people to "D&D" using them...whatever. At this time, my reflections and writings are unconcerned with late edition versions of the game...I just cannot care less. Had a very nice conversation with a very nice gentleman yesterday about 5E and comparing it to older editions. I was patient and listened, but there was nothing he could say that had me the slightest bit interested. Until further notice, I am done with any post-2000 rulesets. If you can find something in my posts that work for your later edition game: great! But if you don't: eh. No skin off my nose.

OKay...moving right along: what Scott wrote is something I've heard before, more than once. I've heard it from AD&D players, I've heard it from folks in my B/X games, I've heard it from dudes who play those editions for which I give not a shit. Something along the lines of "the best play of the game (D&D) is somewhere in the mid-levels." The notorious "sweet spot" after which games simply become "silly." That high level play seems downright super heroic (as in, comic book superheroes) compared to the grubby, By Crom, low-powered pulp adventure action that comprises low to mid-level play.

Bullshit, says I.  But that's the TL;DR answer...the real answer is a little complicated.

Gygax's "silly" character.
While I'll agree with the early writers of the game (Gygax and others) that levels in the 30s and 40s (and up) are patently ridiculous and pretty much outside the scope of play as intended, there is plenty of good, solid play that can occur for characters of "high level;" say levels 14-24. There are some threats/opponents that just can't be approached by characters under the 16th level or so, and certain adventures that I consider pure "pulp literary fantasy" (like those involving extraplanar travel) are all-but-inaccessible to characters of low level.

What IS silly is the way many (most) of us "old geezers" played as kids when we first got our hands on the game: dishing out millions of coins worth of treasure (not worrying about how one would carry it), suits of +5 armor, vorpal artifacts, and dragon mounts, if only so that we could pit our players against Demogorgon, Asmodeus, and all the legions of hell. Was it fun? Yes, of course. Was it silly? Absolutely. Was it satisfying play? In the long run, NO...not for most of us (there are some people, of course, who continue to enjoy this kind of play), but I would argue that it was (and is) a necessary form of play for newcomers to the game.

And not just because we had to "get it out of our system!" Playing ridiculous games of that nature allow you (the players and the DMs) to try out all the various rules of the game. You get to experiment with things like magic resistance and gating demons; you get to see how the benign and malevolent effects of artifacts work. You get to try all those high level spells and powerful items, and see how a battle with the Tarrasque might go down. This kind of gaming forces you to read and learn the rules of the helps you explore the possibilities of D&D while having a wa-hoo good time. Yes, it's absurd and ridiculous and we can all laugh at our Monty Haul-isms...but it still teaches players and DMs alike.

Though, as I said, for most of us it isn't satisfying long-term, and once we get tired of pummeling Odin, most of us settle down and start over with a 1st level campaign and try to run something a bit more serious and sincere. I know I did...and that was when the "real gaming" for me and my players began...the serious (if not particularly sophisticated) gaming.

Now here's the thing: playing D&D with a "serious mind" (regardless of one's particular sophistication) allows magic to happen at the gaming table. In my experience, it allows the game to take over and consume individuals. It's what causes players to have emotional attachments to their characters; it's what pushes DMs to exert their creativity to its utmost, fiendish limits. It's what drives gamers to incorporate all the minutia and side rules they can find (and create their own to boot); it's what changes a simple tabletop game into an obsessive pastime. It's what drives people to argue about stupid things (like whether or not a PC wearing a ring of free action that jumps in the ocean crashes to the bottom, taking full "falling damage" if the ocean's pressure wouldn't do the character in by itself). It can turn the casual participant into a lifelong lover of the hobby. It can create powerful, intimate experiences and deep friendships (as well as bitter rivalries).

In that type of environment - one played with a measured amount of "serious mindfulness" - characters of high level aren't silly at all. Getting to a high level in a serious game is a good thing, as it opens up serious, high level challenges and adventures for the players at the table.  Earning your high level in such a campaign is something to take pride in...especially if the DM is willing to "play hard" with the participants at the table.

My best character started as a 1st level half-elf ranger in my co-DM's first "serious" campaign. He advanced to become an 8th level ranger / 9th level thief-acrobat /15th level bard before we retired the campaign. My friend's magic-user went from 1st to approximately 14th-16th level. Another player had a cleric that was at least 16th level. This was all after a couple-three years of solid, serious play. Strongholds were built, outer planes were explored, vendettas fought, children sired. The characters from earlier "wild and woolly campaigns" were simply legends...heroes from a Golden Age of Myth that might never have been (save that it was).  And while my bard did (for a time) possess a pegasus mount (with a topaz embedded in its forehead...can't remember what that was all about), our campaign was treated with the utmost strictness and seriousness. Yes, we used speed factor and casting time, "weapon vs. AC" adjustments and disease/infection rules. About the only thing we ignored was the "training time factor" rules from the DMG, and that was probably because we were playing all the time (when we could) rather than recordable, weekly sessions. And those characters NEVER encountered anything so powerful as a Demon Prince or Duke of Hell (no Tarrasques, either).

My brother's best character (played in a campaign I ran during high school) was a human fighter that reached approximately 12th level, and was probably the only time he ever played the game "seriously." With the aid of his buddy's cleric (also 12th level) and a couple NPCs (a magic-user and a thief) he was able to take on the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, perhaps even making it a bit further in the G-series (the memory escapes me). It helped immensely that he was armed with Blackrazor, which his character had recovered from White Plume Mountain. His fighter might have been as high as 15th level by the time he finished the giants.

I had a group of friends who ran their own AD&D campaign in the era of the "supermodule." They started with the Temple of Elemental Evil and moved on to the H (Bloodstone) series, eventually completing the entire thing (H4 is for levels 20-100...I believe their characters were in their mid-20s by the time they finished). I wasn't part of their game, but they put in some marathon sessions over the course of a couple years to slog through all that (and, to my knowledge, none of them have played D&D since, save for a one-off game here or there). I received many play reports their games over lunch in the cafeteria.

Anyway, back to the comments: I find nothing inherently "silly" about 18th level characters, not even those gifted to a player by an over-generous DM (as I did for my buddy Scott, circa 1984...hey, I'd just got my first PHB; we needed to try out those 9th level spells!). Finding ways to challenge such characters can be quite a task for the DM, especially if the characters were truly "earned" through exceptional, long-term play...the players of such characters are likely to be wily, experienced, and blessed with an inordinate amount of luck. But the D&D game, especially the Advanced version, provides many tools and ideas that can help build adventures of suitable challenge for such characters (should we choose to use them)...and it should go without saying that the DM who advanced the characters in the first place should have learned something from the experience herself (or himself). Saying the game works best at intermediate levels (5th to 9th) is, in my opinion, a highly inaccurate statement. For me, that's when the game first starts to really open up.

[of course, as the guy who wrote the B/X Companion for high level play, I might be slightly biased on this subject]


  1. I will probably never get the chance to do it, but I have dreamed of playing or running a full Basic D&D campaign that reached the Immortals boxed set level. I think taking a character from 1st to godhood would be a blast.

    1. I've actually tried that before (using BECMI) but it's really tough, takes a long time, and wasn't (in our case) all that satisfying. Plus the Immortal rules (neither the original nor the later WotI boxed set) are all that great. Yes, they're full of interesting ideas, but playability? Not so much.

      Believe me, we tried. What worked better for achieving "godhead" were the rules found in the original 1E Deities & Demigods. My oldest gaming group found these to "work" ...of course, the character becomes an NPC afterward, rather than a plane-hopping adventurer. If you're looking for THAT kind of action, I'd strongly suggest Rifts and its "Conversion Book 2" (I think it's called Pantheons of the Mega-Verse or something)'s the kind of game the Immortal set WANTED to be.
      : )