Man, it's been a rough week or two. Or four. January...rough this year. Been pretty stressed; if I made a salty response or comment (here or on your blog) in the last few days...my apologies.
Okay. On with the show!
[oh, wait...yeah, I changed Ye Old Blog's layout a bit. Blogger is "easy" to use, but it's a bitch to adjust when you can't access the code and the options for manipulation are limited. Hopefully, people aren't having a hard time with the new look...more apologies for any inconvenience]
Over at Prince's, there was an announcement that the "goal" for this year's NAP III contest would be to explore the concept of play/adventures for high level characters, a woefully underdeveloped area of D&D gaming. This prompted much discussion amongst the commenters...both excitement and not-a-little trepidation.
There is...and has been for a long time...a dearth of D&D game play in the upper echelons of level range, at least amongst MANY of the folks 'round this neck of the woods (old edition D&D players). Which is a tad silly, considering how many YEARS this OSR ball has been a-rolling. Why silly? Because, with regular, committed game play, getting to a "high" level in D&D doesn't take that long...assuming, of course:
A) players are getting better at playing, and
B) DMs are providing adequate, regular opportunities for x.p. (i.e. treasure)
There are two AD&D campaigns currently going on in my household: one run by me, one run by my son. For a variety of reasons (mainly sheer busy-ness) we don't get as much time to play as anyone would like...maybe a couple/three times pre month?...the boy hasn't even run us since, I think, December or November. Today, he'll be our DM.
[ah, jeez. Just found out Diego is sick with something...has a fever. Well, that throws a monkey-wrench in everything. Add more stress to the pile!]
Hmm. Well, today he was supposed to be our DM. *sigh*
Anyway, despite that game playing infrequently, I've still managed to get my "main" PC to 5th level and a secondary PC to 4th. In MY campaign, the players started new 1st level characters, and the party ranger (a notoriously difficult class to level up) just hit 2nd level after three-ish sessions? That's withOUT an earned x.p. bonus (his ability scores don't meet the threshold for the +10%).
If we were to play regularly (which I'd consider four to six hours per week), I'd expect all players to be hitting mid-level in two to three months. By the end of the year (always assuming decent play and participation) I'd expect most...if not all!...of the players' main PCs to be starting to see the lofty heights of "high-level."
But what does that mean, exactly: High level? Mid level? There seems to be some confusion/consternation floating around in Ye Old Inter-Webs. Some folks consider anything above 7th level to be "high level;" I saw one commenter who considered 5th level to be "high." 5th? Not much room for a mid-tier there!
I think, perhaps, some definitions could help.
AD&D is the most robust of the old school systems, and (of the older editions) is best able to accommodate ALL scales of D&D play. In fact, I would argue it is DESIGNED to do so (compared to the Basic sets which were written to introduce new players to the game, or the OD&D rules which were a "first pass" at the creation of this new hobby). Plenty of monster, magic items, powerful spells and hostile environments (planar travel, anyone?) to challenge the highest tiers of character power. However, there are (for me) clear delineations, or TIERS, of play.
Low-level play: 1st through 5th
Mid-level play: 6th through 11th
High-level player: 12th+
These are approximations. To measure in experience points, I'd tag a good breakpoint for "mid-level" at 50,000 x.p. and "high-level" at either 500,000 or 1,000,000 x.p. (depending on the individual campaign).
My measure for this is in terms of PC power/effectiveness which (in AD&D) can generally be equated to which magical spells are readily and easily accessed by an adventuring party with a good variety of character types.
The mark of mid-level play is the ability to access 3rd level spells...easily and readily. 3rd level spells is the category when the troubles of low-level (beginning) adventurers start to lose their sting. In the cleric section we see spells like continual light (who needs torches?), create food & water (ditto rations!), cure disease (removing rot grub, green slime, giant rats), dispel magic (handy), glyph of warding (protect your safe room in the dungeon!), locate object (where was that stairway up?), and remove curse (obviously good). For the necromantically inclined, animate dead can turn those dead orcs into meat shields and/or treasure porters, and speak with dead gives PCs good intel on the dungeon. Dungeon crawling, the meat and drink of low-level adventurers becomes far easier with a handful of these babies every day.
For the magic-user, the spell book really begins to open up with 3rd level spells. Certainly fireball and lightning bolt become wonderful crowd clearers and monster killers, but utility spells like fly, invisibility 10' radius, Leomund's tiny hut, tongues, and water breathing allow exploration possibilities that weren't previously available. Scouting becomes easier with spells like clairvoyance and clairaudience, and protection from normal missiles makes the party's wizard much more durable. Of course, spells like haste, slow, and hold person can provide huge advantages in fights...especially against numerous lesser opponents.
However, it's not enough that the party cleric or wizard has only ONE of these spells. To be a true mid-level party, you need ready access...enough to sustain a significant delve or session. Four to six applications of 3rd level power is what you're looking for, with six to eight being even better. Once your players have access to that level of magical resource (and are smart enough to not simply stock "fireball x3") then you can look at the group as "mid-level."
In similar vein, I peg "high level" player to approximately 12th level. In truth, with decent players (and excellent magical equipment) 10th or 11th would be a fine breakpoint, as it is the ready access to 5th level spells that denotes high level play.
But at 12th level, the kid gloves can finally come off.
5th level magic is the kind of stuff that breaks a lot of DMs poor little noggins. For clerics, we get spells like commune, dispel evil, plane shift, raise dead, and true seeing...spells that allow intel/recon without fear, spells that remove the sting of death, and spells that can banish even pit fiends back to their own planes (woe betide the player who feels cure critical wounds and flamestrike are the cleric's best spells of this magnitude). For magic-users, we gain access to cloudkill, conjure elemental. contact other plane, hold monster, magic jar, passwall, and teleport...some of the most powerful spells in the entirety of the game. Whole dungeons levels can be cleared by means of these spells...dungeon levels readily mapped with the use of the 4th level wizard eye spell.
But 6th level magic (obtained at 11th level by clerics, and 12th level by magic-users) puts even these to shame. Clerics gain the ability to cast heal, which not only enable the curing of insanity and the instant recovery of hit points, but can also bring a raised character back to full adventuring strength (no waiting a week for recovery!). Find the path makes the objective of any dungeon quest far more easily accessible, and word of recall gives the character an instant "get out of jail free" card to return to his/her fortress (and EVERY cleric, by 11th level should have a stronghold staffed by loyal followers). For magic-users, stone to flesh enables a party to recover from petrifaction, while reincarnate allows the wizard to act as an "emergency cleric" if the group's patriarch has been killed. Anti-magic shell, legend lore, death and disintegrate are all incredibly useful, and no wizard should be caught at sea without control weather in the repertoire. Just having access to two or three of these 6th level spells can greatly extend the operational range of a high level party.
Of course, any party that has a 12th level magic-user should (assuming equitable distribution of x.p.) include a 13th level thief (or 11th level in the case of a multi-classed demihuman). 13th level sees thieves with a 99% of moving silently, and 85%-99% chance of hiding in shadows (depending on race), and quintuple damage from a successful backstab. For a thief with a +3 short sword and an (off-hand) +2 dagger...not an unheard of combo...that's an average of 55 damage, enough to bring down a 12 HD monster (say, a fire giant) in a single go.
Fighter types of 10th and 11th level will generally have AC well below zero and hit points in the 60+ range (70+ for rangers) in addition to multiple attacks, and bonus spells (paladins and rangers). An 11th level paladin turns undead on the same column as a 13th level cleric, auto-turning wights, wraiths, ghouls, and ghasts and having a decent (better than 50%) chance against anything up through vampires. And rangers at high level gain IMMENSE damage bonuses versus evil humanoids, like giants.
All of which is Good & Necessary. As I said, DMs need pull no punches when it comes to high level adventuring parties: greater demons and devils, giants, gorgons, mind flayers, purple worms and (duh) dragons all should be available as challenges for high level parties. Monsters that would result in TPKs if placed in adventures can finally hit the table without resentment; fiendish traps and magical curses can abound. Deep forays into the bowels of the earth...or the unknown of extra-planar realms...can occur. And the DM need not fear reprisal and hostility from the players. After all, this is what they've been working towards, over dozens of play sessions. It is the very reason to play the extended Dungeons & Dragons campaign.
Okay...that's enough to chew on for now. I hope to have a follow-up post that provides some helpful hints on transitioning players from one tier to the next. I feel like THAT is (yet another) subject solely lacking intelligent discourse and explanation.