My players are, somewhat miraculously, still alive and fighting their way back to the surface after defeating "the reptile god." Mud choked hallways and wandering monsters (not to mention a lack of map/direction) has made it a tough slog, but they just found a stairway up and slew the troglodyte guardians camouflaged at the top. Total butcher's bill (to date): one assassin, one innkeeper, one spirit naga, seven troglodytes, one carrion crawler, and two ghouls...the latter of whom managed to achieve complete surprise, popping out of the mud to rake and rend.
However, as written before, elves have their advantages in AD&D. Immunity to ghoul paralysis in one. High dexterity (negating surprise segments) is another. Which is all to the good when your 3rd level NPC cleric has a DEX of 9, no armor, and tends to be bum-rushed before she can get off a spell or turning attempt.
[quick fun fact: on the surface, hold person looks like a pretty powerful 2nd level spell for a cleric to stock...until you notice the 5 segment casting time. That's an absolute killer when dicing for initiative in close quarters (i.e. your standard dungeon crawling environment); 25 seconds of chanting is way more likely to be interrupted when a baddie can step up and hit you with its stone axe]
But even Misha has survived to date, and her ability to cast continual light has proven a godsend (no pun intended), even if her mace has been less accurate than the PCs' blades. If they make it out of the dungeon, I might consider her continuing to tag along with the party...especially given the awkwardness of staying in a village where she's a known participant in murder, kidnapping, human sacrifice, probably cannibalism, etc. (all while under the naga's influence...but still).
SO...the players are doing well, they've both hit 3rd level by this point and have hopes of even more advancement once they get all this treasure out of the dungeon. The most successful characters they've ever advanced in AD&D is 5th level, and I think they have a real shot at surpassing that mark...they're playing their characters well, and playing well together (in combination).
All of which is exactly what I want. It may be frustrating to a player to have to roll up a new character after their 1st - 3rd PC gets slain but, respectfully, it is far more a burden to the Dungeon Master (me). I want to have more content than just goblins and bandits and giant rats. Wracking my brain to justify yet another encounter with skeletons, so low level clerics can "do something" is a pain in the ass that I don't really want to deal with. That stuff is peanuts...small change...compared to the possibilities of D&D.
And yet, "paying dues" is a necessary part of the system...it is, in fact, imperative to the growth and development of the players. Players need to learn the system: what works, what doesn't, how to interact with it and survive and thrive. When you (the DM) allows that to occur...that natural growth, including all the "growing pains" (failure, death, etc.)...it allows everyone, players AND referee, to elevate their game.
What I'm hoping to reach with my campaign is some sort of critical mass...a point of equilibrium wherein I'm not terribly worried about an accidental TPK. I've reached this before with campaigns...usually somewhere around 9th or 10th level...and it is what I consider to be "the sweet spot" of AD&D. All due respect to folks who like to live in the 5th-7th level range, it's still too easy for things to fall apart on such a group...you're still (as a Dungeon Master) quite limited at what you can throw at the party. Dragons, for example...at least the larger, older ones...are probably out of the question. Throwing an ancient green at a group under level eight is giving a coin-flip's chance of having to re-rack the whole thing!
No, give me a couple fighter types with hit points in the 50-60+ point range; give me spell casters with a minimum of a dozen or 15 spells of various utility. Give me a thief with a 65-80% success rate and a cleric who can raise dead and that has at least a chance of turning all the undead on the board. Give me all that...and I can start cooking. Given those ingredients? I can make one heck of a meal.
Success in D&D begets success. Low level characters can adventure with high level characters and advance quickly, becoming solid contributors to the group's success. Copious amounts of treasure is readily spent on equipping and outfitting...not to mention magic like restoration and resurrection. High level characters are far more self-motivated, having both the resources and capabilities to contribute to the game world: establishing bases, garnering influence, crafting magic items, developing networks of followers. Such players help sustain the campaign itself, even as the DM is forced to expand and grow the scope of the setting to accommodate their desires.
It's not a pipe dream...I've seen it before. So have many others; there's a reason why many of the most highly regarded adventure modules are designed for characters circa 10th level...that's the place where a well-run campaign really starts to hum. For advanced D&D play, it's not the "endgame;" it's the starting point for self-sufficiency. For sustentation. For establishing a foundation on which can be built "the long haul."
It takes patience. I'm not a patient person. But the patience is necessary for the players to learn and for DMs to sharpen their craft. My players still need some training up..."killing machines?" Indeed. But they're not out of the swamp yet. Let's just focus on making it back alive...and successful.
We've got a couple kids coming over to the house Friday. Of course the intention is to play D&D (one has already participated in a couple of our games). More bodies for the pyre, I suppose...but I'm hopeful my kids have developed enough as players that they'll be able to help their buddies survive and thrive and grow, too. We'll see. I suppose that's at least as likely as the whole party getting TPK'd (again).
More later. Dog needs to be walked.